CBS News is preparing to host two presidential primary debates in the coming months. And like every other news outlet, CBS News brass are wrestling with the most substantive way to cover a race that has become “the summer of Trump,” in the words of John Dickerson, “Face the Nation” anchor and CBS News political director, who spoke along with CBS News president David Rhodes on Monday as part of CBS’ Television Critics Assn. press tour presentations.
The circus atmosphere surrounding Donald Trump’s campaign for the GOP nomination has driven skepticism that he is not in it for the long haul and thus news orgs are weighing how much to invest in coverage, or as Dickerson put it: “When are you being played?” But Dickerson noted that the support that Trump has garnered to date represents a legitimate story of disaffected potential voters and their frustration with a political system that is seen as tilted toward big money interests.
“The phenomenon of Trump is outside of Trump,” Dickerson said. His supporters “lacked a vehicle and a candidate that speaks with the rage they have about (what is seen as a) rigged system.”
CBS News will host a debate of Democratic candidates on Nov. 14 at Drake University in Des Moines and on Feb. 13 for Republican contenders at Peace Center in Greenville, S.C. The expectation is that the Republican herd will have thinned by then, making it easier to make the call on who should be allowed to participate in the debate, Rhodes said.
“It’s been such a fluid campaign. We are making a calculation that the field will probably look different closer to both of these events,” Rhodes said.
Rhodes made a point of emphasizing thatCBS News’ coverage of the 2016 political nominating conventions would be revamped this year. The volume of coverage on the CBS linear network will remain the same, but the focus will be on putting more boots on the ground at the event rather than anchoring from “air-conditioned skyboxes” above the arenas. The plan is to send a team of digitally equipped correspondents who can write, shoot and report on a quick turnaround.
“News happens at the conventions, but it usually happens some place else (outside of the stage),” Rhodes said. “Editorially we’re thinking differently about where we put our assets.”
Dickerson added that if the Republican field continues to be a brawl all the way down to next summer’s convention, CBS will definitely want more feet on the street to cover the jockeying for delegates. “You want to have your resources on the ground to cover that fight,” he said.
Rhodes also made mention of the growth of “CBS This Morning” thanks to the hard news focus introduced in early 2012 with the anchor team of Charlie Rose, Gayle King and Norah O’Donnell. The show is delivering its largest audience in 20 years, although it remains a distant competitor to ABC’s “Good Morning America” and NBC’s “Today.”
“When we started a lot of people thought that talking about what was going on in Syria in the morning was not going to work,” Rhodes said. “It has grown the audience, and that’s really quite extraordinary. … I think there’s some evidence the audience that’s coming to us is looking for higher ground and finding it there.”
(Pictured: David Rhodes, John Dickerson)