Bob Schieffer and Nicco Mele

Bob Schieffer: Finding the Truth in Today’s Deluge of News

October 10, 2017—Bob Schieffer, CBS News contributor, former Face the Nation host, and 2015-2016 Walter Shorenstein Media & Democracy Fellow, discussed his new book, Overload: Finding the Truth in Today’s Deluge of News, during a visit to the Shorenstein Center. He also shared his thoughts on the 2016 election, media coverage of the White House, and the future of news. Below are some highlights from his conversation with Nicco Mele, Shorenstein Center director, as well as the full audio and video. The Shorenstein Center’s podcast is also available on iTunesGoogle PlayiHeartRadio, and Stitcher.

The challenges of information overload

We can’t knock down every lie as it comes out, there’s just too much…What we have to do is inoculate people and help them to understand that this is happening, that people are gaming the system, they’re putting stuff into the system that is false…

“We have access to more information than any people in the history of the world, but are we wiser, or are we just simply overwhelmed with so much information we can’t process it? My answer right now is we’re overwhelmed.”

“We’re right at the beginning of this. We all look back on the invention of the printing press and how it improved literacy, and how it changed Europe, but that was the good news. There were also 30 years of religious war before Europe finally reached equilibrium. Well, we’re going through something that’s having a greater impact on our culture right now than I think the printing press had on the people of that day, and frankly, I think we’re just in the first trimester of this. It’s gonna take us a while to sort all this out. I think in the end, we’ll be stronger…but you can’t really know where all this is going.”

“More and more, a lot of people are depending on social media for their news, which is fine, except that you can’t accept everything on social media as true, and I think that’s what people have a hard time separating now, because a lot of times, things are on social media that are simply false by design. We know the Russians had been fooling around with our election process, they’re putting stuff out there that’s just totally wrong.”

“We can’t knock down every lie as it comes out, there’s just too much…there are still a number of people in this country, I don’t remember what the exact percentage is, who still believe that Barack Obama is not a United States citizen…how much fact-checking do you have to do? What we have to do is inoculate people and help them to understand that this is happening, that people are gaming the system, they’re putting stuff into the system that is false, and try to let them know, look, this stuff you’re getting is not all true, be careful…because once it gets out there, you can’t get rid of it. It’s like crabgrass—you think you’ve eradicated it, and then it pops up over here.”

On educating the public about how news gets made

“I’ve interviewed a lot of people—reporters, editors, news executives—I hope it will give people a better understanding of how we go about our work. People say, ‘Is there bias in the media?’  Sure there is, but the majority of reporters and editors that I know are simply hard-working people who are trying to get the story, and get it before their competitor gets it, and get it right. That’s what drives most people in journalism, and so I hope people might get a better understanding of that.”

Reflections on 2016

“It was an election that was not really about issues, it was more about attitudes. In every way this was an election unlike anything that we’ve had in the past, and I think it underscores the real weakness in our electoral system. [It’s] been so overwhelmed by money that you have all of these gurus and political consultants who are making literally millions of dollars out of this, but I have to ask the question: Are the candidates that the system is now producing any better than the candidates back in the old smoke-filled room days? My argument would be no. Think about this: You had on the Republican side a reality TV star who winds up with the nomination, and on the other side, and I preface this by saying I think she’s a good woman, I thought she was an excellent Senator…but how is it that the Democratic Party managed to come up with only one candidate with any national following, whose main opposition came from someone who was not even a Democrat?…How is it that it came down to those two? Why weren’t there other candidates on that side? That’s why I think our electoral system, the way we go about doing all of this, is in worse shape now than our roads and bridges.”

Reporting on the White House

“The politician is there to deliver a message, the role of the media is to check out that message and find out if it’s true, and report on what its impact will be on the governed. We are not the opposition party as some in the Trump administration tried to picture us. We are not there to argue with politicians, we’re there to check out their message…if we do that right, we have performed a crucial service for democracy.”

“The [New York] Times…now has six White House correspondents, and the Post has seven…the Post has two people on tweet patrol. Two of the White House correspondents go on duty at 6am, and there’s an editor that goes on duty at 6am, because they know there’s gonna be heavy news there…The Wall Street Journal is doing much the same thing, I think they have four or five White House correspondents now, and you know what’s kind of interesting about this? During Watergate, The Washington Post had one White House correspondent…Woodward and Bernstein never set foot in a White House briefing. I remember when they went through all this rigmarole at the start of the Trump administration, where he might not have daily briefings and they might move the briefings across the street, and I thought to myself, do you really think that’s going to stop any journalistic organization from covering the White House? Of course not.”

Today’s national divisions compared to the ‘60s

“It was a different kind of division, I think, in 1968 than what we’re seeing now. That was because of the war, and suddenly people were going to get drafted, and that led to questions about young versus old, rich versus poor…now, people are just not ready to agree with anybody on anything, and not ready to make rational arguments. They just have it in their minds that this is the way it is, and the other side—maybe they made it up or they’re speaking from a false premise of some kind. And I think this is because of what’s happened to how we elect our politicians…Our political class has become so reviled that people just want nothing to do with it.”

“Race has always been there and it’s always gonna be there. We’re a long way from where we were in 1965, but we haven’t resolved this yet, and I think every day’s news brings more evidence of that.”

A bright spot for the future of news

“There’s some very good news going on right now in journalism, and that is this model that The Washington Post has gone to—they have completely reinvented their company. It’s not just a newspaper company anymore, it’s a media company, and they’re putting their product out on a variety of platforms, they’re putting heavy emphasis on the digital product, they no longer save scoops just for the paper newspaper, they put out newsletters, they put out running analysis, they even have a video division now.”

“And the good news for all of journalism is that the Post made money for the last two years, they’ve been in the black for the last two years and not many newspapers can say that. The other part of it is, the Post has what every newspaper wishes it had, and that is its own billionaire…They’ve hired 60 reporters this year…looking at the Post and the Times right now, they’re engaged in this old-fashioned newspaper war, and of course, it’s those of us who are readers and consumers of this who are benefiting from it.”

Article by Nilagia McCoy; photo by Jessica Colarossi.