During his illustrious career in broadcast journalism, Bob Schieffer has reported on the Watergate scandal, interviewed U.S. presidents, moderated three presidential debates, anchored the “CBS Evening News” and hosted CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
But it was in print journalism where the 80-year-old Schieffer earned his reporting chops. After a stint as an Air Force public information officer, Schieffer joined the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, where his most famous assignment was covering the 1963 assassination in Dallas of President John F. Kennedy.
So it’s likely with a bit of melancholy that Schieffer foresees the imminent demise of print newspapers at the hands of the internet.
The digital revolution is “driving newspapers, as we used to know them, out of business,” Schieffer said in a recent Q&A hosted in Lawrence, Kansas, by the University of Kansas journalism school. “I think paper newspapers will come to an end in maybe even the next 10 years.”
The outlook for newspapers is so shaky, in fact, that billionaire investor Warren Buffett recently told CNBC that only two U.S. newspapers have an “assured future,” thanks to their solid pay-for-access internet models: The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.
He added that The Washington Post may have a shot at survival. None of those papers is controlled by Buffett’s investment conglomerate, Berkshire Hathaway, which owns 31 newspapers.
As for the 1,300 or so other daily newspapers in the U.S., Buffett said they haven’t figured out how to successfully balance their print and digital models amid declining revenue and readership for their print products.
Speaking at KU, Schieffer said: “We’re in the midst of this technological revolution, this digital age, that has not only just changed the way we get our news, but it’s having a profound impact on our culture — I think as profound as the invention of the printing press. I really, sincerely believe that.”
In the digital age, we’re being inundated with more information that at anytime in history, said Schieffer, who retired from CBS in 2015.
“But are we wiser, or are we just getting so much information we can’t process it?” the broadcasting veteran said. “I think right now there’s just so much information that we can’t process it.”
Schieffer said one downfall of our ready access to so much information is “how all the nuts can find one another” online.
As for President Trump’s favorite vehicle for dispensing information — Twitter — Schieffer said: “I would like it if the president could kind of go light on some of these tweets sometimes until he could kind of check out and see if, in fact, they’re true.”
On the subject of Trump and truth, Schieffer said he’s concerned about the credibility of the White House in light of various factual missteps, such as whether an “armada” of U.S. military ships recently was heading toward or away from North Korea. He bemoaned the “considerable chaos” swirling inside the Trump administration.
Schieffer said we want to be able to believe what the president says, as it’s important for national security and for reassurance of American people. “We all want this president to be successful,” he said, “because we all want the United States of America to be successful.”
Schieffer took exception to the recent characterization by Steven Bannon, one of Trump’s top aides, of the mainstream news media as the “opposition party.” Bannon’s view represents a “total misunderstanding” of the role of a free press, Schieffer said.
“I don’t know any reporter who thinks that we are some sort of opposition party. No one thinks that. Our role is simply to ask questions and to keep asking questions until we get answers,” Schieffer said. “We’re not always going to be the most popular person in the room, but that is what the founders intended when they invented this wonderful system of government that we have, and I think that’s what we have to continue to do.”
Politicians, he said, deliver messages, and it’s the job of journalists to question those messages.
“In a totalitarian society, there is only one source of news, one source of information, and that is the government,” Schieffer said. “In a democracy like ours, citizens get independently gathered, accurate information — and that’s what comes from the press — that they can compare to the government’s version of events and then decide what to do about it. And that’s what our role is, that’s what the founders intended for us to do.”
John Egan is a writer, editor and content strategist in Austin, Texas.
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