A Q&A with Bob Schieffer
A couple weeks after the 2020 election, Kris Bunton asked Bob Schieffer ’59 about journalists’ vital role in preserving democracy.
A Q&A with Bob Schieffer
A couple weeks after the 2020 election, Kris Bunton asked Bob Schieffer ’59 about journalists’ vital role in preserving democracy.
In 2017, you published your fifth book, Overload: Finding the Truth in Today’s Deluge of News (Rowman & Littlefield), and the book assesses the state of journalism in the digital age. Writing not long after Donald Trump was elected president, you said that the integrity of news reporters was being challenged with what you called reckless ferocity. You noted that President Trump called reporters dishonest, producers of fake news and the enemy of the American people. And you pointed out that Hillary Clinton’s campaign did not much respect reporters either. Now Joe Biden has been elected our next president, and not much has changed, has it? The challenges to journalists’ integrity that you identified after the 2016 election seemed to persist in the 2020 campaign. Let’s talk about those challenges. Why do you think it matters if public officials call reporters dishonest and producers of fake news?
You know, Kris, the first thing I want to do is thank you for the remarkable job that you’ve been doing. TCU is lucky. We’re fortunate to have you. You’ve got the right stuff, and you’re teaching your students what they need to know as they enter this ever-changing world of communications.
In answer to your question, I think it is fair to say that President Trump’s attacks on the press have reached a new level of, for want of a better word, childishness. And it does matter. When presidents level these kinds of charges — because what any president says matters and gets wide circulation — he has the biggest megaphone in the world. A lot of people believe what the president says for no other reason than he’s the president, which really tells us of the respect we hold for this office.
It also matters because in America, access to independently gathered information provided by the press — information that we can compare to the government’s version of events — is really what sets us apart from totalitarian societies. It’s as important to our democracy as the right to vote. When anybody tries to undermine that, they are attempting to undermine the bedrock of our democracy.
No president, as far as I know, has been happy with the news coverage he gets during his presidency: no Democrat, no Republican, the Bushes, the Clintons, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan or Barack Obama, whose criticism of the press runs throughout his new biography. I’d also like to point out that one of Mr. Obama’s allegations is already being outdated. He states that the difference in liberal and conservative critics is that liberals flail at their own side. I think that conservative George Will, former George W. Bush speechwriter and now columnist Michael Gerson, and conservative Max Boot, among others, would be happy to tell Mr. Obama that conservatives have no problem taking on their own. They have been among the conservatives who have consistently taken the hind off President Trump, as has The Wall Street Journal from time to time when it felt the need to differ with him. So some things change. Some things never do.
In your Overload book, you were kind enough to let me write a chapter. And I was honored to do that. In my chapter, I tried to point out that fundamental ethical principles of journalism were more important than ever in reporting on elections and democracy. And those fundamental ethical principles in journalism would be telling verifiable truth, maintaining independence from sources and subjects, disclosing conflicts of interest and serving the needs of citizens. The cardinal principle among those in journalism is telling verifiable truth. After this 2020 election, I worry that that principle is under more substantial attack than ever. Did you think you’d ever see a day when the New York Times would produce an exhaustively documented investigative report on a presidential candidate’s history of avoiding payment of personal income taxes, only to have millions of voters say, in essence, it doesn’t matter? Or did you think you’d see a day when the chair of the Arizona Republican party would flat out say to CBS 60 minutes that the media lies and can’t be believed? What do you think is the future of journalism when citizens say they don’t believe verified, truthful information that’s reported by mainstream news organizations?
I would just start by saying, if the President had disclosed his taxes, as has been the custom, the Times would not have had to do the investigation, which is why I always thought from the start that keeping his returns secret was simply bad politics. But to your question. I think if you look to polls and other ways to measure public opinion, I think a majority of people did believe that report.
We are bombarded with so much information now from so many sources that a lot of the time we don’t know what to believe. So I think we sometimes believe what we want to believe, not the reality of what has happened.
“We are bombarded with so much information now from so many sources that a lot of the time we don’t know what to believe. So I think we sometimes believe what we want to believe, not the reality of what has happened.”
In 2018, a poll showed that 41 percent of Republicans thought it acceptable to make false claims if it was for the good of the country. That compared to 25 percent of Democrats and independents who felt that way. Whatever the reason, and I think as journalists — this is the part we have to remember — our role is to keep doing what we do. We are not the opposition party as Trump has charged. It’s the politicians who develop and deliver the message. Our job is to check it out and deliver the truth. Glenn Kessler, the chief fact checker at the Washington Post, wrote, “We don’t fact check to influence politicians, we fact check to inform voters. They decide what to do with the information.”
In Overload you wrote that the 2016 presidential election revealed deep divisions in our country over issues ranging from the economy to the law, civil justice, political, policing and justice issues to race issues. It seemed to me those issues were even more important in the 2020 presidential election. Do you think that reporters were any better equipped to cover those issues in 2020 than they had in 2016?
Well, it was a huge job, because there is so much to report these days. I’d also say that we may be even more divided now than we were in 2016. It’s kind of like Joe Biden has been elected president of two very different countries. Joe Biden got 78 million votes — more than anyone in history. But this election was not this shellacking of Trump and Trumpism that many Democrats were hoping for because think about this: Trump got 73 million votes. Republicans picked up seats in the House.
The understatement of the year about this election, I think, is that Joe Biden has his work cut out for him. Donald Trump is not going to go quietly in the night, which is going to complicate things even more. I don’t know what he’s going to do. But we all know that he is out there. And this is still a difficult thing. And we still have a difficult job reporting the truth to people as we find it.
You said in Overload that the 2016 presidential election revealed the weakness of the electoral process itself. And it seems to me that in 2020, the weaknesses of that process were more apparent than ever, and they do present those threats to democracy that we’ve been talking about. How well do you think journalists are covering the challenges to the security of voting? Are journalists doing a good job of helping citizens see these threats and understand them?
I think they are. I think they’re doing all that’s humanly possible. And up until now, for all the charges that have been leveled by the Trump administration, so far, there seems to be no evidence to support these charges. Many of them seem to be made up. Most of these lawsuits that have been filed have been turned back. The Georgia Secretary of State, who is a Republican, is saying, “Look.” He’s had Republicans telling him to throw out some votes that have been illegally counted. And it’s amazing to think about what we’re going through here adds to this chaos that we’ve all been going through. There’s just more information than we can process.
I thought back in 2016, we were overwhelmed by information. We are not just overwhelmed by this information; I think we’re exhausted by it. We have been so deluged by the last four years of chaos that the Stormy Daniels scandal didn’t even make it to the election season as an issue. When something like that happens, you’re dealing with a whole lot of information, and I think it’s almost impossible to process it. I think, quite frankly, if the president-elect can just quiet things down for a while — and that may not be possible — he might be able to get a few things done. Number one, we have got to defeat this virus and get people back to work. And already, as we can see now, there’s still controversy about what is the right way to go about that.
To speak to that point about the deluge of information: That really was the reason for the title of your book, Overload. With regard to the virus, are citizens getting the information they need to know to make the right kinds of choices? Or are they exhausted by this deluge of information and/or seeking information that fits their perspectives and so they’re not hearing from verifiable sources about the danger of this new wave of infections?
Well, we’re into this atmosphere now that, you know, Republicans seem to be uninterested in anything that Democrats may have to offer, and Democrats seem uninterested in anything that that Republicans have to offer along that line. But I think, well, obviously that has to change if we’re going to get anything done. I think so far, Biden is handling it the right way; he is trying to keep it at a much higher level. He is saying that we’ve got to talk. What we have to do — what Biden has to do, and I think it’s the most important challenge right now — is to convince people that compromise is not a dirty word. It’s a magic word. And it’s going to be the key to getting this country moving again.
But this is going to take a while. It’s just simply going to take a while. After what we’ve gone through in this chaos, it keeps going on. I think in a funny way — and I don’t mean this as a particular criticism of it — this is the way Donald Trump has lived his whole life, lunging from one crisis to another, bouncing from one marriage to a divorce, from scandal, from bankruptcies to windfalls on the financial front. This is kind of what he’s used to. And I think, frankly, one of the things we’re dealing with is, this is not what most of us in America were used to. If we can calm down a little bit here, it might have a tremendous impact on all of this.
Because President Trump has seemed to gravitate to a dramatic sort of flame-throwing to generate attention — I mean, he is a master of generating media attention — what do you think happens to Fox News or CNN or MSNBC? He’s been good TV for them. And I don’t think President Biden promises that kind of sensation. What do you think they will do to cover this administration or to continue to cultivate their audiences?
Well, I think one of the things that Fox News may have to deal with is Donald Trump himself. He fell out with them a couple of months ago, and the talk you hear — the gossip, it’s nothing more than gossip at this point — is that he may try to start up his own cable company to compete with them. We don’t know exactly what he’s going to do. He may well decide that what he wants to do is to run for president in 2024. And start that campaign right now. So we have to gauge that, but just be aware that something like that may be in the mix here. But again, what we need now is not more of the new politics. What we need is more of the old politics, the old-fashioned politics, which we tend to overlook; they worked.
And by old politics, I mean Joe Biden needs to get together with Mitch McConnell, not on television, but they go into one of another’s office and they talk about things and look for things that they can both agree on and begin to kind of reestablish trust, not only among the two of them, but among the political parties. That is possible. Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Acts of ’64 and ’65 with Everett Dirksen, who was the Republican leader in the Senate, and he could not have done it without Everett Dirksen. And when he got that second one passed, he went up to the Capitol to sign that legislation because he wanted the people on Capitol Hill to know he couldn’t have done it without them. He didn’t sign it at the White House, and that was done for a purpose.
There are ways to get these things done, but the first thing they have to do is talk to one another. I think it would be remarkable if Mitch McConnell and Joe Biden just had a news conference and said, “We want everybody to know we’re talking again.” Who’s going to be hurt by something like that? And it might kind of calm down the atmosphere a little bit.
I’m struck by what you said a few minutes ago when you said compromise is not a dirty word; compromise is a magic word. We need that on some bumper stickers or T-shirts. I think that one of the bright spots in the 2020 presidential election was the high voter turnout — Mr. Biden was elected with more votes than any presidential candidate in history, and President Trump earned huge numbers of votes. What do you think changed since 2016 that got more people to the polls? Was it the pandemic?
I think it was. You know, even without their favorite sources of news — and that for so many years was the local newspapers, which are in a terrible crisis right now — people understood we were in a dangerous place. And you know, you don’t need a newspaper. You don’t need a television station to tell you that somebody in your family has the coronavirus or that you’ve lost your job. We may not agree on solutions right now, but I think we all know we have a serious problem. And I think that’s why people turned out to vote. And aren’t we glad they did?
Well, Bob, I may be the dean of the college that bears your name. But you are the dean of Washington reporters and political analysts. So you get the last word here: Any great parting thoughts for us about the future of journalism and its role in a democracy?
“What would any of us have known about the state of our nation had it not been for journalists?”
Well, I’ll let others characterize my thoughts. Kris, I am very proud of what journalists were able to do over these past four years. What would any of us have known about the state of our nation had it not been for journalists? And these were people who were risking their own health to go out and report stories that sometimes people didn’t want to hear. What would the government have volunteered over these last four years had it not been for a group of journalists who were pushing them on these various things that happened? What conspiracy theory would have swept the country had the legacy journalistic organizations not been there to knock them down? What would we have known about this election?
I think the working reporters who covered this campaign under the most difficult circumstances should be commended. And they certainly get my congratulations. I’m proud of the profession in what it was able to do.
I think what you’re saying is that journalists are essential workers in preserving democracy.
I certainly am. I certainly am.
Editor’s Note: The questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.