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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES
Where Were the Reporters?; Iraq: A War Reporter's View
Aired June 15, 2014 - 11:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
BRIAN STELTER, CNN HOST: Good morning from Washington. Happy Father's Day. I'm Brian Stelter. It's time for a RELIABLE SOURCES.
There's been nearly wall-to-wall crisis in Iraq. And we are on it, too, this hour. But with a journalistic question -- how can we trust the information we're getting? We'll get that shortly.
But, first, let's go over the river to Virginia. The thing about earthquakes there's no advance warning. You never see them coming.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS)
ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Political earthquake, it's just happened --
SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS: This was a political earthquake tonight.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: A legitimate earthquake in America politics.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's being called a political earthquake. In a stunning upset, Eric Cantor has lost in his Tea Party opponent in the Virginia primary.
(END VIDEO CLIPS)
STELTER: Yes, Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, one of the most powerful men in Congress, was crushed by his primary opponent, the unknown college economics professor, Dave Brat. And seemingly, nobody in the media saw this coming.
Here's "The Washington Post's" Chris Cillizza, at another earthquake reference here. He calls the loss seismically large. Here's what he tweeted, "I can't remember when I had been so surprised."
So, here's a question we have to ask this morning. Actually, a friend of mine asked it on Facebook, and that inspired this segment. Here's what she wrote, "I'm fascinated by the failure of the political media establishment to miss this. You have hundreds of journalists and bloggers covering politics and very little evidence that they were paying attention to this race. Why?"
That's a great question. So, to answer it, I've assembled an all-star reporter round table, including Christina Bellantoni, the editor and chief of "Roll Call", David Leonhardt, editor of "The Upshot", "The New York Times'" Web site that focuses on data-driven reporting, and Jake Sherman, the congressional reporter for "Politico", who was in Richmond covering the upset.
Jake, when you were at Cantor's election night event, I'm guessing you were thinking it was going to be a victory party, like he was thinking it would be?
JAKE SHERMAN, POLITICO: And a lot of supporters thought it would be a victory party. In about 7:30, 7:45, they shut off a screen that was showing the results. That's how surprised they were.
The results were coming in and it showed Brat ahead by a bunch and they cut it off. The room kind of went dead and all of a sudden, Cantor was giving a concession speech, a 13-year veteran of Congress, number two Republican in Washington.
STELTER: And you headed over to Brat's party instead.
SHERMAN: When Cantor was done, I went to Brat's party and talked to him how surprised he was. And he claimed that he knew it was possible but he definitely didn't expect it. I mean, here's a guy with almost no money.
STELTER: Christina, you were here in Washington ripping up the front page of "Roll Call", the Capitol Hill newspaper, that was a classic newspaper moment. Tell me what happened.
CHRISTINA BELLANTONI, ROLL CALL: It's awesome, I got to tell you. It wasn't quite stop the presses, but we had a front page that had some very nice stuff on it, a couple stories not exactly on the new, and we had -- you know, revealing a little bit about what we do in journalism -- we had pre-written stories for our online team of, you know, Eric Cantor wins decisively, had a couple of paragraphs that was -- really the races we were watching had nothing to do with Virginia. We kind of knew what was going to happen.
STELTER: You told me you didn't believe it at first.
BELLANTONI: I didn't. In fact, so, like 7:35 about, we see a tweet from Dave Wasserman at the "Cook Political Report", who said, "I've never seen anyone overcome such a deficit."
So, our politics team share center at the helm of that e-mailed us. We were actually proofing the front page saying, we're watching this. Then said wait a minute. Let me look at these. I'm a Virginia political nerd. It was my first beat when I got to D.C.
And so, I went and started looking. I saw numbers in (INAUDIBLE) which should have been a stronghold for Eric Cantor, I though, oh my goodness. He may not loss, somehow there might be a miracle that overcomes this. But it's enough that we need to change our front page. And there was a lot of there, we were very lucky we have two hours to sort of get it and get it right. We filed one story for the story, and then 12 stories for the Web site. STELTER: For the Web site, and the ultimate headline on the
cover was "Stunner", just in giant font, "Stunner".
BELLANTONI: One hundred one point font, I believe.
STELTER: David, you and I worked together at "The New York Times" for years, journalists live for these moments. But was there a collective failure to see this coming?
DAVID LEONHARDT, NEW YORK TIMES: Well, I think yes and no. So, there was -- we shouldn't engage in too much 20/20 hindsight here and pretend, oh, if only we had done this or that, we would have seen it coming, because Eric Cantor didn't see it coming, Dave Brat didn't see it coming. No one saw this coming.
So, I don't think our failure is, oh, wow, if only we looked at the right thing or interviewed the right person, we could have seen this coming. There were no good polls in this face. Fund-raising didn't suggest this was going to happen. The national Tea Party wasn't playing for Brat.
So, I don't think that's a big failure. I think the issue is politics is sufficiently unpredictable. The world is sufficiently unpredictable that we in the media should have been paying more attention to any race involving Eric Cantor or involving John Boehner.
And I think it's not that no one was paying attention to it. And Matt Bai for Yahoo wrote a nice piece about it in advance. You were down there, but we should have been paying more attention than we were, not because we thought he was going to lose, but because he's Eric Cantor.
STELTER: Christina, do you agree?
BELLANTONI: Sort of. It's a devotion of resources. And I talked to DCCC chairman Steve Israel this week and he said, in a million years I would never have thought this is the race we would have been talking about the next day. He would have thought John Boehner might have had more trouble with his Tea Party that he easily, easily cleared this year.
STELTER: Was there some group think going on here? Some failure of fact journalism?
BELLANTONI: If one of my reporters have said, I want to go down to Richmond, I would have said, well, you know, why don't we check out this other race instead because you have to make decisions? Now that said, we've been paying attention to what he said on immigration and covering it from that angle because that's sort of the bigger picture policy.
SHERMAN: I will say, I said that's my editor on April 27th and I did write the story about Cantor's race. It wasn't predictive in the sense that Cantor would use but there were some interesting political currents that were -- caught my attention, one he was -- I went down there and spent a day with Brat. Cantor was actually in Asia at the time and this was going back almost three months now or two and a half months.
And I went to a bunch of events with Brat, meetings of the establishment, Republican Party, that Cantor should have a grip on and he didn't. Brat supporters outnumbered Cantor's supporters 30-1 in some cases. I mean, it was clear that there was some anger in the district and it was because some moves that Cantor was making inside the Republican Party.
That being said, as a reporter, it's irresponsible to say, Cantor could lose when the guy has millions of dollars in the bank, Brat had about $40,000 in the bank. And there were no real clear signs that Cantor was losing ground, and it's impossible to talk to 20,000 voters. It's impossible to know if the Tea Party is so fervently for Brat if they would come out and vote.
LEONHARDT: Here's the comparison I would make. We're paying enormous attention to Mitch McConnell. To his primary, to his general election. Nate Cohn has written in "The Upshot: that McConnell is probably in better position than most people think, right? We think McConnell is in the quite strong position. That doesn't mean he's going to win.
But I would argue that we should have -- we in the media should have taken 10 percent of the attention we paid to Mitch McConnell and instead devoted it to John Boehner and Eric Cantor's primary. Not because we then would have seen it coming, but because the marginal story would actually serve readers better than the 400th story about Mitch McConnell's race.
BELLANTONI: What I love about this, that it proves this -- the importance of actually voting and showing up, right? Like for the grassroots activists, no matter where you come down politically, like you can actually do something if you're passionate about it.
So, I love talking about it. That's why I'm a political journalist, right?
STELTER: We're talking about how there were some outlets paying attention. "Politico" was. There were also ones on the right that were paying attention, which brings us to red news, blue news, our weekly look how the partisan media is or is not covering certain stories or bending them a certain way.
I want to play a clip from Laura Ingraham on FOX News the night of Brat's win.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
LAURA INGRAHAM, FOX NEWS CONTRIBUTOR (via telephone): This is a massive wake-up call from the Republican Party if they choose to wake up at this point.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
STELER: Laura not only was talking up Brat, she even went to a fund-raising rally for him about a week before the election. Jake, do you think Laura Ingraham and other radio hosts played a
big part in his eventual win?
SHERMAN: Yes. And, in fact, Brat told me that election night. They talked about him nonstop in the radio show. They blasted Cantor on the regular.
And in the weeks before the election, Brat was able to raise $15,000, which is peanuts compared to what Cantor had on hand. But it helped him because he had a lot of trouble raising money.
STELTER: I think one of the lessons that we have to pay more attention to, who people like Laura Ingraham are supporting and encouraging, you know, in these races.
SHERMAN: That being said, they've had a lot of misses and pumped up a lot of people like Boehner's primary opponent that have not really gone anywhere. Brad was successful playing up this thing about Canter that he was outside the district a lot and all that. And we as journalists say, oh, that's part of his role as majority leader, but back in the district that's the disconnect. Back in the district in Richmond, they don't really care if he's the majority leader, they want him at home.
STELTER: There's very little polling about this race. "The Daily Caller", the conservative Web site founded by Tucker Carlson was doing some polling. They had this headline on June 6th. Shocked poll shows Eric Cantor struggling in primary. But even that poll found him still to be ahead although by not as much. Was the lack of polling a big factor here?
LEONHARDT: Well, there's a big factor in the surprise. I mean, there's essentially almost never any good rigorous polling in House races, right?
And so, there's been a lost attention recently to what can we do to predict races, using polling, using models. And I think it's worth remembering, and in House races, you can't do very much.
In presidential races, you get a really good sense of what's going to happen. In Senate races, you get a pretty strong sense of what's going to happen. In House races, there really isn't good polling and so, we're going to have to --
STELTER: As much as we want more data-driven reporting, you can't do that if you don't have good data.
LEONHARDT: That's right. And so, the key here is, don't pretend that you can, right? Which I think -- and I think the media did as well. You did not see a lot of people out there saying there's a 94 percent chance Eric Cantor is going to win. I don't think anybody said that, because there wasn't polling that would have allowed you to say that. And we should in a way welcome that, right? Because in this era
where we say everything is so scripted, these House races can still be very surprising to your point about democracy. We don't know what's going to happen.
BELLANTONI: And we can learn from this, right? Because now, we can start looking at different races, what are the 10 races we're not covering yet that might end up percolating on our radar? You know, not to give "Politico" any ideas, but this is something that -- you know, we want to be paying attention to so we don't miss the next one, or at least we're better prepared.
STELTER: Christina Bellantoni, David Leonhardt, Jake Sherman, thanks all for joining me.
LEONHARDT: Thank you.
BELLANTONI: Thank you.
STELTER: And one more note about the red blues/blue news nature of this story. While conservative media stars were paying more attention before Tuesday's night election, the liberal media outlets paid more attention after.
Here's what I mean, I put the word "Cantor" into TBI, it's a service that lets you search all of the words that were used on cable news every day. And in two days after Cantor's defeat, his name came up 283 times on CNN. Over on FOX News, it was just a tad lower, 258 times. But on deep blue MSNBC, 704 times.
Now, up next here, a subject that all but swept Cantor out of the news cycle by Friday. That's the disaster in Iraq and skeptical questions reporters must be asking. I will speak to one of the most famous war correspondents of all time -- right after this.
STELTER: What is happening in Iraq is a disaster. That's how "The New York Times" began an editorial on Thursday about the sudden insurgent victories and army defections in the country. You know, here in the U.S., there's been little attention paid to Iraq since the troop withdrawal back in 2011. Suddenly, Iraq has dominated the news cycle again.
Here we are with the map of Iraq behind us, which makes me and the media report think about where we're getting our information about the conflict and how the journalists who covered the U.S. invasion a decade ago feel as they see all of this unfold.
I know the best person to ask, he's John Burns, my former colleague at "The New York Times." He was based in Baghdad when the war began in 2003, and he was the Baghdad bureau chief in 2004 through 2007 (ph).
Today, he joins me from Cambridge, England.
John, thanks for being here.
JOHN BURNS, THE NEW YORK TIMES: It's a pleasure.
STELTER: How does it feel as someone -- as one of the many reporters who risked their lives covering this war 10, 11 careers ago, to see what's happening now? Well, we were -- certainly, most of us were wise before the event. That's to say we could have not told you that we foresaw this in the weeks and months up to the American invasion.
But very shortly after that invasion, certainly within a year, most of us, almost all of us foresaw this unfolding as a disaster, indeed unfolding much as it has. Nothing that has happened in the last 72 hours, for that matter the last two or three years since American troops withdrew, I believe has surprised anybody.
STELTER: I hear you saying that we should have been listening more closely to journalists on the ground?
BURNS: It seems to be the central lesson, at least in my time there, was that the United States invaded the country to depose a murderous, tyrannical president which had, in the short term, some, many, in fact, beneficial effects for the Iraqi people. But we also discovered too late that this was a deeply fractured society and the sectarian animosities aren't just the ones that have been engendered in recent years, but ones that go back 1,000 years, were beyond our management and goodness knows American ambassador, American generals, American presidents, did everything possible to try and bridge those gaps. It proved to be beyond them.
And what we're seeing now, it seems to me, it's just an inevitable outgrowth of that.
STELTER: To hear the word inevitable is really striking to me. I mean, here, watching cable news the last few days, you can hear drum beats for air strikes or for drone strikes.
How does that strike you? What is your impression of that possibility?
BURNS: Well, I think one of the great illusions of all of this has been that these events and events next door in Syria, or for that matter the events in Cairo, or much of the events we've seen under the Arab Spring, are manageable by the uses of American, in particularly western power.
STELTER: In discussions in the media over the past few day, have you been hearing echoes of the media mistakes from 2003?
BURNS: Well, that's a very personal question for me. And for a number of others like me, who were in Iraq during Saddam's time and in Baghdad.
STELTER: Certainly, the mistakes were made in Washington. The mistakes were made so much in Baghdad so much in Washington, where reporters were taking too seriously the Bush administration line and not seriously enough people who were skeptical.
BURNS: Well, that's absolutely correct. And "The New York Times" itself had a miserable experience with that. I think we learned a lot from that, and I think it's not going to happen again and certainly not in anything like that fashion. But to speak to the position of people like myself, what mistake did we make? We thought, many of us, that the toppling of Saddam Hussein to end the ghastly brutalities he was besetting upon Iraq, it wouldn't be a bad idea if it could be accomplished at reasonable cost.
Well, it turned out it couldn't be accomplished at reasonable cost, and that the American endeavor there was defeated and defeated rather early on now as we looked back by the sectarian enmities among the Iraqi people. It was impossible to build a civil society on that shaky, fractured foundation. I think the mistake we made was, I'm talking here about myself as well as some of my colleague, not just at "The New York Times" but many publications, was not to understand how deeply fractured that society was, how strongly held those animosities were, and how they would not likely relent under any amount of American tutelage and encouragement.
STELTER: John Burns, thank you for taking the time to speak with me.
BURNS: Brian, it's a pleasure. Thank you.
STELTER: Coming up here on RELIABLE SOURCES, I want to go deeper on this topic and find out what's really reliable and what's not, which facts from Iraq, which photos, which videos are real and which are insurgent propaganda. The answers from an expert right after this.
STELTER: You have surely heard the old maxim, that in the fog of war, the first casualty is the truth. You've heard it because it tends to be true. It's very hard to know what's really happening in Iraq right now.
Of course, it's a country that will always be associated in our minds with bad intelligence. Sometimes reporters and TV producers have to rely on primary sources, photos and videos from people on the ever-shifting front lines.
So, the vetting process for this material is critical. Many people here at CNN do it every day. We have Arabic speakers who watch video, translate them, cross reference them, and sometimes debunk them.
In fact, a message went out to the whole newsroom here on Friday, reminding everybody to steer clear of misinformation and mislabeled photos.
For helps with this, lots of other news organizations depend on a fascinating start up called Storyful. It called itself a social media news agency. Here's a sign how important this work is becoming.
Last year, Rupert Murdoch acquired Storyful for $25 million. They have been busy there debunking insurgent propaganda from Iraq, and I want you to hear how.
So, let me bring in David Clinch, executive editor of Storyful. He was previously a senior CNN international auditor here at CNN.
David, thanks for joining me.
DAVID CLINCH, STORYFUL: Nice to be here, Brian. Thank you.
STELTER: Let me put two photos on screen that are from Twitter this week. Both of these are Blackhawk helicopters and the caption you can see on screen, it says "Al Qaeda militants capture U.S. Blackhawk helicopters in Iraq."
Are these images real?
CLINCH: They are real images. They are not Blackhawk helicopters captured by al Qaeda or ISIS in Iraq. And this is a vital part of what we do as journalists, and really what all journalists should be doing nowadays.
If you're covering a story like Iraq and you do not have somebody on the ground who is exactly at the point where things are happening, you have to use images that emerge from other sources. That's not an acceptable excuse or reason for using images that emerge from the web that can be verified or in this case, debunked.
Now, it may very well be ISIS and other forces captured weapons from the Iraqi army as they advance. In fact, there's no doubt they did. But there's significant evidence that first of all these particular images are old. And so, therefore, not from this particular incident and also some evidence these kind of Blackhawk helicopters were not supplied to the Iraqi army.
STELTER: I really want to hone in on this issue of where our information about Iraq comes from, because as you said, there aren't a lot of reporters there. It's very dangerous to be working in Iraq. In fact, a well-known freelance photographer was killed in the fighting in Iraq this week.
So, when we see images and we see videos, where are they coming from?
CLINCH: Well, there are a number of sources where images can come from. Of course, these activists or extremists put out their own videos. Of course, our motto at Storyful is always trust but verify. In fact, I go further than that is, don't trust and verify everything, because no matter where the content comes from, whether it's the Iraqi government which is putting out videos of air strikes, whether it's these extremists that post videos and circulate images, we've already seen that some of those can be debunked or whether it's the U.S. military or anybody else or local free-lancers, all of that content worth looking at and in some cases, can play an important part in telling the story.
STELTER: Tell me what it takes then to verify or to debunk these images?
CLINCH: Well, that's the important thing. If you look at these images and you make absolutely sure that you look at every aspect of it. Not just technically looking at whether the video is old or images are old or whether there's anything in the video itself that may have been manipulated, but does it correspondent to other information that you have.
There are ways in which you can confirm certain things, like geography, weather, whether there's other corroborating evidence.
STELTER: So, geography, for example, does that mean you're looking at Google Maps and try to cross reference images you see from satellites or from the ground?
CLINCH: Right. Absolutely every piece of evidence and every piece of available technology can be applied, as well as, of course, journalism and experience. There's an inherent knowledge within our team at Storyful where somebody can see that an image is circulating of a helicopter being shot down in Ukraine and immediately we're able to say, well, that helicopter was shot down and it's Syria last year and here's the video and we can show the two images next to each other.
So, technology, plus journalism, plus expertise and an institutional knowledge.
STELTER: And I saw the Pentagon this week even came out and warned about this, about this propaganda war. They said that they were seeing images copied, pasted and photoshopped from the militants.
CLINCH: Right. Absolutely. This is not a trivial issue. You really do need to dive in to these things and make sure that they're real if you're going to use them to tell the story.
STELTER: David Clinch, thanks for joining me.
CLINCH: Absolutely, Brian. Thank you.
STELTER: And we will a news update with the very latest on Iraq later this hour.
But, first, let's turn back stateside to the latest mass shootings that the press scrambled to cover. Here's the question for us, what role can the words set on TV and typed on the web have? Could they really inspire these terrible killing sprees?
STELTER: Are there connections between extreme rhetoric and extreme behavior? That question is being asked because of the shooting last weekend in Nevada, where a couple obsessed with radical right-wing politics and conspiracy theories attacked and killed two police officers as they ate lunch.
The killers were Jerad and Amanda Miller. They marked the officers bodies with a "Don't tread on me" flag and a swastika. When investigators searched for a reason for the attack, they found a long trail of hate posted on the Miller's social media sites.
And some observers said it sounded a lot like the rhetoric heard on some, not all, but right-wing radio shows and Web sites. So, are there connections to be drawn?
Well, John Avlon of CNN and The Daily Beast says, yes, there are. And he made the case in a provocative column this week.
John, thanks for joining me.
JOHN AVLON, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Pleasure, Brian.
STELTER: You wrote about this topic at The Daily Beast this week.
You said that the shooter -- one of the sheeters, Jerad Miller, was a product of his environment, the unhinged right-wing echo chamber.
What is the evidence for that?
AVLON: Well, one of the things Jerad Miller left behind and his wife, Amanda, was a treasure trove of social media likes and shares that really allow you to trace the evolution of his -- quote, unquote -- "ideology" as he got progressively more unhinged.
And what you saw is a steady diet of this hyper-partisan media echo chamber, really on the fringe, something that maybe is not beyond right wing, but fright wing, conspiracy entrepreneurs like Alex Jones, strong affiliation with the arguments that are made on his show "Infowars" about how this nation is in conflict between tyranny and freedom and people need to choose sides.
It's what led him to Cliven Bundy's ranch just a few months ago, that kind of rhetoric that gets pumped up through the echo chamber, this prospect of apocalypse. And you saw him trafficking in a lot of these conspiracy stories that a lot of these folks on the extreme fringe of partisan media traffic in.
So, you see got him parroting these talking points and see ultimately lead him unfortunately to action, as a source of dark inspiration.
STELTER: Are you saying there's a direction connection, that there's blood on the hands of people that promote this kind of rhetoric?
AVLON: I don't think ultimately there's a direct connection, there's causality. But there's absolutely is a connection. This stuff does not happen in a vacuum. It's a result of an echo
chamber. So, you want to be very careful about saying that someone's writings leads another person to commit violence.
AVLON: I don't think that's ultimately true.
STELTER: But there is...
AVLON: But, obviously, this guy is an unhinged soul who adhered, who latched on to these ideas that are being pumped up by these conspiracy entrepreneurs. And he mainlined this stuff and then he acted on it.
STELTER: Well, what we're saying effectively is words matter. Words matter a lot.
STELTER: And you have pointed out many times this is not strictly an issue on the right. Historically, there's been left-wing violence, particularly in the 1970s.
AVLON: Absolutely right.
We had domestic terrorist incidents in the late '60s, early '70s that were primarily left-wing, anti-government left-wing groups like the Weathermen, like the Black Panthers.
STELTER: There was this big Pew Research Center this week about political polarization and how it's increasing. What stood out to you from that study?
AVLON: You know, Brian, it's a fascinating and really harrowing study about the costs of the divisions that we have been sowing.
And partisan media is a big part of it. I think people need to appreciate that. But the number that really stood out to me, especially as related to this case, is a doubling of the number of people who feel that the other party is a -- quote -- "threat" to the nation's well-being.
That sense of threat, of not just disagreeing agreeably, or, as Thomas Jefferson said, that every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle, but people from the other party of a threat, an existential threat to the country who wish ill upon it.
That's the kind of rhetoric, that's the kind of message that may drive up ratings for partisan news hosts, but it can be murder on a democracy, because you stop identifying with fellow citizens who have different political beliefs. And, ultimately, a guy like Jerad Miller takes that, exaggerates it, and moves across that line to some place very dangerous.
So, that is part -- the hyper-partisan environment we're seeing is absolutely propped up not just by politicians, but by that steady drumbeat of professional polarizers in partisan media, online, talk radio, even cable news. And there's a lot to answer for here on the part of partisan media.
STELTER: One more issue when it comes to shootings like the ones we're talking about in Nevada last weekend.
I want to put up a tweet on screen from a cost of Al-Jazeera America. His name is Wajahat Ali. He wrote this: "A terrorist is a terrorist is a terrorist, unless he's an angry white American male shooter with emotional issues."
Where do you come on this, John? Should incidents like this one be described as terrorism?
AVLON: I think, in this instance, it does.
One of the definitions of terrorism is violence against civilians for a political or ideological purpose. And that absolutely fit what the Millers were attempting to do when they shouted revolution, when they placed a Gadsden flag, the Tea Party-associated "Don't tread on me" flag, over the bodies of the two dead police officers and then put a swastika on top of them to indicate that this was a -- quote, unquote -- "fascist government."
I think you do need to be consistent. We live in a time post- 9/11 where most terrorism internationally has a jihadist face. But you need to use consistent terminology. And we have seen right-wing domestic terrorism in the past, particularly in the explosion of the Murrah Federal Building, as we said, we saw left-wing domestic terrorism in the late 1960s, early '70s. So, this is an act of domestic terrorism, right-wing domestic terrorism.
STELTER: Another example of how words matter.
John Avlon, thanks for joining me.
AVLON: That's it. Thank you, Brian.
STELTER: And one more note on this topic. Words matter. That's the takeaway from the conversation with John.
And numbers matter, too. You might have heard the number 74 this week. That's how many school shootings have taken police in this country since the one in Newtown. And that's according to the umbrella gun safety group Everytown. That's 74 too many.
Scott Pelley led the "CBS Evening News" with this startling statement after that number came out.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SCOTT PELLEY, CBS NEWS: If it seems there is a shooting in a school every week now, a group that keeps count says there nearly is, about one a week since Newtown.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
STELTER: CNN and lots of other outlets also shared that 74 number, but it required independent fact-checking, because Everytown has a political agenda here.
Everytown used media reports to compile its list. And it counted, among other things, suicides, accidental shootings, and alleged gang activity and drug deals. All of those are terrible events, all worthy of attention. But they're not what the phrase school shooting conjures up. They're not what Newtown reminds us of.
CNN subsequently did do its own checking and it found 15 situations, 15 of the 74 that were similar to Newtown, again, 15 too many.
Then some blogs claimed that CNN had caved to conservatives who had demanded a recount. But that's not just true. Gathering and double-checking data independently is what we're supposed to be doing as journalists. And it need not take away from the horror of each and every gun injury and death in this country.
We all know there are too many. Numbers matter here. Accurate numbers matter.
After a quick break, I know you have seen Hillary Clinton's answers on her book tour. Well, we're going to analyze the questions she was asked.
STELTER: Welcome back.
If you saw ABC's Diane Sawyer interview Hillary Clinton on Monday night, you were one of about 6.1 million people who tuned in. It was the first in a string of TV and radio interviews, all part of a well- crafted rollout for the potential presidential candidate's new book, "Hard Choices."
Now, you have probably heard a lot of what those interviewers got her to say. But we're here to look at how they got her to say it, the question, not the answers.
So, earlier, I spoke with Dylan Byers of Politico and Erik Wemple of "The Washington Post."
STELTER: Thanks for being us.
DYLAN BYERS, POLITICO: Thanks for having us.
ERIK WEMPLE, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Thank you.
STELTER: Dylan, I have to embarrass you a little bit here. You wrote this on Twitter on Monday night, when the interview
aired on ABC. "Three weeks ago, I wrote that Hillary chose ABC because Diane Sawyer promised to be a softer interview. I was dead wrong."
BYERS: I was.
To date, I think she's given the best grilling of Clinton that we have seen in this media juggernaut that she's doing so far. And, certainly, my expectations and I think the expectations are others were upended.
STELTER: Let's play a couple of clips from the interview. This first clip is how Clinton handled Benghazi.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DIANE SAWYER, ABC NEWS: Did you miss it? Did you miss the moment to prevent this from happening?
Is there anything you personally should have been doing to make it safer in Benghazi?
They have said, it's a systemic failure.
I wonder if people are looking for a sentence that begins from you, "I should have -- I should have."
(END VIDEO CLIP)
STELTER: That last question in particular, "I should have," she didn't answer. She didn't say. She didn't fill in the blank.
You called that a fantastic grilling on your blog. Why?
WEMPLE: It was a really wonderful thing.
I thought that what ABC had done here was made a strategic decision to go after the part of Benghazi that precede the attack. In other words, there had been a accountability review board report that Hillary commissioned and it said a bunch of things about failures before the attacks in terms of preparing this diplomatic compound for such an event.
And Diane Sawyer and ABC, I believe, just decided that this was less covered than the after-attack scandal. And so, they just decided, let's go four minutes on this. Let's go five minute on this. Let's devote most of the Benghazi to this part, because people really haven't heard her really grilled that way on the before-attack aspect.
BYERS: And I think what a lot of people are looking for from any politician is not defensiveness, but a sense of responsibility. And that was clearly what Diane Sawyer was looking for, why question after question after question, she finally leads to saying, do you think the American people are looking from an "I should have" from you, "I should have"? And it's notable that Diane had to be the first person to say
that, as opposed to Hillary Clinton.
STELTER: This kept for a couple more minutes, and then we got to this last question on the topic.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SAWYER: Is that another reason not to run?
HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON, FORMER U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: No, actually...
SAWYER: Just too much?
CLINTON: Actually, it's more of a reason to run, because I do not believe our great country should be playing minor league ball.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
STELTER: Pretty revealing that she says, the response to Benghazi, the criticism of her, the controversy is more of a reason to run.
WEMPLE: Yes. That was close to a declaration.
Everybody else asks the question, are you going to run for president? And she has all the pat answers ready.
BYERS: Right, her scripted answers, yes.
WEMPLE: And you put it in a different way. I would say that's as close to something definitive as we have gotten.
After ABC, we had NBC's interview. Cynthia McFadden was the interviewer. Let me play a clip about that, also about Benghazi.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CYNTHIA MCFADDEN, NBC NEWS: You write in great detail in the book about what was happening in Benghazi as it evolved. Did you keep a diary during your time?
CLINTON: I kept a lot of notes.
MCFADDEN: If the committee wants your notes, would you turn those over?
CLINTON: They can read it in the book.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
STELTER: So, that sounded like a book plug for "Hard Choices."
BYERS: Great book plug.
STELTER: Kind of remarkable to me.
There's real interviewer technique that we can see.
And I want to play this clip from NPR now, Terry Gross bringing up a topic that had not come up in other interviews, gay marriage. She asked questions for several minutes, didn't seem to get an answer. And then this happened.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
TERRY GROSS, NPR: GROSS: So that's one for you changed your mind?
CLINTON: You know, I really -- I have to say, I think you are being very persistent, but you are playing with my words and playing with what is such an important issue.
GROSS: I'm just trying to clarify so I can understand.
CLINTON: No, I don't think you are trying to clarify. I think you're trying to say that, you know, I used to be opposed and now I'm in favor, and I did it for political reasons. And that's just flat wrong.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
STELTER: Erik, what do you think Terry Gross was trying to do here?
WEMPLE: She was trying to get Hillary Clinton to tell her whether, back in the '90s, she supported gay marriage, but just didn't have the political cover or courage to come out that way or whether she evolved with the rest of the country.
Now, I have listened to interview a couple times, especially that part. I have read transcriptions. I still don't know.
WEMPLE: I think Terry Gross, even though Hillary Clinton got -- quote, unquote -- "testy," as all the news accounts say, even though she got testy, I think Terry Gross would have been justified to have gone another round on this one.
OK, Ms. Clinton, did you evolve or did you believe back then? And so she said -- Hillary Clinton responded wonderfully. I don't know whether -- maybe she is battle-tested on this one. She said, I'm an American.
WEMPLE: So, I'm an American.
Well, that resolves it, doesn't it?
STELTER: Well, there will be more chances to be asked these questions. This week, CNN has a town hall format with Christiane Amanpour. And FOX News has a joint interview with Bret Baier and Greta Van Susteren.
Does it strike you all that having a town hall format is a sort of presidential stage for Hillary Clinton?
BYERS: Oh, sure. It's like candidate Obama to Germany. It's a presidential thing to have a town hall.
STELTER: What is the takeaway for interviewers, for journalists from the clips we just watched? What's the lesson?
WEMPLE: Dig in on one topic.
I think, with Hillary, there's so much you can ask about. And Terry did cover a lot of ground, a lot of shoreline. But I think you got to make some decisions. You got to make some decisions about what you care about and go at them hard.
I think that's it.
BYERS: Well, and also when you're giving -- when the person you're interviewing is giving 12, 14, who knows how many interviews, ABC is OK because they have first mover status. CNN is OK because they have a town hall, which is a unique sort of event.
Everyone else, you have to be looking for one thing. And if you just go through the questions, she has answers for those questions. If, like Terry Gross, you hammer home one issue and you ask it seven or eight times, then you're going to generate a sort of response and you're going to generate some news.
STELTER: You start to get somewhere.
BYERS: You're going to get some ground, right, on somebody who is very ready to not give ground.
STELTER: Let's pivot from one Clinton to another.
You reported on Friday that Chelsea Clinton, in her role on special correspondent to NBC News, was making $600,000 a year. Tell us about this story.
(CROSSTALK) BYERS: Well, right, Chelsea Clinton came on as a special
correspondent for the network in 2011, where she produced only so many packages a year, maybe as many as 10.
STELTER: Fewer than most correspondents.
BYERS: Fewer than most correspondents, and yet made a $600,000 salary, which I think, you know, I'm comfortable saying is probably more than most correspondents.
STELTER: There was definitely some surprise and some shock among journalists when this story came out.
BYERS: And this has been a point of frustration. Other folks that NBC has hired, either for "The Today Show," for MSNBC, include Jenna Bush-Hager, Bush's daughter, Meghan McCain, Meghan's daughter -- or McCain's daughter.
So, this is -- this sort of makes journalists in the trade who went to journalism school who are scrapping by to get a six-figure salary, if they can, that makes them chafe, and for good reason.
STELTER: You also reported in a joint story with Maggie Haberman that now she's on a month-to-month contract. Why is that?
Well, so that actually to me is the more interesting thing than the salary figure. She -- first of all, she is pregnant. And she is expecting, and her mother might run for president, right?
So, there are certain things going on in her life that might mean that her nature with NBC needs to -- her relationship with NBC needs to change.
STELTER: Dylan Byers, Erik Wemple, thanks, both, for being here.
BYERS: Thank you.
WEMPLE: Thank you.
STELTER: Now let's turn from a potential future president to one from the past. A new film about George H.W. Bush will air on CNN tonight, but you may be surprised by whose money was used to produce it. I will tell that you all about that after the break.
STELTER: Finally this morning, you know, here on RELIABLE SOURCES, we examine CNN, as well as the rest of the media world.
And, today, it's worth examining "41 on 41," a film about George H.W. Bush that's premiering at 9:00 p.m. tonight. It's Father's Day special. The film was funded by Bush's presidential library.
So you might ask yourself if it's appropriate for CNN to be broadcasting it.
David Zurawik of "The Baltimore Sun" asked that question in a column earlier this week. And he concluded that it is not OK. He called it hagiography, not a true documentary.
Of course, others disagree. Rick Kaplan, a former CNN president, executive produced the film. And he told me by phone that the Bush Library had no editorial control over the film. He wants it is judged on its quality, not on its financing.
Honestly, this is a hard one. I see both sides here. On the one side, the financial connection to the Bush Library does affect the film. How could it not? But, on the other side, this is one small example of a big shift in media. Sources have more power than ever to choose who they speak with. They can make their own media.
And there's another thing here. CNN is acquiring a lot of programs it doesn't produce, some with strong points of view. It's all part of a business strategy to feature more than just straight newscasts. And I believe that makes a lot of sense.
So, those are the two sides I see here. As a viewer, I think you should also see both sides. And here's what I mean. CNN's press releases about the film have been up front about the library's involvement. And I think the channel should be up front on air as well.
A CNN spokesperson told me on Friday that there will be a mention of the library's involvement at the beginning of it.
Here is how boils down. Do I want to watch a film about George H.W. Bush financed by his library? I do. I think it sounds really interesting. But do I also want to know the library financed it as I'm watching it? Definitely.
Do I also want to see other points of view about his presidency on TV and online? Again, definitely. The viewer in me is very interested. The journalist in me thinks transparency is very important here.
I like CNN's pushing the documentary. I think a lot of people do, but it's important to know who is doing the documenting and why they are doing it.
Now, that's all for this televised edition of RELIABLE SOURCES, but our media coverage keeps going all the time on the RELIABLE SOURCES blog on CNN.com. So, check that out.
And then grab your remote, set your DVR, because we will be right back here next week, next Sunday at 11:00 a.m. Eastern time.