WASHINGTON, D.C. — Lindsey Graham made some news, Kellyanne Conway delivered some spin, and Bernie Sanders challenged the new occupant of the White House to make good on a campaign promise by sending a tweet.
The first edition of CBS’ “Face the Nation” of the Trump era went smoothly on Sunday morning, but it played out against the backdrop of rising hostility from the nascent administration toward the mainstream news media. The challenge for CBS News and others in covering the presidency of Donald Trump is heightened by the depth of the political divisions in the country — a cultural Grand Canyon that was vividly displayed in Washington during President Trump’s inaugural weekend.
“Face the Nation” anchor John Dickerson did his best to break through Conway’s armor of talking points in his top-of-the-show interview with Trump’s former campaign manager, who is now a counselor to the President. During her earlier appearance Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Conway ignited a trending topic by saying that the White House was presenting “alternative facts” regarding the number of people who packed into the National Mall on Friday to witness Trump’s inauguration, as compared to the turnout for Barack Obama in 2009.
The crowd-size question became a headline issue Saturday when Trump blasted media coverage of his inauguration during a speech at CIA headquarters. White House press secretary Sean Spicer, in his first major statement as press secretary, reinforced the blows over what he termed inaccurate and biased media coverage.
On Sunday, Dickerson gamely pressed Conway on why the administration fixated on inaugural attendance numbers when the President had made substantial moves on his first day in office, notably signing an executive order implementing immediate changes to Obamacare.
Why, Dickerson asked, would the White House “spend its political capital and its time on something that is quite petty, relative to the big changes he is going to make in American health care?”
Conway called the crowd size flap a “symbol” of unfair treatment of Trump by the press. She also asserted that Trump’s inauguration speech was “uplifting and inspiring” — differing from most mainstream news coverage of his remarks.
Later in the hourlong broadcast, Graham, the Republican senator from South Carolina, disclosed that he plans to support the confirmation of former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State. And Sanders, the Senate’s liberal standard-bearer after his 2016 presidential run, baited the President to use his medium of choice — Twitter — to affirm his campaign pledge to not cut spending on Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid.
Those segments were the kind of vote-jockeying and trial-balloon-floating moves typical of politicians appearing on Sunday morning public affairs programs. But Dickerson’s exchange with Conway was evocative of the uphill climb that mainstream reporters face in covering Trump. The explosion of news sources and the tailored-to-taste feed options provided by social media can create a cocoon-like effect for people across the political spectrum. Even empirical facts, such as the size of Trump’s inaugural crowd, are open to interpretation in such a hyper-partisan atmosphere, where opposing viewpoints are not just criticized but demonized.
As Dickerson sees it, the solution is to keep laser-focused on the administration’s concrete policy decisions, and avoid getting caught up in scuffles over minutia. “Report on what’s happening, not what’s being said in unless what’s being said materially changes what’s happening in terms of policy that affects real people and their lives,” Dickerson told Variety in an interview following Sunday’s telecast.
“Donald Trump is not just a guy talking anymore — he’s doing things. He’s doing really big and important things that are going to change the life of not only Americans but America’s position in the world.”
Dickerson is a Washington veteran and presidential historian who took the helm of “Face the Nation” from Bob Schieffer in June 2015. He’s served as political director for CBS News since 2011.
Dickerson read the criticism of the media delivered by Trump and Spicer on Saturday as “diversions” on a day when women turned out by the millions at Trump protest marches around the country. He also saw it as the Trump White House trying to “both set the terms of engagement and put the press on their heels.”
The media, he noted, has been an effective punching bag for Trump with his supporters. “Donald Trump needs a foil. He needs somebody he can fight against — all presidents do,” Dickerson said.
The fights to define what is objective truth puts ever more pressure on prominent news organizations to be unimpeachable in their sourcing, research and data on polarizing issues.
“We need to understand both sides of the picture but also keep centered and not let ourselves be rattled by the pressure that comes from both sides to change or alter the facts,” said Christopher Isham, CBS News VP and Washington bureau chief. “Facts are facts. … Our job is to not let the perception of facts color our understanding of what those facts are.”
Dickerson believes journalists would be wise to pick their battles if the President and his allies keep up their defensive postures.
“Always put at the top of the list the facts that are going to affect people more than facts that are just being disputed for their own case,” Dickerson said. “Those are the facts to wrestle to the ground, because policy is based on them, as opposed to an agenda the administration has to deflect from other pieces of news.”
In the “Face the Nation” control booth on Sunday morning, executive producer Mary Hager and her team deftly managed the controlled chaos of producing a live broadcast.
Camera shots were called, soundbites and clips cued up, graphics ordered up via email to CBS News’ headquarters in New York and segment intros and outros were counted down. Hager updated TelePrompTer copy for Dickerson and conferred with him during commercial breaks. Sanders’ chair in the remote studio location in Burlington, Vermont needed some last-minute adjusting to get the frame just right. All the while, producers kept an eye on the screens overhead tuned to CBS’ Sunday-morning competition: ABC, NBC, Fox News and CNN.
Isham came into the booth about halfway through the show to compliment the team on the news item yielded from the Graham interview. By the end of the show, it was evident from the jokes and conversation that the CBS News’ Washington team was coming off a marathon work week. For Friday’s inauguration events, the network had no less than 44 crews in the field.
But this was all business as usual for TV news pros. What’s to come is a big question mark, given the contentious start to the administration’s engagement with the news media.
Dickerson is curious about whether Trump and his lieutenants will be adept at using the news media to explain the reasoning behind their policy agenda to the general public. That will be key to garnering the support he’ll need in Congress and from his base of restless voters. The President made bold promises on the campaign trail and stirred up distrust of institutional Washington.
“In these incredibly volatile times, there are a lot of people out there who need to know that they’re not being gaslighted and not having things thrust upon them without knowing why,” Dickerson said. “The explaining function is really crucial.”
In Dickerson’s view, it would be a political mistake for Trump to lean on alternative means of getting his message out, despite how effective his use of Twitter and Facebook seemed to be during the campaign.
“You can’t explain health care in 140 characters,” he said. “That creates an unstable foundation. It encourages the partisans to just get in fights and not think through what they are doing.”