Rice alum David Rhodes takes charge at an American institution, CBS News

Rhodes caller
Rice alum David Rhodes takes charge at an American institution, CBS News

Editor’s note: This is a follow-up to last week’s story announcing that Rice alum David Rhodes has been named president of CBS News.

Rice News staff

David Rhodes doesn’t officially start his new job until next week, but when you call his office, he picks up with a “CBS.” 


“I’m still getting used to answering the phone that way,” said Rhodes, Will Rice ’96, who is transitioning from leading U.S. television for Bloomberg, the business news service, to president of CBS News.

Rhodes, 37, doesn’t officially take on his new role until Feb. 22, but is already finding his way around CBS News’ Manhattan headquarters, which is a “not too bad” commute from his Brooklyn home, he said.

Rhodes’ appointment was part of a shakeup at CBS News that rattled the journalism blogosphere last week. When Sean McManus, the longtime president of CBS News and Sports (and son of broadcasting legend Jim McKay) decided to return to sports full time, “60 Minutes” executive producer Jeff Fager took over as CBS News chairman and quickly recruited Rhodes. 

In a Web interview, Fager described Rhodes as “a tremendously interesting and smart guy. … He is one of the sharpest people I have known.”

Rhodes took to TV journalism straight out of Rice when he joined Fox News as a production assistant several months before the cable operation went on the air. His hard work and facility with details helped him rise through the newsroom ranks. By 2000, he was the channel’s assignment manager, running coverage of the 9/11 attacks, the Iraq war and two presidential campaigns. By 2006, he was vice president of news. He left Fox for Bloomberg in 2008.

News is the family business. Rhodes’ wife Emma is an experienced journalist and now business manager of The Daily, Rupert Murdoch’s new iPad news outlet. “So she knows some of the issues and challenges, which is a good thing,” Rhodes said. They are the parents of two young boys.

Rice also plays a role in the Rhodes family. David’s father, James, a native of Baytown, Texas, and a former Justice Department lawyer, is an alumnus (Baker ’62). So is David’s younger brother, Ben (Baker ’00), a former speechwriter for President Barack Obama who now serves the administration as deputy national security adviser for strategic communications.

At CBS, Rhodes takes over the day-to-day operations of a department that produces ”60 Minutes,” ”The CBS Evening News with Katie Couric,” ”The Early Show” and ”Face the Nation” and CBS Radio’s “World News Roundup.” 

“It’s a big job, and I’m really excited about it,” he said.

Rice News: Do you feel Murrow and Cronkite looking over your shoulder?

David Rhodes: Yes, you have to. The thing about this building is there’s so much history. I’ve worked at a couple of successful news media enterprises, but this is different because CBS is really an institution. 

RN: You’ve been quoted as saying “cable was punching above its weight.” What kind of challenge does cable present to network news? 

DR: I did say that, to NPR. Now that I’m in network news, I still think that. Cable news does punch above its weight.

The story in the media about broadcast news is that it’s always lamenting (about) shrinking audiences, older audiences. First of all, there’s not a lot of difference between the demographics of news viewerships. It’s not like the people watching Fox News, CNN, CNBC are all 18-to-34s. They’re mostly older. 

But it’s a big tent, and there’s no bigger tent than broadcast TV. There’s still no place you can reach the size of audiences that network television still has the capacity to reach. 

RN: Americans do tend to turn to the networks for big stories …

DR: And I’m a big-story guy. What I did at Fox and later has always been breaking news and major special events, and that’s still a sweet spot for network news. 

RN: Did 9/11 change you?

DR: Absolutely. I kind of toyed with doing something different right before that. 

RN: A different career?

DR: Yeah. By happenstance, I was in early that day, six in the morning, and those events started to unfold. When stories like 9/11 come along, they remind you why you decided to do this and not another line of work. 

RN: How will you share management duties with your new boss, Jeff Fager? 

DR: One reason we really enjoyed getting to know each other is that we have complementary skill sets. He, for a long time, has produced really effective network news television — most notably “60 Minutes,” which is the most successful program on television, and with such a great reputation. 

There’s certainly a lot that I can learn working with and for somebody with that experience. At the same time, I think Jeff would tell you that a lot of the day-to-day operation of a news organization is something he’d rather have help with. That’s where I come in. 

I hope I can be an effective manager of a large organization. There are more than 1,000 people working for CBS News, and they’re a really dedicated, passionate bunch. And I want to give them an opportunity to do their best. 

RN: How much oversight will you have over news coverage?

DR: I think (Fagen) wants to have an advisory role and wants to be able to provide guidance and standards and be a symbol for everybody of what’s important to CBS News, but as far as the day-to-day assignments go, that’s what he and the network are expecting me to do. 

RN: So you’ll have to know what’s going on. How much TV will you be watching?

DR: More, even, than I was watching before. I have to see everything that goes out. Preferably before it goes out. 

RN: How much time will you get to watch the competition? 

DR: Well, you know, you’re sitting in a fishbowl all day watching everybody. But there’s ways to do that and not completely lose your sanity. 

RN: I guess you need to do it before Jon Stewart does … 

DR: If there were no DVRs, there’d be no “Daily Show.” I think he’s got teams of production assistants who are in a dark room doing nothing but watching news television, and that’s a really sad existence. But it makes for a pretty compelling program.

RN: How did you hook up with CBS?

DR: It turns out that this is a relatively small town. We all know people in common, and over a period of time I got to know Jeff and Leslie Moonves (president and CEO of CBS Corp.) and hear about the things they wanted to do at CBS. I got excited by that and it really picked up in earnest during the holiday period. 

We had conversations going back some time, but they weren’t serious in a recruiting context until more recently.

RN: Were you tempted to buck family tradition and go somewhere other than Rice?

DR: I grew up here in New York and wanted a little culture shock. I wanted to get out of New York and even the Northeast and experience something different, and Rice allows you to do that and still be in a place that’s just terrific academically. 

RN: You majored in political science and economics. How did you end up in television?

DR: After school I looked at a couple of different options, like finance or consulting, and realized I was mostly just looking at those things as ways to pay bills. They didn’t interest me on a gut level. 

Because cable was really exploding at that time, there was an opportunity to get into cable news, and I did. And I have done nothing but television news ever since. 

RN: Did your political science studies prepare you well for it?

DR: Probably, but economics almost just as well. You learn more about people’s behavior that way. 

RN: Was there any sense of competition with your brother?

DR: No. Look, we managed to get along over a two-year period where he was working for the Obama campaign and I was working for Fox News. So if the relationship could survive that, it could survive just about anything. 

RN: What do you recommend future broadcasters study?

DR: Watch a lot of television. Honestly, this is a learn-by-doing business. Nothing against journalism schools — Rice doesn’t have one, so I’m not disparaging a Rice program — but you need a basic foundation in social sciences or the humanities to do this. Beyond that, you really have to learn it by doing. 

About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.