In 2015, John Dickerson, at that time the political director for CBS News, took over as moderator of CBS’ flagship Sunday political show “Face the Nation” when veteran political journalist Bob Schieffer retired from the position, which Schieffer had held for over two decades.
It was a high point of a career decades in the making, and an occasion befitting a son carrying on the legacy of his mother Nancy Dickerson, a pioneering political journalist who managed to succeed as a female in a male-dominated TV broadcasting world.
Not many people are as successful as Dickerson is– at age 49 he is not only the moderator of “Face the Nation” and chief Washington correspondent for CBS News, but also the author of two books, “On Her Trail” and “Whistlestop,” a contributor to “The Political Gabfest,” and a contributor to The Atlantic. He is also involved in producing three different podcasts and has amassed a social media following of over two million.
While Dickerson is best known for his clever and tough questioning of government officials from both parties that other journalists have nicknamed “Dickersonian,” in an email interview with HS Insider, he sheds light on his journey as well as the values and perspectives that drive his work and that he hopes viewers of his TV shows and listeners of his podcasts would take to heart.
Growing up in a mansion in northern Virginia under the shadow of his mother and her famous friends within politics, Dickerson didn’t think he would be following in his mother’s footsteps.
“I never thought I would be here. I never thought I would be a journalist, actually. I thought I would be a professor of English or a lawyer,” he explains.
But once he started his reporting work, the passion for the work came along; he found that the things in history and English he loved were naturally woven in real-time into his work as a journalist.
As an adolescent, he certainly didn’t think that he would be moderator of “Face the Nation” decades after his mother was an associate producer on the same show. As he details in “On Her Trail,” for much of his childhood their relationship was distant and tense. He came to love, understand, and respect her in adulthood, but unfortunately the reconciliation was cut short by her passing from stroke complications.
“Mom is on my mind a lot,” he reflected.
Even now, 20 years after Nancy’s passing, he still considers her an important influence. For him, an attribute about her that stands out is her diligence.
“She worked awfully hard and in a world where men wouldn’t let women succeed. . .and yet she kept pressing on,” he said.
His journalism career spans six presidential campaigns and includes 12 years at Time magazine, including four as White House correspondent, before joining Slate, according to his CBS News “about” page. Along the way there have been many memorable milestones: reading his first byline over 20 years ago in 1993, interviewing a White House official for the first time, his first ride on Air Force One.
Given Dickerson’s extensive experiences reporting from the political world as well as the breadth of his reading of American history (often spotlighted on his Twitter and Instagram accounts), I wanted to discuss the values and perspectives that are a constant current underlying his reporting on the ever-shifting political winds and headlines.
In the interview, despite the cynicism that pervades much of politics, Dickerson’s journalistic ideals and ability to see the good in our nation shines through.
While many are distrustful of politics for good reason, Dickerson is drawn to it because of our “stakes in the American system” as citizens. His years covering politics have not changed his perception of the ideals regarding the role of free press and journalists in our democracy that guide his work. If we are to “self-govern a country of 300 million,” he maintains, “people have to be informed and take part in their government. Our responsibility [as journalists] is to help them participate in that system.”
Though public trust in the mainstream media is often quite low and prominent journalists like Dickerson frequently get troll comments on social media yelling “biased” or worse, what keeps him going in his work are the citizens “who depend on what [journalists] do, who are hungry for answers and some sense of control about what’s happening in their world.”
On a day-to-day basis, he sees the biggest challenge– especially in an era where we are overloaded with information and government officials can seem like they actively attempt to create drama in order to distract from unflattering headlines– as “keeping [his journalistic team’s] priorities straight.” He doesn’t want his pieces to fall prey to the temptation of clickbait; he always wants to make sure that he and his team does reporting on “what is important and not a distraction.”
Another challenge to Dickerson and other political reporters stems from the nature of the Trump administration itself.
“[T]he president doesn’t play by the old rules, particularly when it comes to sticking to the facts,” he said. “Every administration shades the truth and presents its story as they’d like to see it, but President Trump is testing the boundaries like no other modern president,” and thus is keeping journalists busy digging at the truth more than ever.
I was also curious to know how he manages to book so many politically powerful guests every week on “Face the Nation,” given their busy schedules and the temptation to hide politics behind closed doors rather than taking challenging questions from reporters.
“We get them to appear by being straightforward, honest and clear about our intentions,” he answered, when I put that question to him.
He sees that while the temptation to hide from the voting public exists, the beauty of a democracy is that politicians must still answer to voters and thus, cannot hide from their responsibility as elected officials forever.
“[If] they’re serious and sober and want to make some progress in their public case, they’ll come talk to us,” Dickerson explained.
While politics can be a polarizing subject ripe for cynicism, Dickerson has maintained an optimism that we can be better as a country in how we judge and treat others. He hopes to see, in general, “a little more restraint and generosity of spirit” in regards to politics.
“Don’t always assume the worst. Assume the best and work from there,” he says.
He reminds us that while the standards of civility in our national dialogue and our treatment of each other seem to be a bar that is lowering all the time, “those standards don’t have to fall.” He wants people to take on a wider perspective rather than succumbing to the temptation of judging everything from the perspective of our egos, saying that “[w]e have endured [as a nation] because heroic people have maintained standards in the face of easier options, in the face of the lure of power and fame.” If people were able to choose the high road historically, he maintains that we should be able to do it today, too.
Once, in a Reddit “Ask Me Anything,” a commenter asked Dickerson to describe his political beliefs. Dickerson responded by listing universal values.
“I believe in kindness, sacrifice, idealism, generosity, reserving judgment, restraint, compassion. . .and that the worst thing about a person isn’t the most true thing about them,” he wrote.
True to these values in the midst of an ever-increasingly partisan atmosphere, he wants to call our attention to the things that unite us despite our varying backgrounds and ideologies.
“We are all humans struggling with the same fears and hopes and dreams. We all want a safe world with opportunities for our kids and the freedom to pursue our passions with as few barriers as possible,” he points out in the interview. We may disagree on many issues, but “[t]hose common desires should be remembered in the middle of partisan warfare.”
Perhaps the principles that guide Dickerson’s work and those that he hopes to see more of in the nation can be best summarized by a poetic tweet he posted last year.
“Before you act, listen,” he wrote. “Before [you] react, think // Before [you] criticize, wait // Before [you] pray, forgive // Before you quit, try”. And finally, in an apparent reference to the nastiness that all too often is engendered online, “[b]efore you Tweet, restrain”.