All weekend long on March 19-20, the major TV news channels were preoccupied by the Terri Schiavo watch. Late Sunday, Congress passed special legislation to move Schiavo's case to federal court, hoping for a ruling that would restore the feeding tube that had been removed by court order. On Monday, the ABC and NBC evening news shows led with more Schiavo.
At CBS, anchor Bob Schieffer zigged where the others zagged. He was on the phone with an eyewitness to the Red Lake Indian Reservation high-school massacre in northern Minnesota. We heard Schieffer, like the veteran newsman he is, getting the basic facts—then breaking the news that the student had shot and killed his grandfather before arriving on campus, and that he had ended his rampage by killing himself.
Less than three weeks after Dan Rather's departure from the anchor chair, Schieffer has already markedly revamped the job description, showcasing a more inquisitive, interactive style than his predecessor or his competitors.
The Red Lake interview was just the most vivid example of CBS Evening News' change under Schieffer's guidance. On a daily basis, we see other, subtler tweaks. This anchor approaches his role more as a viewer's representative than as a reporter's leader; Schieffer's emphasis is more on summing up a story than on introducing it.
Specifically, Schieffer's CBS Evening News actually makes constructive use of the live sign-off that often ends a correspondent's taped report. In the TV news business, the live sign-off tends to be just an ornamental transition, but Schieffer makes it a valuable access point, posing follow-up questions to reporters on a couple of stories each night. He reminds the reporter that, like the viewers at home, he has just watched the preceding package himself. He drives home the story's lead. He cites the angle that interested him most. He uses vernacular, even blunt language, to ask for more:
- “I just want to underline what is important here—this guy escapes from the courthouse in the middle of town in broad daylight...”
- “I thought one of the strangest things was when Canseco ... today asked Congress to grant him immunity so he could never be indicted. That does take some nerve.”
- “As I was watching your piece there, it occurred to me that the next of these trials is going to involve Ken Lay of Enron...”
- “Whatever Michael Jackson did, if this is the best the prosecution can do—what we saw today—I think they are going to have a hard time proving this.”
I analyzed 345 reporter packages and other longer-form items on the three networks' weekday nightly newscasts: 172 on the first eight days of Schieffer's tenure, and 173 on the final eight days of Dan Rather's (anchor-only voiceovers and “tell” stories were not included). The majority of reports were the standard package: anchor introduction, roll-pretaped and edited video, no follow-up Q&A. Schieffer's tenure has meant more follow-ups, throwing to reporters for live stand-ups, and interviews with in-house experts and guests, such as the Minnesota reservation witness.
The before-and-after is striking. Schieffer's live interactive style was used in 40% of CBS' items (ABC used it 9% of the time, NBC 3%); in Rather's final days, CBS used those techniques only 11% of the time (ABC 17%, NBC 3%).
CBS is clearly playing to Schieffer's strengths here. After years of honing his interviewing style on Face the Nation in the Sunday-morning inside-politics ghetto, he impressed the wider public with his straightforward questions in the domestic-policy presidential debate last October. Although CBS News was still being widely lambasted at that time for liberal bias in the matter of the 60 Minutes Texas National Guard story that had aired only weeks before, none of the tarnish was attached to his debate performance.
Schieffer can capitalize on that success now: By positioning himself as a straight-talking, people's tribune, this son of Fort Worth may become the antidote for the reputation of CBS News as an organ of the East Coast liberal elite in a way that fellow Texan Rather could not manage to do, despite those trademark homespun “Danisms.”
Nevertheless, let us be clear that these are changes in style, not in journalism itself. The questions that Schieffer asks out loud are the same routine ones every anchor and executive producer asks of correspondents before a story is filed. What CBS Evening News is doing is showing that Q&A in action, rather than simply weaving its results into the on-air report.
So Schieffer makes more of the anchor's behind-the-scenes job visible for all to see. How modish is that? At age 68, our oldest rookie news anchor is not only interactive, but transparent, too.