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Interview With Bob Schieffer

Aired March 13, 2005 - 11:30   ET


DAN RATHER, FORMER ANCHOR, "CBS EVENING NEWS": We've shared a lot in the 24 years we've been meeting here each evening.

HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): The post-Rather era. As Dan Rather leaves the anchor chair, another veteran takes over as the face of CBS News.

BOB SCHIEFFER, ANCHOR, "CBS EVENING NEWS": This is a daunting assignment, but I accept it because we have a proud tradition here.

KURTZ: Can he help repair the damage over that botched story on President Bush? Does he want the job permanently? A special interview with Bob Schieffer.

Plus, from Vietnam to Iraq, from battling the first President Bush to the current one, the highs and lows of Rather's career.


KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today we turn our critical lens on the passing of the baton at CBS. I'm Howard Kurtz.

In a moment, my exclusive interview with the new anchor of "The CBS Evening News," Bob Schieffer. But first, a look at his controversial predecessor, who achieved great things, but also had tragic flaws. And sometimes, it was hard to separate the two.


ALEX JONES, HARVARD: I think Dan Rather will be remembered mostly for being a very gutsy, aggressive and somewhat quirky reporter who really went after stories and was very much a bull dog.

MARK FELDSTEIN, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY: I think Rather's been a lightning rod, you know, mostly because of his personality. He has an intensity to him that some people find forced.

KURTZ: From Rather's start as a Texas reporter obsessed with hurricanes, his next 40 years, which included still more hurricanes, encountered plenty of turbulence. It was Rather who first confirmed that JFK was dead. He asked tough questions during Watergate, and Republicans concluded he was a not-so-closeted liberal.

RATHER: What goes through your mind when you hear people who love this country and people who believe in you say reluctantly that perhaps you should resign or be impeached?

RICHARD M. NIXON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, I'm glad they don't take the vote in this room.

KURTZ: Others were impressed.

FELDSTEIN: I'm one of many younger reporters who came of age watching him during the Nixon administration, confronting him over Watergate, and saw him as sort of an inspiring role model as a reporter.

KURTZ: He always seemed more comfortable in the field than reading off a TelePrompTer, beginning with Vietnam.

RATHER: Dan Rather, CBS News, on the beach near Tom Ky (ph).

From Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China.

From inside Serbia, the bomb-damaged but defiant capital city of Belgrade.

KURTZ: Rather caused an uproar in 1988 when he clearly went too far in an interview with Vice President George Bush, turning it into a long shouting match over the Iran-Contra scandal.

RATHER: Iran was officially a terrorist state. You went around telling...

GEORGE H.W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I already explained that, Dan. I wanted to...


RATHER: But you made us hypocrites in the face of the world.

KURTZ: And yet, he kept handing his enemies ammunition, such as speaking at a Democratic fund-raiser involving his daughter.

Whatever he accomplished, the critics pounced. In an interview with Saddam Hussein before the Iraq war, detractors said he was too easy on a brutal dictator. Breaking the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal, Rather bashers said he was hurting America's world image.

Days after the 2000 election, I asked him how he felt about awarding Florida to Al Gore.

RATHER: Anytime we make a mistake and particularly we make a big mistake such as this one, it takes a chunk out of our credibility.

KURTZ: The biggest blunder of all, Rather's "60 Minutes" report last fall on President Bush's military service.

RATHER: I want to say personally and directly, I'm sorry.

KURTZ: Weeks later, Rather said he would give up the anchor chair a year earlier than he had planned. Rather makes this concession: not that he's biased, you understand, but that he can get carried away.

Rather was an anchor who wore his heart on his sleeve, as was clear after the 9/11 attacks.

RATHER: You know, "America the Beautiful," we could never sing that song again that way.

You know, one can have too much zeal. One can have too much passion. And sometimes I have. Too much passion, melded to loving the work lead to making mistakes.

For "The CBS Evening News," Dan Rather reporting. Good night.


KURTZ: And joining me now from the set of "The CBS Evening News" in New York, the network's new interim anchor, Bob Schieffer. Welcome.

You've known Dan Rather, your fellow Texan, for 40 years. Has this National Guard story and the apparently bogus documents marred his exit, and has this been hard for him?

SCHIEFFER: I think so. I think it has been hard for him. And I think in the -- in the end, Howie, Dan Rather's going to be remembered as one of the great reporters of the last half of the 20th century. Frankly, he's compiled a list of work, a body of work that is just unparalleled. No one can match it over these last 40 years.

Right now, a lot of the attention is still focused on the National Guard story. But I think in time that that will pass, and he will be remembered as a great reporter.

KURTZ: Did Rather try to do too much, Bob? He anchored the news. He was on "60 Minutes." He was on "48 Hours." He did radio. He was rushing off to tsunamis and hurricanes and war zones. Some might say that an anchor with those kinds of responsibilities is stretched a little thin.

SCHIEFFER: I think sometimes CBS did expect too much of Dan. I've always felt that all of these jobs are full-time jobs. And sometimes -- it began back in the '80s, when they began to try to make these anchors the logo of the networks, rather than the lead correspondents. And I think, frankly, in the long run, that was a mistake. It was just too much work for any one person to do.

And sometimes Dan was running so fast from one assignment to the other that maybe he wasn't worn out by it, but it was almost -- it would almost wear you out to watch him trying to do all these jobs at once.

KURTZ: We had so many video moments to choose from. I began by signing off the broadcast with "courage." And of course, he went on to Afghanistan, dressed up as what became known as Gunga Dan. There were some odd moments, but also some confrontational moments. And I want to play this piece of tape of Rather at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago.


RATHER: Don't push me! Take your hands off of me unless you're trying to arrest me.



RATHER: Well, as you can see -- I'm sorry to be out of breath, but somebody belted me in the stomach during that.


KURTZ: Would you say that your style is a little bit different than Dan's?

SCHIEFFER: Well, yes, but I'm not sure it would have been that much different in that particular situation. Dan was accosted there by about six people who finally took him to the floor.

But it's an example, and I mean, I think -- you know, Dan's been my friend all these many years. And the thing that I really always admired about him was his just absolute fierce determination, no matter what was in his way, to get as close to the story as he could get. Sometimes he got some great stories, and sometimes it didn't work out. But give the guy credit. He made a real effort to get to the stories, and that's one of the things I think we have to admire about him.

KURTZ: All right. Turning now to the Schieffer era, you've anchored from that set hundreds and hundreds of times. You used to be the weekend anchor for CBS News. When you sat down to do your first broadcast on Thursday, were you a little bit nervous?

SCHIEFFER: Yes, because this was a little bit different. I mean, after all, you're following some very distinguished people who have been here. You know, CBS doesn't change anchors very often. Douglas Edwards did it for about seven years, and then Walter Cronkite for 19, I guess. Dan Rather did it for 24 years. Connie Chung was in there for just a brief time. It was a daunting assignment for me. And you know, I'm not sure I'd really want this job on a full-time basis over a long period of time.

But I really think, Howie, at this particular time and in the history of CBS News maybe I can be of some help to try to get everybody thinking again and not about what has just happened recently. We -- we have to learn our lessons from that. We were hurt by it. But now we have to focus on what's ahead and try to get this news organization back to thinking about what we really are.

And the fact is, I think we're still pretty good here. And I think we're going to -- we're going to do a good job. I was very pleased with that first broadcast. It's always good to get that first one under your belt.

KURTZ: And one...

SCHIEFFER: And I thought it went off exceptionally well. We had some really fine pieces on that broadcast.

KURTZ: And one of the things you did, which I couldn't help but notice, was you changed the opening. Moving away from what I call the voice of God headlines, where you don't see the anchor but he tells you what the news of the day is, to involving the correspondents. Let's take a brief look at that.


SCHIEFFER: Also tonight, we'll cover these stories.

JIM STEWART, CBS NEWS CORRESPONDENT: I'm Jim Stewart in Washington. The government has arrested two alleged Mafia hit men who once served as New York City police detectives.


KURTZ: Why the different approach?

SCHIEFFER: Well, I hope that what we can do here, and we are going to try a little different approach here. I want "The CBS Evening News" to be a showcase for the talents of some very smart people. And they're all over the world, working for CBS News.

I think what we've got to do here is bring all those people together, and I hope I can be the catalyst to bring out the best in all of them. And that's one of the reasons we decided to open the broadcast as we did last night, over these next couple of weeks. But we're going to try to tweak it a little here and there and experiment with what we think will work and doesn't work. But we want to put the emphasis now on our correspondents out in the field.

That's how we got to be what came to be called the best news organization in the world. You had Huntley and Brinkley back in way back when at NBC. But CBS had this great core of correspondents. We've got to put the emphasis back on that now. I think that's where, if we're going to make a move here, that's, I think, that's how we can do it.

KURTZ: Some people think that experimenting with the network news is a good idea after all these years.

Now, there's another person who knows something about anchoring "The CBS Evening News" who had something to say about you just a few days ago. Let's take a look.


WALTER CRONKITE, FORMER ANCHOR, "THE CBS EVENING NEWS": Well, I think it's going to be hard to -- to find anybody who's going to be much liked and appreciated and does such a job as Bob Schieffer. I think he's one of the great television journalists of our time.


KURTZ: Now, there is chatter out there, as you know, that if Schieffer does well and he's received well by the audience, and the ratings are OK, maybe they'll keep him around for a while. Your thoughts?

SCHIEFFER: Well, I think we'd better see what happens. You know, turning around these ratings is like turning around a battleship. We'll have to see what happens on that front.

And I don't know what's going to happen here, Howie, to be quite honest about it. They asked me to do this for a while. CBS has some big plans in mind. They're thinking about a lot of things. I'm not privy to a lot of that.

But what they asked me to do was just come in here, concentrate on content, try to put on the best possible newscast we could every day. I mean, if this job were offered to me on a long-term basis, I'm not sure what I would say if they -- they would ask me about that.

KURTZ: Well, you're doing what -- you're doing what politicians...


SCHIEFFER: ... wait a while.

KURTZ: You're doing what politicians on "Face the Nation" would be described as leaving the door open. So I'm going to -- I'm going to play the Schieffer role. Are you ruling it out? If drafted, would you serve?

SCHIEFFER: Well, I'm not going to rule anything out. I'm going to wait and see what happens here. I'll tell you -- I'll tell you this one thing, though, Howie, and my wife said, if this goes on for very long, we're going to have to renegotiate our contract. So I'm considering a lot of things here as we think about what's coming down the road.

KURTZ: Just explain this, because you're anchoring during the week in New York, you live here in Washington, where you'll be coming back on Sundays to do "Face the Nation." That's a lot of frequent flying.

Let's put up some old pictures of Bob Schieffer from his earlier days, so people can get a sense that this is a man, like Dan Rather, who's been around for a while.

I'll move to my next question.

As you know, Bob, Dan Rather often criticized, particularly by those on the right, for liberal bias. Now, you told "The New York Times" a couple of weeks ago that, personally, you favor abortion rights and you also said that you are in favor of the death penalty. Would that -- would those views, now that you've shared them with the world, affect the way you cover those very issues?

SCHIEFFER: No, because you know, I also favor school vouchers, which I guess some people would say is a conservative point of view, and I also favor stronger laws to keep guns out of the hands of crazy people, which I guess some people would say was a liberal view. But I do not think a point of view has anything to do with being fair.

What you have to do here, and what I found that the people I've dealt with over the years want to know is not whether I'm a Democrat or a libertarian or a vegetarian or a Republican. What they want to know is am I going to give them their side of the story when I do a story about an issue? And that's what I've always tried to do. I've tried the best I can...

KURTZ: But isn't it human nature -- isn't it human nature, Bob, if you are, for example, in favor of abortion rights, that the way you frame a story or decide whether to include something, or not include something, might be affected subconsciously by your own political opinions? We all have opinions, obviously.

SCHIEFFER: I suppose so, but there is such a thing as professional training, Howie, and I think reporters are trained to put those biases aside. I think that's one of the things we always have to be on guard about, because we always have to understand that there are two sides of a story, no matter what we think about it.

Well, I favor abortion rights. I, by the same token, do not really favor abortion. But I think everybody ought to have the -- their own ideas about it and have the right to do what they -- whatever they think in that case.

So you have to put your biases -- we all have biases. We all have a point of view. The media's filled with various points of view. We -- we're like a draft army. We reflect the society from which we're drawn. But we are professionals, and our job is to understand there are two sides. And when we do a story about something, make sure that's reflected.

KURTZ: All right. A lot more to talk about with Bob Schieffer. When we come back in a moment, we'll ask him about the future of network news. Please stay with us.


SCHIEFFER: I'm not exactly a new face. Many of you have known and trusted me over the years. I take that as a high compliment, and I promise you this: I'll never take that trust for granted.



KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. We're talking with Bob Schieffer, the new anchor of "The CBS Evening News" in the wake of Dan Rather's departure.

Bob, as you well know, ratings for all the nightly newscasts have been declining for about two decades now. And many people say, "Gee, they're becoming irrelevant in an age where, 24 hours a day, you can get news on cable, on the Internet, on talk radio. You can have it beamed to your cell phone. You name it."

So some would say maybe you're finally getting a chance to kind of steer the Titanic.

SCHIEFFER: Well, I'm not sure we're at that point yet, but there is no question that the ratings have gone down. I think frankly, Howie, that all of these broadcasts, not just "The CBS Evening News," we all have to evolve into something beyond what we are now. And -- and no longer be just a summary of the day's news. Because people generally know what the news is by the time the evening news programs come along.

So I think what we have to do is bring more expertise. We have to focus more on putting things in perspective. We have to separate in this great clutter of information that's out there now what is really important. And I think the main thing we have to do is to tell people why it is important and how it's going to affect them directly. If we can do that, then we'll be relevant and people will watch. If we're not relevant, they won't watch. And trying to make these programs more entertaining is not going to work, in my view. People will watch other things if they want to be entertained. And...

KURTZ: Should the newscasts, Bob...

SCHIEFFER: ... I think trying to go down that road is just a mistake.

KURTZ: Should the newscasts be an hour? Should they be on later? A lot of people are not home from work by 6:30. Should they do more to appeal to young people who are not watching those dentures commercials? They don't appeal to them.

SCHIEFFER: Well, I think they should be longer. I don't think that's going to happen, because the local stations -- it's an economic matter. They can make more money selling their own commercials. So they're -- they really don't want an hour newscast. I wish we could be an hour.

And yes, indeed I mean, the thing that would bring viewers back to the evening programs more than any other thing I can think of is to put them on later in the evening. But again, you're talking about can you make as much money off a news program as you can off an entertainment program at that time of night? The sums involved here are staggering, and frankly, I just don't think that's going to happen. Again, for economic, not for journalistic reasons.

KURTZ: Just briefly, when you say talking about making it -- not trying to be more entertaining than, say, prime time dramas, are you talking about less fluff? Less celebrity coverage and other things that have gotten quite popular in the media these days? SCHIEFFER: Yes. That's exactly what I'm talking about. And I think what we have to do is concentrate on things that affect people. Are your taxes going to go up, or are they not? Is there going to be a change in -- in your Social Security, for example, a very hot topic right now? What is going to happen with the dollar?

These are all very complex things, and you can -- your eyes can glaze over as you hear these so-called experts trying to explain them. But if you can explain to people and find a way to tell that story so they know, "Hey, this is really going to impact on my life and my family," they'll watch.

KURTZ: All right.

SCHIEFFER: They'll find a need to watch.

KURTZ: Now "The New York Times" recently made a big deal of the fact that your brother, Tom Schieffer, former business partner of President Bush with the Texas Rangers, is now the U.S. ambassador to Japan. Could that create any awkwardness for you in reporting stories that may come up about Japan on the newscast?

SCHIEFFER: Well, I must say he's been the U.S. ambassador to Australia for about three and a half years, and it hasn't had any impact. I haven't noticed the Australian prime minister showing up on "Face the Nation," for example. No. If there's ever any kind of question like that, I will defer to Jim Murphy, the executive producer, and I'll allow him to make every decision like that.

You know, I think, Howie, if he were something like the White House chief of staff, that might be an entirely different matter. You're dealing with something every day. But the fact that he is an ambassador, the fact he is -- he is a Democrat. I look on ambassadors as representing the United States of America. I don't really look on that as -- as partisan positions. And generally speaking, you don't have partisans -- political partisans...

KURTZ: Right.

SCHIEFFER: ... in these important posts like Japan.

KURTZ: Right.

SCHIEFFER: So I'm very comfortable with this. Tom is very comfortable with this.


SCHIEFFER: And I don't see a problem. But if there is, we'll separate it out and be very transparent about it.

KURTZ: Bob Schieffer, it's been a big week for you, getting a journalism school named after you at your alma mater, Texas Christian University, taking over as CBS News anchor. I have one more word for you, and that is "courage." Thanks very much for joining us.

SCHIEFFER: Thank you, Howie.

KURTZ: When we come back, a blogger's battle to penetrate the White House press room and your viewer e-mail about Dan Rather. Stay with us.


KURTZ: Checking now on the world of media news. Since Jeff Gannon, the conservative online reporter with an X-rated past, had no trouble getting day passes into the White House, Garrett Graff thought it would be easy. After all, spokesman Scott McClellan says any writer for an outfit that has a legitimate audience can get one. But the new gossip columnist for found that it took four days of phone calls, and runarounds, and badgering interns, to get inside 1600 Pennsylvania. How did he do it?


GARRETT GRAFF, BLOGGER, FISHBOWLDC: I got into blogging about all of this, and the mainstream media picked up the story a little bit, and actually the president of the White House Correspondents Association finally picked up the story, and went and met with Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, and said that he thought I should get a credential. And I did.


KURTZ: Once inside the gates, Graff found McClellan's briefing a bit on the boring side. But does ideology explain why he had a harder time getting in than Jeff Gannon? Graff is a former aide to Howard Dean's presidential campaign.

And checking our viewer e-mail. Last week, we asked how Dan Rather will be remembered. Lori in Chicago writes: "To me, Dan Rather symbolizes a reporter who dug for the facts. That trait is sorely lacking in today's journalism."

And Norm in Tampa says: "Dan Rather has always been a shining example of what a good reporter should be and should do. It is sad that the polarization and divisiveness in our country have led to making it popular recreation to dance on the perceived grave of a great American journalist."

But many people agree with Roger, in Laurel, Maryland, who says: "Dan had a great career, but he will always be remembered for trying to sway an American presidential election based on bogus information. He brought journalism to a new low level."

We appreciate your e-mail. We'll be right back.


KURTZ: That's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next Sunday morning, 11:30 Eastern, for another critical look at the media. "LATE EDITION" with Wolf Blitzer begins now. TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT

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