Return to Transcripts main page


Why V.A. Whistleblower Came Forward; "New York Times" Publisher's Regret

Aired May 25, 2014 - 11:00   ET


BRIAN STELTER, CNN HOST: Good morning and welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Brian Stelter in New York this week. I hope you're having a wonderful Memorial Day weekend.

Ahead in our next hour here, the ugly smear campaign against Hillary Clinton and how Democrats should fight back.

I'm also going to talk to the only reporter who has interviewed Arthur Sulzberger, the embattled "New York Times" publisher. Her name is Sara Ellison and she's got new details about the aftermath of Jill Abramson's that she didn't include in her original story.

So, you're definitely going to want to hear that.

But let's begin this morning with a story that has rocked the White House this week. It seemingly came out of nowhere and it started with a single phone call from a doctor who had recently retired from the Veterans Affairs Department. It's a story that started with CNN, but some came to dominate the news cycle.


DIANE SAWYER, ABC NEWS: A new twist in the national outrage about those allegations that some veterans hospitals delayed care and covered up the consequences.

SCOTT PELLEY, CBS NEWS: Today, we learn that the Bush White House was so concerned about this back in 2008 that it warned the incoming Obama administration.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Another whistleblower is coming forward claiming she witnessed the same delays and incompetence at the V.A. that may have cost dozens of veterans their lives.


STELTER: So, what causes someone to take the lead, from just seeing a wrong, to actually blow in the whistle on it? And then how does the media decide what is and isn't a story?

In a moment, I'll talk with CNN correspondent Drew Griffin, but first, let's bring in the whistleblower himself, Dr. Sam Foote, to explain what led him to make the one call that led to countless headlines.

Dr. Foote, thank you for joining me.

DR. SAM FOOTE, V.A. WHISTLEBLOWER: Thank you very much for having me on your show.

STELTER: I am so eager to hear your story as a whistleblower. So many times we hear the news coverage of these stories, but we don't hear how they happened. So, tell me when you first saw a problem at the V.A. in Phoenix.

FOOTE: Started to see things going funny in December of 2012. We had about 13,000 patients without primary care providers and over a year backlog. And then as things progressed, they started to go to the secret waiting lists and I didn't think too much about that, you know, they game the numbers and played with that sort of stuff all the time.

STELTER: And you had personal experience with these patients that were dying, didn't you?

FOOTE: I had -- later I did. I had two very near misses, one that would have waited 21 months, waited 14 months before we went to the emergency room before you couldn't get an appointment and went in with chest pain having several time a week, and he ended up getting an appointment after he came in January, in October and it wasn't until my medical administrative officer pointed out in June that maybe that was too long for him to wait. I said you're certainly right about that.

STELTER: So, at the end of last year, you decided to retire. When do you start to think about speaking to the media about what's going on?

FOOTE: Well, I started to think about that when it was such a long delay in November and December and I basically told San Diego if they weren't here before the first of the year on the second, I would be in the "Arizona Republic's" office. So they did come over and put a team together and did come over. I said I would wait another month and if nothing happened, I would think about doing that again.

And what I did was wrote another letter and then when there was no response to that, I went to "The Republic".

STELTER: How do you decide who to call once you decide that you want to blow the whistle?

FOOTE: Well, "The Arizona Republic", there is an excellent investigative reporter, Dennis Wagner, with a long track record and I knew he would be friendly and he was magnificent.

STELTER: How did you find him? Was his phone number on the Web site or something?

FOOTE: You know, he's been reporting on the V.A. for as long as I've lived here. I've been in Arizona 30 some odd years and he's been a reporter for I think 31 for the republic. So, he's very well-known locally.

STELTER: So, you're talking to "The Republic" and then who do you reach out to at CNN? When did CNN get involved?

FOOTE: I got Scott Brownstein's contact information from Eric Cantell (ph) at -- on the Veterans Affairs Committee. He referred me to the videos that CNN had done.

STELTER: And, Scott, he's the producer for Drew Griffin on the investigative unit.

FOOTE: That is correct.

STELTER: Of course, we're here on CNN. So, I'm always, you know, bias in favor of television I suppose. But was it television that magnified this in a way that a local newspaper couldn't? What was the dynamic between the "Arizona Republic" story and CNN story?

FOOTE: Well, the "Arizona Republic" is read by awful lot of people in Arizona. So, it was pretty much a local story. The television networks all got on it -- sorry, the local TV stations, media has been fabulous along with KTAR, a local talk radio out there, news radio.

So, it was all over Arizona, but there was just no national exposure to it until CNN and the three networks, FOX got on it fairly quickly. But ABC and NBC until a week or two ago with CPS (ph) really had not hit their radar.

It wasn't until the hearings and started -- events started to go within the Beltway that they started to pick up on it. And that's why I think CNN --

STELTER: What have you learned from this experience, what have you learned about how the media does or doesn't work?

FOOTE: Well, you just have to be persistent and they work pretty well once you get to it, and it was interesting, because people started picking up the "Arizona Republic" article and I started getting calls from "The Wall Street Journal" and from "The New York Times." If you told me a month ago, my picture would be on the second page in color of "The Wall Street Journal", I would say you're crazy. That's what happened.

STELTER: What's been the reaction to people that you confided in, people that you told you were planning to do this? Whistle- blowing can be a controversial thing to do sometimes.

FOOTE: Ninety-five percent of the people have been thrilled with it, and I go to a restaurant and people will come up and say I want to shake your hand and thank you for what you're doing and keep up the good work.

STELTER: Dr. Sam Foote, I hope you inspired other people who may feel they need to blow the whistle on something in the future. Thank you so much for joining me. FOOTE: Thank you very much for having me.

STELTER: Let's pick up the story with Drew Griffin. He's also in Phoenix for us this morning.

Drew, thanks for joining me.


STELTER: You're an investigative reporter, so you get lots of tips, some of which you pursue, some of which you didn't. Why did you decide to pursue this one?

GRIFFIN: I think we decided to pursue this story because of the tips we were getting that people were actual dying and dying because of delayed care issues. We didn't feel that was right. We did an initial search, begin to find records of this in the past, and that kind of created the spark that this was a very, very big issue and bigger than just the initial hospital we were looking at, Brian.

STELTER: Tell me how you vet someone like Dr. Foote. When he knocks on the door so to speak, how do you all check out his story?

GRIFFIN: Well, first of all, no disrespect to Dr. Foote, we do this for everybody. We try to find out if the person telling you this stuff is crazy. We look for lawsuits against the individual.

We do a background, full criminal check on them. We see if there is anything in his past that would throw up any kind of red flag. There wasn't in this case. That's when we start checking out his information against whatever he had.

The biggest problem we had with vetting Dr. Foot was that there was nobody to vet it against at the V.A. because the V.A. simply would not communicate with us.

STELTER: While this was happening, while you were looking into his story, CNN was wall to wall with the missing plane. Did that affect you at all? Did the story -- did it take awhile to get the story in the air for awhile because of the plane?

GRIFFIN: No, I don't think so, Brian. Remember, this was a continuing series. This story has broken open because of Dr. Foote, but we've been reporting on this particular issue was last November. We reported in December, January, February.

So, we had been working on the stories when Dr. Foot came along, it was during the middle of our coverage on the Malaysian air flight. That gave us time. We made a couple trips up to Phoenix. We met with him in advance and talked with him and came out and set up an interview.

It did allow us time to more slowly vet the story and craft the story but it didn't really affect the timing of that story.

STELTER: Was there, within all of this different cases, different patients, was there one story that particularly got to you, one that really resonated for whatever reason?

GRIFFIN: There is one case back in South Carolina, a guy named Barry Coates (ph), and I think that resonates with me because he's so young. He's 44. Maybe 45 years old now.

This guy is dying of bladder cancer and you wouldn't know it to look at him. He's real upbeat. He just had rectal bleeding and he wasn't getting treated, he wasn't getting seen and when he finally did get seen by the V.A., it literally was too late. And when you see somebody who is -- I mean, he is literally dying right now before our eyes at such a young age, so very preventable. That caught my attention, and just -- it's just sad.

STELTER: One of the media lessons for me, from this scandal, from this tragedy is you need an on the record source like Dr. Foote and you also need individual patients like the man you're talking about in order to bring the story home.

GRIFFIN: And what is difficult about when you're doing medical stories, you have to have those people come forward or those families come forward with their medical records. Because of the federal laws surrounding the health privacy issues, it is against the law for anybody to tell us anything about a patient. So, we really have to rely on records.

And then, you have to take those records, Brian, I'm not a doctor, so you have to take them out to a medical professional to kind of evaluate what you're looking at. It is -- it takes a lot of time to determine, OK, was this guy sick because of this delay in care? The same types of things the V.A. is telling us they are doing in reviewing the cases.

STELTER: Congressman Jeff Miller was on "NEW DAY" on Thursday and he said this is just the tip of the iceberg. I know there is more to come.

I know you don't want to give away any tip to competitors, but do you have more to come? Are you pursuing specific leads now?

GRIFFIN: We're pursuing leads all over the country. We're getting whistle-blowers coming forward. The problem is each one has to go through that specific process that we've been talking about.

You know, it's one thing to get a tip. It takes a long time to develop a tip and now we have an environment where a lot of other media jumped on board.

So, we're not the only ones chasing this. This is a competitive edge going on. It creates a lot of work. I don't doubt there is more to come because I truly believe this is systemic throughout the country.

STELTER: Drew Griffin, thank you so much for being here.

GRIFFIN: Thanks, Brian. STELTER: And I've got more note on this story, how did President Obama find out about the situation in Phoenix? Well, White House spokesman Jay Carney said at a briefing the president learned about it through CNN.

Time for a quick break here but stay with me for new revelations of the crisis at "The New York Times." The question is, has Arthur Sulzberger done long-term damage to his newspaper?


STELTER: If he could do it again all over again, "New York Times" publisher Sulzberger never would have appointed Jill Abramson to be his executive editor. That's what we learned this week, one week after Sulzberger shocked the media world by firing her.

Now, Sulzberger is under scrutiny for his management or, shall we say, mismanagement of the editor change.

In a statement, he blamed Abramson who, keep in mind, was the first female editor of 'The Times" for arbitrary decision making, poor communication and public mistreatment of colleagues.

Now, I worked at "The Times" until last November. So, I'm comfortable saying that Sulzberger's comments rang true to me. But on the other hand, couldn't this have been handled more gracefully?

When I tried to talk to Sulzberger at an event here in New York earlier this week, he declined to comment, but he give one interview about this mess and I'll get to that in a moment.

First, let me say that the worst seems to be over for "The Times". Former colleagues there say things are slowly getting back to normal but there are a lot of questions and a lot of speculation about what Abramson is going to do next.

She did drop a hint at a Wake Forest commencement speech on Monday.


JILL ABRAMSON, FORMER NYT EXECUTIVE EDITOR: Sure, losing a job you love hurts. But the work I revered, journalism that holds powerful institutions and people accountable is what makes our democracy so resilient. This is the work I will remain very much apart of.


STELTER: Earlier in the week, Abramson wrote an essay for "The Huffington Post" unrelated to all of this.

Now, this morning, I want to focus on Sulzberger and the future of "The Times".

So, let me bring in David Folkenflik, media correspondent for NPR, who has covered "The Times" for years.

And Sarah Ellison, contributing writer to "Vanity Fair". She's the only person who interviewed Sulzberger since this disaster.

Thank you both for joining me.

SARAH ELLISON, VANITY FAIR: Thanks for having us.

STELTER: And let's start with the interview, Sara. What was your main takeaway when you sat down with him last weekend?

ELLISON: Our main takeaway is he felt very misunderstood through this and the irony of this episode is that Arthur has always prided himself on trying to make "The New York Times" and newsroom a more diverse, more humane place. To be accused of sexism and different treatment for women is really, I think quite difficult for him and stinging, so he was trying to correct that impression.

STELTER: Take back the narrative because for days after Jill Abramson was fired, it was over gender and over pay issues.

ELLISON: Absolutely.

STELTER: He says that's just outright false.

ELLISON: Right. And I think that what was interesting, is that in order to change that narrative from being about pay, he had to make it about her management style and then ended up kind of deriding the way she managed the newsroom, which set off a new controversy.

STELTER: For sure.


STELTER: David, isn't it true as soon as she was fired, there were anonymous claims about her management style, things you posted on Twitter that night? And yet, it hadn't been said loudly until he said it on the record.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, PBS: Right, someone of his stature, someone on the record changes the formula with allowing people to talk about that directly in the newsroom right on.


FOLKENFLIK: We had been hearing about Jill Abramson and the concerns about the way in which she had led the newsroom, and the way in which she interact with some senior editors for sometime now, a lot of it sort of sotto voce, that said, "The New York Times" is such an important journal institution. Being executive editor is such a plum job every little dynamic is going to be teased apart, every flaw magnified, every hint or rumor blown up to a greater import, simply because of the nature of the institution of people involved.

STELTER: Right. And when a bunch of reporters -- me and a bunch of reporters surrounded Dean Baquet, had a dinner here in New York on Monday night, we asked them, do you have any regrets about the way this went down. He said he did but how could I have regrets being given this job, this important job.

Now, he's taken over and started right away and my impression from your interview with Sulzberger was that he sort of wishes he put Dean in charge from the beginning. Is that what you took away, as well?

ELLISON: That's what I took away. He said of course I would have done it differently in terms of the choice between Dean and Jill back three years ago and I thought that was revealing because to me it seemed like potentially one of the things that Arthur wanted to do, give the job to Jill because he wanted to name the first female editor of "The New York Times," no that she isn't a fantastic journalist. But, of course, he was thinking about that at the time and now, for it to come back and sort of bite him at this moment, it seems ironic but seems that was the takeaway, that he was sort of feeling much more comfortable with Dean and was terrified that he was going to lose him because of the friction that developed between the two of them.

STELTER: This matters in the long run because there's questions about the long-term damage to "The Times".

Let's get into that, there's a Twitter message I want to read from the viewers, she asked why is Arthur having so much trouble keeping editors? Is it his bad decisions? Is it that he hires a certain kind of person? Is it that he creates bad environments, bad workplaces?

What are the answers to those questions? I mean, is there this pattern of mistakes that he's made?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I think there's a couple of things. First off, he hasn't lost that many editors, right? I mean, Howell Raines had to go amid the Jason Blair fabrication and plagiarism scandal. And that was his scandal, this wasn't a scandal. So people look at it really sconce.

What really occurred here was the question of judgment over who was working together constructively for the stewardship of this important journalistic institution and Sulzberger in a sense is acknowledging to Sarah he had made a mistake. Now, you can look at the journalistic record of "The New York Times" and some of its digital invasions under Jill Abramson in just under three years and come away wildly impress and you're not wrong to do so.

STELTER: A lot of people have said the paper was better than ever under her editorship.

FOLKENFLIK: But there is toxic sort of stew in which the question of whether or not she was treated differently as a woman. She believed she was, but that was one ingredient among many where I think it really ultimately not palatable to Sulzberger or to Mark Thompson, the CEO.

STELTER: Did you hear anything about how the family, the Sulzberger family is feeling after all of this?

ELLISON: Well, I think that one of the things that Arthur mentioned is that he had gotten very, very supportive messages from his family throughout this and I think one of the things that's interesting is the more that he is under siege, the more the family rallies around from him. He got beautiful messages and one that morning that we have spoken had sort of brought tears to his eyes because they were so supportive and really standing with him. I do --

STELTER: That matters because the paper is one of the only family owned papers left and if this family starts to fray, it could be sold.

ELLISON: I mean, this is -- they are the last ones standing. And so I think it is a really important, an important question right now there doesn't seem to be divisions that we've seen in other newspaper families but I think that the interesting thing of this episode, what we're going to continue to talk about two things, one is this conversation about women and leadership, which is really what has sort of been ignited by this.


ELLISON: And then the second one is the long-term future of "The Times" and I think they have weathered this past week or so and made it out of this part of it, but I do think the questions about leadership and the family will continue.

STELTER: David Folkenflik, Sarah Ellison, thanks both for being here.

ELLISON: Thank you.


STELTER: Let me end with this quote from Jill Abramson. I mentioned that "Huffington Post" easy that she wrote. It was an appreciation of a legendary "Times" editor Arthur Gelb who died this week at the age of 90. Here is what she wrote about him, "He believed that a good story had a thousand angels and that it was a sin to leave them unexplored."

Now you know where I'm going with this. There is still a lot more to come on this "New York Times" story.

Now, coming up here, the smear campaign that just won't go away, and how it relates to an episode of HBO's "Leap". I will show you, right after this.


STELTER: Have you ever wondered how a lie about a politician takes hold? In the next few minutes, let's talk about that. Let's go inside a political smear campaign.

The smear goes something like this: Hillary Clinton is sick. She has a brain tumor. She has brain damage.

All of these stories have been whispered about over the past few months. It is quite simply an old fashioned smear because not only is there in evidence to support it, but it's been flatly denied and yet, it keeps popping up.

Let's trace this back to where it started: to Clinton's concussion at the end of 2012 which created the shaky foundation for all of this stuff. And in January of this year, the supermarket tabloid called "The Globe", "reported", getting out air quotes again, "reported" that Hillary was suffering from a brain tumor.

Here is how ridiculous "The Globe" is. Earlier this month, the claimed that she's well-enough to hire at bill and hire a divorce attorney with no mention of the alleged tumor. Of course, we can roll our eyes at the tabloids and we should roll our eyes, but this bad brain narrative has become much bigger.

In February, a self-proclaimed Republican dirty trickster named Roger Stone wrote this on Twitter. "Hillary will not run for health reasons. You heard it here first."

Days later, a flurry of stories, Rush Limbaugh mentioned a whispering campaign that she was sick and wondered if that would explain her behavior around Benghazi. The conservative "Daily Caller" ran this ominous headline on its Web site, "Whispers persist that Hillary won't run, health may be worse than disclosed."

So that's how it started. I'm sure you've heard how it snowballed. FOX News contributor Karl Rove raised questions about Clinton's health at an off the record conference this month. And then, "The New York Post", which like FOX is owned by Rupert Murdoch, wrote about it and then Rove went back on FOX to defend himself.

And now, there is lots of talk about Clinton's health. Still no evidence that she's stick. We tried to book Roger Stone for the show this week and he passed but told me, again, she's not running, you heard it here first.

So, what's the proper response to all of this? Joining me now, two political pros, Democratic strategist Paul Begala, a CNN contributor, and S.E. Cupp, Republican co-host of CNN's "CROSSFIRE".

Thank you both for joining me.



STELTER: S.E., let me start with you because you criticized Karl Rove's tactics on "CROSSFIRE" earlier this month, but you said there are legitimate questions about Hillary Clinton's health. So, what are the legitimate questions?

CUPP: Yes, I mean, it's legitimate to ask anyone running for the highest office in the land what his or her health is like and is he or she up to the job?

The problem with this smear campaign is it's not a very effective one. A smear campaign that has the indirect result or consequence of invoking sympathy for the target is not a really good smear campaign. And what think Karl Rove at all really did was just kind of make us sympathetic for Hillary Clinton that she's getting attacked for these ludicrous claims of brain damage.

Now, what it also does is it makes it really difficult for the rest of us to ask those legitimate questions about her health without being lumped in with Karl Rove and that other line of questioning.

STELTER: Paul Begala, do you agree with that, that maybe what he did backfired?

BEGALA: Oh, I -- I think so. I think it backfired spectacularly, for all the reasons that S.E. states.

Let me demonstrate for you. Here's what Karl did. It's a bad political strategy, but I do think it's an interesting media story, to show how savvy Karl is about manipulating the media. Let me demonstrate. Right?

What Karl said was crazy. Now, people with tertiary syphilis often say crazy things, because it rots your brain.


STELTER: Oh, boy.

BEGALA: Now, I'm not saying that Karl Rove...

CUPP: I see where you're going, Paul.


BEGALA: Oh, no, I would never say that Karl Rove has late-stage STDs that would rot his brain.

You see what he does? That's what he does. And then the headline everywhere will be when -- you know, when the show is over, Rove, tertiary syphilis.

Now, of course that's crazy. OK? But that's the example of how he tries to slip the stuff in the bloodstream, but S.E. is right. He was so ham-handed this time, the way I just was with that silly example, that it has backfired on him completely.

STELTER: I would like to take what you were just demonstrating there and play a clip from one of my new favorite shows, "Veep" on HBO. They did the exactly same thing. Let me show you this clip.

BEGALA: Right.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "VEEP") JULIA LOUIS-DREYFUS, ACTRESS: This Danny Chung, torture story, I know Governor Chung very well. And I can tell you that these allegations are utterly unfounded, utterly unfounded.

If you are telling me that Danny Chung condones torture, I'm telling you that those allegations are false. False. I mean, the words Danny Chung and torture, they don't belong in the same sentence. They don't. Danny Chung, torture? Come on.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Well, ma'am, by denying that Chung and torture are connected, everyone now seems to think that, well, Chung and torture are connected.


STELTER: Paul, in the fictional world, that kind of smear campaign works. Doesn't it sort of work in the real world as well?

I mean, Nate Silver at 538 ran the data and showed there is a lot of chatter now about Hillary's health.

BEGALA: Well, there is, but I think S.E. raises the right question.

Well, first off, every candidate who wants to be our president should be completely transparent about their health records, absolutely.

STELTER: Absolutely.

BEGALA: So, she is right about that.

It does undermine that I think laudable need for transparency when Karl does things like that. This is wrong way. If his goal, and it is, is to keep Hillary from running -- I have known Hillary for 23 years. She's never run from a fight.

CUPP: And for a good -- for a smear campaign to be effective, it has to be plausible without being offensive.

If you remember back to Andrew Sullivan's smear campaign against Sarah Palin, questioning whether her son was actually hers or Bristol Palin's, it was -- it was -- it seemed implausible and also was so offensive that, again, it had that indirect consequence of humanizing Sarah Palin against her enemies.

But let me just offer one word of advice and caution to Democrats and the media who seem to want to protect Hillary Clinton from a lot of the negative attention. The Karl Rove stuff I think should be kept separate from legitimate inquiries to her health, her record at the State Department, because that rush to come in and rescue her against sexism or smear campaigns, I think, makes it look like she's a weaker candidate than she is.

STELTER: How has the playing field changed since the '90s, when you were defending Bill Clinton from smears? I'm curious to hear from S.E. as well about this, how we have seen the media react to these things differently over the years.

But, Paul, first to you. How has the world changed in the last couple of decades?

BEGALA: You know, this may surprise you. Everybody always thinks everybody is worse.

I think it might be better, Brian. I think it might be better. Here is why. The democratization of media means that, as powerful as Rupert Murdoch is, he doesn't have the only microphone or megaphone. And I think, I hope -- this is me, the optimist -- that all of the bloggers, all of the tweeters, all of the self-publishing folks can police these lies much more effectively, frankly, than the traditional media used to be able to.

In the '90s, we had none of that. And now we have -- on the liberal side, we have Correct the Record and American Bridge and a group of folks who really police conservative media. Conservatives have folks who police us liberals, which is a good thing, too.

STELTER: S.E., are you seeing that as well? Certainly, there have been smears -- you mentioned one of them earlier -- against Republicans as well.

CUPP: Well, yes, it just -- it's so much easier these days to go online and find out if, for example, John McCain really does have an illegitimate child and prove that narrative false almost immediately or to see whether he was having an affair on the campaign trail.

STELTER: I love that we're ending on an optimistic note.

S.E. Cupp, Paul Begala, thanks, both, for joining me.

BEGALA: Thanks.

CUPP: Thank you.

STELTER: By the way, a few days ago, we found out who won the sweepstakes for Hillary's first television interview tied to her upcoming book. Every anchor wanted it, and Diane Sawyer got it. She's going to be sitting down with Clinton for a prime-time interview airing June 9.

My calendar is marked.

I have to squeeze in a break here, but up next, a surprising mega-merger and an even more surprising edition of "Red News/Blue News"

Stay tuned.


STELTER: It's time for my regular feature "Red News/Blue News," where I see how partisan media are telling a story on the left and on the right. And then I try to tell you what is reliable. Today, we're using our red and blue glasses on an enormous media business story, AT&T's $49 billion bid for DirecTV.

So, where do you think we can find a vigorous critique of consolidation? Left-leaning MSNBC, right? No, actually. Mika Brzezinski sounded ready to sign up for AT&T the day after the deal was announced.


MIKA BRZEZINSKI, MSNBC: The deal represents a huge challenge to cable and stands to reshape content on everything from mobile devices to TVs to tabloids.

The companies are eying ways to offer customers a single bill for cell phones, Internet and TV. That would be nice. It still doesn't go through -- it still needs to go through the FEC, FEC, but if approved, the entertainment giant would serve 26 million people.


STELTER: Couple of little mistakes there, two in one sentence, actually. She said FEC, the elections agency, when she meant to say the FCC. And she said 26 million people, when she meant to say 67 million people.

Reporters make this mistake a lot. They conflate the number of households the companies serve, in this case 26 million, with the people they serve, 67 million.

When you say 67 million people, you begin to realize how big this story is, but MSNBC barely touched it this week. I couldn't find any voices of public interest groups represented on the cable channel's shows.

Of course, MSNBC is conflicted on this story. Right now, its parent company, Comcast, is trying to merge with Time Warner Cable. That would be a combo even bigger than AT&T, plus DirecTV.

And some analysts say the AT&T deal will help Comcast and vice versa, because regulators will conclude that two big companies will balance each other out. So that's MSNBC.

For real blue news on this story, I looked online. And here is a bold headline from Salon the other day. This AT&T/DirecTV merger is a nightmare, why we should all be very afraid.

Check out the illustration, a city under attack. Now, usually, this is where I would turn from blue news to red news, you know, news of the pro-business, pro-merger bent. But this week, the place on TV where I found the most skepticism, the most pro-consumer message was on FOX News.


SHEPARD SMITH, FOX NEWS: Cable and Internet providers are among the most hated companies in the country.


NEIL CAVUTO, FOX NEWS: I'm not saying that combos like Comcast and Time Warner or DirecTV and AT&T are bad, just that once they are approved, they have even less incentive to be good, at least good to us, the suckers who pay the bills, because sometimes they are only the game in town, or certainly the biggest game in town, not for all and not forever.

After all, technology is always changing, but, sadly, bad customer service usually does not. And nowhere in the government's approval of such mergers does it ever add the line, and you better quit treating your customers like garbage.


STELTER: I love Cavuto's end-of-the-show essays sometimes.

But fear not, AT&T, DirecTV. You have your fans. They are just over on CNBC and Bloomberg and FOX Business. Keep in mind, CNBC is also owned by Comcast, just like MSNBC.

And over on CNBC, Joe Kernen was concerned that the government might get in the way.


JOE KERNEN, CNBC: You would think that, in a free market economy, that there would be no problem with either one of these deals, wouldn't you? But can we count on that at this point? I don't count on anything anymore.


STELTER: I'm sorry, Joe, but you should count on a tough review of AT&T and Comcast plans to get, bigger because they are gaining even more influence over what channels we can see and how much we pay to see them.

I think this moment from CNN's "NEW DAY" on Monday summed it up perfectly.


CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: So it's not designed to stick it to us in terms of higher rates, but it's not necessarily going to make it cheaper for us. It may give us more for our money, though.


CUOMO: At best.

MOFFETT: That's exactly right.

CUOMO: If everything goes perfect. MOFFETT: If everything goes perfect

CUOMO: And they follow through on every promise.

MOFFETT: And -- and there are a lot of promises here.


STELTER: And that's exactly why we need reporters of all colors, red, blue, green, all of them, and no colors, to hold these companies accountable.

These Comcast and AT&T bids are going to take a year to review, so, thankfully, there's plenty of time for aggressive reporting.

Let me know what you think about these deals and about the program here today. Sent me a tweet or a Facebook message. My username is Brian Stelter. And I love seeing your feedback about the program.

And stick around, because my undercovered story of the week is right around the corner. It's a massive injustice and how TV might be making it worse.

Stay tuned.



On this program, we like to talk about undercovered stories, stories the news media should be taking more seriously. And this week's story was also undercovered last week, and it will be undercovered next week too and the week after that.

It is a systemic problem, a structural defect with our criminal justice system. Matt Taibbi calls it the divide.

I have known Matt for years. He's written for "Rolling Stone" and "Men's Journal" and he's now at First Look Media. And his latest book is called "The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap."

He asserts that it's easier than ever for the rich to get richer and dodge legal consequences for their actions, while the poor lack the means to fight back, and end up in prison. He says the media should be casting more light on these inequities.

And he joined me here earlier in New York to lay out his case.

So, see what you think.


STELTER: Matt, thank you for joining me.

MATT TAIBBI, FIRST LOOK MEDIA: Thank you for having me on.

STELTER: This seems like, in general, a massively undercovered story that you try to tell.


STELTER: Why do you think it is?

TAIBBI: Well, on the white-collar side, I think there are a lot of reasons for that.

I think many of these cases are way too complicated to do, especially on television. If you want to say -- try to describe what municipal bond bid-rigging is on TV, it's going to take three or four minutes to do. And a lot of television reporters just sort of give up at the start.

And then the complexity of these cases in general just precludes any kind of treatment, except for the long-form kind of treatment that I was very, very lucky be able to do at "Rolling Stone" magazine.

STELTER: So, even for daily newspapers, you think it's over their heads, so to speak?

TAIBBI: Not over their heads. It's just -- it's a very difficult fit.

It's also -- it's a very tough sell to readers, too, because it's very hard to make sexy for regular audiences. And it's -- you have to do a lot of work to make this stuff interesting. And...

STELTER: Tell me how you did that.

In this -- in the book, you go from these white-collar cases to these cases of low-income people trying to get by, facing severe situations with prisons and with courts.

TAIBBI: Right.

STELTER: How did you try to make it sexy, so to speak?

TAIBBI: Well, on the other side of it, there's no -- that's an easy sell.

There's nothing -- there's no problem with making sensational a story about a person like, for instance, here in New York City, who I met, a 35-year-old African-American bus driver, who gets arrested for -- quote, unquote -- "obstructing pedestrian traffic," which is basically code for being black on a Tuesday night.

I mean, there are all sorts of incredible revelations in this book about things that happen to ordinary people when they get caught up in the system.

STELTER: You write that: "It has evolved this way over time and for 1,000 reasons so that almost nobody is aware of the whole picture, the two worlds so separate, that they are barely visible to each other."

TAIBBI: Right.

STELTER: Do you think the press is a part of that?


STELTER: Is this on purpose? Do the institutions like it this way, that it can't really all be seen?

TAIBBI: I don't think it's on purpose. I think it's accidental.

A subtext of this book is that I, myself, who is intensely interested in a lot of these issues, was totally unaware of a lot of the things that go on in the criminal justice system, these ridiculous, mindless cruelties that happen on a daily basis in the court system. You have to be going out of your way to pay attention to these things. And the victims are all behind bars, so you don't see them.

STELTER: There's a scene that you describe being on Rikers Island, waiting in a room, and that one of these courtroom shows is playing on the communal TV.

TAIBBI: Right.

STELTER: Judge Alex is blasting. And you really don't have any choice but to watch it. Everybody is having to watch it while they...

TAIBBI: There's no dial on the television.

STELTER: No dial to turn it down.


STELTER: I think these shows, they have very little do with reality. Do they actually do harm? Do they mislead us about how we think our criminal justice system actually works?

TAIBBI: I do think there is an element of deception broadly in the entire media/entertainment landscape, in that...

STELTER: When you say broadly, you mean, what, "Law & Order," as well as Judge Alex or Judge Judy?

TAIBBI: Yes, exactly, "Law & Order," which is a show that I love. I love...

STELTER: Yes, me too.

TAIBBI: I watched that show obsessively growing up.

However, they do present this image of our courts as being functioning, fair, and even-handed. And the reality is that they are dystopic. They are often stupid, mindless, and they don't make any sense. People get thrown in jail for reasons that have nothing to do with guilt or innocence very often.

STELTER: So, tell me what happens. Take me -- tell me a New York story, since we are talking about "Law & Order," an example how this is a dysfunctional system.

TAIBBI: For instance, in New York, we have a speedy trial rule. Right?

You're supposed to -- if you get arrested for a misdemeanor, you're supposed to be either tried or let out within 90 days. In reality, they have this little trick they can use. If you don't make bail, if you're waiting in jail, they can show up in court, tell the judge they are not ready to proceed, get the thing rescheduled for a few months later, and then turn around the next day and file what they call a certificate of readiness, which basically means that we weren't ready to proceed yesterday.

Now we are ready to proceed today. It's basically just a trick to get around the 90-day restriction. In this manner, they can keep people in jail on bail virtually indefinitely. So, you might be in jail awaiting a misdemeanor charge that, if convicted, you would get six months for, but you could be in jail waiting for a year, a year- and-a-half, just to get to be tried for that charge.

And so people plead out to these offenses all the time, because it's less time in jail than you would get if you were even convicted.

STELTER: Matt Taibbi, thank you so much for joining me.

TAIBBI: Thank you for having me on.

STELTER: Thanks.

TAIBBI: All right.


STELTER: And we are going to stay on the topic of injustice here and come back after the break with one more big story, one more big injustice you need to know about.

Stay with me.


STELTER: Finally this morning, you may have seen this sign on air months ago. Christiane Amanpour had it up on camera back in February.

But, unfortunately, it is still necessary. Three Al-Jazeera journalists are still behind bars in Egypt nearly five months after they were detained, and falsely charged with aiding a terrorist organization.

This is an affront to journalists everywhere. And it was back in the news this week because the three journalists were back in court for their ninth appearance in what sure seems like a sham trial. The journalists are Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy, and Baher Mohamed. Fahmy used to work here at CNN.

They should not be in those cages. Unfortunately, on Thursday, the trial was adjourned again, now until June 1. There is a fourth Al-Jazeera reporter also in prison in Egypt, Abdullah Elshamy. He has been there since August, and he is now on a hunger strike to protest his detention.

Four journalists for us to keep in our thoughts today and every day until they are set free.

Now, that's all for this televised edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. But our coverage continues all the time on, so check it out.

I look forward to seeing you right back here next Sunday morning at 11:00 a.m.

And, hey, don't forget to set your DVR if you can't watch us live.