CBS News Tackles Most Unconventional Convention

(Image credit: CBS News)

Ed O’Keefe, CBS News political correspondent, has been covering the national political conventions since 2004. He reported on the last bunch for the Washington Post, and the 2020 Democratic confab is his first for CBS News, which he joined in 2018. 

The Democratic convention is in Milwaukee, and O’Keefe is in Wilmington, Del., as are Joseph Biden and Kamala Harris. “For my first one as a television reporter, I had all these visions of what it would be like,” said O’Keefe. 

Ed O'Keefe reporting on the Democratic National Convention

Ed O'Keefe reporting on the Democratic National Convention (Image credit: CBS News)

The reality is not quite matching his visions. “It’s entirely different,” he said. “It’s bittersweet.”

The CBS News gang is at the Hyatt Place on the Christina River in Wilmington. “I don’t think I have a single person in Milwaukee,” said Susan Zirinsky, CBS News president.

Wilmington is where the action is. Biden accepts the Dems’ presidential nomination from the city Thursday. Harris spoke Wednesday. “We are at the news hub, the ground zero of it,” O’Keefe said. “The decision making is here, the decision makers are here.”

Zirinsky cited “a small contingent” for CBS News in Wilmington, smaller than what the network would send to a natural disaster, such as a tornado or wildfire. Correspondent Nikole Killion is pitching in from Wilmington too. 

What makes it bittersweet is that the conventions are career-defining events for reporters, and remote conventions don’t likely have the same urgency. The New York Times described the Dem bash as taking place “in a Milwaukee of the mind.”

O’Keefe spoke about blockbuster convention moments, whether it was Barack Obama, then an Illinois state senator, speaking at the Democratic convention in Boston in 2004, and VP hopeful Sarah Palin introducing herself to the nation in St. Paul in 2008. “It’s fun, it’s exciting, it’s high stakes,” O’Keefe said. “It’s the moment that draws the largest crowd to your work.”

Norah O’Donnell, CBS Evening News anchor, said it’s the first time in 20 years she hasn’t been at a convention, delivering the news this week from the newscast’s Washington base with Milwaukee in virtual mode. Before anchoring CBS Evening News, she was co-host on CBS This Morning. Before that, she was chief White House correspondent for the network. 

“I always believe that getting to the scene of an event is incredibly important,” she said. “Talking to someone face-to-face--one of the candidate’s senior advisors, the campaign chairman, the speechwriter--that gives you a lot more texture, and the ability to report out a story.”

Remote or not, O’Donnell said the conventions hold “enormous” news value. “You get the clearest distillation of a party’s argument about why they should win the presidency,” she said after her Wednesday evening broadcast. “Think about all of the hours that go into not only developing a party platform but also curating the speeches given in primetime to what may be the largest audience they’ll ever receive across broadcast and cable networks.” 

Zirinsky said the breathless pace of news in 2020 has heightened interest in the conventions, and the election, among viewers. “I think we’re at a critical time in our country,” she said, citing three “mega-issues” in Covid, racial equality battles and the plunging economy. “There are such tremendous issues facing every single American.”

Covering the convention in the 10 p.m. hour Tuesday, NBC and ABC got 0.3s in viewers 18-49, per Nielsen overnight ratings. CBS, with reruns leading into coverage, got a 0.2. Wednesday, NBC led with a 0.4 at 10 p.m., with ABC and CBS at 0.3. 

Target-Rich Environment

The conventions are also giant networking opportunities for the press, and a chance to meet what O’Keefe called “the next generation” in political leadership--the mayor who will end up the governor, the state senator who may end up the president. “There are very few other opportunities for political reporters to do this,” he said, mentioning how a chance meeting on the pretzel line can turn into a big scoop years later. 

O’Donnell noted how the Dems’ VP pick was not leaked this summer, as normally happens. She attributed that to reporters working remotely, not sharing facetime with Biden staff. “Some people like to talk,” she said. “There’s a natural inclination to socialize.”

The 2020 election is like none O’Donnell has covered, citing foreign interference, relentless social media and the pandemic as factors. “This will be the Super Bowl of elections for a lot of different reasons,” she said. “It’s the most difficult election I’ve ever had to cover.”

Time will tell how much the remote conventions affect the way the quadrennial events are conducted. O’Keefe does not see them disappearing, citing the “massive fundraising opportunity” they represent. But surely the stripped-down affairs in 2020 will make their mark on future conventions. Zirinsky said it’s unlikely they “go back to being extravaganzas.”

BBQ Bonhomie 

CBS News has rented space in the parking lot of the Hyatt Place in Wilmington. One tent is for the live shots. Another has grills set up for communal meals--sausage and peppers, burgers and hot dogs. O’Keefe has copped to mixed feelings this week in Wilmington, but sharing grub with colleagues has warmed his heart. 

“A little bit of fellowship with co-workers,” is how he described it. “None of us have been able to do this for five months now. For me, it’s therapeutic, almost.”

The Republicans hold their convention Aug. 24-27. It happens in Charlotte, but much of the action will take place in Washington, where CBS Evening News shifted to in December. O’Donnell called the DC move “a genius stroke” by Zirinsky, giving the newscast a front-row seat for President Trump’s impeachment and his handling of the pandemic, the anchor getting time with White House coronavirus coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx, Surgeon General Jerome Adams and Dr. Anthony Fauci. 

Now CBS Evening News has a front-row seat for the historic election. 

Zirinsky said CBS News’ plans for the GOP convention are evolving. “We’re still working out the details,” she said. 

Michael Malone

Michael Malone is content director at B+C and Multichannel News. He joined B+C in 2005 and has covered network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television, including writing the "Local News Close-Up" market profiles. He also hosted the podcasts "Busted Pilot" and "Series Business." His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The L.A. Times, The Boston Globe and New York magazine.