Schieffer’s advice to new reporters: Pick up the phone

Retiring CBS News anchor Bob Schieffer has some parting thoughts on the changing nature of news reporting. Evan Agostini | Invision, via AP

If you didn’t read all the way through the Associated Press story on Bob Schieffer today, you might have missed an important cultural nugget.

Schieffer, longtime newsman at CBS, is hosting his final Face the Nation broadcast this week, and so he’s reflecting on the changing nature of news.

“I suppose every generation thinks that the kids younger than them aren’t as good as they were and screwed it up in some way,” he said. “I try not to sound like an old goat, but the fact is there will always be a need for reporters, whether they are doing it on television or a website or for a newspaper that is not on paper anymore.”

Then there’s this part that proves that he is either an “old goat” or we’re doomed. I’m not sure which.

Recently, an aspiring reporter in Texas sent Schieffer a note seeking advice on a school project. Schieffer sent his phone number and the student replied that he’d rather talk via email. Schieffer Rule No. 1: pick up the phone or drop by.

“How do you ask a follow-up question?” he said. “How do you listen to a person and the tone of his voice to know whether he’s putting you on? The best way to interview someone is face-to-face and I think we ought to get to that whenever we can.”

I had a similar experience recently when an area university student asked to interview me as part of his final class project. Keeping in mind that I insist on face-to-face interviews precisely for the reason Schieffer gave, and I often spend several hours with a student, I gave him several options for times and dates.

“Those won’t work for me,” he said. And that was that.

Schieffer’s rule on picking up a ringing phone is born of experience. After President Kennedy was assassinated, the phone rang in his Dallas newsroom. He answered it with annoyance.

“I picked up the phone and a woman said, ‘Is there anybody there who can give me a ride to Dallas?’ and I almost hung up the phone,” Schieffer recalled on the 50th anniversary of the assassination. “And I said, ‘Lady, you know, we’re not running a taxi service here. And besides, the president’s been shot.’ And she says, ‘Yes, I heard it on the radio. I think my son is the one they’ve arrested.'”

It was Lee Harvey Oswald’s mother.