This story was published in Radio Recall, the journal of the Metropolitan Washington Old-Time Radio Club, published six times per year.
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As Schieffer Goes, The CBS Durable Heritage Is In Doubt
by Jim Cox. © 2015
(From Radio Recall, June 2015)
When I spotted Bob Schieffer's name in the headline of a news flash on my computer in early April I felt cold chills racing up my spine. "The end of an era has at last arrived," I thought, convinced that the Texas-born Schieffer, 78, had died. Not so, as it luckily turned out. and I breathed a sigh: after 46 years on the job he was announcing his impending retirement from the weekly (and often, daily) grind at CBS News.
That detail had caught me off-guard and momentarily jolted my longstanding buoyancy for the salient institution Schieffer embodied. Particularly is this so as more and more CBS colleagues reach professional finality. Schieffer is perhaps the most visible contemporary to inherit a torch that has been shunted from and to a cadre of peerless reporters dating back as far as the 1930s. The indelible marks they have placed on electronic news delivery have been lauded again and again. An incredible team of news hounds and their managers cast the proficiency bar so extraordinarily high for broadcast journalism in its infancy that some had difficulty reaching or sustaining it. Some still do.
As CBS News achieved that feat it triggered a level of competence that profoundly, consistently and unequivocally placed it second to none in its industry. Most especially was this true during the formative decades when audio dominated electronic media. By the assessment of many critics, for years no other broadcast news organization in America achieved the veracity typically associated with CBS News. Bob Schieffer 1 is one of the last guys standing to have served alongside some of the awesome broadcasters that set this impeccable reputation in motion eons ago. The tradition began on radio with the likes of Robert Trout. Edward R. Murrow and William L. Shirer (the latter being the first in a line of 11 correspondents identified as consummate "Murrow Boys" stationed at strategic venues throughout Europe during World War II).
The legacy eventually embraced television with iconic news anchors Douglas Edwards, Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather. And today, of course. it has expanded into every PC, laptop and mobile device with a new wave of electronic wordsmiths. They mainly know Trout, Murrow and Cronkite by reputations instead of as personal mentors.
CBS was invariably at the forefront when innovation occurred in the trade. It cultivated and polished individual performers into newscasters who became exceedingly familiar in American households. And as it did so the network earned unmitigated respect for its uncompromising attempts to ferret out details that people wanted to know, quickly, objectively and comprehensively, and to report them with undisputed candor. While rival webs often copied the paradigm that CBS established, to so many industry observers there was seldom a doubt which team blazed the trail. Schieffer, and a whole lot of his predecessors, had been there before.
"CBS News was driven by a simple dictum-that excellence produced excellence," Roger Mudd signified in his memoir. A CBS trouper who jumped ship in 1981 for NBC (followed by PBS and the History Channel), Mudd philosophized in the aftermath of a hasty decision: "Never was there a doubt during those years about where my heart lay [for] it lay with...CBS News." He explained: "It was a rare combination of principled leadership at the top; talented and honest journalists; and dedicated and skilled producers, editors, photographers, and couriers...We had no doubts about how good we were; we had no doubts about our values; we had no doubts that our mission was to cover the news without flattering or tricking the viewer...It was as if we had been lifted up by a journalistic deity and dropped down in the middle of the Washington bureau to serve our country by doing God's work." Mudd obsessed in summary that he finally realized "I had never truly ceased being a CBS man. It was, indeed, the place to be."
There were others who felt similarly and as decisively about their "call" to CBS.Another early veteran of the network, newsman Robert Pierpoint, allowed: "We all felt that we worked for the best broadcast news organization in the world, that there was nobody who could touch us." While never a member of the sterling-plated entourage collected by Murrow, Pierpoint interpreted the web's exalted status like this: "When CBS was really riding high in news, it wasn't because of ratings. It was because of the reputation of the Murrow Boys, because of the Murrow legacy."
Said David Schoenbrun, another CBS staffer of early vintage: "CBS News was preeminent for so many...[and] despite occasional successes of its rivals, it kept its crown..."
Newsman Bob Edwards (no relation to Doug), who later penned his assessments of those days in the pages of a published journal, conjectured : "In just fifteen years, Murrow and company...introduced news to both radio and television-essentially creating broadcast journalism-to complement and compete with the more established media of newspapers and magazines." Edwards claimed the patron saint of electronic newscasting "remains the conscience of responsible broadcast journalists because of his relentless pursuit of the truth." That ingredient, arising during the developmental phase of the business, helped push the bar to a lofty perch.
For his part, Schieffer never worked with Trout, Murrow, Shirer and the others of CBS News' vintage aural start. Yet he did serve alongside video's legendary Edwards, Cronkite and Rather-plus a quartet of Murrow-inspired "Boys" still airing at the network as Schieffer came aboard in 1969. (They included Winston Burdett, Charles Collingwood, Richard C. Hottelet and Eric Sevareid.) By then stalwarts like Charles Osgood, Charles Kuralt, Lowell Thomas, Mike Wallace, George Herman and Harry Reasoner had joined the pack.
Perhaps as a result you can sense how Schieffer's departure in early summer this year isn't as much changing of the guard but instead a revelation that part of our news heritage is transitioning to potentially implicit oblivion. He represents a direct line to the "good old boys" who offered us "old-school journalism" as integrity, morality, ethics and equitable delivery of facts-without biased embellishment-was routinely validated. His news organization helped Americans put their trust in a fair-minded electronic delivery system. It's what Edward R. Murrow, hailed by media historians as the "father of radio and television journalism," espoused. And so did his contemporaries.
Before letting Schieffer casually split, however, something should be noted about the newsman picked to occupy his chair as anchor of the web's enduring Face the Nation (which premiered on CBS Radio and TV in 1954). CBS political director John Dickerson, 46, who joined a stellar network cast a half-dozen years ago, has a pedigree worth mentioning. His professional service includes investigative reporting in print journalism at Time magazine where he honed the skills that eventually pointed him to the forefront when the chain sought Scheiffer's replacement.
Somehow in the rush to name a successor, CBS made slight reference to a revolutionary newswoman who was related to the heir apparent. His mother, Nancy Dickerson, was the web's initial feminine correspondent at CBS News' Washington bureau (1954-63, after which she transferred to NBC). Ironically, one of her earliest tasks was as co-producer of a debuting Face the Nation. In 1960, she became an on-air correspondent for the show. After seven years at NBC, she subsequently worked for PBS and then Fox News.
The apple didn't fall far from the tree in that clan nonetheless. John Dickerson was his mama's protege and maintains blood ties to an eminent CBS pioneer. Few modern journalists could ever be as fortunate.
Schieffer epitomizes all the venerated attainments of CBS over the years, neatly bound into a few individuals. While a diminishing handful of prominent CBS staffers from yesteryear remain at their posts (Bill Plante, Charles Osgood, Barry Petersen, Mark Phillips, Morley Safer, Susan Spencer and Lesley Stahl are among the few), as one of the chain's "front men" Schieffer's retirement signifies a transition from CBS's distant past to the future. That proud tradition of acclaimed values proffered by those broadcast journalists in the 20th century will-let us trust-flourish habitually in the 21st