If Winfrey runs, CBS News faces potential conflict
PASADENA, Calif. — In an odd twist, fellow hosts of “CBS This Morning” turned to their colleague Gayle King — famous friend of Oprah Winfrey — for an interview Tuesday about whether her pal would run for president.
If a Winfrey candidacy moves beyond idle chatter, one of the leading figures on a CBS News show that prides itself on hard-nosed journalism would have a conflict of interest on a major story.
King attended the Golden Globe Awards on Sunday and said on “CBS This Morning” that she spent several hours with Winfrey after the speech that fueled political speculation. King said her friend is intrigued by the idea of a candidacy, but didn’t think she was actively considering it.
CBS’ Norah O’Donnell and Jeff Glor considered King’s close relationship with Winfrey such common knowledge that they didn’t even explain it before asking questions on Tuesday’s show. The two women have been good friends since they both worked at a Baltimore television station in their early 20s.
Watching the interview was weird, CNN’s Dana Bash said on that network about an hour later.
If the candidacy becomes real, “Gayle’s gotta leave,” responded CNN’s morning host, Chris Cuomo.
Then, perhaps remembering that his brother, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, has been mentioned as a 2020 presidential candidate, Cuomo quickly switched gears.
“I have the right to change my opinion,” he said. “Does she have to leave? Maybe she does. I guess they could do the coverage in a way where she never handles it. But it would raise questions with people.”
CBS will address the issue if and when it becomes one, CBS News President David Rhodes said. The network has always been transparent in letting viewers know that Winfrey and King are friends, he said. Winfrey also works for CBS News; she does occasional stories for “60 Minutes.”
Rhodes praised King for how she handled the on-air discussion with O’Donnell and Glor.
“It’s difficult to be part of the news when you cover the news and she helped people understand what was going on with the story,” Rhodes said.
King’s insight is useful as long as chatter about Winfrey’s candidacy is a parlor game and not reality, said Al Tompkins, an instructor in broadcast journalism for the Poynter Institute.
“The relationship between King and Winfrey is well known and viewers can filter what they hear from Gayle through that filter,” Tompkins said. “If Oprah did run, it would be a tougher relationship to navigate … Today, with so many people being so skeptical or cynical of what they see, hear and read in journalism, the cleaner we can keep the lines between journalists and politicians the better.”
Mark Feldstein, a journalism professor at the University of Maryland, said CBS News would have to take King off campaign stories is Winfrey were to run. That could be awkward for the show’s format; the three hosts often sit at a table and discuss stories or interview newsmakers together.
“The public needs to be assured that the news they get is as objective as humanly possible,” Feldstein said. “That obviously is not the case if an anchor is reporting on a close friend.”
King was quoted after Winfrey’s speech as saying it gave her “goosebumps.” She said on the air Tuesday that it was “electrifying. It was the right person giving the right speech at the right time.”
The danger of such words of praise is they can become weapons in a political environment, by people who are looking for signs of bias.
Tim Graham, director of media analysis for the conservative watchdog Media Research Center, said King’s job “is like having an Oprah press spokesperson on staff. She’s helping Oprah milk the speculation for all it’s worth.”
Some have interpreted King’s comments on Tuesday as dampening that speculation. Rhodes said he’d heard no complaints about the language that she used and called concerns about it hypothetical.
After speaking on the issue Tuesday, King told viewers, “no matter what happens, I will be at ‘CBS This Morning.'”