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New York Times Under Scrutiny; Government Shutdown Dominating Media Landscape

Aired October 13, 2013 - 11:00   ET


FRANK SESNO, CNN ANCHOR: The New York Times under scrutiny for some big stories. Is the paper right, wrong, or somewhere in between? 13 days into the government shutdown, and with the debt ceiling deadline this week, two big stories dominating the media landscape.


MEGYN KELLY, FOX NEWS ANCHOR: Breaking news on Capitol Hill, meetings under way right now, and new questions about whether the GOP is about to cave to White House demands on a debt deal.

CHRIS HAYES, MSNBC: The news of the day in which the House GOP has essentially offered a six-week clean debt ceiling while the government stays shut down.

MIGUEL MARQUEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Cautious optimism over striking a deal with Republicans seems to have gone away.

Is that -- are we back to square one now?


SESNO: Are the media too focused on the politics rather than the consequences of the stalemate?

And with Republicans and Democrats engaging in so much spin and talking points, how do we get the facts?

We'll look at the challenges and the importance of fact checking and explore whether a growing focus devoted to that enterprise is making a difference.

A new study says the Obama administration is waging a war on leaks to the press. We'll talk with the report's author, Len Downie, about the administration's crackdown on whistleblowers and its impact on journalists.

And all the news and commercials you can use in just six seconds.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So exactly how much news can you possibly fit in six seconds' time? Tune into CNN right now to find out.


SESNO: We'll climb The Vine -- The Vine -- and find out why a growing number of media outlets, businesses and politicians are using this social media app. I'm Frank Sesno and this is RELIABLE SOURCES.


SESNO: And we start this week with our crosshairs focused on "The New York Times," facing questions about its reporting on three big stories over the past eight days.

On October 5th, this breaking news headline on "The Times" website. "U.S. Says Navy SEAL Team Captures Shabaab Leader in Somalia." "The Times" cited American officials as their source. Only problem, the story was wrong.

When "The Times" updated the story, it said, quote, "The SEAL team was forced to withdraw before it could confirm it had killed the Shabaab leader."

In a statement to CNN, "The Times" says its early coverage accurately reflected initial government accounts.

Next, this past Thursday after a meeting between President Obama and House Republican leaders, "The Times" reported that Obama had rejected a Republican proposal for a short-term debt limit plan. But the White House said no specific determination was made and many Republicans told CNN the president didn't reject or approve anything.

"The Times" stuck to its story saying it was, quote, "factually accurate" and did not require a correction. Said "The Times," "It was clear that the White House was not going to accept the Republican proposal as offered."

Finally, "The Times" may have tripped on itself over its Thursday story that a CIA warning on suspected NSA leaker Edward Snowden slipped through the cracks when he worked for the agency in Geneva and that he was returned home because of those concerns.

A CIA spokesman said, quote, "While we are unable to comment on all assertions in today's 'New York Times' story on Edward Snowden, the primary allegation of the story is inaccurate on multiple levels."

So on Saturday "The Times" reported, "CIA Disputes Early Suspicions on Snowden," but the paper appeared to stand by its earlier report, saying, quote, "'The Times' cited two senior American officials with direct knowledge of the episode."

Well, joining me to discuss all of this and to discuss whether the Gray Lady has gotten a black eye, including is our -- Ramesh Ponnuru; he's with us from Chicago; Eleanor Clift, she's from "The Daily Beast" and joins us here and Joe Concha from New York.

And Joe Concha, I got to start with you here for a minute --

JOE CONCHA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Really? SESNO: -- because I understand -- I'm not going to bury the lead.

Congratulations. You had a baby when?

CONCHA: Friday night, 9:26 pm, 6 pounds.

Oh, wow, there she is, Cameron. She got a little beat up in the delivery, 6 pounds, 14 ounces. And hence the pink tie that you're seeing tonight because -- or today, I should say -- we're sticking within theme here, but we couldn't be any more proud. Thank you so much.

SESNO: Well, congratulations to you and all the best. And you're on the journey of your life, I promise you that.

Now let me bring you back to the journey we're on here, which is looking at the Gray Lady and what seems to be some real problems over the past eight days.

How do you explain it?

CONCHA: Well, I would love to hear Margaret Sullivan explain this, Frank. She is "The New York Times'" public editor. For those keeping score at home, the public editor basically is a -- publicly identifies errors and omissions and then reports them to the public, saying hey, I think we got this wrong here.

I haven't seen one article from Margaret Sullivan saying, hey ,we may have made a mistake here or if we made a mistake, here's why. And the whole reason why you hire a public editor in "The New York Times" case is probably for a PR move because it was in light of the whole Jason Blair fiasco about 10 years ago.

It begs the question: where is Margaret Sullivan in this whole case -- or in these three cases? If you're going to have a policeman on your editorial staff that's supposed to report back to the public, why decisions were made or why they weren't made, they weren't made at all this week, Frank.

SESNO: Well, Joe, let me point out, and I want to make this clear and I'm going to make the point as I turn to Eleanor Clift.

We invited Margaret Sullivan; we invited Jill Abramson and others from "The New York Times." They were either unavailable or they declined.

Eleanor, the thing that's most disturbing to many when you see this kind of thing is this attribution to officials, American officials. Hanging stories, hanging a very important story, moved in real time -- and, by the way, CNN, for example, did not report it that the al-Shabaab leader, the Somalia story, that he had been killed in its initial reporting.

But does that trouble you, (inaudible)? MARGARET CLIFT, "THE DAILY BEAST": Anybody who has reported in Washington understands how difficult it is to get people on the record. Now "American officials" is probably the broadest term; that could be just about anybody.

So I think -- I'm always instructed to try to get the attribution as narrowly as possible and also to give some indication of the motivation behind whoever the sources are.

And so I think, you know, I'm inclined to give "The New York Times" the benefit of the doubt. They are about the only news organization that still does really deep reporting.

And on the so-called error with the reporting of the budget negotiations, I have been covering that. It's like following Rashomon. And you know, I think maybe they shouldn't have said flatly the White House rejected it, but they were never going to settle for a short-term thing that took them right to the holidays.

So you know, is that wrong; is it right? It's a question of nuance in that case.

SESNO: No, but nuance matters.

And Ramesh Ponnuru, I want to ask you this because here is what "The Times" said when it was clarifying that story on the Obama rejection.

"It was clear that the White House was not going to accept the Republican proposal as offered. As we did further reporting, we were able to update the story and present a fuller and more nuance account."

Now this all comes in the middle of very sensitive negotiations. People can take a headline and run with it, politicians and posture and maybe even change a position.

Or does it not matter? Is this just part of real-time journalism now?

RAMESH PONNURU, JOURNALIST: Well, I think that all media institutions make mistakes. "The New York Times'" of the last week aren't even the worst ones that we've seen. The Associated Press made a much bigger blunder this last week. But you've got to correct them. You've got to be up front with your readers so the people don't think you're pulling a fast one. And I think that's exactly what it looks like they were doing on that debt ceiling story.

SESNO: You think that looks like they're pulling a fast one, meaning what?

PONNURU: Because, look, what they're saying is, well, OK, so the administration didn't really explicitly reject it, but it basically rejected it. Well, that's not what they conveyed in their first story. They conveyed something stronger than the truth.

SESNO: Joe Concha?

CONCHA: I looked at "The New York Times' Style and Usage Manual," as I often do, and one rule they have in there is anonymity is the last resort.

And it seems more and more at "The New York Times" you always hear from U.S. officials and "anonymous sources say," and that leads to one problem. Another one is Twitter. I think we need two editors now at every publication, one for the standard newspaper, which they all have, but then we always see again and again a tweet going out that they want to pull back.

And unfortunately it's like toothpaste. You can't put it back in the tube. And we saw it a couple weeks ago with Chuck Todd with the Navy Yard shooting. He put out a tweet that he said, oh, actually, it was wrong.

And I wonder, did Chuck Todd have to go through the same litmus test with editors to tweet as you would doing a standard report? So I think this is a case of Twitter striking again and really a race to be first instead of to be accurate.

SESNO: Well, this is one of the big problems now. You've got a race to be first whether you are tweeting or you're on the air or you're writing a blog or writing a story. You have got so many demands as a journalist now, Eleanor. You're at "The Daily Beast." You're doing this.

Do you have somebody editing every tweet, every story, every word that you write?

CLIFT: Oh, nobody edits the tweets as far as I know.

SESNO: Nobody edits your tweets?

CLIFT: No. And in fact, I say to myself every day, Eleanor, think less, tweet more, because I don't tweet enough.

SESNO: Think less? Really scary.

CLIFT: Well, no, you have to kind of trust yourself and put -- I don't do it. I mean, I tweet fairly irregularly, but in today's world we are encouraged to tweet, to get our stories out there or promote our colleagues and if we're analysts and pundits, we should get our thoughts out there. I have never done anything or said anything that's career ending yet. But we're all about two steps away from that I think.

SESNO: The cliff gets closer.


PONNURU: You got to be your own editor.

SESNO: Anybody edit your tweets? PONNURU: No, no. I mean, I think on Twitter you have just got to be your own editor. It is a medium that really rewards speed even more than all of the other ones that we're on, and there's no time for an additional layer of checking. If you can't trust yourself to edit yourself, don't get on Twitter.

SESNO: Well, there may be a whole new classification of job here.

Joe, I want to come back to you for something you said a moment ago about officials and the trouble you have got with officials. What Eleanor said a few minutes ago and what "The New York Times" is up against here, is racing the clock. They've got a huge story. And the fact of the matter is that if you are going to report in this town, you are going to report unnamed officials. People are going to say protect me on this. You can use the information. I don't even want you to tell them what building I'm in.

Are you saying "The New York Times" shouldn't be doing that?

CONCHA: No, no. It's going to happen once in a while. I'm just saying it's happening, if you go back to the transcript, it's happening more and more, it seems. And I think that is really part of that whole race to be first.

But, you know, one more thing I want to point out, Frank, is that there are more and more media what watchdogs out there than ever. I mean, Frank, I'm -- I'm on Mediaite. Sure, we do that.

But there are conservative blogs out there like NewsBusters, that are there to catch the "New York Times." It's definitely going to be in the crosshairs, because they're the apex of journalism and they're seen as liberal in some circles.

So any time you Tweet, any time you get something wrong, it used to be you issue a correction, maybe some readers write something to the editor and it gets into the editorial page. Now, you make a mistake, everybody sees it. It's reported and usually some sort of motive is attached to it, as well, which may have not been the case here.

But that's where we are in 2013 -- you make a mistake, people are going to know about it.

SESNO: OK, well, we've done our bit to help promote that agenda here, as well, because we want to make sure that we air what went wrong and the explanations around it.

When we return, the partial government shutdown and the debt ceiling fight.

As the media focus on the politics of the stalemate, are they having too much fun with the Republican food fight?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) SESNO: It was another week of griping and gridlock here in Washington, as the partial government shutdown dragged on, Democrats accusing Tea Party Republicans in the House of holding the country hostage. Republicans firing back by accusing President Obama and Senator Harry Reid of refusing to negotiate to reopen the government.

As the week wore on, the countdown clock to a debt default also grew shorter.

On Thursday, the beginnings of a deal appeared to take shape.


CHARLIE ROSE, HOST: We begin with progress on day 11 of the partial government shutdown. President Obama and Congressional Republicans are starting to work together.



MATT LAUER, HOST: Now to the latest on the shutdown showdown. There appears to be some movement on a deal to get the government back to work.


SESNO: I like that -- shutdown showdown. It has a certain ring to it.

Well, how have the media done covering the high stakes back and forth?

Back with Eleanor Clift, Joe Concha and Ramesh Ponnuru.

Ramesh, first to you, how have we done?

PONNURU: You know, as Eleanor was saying earlier, it is a very complicated and fast-moving story. And so I'd give reporters some slack on it.

I do think that the atmospherics that the media used about the shutdown have made it seem like more of a crisis atmosphere than it actually is. And I think that's disservice the public, because it has made it harder to see the impending debt ceiling problem, which really could be calamitous, as sufficiently serious because sort of when everything is serious, nothing is.

SESNO: Eleanor, a bit of a circus here?

Overplaying the seriousness, as Ramesh is saying, of the...

CLIFT: Well, this is...

SESNO: -- partial shutdown? CLIFT: Well, it's political entertainment, definitely. But it's also very serious. And I think there's been a quiet consensus among the media that this is going to end up with the shutdown rolling into the debt ceiling. And so you can't separate the two, although I understand that some people on the right would like to separate the two, because they are really getting a lot of heat for flirting with default.

SESNO: Joe, I think this is something that I really want you to take on with some seriousness here, because, you know, it's fine to say that this is all about politics and it's a partial shutdown, but when you talk to people who are actually not working -- there are people at the NSA who are not working, there are people at the Agriculture Department who are not working, there are people who are supposed to be cranking out data that said hog futures and they're not working.

There are real jobs not getting done here.

CONCHA: That's true. But I think the reason why this isn't resonating with the American public on that aspect as much is because when you woke up in the government shutdown, or the partial government shutdown started, you know, my garbage was still picked up. There was a policeman right down the block from me that pulled over, you know, people at the same speed trap that he always does. The lights still work. Everything, from a local perspective, for people just living in Anytown, USA, didn't feel a government shutdown.

SESNO: Well, was that a...


SESNO: -- is that a failure of the media to properly explain the story?

I mean we've turned this into such a political circus, maybe people don't realize what's actually happening.

CONCHA: Correct. Correct. And now -- now, here's the thing, though. The reason why the media goes the other route, which is who's winning and losing, is because what's the most kind of popular show in America these days?

Reality TV. It's all about

Creating villains and good guys.

So if you're on one side, Ted Cruz is a bad guy. If you're on another side, Harry Reid or President Obama is a bad guy...

CLIFT: But...

CONCHA: -- or Boehner is a bad guy. And it's a -- that's a lot easier to sell, bad guys versus good guys, than trying to explain debt ceilings and defaults...

CLIFT: Well, I...

CONCHA: -- and what this government shutdown...

CLIFT: -- I would...

CONCHA: -- means for the NSA.

CLIFT: I would suggest getting out of Washington or Northern Virginia bubble and reading some of the headlines in newspapers. Remember, they still exist around the country. And you see headlines everywhere about the absolute devastation this is having in local communities and people suffering everywhere. And...

CONCHA: Devastation, jell?

CLIFT: Yes, devastation, economic devastation, of course...

SESNO: Give some examples, jell.

CLIFT: Oh, around the national parks, small businesses that are really suffering. And...

CONCHA: How many national parks are there in the country?

CLIFT: There are a number of national parks. One of -- you know, it's that old line, if you're not suffering, it's not a problem. If other people are suffering, it is devastation. And, you know...

CONCHA: I just...

CLIFT: -- the White House, every day, is putting out the latest briefings they're getting about the fallout from this. And the one that they put out yesterday was about well, the CDC, and the programs that are being cut down -- cut back.

You're looking at salmonella outbreaks. Governor Hickenlooper said that there's E. Coli because of the floods all over the farmlands. They can't get EPA to come test, he said, because they're shut down. It's only a matter of time before kids get sick.

This is -- and the ripple effect of this is only going to get greater.

SESNO: But Ramesh, shouldn't the media and shouldn't the stories be spending as much time focusing on these sorts of things that Eleanor is talking about than what John Boehner is saying to the Tea Party?

CLIFT: Right.

PONNURU: Look, I mean you've got to cover both dimensions of the story at the same time. I don't think anybody disputes that.

I would just say, look, we had a 21-day government shutdown in 1995-1996 and it did not prevent 1996 from being one of the best years in American history. So, absolutely, let's report the problems. But let's not inflate them.

Let's not make it sound like Armageddon is happening.

Remember, when sequestration started, there were lots of stories about how devastating it was going to be. It was going to be a national calamity. And most people just barely noticed it.

And I think that there is a danger of the boy who cried wolf problem, where I can guarantee you, there are Republican Congressmen who are saying to themselves, look, the press said sequestration was going to be -- you know, lead to rack and ruin and it didn't. They said that shutdown would destroy the country and it didn't. And now they're saying a debt ceiling default would be the same thing and why should I believe them?

I think that's a profoundly erroneously way of thinking, but I think that this kind of coverage fuels it.

SESNO: Joe Concha, as...

CONCHA: Frank...

SESNO: -- as our media watcher here, go ahead. I want you to weigh in.


SESNO: But I also want you how you think the media have done on this other story, which is the real ticking time bomb out there, or at least if you believe what you're hearing, which is the debt ceiling?

CONCHA: Well, if you want to talk about coverage as a whole, for -- when it goes from government shutdown to debt ceiling, look at the president's press conference on Wednesday. Not one question about and the disaster that has been.

I mean, who designed that, Romney's Orca team?

I mean it's -- it -- it doesn't work, right?

It wasn't ready to actually be rolled out.

People signing up -- how many questions -- how many questions to the president, hey, how many people have signed up?

Nothing from the White House press corps. And, oh, by the way, none of the national correspondents for ABC, NBC, CNN, CBS, Fox, were called on that. And when the president was just going from a list given to him by Jay Carney and it was to other people that had questions that anything -- that had nothing to do with ObamaCare or the Affordable Care Act.

So if you want to ask me how has coverage been, there was a failure during that White House press conference. And the fact that no hard questions were asked about the original reason for this government shutdown, which was either to fund ObamaCare or at least delay it, nothing was brought up.

So I think we're losing sight on exactly what has caused all of this in the first place.

SESNO: All right, Joe Concha, a fair point.

And so while we're at it -- and we gave the "New York Times" a hard time a little while ago -- let's do a shout-out to "The New York Times" today for a very good...

CLIFT: Right.

SESNO: -- and a very specific story on the problems and even the failures that the ObamaCare is having in its opening days and the very deep computer glitches that are Imperiling the whole system. You can check that out if you go to

After the break -- and a thanks to our panel -- holding politicians' feet to the fire, their words any way.

Are news organizations and others doing enough fact checking and does it have any impact at all?

A new study holds out hope.


SESNO: Well, fact, fiction, spin or substance -- a growing number of media outlets and news organizations are putting a higher premium on fact checking. It may be producing some results.

Joining me to talk about the tricky waters of fact checking, in New York, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, professor of communications, the University of Pennsylvania, director of the school's Annenberg Public Policy Center and creator of

With me in the studio, John Sides, associate professor of political science at George Washington University, and author of the Monkey Cage blog, and Ginger Gibson, Congressional reporter for Politico.

John, I want to start with you.

A new report looking at this fact checking, whether it has any impact.

What's it say?

What do you conclude?

PROF. JOHN SIDES, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY: It's the first ever real world fact checking experiment. Twelve hundred state legislators in nine different states were divided into different groups. And one of those groups was sent a series of letters that said there's a PolitiFact affiliate in your state now. And it outlined the kind of things that might happen if PolitiFact were to catch you saying something untrue.

And then the researchers, Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler, went and looked to see how many of these legislators had actually said something that either PolitiFact or local media said was, in fact, half true or worse, all the way down to pants on fire.

SESNO: And what did they find?

SIDES: They found that the legislators who had gotten these letters warning them that PolitiFact might do this to them were less likely to make inaccurate statements than legislators who didn't get this letter.

SESNO: Oh, my goodness. So maybe it works.

Well, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, as I ask you this question, I want to put up has become a commanding presence in the political process throughout the presidential campaigns. It's prompted a response from some.

What evidence do you have that has had any impact on the facts as engaged by our political leaders?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMISON, DIRECTOR, ANNENBERG PUBLIC POLICY CENTER, UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA: In the 2012 presidential campaign, Governor Romney made a claim about how many jobs net-net he had created while he was at Bain Capital. He was pushed back by all the fact checkers who didn't see the evidence to justify the claim. And he modified the claim.

The Obama campaign was arguing that Romney had outsourced while he was at Bain. He was pushed back by the fact checkers and they changed the claim to say that Romney's firm, Bain, had outsourced. That would be after Romney had given up day to day control of operations.

It doesn't happen often, but it tends to happen when all the fact checkers agree. They stay on it. And representatives from the campaign are asked about it when they come on programs such as CNN.

SESNO: Ginger Gibson, you're up on Capitol Hill for Politico reporting.

When the bomb actually lands, right, and someone is called a liar or they fail -- Glenn Kessler, "The Washington Post," the Pinocchio test. He puts up two or three or four Pinocchios after he fact checks someone.

Does somebody go running out of the Congressional office with their pants on fire?

GINGER GIBSON, CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER, POLITICO: No, but their press secretaries, when it's the other guy who is called out, will blast out those as a press release. SESNO: And so what do you do with that?

GIBSON: Most of the time, ignore them.

SESNO: You ignore it?

GIBSON: I mean we...

SESNO: But, wait a minute, wait, wait, wait. So if someone is called a liar or exposed in a fact check and you're the reporter up there, you ignore that?

GIBSON: Well, I mean we ignore it when -- so and it becomes political fighting, right?

It becomes the other guy...

SESNO: But if someone is...

GIBSON: -- using it against the other...

SESNO: -- but if someone is objectively wrong...

GIBSON: Right. As a reporter who covers the campaign and covers the Hill now, these fact checks are great for us, because sometimes when the claim keeps getting repeated, we can point to them in a story and say, look, they've been deemed untrue by multiple fact checkers. And I think that line is important, the multiple fact checkers. When it's multiple fact checkers agreeing, we can go to that.

And that's how we use it. That's how we call attention to things that, if we're not doing the fact checking, but we know not to be true, we can make the call.

SESNO: John Sides, you've done a lot of work on political polarization in Washington now. And your work has shown that we're as polarized, or more so, than we've been in a very long time, perhaps since the Civil War, right?

There are issues of polarization even in fact checking.

Who do you fact check?

Who decides?

What metrics do you use and what sources do you use to decide whether someone's pants are on fire or not?

SIDES: I think the one thing that first needs to happen is that a lot of the garden variety kinds of misinformation probably should just be ignored.

I think the real challenge is that when that kind of misinformation gets news coverage and only gives incentives to politicians to continue to do this kind of stuff -- it's the really big issues, the kind of chronic kinds of misinformation about the president's birthplace, about what's in the Affordable Care Act and what's not in the Affordable Care Act, these are the kinds of issues that really need the media to birddog them and fact-check them on a regular basis.

SESNO: Kathleen Hall Jamieson, I came on this program probably about a year ago because over at George Washington University we started something calls Face the Facts USA. I'll put a picture up of that.

And the idea here was not to call people out and say you're wrong, but rather to put out facts where we knew there was a lot of confusion because some of the social science actually shows that people are not inclined to take a fact check where you are waving your finger and saying this candidate or this political leader is wrong.

You might process information if it were coming from a trusted source without the finger wagging.

What do you make of that?

JAMIESON: I agree with that as a perspective. And good journalism does that. It creates a context for viewing information.

Much of what is said in politics isn't blatantly factually inaccurate. It's misleading. It requires a context. Sometimes it's deliberately taken out of context.

And as a result, it requires contextual journalism. Good journalism does that well. Your program does that well.

We also know that there's a way to fact check that increases likelihood that you hear the correction. If you hear the correction, if you can reframe up front and you can metacommunicate (ph) -- we have a --

SESNO: What does that mean?


JAMIESON: -- fact check that tries to do that with humor.

SESNO: What does -- what does metacommunicate mean?

JAMIESON: You are talking about the communication. So you are not inside the frame of the visual itself.

We deal largely with ads. If you put the offending ad up on the screen and you create a visual structure that puts the context on top of that, the likelihood that the individual processes the deception before the correction goes way down.

And we know that from a study we did in 2012; when people say they have gone to fact checking sites in the presence of controls, they get the answers to those questions about the deceptions more accurate than they did otherwise. That's an important finding. It was statistically significant. SESNO: Ginger, very, very quickly to you in 10 seconds, Neil Newhouse (ph) famously, a Romney pollster, last time said, we're not going let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers.

Is that a theme you hear from other offices on the Hill as you cover it?

GIBSON: It is. They think that they make the case that they're biased, that they're slanted, that they were done out of spite and that they -- even if they are deemed completely to be out of line with the truth, they're just going to ignore them.

SESNO: Well, let's just hope it's a movement to come.

And I've got something -- a little product placement here. Snapple, you know, they do the facts at the top. I'm going to read this one.

It's "Some violence contains 70 separate pieces of wood."

Well, you'll be glad to know there are folks out there now, that are fact checking the Snapple "Real Facts." So there you have it. Maybe it's a movement.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, John Sides and Ginger Gibson, thank you all very much for joining us on RELIABLE SOURCES.

The Obama administration's unprecedented crackdown on whistleblowers and the reporters who cover them, a new study warns the standing of America as an international example of press freedom is at stake. We'll hear from the report's author.




SESNO: An important new study released just this Thursday entitled "The Obama Administration and the Press Leak Investigations and Surveillance in Post-9/11 America" has hit and everybody has taken notice certainly in the journalism community.

The author, Len Downie, former executive editor of "The Washington Post," and professor of journalism at the Cronkite School at ASU America, Arizona State University, is here.

What did you find?

LEONARD DOWNIE JR., FORMER EXECUTIVE EDITOR OF "THE WASHINGTON POST": I found that in several ways the administration is making it very difficult for reporters to hold it accountable for the actions of its government, particularly in the national security area but throughout the rest of the government as well in several ways.

First of all, there have been all these leaks investigations, including the number of prosecutions, eight prosecutions under a 1917 Espionage Act that was enacted for spying for foreign enemies, has prosecuted government officials who provided information to the press.

And in addition, lots of other leaks investigations that are going on that even produced prosecutions that are making government officials afraid to talk to reporters. I interviewed dozens of reporters in Washington who -- and other -- and government accountability people, who told me that government officials are afraid to talk to them.

SESNO: And to be clear about it, you and I spoke as well. You even quote me in here. I think I made some sense.

The point I was making was that in some of the ways that the administration goes to the public on its own, openness is good. It promised openness. But if taken too far, that can become a slippery slope to spin and even worse.

DOWNIE: Yes. The president promised to be -- to have the most transparent government in American history. And they way they've interpreted that is to use social media and websites in ways that you said, to present lots of information that makes the administration look good and other information that's useful to consumers and businesses and so on.

But at the same time, they have really shut the door on a lot of the reporting that's necessary to hold the administration accountable by journalists.

SESNO: You've been in this town a long time. And here's part of what you wrote in this report.

"The administration's war on leaks," you called it, "and other efforts to control information are the most aggressive I've seen since the Nixon administration, when I was one of the editors involved in 'The Washington Post' investigation of Watergate."

That's a very strong allegation, (inaudible).

DOWNIE: Well, it's what I heard from everyone that I interviewed here in Washington. Not many of them are as resolved as I am and go all the way back to the Nixon administration, but in their memories, the time they've been working here, this is the most closed administration that they've encountered.

SESNO: Now I want to push back a little bit, because there will be some who say, look, if the administration is clamping down on leakers who would deal with sensitive information, national security secrets, they should be doing that.

DOWNIE: Right. Well, first of all, some of this was clearly whistleblowing about problems ,for instance, in the NSA surveillance program long before the revelations of Edward Snowden. These are people you would want to call whistleblowers.

But the administration seems to make the distinction between what they say is whistleblowing or information about bureaucratic waste and abuse and information that's about government programs and government actions that the American people should know about.

Many of these secret programs are not -- the revelations are not in danger of national security. Instead, they bring about the kind of public debate that's necessary.

SESNO: One of the other things you point out is the increase in secrecy over the past several years. The report cites that by 2011, more than 4 million Americans -- 4 million Americans had security clearance.

DOWNIE: Yes. And as a result, way too much information is overclassified. So it's almost difficult for a government official to talk to a reporter about anything that isn't classified and the president promised again, at the beginning of his administration, he was going to reduce this overclassification of government administration.

There has been a commission from Congress that made recommendations to the president and wants specific ways to reduce that and none of that action has taken place yet.

SESNO: You quoted David Sanger, terrific reporter with "The New York Times," a memo went out from the chief of staff a year ago to White House employees, he told you, and the intelligence agencies that told people to freeze and retain any email and presumably phone logs of communications with me.

DOWNIE: This is the other problem with these leaks investigations, whether or not they result in prosecutions, is that there has been a lot of going through the communications records of reporters and their sources in government.

And that really does have a chilling effect. So reporters are telling me their sources don't want to talk to them on the telephone. They don't want to talk to them by e-mail and not just about classified information, about anything.

They only want to meet secretly if they want to meet at all. It's made it very, very difficult to do reporting. And also these are knowledgeable government officials who can help reporters out. You had a story earlier on this program about a problem with "The New York Times" story.


SESNO: That's what I'm going to ask about in a minute.

DOWNIE: The problem is if you can't talk to the knowledgeable government officials, then you're working around the edges with people that may not be so knowledgeable.

SESNO: Recommendations in this report for the government?

DOWNIE: Yes, well, first of all, to reduce overclassification is the president's promise but not carried out; to make it easier to get information through the Freedom of Information Act, which the president promised but has not yet done; and to tell government officials that you can talk directly to the press.

You don't have to go through the press officers all the time, get their permission or have to actually send the reporters to the press office. Let knowledgeable officials talk to the press.

SESNO: And I want to be clear here. You are not saying and the report is not calling for more leaks of sensitive information that would endanger national security.

You understand that. You all understand that. You've (inaudible) requests yourself not to report certain things and you sat on those stories?

DOWNIE: We didn't sit on the stories. That's usually not what --

SESNO: Sometimes.

DOWNIE: It is usually details within them, locations of things, names of things, things like that, as opposed to the fact that a certain program is going on that the American people should know about.

SESNO: Before I let you go, I do want to talk to you -- since you were executive editor at "The Washington Post" -- about what we were talking about earlier with "The New York Times."

Three very serious stories either getting it wrong or getting parts of it wrong in just eight days.


DOWNIE: Well, these things can happen, and particularly if the administration is not being very cooperative with the press. It's hard to get things (inaudible).

SESNO: You're blaming it on the administration?

DOWNIE: Well, that's part of it. But in terms of "The Times," I don't know the exact facts other than I don't want to sit in judgment of their editorial decisions. But what I can say is that it's important to be transparent.

This report is about being -- the government being transparent; the news media needs to be transparent, too. So if you make a mistake, you need to acknowledge your mistake and describe why did that happened. And in the case of the first two things that you've cited, they changed the stories without ever explaining why they changed the stories.

SESNO: And they should have done that?

DOWNIE: And it seems to me you should be transparent about that. SESNO: I wish they had joined us here today to explain what went wrong and how they make these choices.

I think the biggest issue for people and for most who would read this, it these "officials say." I think that's one of the big things that we all fight.

DOWNIE: Yes. But again, it's up to the administration to allow people to talk on the record and it's up to reporters to be aggressive about seeking that.

SESNO: Len Downie, as always, thank you so much. Thanks for the report and thanks for coming by.

DOWNIE: Thank you, Frank.

SESNO: Thanks for being transparent.

DOWNIE: Thank you.


SESNO: Coming up, don't blink. A look at the 6-second sensation that's gaining traction -- yes, in journalism -- and the corporate world.




SESNO: With our ever decreasing attention spans, it's no surprise that Vine, a social media tool that lets user share 6-second repeating videos, is taking off.

From newspapers to networks, news organizations are taking stock of this innovative technology as well. NowThis News has even hired an actual Vine video journalist. News organizations aren't the only ones using Vine to further their reach. Dunkin' Donuts, Target and Burt's Bees are just a few companies cashing in on this new marketing scheme.

Well, here to discuss the potential advantages and disadvantages of Vine, in New York, Barbara Lippert, a columnist at "MediaPost," and in Los Angeles, Cody Johns, NowThis News' first Vine video journalist.

All right, Cody. Since you're a Vine video journalist, you do everything in six seconds. A few 6-second questions for you.

What is NowThis News?

CODY JOHNS, NOWTHIS NEWS VINE JOURNALIST: So NowThis News is the first basic Vine news outlet, so anyone who gets on the app of Vine, the only thing that they're going to see newswise is NowThis News that is really dominating the medium with almost 100,000 followers in just a few short weeks. SESNO: All right. That was a little longer than six seconds, but I'll let you get by with it.


SESNO: What are you doing as a Vine journalist? Are you really doing 6-second news pieces?

JOHNS: Yes. And the reason we're able to execute it very well is because we can also incorporate a caption with the video. So we're doing a 6-second bit, and we're fitting in as much as we can while also posting words on the caption below.

SESNO: OK. I'm going to show a few of these in just a second.

But Barbara Lippert, how wide and far is 6-second video reaching?

BARBARA LIPPERT, MEDIAPOST: Well, first of all, for advertising as opposed to journalism, because maybe it's a little trivializing for journalism, but for advertising I think Vine is the greatest thing to happen since "Mad Men" because, let's face it, Frank, 30 seconds of advertising can be hideously boring and tough to watch.

SESNO: All right. Well, let me roll in a few of these.

First, Burt's Bees. We've got one here. Six seconds, check it out.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Bad travel choice.



LIPPERT: So they're selling their classic products by parodying classic literature and plays. And so that was "Gulliver's Travels." But the thing is, with advertisers, six seconds can be mesmerizing. If you try and write something for 30 seconds or even a minute, it can really go bad in so many ways.

SESNO: I'm not sure I'd call that last one mesmerizing, but let me show you this one.

Cody, I will let you have a shot at this.

Samsung put together a very interesting Vine 6-second loop. We'll let it repeat because you can barely tell it's repeating. Take a look.


SESNO: Just kind of -- well, I'm -- somebody running across; it makes you want to go for them.


JOHNS: Yes. It's a very well-executed stop-motion Vine. Those are also very popular, and they can appear that they're always continually looping in their -- it looks like it never stops, which is awesome about loops on Vine. And every single time you watch a video, it just repeats over and over again, so it gets ingrained into people's minds. That's why I think ads are doing so well on it.

LIPPERT: Yes. It can be pretty hypnotic, I think, and whereas if you're going to go online and look for a story and an ad covers it, you're really annoyed. It's really intrusive. You can't wait until you can exit out of it; whereas people go looking for Vines.

And I think because advertisers are so crafty, and they know how to use the medium so beautifully, and this costs almost nothing for them. They've made the best one so far.

SESNO: Let me show you how John McCain turned six seconds into a Vine.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZ.: I don't trust Vladimir Putin and his word and neither should the world.

I don't trust Vladimir Putin and his word and neither should the world.


SESNO: All right, Cody, we let that play twice just so people could see John McCain doesn't trust Vladimir Putin, apparently.

Where does that go? What does that tell people?

JOHNS: So I think what it's telling people is the legitimacy of Vine and doing posts that NowThis News is doing, is it's just -- we're going to be getting people like him and, you know, politicians and, you know, maybe even one day the president to do a short 6-second Vine video just --

SESNO: Does anybody learn anything from that, Cody? Does anybody learn anything from that?

JOHNS: Well, like I said, I think this is geared to more of the younger audience because the audience on Vine is very young. We're talking like 13 to maybe 20-23. So this is -- they need to be exposed to politics and news at their age, and I think this is the perfect medium for them.

SESNO: All right. Cody Johns, Barbara Lippert, we had a few more than six seconds, but not that much. But we'll keep watching Vine and thank you for your time and your insight.

When we come back, I'll go below the fold to some important stories that were crowded out by coverage of all this Washington noise.




SESNO: The media love a good food fight. He said, she said, they said, who is up, who is down, who is losing?


PIERS MORGAN, CNN HOST: There comes a point, if you're the President of the United States and it's your government that shuts down, you've got to be the big guy. You've got get in a room and do business.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC HOST: Why President Obama is right to fight this fight right now and break this Republican fever.


SESNO: The shutdown and the debt ceiling make for great headlines, better talk radio and must-see cable TV.


BILL O'REILLY, FOX NEWS HOST: The president's leadership quotient, as I said last night, is at its lowest point ever.

LAWRENCE O'DONNELL, MSNBC HOST: The Republicans could not defeat him at the ballot box, and so now they are determined to prevent the president from governing.


SESNO: The drama shoves so much else off the radar. Just this week California letting immigrants in the U.S. illegally get driver's licenses. What's that mean?

A new report on climate change says it's happening faster than ever.

Washington stopping hundreds of millions in aid to Egypt.

And that's just for starters.

A cyclone slams India. Snowden emerges, Malala inspires, Iraq unravels, and the U.S. agrees to sell Vietnam nuclear fuel and technology.

Go figure.

Now these nuggets can all be found online and in newspapers, but they've been barely visible on TV, which matters because TV is still the runaway news source in this country. A new survey by the Pew Research Center shows almost three- quarters of us watch local news, about two-thirds network news and nearly four in 10 watch cable every month. The cable audience is the most dedicated. On average they spent twice as much time viewing as those watching local and network news. The heaviest users, more than an hour a day.

And here the story takes a twist because, despite all the polarization, more than a third who watch liberal MSNBC also watch conservative FOX. More than a quarter of FOX viewers also watch MSNBC. And about half of both watch CNN.

So maybe the lens doesn't have to be so narrow. Maybe there's room for more than process and politics.

Wouldn't you like to know more about all those Nobel Prize winners last week? They actually did something.

That's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Frank Sesno. If you missed part of our show, you can find us online or on iTunes. Just search for Reliable Sources in the iTunes store. You can also join the conversation on Twitter. Tweet to us @CNNReliable or use the #reliable. Join us here again next Sunday morning at 11:00 am Eastern. "STATE OF THE UNION" with Candy Crowley begins right now.