September 25, 2017

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Behind the Scenes at ‘Face the Nation’ as Battle of Covering Trump Begins

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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

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