Keeping Politicians Honest

Head of CBS News says quality journalism matters now more than ever
David Rhodes at Tufts University
“People have a preference for fake news because they don’t like the real thing,” CBS News President David Rhodes said. Photo: Anna Miller
February 8, 2017

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Given an unprecedented presidential election season, the rise of fake news, and a new administration “like no other,” real journalism matters now more than ever, CBS News President David Rhodes said during a talk at Tufts on Feb. 6.

Reporters need to keep holding politicians accountable, he said, noting that critiques of the media are sometimes overblown. “Frankly, I think some of the criticism of coverage in the general election is a little bit misplaced and connected to [the fact that] people don’t like the outcome,” said Rhodes, who oversees the news division and all news content for the CBS Television Network, CBS digital platforms and CBS News Radio. “When people don’t like the results, they complain about the refereeing.”

Rhodes described his own efforts to elevate serious journalism at CBS, including strengthening the morning news program and investing in original reporting. Several years ago, “we started marketing ‘real news,’ which is ironic when you consider that fake news is the topic of the moment,” he said.

Rhodes said ratings have improved as CBS has differentiated itself from other television networks and staked its brand on a lineage that includes journalists with heft, such as CBS news pioneer Edward R. Murrow and iconic anchorman Walter Cronkite. (His talk at Tufts was sponsored by the Fletcher School’s Edward R. Murrow Center for a Digital World, which houses more than 2,000 documents from Murrow’s library and papers.)

The combination of fake-news lies and social media is “very seductive,” he said, because it is entertaining and validates audiences’ political preferences in an insular feedback loop. “People have a preference for fake because they don’t like the real thing,” he said.

Distrust of the media is linked to a broader social trend of Americans losing confidence in institutions, he said. “Multiple sources, provable facts—these things start to seem quaint,” he said. But he argued that fact-checking others’ statements—a strategy that has become a corrective in an era of fake news and “alternative facts”—can be overdone, because too much emphasis on facts implies that voters are making purely objective decisions.

Rhodes defended media outlets that gave Donald Trump extensive air time during the Republican primaries because those elections constituted a “very robust” process with more “heat and light” than the Democratic primaries. He also said the high viewership for Trump events televised on cable demonstrated an “organic, naturally occurring interest.”

In response to a question from a member of the audience about over-coverage of Trump’s tweets, Rhodes said those that social media posts are worthy of news coverage because they are statements from the president, but that journalists also need to report on the larger context of what is happening.

Fletcher School Dean James Stavridis, F83, F84, who moderated the event, added that he was recently on a panel with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who decried Trump’s use of Twitter as a “terrible way to conduct diplomacy.” Stavridis, a former NATO commander, said he didn’t agree entirely. Likening a frank presidential tweet to a shot of espresso and the usual channels of diplomacy to a regular diet, he said drinking dozens of shots a day on an empty stomach wouldn’t be healthy, but an occasional espresso on top of a well-balanced diet could jolt the dialogue and “move the needle” on critical issues.

In response to a question about how broadcasting the image and name of a terrorist attacker might motivate future terrorists, Rhodes acknowledged that media coverage can influence actions. He said the solution does not lie in “pretending it didn’t happen,” but in limiting the use of the likeness and name of attacker to appropriate news coverage in such cases.

Rhodes was instrumental in creating an endowed scholarship at the Fletcher School to memorialize Harry A. Radliffe II, A71, F73, an award-winning television journalist and long-time producer for CBS’ 60 Minutes who died of cancer in 2015. (See “A Journalist Who Searched for New Frontiers.”) Members of Radliffe’s family, who helped fund the scholarship, attended Rhodes’ talk, which drew a full audience. Rhodes acknowledged this year’s four scholarship recipients, who are studying public diplomacy and communications through the Murrow Center: “Harry would be proud of every one of you.”

Heather Stephenson can be reached at heather.stephenson@tufts.edu.

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