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ELECTION NIGHT DEMANDS CREDIBILITY

Next week America will choose a president as Bob Schieffer and the media still struggle with the bitter memories of Election Night 2000.

"It was a disaster, the most embarrassing night in the history of broadcast journalism," said Schieffer, chief Washington correspondent of CBS News and host of "Face the Nation." He just released a book and DVD called "Face the Nation," detailing the 50-year history of the Sunday morning program.

What happened four years ago symbolized the challenges and weaknesses of traditional media in an era of 2 4/7 reporting that includes cable television news and Internet Web sites.

CBS, NBC and ABC got caught up in the demand for instant results at the expense of facts. The networks first called Florida for Al Gore, then declared the state for George W. Bush. They had to change that decision until weeks later when the courts decided the winner.

"We will be more reluctant to call these races this time," Schieffer said, adding that CBS has put new safeguards in place. "What difference does it make if Fox calls it three seconds before NBC, CBS or ABC? That's not a scoop. It's just analysts looking at the same data and reaching different conclusions. When you do that, you start taking chances you ought not to take in an effort to be first."

This has been a traumatic time for CBS News. Dan Rather apologized after a report on "60 Minutes" about President Bush's National Guard service, apparently based on false documents.

"It hurt morale and a bad mistake was made," Schieffer said. "Dan has admitted it and apologized. We have brought in people from the outside to tell us what we did wrong and figure out what happened so it will never happen again.

"Once they get that report done, there are hard decisions that have to be made. We can't just slap a couple of people on the wrist. This is not a time for excuses. If people don't believe us when we tell them something, then we cease to be. We've got to get our credibility back one day at a time and one story at a time."

Schieffer is representative of old-school values at CBS News. He worked as a newspaper reporter and joined the network in 1969. In an era when some news talk shows have been described as food fights, "Face the Nation," remains a beacon of intelligent conversation and hard news. Schieffer never lets his ego get in the way of an interview.

He moderated the third presidential debate earlier this month between Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry.

"I don't get nervous on television anymore, but I did get a little wobbly in the knees," Schieffer said. "What was going through my mind is what would go through any journalist's mind: I'm the one asking the questions and how these two men answer may determine which one will be president.

"But then I thought, I'm just the umpire, they're the guys playing the World Series. They're the ones who ought to have the butterflies. For me it was awesome, the most interesting intellectual challenge I have ever had as a reporter."

Some criticized Schieffer for soft questions, such as asking the candidates about the influence of the women in their lives.

"I was trying to humanize and present as good a picture of these two guys as I could," Schieffer said. "This was different than 'Face the Nation.' What I'm trying to do there, as a reporter, is get my guest to make news, trying to find a new lead for the story.

"In the debate, I felt my assignment was to try and give people a better understanding of who these two people are, what they stand for and why they believe what they do."

One critic wrote that Schieffer tried to use the debate to "provoke a Hallmark card."

"I wasn't try to provoke anything," Schieffer said. "I think we can use a Hallmark card once in a while in a campaign this nasty."

Such is the style and integrity of Bob Schieffer.

aviolanti@buffnews.com

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