Veteran CBS News journalist Bob Schieffer closed out an extraordinary round of discussions Wednesday morning at the Newseum with a call for even better journalism – and a reminder of its place and importance to our democracy.
The morning program, “The President and the Press: The First Amendment in the First 100 Days,” included White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway, and journalists from news outlets such as Breitbart News, CNN, Fox News, The Washington Post and The New York Times.
The goal of the symposium, Newseum CEO Jeff Herbst said in his opening remarks, was to look for areas of common agreement on how best to report on the Trump presidency. Schieffer took up that challenge as he ended the program.
Noting that the 2016 presidential campaign was the 14th that he covered as a journalist, Schieffer observed that — unlike other campaigns where the candidates’ slogans were memorable catchphrases — this campaign’s hallmark slogan will be “Have you ever … ?”
Schieffer wryly commented that every campaign he has seen has an “all the fault of the media” phase. He recommended not overreacting to even this year’s “really nasty” attacks on the press, saying “This is all part of the job. It is something we all know about and expect … that part is not to be taken seriously.”
Schieffer said much of the criticism leveled at journalists during the campaign was contradictory. Some accused the press of “electing Trump because we gave him too much exposure.” Other critics said the press “missed the story because we did not take him seriously.” And yet others said the news media “did not really make much difference because Trump used social media to go around us.” Not all of those could be true, he said.
Serious lessons that can be taken from the election: “Too much information” opened the door for a flood of fake news. New media outlets and social media need to “take some responsibility for what the information is they are distributing.”
“Too many so-called surrogates and strategists made their way onto television and were given far more credibility than they deserved” in a misguided effort to show balance, Schieffer said. “It didn’t take long to listen to them to understand they had no understanding, and really no contact with either campaign.”
Schieffer also said the press paid too much attention to polling and the drama around what he called meaningless one-point leads by candidates. Journalists should “get back to knocking on doors and asking people how they feel,” he said.
In his eloquent defense of a free press, Schieffer said “politicians are there to run the campaigns. Government officials are there to run the government. They are there to deliver a message. Our job is simply to check out the message, determine if it’s true, and if so, what will be its impact on the governed.”
Those who would undermine the function of a free press undermine the foundations of this country, Schieffer said. “We are not the opposition party, as some would have you believe … nor is it our place to sit down and shut up and let the world pass by, as some would have us do.”
Inevitably, Schieffer’s even-handed call on Wednesday for better reporting roused spiteful comments from some of those tuning into the event through social media. One Twitter user wrote that “TRUTH is the enemy of … hacks like Bob Schieffer. We are making corporate propagandists like him extinct. He is bitter and fearful.”
Far from going extinct, Schieffer’s defense of good journalism rings true — now and for future generations of journalists. It’s more likely that such critics — “bitter and fearful” by their very verbal venom — are the ones who will eventually fade from sight.
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