Bob Schieffer's coverage during the George W. Bush years, weighed against his hushed compromising relationship with the president, belies the CBS newsman's projected image as an unimpeachably principled journalist and typifies the way our media class operates.
In a Sunday post on Crooks and Liars, under the headline "Schieffer Wakes Up to Life in the Bush Administration," Nicole Belle wrote: "I don’t know where Bob Schieffer’s been these last seven years, but he thinks that the White House might have an credibility problem." She was reacting to Schieffer's Face the Nation commentary on the Lurita Doan scandal:
SCHIEFFER: I saw a story in the Washington Post the other day, where a reporter granted a government official anonymity in order as the newspaper put it, ‘for the government official to speak more candidly.’ Well, that made me wonder. Do we no longer expect government officials to tell the whole story if they must take responsibility for what they say? Even worse, do we believe that is acceptable?
For sure, the White House won no prize for candor last week; it gave the outgoing head of the General Services Administration, Lurita Doan, a big send off by thanking her for making government buildings more energy-efficient or some such, when in truth, she was forced out. She was the object of multiple investigations, suspicious dealings on government contracts, and asking government employees what they could do to help political candidates, which is, of course, against the law. Even the government’s watchdog agency recommended she be disciplined to the fullest extent. Yet the White House spokesman declined to say if her resignation had anything to do with any of that. From the White House came only thanks and confirmation she was gone. The government saw no obligation to say why, which leads me to this: have decades of secrecy, spin and stonewalling conditioned us to accept less than the whole story from the government? Is telling the whole truth no longer a given? Frankly, I’m not sure. What I do know is more and more people seem skeptical of everything the government says and does. What we saw last week may be one reason why.
Belle then pointed out the underlying absurdity:
The Lurita Doan scandal is such a minor one relative to all the other lies, spin, incompetence and outright negligence of the Bush administration that it’s tragically laughable that this is the one that Schieffer thinks exemplifies why the American people are skeptical to what comes out of the White House.
This also epitomizes Schieffer's reporting on the administration, which has treaded between muted criticism and outright fawning. It's no wonder after Dan Rather's departure from CBS Evening News, President Bush gladly granted Schieffer an exclusive interview. Something he never afforded Rather.
In a March 2003 interview, Schieffer was asked "if the Pentagon's decision to allow reporters to embed with troops" will "make it difficult for journalists to remain objective?" His answer was telling:
BOB SCHIEFFER: No, I don't think so at all. I think it was a very good decision. I must tell you on this one, I'm sort of like Ronald Reagan who used to say of the Soviet Union, "Trust but verify." I take them at their word at the Pentagon, if they're going to let these reporters go along and give us a view of this war if it does come. But I'm going to wait until the shooting starts until I give a final opinion. So far, they are saying all the right things. I give them the benefit of the doubt. I think they're going to try to do the right thing. But we'll see once the shooting starts if they follow up. If they do what they say they're going to do, it would be a very good thing. I also think it's not just good for the American people to have independent observers along, I think it's also good for the military. Had there been a reporter along with Lieutenant Calley when he massacred those people in Vietnam, I think that probably wouldn't have happened.
The truth is, however, in covering the Bush administration, Schieffer has been overly willing to trust and, whenever discrepancies between administration claims and the facts are verified, ever reluctant to hold anyone accountable. The ideal company man. Affable and avuncular yet trusted and above the fray. Walter Cronkite without that pesky willingness to speak truth to power. In the end, Schieffer might as well replace "trust but verify" with "ask but don't follow up."
Throughout his January 2006 interview with Bush, Schieffer responded "Um-hmm" and "Okay" and jarringly changed topics when the president's absurd answers demanded further inquiry. His misplaced deference lent credence to Bush's specious, unconstitutional explanations on everything from wiretaps, speaking with our enemies, the state of Iraq, Katrina, healthcare and energy independence. Moreover, Schieffer's final three questions were embarrassing softballs: "Has the presidency changed you, Mr. President?"; "What has been the worst part?"; and "What has been the impact on your family?"
Schieffer's interpretation of Senator McCain caving to the White House on the 2006 Military Commissions Act reveals not only a tendency to trust too much but a failure to verify or present the facts of this despotic legislation. The Military Commissions Act nullified habeas corpus and granted Bush the absolute power to devise his own definition of torture and to designate any American an "enemy combatant" that can be held indefinitely without charge. McCain, a former POW in Vietnam, knew this bill was window dressing, that torture, under another name - enhanced interrogation techniques - would continue. Presumably, Schieffer knew as well. Yet McCain, unconscionably, still went along with it. And Schieffer, certainly in one of his worst moments covering the Bush White House, told Americans:
SCHIEFFER: Senator McCain and the White House came together on a plan that ensures America will abide by the Geneva Conventions in dealing with enemy prisoners. It is not a perfect plan, to be sure, but it shows how we do things in a democracy -- out in the open and in accordance with the law, even when dealing with the worst of the worst.
Out in the open? And in accordance with the law? By who's standard? China's? Russia's? Saudi Arabia's? Certainly not America's, not according to our Constitution. And this also points to the inherent danger of Schieffer's appeal: you want to believe him. You don't want to think this exceptionally genial and grandfatherly figure is ignorant of the facts or - say it ain't so! - is lying to you. Yet there's no other way to interpret this incident.
After John Kerry - a decorated war hero who volunteered to serve in Vietnam - was libeled incessantly by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, whose bald-faced lies the establishment media then propagated to the grave detriment of this country and the world, Schieffer said:
To make that an issue [whether Bush went AWOL during his National Guard service, which he sought to avoid Vietnam] after all these years seemed silly to me until the White House released Mr. Bush's military service records late Friday on the eve of Valentine's Day and at the beginning of the President's Day weekend, records that on inspection prove nothing. Then officials topped that story with another one, confirmation that the president would meet with the commission investigating 9/11 intelligence failures.
I am still not sure this Guard thing amounts to very much, but the frantic way the White House has responded and the timing have made me begin to wonder.
There he goes again. Look out, Schieffer's seen something that's beginning to make him wonder. How's that for a reporter/anchor who CBS touts as "broadcast journalism’s most experienced Washington reporter."
Then, of course, there's Schieffer on Bush's flight suit moment from May 4, 2003:
Now, most of Schieffer's network counterparts also swooned like schoolgirls over Bush's empty and misleading Top Gun moment. But most of Schieffer's colleagues are not one of Bush's old friends.
As Bob Somerby noted in October 2004:
In January 2003, Howard Kurtz penned a profile of the CBS anchor—who happens to hail from Bush’s own Texas. Kurtz included this bit of family history—history that is rarely discussed by a press corps which looks out for its own:
KURTZ (1/13/03): During the ’90s, Schieffer also struck up a friendship with George W. Bush when his brother Tom—now the U.S. ambassador to Australia—became partners with the future president in the Texas Rangers. Bob and W. went to ball games together, played golf, attended spring training. “He’s a great guy—that doesn’t mean I agree with him,” says Schieffer, adding that the situation became “a little awkward” when Bush ran for the White House but that he’s never gotten favorable treatment.
What's worse, Bush not only rewarded Bob's brother Tom with the ambassadorship to Australia from 2001-2005, but later made him US ambassador to Japan, at which he still serves today. Oh, and Tom Schieffer's experience of Japan before assuming that role?
But Tom's experience with Japan is limited [he told The New York Times in February 2005]. "I was there last spring," he said from Australia as he was packing to return to Washington for his Senate confirmation hearings, which are scheduled next month. "The Yankees opened the season there. There were 55,000 people in the stands."
That's right. Tom had been there once before to take in a baseball game. Certainly enough experience for an ambassador in the Bush administration. And what better way to familiarize yourself with another country's culture than to spend it soaking up your own country's national pastime?
Moreover, want to guess if Bob Schieffer, or anyone at CBS, ever reported on the cronyism that landed his little brother the Japanese ambassadorship or the Australian one before that? Or how this might compromise Schieffer's reporting?
You know, it's all beginning to make me wonder.