A Little Too Inside-the-Beltway
The establishment tilt of “Face the Nation”
"Face the Nation: My Favorite Stories From the First 50 Years of the Award-Winning News Broadcast"
By Bob Schieffer
Simon & Schuster
240 pages; $26.95
Book review by Carl Sessions Stepp
Carl Sessions Stepp (email@example.com) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.
After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.
In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.
Bob Schieffer is an old-fashioned kind of journalist who writes fondly about old-fashioned TV values and a program that has long exemplified them. He is upbeat and public-minded, proud of the broadcast he has hosted for 13 years, and eager to show off its memorable moments.
By the end of the book, though, you may find yourself growing less and less certain that these golden-age journalistic virtues live up to their romanticized glow.
Schieffer writes on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of "Face the Nation," which premiered on CBS on November 7, 1954. The program has certainly had its moments, recalled here in words, pictures and a DVD that accompanies the book.
Its 1957 interview with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, at the peak of the Cold War, brought a Kremlin leader directly into American living rooms for the first time. The very idea brought criticism from some officials that CBS was spreading Communist propaganda.
Two years later, the network nabbed a Havana interview with Fidel Castro, whose bodyguards kept a carbine trained on the producer as Castro "flatly denied he was a Communist."
A 1986 interview with Secretary of State George Shultz produced a stunning exchange in which Shultz seemed to rebuke his own boss, President Reagan, for trading arms for hostages.
Schieffer, a respected reporter who trained in print at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and joined CBS in 1969, touts the program for its "serious discussion and analysis and no sound effects." On "Face the Nation," he writes, "The food fights and the shouting matches that mark the prime-time cable programs are rare occurrences... Sunday morning is the smartest morning on television--a time when serious ideas can be discussed at some length in serious ways."
This is true and admirable, but as the book moves along, something begins to nag at you: how often the Washington establishment press swallows the Washington establishment line.
The serious talk can drift into an exaggerated mutual courtesy bordering on chumminess, an air of inside-the-
Beltway in-the-knowness afflicting both journalists and their "guests." Ideas outside current conventional wisdom get little attention.
In 1957, for example, the year President Eisenhower mobilized federal troops to enforce integration in Arkansas, "Face the Nation" questions seemed more focused on whether a local newspaper editor was pushing too hard for civil rights than on whether local officials were illegally resisting.
When Martin Luther King Jr. first appeared on the show in 1964, interviewers "asked more questions about alleged infiltration of Communists in the civil rights movement than they did about the pending [civil rights] legislation."
Vietnam provided a more dramatic case. "Reading the transcripts of the 'Face the Nation' broadcasts of that era is a sobering experience," Schieffer writes. "In the early years of the war, the transcripts show that U.S. officials who appeared on the broadcast had little or no understanding about what was happening in Vietnam... They often misrepresented what they knew to be the truth, or they simply lied."
Under such circumstances, journalists often couldn't or didn't effectively challenge the politicians' spin. Interviewers often seemed more fixed on defending American policy than questioning it. On the day the New York Times published the Pentagon Papers in 1971, in what Schieffer terms "one of the most embarrassing Sundays in the history of the broadcast," "Face the Nation" hosted Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird--and asked him nothing about the papers and their devastating backstage look at U.S. policymaking.
Similarly, programs on Iraq showed less focus on the legality and propriety of invading a sovereign nation and more on jingoism and dramatic battlefield reports.
In a telling scene, Schieffer writes of hosting then-candidate George W. Bush, with his promises of "uniting people and setting an agenda that is hopeful and optimistic" and of rejecting the politics of "pitting one group of people against another." Afterward, Schieffer reports, "I congratulated him... I thought he had said exactly what needed to be said."
As Schieffer adds, Bush soon shifted from building consensus to catering to his party's right wing. But the sloganeering had been done and the press had fallen for it. The whole incident suggests a worrisome coziness between Washington's officialdom and its informal press ministry.
It is not fair to drop this full load on the shoulders of Bob Schieffer and "Face the Nation," professionals upholding public service journalism against the odds. They have a lot to be proud of. But, reading the evidence of the past half century, it is also clear that the Washington establishment and its press have a lot to answer for.
Stepp, an AJR senior editor, teaches at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.