William Allen White Day 2017

Spring 2017 Edition

Bob Schieffer tells journalists to keep asking questions and hold the government accountable


Journalist Bob Schieffer has simple advice for journalism students and young journalists: Keep asking questions, stay focused, and never assume what the answer to your question will be.

Schieffer, who has worked as a journalist for more than 60 years and many of those years for CBS News, was a special guest for this year’s William Allen White Day on April 20. Schieffer traveled to KU to fill in for his friend Charlie Rose, who was the 2017 National Citation recipient but was unable to travel because of his recent heart surgery. The William Allen White Foundation awarded Rose the citation in absentia. (Read KU News story.)

Schieffer had high praise for Rose, whom he called a person of real integrity who has become the one journalist that people want to have interview them.

“Thank you all for picking Charlie,” Schieffer said. “You couldn’t have made a better choice, and I’m happy to be here to represent him.”

In the spirit of the “Charlie Rose” show, J-School junior Jackson Kurtz joined Bob Schieffer on stage for a more informal Q&A discussion instead of a traditional keynote speech.

At 80 years old, Schieffer joked that one of the things that had stuck out about his successful career was that, “I’m still here.” On a serious note, Schieffer noted that he was fortunate to have covered big stories such as President Kennedy’s assassination, Watergate and the war in Vietnam. He also moderated three presidential debates. However, Schieffer said one of the most fun interviews he has ever done was just a few weeks ago when he interviewed singer-songwriter Willie Nelson.

Schieffer told the audience that he believes the world is on the cusp of a renaissance in journalism. The technical and digital revolution is having a profound effect on culture, “as profound as the invention of the printing press,” he said. “We’re getting more information than we’ve ever had at any time in the history of the world, but are we wiser, or are we just getting so much information that we can’t process it?”

Schieffer said the 2016 presidential campaign and election was unlike any he had covered, and he is alarmed about the nature of the messages being disseminated by the current administration in Washington. “What concerns me right now is the credibility of the White House and the credibility of the office of the president,” Schieffer said.

That’s one reason he urged journalists to stay focused and keep in mind that the difference between a totalitarian society and a democracy is the role of the news media.

“We are there to present an alternative to the government’s version of events, and then people can say, 'Well, that’s totally wrong or maybe it’s half-right or the government’s entirely right.' That’s fine,” Schieffer said. “It’s the role of the government to run the government. It’s the role of the press to ask questions about what the government is doing.”

His final advice for young journalists was to keep asking those questions. Don’t be arrogant. Don’t act like the fount of all wisdom or the arbiter of morality.

“We’re just simply there to ask the people in power why they do what they do and to give us an explanation so we can explain it to people," he said.

–– Julie Adam