In anchor chair, a reassuring face

As Bob Schieffer replaces Dan Rather, he hopes to be a calming influence.

March 10, 2005|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

An oasis of calm. That's what veteran newsman Bob Schieffer swears he'll deliver beginning tonight, when he takes over from Dan Rather as anchorman of the CBS Evening News.

Though the 68-year-old Washington correspondent and longtime host of Face the Nation steps into the post temporarily, virtually everyone in the television industry is hailing his appointment as the smartest move CBS News has made in a long time - and no one at CBS has mentioned an end date.

When Schieffer takes the anchor chair, the Evening News will be transformed overnight from a broadcast dominated by the most polarizing anchorman in network television history to one featuring what may be the medium's most neutral and reassuring announcer.

"What we've got to do is refocus on doing our jobs," Schieffer said recently. "We've gone through a very tough time here at CBS News. And I think if I can just get everybody to sort of take a deep breath, relax and start thinking forward instead of backward about what has happened, I'll feel very good about that. ... Look, we've had to take our lumps, but now it's time to turn the page. "

The lumps, of course, were the result of a flawed 60 Minutes Wednesday report alleging that George W. Bush received preferential treatment while in the Texas Air National Guard. The news segment, which aired Sept. 8, was based on documents CBS could not verify, and the ensuing scandal rocked the network, leading to the firing of four executives and Rather's abrupt announcement in November that he would resign.

Soon after, CBS President Leslie Moonves proclaimed that he was going to "reinvent" the Evening News after Rather stepped down - perhaps using a team of newscasters rather than a solo "voice of God" anchorman.

But reinvention takes time: CBS News seems no closer to fielding a new anchor desk lineup than it did two months ago. Now the list of potential candidates, which includes CBS' John Roberts and CNN's Anderson Cooper, has grown to include Schieffer, according to some industry analysts. (Comedy Central's Jon Stewart is being mentioned as an Andy Rooney-like presence.)

In the meantime, Schieffer presents network executives with a chance to think. "I don't know how long this is going to be, and they [CBS] sort of asked me not to speculate," Schieffer said. "But I would say I'll be doing this for at least three months - and my sense of it is that it could be longer."

Indeed, Schieffer seems to be on a roll. Just five weeks after Rather's now-infamous report aired, Schieffer moderated a debate between President Bush and Sen. John Kerry that even the network's sharpest critics acknowledged was evenhanded.

His Sunday morning show, Face the Nation, meanwhile, recorded its highest ratings in 11 years during the February sweeps. And Texas Christian University, his alma mater, renamed its communications school the Schieffer School of Journalism this week.

"Anybody who saw my grades would know how remarkable that is," Schieffer said.

The correspondent's smiling, avuncular mien is a sharp contrast to the hyper-aggressive, almost bug-eyed look often worn by Rather at the anchor desk. But as a correspondent, Schieffer's track record is just as impressive. Schieffer, who joined CBS News in 1969, has covered all four major Washington beats - the White House, Pentagon, State Department and Capitol Hill. He has won six Emmy Awards and the prestigious Paul White Award, named after the pioneering figure who served as the first news director at CBS.

"He's a terrific choice," said Sandy Socolow, who was Washington bureau chief for CBS News from 1974 to 1978 before becoming executive producer of the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite.

"Bob was a great reporter in Vietnam for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He's a very good writer, and he knows more about politics today than any other reporter in Washington. He has this wonderful ability to ingratiate himself with people without compromising the task at hand."

Nonetheless, Schieffer points out that few are universally liked. "I've got my critics on the left, and I've got 'em on the right," he said. "I'm kind of an equal opportunity target. That's just the way it is. ... That said, what I've always tried to do is just play it down the middle."

Schieffer's solid reputation offsets most concerns that his 58-year-old brother, John Thomas Schieffer, a former business partner of President Bush's and a recent nominee to be ambassador to Japan, is a potential conflict of interest.

"There are no questions about Bob Schieffer's integrity," said Terence Smith, media correspondent for PBS' NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. "He's not going to play fast and cute, and I'm sure his brother wouldn't either. They're a classy bunch. ... Bob Schieffer has a solid track record of being fair."

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