Live From 'The Situation Room'

CNN's Feist aims to draw viewers into the network's political coverage

Why This Matters

PROFILE: SAM FEIST

PROFILE: SAM FEIST

TITLE: Political director/senior executive producer of political programming, CNN

EDUCATION: B.A., political science, Vanderbilt University, 1991; J.D., Georgetown University Law Center, 1999

EMPLOYMENT: Federal Judicial Center (Washington): researcher, production assistant, summer 1991; CNN (Atlanta): video journalist, 1991; CNN (Washington): associate producer, producer, senior producer, assignment editor, 1992-97; Capital Gang, Evans & Novak, Late Edition With Wolf Blitzer: executive producer, 1997-2000; Wolf Blitzer Reports: executive producer, 2000-03; Crossfire: executive producer, 2002-03; senior executive producer, political programming, 2003-05; senior executive producer, political programming and The Situation Room, 2005-06; current position since August

PERSONAL: b. Jan. 21, 1969; married, two daughters

When Sam Feist talks about The Situation Room, CNN's flagship newscast, he lights up like the video wall that dominates the set. As CNN's new political director, he sees The Situation Room not only as a show but as a command center for the network's political coverage: "a powerful room that gives us the tools to watch what's happening in the world and then share it with our viewers."

If The Situation Room is CNN's political command center, Feist, 38, is its general. Since taking charge last August, he has energized the network's political coverage with new technologies and formats meant to draw viewers into the newsgathering process.

And the changes have energized CNN's ratings, bringing it closer to rival Fox News Channel in the key 25-54 news demo.

Ever since he produced Ridgefield, Conn.'s first televised mayoral debate for his high school station in 1983, Feist has tried to make politics lively for TV viewers. And apart from a stint with the TV-production arm of the federal courts, he has spent his entire professional life at CNN.

After interning at CNN's London bureau during the Gulf War, Feist enrolled in the network's producer training program in Atlanta and landed in the D.C. bureau during the 1992 campaign. While working on the show Inside Politics Weekend, he forged an enduring collaboration with anchor Wolf Blitzer.

"Even then, I could see this was a star," Blitzer says. "He's a brilliant guy, and he's moved up the chain of command, which is what you're supposed to do."

While producing weekend shows like Capital Gang, Feist got his law degree at Georgetown University Law Center, blocks away from the CNN offices. "I don't think there's better academic training for Washington journalism," he says, adding that he persuaded some of his professors, which included Watergate legend Sam Dash, to be guests on his programs.

During the 2004 campaign, as senior executive producer for political programming, Feist showed a flare for event programming. During the primaries, he trailed the presidential candidates aboard CNN's Election Express bus, drawing a crowd at the famed Merrimack diner in Manchester, N.H.

At the Republican convention in New York City, he set up a working diner for delegates and journalists and had the on-air team report from an open platform on the convention floor rather than the traditional skybox.

But it was CNN's Election Night 2004 coverage that set the stage for Feist's ambition to "reinvent the way politics is covered in a daily newscast." At the suggestion of Washington Bureau Chief David Bohrman, the network set up in front of the 96-screen NASDAQ video wall in Times Square.

The ability to create a mosaic of illustrated information provided the template for The Situation Room, which Feist and Bohrman developed and launched in August 2005.

When Feist became political director last summer, he merged the political-reporting unit with the programming division with the aim of creating an uninterrupted flow of political reporting through CNN's various programs and Websites.

He was particularly pleased with the new outfit's performance on Election Night '06, when CNN won the night in both total viewers and the key demo.

Lifting the veil

"We tried to lift the veil," he says. "Our goal on Election Night was to take what happens off the air—all of that electricity, all of those fascinating conversations, and the information we have available—and put it on TV."

After the midterms, Feist hit the road to get a jump on the coming presidential contest and scored a major coup for CNN: a partnership with ABC affiliate WMUR Manchester, N.H., and the Union Leader newspaper to host the first debates of the primary season in New Hampshire this April.

With a new Election Express bus in the works—and another tour of duty for the Election Express Yourself, an RV that CNN rolled out for midterms to interact with voters—Feist looks forward to showing viewers that CNN will cover the campaign from outside the Beltway.

Says Feist, "When you go out and actually talk to the voters and engage their passions, that makes its way into the coverage."