The Boston Globe presents the Harvard Kennedy School PolicyCast, a weekly podcast on public policy, politics, and global issues. HKS PolicyCast is hosted by Matt Cadwallader.
In an age of Twitter, Politico, and attack ads, the most compelling conversations in politics still seem to happen in a format devised more than 60 years ago: two chairs, a table, and a camera on a Sunday morning.
Bob Schieffer sat in one of those chairs for 24 years as host of CBS News’s “Face the Nation.” It was one of many highlights of a legendary journalistic career, which included covering all four of the big Washington beats: Congress, the White House, the State Department, and the Pentagon.
Earlier this year he signed off for the last time, and in his retirement he has spent some time in Cambridge as the Walter Shorenstein Media and Democracy Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center.
Schieffer joined us on HKS PolicyCast to discuss the enduring popularity of Sunday morning talk shows, as well as some of his memories from five decades covering the news.
The excerpts below have been edited for length and clarity. In the full interview, Schieffer also discusses the state of the 2016 presidential campaign, the outsized influence of money in politics, and his thoughts on the major contenders for both parties’ nominations. Listen to the interview above, or download it on iTunes.
MC: The Sunday morning political talk show format is extremely important in the political world. We’ve gone through many different changes in the media landscape, whether it be cable news or the Internet. Why has that format lasted?
BS: The interesting thing about the Sunday talk shows, and not just “Face the Nation,” which is the second oldest program on television — the oldest is “Meet the Press” — is that we have the same mission today that we had on that first broadcast. And by the way, the first guest was Joe McCarthy of all people.
The mission was to pick out the person who was making news that week, sit him down at a table and talk to him. Now we now can talk in real-time to people on the other side of the Earth, but, other than that, we haven’t changed the format much. And what I like about it is people seem to think it’s relevant. We still get a large audience. We get about 3.5 million people every Sunday, and the other shows don’t get quite as many as “Face the Nation” does, but you’re talking about 10 or 11 million people watching those shows.
The Sunday morning time period, I think, is the smartest time period on television when you come right down to it, and I don’t mean just at CBS, but I mean across the board. The talking heads you see on Sunday morning, there’s not a lot of anchor antics. There’s not a lot of gotcha questions. It is probably the most serious time of the day for discussion on television, and I’m very proud of that. I think there’s still a need for that, and I think people still find it relevant, and I think the ratings are evidence of that.
MC: Given all of the change that’s happened, do you see that format, the Sunday morning talk show, as an enduring thing?
BS: I think it is. I know the old rule is, “Don’t fix something that’s not broken.” We don’t think it’s broken. We think people and opinion-makers watch these broadcasts. This is where people in Washington talk to one another, in addition to talking to the voters and to the people out there. So we want to keep it pretty much as it is.
We’re seeing a crisis in journalism. A lot of newspapers are going out of business trying to find the proper business model to stay afloat. But the fact of the matter is you’ll always have a need for journalists and journalism — I don’t know exactly what medium young people will be working in — because you cannot have a democracy unless citizens have access to independently gathered information, which they compare to the government’s version of events and then decide what to do about things. So there’s always going to be a need for journalists.
I tell young people, “Look, I don’t know if you’re going to work at a newspaper like I did when I first started out. I don’t know if you’re going to work at a website or a TV station, but I know there’s going to be a need for journalists because somebody has to gather this information.”
MC: What do you think about the ways news is consumed these days? People used to get most of their news from television; now that’s not true across-the-board.
BS: It’s not so much the way it’s consumed, as we’re overwhelmed by the information. I mean, we’re getting it 24/7. It’s coming at us from all sides, from the top, the bottom, and sometimes there’s so much information that we can’t process it. Wisdom does not necessarily parallel how much information you’re able to get, and a big part of what we do today is try to figure out how do we get through this great maw of information that we’re overwhelmed by to tell people what we think is really relevant and what they really need to know about it.
MC: When you look back on past campaigns and the interviews you’ve done, are there any that stick out as particularly interesting or maybe impactful?
BS: Some of them are just kind of funny. I remember I was with Fritz Hollings, he was a senator from South Carolina, and he was trying to run for the Democratic nomination, and he was up in New Hampshire, and his campaign was just going absolutely nowhere and everybody knew it, including him. I remember one day he was touring some bakery or something. They had this big cake made up and it looked like the White House. I said, “Senator, what do you think about that?” He said, “Take a good look at it boys, this is the closest old Fritz is ever going to get to the White House.” It’s things like that you always remember.
I remember Gary Bauer, who was running on the Republican side, and they were having this pancake flipping contest in New Hampshire one time, and old Gary flipped his pancake up so high that he backed off the stage trying to catch it and fell about four feet. He just backed right off the stage. People said, “Oh, my heavens, you’re not going to use that, are you?” I said, “Are you kidding? Of course we’re going to use it. I didn’t ask him to run for president.” But let me tell you, I wasn’t the only one that used it. Of course everybody did.