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Radical Cleric Speaks About ISIS; Red News/Blue News: ISIS Threat to U.S.

Aired August 31, 2014 - 11:00   ET


BRIAN STELTER, CNN HOST: Good morning. I'm Brian Stelter. And it's time for RELIABLE SOURCES.

We're going to spend a lot of time this morning talking about ISIS, and ask what I think is a really important question -- are government officials over-blowing the threat to the homeland and are media figures helping them do that?

But, first, something we should all know more about. How radical Islamic views are spread?

My first guest is a radical, an extremist. He has a strong following on YouTube where he posts videos of his sermons and TV appearances. He believes that Islamic law known as Sharia should be implemented worldwide.

British Prime Minister David Cameron has called his views absolutely despicable and appalling. On Friday, Cameron raised the country's terror threat level to severe and said Islamic extremist is the root cause for that alert.

I want to ask my next guest about that. His name is Anjem Choudary. His rhetoric sometimes comes across like catnip to some cable new shows.

Here he is on "Hannity" on Wednesday night. Let's be honest the appearances often devolve into shouting matches that generate a lot of heat but not much light.

I have a lot of questions myself and I hope we can get right into those right now. He joins me from London.

When you saw the video of Jim Foley being beheaded earlier this month, how did you react? Because virtually everyone here in the U.S. reacted with horror. How did you react?

ANJEM CHOUDARY, LONDON IMAM: Well, there's no doubt that beheading someone is a very gruesome and terrorizing act and I believe that that is precisely the agenda of the Islamic state, to terrorize the enemies who they perceived to be their enemies, so that they leave Muslims alone.

Remember that, you know, as far as they are concerned, the Americans and the British committed, you know, all kinds of atrocities in the same area. And they're thinking about bombing Muslims again.

STELTER: How can you not look into the camera, though, and unequivocally condemn the beheading of a journalist who was there trying to tell the story of the people affected by bombings and killings in Syria?

CHOUDARY: Well, quite frankly, I think it's completely pathetic and absurd for you to ask a Muslim to condemn the killing of one individual, when hundreds of thousands of Muslims are being slaughtered, which you don't know the name. You know, people have been raped and they have been humiliated.

We have our Sister Aafia Siddiqui in America who was beaten and tortured and --


STELTER: But I'm talking about a specific case that has been widely publicized about a journalist who was trying to tell the story of Muslims in the Middle East.

CHOUDARY: Well, you know, as I say, I think this is the result of the barbarity of the American foreign policy and, you know, if we're not going to talk about the cause --

STELTER: And you've said that again and again. But don't you understand that journalists are in a unique category? The others who are apparently being held by ISIS as well are in a unique category. They're trying to tell the story of this population.

CHOUDARY: Actually, I think your own assessment is completely different to the Muslims, you know? As far as the Muslims in the region are concerned, they're not making a distinction on the one hand with civilians and military, because they see that the general populists of America have re-voted for people like Obama and Bush who continue their policy of tyranny in the area.

Secondly, they see the journalists as really the propaganda machine of the Obama administration. Meaning, look at --


STELTER: That's a crazy thing to say given that the even reason why you know about Abu Ghraib is because of American journalists.

The only reason why you know about the abuse at Guantanamo are because of American journalists.

CHOUDARY: That's partially (ph) true because, you know, nowadays, people don't need American or British journalists, because everybody has a camera, let's face it, on their phones.

STELTER: Oh, come on.

CHOUDARY: You can see it via social media. Well, I mean, if you're not going to allow me to finish a

sentence, really, you know, we can have a shouting match if you prefer. But allow me to finish at least sentence. You know, you invited me on to your program and what I'm trying to say to you is that people perceive that journalists in general, in particularly Western journalists, in a very bad light.

STELTER: When you talk about propaganda, you realize that many people here in the U.S. believe what you post on YouTube is propaganda. There's been calls to actually censor that. How would you have reacted to that?

CHOUDARY: You know, as I say, I think that there were always be two camps in the war. From the time that Allah created man, there's always been those people who follow the Satan and those people who follow Allah. And they will lie about each other maybe, or they may use propaganda about each other.

There's a war taking place. So, undoubtedly, demonizing the enemy, trying to undermine them, this is all part of it.

STELTER: I think I hear you saying that you do use propaganda and you do produce propaganda of your own. I think there's a big difference between where you hear a legitimate government official say and what you would say on YouTube.

CHOUDARY: Well, you know, what I say is that, you know, I'm willing to be, you know, if you like, questioned and to be interrogated. You know, I think that you would never find something different from what I say publicly to what I say privately.

I believe the Sharia is the best way of life. I believe one day it will come to America and the rest of the world.

STELTER: When I hear you say that, I'm an American, I know you've said it in the last few days. It reads to me as something that's preposterous, but I respect that you try to get your message out however you can. What I wonder, though, is -- aren't you abusing the press freedoms that you would like to see eliminated under Sharia law?

CHOUDARY: No. Actually, you know, I believe the Allah created eyes to see and a tongue to speak. You know, nobody says to you, you know, that you have the right to speak. Rather, this is something that Allah created and he gave you the ability to speak.

You know, other than abide by the parameters of your acceptable behavior, one day, people are freedom fighters, the next day they are terrorists. At the end of the day, what I say is we act within the boundaries of divine law. And that allows me to speak and I will use every means at my disposal to pass the Islamic message.

Now, if that agrees with your principles or democracy and freedom --

(CROSSTALK) STELTER: This kind of network and this kind of conversation

would not happen under the kind of environment that you would like to see exist.

CHOUDARY: Actually, no, you are wrong about that. I believe in an Islamic state where we can have a decent debate and discussion.

STELTER: Including independent media? There's no independent media like this in Syria.

CHOUDARY: Well, you know, at the current time in Syria and Iraq, let's face it -- there's an uprising taking place. People are removing brutal regimes and they're implementing the Sharia.

But all accounts the Christians are returning to Mosul. Many Yazidis have embraced Islam. So, you know, don't believe your own propaganda.

STELTER: When you say the Yazidis have embraced Islam, that's under the sword. There have been so many clear reports about that happening under the threat of death.

CHOUDARY: Actually, you know, it's not entirely true. I mean, I think there are many Yazidis --

STELTER: Not entirely true. What do you mean?

CHOUDARY: It's not entirely, because basically, look, if you look at the Yazidis, those people in charge, they were supporting Nouri al Maliki under the American occupation. And obviously, there are some people among them who need to be caught. They need to be arrested and tried.

But for the vast majority of the people, especially the women and children, nobody will ever target. The vast majority of people, they can embrace Islam or they can live according to the law of the land, which is Islam.

It's just not true. Those people who are being targeted are the criminals. Those people who have committed crimes and, definitely, they need to be tried according to Islamic law. You may not agree with that but that is the law of the land in this region now.

STELTER: Let me ask you about Friday's report that the U.K. has raised the terror threat level. British Prime Minister David Cameron has said that 28,000 pieces of extremist material have been taken off the Internet, including I think 46 ISIS-related videos.

Have you and your videos and your material been affected by this?

CHOUDARY: No, not at all. I think that, you know, I don't pose a threat to anyone in this country. I pose an ideological and political threat definitely. I believe that I can counter the arguments of the government and those people who are banging the drums of war in Muslim countries. But at the end of the day, you know, I think that ultimately

David Cameron has lost the argument. If they're going to run roughshod over the very principles and values which they are fighting for, you know, in places in Afghanistan and Iraq, why exactly are British and American soldiers dying if not for the same freedoms and values which they are stifling over here for the Muslim community.

STELTER: You said you pose no threat to the U.K. and yet wouldn't you agree that you convert people to a radical form of Islam?

CHOUDARY: You know, there's nothing called a radical or moderate form of Islam. You now, a woman is either pregnant or not pregnant. If you abide by Islam, you follow what is in the Koran and in the traditions of the prophet. And, quite frankly, you would never find anything that I say which does not have Islamic basis. You know, I challenge anybody of that --


STELTER: So many Muslims would reject what you just said and say that you are warping your religion for terrible purposes.

CHOUDARY: You know, I think you will find that those people who differ with me believe in secularism, believe in freedom. Maybe they're being paid by the government to say what they say.

STELTER: Give me a break. You're making up stuff.

CHOUDARY: It is true -- no, it's not true at all.

You know, Brian, look, I've been in propagating Islam and I met most of the leaders of the Muslim community. I've been in many platforms. I know exactly what's out there.

You know, if you go to Muslims who are actually practicing around the world, maybe in Indonesia, you know, in the Middle East, you will find they say exactly the same thing as me, because I'm not calling for leadership for individuals, I'm calling for leadership for Islam. And I make sure what I say accords to the Koran and to the sunnah of the prophets.

STELTER: I've been trying here to have you answer in full sentences, full statements, but I wonder why you agree to go on shows like Sean Hannity's. You went on his show on FOX this week and it's a shouting match the whole time. Both of you barely get a sentence out at a time.

So, why do you agree to go on a show like that?

CHOUDARY: You know, I don't believe that there's any platform which should not be utilized to pass the message of Islam. And I know that Sean Hannity is going to interrupt. I think he's being rude to some of his guests.

But at the end of the day, in between that, I can try to pass the message of Islam. I can try to counter some of those arguments. You know, if there's going to be a platform which is being used against some of the Muslims, I think from time to time, you can go there. You know, I don't mind if they insult me or they insult, you know, my own behavior.

But at the end of the day, I believe that the truth will prevail and I think you can see from the reaction on the social media that I won that debate and many people are looking at what I said and they're ignoring what Sean Hannity is saying.

STELTER: You're talking about wanting the truth to prevail. But here's what bothers me. When we were setting up for our interview here, the audio engineer asked you do what every guest does, to count to 10 to check the mic. When you started to do that, but then you said 9/11, 7/7, 3/11 -- is this all some sort of joke to do that?

CHOUDARY: Well, you know, if you had a sense of humor, maybe you would have laughed. It was just a sound check. You shouldn't take any of these things that seriously. Obviously, you know --


STELTER: A sense of humor? A sense of humor?

CHOUDARY: We were setting -- we were setting up the sound check, and I said 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 9/11, 7/7, making sure that you can hear me. It's not a big issue. It's not a big deal. If you want to make it a big deal, by all means do so. But it makes you look much more shallow really than me.

STELTER: I have nothing more to say, but thank you for joining me.

CHOUDARY: You're always welcome.

STELTER: What a world we live in. I've got to take a quick break after that, but let's stay on this topic and talk about how Islamic extremism and ISIS in particular gets portrayed on television. We have a great debate coming up you've got to see, right after this.



It's time now for one of my favorite segments, "Red News/Blue News" -- a weekly look at how partisan media sometimes only shows you one side of the story. And this week's example is really important.

So, let's go ahead and stipulate right at the start that the extremist group known as ISIS is a force to be reckoned with, and its actions are atrocious and its beliefs are backwards. But let's consider whether there is a direct threat to America that is being overstated, and whether the press is doing what it should be doing, which is challenging people in power and demanding evidence for their assertions.

I think the tone of a lot of the news coverage about ISIS has been reflecting the government position. I mean, here's what Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said last week.


CHUCK HAGEL, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: ISIL is a sophisticated and well-funded as any group that we have seen. We must prepare for -- for everything.


STELTER: When members of the news media hear that kind of rhetoric, alarm bells have to go off -- beyond anything that we've seen? Now, there has been some solid reporting about how capable ISIS is and is not, but too many talking heads on TV have just picked up where Hagel left off and assumed the very worse.

Every day, there are new insinuations that these terrorists will infiltrate the United States.


ERIC BOLLING, FOX NEWS: We have a flood of people coming over from South America and Mexico, we don't know who they are. Hey, Ands --


STELTER: Wait, did you see what Eric Bolling did just there? He just dropped that Mexico reference and then moved on from it.

Texas Governor Rick Perry has similarly warned about ISIS potentially sneaking in through the southern border, but the evidence is not there.

And yet, the people who say this stuff don't seem to be held accountable. On FOX this week, House Intel Committee Chair Mike Rogers used one of the biggest weasel words there is, the word "they", to warn of a threat at the northern border.


REP. MIKE ROGERS (R), MICHIGAN: Don't forget about Canada. They believe there are as many as 500 Canadians fighting. You're just a car ride away from driving across that border and doing something to the United States.


STELTER: They believe? Who is they? He didn't say and Megyn Kelly didn't ask. But his claim still got picked up and repeated elsewhere.

Now, that's some red news. Truth be told, there's not a lot of blue news out there about this. I mean, this is a montage from MSNBC's "The Last Word" using lots of MSNBC clips from the middle of last week.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Growing threat of a terrorist group ISIS.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Islamist murderers in Syria and Iraq.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They are a clear and present danger.

REAR ADM. JOHN KIRBY, DOD SPOKESMAN: Dozens of Americans are potentially becoming radicalized.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How close is the U.S. to airstrikes on ISIS in Syria?


STELTER: President Obama made it clear that airstrikes in Syria are not imminent. He seemed at least to me frustrated that the media had gotten ahead of him, almost as if the media was pushing him to attack.

So, our question this morning -- is whether the threat to the homeland is being exaggerated?

For the record, the Department of Homeland Security came out on Friday and said it's, quote, "unaware of any specific credible threat to the U.S. homeland from ISIS."

Let me bring in two people who come at this issue from very different directions. Josh Rogin, a senior correspondent for "The Daily Beast" who has been covering the possibility of further airstrikes against ISIS. He's also a CNN political analyst.

And Naomi Wolf, author and political activist.

Welcome to you both.

And, Naomi, let me start by asking about this comment you made on Twitter referencing Chuck Hagel's remarks that I played a few minutes ago.

You wrote, you know it's terror hype when the Pentagon calls a press conference to use action movie terms such as apocalyptic. Is that what you think is going on here, terror hype?

NAOMI WOLF, AUTHOR AND ACTIVIST: We can't know what is true about a lot of these assertions that are being made because the news media is not verifying them or confirming them or asking for more evidence or more accountability, which is their job.

You just can't say there are 100 Americans fighting or there are 800 British people fighting. The Pentagon just asked for $500 million from Congress in a time of peace when there are no -- there's no war. You know, Congress hasn't declared war which is what our Constitution obligates Congress to do.

(CROSSTALK) STELTER: We do remain at war in Afghanistan. We are striking

ISIS in Iraq.

Josh, let me ask you about this, because you bring a different perspective. You're interviewing sources. You're writing about war planning for "The Daily Beast". Have you seen evidence of a threat from ISIS to the U.S., not just an interest in attacking but an ability to attack?

JOSH ROGIN, THE DAILY BEAST: Yes. But, first of all, I think it's kind of too cute for the administration to hype the ISIS threat on day one and then two days later, come out and blame the media for hyping the ISIS threat, right?

There is a reason that journalists all over Washington have thought that the administration was preparing to strike Syria, because they were preparing to strike Syria. Ultimately, it seems that they're not going to do it anytime soon, but --

STELTER: And you've written for "The Daily Beast" about how some of the administration is frustrated by lack of action.

ROGIN: Right. If the administration was just all talk and no action -- well, they fooled a lot of people inside their own administration as well.

So, it's all true that a lot of reporters have come late to the ISIS story. It's also true that the administration has come late to the ISIS story, which has been well-written about in the Arab media and in the region for over a year.

It's also true that ISIS benefits from hyping their own threat. They have been a huge social media campaign just for that purpose.

So, that's kind of a perfect storm of interest of both us and them hyping this threat, but there is some there and there. Let's not -- I mean, what would they have to do to actually be a real threat? They've taken over huge parts of two countries, they're in two other countries, they have cities, they have billions of dollars. They're committing atrocities on YouTube.

So, let's stipulate here that beyond the rhetoric, this is a persistent and serious threat that is getting more coverage as it rightly should.

Let's also point out here that those reporters who actually are doing the on-the-ground reporting are putting themselves in grave danger. And James Foley is the perfect example of this.

There is a huge effort to verify these facts. It's extremely difficult. And everyone who does this does this at the risk of their own life.

STELTER: I'm glad you mentioned that and I want us to keep in our minds today, Steve Sotloff, and other journalists who are still missing in Syria. But, Naomi, I heard you want to jump in there.

WOLF: Really what I'm worried about from where I sit because I get information streams from citizens around the world, is that the same story and the same talking points from officials about how Britons, and Australians, Canadians, and Americans are joining this fight is identical in an echo chamber around the world.

ROGIN: That's true.

WOLF: How do you know? How do we know?

ROGIN: Because we have extensive intelligence assets on the ground. All of these countries have CIA, MI6 --

WOLF: Right.

ROGIN: -- Turkish intelligence, French intelligence, not to mention all of the Syrians who have been tracking ISIS and all of these groups for three years. There's a ton of evidence.

It's true that -- let's also remember here that the administration's declaratory policy, what they say, and their functional policy, what they're doing on the ground, are two totally different things. So, at the same time, they're hyping the threat of ISIS, the president is deciding not to confront ISIS in Syria.

So, it's not as if the Pentagon and the White House are pushing us towards war in Syria. Quite the contrary --

WOLF: Not what I'm suggesting. That's not what I'm suggesting.

ROGIN: Right. So, what's the point of the hype?

The idea is the point of the hype is it's sort of a cover your butt mission by the administration. They know that Americans after the death of James Foley are very concerned about the ISIS threat.

I think the bottom line here is that we have a lot of first-hand information because people on the ground, without the filter of --

WOLF: Who? Who?

You're saying YouTube videos. That is not a credible source for a journalist to cite.

ROGIN: We need to vet it.


WOLF: Where is the video taken? Who was it taken by?

Just bear with me. What we're pioneering on Daily Cloudt is citizen journalism that actually verifies. It's a connected world. Everyone has cell phones. So, if you're saying that a major city in Syria, a quarter of a

million, people are being -- a quarter of a million citizens are being rounded up, or being crucified upside down and various atrocity stories, which always accompanied the drumbeat to war, right? They may be happening, but verify. There are credible people on the ground. And we did this in Gaza, we did this in south of Israel. And --

ROGIN: I can understand why you -- that is going on. There are 1,000 people --

WOLF: Just source the videos. Source them. If you're a real journalist, you can't say, oh, this is on YouTube. It's a video of atrocity. People mistake videos all the time.

ROGIN: But no one is saying that. Yes, that's a total straw man, because let's take the James Foley video for example, right? That was a video put out by the official ISIS media hub, right, and propagated by ISIS. But it endured an enormous amount of scrutiny. There were lots of people saying the person doing the talking wasn't the person doing the killing.

It underwent through a very -- you know, sort of crowd sourced method by journalists, activists, eyewitnesses on the ground, citizen journalists, a lot of vetting, and then that led to a lot of revelations about it.

WOLF: That's good. That's great.

ROGIN: Right, that's what's happening. So, I don't understand your criticism is.

STELTER: Yes, I'm going to --

WOLF: I'm criticizing the major news media for not doing that kind of vetting and leaving it to citizen journalists to ask tough questions.

ROGIN: It's imperfect, it's a mess but that's the best we can do. We need to do better and the government needs to do better. But in the end, we can't blame the media.

STELTER: I agree with a lot of both of what you're saying. I'm going to wrap up there. Josh Rogin and Naomi Wolf, thank you so much for joining me.

ROGIN: Thank you.

WOLF: Pleasure. Thank you.

STELTER: Let me close with one more thought. This is from the journalist Kurt Eichenwald, wrote this in "Newsweek". ISIS can't hurt the U.S. in any significant way unless Americans let it. That is, unless Americans give in to fear and hysteria.

Let me know what you think. Look me up on Twitter and Facebook. My username is Brian Stelter. I'd love to hear your feedback about the show today.

I need to fit in another break. When we come back, we're going to switch gear and look at the incredible career of Joan Rivers. "Entertainment Tonight" co-host Nancy O'Dell joins me, next.


STELTER: Joan Rivers is a true entertainment television pioneer, from standup appearances on "The Tonight Show" in the 1960s, to her own late night show in the 1980s, and, of course, her coverage of red carpets. Now, she's a staple on the cable channel E! and even on Twitter.

But she was hospitalized on Thursday after she stopped breathing during throat surgery in New York and since then we have seen an outpouring of support and well wishes from her fans and TV counterparts.

A little bit earlier, I spoke with one of the best known TV anchors in Hollywood, Nancy O'Dell. She's the co-host of "Entertainment Tonight". And once we started talking about Joan, we couldn't help but laugh.


STELTER: Nancy, thank you for joining me.

NANCY O'DELL, "ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT" CO-HOST: Thanks so much for having me, Brian.

STELTER: To me, I'm always struck by her red carpet shows. That's what I remember most about her time on television.

Was there something she did on the carpet that was different, that was pioneering?

O'DELL: I think that it was pioneering as far as the way she covered fashion.

I think that people were afraid to be honest about what they saw on the red carpet until Joan came along.


O'DELL: And she did it in a comedy way. And nowadays, you see not only best-dressed lists, but you see worst-dressed lists because of Joan, probably, because she did it in a comedic way.

And now, instead, I know the feeling when you're on the red carpet and somebody steps up, you just want to go, oh, that's so beautiful, even if it's not so beautiful.


STELTER: And it usually is, but maybe Joan brought some more honesty to the business. O'DELL: Yes. Yes, I think she brought a little more honesty to

the fashion arena on the red carpet.

STELTER: And I wonder, since you're so well-known for your red carpet interviews as well, did she have an impact on your career in that way?

O'DELL: Well, the thing about Joan that I will say, she had an impact as far as being a woman in this business because she really broke the glass ceiling.

Being a woman on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson and being able to sub for him, I think that was something that we had never seen done before, and the same thing with being on the red carpet. Obviously she does her comedy in a little bit of a biting way, but here she is somebody who is 81 years old and is still very relevant.

And I think that speaks to a lot of us in the business as a female in the fact that you can have a long career, unlike what, as I would like to call it, Hollywood myth calls it, that women can't have this long career. She has proven otherwise, because is so busy and has her hand in so many different things in between her jewelry line, and the red carpet show, the Fashion Police, the book that she had coming out. She's still doing stand-up.

It's just amazing the longevity of her career. I think that has certainly influenced my career as well as so many other women in this business.

STELTER: Yes. I'm a devotee to Fashion Police, thanks to my wife. Now I'm hooked on it too through her.

And I think it's interesting how you talk about longevity over a career, because I heard you on "CBS This Morning" describing her as a groundbreaker. But I hadn't thought of her as a groundbreaker about that, about the longevity of her career. What do you think are the lessons about that? How has she been able to reinvent herself?

O'DELL: She's been able to keep herself, as I mentioned, relevant. She is on a cable network that is a young cable network. So, therefore, she's seeing all of these kids with the viewership that are watching E! Entertainment.

And then she's also been able to doing it via what she's talking about and the fact that she is talking about fashion, which obviously is very current. She's only talking about the current fashion. That keeps her out there. And then I think the fact that everybody loves a wonderful comedian and that is certainly something that nobody can deny. And I think that translates to you whether you are in your 20s or whether you are in your 80s.

STELTER: For sure.

Nancy O'Dell, thanks for joining me.

O'DELL: It's so good to talk to you, Brian. Thanks for having me on.

STELTER: Our prayers and well-wishes go out to Rivers and her family this morning.

Next, we will turn from celebrity media to the business of media. Every once in a while, you have got to take a 2x4 and hit the mule between the ears. That's a quote from my next guest, and that's what he wants to do to the Comcast-Time Warner cable merger. He will tell us why right after this.



If you live in a big city like New York, I think it's safe to say you have never heard of my next guest or his television channel. But he is in 40 million homes across the heartland. His name is Patrick Gottsch, and his channel is RFD-TV. The R stands for rural and the channel features agricultural news and shows like "National Tractor Pulling" and "Cowboy Church."

Gottsch has become one of the most unusual critics of the Comcast-Time Warner cable merger. Remember, it would combine the number one and number two cable providers in this country. And it's been a big week for the merger, so I want to hear why he says his channel would be hurt if the government lets the merger goes through.

First, two quick reminders. Time Warner Cable sounds a lot like CNN's parent company, Time Warner. But the two are separate companies. They actually broke up in 2009.

And full disclosure here, my wife works for Time Warner Cable. I always want you to know where I'm coming from when I'm talking about the merger.

So now let me bring in Mr. Gottsch. He's in Calgary this morning.

Thanks for joining me.


STELTER: This time last Sunday, you were on the front page of "The New York Times." My friend Emily Steel wrote about your concerns about the merger and said you stirred up a dust storm about it. Why is that?

GOTTSCH: Well, what's really stirred up the dust storm is comments, public comments to the FCC over the last couple of months.

As you know, the Comcast-Time Warner public comment period closed just this past week on August 25. And out of the 75,000 comments that were made, over 57,000 by our count were -- mentioned their concern for rural programming, RFD-TV and rural TV.

So we have just been the megaphone for that. And those comments have got the attention of folks like "The New York Times," "The Wall Street Journal," CNN.


STELTER: What are they saying? What are the concerns about the merger?

GOTTSCH: Well, the concerns are is Comcast hasn't been hiding their intentions with this merger, even prior to the merger being approved.

They have dropped rural programming, RFD-TV, in two entire states, Colorado and New Mexico, this past August. And when Mr. Cohen when Comcast was questioned at the May 8 hearing in Washington, D.C., his only answer for why they dropped RFD-TV was that Comcast is primarily an urban-clustered cable company. And that really set off a firestorm not only in rural America, but with a lot of rural senators and congressmen.

STELTER: You mentioned Mr. Cohen. He's the chief lobbyist for Comcast.

He has suggested and others have suggested that you're just speaking out against the merger or raising concerns about the merger so that Comcast will take your channel more seriously and add it to more of its channel lineups across the country. Is that the case?

GOTTSCH: Well, as an independent channel, we always struggle with getting the attention of the big cable companies.

This merger has given us a chance to raise the awareness of rural programming. And, again, it's really the audience that's concerned and the actions of Comcast that has brought it about.

STELTER: This merger is a reminder that the industry is very consolidated, that a handful of companies like Comcast get to decide what channels get on cable and what channels do not get on cable.

Right now, you're in about 40 million homes. What would happen? Tell me the business implications here. What would happen if you were able to double that to, say, 80 million homes?

GOTTSCH: Well, Comcast and Time Warner, if that merger is approved, they will control 23 of the top 25 markets in this country.

We're primarily an advertising-based channel. So, if we were blocked or shut out of 23 of the top 25 markets, even though they are urban markets in this country, our Nielsen ratings would suffer. We're not going to be able to reach our full potential.

For Comcast to control post-merger 30 million homes and for RFD- TV to be blocked out of those homes, that would be a significant disadvantage for our channel.

STELTER: I know what you want to have happen here, but what do you think will happen?

There has been an air of inevitability to this merger. And Comcast and Time Warner Cable certainly expect it will go through.

GOTTSCH: Yes, and I expect it to go through, too.

Again, we're trying to do everything that we possibly can to raise the level of awareness. We feel that Comcast has a responsibility. If they're going to control access to 30 million homes, they have to make sure that underserved, large underserved audiences are being addressed in this merger.

And even by Comcast's own figures, 14 percent of their customer base post-merger will be rural customers. We think the number is quite a bit larger than that, but even 14 percent of 30 million homes is almost 4.5 million homes. That's a significant audience, and they want their rural channel, which is RFD-TV.

STELTER: Thank you so much for joining me today and sharing your point of view on this.

GOTTSCH: Thank you, sir.

STELTER: When we come back, we will turn our attention to the Middle East and this provocative question: Is the media getting the Gaza story all wrong? And, if so, why is that?

Stay with us.



This week, finally, there was a truce. Fighting ended between Israel and Hamas militants, but the facts on the ground have not changed, nor have most people's opinions.

Matti Friedman has covered Israel for nearly two decades, most recently for the Associated Press. And in an essay for the Jewish magazine "Tablet" this week, he proposed this provocative question: Is there anything left to say about Israel and Gaza?

He got me thinking about how the Israel story is framed. Friedman says there is a severe malfunction in the way that journalists portray the country.

So, I want to ask him what that is. He joins me now from Jerusalem.

Matti, good morning and thank you for joining me.

Let me start with the truce this week. You wrote that you believe the events in Gaza this summer will not be remembered over time as being particularly important. Why is that?

MATTI FRIEDMAN, FORMER AP CORRESPONDENT: I think that if we look at what happened in Gaza this summer, apart from the tragic and senseless loss of life, we see another round in a war between Israel and the Arab world that's been going on for about a century. It wasn't the first round. It wasn't the first round against

Hamas. It wasn't the first round in Gaza. And, unfortunately, it won't be the last.

STELTER: So, is that why you say instead of calling the conflict Israeli/Palestinian, it should be called in the press Israeli/Arab or Jewish/Arab?

FRIEDMAN: When you frame the conflict as Israel/Palestinian, you are saying that this conflict is being taken place on a tiny slice of earth in which Jews are the majority, which constitutes about 0.2 percent of the Arab world.

But, of course, the conflict between Jews and Arabs in this land has been going on for about a century. It started before the state of Israel existed. It started before Israel occupied the Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank. It started before the word Palestinians even was in use.

Implicit in the framing of this conflict as Israel/Palestinian is the idea that if the Palestinian problem, Palestinian predicament is solved, the conflict will be over. But I don't think there's anyone sane and knowledgeable in this region who believes that to be true.

So, I think the framing should be reinvestigated and changed to reflect what this conflict really is.

STELTER: My -- one of my takeaways from your essay was also that you feel that there's not -- there's a moral equivalency applied to the situation that's not really there. Am I taking that away correctly?

FRIEDMAN: I think that there's a disproportionate focus on Israel. It's objectively disproportionate if you look at the staffing of the international news organizations like AP.


STELTER: That was a really important point I think you made, that there are so many journalists in Jerusalem, in Tel Aviv, as compared to many other regions of conflict all around the world.

FRIEDMAN: It's a striking -- the numbers are striking.

And people I think are not aware of them. I will just give you an example. When I started to work at the AP, there were more than 40 full-time news staffers, AP news staffers covering Israel and the Palestinians. That is 12 about million people, by the way. It was far more than the AP had covering 1.3 billion in China. It was more than the AP had covering all 50 countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

And most importantly, to my mind as someone who cares about this region, it was more staff than the AP had covering all of the countries where the Arab spring uprisings eventually erupted.

(CROSSTALK) STELTER: And perhaps that's because the AP is based in New York

and the United States, and America has a special relationship with Israel.

What is the net result of that staffing situation do you think?

FRIEDMAN: The net -- the net result is an objectively disproportionate focus on a country that I think, if you look at it with dispassionate eyes, isn't all that important, beyond the emotional connection that some people feel with it.

The numbers in this conflict are absurdly small if you look at it vis-a-vis the prominence that the conflict has. Last year, for example, 2013, the entire death toll in the Israel-Palestinian conflict, this conflict of great global significance which is staffed more than any almost conflict on earth by most international organizations, the death toll here was 42 people.

Now, 42 people, as I write in my essay, is the death toll every month in the city of Chicago. Jerusalem, which is renowned as a city of conflict, and Jerusalem right now, Jerusalem was actually safer last year in terms of violent death than Portland, Oregon, which is one of the safest cities in America.

The numbers here are very, very small when you compare them to almost anywhere else. Certainly, Syria, in Syria, nearly 200,000 people have died in three years; 200,000 people is 80,000 people more than had ever died in the Israel/Arab conflict in the last century.

The treatment of this conflict, I think, is an obsession that skews the way we understand the world.

STELTER: And you suggested it makes Israel appear as the bad guy, as the enemy, and Jews as well as a result.


The first part of the malfunction, as I call it, is the disproportionate staffing and the disproportionate focus. The second part is the content. Most international media organizations here adhere to a very strict script. And the unanimity of opinion and thought among journalists here is quite striking.

In this script, Israel is the aggressor, and Palestinians are passive victims. You almost never see real analysis of the Palestinians as agents of their own fate as adults, as people who are making decisions about how to act in the world. The Palestinians are passive victims of the party that people really care about, which is the Israelis.

STELTER: Matti Friedman, thanks for joining me.

FRIEDMAN: Thank you very much for having me, Brian.

STELTER: After a quick break here, big moves at two of the big television networks, and one of them involves Chelsea Clinton. I will tell you all about it after the break.


STELTER: And finally this morning, big changes at America's two biggest broadcast network news divisions, ABC and NBC.

Let's begin at ABC. Back on Wednesday, when Diane Sawyer did something that's not easy for anchors to do, say goodbye.


DIANE SAWYER, ABC NEWS: So, one last time, it is good to know you were watching tonight. To Mike and the four grandchildren and their perfect parents, I look forward to being home early for some dinners again.

And with gratitude for these years, I thank you, and I will see you right back here on ABC News very soon. Good night.


STELTER: Notice how she said very soon there.

Sawyer's going to be working on in-depth stories and big interviews for ABC. Meanwhile, David Muir will take over "World News Tonight" this week.

And if there's any lingering doubt about Sawyer's feelings for her replacements, well, listen to this voice in the new commercial for him.


SAWYER: He's been right there.

PETER JENNINGS, ABC NEWS: Our first reports is from ABC's David Muir.

CHARLES GIBSON, ABC NEWS: David Muir near the front lines.

SAWYER: ABC's David Muir leads our coverage once again tonight with that exclusive -- David.

Connecting us to each other and the events in our world that matter most.


STELTER: With Muir is at "World News," it is now a new era in the evening news ratings race.

For many, many years, NBC's Brian Williams has been number one. But, lately, Sawyer and Muir have been beating NBC in the all- important 25-to-54-year-old demographic. NBC says ABC has gone tabloid. And check out what the president of NBC News, Deborah Turness,

told "The New York Times" this week -- quote -- "If NBC started dumbing down and doing tabloid news, we would lose a large number of our viewers."

Interesting insinuation there. But it was a different quote from her that got the most attention. And let me read it to you. And keep in mind here she's only been president for one year: "People in the organization from top to bottom recognized that NBC News hadn't kept up with the times in all sorts of ways for maybe 15 years. I think the organization had gone to sleep."

Gone to sleep? That definitely offended some of the people who helped NBC stay number one in the morning and the evening for most of those 15 years. NBC's "Today Show," for instance, was dominant until it started losing to ABC in 2012. And top, top executives admitted to me in the past that they think a slow fade started in the late 2000s, but certainly not 10 or 15 years ago.

Turness later said that NBC News has been in need of investment in technology and digital infrastructure for a long time. She seemed to be clarifying what she said. But she also said she stood by her remarks to "The Times."

In any case, what NBC revealed on Friday might overshadow this brouhaha. Here's the headline. Chelsea Clinton is leaving NBC News. "People" magazine notes that she's looking forward to taking on mom duties. Yes, Clinton's three-year-long period as a part-time special correspondent is over. Her last story will be broadcast tonight on "The Nightly News."

Turness' predecessor hired Clinton. And it rankled a lot of people who thought it was inappropriate. And it only got worse after Politico reported that she was being paid $600,000 a year. And now NBC won't have to deal with the ethical consequences of potentially employing the daughter of a woman who might run for president.

In fact, that was one of the first reactions to Chelsea's departure on Friday. Here's Rebecca Berg of "The Washington Examiner." She took it as another sign that Hillary is running.

So, that's all for this televised edition of RELIABLE SOURCES, but our media coverage continues all the time on We got lots of great stories online for you to read and watch this week.

I will see you right back here next Sunday at 11:00 a.m. Eastern time.