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MSNBC Attacking Chris Christie?; Storm Brews Between Weather Channel, DirecTV; A Golden Age for Documentaries

Aired January 19, 2014 - 11:00   ET


BRIAN STELTER, CNN HOST: This is Park City, Utah, home of the world famous Sundance Film Festival, where you'll find everything from tiny independent films, to multinational marketers. The biggest names in the media business are here, and so are unknown filmmakers, hoping to be tomorrow's blockbuster stars.

This week, we'll go behind the scenes with the big documentaries and the big business of Sundance.

And we'll tell you about the rest of the week's biggest stories, including the dramatic battle between the Weather Channel and DirecTV.

And the debut of Sasheer Zamata, who had a lot of people laughing last night on "Saturday Night Live."

I'm Brian Stelter, and it's time for a special edition of RELIABLE SOURCES.


STELTER: There's no prompter. No prompt -- good morning. I'm Brian Stelter.

We're at the CNN lounge in Park City, where the biggest names in the film business are here. Of course, a lot of film buyers, a lot of filmmakers, and ordinary film buffs as well. And we'll take you here and show you all about it, coming up.

We'll also talk to a few veterans of the festival that have been covering it before to fill us all in.

We want to get to a big story that developed this weekend first. And, of course, it involves New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and MSNBC, the liberal cable channel.

Christie went to Florida, and he's doing a little bit of fund- raising, but left some troubles back behind in New Jersey.

Just a week after he faced news of a scandal over a politically motivated traffic tie-up at the George Washington Bridge, new claims have emerged that his office withheld Superstorm Sandy relief funds from the city of Hoboken when its mayor wouldn't support a project that Christie was backing. Now, MSNBC has led the charge on this story.

And the Hoboken mayor, her name is Dawn Zimmer, provided the channel with emails and personal notes to back up her claims.

Many MSNBC anchors have a liberal bent, so it's no surprise the channel has spent a great deal of time talking about Christie's various controversies. But the governor's office is fighting back. They are accusing the channel of being on the attack.

In a statement on Saturday, here's what they said. "MSNBC is a partisan network that has been openly hostile to Governor Christie, and almost gleeful in their efforts attacking him, even taking the unprecedented step of producing and airing a nearly three-minute long attack ad this week. Governor Christie and his entire administration have been helping Hoboken get the help they need after Sandy, with the city already having been approved for nearly $70 million in federal rate, and is targeted to get even more when the Obama administration approves the next rounds of funding."

So, what's going on here? What does this tell us about cable news?

Well, joining me from New York, Kate Zernike, my former colleague at "The New York Times," who has covered Chris Christie extensively.

And in Washington, Erik Wemple of "The Washington Post."

Kate, let me start with you.

The Christie administration uses the word "gleeful" to describe MSNBC. Do you think that's a fair word?

KATE ZERNIKE, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Well, I think, look, I think in some cases, certainly, the later evening hosts, Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O'Donnell, but do we ever -- as you mentioned -- do we ever expect that they were anything but liberal television hosts?

I think actually, Steve Kornacki, who did the story yesterday on Hoboken, has actually been pretty fair. He's a former -- he's well- versed in New Jersey. He started his reporting career there.

So, I think, actually, his story was fairly well-reported. I think he gave a pie. He talked about Christie's reaction. He pressed Dawn Zimmer pretty forcefully on why didn't you come forward if this was really what you were talking about?

So, I think that in some cases, yes, the network has been aggressively anti-Christie. On the other hand, again, look at the morning, "Morning Joe" is still very much supporting Christie. That's where Christie has always had his real friends.

STELTER: What do you think, Erik? You recently spent a whole day watching MSNBC and you wrote a blog post about what that was like. You were analyzing the liberal bent of the channel. Does a story like this just show that MSNBC is to the left what FOX is to the right? ERIK WEMPLE, THE WASHINGTON POST: I don't think that there's an equivalency quite that way. Kate basically took all the words out of my mouth.

What Kornacki did was reporting. He added a significant dimension to this story. I mean, while certainly there was a lot of blather on the MSNBC airwaves this week, everybody talking about Christie and not necessarily advancing the story in terms of reporting much, Kornacki was sitting there, documenting this new revelation about Dawn Zimmer. I think that's a very significant addition and even the "New York Times" and just about everybody else has had to follow those revelations.

So, I mean, I don't think that there's an equivalency. FOX tends to just hammer away, hammer away, hammer away, doesn't make huge reporting splashes like this on a big story. And as routinely, I think this is actually a very significant and good moment for MSNBC, which, of course, ended 2013 on a terrible, terrible note, set of notes.

STELTER: Well, with Martin Bashir, with Alec Baldwin, with Melissa Harris-Perry, all these various controversies, "SNL", "Saturday Night Live," actually brought up this latest allegation about Hoboken last night. Let's run the clip.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm very curious about how this new allegations that you withheld Hurricane Sandy funds to punish the mayor of Hoboken.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, really? You're curious? Well, let me ask you a question, Piers, how long is your drive to work?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't know. Maybe 15 minutes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, that's a nice commute. It would be a real shame if something were to happen to it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Wait a second. Governor, are you threatening me?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't know. Am I?


STELTER: I run this clip to make the point that Christie is being raked over the coals about these various controversies.

Kate, did you read the MSNBC -- did you read the statement attacking MSNBC and perceive this as an attempt to change the topic and move it over to media bias opposed to these actual issues?

ZERNIKE: Absolutely. And you probably can't blame him, and this is probably what other politicians would do, is change the story from being about them, to being about something else, namely media bias. You know, I think Governor Christie has also shown himself really good at this. Earlier this year, there's a story locally in New Jersey about how during Hurricane Sandy he had -- NJ Transit had not moved the trains to higher ground. Anyway, Governor Christie was asked about this by one of the newspapers and he blamed what he called a mid-level civil servant.

Well, it turns out there are no mid-level civil servants at NJ Transit. So, we've seen -- again, we've seen this pattern before and what people are looking for is patterns. The pattern here is trying to shift the blame on to someone else.

WEMPLE: Yes, I don't think --

STELTER: Yes, it might be -- go ahead, Erik. Sorry.

WEMPLE: No, I don't think -- you know, there's also a certain naivete in the statement they issue. I mean, we've all watched MSNBC. We know that when something bad happens to Republicans, there will be a gleeful tone.

I don't think that the Christie people help themselves at all by complaining about tone of coverage. You know, I think Americans basically neutered to tone. I think what matters are the facts.

STELTER: I wonder if this is going to further hurt NBC News. MSNBC has relationships with NBC News. NBC News would love to have interviews with Chris Christie. It'd love to have GOP debates in 2016.

Erik, do you see this affecting NBC News at all?

WEMPLE: I do. I think there's --

STELTER: A high-profile possible candidate for 2016 coming out against MSNBC?

WEMPLE: I do. I think there's a massive amount of tension between the organizations and I think that -- you know, excuse me, the NBC News people I talked to are always somewhat wondrous or, you know, shaking their heads about the fact that especially in the daytime and into primetime as well, there's a lot of talk and not enough reporting.

But as I say, I think this Kornacki thing steers it in a new direction. It's an interesting mishmash here.

STELTER: Kate, I remember a story you wrote about a month ago about the image of Chris Christie being a bully. And back then it was hard to get pique people to come on the record. Wasn't it?

ZERNIKE: Right. I mean, the stories that were included in that piece were generally the pieces that -- were generally the elements I had seen reported elsewhere that I could get people to talk about. But it was incredibly hard to get people to talk, because there is -- Governor Christie is an incredibly powerful governor. He appoints so many positions across the state. He's go this tremendous power of the purse, like other governors.

So, there's really a feeling by Democrats and Republicans that they don't want to cross him because they could get in real trouble and things will -- you know, they will be punished and have seen it happen to their colleagues before. What's interesting now is that I think, you know, MSNBC is not the only one perhaps smelling a little bit of blood in the water.

I think there are other people, you know, in the last few days, I've been talking to people -- their willingness to either share more or share on the record has been really striking to me. So, I think it's actually a sign of how much the governor is in trouble.

STELTER: It sounds like more stories to come from you and your colleagues?

ZERNIKE: I would think so, yes.

STELTER: And maybe the point is there are stories from all sorts of places. MSNBC is partisan in many ways. That doesn't mean they can't do factual reporting.

And, Erik, I wonder if that's something they may have to remind viewers or viewers may have to come around and believe.

STELTER: Yes. Well, I think that's a really good point. I don't think that we should get this notion just because you're a partisan journalism outfit, you can't do news, you can't break news.

I mean, Maddow last year had the Rand Paul thing. Now, Maddow, as we know, every time we watch her, we know she has a great or fabulously entrenched world view. I'm not saying world view itself is fabulous, but anyway she has done a lot of that.

"Mother Jones" and "National Review" last year in the government shutdown, they have a world view, of course. But Robert Costa was out there reporting and breaking a lot of stories.

So, partisan outfits or, you know, ideologically leaning outfits can certainly do news. And this is a reminder -- I agree with Kate 100 percent that the Kornacki segments, or the segments, I should say, were really good and I think are a great reminder to all of us who think that partisan or ideologically invested journalism can't do anything on news. They can.

STELTER: I do think it will create more attention for NBC News, though.

Erik, Kate, thank you both for joining us.

ZERNIKE: Thanks, Brian.

STELTER: And remember, I'm always interested in hearing what you think of the show and what you're hearing today. Look me up on Facebook and Twitter. My user name is Brian Stelter. I'm also live tweeting the show. Thanks to my fiancee over on Twitter also. Next is DirecTV versus the Weather Channel, an epic media battle. We'll explain it, coming up.


STELTER: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES from Park City, Utah.

Now, the story of a blackout. The Weather Channel disappeared from 20 million homes this week because of a nasty dispute with DirecTV. You know, these blackouts happen from time to time and they're usually short lived. But this one is not. This one is a doozy. It's already almost a week old and it's affecting one in six American households.

Of course, there's big implications here for other cable channels, too. I want to get into that.

But, first, Jim Cantore, one of the faces of the Weather Channel, happens to be here in park city. He's going skiing with advertisers today.

So, earlier this morning, he came by and he told me about how he feels about this blackout.


STELTER: Jim, thanks for joining me.

JIM CANTORE, WEATHER CHANNEL: Thanks for having me.

STELTER: So, is this the first time that Weather Channel has been blacked out on any major cable or satellite provider?

CANTORE: Thirty-two years strong and we've never been dropped, only added.

STELTER: What do you think is at stake with this blackout then?

CANTORE: The first thing that came to me is why, think about my coverage in the field and how many people come up to me and say, Jim, we really appreciate you guys being there. You made us prepare. You got us ahead of the storm and you took us through it. And without you on DirecTV, because we can't get cable -- we're out in the middle of nowhere, we would not have known that storm is coming.

STELTER: And that's what you said in the letter also before the blackout happened.


STELTER: You said this is a life-saving channel.


STELTER: I've never seen a channel position itself that way in a negotiation with distributor. Was it really appropriate to say this channel is about saving lives?

CANTORE: I really think when you kind of look at the Weather Channel overall, and when you think about what happens before a storm, whether you're an emergency manager's office, whether you're even at the National Weather Service or local TV station, your first hint at what's to come is from the Weather Channel.

STELTER: Well, that campaign, it didn't seem to work. DirecTV dropped the channel anyway. Do you have any sense what their motivations are here?

CANTORE: I don't. I mean, you know, I'm not part of the executive committee that makes the decisions. Obviously, you know, there's money involved.

STELTER: But you made a point in your letter. You said this is not about a huge increase in fee.

CANTORE: It's not.

STELTER: You said a penny?

CANTORE: We're asking a penny per subscriber. That's right. And that is not a big deal. Certainly -- especially when it comes to saving lives. As I said to you, people come up to me and make it a point to tell me and thank me how much they appreciate our coverage.

And so, I'm driven to get it back on DirecTV.

STELTER: Yes. What's it been like the past few days? Are you hearing from people on Twitter and on Facebook complaining about this?

CANTORE: (INAUDIBLE) pouring, is a Web site that we started up just so people could keep informed and keep up to date on what's going on. And in four days, we've had 4 million hits. So, a million people a day have come in to seek information about what's going on.

I mean, a lot of people come on Twitter and said, Jim, we really want this resolved. We missed you on the Weather Channel. We missed seeing the Weather Channel.

STELTER: Blackouts ten years ago. There weren't these online tools to complain and push for a change. But now, I guess you hear from people all the time about this.

CANTORE: I think it's kind of amazing, actually. We're really humbled at the outcome of support we've had. And it's immediate. It's immediate.

As soon as we went off, you know, midnight, people were like, where is the Weather Channel? Especially at resort areas.


CANTORE: Hilton properties, the number one viewed channel is the Weather Channel. And so when people are out and they don't have access to weather information, it's a local weather information, they're wondering what it's going to be like to fly back to New York, to fly back to Boston, to fly back to L.A. And that's how they get it.

STELTER: But what about the comment that people can just get out their phone and view the app instead and find out online?

CANTORE: Here's my analogy with that, all right? If your knee is starting to ail a little bit, you may go online and see what the symptoms may be, what that compares with in terms of what it may be. But at the end of the day, you're going to the doctor to find out what's going on with that.

STELTER: And the channel is the doctor, huh?

CANTORE: We're the doctor.

STELTER: Well, Jim, thanks for being here.

CANTORE: Thank you.


STELTER: Now, DirecTV has a very different story. They say this is all about saving their customers money. Right now, the Weather Channel gets about 13 cents per person per month. That's what you're paying if you have cable or satellite. DirecTV wants to reduce that by about 20 percent.

In its public statements, the company keeps pointing out kind of what I asked Jim about, that weather station is a commodity. It's available on the internet, including on the Weather Channel's own Web site, and its own app.

When the blackout started, DirecTV said this, "Consumers understand there are now a variety of other ways to get weather coverage, free of reality show clutter and that the Weather Channel does not have an exclusive on weather coverage. The weather belongs to everyone."

Joining me now from San Francisco is Barry Parr. He's a vice president and lead analyst for Outsell and he's been watching this battle unfold.

Barry, thanks for joining me.

BARRY PARR, OUTSELL: Thank you for having me.

STELTER: So, what do you think this is all about?

PARR: Well, there are a number of dynamics going on in the marketplace. Certainly the fact that weather is a commodity is part of the issue here. The other thing is we're seeing a real transition in the paid television business, both within satellite and cable TV, where they are going into an area where they're going to need to cut costs to their programming.

STELTER: Does it hurt the Weather Channel? Do they have such a great Web site and such a great app where you can get the same information?

PARR: Well, I mean, it's not even just simply that the Weather Channel's app and Web site are so great. There are lots of places on the Internet where you can get weather.

Also, if you're talking about severe weather in a local area, the local broadcasters, both television and radio, are all over it. That's a key part of their local coverage as well.

STELTER: So, in other words, the Weather Channel may not be as unique as it's saying it is.

Were you as struck as I was by this promotional campaign where they're saying the Weather Channel saves lives so it's irresponsible to take it off DirecTV?

PARR: That was a pretty astonishing statement. I was surprised that they would --


PARR: Make such an extreme statement about what they were able to do and provide to local communities.

And I'm not sure that the facts would bear it out if you would really examine it.

STELTER: Let's examine what you said earlier about the cable ecosystem. There are going to have to be cost cutting moves by these distributors. These subscriber fees can't keep rising forever.

Do you think DirecTV was trying to send a message to other channels by taking Weather Channel off the air?

PARR: Well, I mean, if you look at what the Weather Channel represents in terms of the monthly cable bill, it's a pretty small amount of money. The fact that they were willing to play such extreme hardball with them suggests that they're really taking it as an opportunity to send a message to future negotiating partners. We saw earlier this year --


PARR: Yes, go ahead.

For example, earlier this year --


STELTER: -- for a channel like CNN or a channel like al Jazeera, that also provides somewhat commoditized news. Is there a lesson for other cable channels in this? PARR: I think news is pretty different. Cable news channels have a pretty strong relationship with their viewers.

You know, cable news viewership is down. But on the other hand, that relationship with those viewers is very strong.

Also, I believe that, you know, news coverage is pretty different from weather in the sense that that voice really matters. The way that you show the news on television can vary greatly from station -- from network to network, if done properly.

STELTER: Well, Barry Parr, thank you so much for being here and explaining what this is all about.

PARR: Thank you.

STELTER: Coming up, we're here in Park City, talking about Sundance. Why is this a golden age for documentary film? We'll take you behind the scenes and tell you, next.


STELTER: No speeches.

Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Brian Stelter.

We're here on the CNN Film's lounge in Park City. We've taken over a sushi restaurant. We're serving breakfast back there.

And we brought the show to Sundance, because this right here is the beating heart of the film business, especially the documentary film business, which is getting more attention than ever, thanks to streams services like Netflix, and television studios and networks and channels like this one.

Earlier being I went to catch up with a couple of Park City reporters who explained the significance of the festival.


STELTER (voice-over): Three decades ago, actor Robert Redford and a few filmmaker friends got together in Park City, Utah, to screen movies and develop independent film projects.

ROBERT REDFORD, ACTOR: I came here because of the beauty. I came here because of the state's particular history, pioneer history. So, I wanted to preserve that at Sundance, but also, I wanted to add something that would create a new dimension. Let's go to Utah, and let's put it in the middle of winter. Make it weird. Make it weird and strange for people to get to. Maybe that will be something.

STELTER (on camera): Now celebrating its 30th anniversary, this film festival has grown into one of the leading showcases of independent film in the world. Now, as these traffic jams attest, this small mountain town gets taken over by filmmakers, buyers and a whole lot of ordinary film fans. TERRY BURDEN, ANCHOR, PCTV: It's tough to get around. You go from small town feel to rush hour Manhattan.

STELTER (voice-over): Local TV anchor Terry Burden says that even for Sundance veterans, every festival is a new experience.

BURDEN: There really is no way, even if you've been here many years, that you can completely prepare for what happens when Sundance occurs. Not just in terms of numbers of people but also in terms of the intensity of the activity.

STELTER: One hundred twenty films were selected for this year's festival from over 12,000 entries. Eventually, some of them show up in their local multiplex, and increasingly on TV and streaming services as well.

BURDEN: What takes place at Sundance filters into and influences other films, not just here in the United States, but all around the world. And that's a cross-pollination that's really special about this film festival over all others.

STELTER: For instance, four of the five documentaries that picked up Oscar nominations this week screened at Sundance this time last year.

Rick Brough, who's covered every festival, says you never know which are going to break out and there's never enough time to see them all.

RICK BROUGH, KPCW: I've been here, you know, for 30 or 35 years. I'm still trying to figure out the strategy for going to Sundance.


STELTER: Well, for a deeper dive, joining me here in Park City are three film reporters, Brooks Barnes, who covers the film industry for "The New York Times", Barbara Chai, who does the same for "The Wall Street Journal", and Ramin Setoodeh, a New York film editor for "Variety".

And, Ramin, I want to start with you. What's the news out of the festival so far?

RAMIN SETOODEH, VARIETY: It's a little bit of a slow start this year. We only had two really big deals. The first is "Whiplash," which is a drama starring Taylor, Sony Pictures classic picked up for $2.5 million. And second is "Dinosaur 13", which is a documentary that Lion's Gate picked up. And it will also air here on CNN.

STELTER: So, let's talk about that. CNN involved now in buying documentaries, what's that all about?

BROOKS BARNES, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Well, I think they want a different audience or they want an audience that has been proven for documentaries. But I also big deals, you know, so far, those aren't being compared to the history of Sundance here, right? STELTER: What was the biggest ones in the past? "Little Miss Sunshine" was a big one.

BARNES: I mean, last year, there was something for almost $10 million. The documentaries are a $1 million premium price. But I think we were talking earlier that the festival kind of rolls out a little slower in recent years as different buyers kind of circle around and figure out like, can I make money on idea, is there theatrical at all?

STELTER: Yes, isn't this a great time to be a filmmaker, Barbara? Because here are different ways to distribute film?

BARBARA CHAI, WALL STREET JOURNAL: Absolutely. I mean, it's getting more and more affordable. The technology, digital recording for these filmmakers to experiment and do things that they weren't able to do on lower budgets before.

So, you find that filmmakers are often marrying fiction storytelling techniques, with documentary filmmaking. And a great example of this is "Dinosaur 13", where Todd Miller auctioned the rights to a book by Peter Larsen, a paleontologist that was called Rex Appeal.

And he said when he was reading, he felt every bit of intrigue and drama as "Jurassic Park" or "Indiana Jones". So, while it's reportage, it's all based in fact, you want to kind of replicate that experience for the audience.

STELTER: I bring up CNN. It's interesting to see television networks coming here, trying to do deals. We saw a new channel called Pivot and Univision do a deal yesterday for a film. What kind of television networks are in the bidding wars nowadays?

BARNES: Well, Netflix. Is that a network?


BARNES: You know, the thing with documentaries in particular, it used to be HBO, you know? That's basically --

STELTER: And that was kind of the end all, be all?

BARNES: Yes. You had PBS or HBO. You kind of what HBO because it was sexier, right? And now, Univision yesterday bought that film, CNN. And CNN came with three films already this year, and last year got one of the more controversial ones with "Blackfish".

STELTER: "Blackfish," they bought here, I think, last year, and it was short-listed for the Oscar this year.

CHAI: That's right, yeah. And they came here with "Whitey Bulger," which is a fascinating documentary by Joe Berlinger, who did the "Paradise Lost" trilogy. And it's just one of these documentaries that presents new, kind of, shocking evidence about whether or not Whitey Bulger was an FBI informant. STELTER: But you mentioned they're trying to get a different audience. The idea, I guess, for a CNN or a Pivot or a Univision is to bring in, what, a younger kind of audience that wouldn't otherwise watch news, you think?

BARNES: I guess so. I mean, CNN wants ratings.


STELTER: And "Blackfish" did very well for them.


SETOODEH: "Blackfish" only made $2 million in movie theaters. So what to keep in mind is that people are watching documentaries, but they're watching them on TV and not in the movies. If you think of the most successful documentaries...

STELTER: And, of course, on Netflix.

SETOODEH: On Netflix. The most successful documentary of all time, "Fahrenheit 911," came out almost 10 years ago. People will go to music documentaries with Justin Bieber or Katy Perry, but these news documentaries really now have shifted to the small screen.


STELTER: ... Netflix had a big party here and Mitt Romney actually showed up yesterday. They seem -- they've been running documentaries for years. But I guess what's different now is they want them exclusively on Netflix. Is that right?

BARNES: Well, it's a way to market themselves, right?

CHAI: Yeah.

BARNES: You can -- like anyone, you can put a little money behind it.

STELTER: Right, and when you have a party, and Mitt Romney shows up, that gives you more press.


BARNES: And I loved what he said, something like "enjoy" wasn't the word that came to his mind.


STELTER: When he watched it?



STELTER: It was, like, a pretty flattering film about him, though? It's behind the scenes...

SETOODEH: It's pretty -- yeah, it seems pretty nice to him. But it's easier for Netflix to acquire a documentary than it is, for example, a big blockbuster and to have that exclusively. So it's easier for them to differentiate themselves through documentaries.

CHAI: Which they do with "The Square," which is nominated this year for an Oscar, that won the audience award here at Sundance last year.

STELTER: Right, and "The Square," one of five films to being nominated for an Oscar this year.

CHAI: That's right.

STELTER: And, for Netflix, that's the first time they could be on stage at the Oscars, isn't it?

CHAI: A pretty big deal, yeah.

Anyway, what's interesting about "The Square" is that, while it premiered here at Sundance, it was one ending, and then, by the time it got to Toronto, you know, then...

STELTER: Toronto was in, what, September?

CHAI: That's right.

STELTER: That's the other biggest film festival of the year?

CHAI: Exactly. And by that time, events on the ground in Cairo had changed and Morsi had been ousted. So she had to literally go back and revise her ending.

STELTER: Have we seen that with other films as well, these real- time films?

CHAI: Yeah, I mean, about issues that are in the present tense, such as "West of Memphis," the case with the West Memphis Three. That director had to go back and update it with the fact that they had accepted this rare Alford plea. So that's also interesting. It's investigative reporting in real time.

SETOODEH: And "Life Itself," the Roger Ebert documentary, which CNN also has, that was the last four months of Ebert's life. And, obviously, the filmmakers didn't know that going in. But now they have very important footage of a very historic figure in film-making.

STELTER: It does sound, though, from what you were saying at the beginning, that this is more about art than commerce, that this is not a big business for filmmakers out here?

BARNES: Well, that's one of the questions with Sundance is that, as the arthouse sector has moved, kind of, more toward VOD, just what are the theatrical hopes of some of these films? And it means a lot for Sundance because, if they don't want to be known as the "Sundance Television Festival," you know, and the filmmakers get into doing -- they spend their money and go broke to get their movie in theaters, right?

So it's been, more and more from the agents, you hear that, "Oh, this would be a great VOD play," you know...

STELTER: Do you all prefer watching on a smaller screen these days? Do you prefer watching docs on a television set or a smart phone?

CHAI: That's such an interesting question because I talked to Joe Berlinger yesterday, and the first thing he asked me was...

STELTER: He's the "Whitey" director?

CHAI: He's the "Whitey" director who also did "Paradise Lost" and a number of other films. This is his sixth time at Sundance. And he said, "How did my film look on the big screen? I hadn't watched -- as many of us do, we watch advance screeners and I'd streamed it online."

And so I couldn't even tell him, but I saw it on my large flat- screen television, so it felt like being in a theater.


SETOODEH: But you want -- I think you -- you don't want to compromise the -- the movie theaters and you don't want to -- you want to go see a movie in a movie theater and you want to have that theatrical experience. And my -- I think Hollywood's fear is that, if everything goes to VOD, people will stop going to the movies.

So there's a fine balance between going to VOD and still keep movies in the theaters.

STELTER: It feels like a real tension that's just going to continue to exist.

Well, thank you all for being here.

SETOODEH: Thank you very much.

CHAI: Thanks for having us.

BARNES: Thank you.

STELTER: Coming up, three directors here at Sundance, including a couple we just mentioned, talk about the power to report the news through documentary film. Stay tuned.


STELTER: Welcome back to Park City. For the past few days, I've been talking with directors of some of the big documentaries here at Sundance. I get the sense from them that there's never been a better time to be making documentaries, but also never a more complicated time.

Filmmakers love knowing that their work could be seen on television and on demand, as we were just talking about with our panel. But many of them still yearn for a theatrical release, and they say there's something special about the communal experience of the movie theater.

You know, documentary's a unique format. It mixes elements of capital "J" journalism and storytelling, and that's something that I discussed with the director of "Dinosaur 13," Todd Douglas Miller.


STELTER: So "Dinosaur 13" is mostly through the eyes of the people that found the dinosaur and tried to hold onto her, her name being Sue. Do you feel it's an act of journalism to make a film like this or is it something different?

TODD DOUGLAS MILLER, DIRECTOR: It's a little bit of both, you know. It's, kind of, a hybrid, I guess, you know. I mean, the film follows mainly the four original discovers and their, you know, 10- year saga after the initial discovery.


MILLER: So, yeah, I think...

STELTER: I mean, is it an act of journalism to be interviewing them?

Because you don't hear a lot from the other side.

MILLER: Yeah. I mean, we made a -- you know, a conscious decision to have everybody's -- you know, there's no narration in the film. We wanted everybody's, you know, first-person narrative.

So, yeah, I mean, we -- the one thing I will say, usually journalism is a lot quicker. You know, I wanted people in a chair for sometimes two, three days. So our interviews were very long, so we could -- these guys were used to being on camera. So I didn't want, like, quick sound bites that you're going to get within, like, 10 minutes.

So, you know, hour three, hour four of an interview, then you start, kind of, breaking that barrier where they're really getting into what they really thought about something.

STELTER: Maybe day two or day three, it sounds like.

MILLER: Yeah, if they hadn't passed out by then.


(END VIDEOTAPE) STELTER: Nadav Schirman's film, "The Green Prince," also involved days of interviews. He had two main characters, a Palestinian, who's the son of a Hamas leader who becomes an Israeli spy, and his Israeli handler. He explained to me why docs are different.


STETLER: The subject of your film was covered in the news years ago. And you went back and interviewed them. Were you acting as a journalist or as something else?

NADAV SCHIRMAN, FILMMAKER: Not at all. I was acting as a filmmaker, as a...

STETLER: So, you didn't see as a journalistic obligation, for example, to factcheck what they were saying?

SCHIRMAN: Well, we -- but that's the preliminary research that I do. So, I come very well prepared. But my goal is to (inaudible) emotion. So, when I interview somebody, I'm not after the facts or the story itself, because I already know the story, this is this is my preparation work. When I interview them, I'm trying to get their emotional connection to the story, I'm trying to generate emotion, because this is what will create the connection with the audience afterwards.

STETLER: So it's not news, but it's story telling?

SCHIRMAN: It's pure story telling. I think it's the same way as a director you would work with actors to make them feel comfortable, to create the circumstances in which they could best express their emotions. It's the same thing.

I mean, Mosab (Ph) was interviewed largely on CNN, they were exclusive with Christiane Amanpour, amazing interviews about the facts, not about this emotional relation to the facts.

And, you know, he wrote a book which became a best seller. So, he was a media sensation.

So, there were a lot of interviews. You will not find anything in the green print, in the film which is similar to his interviews because it's all about the emotion.

STETLER: For so many of these films, access is essential. And access is exactly what Greg Whiteley had for Mitt, that's a documentary about Mitt Romney's unsuccessful bids for the presidency in 2008 and 2012. And that's why Mitt Romney was here yesterday in Park City.

Whiteley spent years with Romney. So when he came by the CNN lounge yesterday, I asked him about his reflections.

The Mitt Romney in your film is not the Romney a lot of people seem to see in the press day-to-day. Does your film suggest that, you know, the press should be given more access to candidates and that candidates would be better off if they showed more of themselves to the world?

GREG WHITELEY, FILMMAKER: I don't quite understand that. Obviously, this is something that was new to me. But I noticed this very adversarial relationship that existed between the press and the campaign and I think the candidate, Mitt Romney, was sometimes caught in between the two of those.

For whatever reason, and I take it as a compliment that people see the film and say, wow, I didn't realize that side of Mitt Romney existed. I wonder if that's true of other candidates. I tend to think that it is. I think that there is a side to all of us, that when we're more vulnerable and we're willing to show some of our weaknesses, we also become more likable.

I'm not sure that you could parlay that into a campaign strategy. It's just -- but I with they would. I'm waiting for the next candidate to call me and give me access.

STETLER: In your documentary, it's premiering on Netflix in just a few days, what's that like as a filmmaker to know it's going to be out to the public so soon?

WHITELEY: For us, the apex of your buzz happens during Sundance.

STETLER: But so many of these films have to wait months before they come out in theaters or on TV?

WHITELEY: Yeah, and what happens is all those people that original wrote about your film and were excited about your film, they don't want to write about it again. So, teaming up with Netflix, and just talking with them about how this film ought to be rolled out -- because they have this -- they're somewhat nimble in how they can roll the film out. They don't have to go through the same machinations or use the same apparatus as a traditional distribution method.

STETLER: We'll be putting these full interviews up on our blog at So check them out.

Coming up, it's Saturday Night Live and the much-anticipated debut of their newest cast member. We'll see how she did.



ANNOUNCER: Sasheer Zamata.


STETLER: Welcome back.

That was Sasheer Zamata, you just saw, making her Saturday Night Live debut last night. She the first African-American actress to join the cast since Maya Rudolph who left the show six years ago.

SNL launched a nationwide search last fall for a black female cast member after coming under fire, as they should have, for what critics called a lack of diversity in the cast. What does Sasheer's addition to the her debut mean for future of SNL?

Joining me now to discuss in New York Rachel Sklar, technology writer and co-founder of The List. And in Los Angeles actress and comedienne Debra Wilson. Welcome to you both.

RACHEL SKLAR, CO-FOUNDER THE LIST: Thanks for having us.

STETLER: And let's start with a review. Deborah, what did you think of the show last night?

DEBRA WILSON, ACRESS: Well, keep in mind, she's only -- not a full cast member right now. So, she's still on the fringes. I know a lot of people probably expected her to come running out and doing something pretty amazing, but most people don't realize that she is not a full cast member of the show. So what you see is what you get for the first episode. And it's not going to be projected that she is going to come out of the ballpark with this meteoric rise only because she's not fully there yet.

And I think we have a lot more to see and I think America is going to expect a lot more ethnic humor to really be able to open up the palate of "Saturday Night Live."

STETLER: Let's talk about that. Rachel, you and I are Facebook friends. After the show you wrote on Facebook, this felt like a big catch-up, leap forward for an American media institution. Tell me why.

SKLAR: Because SNL reflects the reality and zeitgeist and the current popular culture. And so when that is reflected largely through the views of a mostly white writer's room and a mostly white cast and without diversity across gender and race and experience, then you're going to have something much more narrow.

So, this felt very much like a course correction. We know it was a course correction, number one, because of the outcry and number two, because they actually made the change.

And, you know, we're going to see diversity now sort of perspective and philosophies and just experiences. Even just the diversity of the characters that they'll be able to portray on SNL.

Like, for example, Rihanna. That was a nice change. They had someone who could credibly play Rihanna.

STETLER: Right. We've seen a lot of -- we've seen a couple of other cast members who are men play women in the past. Maybe we're going to see less of that in the future. Debra, what did you make of the pressure that was applied to SNL last year and the fact that they did listen, it seems like, too, people's voices.

WILSON: Well, I think they finally listened, but you have to remember something, the one thing I have been saying all along in other interviews, was that this was not a democracy. Saturday Night Live can do whatever they choose to do. Broadway Video can do whatever they choose to do. That's what they chose to do. And being that they responded to the masses, they're then saying I'm consciously taking responsibility for not having enough diversity on the show. At that point, it becomes a whole different situation. So now that they have got more diversity on the show, an African-American woman in the first six years, they do have a responsibility to make sure that ethnic humor is brought to the forefront of the show, and that it's not always going to be frat boy humor anymore.

Not only that, but because they brought in two other writers that are both black women, we're really seeing this show open up, I mean, it's going to really flower in different perspectives, and I think because of that, you're going to get a chance to see more African Americans and people of color watching the show to see an aspect of themselves. So kudos on them for recognizing it because they chose to recognize it, even if it was under pressure.

SKLAR: I would actually take it a step further.

STELTER: I'm glad you mentioned the writers. Rachel, is the writer hire even more important?

SKLAR: The writer hire, the fact that they added two black women to the writer's room, in addition to Sasheer, who also will be writing and generating her own material, yes, that's significant, because it's not just one person who's expected to, you know, be the one who's the torch bearer and making the difference all by herself. It's part of a larger change. And that's why I want to pick up on what Debra said, she's right, SNL is not a democracy, their goal is to be funny. Their goal is to get ratings, they goal is to stay on the air. That's why they want to stay with the culture. This is actually an admission on SNL's part that something was missing, and that there was a hole in their cast, and in their writer's room, that they needed to fill. That diversity actually does improve the final product. So I think that's the key lesson to take away from this, that this wasn't SNL's bending to crybabies and the bleeding hearts on the left. This was actually about quality and the fact that already, the show felt better yesterday.

STELTER: How does she avoid, or is there a concern about her being stigmatized in some way? Do you think that's an issue that will have to be addressed?

SKLAR: I don't really think so. I think she came out, she supported the sketches she was in. She had a couple of memorable turns. She seemed like a great fit.

Again, the goal of SNL, I remember I did a story on SNL in the profile the last time there was a big cast turnover, and back at that time, Amy Poehler said we're not looking to change minds, we just want to be funny, and we have great people and a great cast to support each other, and that's how we get there. And I think that's been part of the SNL magic over the years is that they are constantly evolving, they are trying to reflect what's funny in the world and they're moving with the times. And popular culture always lagged a little behind the times, but now we have social media, with its immediate response, sending the signal back to pop culture and merging with it. So I think that that's why this turnover happened a lot more quickly. But that doesn't mean that it wasn't necessary.

STELTER: Debra and Rachel, thank you for joining us.

Up next, a chat with a filmmaker here at Sundance who once put me on the big screen, coming up.


STELTER: To wrap up my time in Park City here, I met with my friend Andrew Rossi, whose film about the cost of college, "Ivory Tower," premiered here last night. CNN financed the production of the film, and it will air on CNN at some point later in the year. We have an unusual history, as you'll see.


STELTER: Andrew, three years ago, we were both here, you were premiering "Page One" about the New York Times that I was in. And now we're back at Sundance. You are here with a film called "Ivory Tower" that's in conjunction with CNN. What's the difference between doing those two kinds of films?

ANDREW ROSSI, FILMMAKER: In a sense, they're similar because they are both about sectors that are in a moment of transition or disruption. The newspaper industry, of course, we were looking at the Times, even through your place there, helping online become a bigger part of their journalism, and with the higher education sector, we're looking at how the sort of cost disease that has made tuition rates skyrocket and student loan debt is forcing the issue of creating broader access at a cheaper cost.

But the difference, I think, in terms of making the two films, is with the New York Times, we were sort of on the media desk, following you and David Carr.

STELTER: You had to get access to the building and access to us.

ROSSI: Yes. Following you throughout everything you did, even I think as you remember, in one instance, when you were shaving in the bathroom.

STELTER: You followed me into the bathroom and I didn't realize it until I saw the film.

ROSSI: Yes. But it was establishing that sort of trust with you that when you were on the phone with Julian Assange, you forgot that I was there filming, and we got this priceless moment.

STELTER: How do you do that? How do you get people to come out like that?

ROSSI: I think it's a serendipitous thing that you hope will be established with the person you're filming. And it takes a lot of time, I mean, you film, I think in this case, we filmed over 300 or 400 hours of footage. You just have to spend a lot of time with subjects.

STELTER: I remember being very self-conscious about you in the first day, but then a week later, I almost forgot you were there.

ROSSI: Right. And in this case, it was interesting, because we were on campus, so we spent several months at Harvard, we were at Stanford for a certain amount of time, Spellman College, the historically black college in Atlanta. And San Jose State University. It was actually in a sense, maybe more difficult because young people, you know, their lives are hectic, and we wanted to get into the stream of their life, to see what college is doing well for them and what it's not doing so well.


STELTER: Well, that's all for this televised special edition of "Reliable Sources" from Park City, Utah. But over on, we keep going. We've got a lot more coverage, including a big drop in the ratings for the debut of "American Idol" this season.

Also online, a real estate deal that is going to send the headquarters of Time Warner, the parent of CNN, to a new location. And an important update on a story we brought you last week. Three Al Jazeera reporters remain in prison in Egypt, but there was a glimmer of good news on Friday. A freelance Associated Press cameraman was released after being held for two days. We've got that and also a weekly roundup of other media stories that have gotten lost under the radar. That's on the "reliable Sources" blog.

Thanks so much for watching this week. Let me know what you think of the show online, and we'll see you here next week in D.C., Sunday at 11:00 am. Eastern. "State of the Union" with Candy Crowley begins right now.