CBS News Chief: It's "Regrettable" Media Doesn't Separate Important From Interesting in Trump Era

Allison Michael Orenstein
Rhodes was photographed July 11 at his office in New York.

As David Rhodes unveils a modern newsroom, he opens up about Charlie Rose, his boss Leslie Moonves and how media is adapting to #MeToo: "It's a different time."

CBS News president David Rhodes has navigated a thicket of issues in recent years, none more visible than his network's series of anchor transitions, with virtually every program undergoing talent changes. The most high-profile — and ignominious — was Charlie Rose's November exit from CBS This Morning after allegations of misconduct. The revelations forced CBS News to confront a widespread retrograde culture where misconduct was whispered about for years but tolerated.

"There may once have been a different standard of behavior in this industry," admits Rhodes, 44.

In the wake of Rose's departure, CBS News instituted mandatory in-person harassment training for its approximately 1,200 permanent employees and affirmed a focus on pay parity, which began before the current wave of misconduct disclosures.

Amid all of this, CBS News, like all legacy media companies, is grappling with a digital disruption that has forced innovation and belt-tightening as linear ratings for the most part continue to decline or remain stubbornly stagnant. Manhattan native Rhodes — a married father of two young boys whose entrée into the business came in 1996 when he got a $22,000-a-year job at Fox News as a production assistant — on July 11 unveiled a new newsroom at CBS News headquarters on West 57th Street in Manhattan. Dubbed the CBS News Hub, it will bring together the outlet's production staff into one space, including its over-the-top digital service CBSN, which has a very spry user median age of 38. The build-out took six months, and planning began more than a year ago.

“When you work in a news organization, 90 percent of the problems that you have are with communication," he says. "And this is about making the communication better so that everybody working together.”

During an hourlong conversation in the new newsroom, Rhodes talked about Rose's departure and Donald Trump's divisiveness. But he would not contemplate CBS without his boss, Leslie Moonves.

Before John Dickerson replaced Charlie Rose, Norah O'Donnell advocated for doing CBS This Morning with just her and Gayle King. Did you ever consider having just the two of them anchor the show?

We didn't. The show was always built for a number of people at the table. We wanted to have that. John just brought something intellectually that I think people are really going to see, especially in this midterm election period that we're headed into. You want to get a maximum of perspectives in there, in the conversation.

There is a term in TV news used for anchors, they're called anchor monsters …

I hope I have never used that.

It underscores the TV news star system, and the reluctance to call out bad behavior … 

Is it that people look the other way or that they don't want to see because they are too invested in the star system?

So why has it been that way and can organizations now afford to not see?

No, they can't. 

When you are hiring someone do you have to vet them more thoroughly? Do you look at your employees in a new light? Because there were rumors about Charlie. What is your responsibility as management to find out about these things? And where do you draw the line between responsibility and invasiveness?

Yeah. I'd like to know because I think we're all still figuring that out. And I think that the premise of the question is a good one: Do we bring someone into the organization at all? What are our obligations to everyone else as they pertain to that decision? We're trying to make smart decisions there, but you also need to be fair to incumbents, you need to be fair to the people that you're considering for these roles too. You can't convict on [a rumor]. And if we convicted people on rumors about not just behavior … I'm not sure any of us would want to work in an organization that would do that.

You said in your initial statements about Charlie that what was deemed acceptable should never have been accepted. How has the dynamic at CBS News changed?

That's the part of that statement that I was the most proud of when I wrote it, and it's still the part that I'm most proud of now. I'm not saying that we haven't been part of a star system as an industry, of course we have. A really important part of getting #MeToo right is having the right people in the room making decisions. And one thing I'm really proud of is we've gotten to a place where the management team is at least half female and about a third diverse. And you really need those gender and diversity perspectives when you're making decisions. Otherwise you're more prone to make bad ones.

But it is — or was — like a caste system, right? Human resources is ineffective because a young PA is afraid her career will be torpedoed if she says anything negative about the anchor star.

It is and it isn't. Look, if it was a caste system, we wouldn't have made all the changes that we've made, and I don't think others would either. There may once have been a different standard of behavior in this industry. I think it's become pretty clear that it's different times.

Are transitions — even those not made under a cloud of misconduct revelations — the hardest part of your job?

Transitions are really important to get right. It's easy for things to go wrong. And the audience has to get accustomed to it, and that's [been true] since the beginning of television. It's part of why, many times, television management, not just here but anywhere, doesn’t want to do them. Like, "Can't we just not do this?" But in this environment — whether these things come about from our own initiative or from circumstances we didn't anticipate — I don't think we have an option. We've got to be on a future footing with all of these broadcasts because that's where the audience is going.

How do you think Scott Pelley’s exit from the Evening News was handled? It leaked before it was announced; there were some hyperbolic headlines about Pelley’s office being cleaned out in the dead of night. 

[Transitions] are challenging for people, for the individuals doing the jobs, for the institutions making the changes. So that's just kind of what you expect.

How do you handle it when the anchor doesn’t want to leave a show?

Face the Nation has been on for 70 years. In entertainment programming, if the show isn't good, it's canceled. That doesn’t happen in news. The show goes on because the news goes on. And then the component parts change. Of course that's going to be difficult. You'd be really surprised if it wasn't. And by the way, even the transitions that look beautiful, somewhere someone had a series of difficult conversations with each other because these things are difficult.

There's a lot of existential ugliness swirling right now.

Some of it's not just existential; some of it's just ugly.

Yes, Trump has coarsened public discourse …

In fairness to the president, the discourse on social media was pretty coarse before.

Of course, but he's the president. And when he does it, doesn't it normalize it in a way?

I don't know. A lot of what I see on social media is not OK, it's just not OK. But what I think is a bigger problem is that people want to just assign blame and no one seems to want to take any responsibility for that. People want to point fingers, but you have these immensely powerful companies with unlimited resources that just want to say, "Well, ya know, that's not really our job." If it's not your job, whose job is it? Because it's your platform.

Have Facebook and Google created the problem of fake news?

Well, they've enabled it.

But news organizations also partner with these companies to disseminate content. So where do you draw the line?

It seems to me that a lot of the discussion about who is responsible for these platforms is based on a set of assumptions that are out of date. They say, "We can't possibly look at all this stuff." Except they are looking at all this stuff to sell you a product. So which is it? I understand not wanting to make decisions about information because making decisions about information is what we do every day and it's difficult and very controversial and people get upset.

Trump’s rhetoric is obviously a tactic to play to the base, which is inherently divisive. He says these things. Reporters get jeered and threatened at rallies and on social media; a guy with a grievance kills five people at the Capital Gazette. As someone who has to send journalists into the field, does that bother you?

There is constantly a reevaluation of security concerns as it pertains to people doing these jobs, whether it’s in here in the newsroom or out in the field. The Charlie Hebdo attack probably did as much as anything else to [make us] reexamine all of our practices. That's not to diminish the impact of these statements, except having an adversarial relationship between the press and the government we cover is not new. And when it comes to the invective directed at the media, I actually think one of the smartest perspectives on this is Major Garrett, our chief White House correspondent. He says that the challenge of covering this administration is to separate the important from the interesting. As much as some of those statements are regrettable from the perspective of the press and what we think is an important role in America, it's also regrettable that some news media have not actually spent, I don’t think, as much time as we have on what’s important and spent way too much time constantly turning over what's interesting.

You think audiences want to hear that Trump is replacing administrative judges who rule on regulation cases with political appointees, for instance? Not one TV network covered that. 

Well we were the only [broadcast] network to actually broadcast from Washington the night of the Supreme Court nomination. I don't know, I thought that was worth doing.

Why did you think that was worth doing? If he's turning the Supreme Court nomination into a primetime reality show? 

Is he? Look, it is a momentous decision. I think everybody would agree on that. I'm shocked that we were the only network that was in Damascus the night that there were American-led air strikes on Syria. And I think that should concern everybody in the business. The United States bombed Syria and only CBS News was there. 

You recently named Margaret Brennan moderator of Face the Nation, and media coverage of that move noted her gender. When are we going to get to a point where gender doesn't matter?

Yeah, good question, because that's not why we picked her. She wants people to focus on the conversations that she's having there every Sunday. My question is the same as yours: When can people just evaluate this on the merits and not like it's some kind of novelty, which it isn't.

And yet, it is still a novelty to have a woman in the very top job at a news division. There have only been a few — Deborah Turness, briefly, at NBC News. And with the exception of Suzanne Scott at Fox News, they’re all men. Why?

Well I can't do anything about who I am. But what I can do is make sure that everybody here gets a shot. And as far as compensation across gender, I think we're best in class [in pay parity]. By the way, you know what people don't like? Pay parity. It’s like (laughs), "Great news! You're going to make the same amount of money as everybody else!" That's actually not popular. Most people are like, "No, I'd like to make more money than everybody else."

CBS This Morning has given the network its biggest tune-in in over twenty years but it's still in third. The CBS Evening News has been stuck in third for decades. How frustrating is that?

As much future proofing as we have been doing by building these digital businesses, connecting with these millennial audiences, we do need to grow those legacy platforms and traditional ratings, we absolutely do need to. What I take some encouragement from first in the morning is that the audience share is just as you said, best we've ever had. I'd even like to grow that share past thirty percent. Jeff [Glor] is just getting started. [He just] celebrated his 43rd birthday, he could do this for a very long time to come and connect with these [younger] audiences. We've done some experimentation with some things on the air, and I think we've got a long runway. To your point, [the show] been in third place for a very long time, that's not a new phenomenon for us. And the other thing I think we can take encouragement from is that we have franchises here that are number one, like 60 Minutes and Sunday Morning and 48 Hours.

Your boss, Leslie Moonves, is in a very public skirmish with Shari Redstone, the major shareholder of CBS Corp. Many have speculated that if he loses this battle, he'll have no choice but to leave the network. So what is CBS without Les?

Leaving aside the corporate governance drama we've all read about, we couldn't have done any of the things you see us doing without not just his support but also his engagement. And that includes the talent, where he always has not just an opinion but an important role in working through these decisions with management.

Did you talk to him about firing Charlie?

Every significant decision that happens here, he is a part of.

Including that one?

Absolutely. You wouldn't do something like that without having the conversation anyplace, but especially here. Not just because that's the hierarchy but also because he's really good at this.

A version of this story first appeared in the July 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.