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Television's Aging Rock Star

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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 6, 2006; 10:27 AM

When Dick Cheney had his quail-hunting accident, Bob Schieffer led off the "CBS Evening News" this way:

"The question was being asked at gas stations, in offices, restaurants, all across America today, and the question was: 'Did I hear that right? The vice president shot someone?'"

When terrorists attacked the U.S. consulate in Pakistan last week just before President Bush's visit to that country, Schieffer said: "Frankly, this is kinda scary stuff we're talking about."

If you were casting about for a hot personality to juice up a struggling news show, a white-haired man of 69 would probably not jump to the top of the list. But a year after Schieffer was tapped as a temporary replacement for Dan Rather, he has loosened the collar on a buttoned-up newscast and made modest progress in winning back viewers.

"Bob instills confidence -- a man of his experience, there's something comforting about that," says CBS President Les Moonves. "He's a straight shooter. He's a return to the old school. It's good to be able to say we possibly have the most trusted TV man in America again."

That reference to Walter Cronkite might be a stretch. But Schieffer has brought a bit of "Face the Nation" to the evening news, dropping many taped reports in favor of unscripted chats with the program's correspondents.

"If there's a fire across the street," Schieffer says, "you don't walk into the newsroom and say, 'A raging, three-alarm fire, whipped by 40-mile-an-hour winds, ripped through the home next door.' You say, 'There's a fire across the street.' " His push for plain-spoken language is "in many ways a radical departure," Schieffer says.

The "debriefs" with his reporters "are the equivalent of a newspaper sidebar," he says. "It gives you a chance to elaborate and do that second story that a newspaper does with great ease."

After correspondent Sharyl Attkisson reported on a Senate probe of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff's handling of Hurricane Katrina, Schieffer asked her: "Do you think, Sharyl, that Chertoff's job is on the line here?"

Schieffer dismisses criticism that his questions and comments are opinionated, saying this is the kind of analysis he has always done as a Washington correspondent.

Says Sean McManus, who recently took over as president of CBS News: "There's an authenticity about Bob. He really does speak to viewers like he's speaking to them, as opposed to reading a script. When I talk to him in the newsroom, he talks to me the same way one-on-one as he does when he is reporting the news at 6:30."

Who else would introduce a report as "some big news on a subject I know absolutely nothing about -- vintage wines"? He has downscaled the once-omnipotent anchor job from Voice of God to Voice of the Guy Next Door.


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