CBS News president comments on election, media in N.O. speech

CBS News president David Rhodes speaks at the Bureau of Governmental Research annual luncheon Wednesday at the Marriott Hotel on Canal St.
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News media coverage of the presidential election did rely too much on polling which predicted a Hillary Clinton victory, but the president of CBS News on Wednesday defended overall media coverage of the history-making campaign and Donald Trump’s election.

David Rhodes, CBS News president since 2011, spoke Wednesday at the Bureau of Governmental Research annual meeting at the Marriott Hotel.

In a question and answer session moderated by retired WWL-TV news anchor Dennis Woltering, now a member of the BGR board of directors, Rhodes said a heavy reliance by news outlets on polls – most of which predicted a Clinton win in the final days - did skew coverage throughout the campaign.

“I think you can put too much on the data and the data in the end do not tell you as much as the old-fashioned practice of going out in a skeptical way, asking questions about something, learning something, revealing something. Those things are more important that they ever were and polls are not a substitute for that,” he said.

“Surprises happen and I think everybody was surprised by this (election). People would like to say they called it two weeks before, made a prediction at a dinner party. This is why you shouldn’t make predictions in this business,” Rhodes added. “There has been a significant reckoning since election day for polling and for the kind of expectations management that goes along with polling and storytelling and that’s probably overdue.”

Rhodes did not necessarily include his own network’s news division in that criticism, however. “We tried to go to communities, talk to people about their preferences and plans to vote. And you look through that coverage and there were signs in that coverage. Some people might have dismissed some of that as anecdotal…but you could see it.”

Rhodes was asked his thoughts on what sort of relationship President-elect Trump and his administration will have with the news media, especially since there have already been signs of tension.

“That relationship is always somewhat adversarial,” he said. “Every administration begins with a bit of a narrative about whether the new president is going to be able to go around independent journalists and reach supporters themselves. It’s usually a narrative that’s told in different ways but it’s the same narrative.” He said there were similar feelings in 2008 when Barack Obama successfully reached supporters directly through what were, at that time new media. 

A question from the crowd asking Rhodes to comment on Trump’s effectiveness at using the media (including his often wild campaign rallies and frequently used Twitter account) for his own purposes drew a laugh from the crowd, and a pause from Rhodes. When he answered, he admitted that the former candidate and now president-elect did use media outlets and social media in particular in ways no other candidate had probably ever considered.

“He’s obviously very effective,” Rhodes said. “I think some of the argument that media were manipulated is misplaced because sometimes when people don’t like the outcome of a situation they want to assign that somewhere. And we’re easy because we’re there and involved in this and covering this. So I think some people would like to think it’s somebody’s fault and I think that’s a little misplaced. My own experience is we’re not that powerful.”

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Rhodes, 42, became the youngest network news president in the history of American television when he was named CBS News president five years ago. He is responsible for overseeing CBS News broadcasts across all platforms, including CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley, 60 Minutes, CBS This Morning and CBSN, the network’s 24-hour digital streaming network.

Under Rhodes’ leadership, CBS News has been lauded for a return to more hard news coverage, particularly with CBS This Morning, which eschews cooking, music and celebrity interview segments in favor of more traditional, original reporting. The network newscast will be seen on WWL-TV Channel 4 weekdays at 7 a.m. beginning Monday.

Rhodes said there is certainly an audience for commentary, particularly on cable television and gave one key reason for its prevalence. “To be perfectly honest…it’s cheap. What we do is expensive – fielding an experienced crew, sending them to Aleppo, documenting what goes on there, transmitting that back, is expensive. But with commentary, it’s the old adage – talk is cheap.”