In the News
WASHINGTON — By the standards of Sunday morning news shows, the handoff of the anchor’s position on “Face the Nation” on CBS was really quite peaceful.
A few days after the longtime anchor Bob Schieffer announced his retirement last spring, he was on his show introducing and laughing with his replacement, John Dickerson.
The show’s main competitors haven’t had it that easy. NBC suffered through the drawn-out, somewhat torturous firing of David Gregory, and Christiane Amanpour’s shaky status on ABC’s “This Week” spawned rumors in the media until she was replaced in 2011 after little more than a year in the job.
The CBS succession plan made sense. Like Mr. Schieffer, Mr. Dickerson had spent most of his career as a reporter and was widely respected in the beltway. Though much younger, he shared Mr. Schieffer’s calm and cool demeanor (“There was this quality of . . . call it, avuncular,” said David Rhodes, the president of CBS News).
Still, Mr. Dickerson, with a print journalism career at publications like Time and Slate, had little television experience and a relatively low public profile. It was something of a risk for CBS to hand him the reins of a show that was No. 1 in viewership among the Sunday morning news programs and that was critical to the network’s credibility in Washington.
Eight months later, Mr. Dickerson, 47, has not missed a beat. For the season, “Face the Nation” remains the No. 1 most viewed public affairs show on Sundays, with an average of 3.7 million viewers, besting “Meet the Press,” now hosted by Chuck Todd, and “This Week,” led by George Stephanopoulos and Martha Raddatz.
And on Saturday, Mr. Dickerson will probably be introduced to his biggest audience yet when he serves as the main moderator for the Republican debate in South Carolina. (He moderated a Democratic debate in November that drew 8.5 million viewers; the least-viewed Republican debate had 2.6 million more viewers than that).
What viewers will see, in all likelihood, is a journalist with deep expertise in the history of campaigns, and an enthusiastic but understated way of getting an answer.
“My instincts for asking questions is to press but not to be a jerk about it,” he said in an interview at his office here.
Mr. Dickerson said his approach to interviewing guests — including the candidates on Saturday — could largely be traced to his upbringing.
“It’s because of what CBS is, and it’s because of how I grew up,” Mr. Dickerson said. “Mom would talk about Eric Sevareid and Murrow and Howard K. Smith the way other parents talk about sports figures.”
Those men, all of them CBS News legends from several generations back, underscore his point: A certain type of Tiffany-quality newsman helped shape him. And Mom? His mother was Nancy Dickerson, a network news correspondent of the 1960s and 1970s who was a pioneering woman in a business dominated by men. She also had a celebrity stature that her son could only dream of attaining.
Except he did not dream of that. Despite his famous mother and a gilded upbringing — his birth warranted a story in The Washington Post, and his childhood home, the Merrywood, had 35 rooms and a view of the Potomac, and was the site of many Washington establishment dinner parties — he wanted next to nothing to do with television.
After a somewhat listless childhood, he discovered an interest in politics and journalism when he was working in the administrative ranks at Time magazine. At the 1992 presidential conventions, where he did little more than grunt work, he “was totally hooked,” he said. At home in New York, he spent his leisure time paging through and buying up presidential election books at the Strand bookstore in Union Square (“All the Teddy White books were like $2,” he said, referring to the author of several canonical campaign books). Within a year, he was reporting at Time, and he covered his first presidential campaign in 1996.
That set off what would become a successful reporting career. But when CBS’s Washington bureau chief, Christopher Isham, tried to recruit him to be a part-time analyst about eight years ago, Mr. Dickerson, then working at Slate, flatly told him no.
“He liked new media, but I think he was a little scared that television was not a sincere or deep medium,” said Walter Isaacson, Mr. Dickerson’s former editor at Time. “He was worried about television being trivializing.”
(Mr. Dickerson has taken to new media, particularly podcasts, with gusto: He hosts Slate’s “Whistlestop” podcast about old presidential campaigns, with all those books from the Strand serving as critical source material, and is co-host of the popular “Political Gabfest” podcast).
Mr. Dickerson was eventually persuaded to make the transition to TV, and by 2011 he had become CBS’s political director, serving as a regular on-air contributor. He kept his print gig at Slate.
When Mr. Schieffer decided to retire, Mr. Rhodes, the CBS News president, said he did not know whether Mr. Dickerson would even want the “Face the Nation” job, given his reservations in the past. He took him to dinner to find out.
“John is such a classy guy that he would never want to be seen as campaigning for the job,” Mr. Rhodes said.
This time, Mr. Dickerson wanted in.
He was Mr. Rhodes’s preferred choice because of his reporting background, and a deep grasp of elections and Washington. That, and not a Q score, is also what works on Sunday mornings.
“People have been coming through side doors as long as there’s been this Washington assignment,” Mr. Rhodes said. “By comparison, think about the people who came through front doors. The David Gregory experiment had been singularly unsuccessful. Christiane Amanpour, who’s had a lot of success as a television talent, also had been unsuccessful in this format. This particular format doesn’t necessarily lend itself to somebody who’s had a more conventional television track.”
Though “Face the Nation” is up 6 percent in viewers for the season, its ratings success comes with a few caveats. The show has a muscular lead-in from “CBS Sunday Morning,” which routinely attracts more than six million viewers. “Face the Nation’’ is tied with “Meet the Press’’ and “This Week’’ for the 25-to-54 year-old demographic important to advertisers. And “Face the Nation” leads in viewers for only the first 30 minutes of the show; in the second half-hour, which is broadcast in only 58 percent of the country, viewership falls significantly.
“The key thing is, I’m trying to get them to talk, and interact with one another in a way that informs people, and just get out of the way,” he said. “To be the windowpane — this is basically a bastardization of what Orwell said about good writing — so you can get the conversation going and frame it the right way and make sure people aren’t lost. And then you let the candidates illuminate the issues themselves.”
For Mr. Dickerson, the irony of his success on “Face the Nation” is not lost on him. Despite his childhood aversion to the Washington establishment and the television business — he wrote a biography about his mother, and their once-rocky relationship, “On Her Trail” — he is now part of both.
“We both like to tell stories,” he said, alluding to his mother. “That’s what politics is. It’s the story of what’s happening, what does it mean, what’s the conclusion, who are the interesting characters? She came at it from wanting to be where the action was. She had a more social and ‘be in the middle of the scrum’ view of it. What attracted me to it – and still attracts me now – is just the story of important things happening that affect people’s’ lives.”
John Dickerson, Molded by News Legends, Hones His Skills at CBSFebruary 13, 2016
UPDATE: Buy New York Times best-seller The Hardest Job in the World here.
This week, veteran CBS News anchor Bob Schieffer announced he would retire from hosting “Face the Nation.” Today on the show, it was revealed that John Dickerson, the political director for the network, will take his place this summer.
“Now the obvious question is, who’s going to take this seat? I’m happy to say the answer is my friend CBS News political director John Dickerson, who has been on this broadcast 83 times. And he sure has the right bloodlines,” Schieffer said on his show this morning.
The “bloodline” he was referring to is Dickerson’s mother, Nancy Dickerson, who in 1960 became the first female correspondent for CBS News.
Dickerson followed in her journalism footsteps, but began his career in print media. He was a reporter for Time magazine from 1993 until 2005, then a writer for Slate. In April 2009, Dickerson joined CBS as an on-air political analyst. Two years later, he was named political director.
In the announcement from the network, CBS News President David Rhodes stressed Dickerson’s reporting chops.
“John is first and foremost a reporter — and that’s what he’ll be as anchor of Face the Nation,” Rhodes said. “His work in the studio will always be informed by what he’s learned in Iowa, in New Hampshire, on Capitol Hill — anywhere there’s news. He has earned the respect of newsmakers across the political spectrum.”
Slate editor Julia Turner said Dickerson will continue to write for the site and participate in its podcast Political Gabfest. His title will change from chief political correspondent to contributing columnist.
“He is serious and rigorous but so charming, funny and genuine that no matter what he’s doing, whether that’s asking questions, writing a critical piece or pressing hard on an issue, he does it in a way that seems fair, wise, and engenders respect for his readers and subjects,” Turner said.
As White House correspondent for Time during the George W. Bush administration, Dickerson was known for getting called on, apparently because the president and his staff found Dickerson charming. He did not throw softball questions in return.
“Every now and then, the press has its day,” wrote Mike Allen in The Washington Post in 2004. “The master of the game is John Dickerson of Time magazine, who has knocked Bush off script so many times that his colleagues have coined a term for cleverly worded, seemingly harmless, but incisive questions: ‘Dickersonian.’ ”
One of those questions was this: “In the last campaign, you were asked a question about the biggest mistake you’d made in your life, and you used to like to joke that it was trading Sammy Sosa. You’ve looked back before 9/11 for what mistakes might have been made. After 9/11, what would your biggest mistake be, would you say, and what lessons have you learned from it?”
Bush stumbled to answer, said he wished the question had been in writing, and explained a month later at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, “It’s an excellent question that totally stumped me. I guess looking at it practically, my biggest mistake was calling on John.”
In his new role on “Face the Nation,” Dickerson will be taking the place of a man who has been hosting the Sunday news program for 24 of his 46 years with CBS. Schieffer announced his retirement on Wednesday during a speech at his alma mater, Texas Christian University. Here’s a clip of both men on air together with Norah O’Donnell during the 2012 election:
An attempt to live up to Schieffer won’t be Dickerson’s first experience entering a role in someone else’s shadow. His mother, a predecessor to prominent broadcast journalists Katie Couric, Barbara Walters and Diane Sawyer, was a star before he was born. He wrote about her accomplishments and fame — and the difficult relationship between them that resulted — in his 2006 book “On Her Trail: My Mother, Nancy Dickerson, TV News’ First Woman Star.” Like her son, Nancy was serious about her work.
“Three weeks after I was born, Mom was in Miami covering the Republican convention,” he wrote. “That confused viewers even more. Didn’t she just give birth? She had, but she gave up on her experiment with breastfeeding and went off to cover the story.”
She covered the civil rights movement and made a documentary about Richard Nixon’s demise. She dated John F. Kennedy, covered his campaign, then covered his funeral. She interviewed the president of Egypt and the prime minister of Israel.
Although their relationship was strained for many years, they became closer before her death in 1997. Dickerson then spent years digging through her journals, letters and newspaper clippings, connecting with a side of his mother he was too young to ever know. Three years after his book about her was published, he joined CBS.
“She never once suggested I get into the business,” he wrote, “but one day I looked at my office and it looked like hers.”