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Did Christie Know or Didn't He?; The Media and Amanda Knox: Friends or Enemies

Aired February 2, 2014 - 11:00   ET


BRIAN STELTER, CNN HOST: Good morning. I'm Brian Stelter in New York City this week. And it's time for RELIABLE SOURCES.

On the show today --


STELTER (voice-over): Weather throws a city into chaos. Atlanta, Mother Nature's latest victim. But did it have to be?

Reporters go to war with the powerful.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: You cannot blame the citizens of Atlanta for this.

STELTER: The view from both sides of the battle. CNN weather warrior Carol Costello versus ex-FEMA chief Michael Brown. Remember him?

GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT: And, Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job.

STELTER: Then, Amanda Knox convicted of the same murder she was once acquitted of. Everyone in this country asking, how did this happen? But in Europe, a near unanimous cry -- finally justice.

How the media divided two continents with an expert on the case, Dan Abrams of ABC News.

And what unites us -- the Super Bowl may just be television's last great communal event. Let the cynics call it the corporate bowl. For hundreds of millions of us, it's still good, old-fashioned American fun.


STELTER: And we'll get to all of that this morning.

But up first, Governor Chris Christie, an explosive new allegation that he knew more about the George Washington Bridge traffic scandal than he admitted. Since bridge-gate first broke, remember, this is the story about Christie's staffers scheming to close off part of the bridge for pretty political reasons, Christie has denied knowing anything about it in advance.

But for weeks, reporters haven been digging looking for evidence of what Christie knew and when he knew it.

On Friday afternoon, what looked like a big scoop from "The New York Times". In a letter, the lawyer for David Wildstein, the man who oversaw the lane closings said this -- I'm quoting, evidence exists tying Mr. Christie to having knowledge of the lane closures.

When the times story about the letter first appeared, it said that Christie, again quoting here, knew about the lane closings when they were happening and he, Wildstein, had the evidence to prove it.

That's big news, right? Well, here's the possible problem. It's not exactly right.

A full disclosure, until two months ago I worked at "The Times" and, to me, it's the finest newspaper in the world.

Let's look mores closely at the story here. David Wildstein's lawyer said such evidence exists. He didn't say it's in Wildstein's possessions.

"The Times" revised its copy to say that and, of course, the web noticed that instantly.

So, "The Times", which has a reputation for excellence, seemed to make a mistake. Here's the bigger problem. Chris Christie is in some ways the frontrunner for the Republican nomination. Everything he says and does is pounced upon by the 24/7 Internet and cable news cycle.

Here's an example. Here's MSNBC's anchor Alex Wagner reacting to the news right after "The New York Times" story was published.


ALEX WAGNER, MSNBC: We have breaking news. A bombshell revelation from ex-Port Authority official David Wildstein who carried out the lane closures on the George Washington Bridge. Wildstein says he has proof of -- that Governor Chris Christie knew about the plans to close those lanes while they were happening.


STELTER: The network eventually reported it more accurately, as did others, but reported like that on other major outlets at the time.

On Saturday, Christie's camp attacked "The New York Times" for, quote, "sloppy reporting" and attacked Wildstein for basically being a bad guy, who keep in mind Christie appointed in the first place.

This morning, "The Times" says it regularly updates stories, nothing unusual happened here and quoting now they say we do not note changes unless it involves an error.

Joining me now is "The Times" reporter who wrote the Christie story in question, Kate Zernike.

Welcome, Kate. Thank you for being here. KATE ZERNIKE, NEW YORK TIMES: Thanks, Brian.

STELTER: So, the first question has to be, wasn't that an error to say the evidence exists and he has the evidence?

ZERNIKE: So the story said two things. The letter said two things. One, that the governor was lying when he said he didn't know about the lane closures until after they were he over and that evidence exists.

The second thing he said, David Wildstein's lawyer, said was that the governor was lying like David Wildstein. David Wildstein has the evidence to prove that.

So, the letter -- what the letter says is David Wildstein says the governor is lying and he has evidence to prove the governor was lying. Yes, could we have made this more clearer? Yes. Did we make it more clearer? Yes.

STELTER: It sounds like you're saying this is part of the typical process for breaking news on the web?

ZERNIKE: Well, yes. And, ideally, it would be more perfect but -- look, this is, you know, it was up for about 20 minutes, we went back --

STELTER: So, you realized pretty quickly it was not perfect?

ZERNIKE: You know what, honestly, I was continuing to report the story. We had published the letter, we put the letter on the Web and read the letter and said make the lead more clear.

I don't actually remember what the lead first said, whether it said -- says he's lying and has the evidence to prove it, which is still again true, because that is what Wildstein is saying. The governor lied and I have --


STELTER: He doesn't have the evidence to prove it.

ZERNIKE: No, he's saying two things. He's saying, I have the evidence to prove the governor lied and the evidence exists to say the governor knew about the lane closings when they were happening.

The evidence -- he is saying, I have evidence to show the governor lied.


I have evidence to prove that.

STELTER: Don't you feel like that initial description in the lead is an error that's worth correcting?

ZERNIKE: You know, look, everything we know about things story, about bridge-gate, everything we know about, you know, "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee", comes from David Wildstein. David Wildstein when he got that e-mail saying time for some traffic problems said, "Got it".

So, David Wildstein knows what conversation took place before what the Christie administration knew about this.

So, the fact that David Wildstein is saying the governor lied is still a big news story.

STELTER: Shouldn't changes like that be labeled on the Web so readers know something changed?

ZERNIKE: You know, again, I don't remember what the original lead said, but I think the original said something about Wildstein says the governor lied and he has evidence to prove it.

STELTER: That's the one we read. Yes, that's the --


STELTER: Later, the headline also changed, the headline got softened. Now, it says something like Christie linked to closures on -- of lanes. Is that a typical newspaper process or was there something more --

ZERNIKE: I think that's a typical newspaper process. And, in fact, you know, we change headlines op on the Web not to reflect changes but make it look like it's something new, I guess. I think originally the headline, the news alert went out, still stands, Wildstein -- lawyer for Wildstein says the governor lied.

STELTER: So, when you hear the Christie camp saying this is sloppy reporting it sounds like you vehemently disagree.

ZERNIKE: Well, look, yes, I vehemently disagree.

Look, I said this two weeks on your show -- every time the Christie administration is attacked it attacks --

STELTER: Yes, you said they make it about something else, namely media bias, is what you said there.

ZERNIKE: Right. And since, you know, the accusations by the mayor of Hoboken, they've been about the mayor of Hoboken. You know, I've had -- Christie administration officials call me with salacious rumors about her and none of them turn out to be true. They're attacking the messenger.

STELTER: Here what's the Drudge Report put up when your story was posted wrote -- the Drudge Report not a fan of Christie to begin with. It says, "He Knew," and then after the story updated the headline changed with the question mark, "He Knew?"

Isn't that the problem with the web journalism environment we live in. As stories get clarified, headlines get softened, questions get risen like that? ZERNIKE: You know, I've got to say again, we put the letter up right away. If the Drudge Report doesn't read the letter and look at what it says, you know, that's -- I can't control the Drudge Report.

STELTER: It sounds like you read the comments on the Christie camp last night when they went --



SSTELTER: These five bullet points, almost like (INAUDIBLE) on BuzzFeed, and one was the sloppy reporting line. To you, I hear you saying they're trying to change the story away from what Wildstein is actually saying?

ZERNIKE: Yes. The first point was that "The New York Times" was sloppy reporting. The rest of the points David Wildstein is -- I can't remember what they called him, basically making him look like a volatile individual.

STELTER: Tumultuous.

ZERNIKE: Thank you.

And the five things they listed he had done were all but one things that he had done before governor Christie approved his hiring at the Port Authority. So, you have to again question why they're attacking David Wildstein at this point.

STELTER: Does it make your job more difficult, invoke you, say "The Times" was sloppy, make the harder for you to report and write?

ZERNIKE: I don't want to give my age but I've been doing this a while so I'm not exactly unused to this.

STELTER: This is not the toughest story you've had to encounter.

ZERNIKE: No, not like in any measure.

STELTER: I remember a couple of weeks when we talked, you that said sources were coming out of the woodwork, more willing to talk on the record than they have been in the past. Is that becoming more and more true in the last two weeks also?

ZERNIKE: That is true. And also again you look at the mayor of Fort Lee who was afraid to talk about this back in September because he thought he'd be put on the line and the governor would still be able to punish him. You've been seeing him much more talking about this. I think he feels a little more free.

STELTER: And do you expect anything this week in terms of Wildstein? Because sometimes when I was a reporter at the paper with you, sometimes I'd write stories and I couldn't say everything I knew on a certain day. But I knew more was coming.

I mean, is this one of those cases where you wrote that originally because you know more is coming?

ZERNIKE: I think the original lead, again, saying that Wildstein said Christie lied, is because -- as I said earlier -- we know that Wildstein is a central figure in this case. So, while I don't have any particular bombshell to drop right now, I think we know that Wildstein probably has a found of evidence for this.

STELTER: And the giant question now is, what is the evidence?

ZERNIKE: Right, exactly.

STELTER: We now saw conservatives commenting on-line this morning that, you know, time is passing without the evidence, maybe we shouldn't be jumping to conclusions. Do you think we will see any evidence any time soon?

ZERNIKE: OK. So, the subpoenas are due tomorrow. A lot of people including Christie's campaign manager are intending to plead the Fifth or beg for more time.

So, I would have said this week but now with the delay of subpoenas, I would say it's going to be a couple weeks before we get hard evidence.

STELTER: So, maybe I'll try to invite you back in two more weeks if you're willing. Kate, thank you for being here.

ZERNIKE: Thanks, Brian.

STELTER: I want to take a quick break. But when I come back, a very troubling story, something that's still developing this weekend, Woody Allen's step daughter and her first person allegations that he sexually assaulted her.

One of the best legal correspondents I know will be here, that's ABC's Dan Abrams. You'll want to hear what he has to say.



STELTER: Disturbing allegations this morning about Woody Allen. He's now adult stepdaughter Dylan Farrow telling (INAUDIBLE) for the first time her story. She alleges that he sexually assaulted her when she was 7 years old in the early 1990s.

This is not entirely a new story. It was investigated in the early '90s and Allen was not charged. But this is the first time we've heard her account of what happened.

The details are horrifying, and she calls out a number of stars who have worked with Allen, she asks, what if it had been your child? What if it had been you?

CNN, of course, has reached out to Allen and all of the principals for comment but we haven't gotten a response. Joining me to talk about this, chief legal affairs anchor Dan Abrams of ABC News. He's also the co-anchor of "Nightline" and he's covered this story extensively.

Dan, thanks for being here.


STELTER: So, as I mentioned the allegations have been out here before and they've been investigated before. What is new here?

ABRAMS: What's new is hearing it in her own words, meaning, we've heard her having been interviewed, we heard certainly back in the day a videotape of her as a child, but now as an adult woman, describing in detail what she says happened, is new and in my view, no question, newsworthy.

STELTER: Is it going to create weeks of coverage now? Especially at Oscar time, to have these celebrities asked about her?

ABRAMS: I don't think it's to lead to the celebrities being asked about it. I think it's going to make Woody Allen's life a little more difficult, in the sense that it did seem this kind of faded into the background and people stopped talking about it.


STELTER: But then the Farrows somewhat -- they somehow they brought it back with Ronan Farrow tweeting about --

ABRAMS: But a tweet is different than this letter. This letter is so detailed and so powerful that I think that wherever Woody Allen goes for the next period of months, he's going to be asked about this, he's going to be questioned about it, going to be challenged about it.

And -- but I think that as a news story, it's not going to fundamentally change because we've known this was her position. It's the power of the details that she's presenting that I think change this.

STELTER: What do you think of the "New York Times" decision to publish this, partly in the Nick Kristof column, and in full on the web? Was it the right choice?

ABRAMS: No-brainer. You have to publish. Some people might say -- wait a second, these are allegations that haven't been proven in court. How can you go ahead and publish this?

The answer is the legal system and journalists have two different obligations. As a journalistic matter this is news. This is a story that had been out there. To hear for the first time in her own words what happened, what she says happened, that's news and I think "The New York Times" absolutely made the right call.

STELTER: Is there any legal scrutiny that a newspaper would face publishing a letter like this. ABRAMS: Well, look, the remedy is -- if you're angry, if Woody Allen says these allegations are false, he can sue. He can sue for libel.

And, in fact, in this were in England, for example, everyone would be saying, well, if he doesn't sue it means he did it because the laws there are so much easier to sue. Here, people say, oh, it's so tough to sue.

But the reality is, if this is -- if he says this is false and this is defamatory, he's got a remedy. And that is to file a lawsuit. I don't think it's going to happen.

STELTER: Because the laws are so different here than they are in Britain.

ABRAMS: Because the last thing Woody Allen wants to do is get mired in a lawsuit over this again. I mean, Woody Allen wants this to go away. And you can tell that the Farrow family wants to make sure this doesn't go away. They feel like it's something that's been forgotten unfairly.

STELTER: I do wonder if it's going to start a conversation more broadly about what it is like for people who say they are victims of sexual assault, and how hard it is to come forward historically. This may make it easier.

ABRAMS: Yes, look, I think that will be a good and fair discussion to have about the impact of this kind of very honest statement that she says she's making.

Now, Woody Allen says it's not honest. It's not true, didn't happen, et cetera.

But I do think that the specificity, the fact that it's coming out now, will rejuvenate the conversation.

STELTER: Let's turn to a murder mystery that was in the news again this week. It's been a television staple for years. It's the Amanda Knox case. She was reconvicted in an Italian court this week.

And I'm amazed by how different the coverage is in the United States versus Europe. In Europe, it's as if everyone believes she's guilty. Here, it's as if almost everyone believes she's innocent.

What's to make -- what's to account for the difference?

ABRAMS: Well, look, you know, when I was listening to BBC's coverage of this, they keep mentioning the name of the victim, Meredith Kercher, and here, it's all about Amanda Knox. And I think that's one of the fundamental differences you see in the coverage.

Look, I think that when you look at the evidence in this case, as I have, very closely, the evidence that she and her ex-boyfriend were involved in the murder is really thin and slim. The evidence that maybe they lied about being in the House that night, well, I think you've got a little bit of a stronger position. When I say in the house, doesn't mean they were involved at all. It means that there had been various stories presented, various accounts given, about whether they were in the house, et cetera, they say that it was -- that they had been consistent, et cetera, but I think that's what's led the Italian government, I think that's what's led a lot of Europeans to be more suspicious. But there is a fundamental difference in the way it's been covered.

STELTER: This divide really shows the power of the media.

ABRAMS: Yes, look --

STELTER: I wonder if you think ABC has ever been too sympathetic toward her, because she, of course, gave the first interview to Diane Sawyer.

ABRAMS: Yes. I mean, look, I think ABC's coverage -- for example, I think Robin Roberts' interview with Amanda Knox was fantastic. I mean, she got at what are the key questions. She asked her, what happens if you get extradited?

STELTER: She also held Amanda's hand at one pivotal moment.

ABRAMS: Yes. But, look, you know what -- the reality is that at this point, I think that even the media can make a judgment that says, looking at the evidence -- because I have. I have looked at the evidence and I do not think that there is a remotely compelling case for murder. If you do that, I think that you can, you know, act accordingly.

Now, do I -- I think that a lot of questions -- I think Diane Sawyer in particular asked some very hard questions of Amanda Knox at the time. But look, she is an American citizen who most in this country I think believe was wrongly convicted and, you know, I'm very proud of the coverage that ABC has done in the trial.

STELTER: This might be a reminder for us when we're watching court cases and trials in the future that the media can have a role in shaping public opinion.

ABRAMS: Oh, enormous role. And, look -- and I think that on the whole as I said a moment ago, maybe the media's gone a little too far in saying, wait a second, how could this have possibly happened? I wrote an article on trying to put it in perspective a little to say, well, just so you understand, here are some issues that came up that may help you explain how this happened.



ABRAMS: Meaning, I'm not saying that they're guilty, I'm not even saying they were in the house that night. But I'm saying there were inconsistencies and questions and issues that were raised that led people at least the authorities there and some others, to say, huh, it doesn't make sense. STELTER: Helping us see from the European perspective and vice versa. That's always good. I recommend the article. I read it yesterday.

Dan, thank you for being here.

ABRAMS: Good to see you, Brian.

STELTER: Thank you. Great.

Let me take a quick break now, but when I come back a fascinating topic for debate about that weather nightmare in Atlanta this week. What obligation do public officials have to journalists? Don't they speak for all those people who were stranded on those highways for hours?

I'll talk to two people taking strong stands on either side of this. CNN's Carol Costello and a man once in the media's crosshairs during Hurricane Katrina, Michael Brown, former FEMA director. It will be a heck of an interview.


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

The ice and snow nightmare that turned Atlanta into a third world city temporarily this week -- oh, my goodness, incredible traffic jams of 16 hours or more, children stranded at school for days, babies born on the highway, miles of abandoned cars, all of it turning normally cordial Atlantans bitter and angry.


People turned on their leaders and demanded to know how did this happen?

Since I'm a media reporter, this is my beat. For me, it boils down a single question -- in a crisis what responsibility do elected officials have to speak to journalists?

You know, what responsibility do they have to answer the questions that in this case a furious city was shouting from their -- well, stranded cars and rooftops?

At first, the mayor did appear on CNN and the governor held a press conference, but they didn't really take responsibility. And the rage of the city grew.

CNN's Carol Costello interviewed Mayor Kasim Reed the morning after the storm when all hell was breaking loose and listen to this.


MAYOR KASIM REED (D), ATLANTA, GA: We got a million people out of the city. We have not had any fatalities. We've cleared the way of all of our hospitals, all of our police stations and --


CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: But, see, I've heard from public officials before that we didn't have any fatalities. But that was just by the grace of God.


REED: Hold on. It's not just by the grace of God.

COSTELLO: People got out of their cars on icy roadways and --

REED: It's easy for you to say from your anchor seat.

COSTELLO: No. I was out stuck in the traffic. I was one of those people.


STELTER: Eventually, officials began to admit their mistakes.

I wanted to explore what this is like for both sides, for the reporters and for the officials. So, we found exactly the right people for the job. Our own Carol Costello who you just saw in that clip, and Michael Brown, who was in charge of FEMA during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Carol, tell us first, you know, from your personal experience about what happened? You were stuck in traffic like so many other people?

COSTELLO: Well, first of all, I tried to leave CNN for the day, right? So I go to my car, try to get out of the parking lot, I wait for an hour, I could not get on to the road that led to my home. I live two miles from CNN.

So after an hour, I gave up, went back into CNN, hung around with my co-workers for about three hours. I figured oh, surely, the traffic could be cleared by then.

STELTER: Was it?



COSTELLO: I went back out, I traveled a few blocks with no problems. But then I got to a certain point and I just sat in traffic for two hours. At the end of those two hours, I just started to inch my way home, two miles in two hours.

This is a mild story. Some of my co-workers were trapped in traffic for 23 hours. Nobody should have to sit in their car and relieve themselves in their car in a modern city. Nobody should have to endure that for 23 hours. No one.

STELTER: So, it was a real crisis. Let me play devil's advocate. If it's a real crisis, why should public officials be coming out, taking time out of what they're doing to talk to journalists like you?

COSTELLO: Because people needed to hear from their public officials, to know that everything was all right. Isn't that why we elect these people? They needed to be held accountable, number one, and number two, they needed to tell people in a public forum what they were doing about the problem. It was their responsibility to appear on television or on the radio or whatever.

STELTER: Michael, I don't think anyone should liken this to Katrina, of course. That was a very different thing and it would be offensive to compare the two.


STELTER: But you are famous for the sound bite, after the storm, let's go ahead and play it for those who may not remember.

BUSH: Again, I want to thank you all for -- and, Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job. The FEMA director is working 24 --


They're working 24 hours a day.


STELTER: I know those words probably still haunt you in some way. I wonder as it applies to Atlanta, what should public officials have done in this case?

BROWN: Well, to Carol's point, public officials do need to be communicating. They need to understand that look, I've been to Atlanta 50 times in my lifetime and even on a good day the traffic sucks, Carol. Let's be honest. When it rains it sucks.

But to not recognize that there is a potential ice storm coming -- and I've heard the reports, oh, it may go to the east, to the west, that's exactly the thing we had with Hurricane Katrina. And I kept trying to convince, you know, Mayor Nagin, Governor Blanco and others, you need to evacuate the city and you need to start doing these things earlier. The key for public officials is to understand that if they fail to take action, they're going to have much -- many more problems than if they take some action but it's the wrong action.

So, to the earlier point you asked Carol about, should you be talking to these officials? Absolutely, because that's how people get information about what they should be doing. And I believe that's a good source of information, but I'm also one of these guys -- I've seen too many disasters in my life, that -- and not to pick on Carol, but Carol, who lives there, could have known that oh, you know, this could get bad, and for whatever reason, I don't know why you didn't leave earlier, but Carol could have left earlier --

COSTELLO: I was working.

BROWN: She was working.

COSTELLO: I'm a news reporter. We don't leave early.

BROWN: But other people, I read a story in "The New York Times" that said people were waiting to hear when the schools were going to be let out.


BROWN: I get that people have to worry about day care, and they have to worry about all these other things, but knowing the ramifications of not taking your child out earlier, and waiting solely on elected officials to tell you what to do, it's got to be a balanced --


CAROL COSTELLO, CNN HOST: Now, now, now, wait, wait, wait.

BROWN: -- it's got to be a balanced --

COSTELLO: You cannot blame the citizens of Atlanta for this.

BROWN: No, I'm not blaming the citizens, but they have to --

COSTELLO: This is what the mayor should have done. The mayor should have gotten on television, and I don't care what any other public official told him, he should have said weather is coming, I know that the school superintendent is not going to close down the schools, but I'm telling you, you know what happens, parents.

BROWN: Yes --

COSTELLO: So maybe you shouldn't bring your kids to school. No public officials did that in Atlanta.

BROWN: But they should.

COSTELLO: And then when the traffic was backed up, they went on the air in these press conferences and they said, wow, gosh, we did everything we could. The weather forecast must have been wrong.

BRIAN STELTER, CNN HOST: they should have taken full responsibility right away, Michael?

BROWN: Absolutely. Absolutely. And to go back to Carol's point, I can remember vividly, I don't know whether it was on this network or another network, but we had been asking the mayor and the governor to evacuate New Orleans and we couldn't get them to move fast enough.

So I thought -- to your point, Carol -- well, I will go out and say that. I will go out and say, hey, if I lived in New Orleans, I think I would be leaving now. And I think that's what officials need to say. Look, we know what traffic is like, we don't know where the storm is hitting, it may get really bad; if I were you, I would be going home now before traffic gets really bad.

STELTER: It made a difference that you live there, doesn't it? And that The Weather Channel and CNN are based in Atlanta?

COSTELLO: Well, you know, it was a strange situation for me because, you're right, I was in the middle of it and I'm also a journalist, I'm supposed to remove myself from it.

STELTER: But we have had those moments during Katrina, during Sandy, during other disasters.

COSTELLO: That's right. And you do feel for people.

At the same time, I had interviewed a series of people previous to my interview with the mayor, who were stuck in traffic for 23 hours and couldn't get home. There were children on school buses, trapped there: they couldn't get to their parents and their parents couldn't get to them.

So at the point I started interviewing the mayor I had all of this in my head. I knew that I was representing the people of Atlanta. I knew that I had to ask the questions that those people wanted me to ask of Mayor Reed (ph). That's my responsibility.

The reason I was combative with Mayor Reed was because he kept giving me talking points. And he really -- and I couldn't get past this defensive nature of his, and I wanted him to say, I screwed up. This is what I should have done. But this is what I'm going to do now.

And that wasn't there. And that was really frustrating to me as a journalist and, frankly, as a citizen of Atlanta.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Michael, when you've been in these cases did you ever feel disrespected or did you understand what reporters like Carol were doing?

BROWN: No. And in fact, I remember a very specific interview where we were miscommunicating; I kept getting asked a question over and over and over, and I kept completely mishearing what the point was.

But to Carol's point, she absolutely did the right thing, and I think what you said about you try to get through the talking points, trying to get through something, that's a lesson that every elected official that's listening to this program needs to pay attention to what you just said and do that.

Listen to the question, understand where you're coming from, not only as a journalist but as a citizen of that community and then be willing -- I'm one of these guys that truly believes the American people, even in times of crisis, they just want the truth. That's all they want.

COSTELLO: Amen! BROWN: And if people would just listen to the journalists when they ask the questions, forget -- because look, I had a communications director, I had the talking points, I got talking points from the White House, I got talking points from Homeland Security.

And I think one of the biggest mistakes that I made during Katrina, which I fully admit to in my book, is that you should just listen to the question and answer it truthfully.

Michael Brown, Carol Costello, thank you both for being here.

Carol, safe travels back to Atlanta.


COSTELLO: The traffic is clear, I know exactly, it's going to get warm.

STELTER: Thank you so much.


BROWN: Thank you.

STELTER: Up next, take a touching new TV ad for Cheerios, add a misguided tweet from MSNBC, and what do you get? You get the threat of a network boycott from the head of the Republican National Committee. We'll talk to a network insider about what's really going on at MSNBC.



Here's news that will surprise no one. MSNBC leans to the left, just as FOX leans to the right. Sometimes both go way over the line.

There's no denying that what MSNBC did this week was offensive to a lot of people. A network staffer tweeted out a new Super Bowl ad, it's a Cheerios commercial featuring a biracial family and MSNBC taunted conservatives, saying this, "Maybe the right wing will hate it, but everyone else will go, aww, the adorable new Cheerios ad."

The media quickly pounced, blasting MSNBC for that offensive tweet and the Republican National Committee chairman, Reince Priebus, weighed in as well, forbidding RNC staff from appearing on the network.

MSNBC is of course still recovering from several other public relations nightmares involving, among others, Alec Baldwin and Martin Bashir.

So is the network out of control as Republicans are charging? As it happens, the perfect person to speak to all of this works here at CNN, but until months ago worked at MSNBC.

He's a rare conservative to walk those halls. S.E. Cupp is one of the hosts of CNN's "CROSSFIRE," and she's in Providence, Rhode Island, today.

And here with me in New York, local New York journalist and CNN commentator Errol Louis joins me here at the desk.

S.E., since you worked at MSNBC until recently, tell me how you felt about this tweet and what it says about the network?

S.E. CUPP, CNN HOST: Well, you know, as I've said, I found it deeply disappointing. That sentiment essentially that half the country is racist for voting Republican, which is what it boils down to, is a sentiment you've heard on MSNBC if you've tuned in from opinion makers and, you know, contributors.

But to have it tweeted out and asserted in an official capacity was deeply disappointing and I think far more damaging than some of the other non-official comments that have gotten MSNBC in trouble in the past.

And I think Phil Griffin is aware of how damaging that is, coming in an official capacity, which is why you saw such swift response from him and the network.

STETLER: Yes, he did say in a statement, "the tweet last night was outrageous and unacceptable. We immediately acknowledged it was offensive and wrong, apologized and deleted it. We have dismissed the person responsible for the tweet. I personally apologize to Mr. Priebus and everyone offended."

That dismissal was a big deal, to fire someone over this. You've said S.E. that this is a network out of control, spiraling out of control. Why do you believe that?

CUPP: Well, you know, as you said, it's not shocking or surprising to anyone that the network leans left, right. I think what's out of step here is that the network's reputation, their whole ethos, is that they're smart, they're intelligent, there's rigorous analysis and debate. They're why folks like Chris Hayes and Steve Kornacki and Ezra Klein have found a home at that network because the audience expects smart debate.

And what that tweet, I think, did is undermine the intelligence of the typical MSNBC viewer. And look, I got to know the MSNBC viewer very well for the year that I was there. They're a vocal group. I heard from them a lot. And despite the fact that they're very liberal, they're also -- they're intelligent and I think that a tweet that cheap and ad hominem really disrespects the viewer. And I think that a lot of the comments in the past that have gotten folks at MSBNC in trouble, you know, Melissa Harris Perry giggling about a biracial Mitt Romney family, I think really just undermines the intelligence of the typical MSNBC viewer. That's a problem for MSNBC.

If they're purporting to be intelligent, an intelligent network with folks like Rachel Maddow on and I think folks like Rachel Maddow and Chris Hayes and Steve Kornacki are smart, they are -- they are presenting rigorous debate, then everything on that network really has to live up to that standard. And this tweet certainly did not. STETLER: I agree with you about that, that intellectual quotient. And I think that's why the head of the network was seething about this.

Errol, let me bring you in about the RNC's claim about a boycott that day which was quickly rescinded once there was an apology. What was the Republican National Committee trying to do, you think, with this?

ERROL LOUIS, CNN COMMENTATOR: Well, look, some of this is almost the equivalent of professional wrestling, right. There has to be outrage, there has to be drama, there has to be a demand. But I mean, but realistically this is a bit of a negotiation, right. I mean, we're not surprised that there's politics involved here and Reince Priebus needs to show his party that he's going to stick up for them and that he's going to stick up for their conservative base whenever and however he has to.

But, you know, as we get closer to the fall elections and certainly the 2016 campaign, the networks, especially MSNBC and the Republican Party, are going to do this little dance where the Republicans are going to say, well, we may not put up any guests. We may not give you any candidates. We may not give you any debates. It's a negotiation. If MSNBC does what it's supposed to do and has the kind of impact that we think and expect they will have, believe me, the Republican candidates will be right alongside each other debating on MSNBC.

STETLER: So in that case, you don't think it will hurt MSNBC to have these series of unfortunate events.

Do you think it will hurt them in any other way?

LOUIS: Well, I think it hurts them as S.E. said. I mean, one of the things the Melissa Harris Perry show just to take an example, they do a very good job of bringing out voices, people of color, women, experts who don't normally get much time on Sunday or any other time. And for this to sort of, you know, to lose a point on that brand, that very important brand, with a cheap joke -- a cheap Twitter joke is not what networks are supposed to do.

So, Phil Griffin is exactly right to look at policies, look at personnel and make sure they don't make that mistake again.

I mean, look, we've got somebody like Clearance Thomas as part of a multiracial family and so is Bill DeBlasio, OK. It's not about right or left when it comes to who you love and what kind of a family you form.

MSNBC you would think would be the first people to realize that and get that right.

STETLER: Stand up for that.

S.E. Cupp, do you think there's a risk some of this devolves into just beating up on each other in the media and then people end up tuning it out? Or do you think these things matter and we shave to explain them to people the right way?

CUPP: I think they do matter.

I mean, for people like Rachel and Chris Hayes and Andrea Mitchell, I mean these are influential serious people. They're smart. They're influential both within the network and I think among viewers, and this does them no favors. I mean these people have real credibility and currency in the media. And I would think that they would be as outraged by this and worried about this as conservatives.

Look, MSNBC doesn't need to retain conservative viewers. I bet they don't have...

STETLER: I think we may have S.E. Cupp there.

But her points are well taken as are Errol. We'll wrap up there.

Errol, thank you for being here, and S.E., if you can hear us thank you for being here as well.

Of course, I'm getting tweets now from viewers I guess watching who are MSNBC fans saying the tweet wasn't even offensive at all. So, that shows the range of opinions that are out there.

Next, finally, we get to what everyone is talking about today, and that is the Super Bowl. Is this the last thing left in America that brings all of us together?


STETLER: Welcome back to Reliable Sources.

I probably don't need to tell you we're a few hours away from the biggest sports advertising and pop culture event of the year. But most of all it's a TV show, the last great unifying television event -- The Super Bowl of course.

These events used to happen more often, but now instead of having three networks we have hundreds. We all watch our own thing. The question is, is the Super Bowl an American institution because we need one, because we love it or is it being manufactured for us by network hoopla and huge corporate outlays.

Listen to what Fox Sports 1 host Joe Klatt told me.


JOEL KLATT, ANCHOR, FOX SPORTS 1: The Super Bowl has grown to a point where it's the one thing in our culture, as Americans, that completely crosses borders. It doesn't matter if you're into pop culture, if you're into sports, if you're a sports enthusiast, sports fan, if you're a basketball fan, a football fan, baseball fan, it's the one thing that everybody watches.

(END VIDEO CLIP) STELTER: Here's why Joel can say that. The Super Bowl is the most watched event on TV every year. The second most popular thing is the Oscars. Forty million American viewers watched that last year. And the Super Bowl, 109 million Americans watched last year.

Those numbers come from Nielsen, and they're actually incomplete. The numbers are actually higher for the Super Bowl, and I'll explain why in a moment.

Here to talk about how our favorite extravaganza -- how this became our favorite, anyway, are two of the wise men of sports -- and other things, of course, Richard Deitsch, the media reporter for Sports Illustrated; and ESPN writer L.Z. Granderson.

Guys, we are a few hours away. I wonder if you think the media -- what role the media plays in building this up as a communal event?

GRANDERSON: Well, I mean, it's been going on ever since we decided who was going to be in the Super Bowl. You immediately start looking at the personalities; you look at the narratives. And obviously the narrative this year is Peyton Manning. You know, will he win his second Super Bowl ring? He's a likable personality. He's in all the commercials. He's the face of the NFL.

When you have a, kind of, superstar that you can build a narrative around, absolutely the media is culpable, if you will, of spreading this around.

But let's not forget the game is exciting, too. And even if you're a casual fan, just watching great athletes on the field for even a brief period of time is something that we still enjoy as Americans and it's an important part of our culture.

STELTER: It might be counterintuitive, Richard, to think about how high these ratings keep getting because it seems like football is besieged by controversies like concussions, and yet the game continues to grow in popularity, on television, at least.

DEITSCH: Well, listen, football -- this is our American pastime. It's religion for a lot of people. The ratings go up because it is the last communal experience that we have. Fox will probably get 111 million, 112 million viewers this year. I think they'll set a record.

STELTER: And, by the way, Nielsen is only counting people at home. They're not counting big parties. They're not counting bars or restaurants.

DEITSCH: Absolutely. They're not counting bars. It's...

STELTER: It must be higher.

DEITSCH: The real rating, I would think, is probably around 150 million, 170 million, which, if you think about it...


STELTER: ... everybody awake.

DEITSCH: That's -- yeah, exactly.


That's extraordinary. But, you know, to talk about, Brian, why this gets -- why this is so big, you've got to remember, ESPN, CBS Sports, NBC Sports, Fox Sports 1 -- there are all these other properties that are not even broadcasting the game that are fueling this hype leading up to Sunday.

So whatever the network is that has the Super Bowl, they get the added, built-in, sort of, lead-in from all their other competitors. That's why...

STELTER: I'm glad you mentioned that. I asked ESPN's Adam Schefter about that when I visited their giant camp here in...


... here in New York City. Here's what he had to say about that.


ADAM SCHEFTER, NFL ANALYST, ESPN: ESPN helps make the event and the event helps make ESPN, and it's a marriage of convenience. And I think that's the idea of any good business relationship, right? Two people helping each other.


STELTER: We always talk about the Super Bowl being the corporate bowl, but is it more purely corporate this year, do you think, because it's in New York City where all the marketers and advertisers are?

GRANDERSON: Well, if you look at the Nielsen ratings, and we've already agreed that they aren't fully complete, but one thing that we do know is that they've spiked and they've peaked, at least over the last three years, during the halftime act. So the game is not even actually on. It's been the entertainment at halftime in which they've actually drawn the most eyeballs.

And so I think, yes, definitely, you know, corporate America is driving this, but there are still so many other pop culture elements to the Super Bowl that just makes this a touchstone moment for most Americans.

DEITSCH: Yeah, Adam Schefter, by the way, one of 147,000 ESPN employees, by the way, covering this game.


L.Z. is correct on that in that, you know, it's -- Fox will put out these numbers after the game, but your traditional NFL game may be viewed by 65 percent men, 35 percent women. The Super Bowl is much closer to 54 percent, 55 percent men, 45 percent women. The demographics are good all across the board, from young and old, different races, different genders. Again, it's just one of these game where you don't have to be...

STELTER: And why don't the controversies affect that, you think?

DEITSCH: Because -- because football is our passion, and it's -- maybe sometimes it's a little bit of our, you know, voyeuristic kind of moral problem that we have with the concussions but yet we're so -- we're so in love with the violence; we're so in love with the game that I think sometimes we look past knowing that these guys are suffering for us 20, 30 years down the road.

GRANDERSON: They're also well-compensated.

DEITSCH: That's fair (ph).

GRANDERSON: And I think, you know, in America, when you know that the guys are informed and they know what they're getting into and they're making hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars to do what they do, it's really easy as viewers to go, "They know what they're getting into."

So even though we see all these -- all this information is coming in about concussions, there's still the fact that they're still choosing to play this game alleviates -- alleviates us as the viewer of the burden of that moral question of why watch it. Well, because they're comfy (ph) making the choice to do it.

STELTER: You guys are mentioning the advertising, of course. I just refreshed my web browser, seeing what's the most popular ad before the game even starts. It looks like it's this Budweiser puppy love ad. Let's run a clip of it and we'll talk about it briefly.




STELTER: Thirty-three million views, at the moment, on YouTube, already, and the game hasn't started yet.

These ads are not ads anymore. They're multimedia campaign, aren't they, Richard?

DEITSCH: Absolutely. You -- you know, you set these up or you release them before the game to try to get some momentum. That, actually, ad is great. I think it's fun. You've seen already the Schwarzenegger and Bud Light. They've -- you know, they've, sort of...

STELTER: Will there be any surprises?


STELTER: Any surprise ads we haven't seen yet? GRANDERSON: I'm a little curious to see how this David Beckham H&M campaign -- they've been really smart on Twitter, trying to encourage people ahead of time to vote "covered" -- "#covered," or "#uncovered." So I'm really curious to see how this all pans out.

STELTER: So maybe there will be some surprises.

DEITSCH: And I want to see Chrysler. It looks like Chrysler, whether it's Eminem or Clint Eastwood, they usually get a lot of talk after the game. We'll see what they did.

STELTER: Cool. A few more hours. Richard, L.Z., thank you for being here.

DEITSCH: Thanks.

GRANDERSON: Thank you.

STELTER: We're back after a break.


STELTER: We're all out of time. Thank you for watching this edition of "Reliable Sources," and I will see you next week.