By Eric Deggans, Times Media Critic
One year into his "temporary" tour of duty on the evening news desk at CBS, veteran journalist Bob Schieffer expresses surprise and delight at the ratings boost.
Walter Cronkite calls him a tough act to follow. Others label him the most genuine anchor on network television.
And see what MSNBC smart guy Keith Olbermann has to say about CBS Evening News anchor Bob Schieffer:
"Having been a fan of him on the weekend CBS News in the '70s . . . he's good at what he does, comfortable with it, and in changing times has the impossible-to-rush benefit of being familiar to the audience," said Olbermann in an e-mail. "Plus, all former Rotisserie League commissioners make great news anchors."
Schieffer, who today reaches his one-year anniversary as interim anchor on the show, is everything we have come to expect a network anchor will not be these days: Unassuming. Folksy. Old. Forthcoming.
Where did they find this guy?
"I guess I'm the most surprised man in America . . . that I'm talking to you about this," said the Texas-born anchor, who celebrated his 69th birthday Feb. 25. "When we started out, it was going to be a six-week, maybe two months' assignment. Here we are a year later . . . It just seems like yesterday when we started doing all this."
Still reeling from top anchor Dan Rather's ouster following the fallout from a mistaken story on President Bush's National Guard service, CBS News needed the stability and comfort of a veteran like Face the Nation host Schieffer. A CBS employee since 1969, he anchored the weekend newscasts for more than two decades. Turns out, Schieffer also brought ratings: Viewership has increased by 513,000 people since last year, while evening newscasts at both ABC and NBC which installed anchors in their 40s to lure younger viewers have lost about 1-million people each.
It's not enough to get CBS's newscast out of third place behind NBC and ABC. But as ABC reels from Bob Woodruff's injuries in Iraq and Elizabeth Vargas' pregnancy, Schieffer and popular veterans such as ABC's Charlie Gibson are challenging the notion that anchors no longer matter and youth is what counts on TV.
Now the guy who thought his career topped out when Rather was named CBS's main anchor in 1980 is enjoying his biggest success in 40 years of journalism.
Does this feel like a victory lap to you?
"I guess that's a good way to put it . . . Look, we were in a pretty deep hole. We put a story on the air that was wrong. We got burned by a bad source. When your credibility is hurt, you don't get it back just by promising we'll do better. You have to go back to work and get it back one story and one day at a time. I think we've put on a very good newscast. And I think people have begun to notice that, and I think that's reflected in the ratings."
How did you build that atmosphere?
"This is not about me. It's about building a news department that's going to last for the next 10 or 15 years. First, you identify who your best people are. And my job is getting them on television, so other people will understand how smart they are. This woman chief foreign correspondent Lara Logan, this is just an extraordinary person. She has been a reporter since she was 17 years old . . . and she has been willing to go into the worst places on Earth and cover the news there. We used to be afraid to send women on these kinds of stories. Now these women are demanding to be sent. I think Lara is going to be the next Barbara Walters or Diane Sawyer. Our new format is, 'How do we get Lara Logan on the air?' so she can report and tell people about the expertise she has."
Is that why you've begun asking more questions of correspondents on air?
"We're trying to build the kind of bench that we had when I came to CBS many years ago . . . walked into the Washington bureau and there was Dan Rather at the White House, Marvin Kalb at the State Department and Roger Mudd on Capitol Hill, Daniel Schorr covering general assignments and Eric Sevareid doing the commentary. It was the best bureau in Washington, print or broadcast, and everybody knew that. If we can create that kind of team, then we're going to have a mighty powerful news department."
I've interviewed all the major anchors several times. This is the first time I've heard one talk this much about reporters on the broadcast.
"I'm a firm believer that beat reporters are the core of any news organization. A lot of people, especially in television and somewhat in newspapers now, are making a mistake in getting away from that. The core of a broadcast ought to be the people out there on the beat every day, asking the same people the same questions. That's where you build your strength and build your credibility."
CBS is courting Today show anchor Katie Couric. But wouldn't it make sense to pick someone from that deep bench as the new anchor, and spend two years developing them while you continue to steward the show?
"I don't think they're ready for that. Lara Logan's 34 years old - she's younger than my kids. She just needs to stay out in the sun for a little while longer. You can get a tan under these studio lights, or you can get one from the sun. But the one you get in the studio is not going to last. What she's doing right now is what Peter Jennings did, what Dan Rather did, what Tom Brokaw did and what Walter Cronkite did. They all served their time out in the field covering stories. Because they did, people got to know who they were and trusted them. You want to make sure people know something about you beyond that they've seen you on television. I don't care what you say, somehow or another that comes through."
Some people are saying the reason your bench isn't as deep as it could be is that Dan didn't allow the network to develop a successor when he was top anchor.
(Laughing) "I don't think I'll wander into that territory . . . though I think that's a little unfair to Dan. I think there is a tendency in television sometimes to worry about the wrong things, let me just put it that way."
You fly to New York Monday mornings, fly back home to Washington Friday nights and spend the weekend working on Face the Nation. How do you keep such a hectic schedule?
"Well, this hardly seems like work to me, I just love it so much. And I now work with people, who . . . I knew their parents when they were reporters. It makes me feel pretty old . . . but it's also kind of fun. I get a kick of out of that."
When I talked to Charlie Gibson on his return to Good Morning America, it was the same setup as you; short-term job, looking for a replacement, and seven years later he's the linchpin of ABC News. Think it might happen to you?
"When they announced I was going to do this job, the first letter that reached me was from Charlie Gibson. And he said you'd better get a dictionary and make sure their definition of 'temporary' is the same as yours. Charlie and I are old friends . . . I guess old Charlie may have been on to something."
Do we place too much importance on these TV anchor jobs?
"The answer to that is yes and no. The emphasis has to be on the news. The organization which finds it and reports it best is going to be the one that people turn to . . . Maybe there's a way to do that without an anchor. Maybe there's a way to do that with multiple anchors. But it has to be about the news."
Is there a point where your patience is going to run out?
"I'm going to be 70 years old a year from now, and I've kind of set that as the place where I'm going to hang it up. I would guess long before then they're going to know who's going to have this job permanently. I had planned to retire last year, if the truth be known. I wasn't going to retire completely - I hope they can find a place for me on election night in 2008 - (but) I have reached the stage of my life where I want to spend more time doing other things."
Walter Cronkite said you should have this job permanently.
"Walter's great. When Walter says things like that, it thrills me to death, because Walter is who I wanted to be when I was growing up. But that doesn't mean I'm going to be doing this forever, because I'm not."
Eric Deggans can be reached at (727) 893-8521 or firstname.lastname@example.org See his blog at www.sptimes.com/blogs/media.