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Howard Kurtz Media Notes

CBS News's Unstuffed Shirt

For Anchor Bob Schieffer, A Relaxed Fit and No Starch

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 28, 2005; Page C01

"I hate to jinx it by saying it aloud," Bob Schieffer told viewers of the "CBS Evening News" on Thursday, but "all of a sudden there's some pretty good news" in declining U.S. casualties in Iraq.

"Bob, I tell you," correspondent Byron Pitts said from Baghdad, "you'll be hard-pressed to find any U.S. commander thumping his chest." And given the danger, Pitts said, "I'm praying the whole time we're out there."

James Cramer's CNBC show reflects the manic persona of the former Wall Street trader. (CNBC)

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As the interim replacement for Dan Rather, Schieffer has managed to change the rigid formula of the nightly newscast. He is delivering the news in a conversational style, rather than with voice-of-God solemnity, interjecting his own views and encouraging CBS reporters to do the same. Often, instead of doing taped reports followed by a stand-up, the correspondents -- who tease their stories during the introduction -- just chat with Schieffer.

"I'm telling them, throw away the scripts," Schieffer says. "I don't want to do a rehearsed question and rehearsed answer because people see through that. What I want to hear is what they would tell me in the newsroom, all within FCC obscenity guidelines, of course."

After a report on prosecutors' setbacks at the Michael Jackson trial, Schieffer said: "I think they're going to have a hard time proving this case." When Anthony Mason reported on Bernard Ebbers's conviction in the WorldCom fraud case, he told Schieffer: "I would not want to be Ken Lay right now. . . . He may want to rethink his strategy after seeing that it did not save Bernie Ebbers." White House correspondent John Roberts, after recounting the ethics allegations against House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, told Schieffer: "My bet is that DeLay will survive this unless, of course, that Texas prosecutor decides to indict him."

Executive Producer Jim Murphy, who helped devise the approach, says Schieffer "is a gumshoe who asks tons of good questions like a normal person would ask them. He'll call reporters in the field and say, 'Tell me what's not in your piece.' " After Schieffer's debut, Murphy got a typewritten note from veteran Andy Rooney that said in red letters: "WOW."

Schieffer likens the style to newspaper sidebars or online chats. "It's just kind of my way, and maybe it's because I've been doing 'Face the Nation' for so long," he says. "We're trying to deliver the news in the way people talk."

Early ratings are sketchy since Schieffer took over March 10, but the broadcast is still mired in third place. But on the five nights Schieffer has anchored without being preempted in part of the country for the NCAA basketball tournament, he is down 1 percent from Rather's last four full weeks, while the NBC and ABC newscasts are down 6 percent and 5 percent, respectively.

Schieffer says he doesn't want the job permanently but hasn't ruled it out, despite the weekly commute from Washington to New York. "My wife said if this goes on for very long, we're going to have to renegotiate our contract."

As television keeps trying to reinvent itself, other hosts and hotshots are doing the same. Consider, for instance, the format of CNBC's new 6 p.m. show: A guy in shirtsleeves paces the set, ranting and raving, flailing and gesturing, bellowing about the stocks he loves and hates.

"Cramer said CMGI was a buy on Monday -- now it's through the roof!" a promo spot says. "Stick with Cramer!"

Not since the dot-com boom has a program so aggressively promised to help viewers get rich, but "Jim Cramer's Mad Money" on CNBC reflects the manic persona of the former Wall Street trader.

"It's got all the fun of the hedge fund without the pressure of clients screaming at me," Cramer says. "I'll never have David Geffen screaming at me while I'm on an Israeli vacation about what an idiot I am for owning Intel."

Cramer says he told CNBC to stop running ads about his best market calls. "I win some and lose some," he says of his predictions. "When I screw up, I'm going to mention it. I know I'm going to make a lot of mistakes. I said Nike looked okay, then Nike's down."

To anyone who saw him in his Wall Street days, constantly throwing tantrums as he placed multimillion-dollar stock bets, the evening show captures Cramer's crazed style, minus the obscenities. He says he gets more satisfaction from the show than spending his life "trying to make rich people richer."

Cramer admits he felt constrained on his previous CNBC program, with economist Lawrence Kudlow, because it also dealt with politics and because "I am a terrible reader of other people's stuff" off the teleprompter. "I just love talking about stocks. This is my ESPN."

To avoid conflicts, Cramer has put most of his assets in government securities and real estate, and set up a charitable trust that he uses to trade stocks. He can't trade any stock he mentions on the air for five days, and all the profits go to charity. But he thinks it's important to stay in the game.

The show has few guests, with the host mostly taking calls. One night, the phone system broke down. "I didn't get ballistic," Cramer says, as if that would be the normal response. Had that happened when he worked on Wall Street, he says, "I would have taken the keyboard and thrown it."

In the month since CNN's Headline News replaced its prime-time news updates with talk shows, Nancy Grace has pumped up both ratings and controversy. Ask Grace how she picks the stories for the legal program that bears her name and she launches into the tale of how her fiance was murdered 25 years ago, propelling her to law school, a job as a Georgia prosecutor and life as a victims' rights advocate. "Nothing has ever been the same since then," she says.

"I've been portrayed so many times as simply out for a conviction, always siding with the state, thinking everyone's guilty, I don't even listen anymore. I have never, ever pretended to be impartial, never. Frankly, I have no interest in being a robot that reads a prompter."

Grace's sympathies could not be clearer. When Robert Blake was acquitted of killing his wife, she said: "But where is the anger? Was the victim victimized again at trial? . . . In my mind it's a very dark day." When Scott Peterson was convicted of murdering his wife, she declared. "There is justice for Laci and Conner."

Grace has boosted ratings in her 8 p.m. time slot by 126 percent over last year through a steady diet of gory and sensational cases. "Nancy Grace" has covered the Peterson trial, Jackson, the Blake trial, the Atlanta courthouse shootings, the death of 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford, Miss Savannah 2003 being charged with murder, a gunman who killed seven people in a Milwaukee church, a Colorado man who murdered his three children after his wife got a restraining order against him, and a 16-year-old Idaho girl tried in the shooting deaths of her parents.

The New Republic, noting that Grace sometimes casts doubt on suspects who turn out to be innocent, called her the "leading practitioner" of the "legal shout-fest." Grace says she rarely raises her voice, which off camera is a more syrupy Macon drawl. "If critics believe the show is tabloid, maybe they've never been in a courtroom. The justice system is tabloid, too. It's nasty, it's mean, it's hand-to-hand combat."

Asked about her heavy diet of celebrity cases, Grace says they help educate the public. "The Jackson case to me symbolizes child molestation and the downfall of a music icon I followed growing up." As for Peterson, whom the media turned into the villain of a national television drama, "I'm grateful the American public embraced Laci and embraced the case. I wish they would embrace every other murder victim the same way. . . . We also cover cases that others don't cover -- ordinary people, not stars, not celebrities, not A-listers," she says.

Grace, who remains a Court TV anchor -- a job she assumed in 1997 after the quick demise of her show with ex-O.J. lawyer Johnnie Cochran -- insists she knows little about television. "There's really nothing I can do about what my critics say because I'm not going to change what I do," Grace says. "I am a trial lawyer. I'm not a journalist."

Footnote: Newsweek columnist Fareed Zakaria breaks into the television game Friday with a new half-hour show, "Foreign Exchange," on 100 PBS stations. He interviews Egyptian dissident Saad Eddin Ibrahim, talks to the author of a book on Europe's social-welfare states, and runs a freelancer's piece about environmental protection in Russia. "I'm hoping to avoid the 'Crossfire'-type format," Zakaria says, but "I don't want the show to have the pacing of a French movie."

Howard Kurtz hosts CNN's weekly media program.

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