Can Bob Schiefer Save CBS News?

Howie Kurtz reports that Bob Schiefer is raising eyebrows by “delivering the news in a conversational style, rather than with voice-of-God solemnity, interjecting his own views and encouraging CBS reporters to do the same.” Goodness, it sounds like Fox News.

As the interim replacement for Dan Rather, Schieffer has managed to change the rigid formula of the nightly newscast. He is delivering the news in a conversational style, rather than with voice-of-God solemnity, interjecting his own views and encouraging CBS reporters to do the same. Often, instead of doing taped reports followed by a stand-up, the correspondents — who tease their stories during the introduction — just chat with Schieffer. “I’m telling them, throw away the scripts,” Schieffer says. “I don’t want to do a rehearsed question and rehearsed answer because people see through that. What I want to hear is what they would tell me in the newsroom, all within FCC obscenity guidelines, of course.”

After a report on prosecutors’ setbacks at the Michael Jackson trial, Schieffer said: “I think they’re going to have a hard time proving this case.” When Anthony Mason reported on Bernard Ebbers’s conviction in the WorldCom fraud case, he told Schieffer: “I would not want to be Ken Lay right now. . . . He may want to rethink his strategy after seeing that it did not save Bernie Ebbers.” White House correspondent John Roberts, after recounting the ethics allegations against House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, told Schieffer: “My bet is that DeLay will survive this unless, of course, that Texas prosecutor decides to indict him.”

Executive Producer Jim Murphy, who helped devise the approach, says Schieffer “is a gumshoe who asks tons of good questions like a normal person would ask them. He’ll call reporters in the field and say, ‘Tell me what’s not in your piece.’ ” After Schieffer’s debut, Murphy got a typewritten note from veteran Andy Rooney that said in red letters: “WOW.” Schieffer likens the style to newspaper sidebars or online chats. “It’s just kind of my way, and maybe it’s because I’ve been doing ‘Face the Nation’ for so long,” he says. “We’re trying to deliver the news in the way people talk.”

Early ratings are sketchy since Schieffer took over March 10, but the broadcast is still mired in third place. But on the five nights Schieffer has anchored without being preempted in part of the country for the NCAA basketball tournament, he is down 1 percent from Rather’s last four full weeks, while the NBC and ABC newscasts are down 6 percent and 5 percent, respectively.

Why not? This strikes me as much more enjoyable than pretending that no one has an opinion. Plus, the news climate has changed so much in the last couple of decades. Most viewers are likely no longer getting the news for the first time. Rather, they’re tuning in looking for context. A conversation with Bob Schieffer, who everyone seems to agree is competent and likeable, is much more interesting than hearing someone read excerpts from the newspapers.

Indeed, the conversational style is not only the hallmark of the popular Fox News Channel but also of weblogs. That likely is part of the reason these two venues are gaining popularity.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Mark says:

    Goodness, it sounds like Fox News.

    James, you are going to catch hell from certain quarters for that snide comment. Heh. Maybe I should go ahead and start marketing a “CBS Blocker” to liberals.

  2. Benedict says:

    The first commenter need not worry. Think back for a moment to Schieffer’s performance as moderator for one of the Presidential debates. I believe it was generally regarded as the most openly biased against Bush of the three. While the style may have changed, it would be miraculous indeed if forty-something years of institutional bias at CBS were eliminated with the mere change of the lead newsreader.

  3. Mike Stiber says:

    I stopped watching CBS News when this style started up. It wasn’t a matter of political bias (I stopped watching too soon to notice any); I just found the editorializing massively annoying. If I want opinion, I’ll watch a “news magazine”. I already find the habit of every correspondent on every news program feeling the need to “sum up” their piece with some “insightful comment”. I wish they’d spend the airtime providing depth behind their coverage, instead of promoting themselves.

  4. Brenda Norville says:

    I liked Dan Rather and always, ALWAYS, watched CBS News. I’ve NEVER stopped missing Walter Cronkite. I’ve always admired and appreciated Bob Schiefer. He has an honest face and a credible demeanor.

  5. Steve Warnelis says:

    Something about the new format at The CBS Evening News strikes me as shades of Edward R. Murrow’s “See It Now” broadcasts. Thus far, I’m not all that worried about the apparent editorializing, but I would caution CBS News to be sure they know when the line is crossed, and in the tradition of network newscasts in the 60s and 70s, clearly label that something is editorial commentary (i.e. Sevareid, Chancellor, for instance.)

    Still, CBS News must also be sure to lay a FACTUAL foundation for even the most informed observation and we may just have to trust that our fellow citizens will know the difference between observation and opinion.

    Considering that most people identify when they have given their opinion after they actually DO so, is it really that bothersome that this format appears to contain editorialization? Sometime simply facts just to that on their own.

    The question I have is whether the larger decreases in audiences at NBC and ABC are really because people are flocking back to CBS just because of Schieffer or because Dan really alienated people that much OR because the format is more viewer-friendly, as Schieffer asserts.

  6. I also happen to like Schieffer’s general demeanor and style, but I am disturbed by the sloppiness and disregard for the basics of newswriting that have shown up in the last three weeks. Stories have become less informative, with important details missing. The “give-and-take” with correspondents sometimes becomes confusing to follow, with Schieffer and the correspondents trading sentence fragments and unidentified pronouns. Dropping the formality should not mean dropping the clarity.