Facing the Nation — On Media and Politics: A Conversation with Bob Schieffer
By Phillip Murray
The 2016 U.S. Presidential election has been among the most divisive in recent history, and has stirred strong feelings in individuals across the political spectrum. The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health welcomed Bob Schieffer to join the Voices in Leadership series on November 17, 2016, nine days after this historic election, to comment on this “particularly interesting week.” As one of the nation’s most decorated journalists, Schieffer drew on his rich experiences to provide a valuable analysis of recent events. Dr. Katherine Baicker, the interviewer, and students from the Harvard Chan community highly anticipated his perspectives on the unprecedented events of the past week and on media and leadership. The studio was charged with emotion, and Schieffer provided many important lessons through candor, humor, and humility.
Born in Austin, Texas, Schieffer began his career working at a small news outlet in Fort Worth. He eventually became one of the few individuals to have covered all four of the major beats: The Pentagon, the U.S. State Department, the Congress, and the White House. Schieffer has interviewed every sitting president since Richard Nixon and moderated three Presidential debates. Schieffer has worked for CBS News for 46 years, and has won every notable journalism award, including eight Emmys and the Walter Cronkite Award for Excellence. He is currently serving as the Walter Shorenstein Media and Democracy Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center. His storied career, however, did not exclude him from sharing the audience’s surprise about the election results. A year ago at Harvard, Schieffer predicted that Donald Trump would get the Republican nomination because he was able to connect with people’s frustrations, but did not believe at the time that he would win based on his lack of stated plans and rhetoric on the campaign trail. Schieffer remarked,
“This is different than any campaign that I have ever covered in my lifetime. It’s different than any campaign that I know about. We heard and saw things in this campaign that you just don’t see in the past in campaigns.”
Schieffer focused on how changes in the media factored into the election, reflecting that a “communications revolution” has opened access to more information than ever, but cautioned that this did not guarantee that people were any better informed. He recounted his time in journalism, stating that during his time in the “gatekeeper era,” though there were less sources, reporters agreed to operate from the same set of facts. Now, he says, “we’re basing out opinions on different facts and different data”, and noted that people were getting their news from many different outlets. Even worse is the increase in false news stories and the interaction with social media. He noted this continues to inform people’s opinions and diminishes the opportunity for well informed discourse. He felt that to overcome this people would need to take information from multiple sources, emphasizing the importance of a “buyer beware” approach.
These challenges did not impact his unwavering belief that a free press remains essential to a functioning democracy. He respected the public’s ability to make a decision when presented with the best possible information. Pride filled his voice as he recalled examples of good reporting. Acknowledging current challenges, he felt today’s media has the additional responsibility of knocking down false information. He said,
“The greatest weapon that journalists have, the only weapon we have — we have two — our credibility and being willing to ask the questions and being able and being willing to push to get an answer.”
It was clear he wielded these with integrity throughout his career.
When asked about the most memorable moments from his career, Schieffer recalled his experience hours after President Kennedy was assassinated. Distraught and overwhelmed, he decided to help in his office by answering the phones. A fortuitous call that he answered from Lee Harvey Oswald’s mother led to his meeting and interviewing her. Recalling the event, he smiled, and reflected that good training only goes so far — much of it is being in the right place at the right time. This openness afforded him different adventures for more than 50 years. His satisfaction was evident as he said “Maybe it wasn’t for everyone, but I loved every minute of it.”
When asked if he had any insights from his career, he offered,
“Do what you really love to do. Don’t worry about success. If you’re good at what it is- — whatever it is, whether it’s journalism or public health, wherever you all are going — do it because you love to do it, and that will pay off. And we’ll all be the better for it.”
Bob Schieffer, through his service, has lived these words. He has done what he has loved to do, and we have all been better informed for it.
Story by Phillip Murray, a physician who is interested in delivery systems and minority health policy and is pursuing a Master of Public Health in Health Policy at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Story edited by Sohini Mukherjee, a first year student in the Master of Science program in Global Health and Population at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.