Is there a more amiable personality in television news than Bob Schieffer? The longtime CBS News journalist, who turned 80 earlier this year, harks back to a time when social consensus of a sort prevailed over the bitter polarization that defines the Age of Trump. Rather than get left behind, though, Schieffer has worked to understand the forces that are shaping the new media environment.
Now Schieffer and several of his colleagues have written a book that serves as a quick and useful survey of the current moment. “Overload: Finding the Truth in Today’s Deluge of News” is part guidebook, part lament for an era when people could at least agree on what they were arguing about. Schieffer quotes the late New York Times reporter Jim Naughton, who described the effects of the media fragmentation caused by the rise of Fox News and talk radio:
Now, we’re no longer basing our opinions on the same stuff — some folks get one set of facts from one outlet and other folks get another set of facts from another outlet, no wonder they come to different conclusions.
In retrospect, of course, the fragmentation described by Naughton seems rather benign compared to more recent developments such as the rise of white-nationalist outlets like Breitbart News and conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones of Infowars. And Schieffer does not like what he sees. Though Schieffer celebrates the cornucopia of news that digital media have made possible, he understands the problems that have come with that as well. As he once put it before a gathering at Harvard, “Now all the nuts can find each other.”
Parts of “Overload” are repurposed from “About the News,” a podcast that Schieffer hosts with his co-author, H. Andrew Schwartz of the Center for Strategic & International Studies. I cannot offer an unbiased view of “Overload.” In 2016 Schieffer and I overlapped as fellows at the Shorenstein Center for Media, Politics and Public Policy, part of the Harvard Kennedy School. He and Schwartz interviewed me on “About the News” to talk about my Shorenstein paper on Jeff Bezos’ ownership of The Washington Post. Schieffer also quotes me in “Overload” and blurbed “The Return of the Moguls,” my forthcoming book on Bezos, John Henry of The Boston Globe, and other wealthy newspaper publishers.
Schieffer examines the passing of the old, the rise of the new, and the phenomenon of “fake news,” which took the form of falsehoods and rumors even before the internet was flooded with viral content farms and Russian propaganda. “Since 9/11, we have come to realize that reporting accurate information is only part of our job; equally important is our responsibility to knock down false and misleading information and to do it as quickly as possible,” Schieffer writes. Then, too, we live at a time when the president of the United States denounces journalism he doesn’t like as “fake news,” thus reinforcing in the minds of his supporters that there is no fundamental difference between, say, the “failing” New York Times and the latest foolishness that Tucker Carlson is attempting to foist upon his viewers.
Among the journalists Schieffer interviews are Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron, New York Times Washington bureau chief Elisabeth Bumiller, Texas Tribune founder Evan Smith, and the veteran digital journalist Walt Mossberg. It is Mossberg who reminds us that the good old days weren’t always so good (“If an idealistic reporter wanted to write a story about how a local car dealer was ripping off the public and the car dealer was the newspaper’s biggest advertiser, a lot of those papers would have killed the story”) and who neatly describes the most serious problem created by the explosion of digital media outlets: “Today we have way more journalists, way more information providers, and way less curation.”
Schieffer closes on a note of humility, reminding his readers of the role of a free press at a time when the White House has labeled news organizations as “the enemy of the American People!”
“We are not the opposition party. We are reporters,” Schieffer writes. “Our role is simply to ask questions and to keep asking until we get an answer.” It’s no longer that simple, of course, and Schieffer knows it. But we would all be better off if we could return to a time when the president and the public understood as well as Schieffer does exactly what journalism’s role is. And isn’t.