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"Rolling Stone" Editors Reviewing What Went Wrong; The Many Hats of Al Sharpton

Aired December 7, 2014 - 11:00   ET


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

Ahead this hour:

Al Sharpton, activist, political adviser, and MSNBC anchor. So, just how many hats can one guy wear? I'll tell you what he told me about that.

Plus, the president and race -- what he says and what he doesn't say. Obama's long-time messenger Dan Pfeiffer is here taking us behind the scenes.

And there is new troubling information this morning about the American reporter jailed in Iran. I have an update from the top editor of "Te Washington Post" coming up.

But we have to begin this morning with a journalistic sin at "Rolling Stone". It is now making national headlines and it's all about this bombshell article, a rape on campus, which described in brutal detail the gang rape of a freshman named Jackie who attended a frat party at the University of Virginia two years ago.

The university basically ignored her allegations until the moment this article was published, November 19th. It called attention to the prevalence of sexual assault on campuses all across the country which is exactly what the reporter, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, wanted to have happen.

UVA's president issued a swift response. She suspended all fraternity activities on campus and promised a full investigation.

Portions of the 9,000-word story came under scrutiny from other journalists partly because "Rolling Stone's" editors agreed when Jackie asked them not to contact the seven alleged rapists. In other words, the writer only got Jackie's side of the story. And there are now big questions about the accuracy of Jackie's account.

This is, of course, very awkward to say. But on Friday, "Rolling Stone" came out and said there were discrepancies and apologized. We should say they have not fully retracted the story. The editors in the meantime have declined my interview requests. But here is what I can report -- all this weekend, those editors

have been belatedly fact-checking the article. They are reviewing what went wrong. One anonymous editor told me this, "We are taking these matters very seriously."

But the fact that this editor refused to be quoted by name shows you just how damaging this has been for "Rolling Stone." Jobs are on the line now. Also and frankly more importantly, there are questions and concerns about the damage that might be done to other victims of sexual assault.

I have a fellow student who knows Jackie standing by in Charlottesville and a writer who saw this coming who challenge the "Rolling Stone" reporter early on.

But, first, let's establish the facts as we know these with Taylor Rees Shapiro. He's "The Post" reporter who did the work "Rolling Stone" did not and he's in Washington this morning.

Taylor, what do we now know are the main discrepancies between the 9,000-word story and what may have actually happened that night?

TAYLOR REES SHAPIRO, THE WASHINGTON POST: The first thing that came out is the fraternity has denied there was a party on the weekend of September 28th, 2012, which is when Jackie said she was allegedly sexually assaulted at the fraternity house. It is also become clear she's said her attacker may now not have actually been a member of the fraternity.

STELTER: And that is a shocking thing to learn because it suggests that the writer in this case was not doing that initial fact checking. Have you been able to speak to the "Rolling Stone" reporter in question here?

SHAPIRO: I have not. I sent her an e-mail message and I asked her to get in touch with me because I wanted to go over some details that I had learned and also speak with her about her interaction was Jackie. She said she wanted to speak with me but has not yet returned my calls.

STELTER: And when I have been calling her it says her voice mailbox is full. I guess that says anything, that her voice mailbox does not even accept any more messages.

But you were able to speak with Jackie and she stands by the substance of her story, is that correct?

SHAPIRO: Yes, entirely.

STELTER: What does that signal to you, that something traumatic did occur and we just don't know exactly what?

SHAPIRO: I asked Jackie many times to tell me the truth of what happened to her that night. I wanted to find out from the very beginning, you know, what -- as close as possible what the facts were of the case. In speaking with her, she was outgoing. She wanted to tell her

story and she told a story that was substantially similar to what appeared in "Rolling Stone." As I continued to look into the facts of the case, I continued to ask her specific questions about the events of that night. And as we continued to move forward in that story, it became clear that perhaps there were some inconsistencies.

I asked her about those and she said the only truth she knows is the truth of what happened and that's what was published in "Rolling Stone."

STELTER: How hard has this been for you to go back and retrace this reporting and raise questions about something that is so sensitive and so traumatic? $

SHAPIRO: This is obviously a very sensitive topic around the country on college campuses everywhere. I just think it's important as a journalist to look into the facts as best as we can find them. Answers are sometimes really hard to find. You know, it's difficult to tell in the end what happens inside a locked room, but it's important to speak to everybody who may have been inside that room or who may have heard exactly what happened afterwards.

STELTER: And, of course, the vast majority of claims of rape and sexual assault are true. That's according to researchers who have studied this. To be studying one case that may not have been as terrible as described in the article should not take away from that basic fact.

But, Taylor, thank you for being here.

And now, I want to turn to Sandra Menendez. She's a student at UVA. She knows Jackie and she interns at the university's Women's Center.

And Jackie -- Sandra, I'm sorry. Sandra, I was hoping to speak with you because you were interviewed by the "Rolling Stone" reporter. Tell me what that experience was like and how you came away feeling after being interviewed.

SANDRA MENENDEZ, SEXUAL & DOMESTIC VIOLENCE SERVICES INTERN, WOMEN'S CENTER, UVA: Yes. So, I was interviewed for the "Rolling Stone" article for my work through the University of Virginia Women's Center and as my role as a peer advocate for justice for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence.

I left that article feeling a little bit uncomfortable. I know that a lot of other peer advocates who were interviewed for the article also felt really uncomfortable after being interviewed, and we don't really know if it was the degree of the questions that were being asked because this is such a difficult topic and such a painful topic to talk about or if it was the way certain questions were being presented.

STELTER: You told me off air you felt she had an agenda. What was the agenda you thought she was pushing? MENENDEZ: Yes. I think she was trying to tell a really painful

story which is that sexual assault really does happen at the University of Virginia and also around the United States. I'm not quite sure if the story that was told, you know, really does speak truly to it given that we have so many ideas of like false memory recall or we're still searching for problems in the story.

But I do think that the agenda that she was trying to reach, which was like really getting the story out was achieved. I'm just not sure it was done in the most responsible of manners. But some light really will come from this.

STELTER: When you read the article, you noticed other facts you thought were wrong. Tell me about the take back the night detail in the story.

MENENDEZ: Yes. In the story there were less than 500 souls who were said to have appeared at take back the night.

STELTER: That's what Sabrina wrote, yes.

MENENDEZ: I was the chair -- yes, that's what Sabrina wrote. I was the chair of the rally committee and that was one of our record- breaking years. There was also a comment about the honor committee being reduced to something where students merely just snitch on each other. But she really did force us to look at our university culture.

I'm not sure that she had all those facts correct, but, again, she did kind of challenge us. So, it's two parts of the story.

STELTER: Do you feel the real villain here is the writer who came to your campus looking for this narrative? What do you think should happen to her?

MENENDEZ: I think the real villain is probably just the big problem of sexual assault on UVA campuses and also around the nation and a global issue. I think that regardless of whether or not this story is factually true, and regardless of how uncomfortable I felt being interviewed in this article or how uncomfortable other people have felt, I think she brought light to an issue, because I think regardless of whether or not this was true there, was something terrifying and frightening in reading us that hit home to all of us and I think that's something we need to look at for ourselves.

So, while I feel so comfortable --


MENENDEZ: Sorry. Go for it.

STELTER: I was going to ask you one more thing, Sandra, and that's something I'm very concerned about. Late last night, a right wing Web site published what is apparently Jackie's last name. I'm not going to say it on this program and I don't think other news outlet should either. How do you feel knowing that her last name is now being

published, and it seems like she's going to be targeted who think she made all of this up?

MENENDEZ: I feel very fearful, but I also know that we've done s| much work at UVA and we've had a call to action and we stand with survivors and I'm going to work my best and I know that so many other peer advocates will work their hardest to protect this student. And that the university administration is certainly on board with that.

STELTER: Sandra, thanks for being here this morning.

MENENDEZ: Thanks so much.

STELTER: I have to fit in a break here, but I want to broaden this conversation out when we return and keep talking about the ethics of the story.

Standing by in Washington is one of the very first reporters who questioned the reporting in "Rolling Stone." We'll talk about what made her suspicious and what we can learn from this, next.


STELTER: Welcome back.

We are talking about the "Rolling Stone" article on rape that sent shock waves across the University of Virginia but is now in dispute.

I want you to imagine that you are interviewing the victim of a crime and that the victim does not want you to contact the criminals. Imagine that the victim is afraid of retaliation. What would you do?

In this case, the "Rolling Stone" reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely and her editors all agreed not to contact those alleged attackers. This defies a pretty basic journalistic principle: when someone is accused of wrongdoing, you make an effort to get their side of the story. Now, "Rolling Stone" regrets not doing so. So many people are questioning that reporting instead of questioning a culture that's permitted Jackie's story to happen in the first place.

"Slate's" Hanna Rosin questioned the reporter about this before it became national news and she joins me now from Washington.


STELTER: Hanna, where do you come down on this decision, this crucial decision that "Rolling Stone" made not to contact the accusers?

ROSIN: It's a really unusual decision. I think if you're going to do it, which you shouldn't I don't think, but if you're going to do it, then you have to do two things. One, be totally transparent to your readers.

STELTER: Which they were not.

ROSIN: They were not. No, have a line in the story which says I made the unusual decision not to contact the assailants because it really made my source anxious and this is a sensitive situation.

But then, the second thing you have to do is corroborate the story with other sources. So, there are other people you could talk to. Her friends, she talked to that night or you could find out if there was a party that night or check at the lifeguard pool. There's lots of other work you have to do if you're going to make that decision.

STELTER: Let me read part of what "Rolling Stone" said in its apology on Friday. Here's what it said, "In trying to be sensitive to the unfair shame and humiliation many women feel after a sexual assault, we made a judgment, the kind of judgment reporters and editors make every day."

It goes on to say that, "We should not have made this agreement with Jackie and these mistakes are on 'Rolling Stone', not on Jackie."

Hanna, that's a news statement that was revised on Saturday night. The original statement was perceived by some to be blaming the victim, blaming Jackie.

How do you react to that?

ROSIN: I'm so glad they made a second statement, because I was feeling about the first one. It essentially said this is Jackie's fault but, you know, Jackie is not a journalist. She doesn't know the rules of journalism. She's just telling her own story.

It's on us to know that you have to trust but verify. You have to check the sources. You have to figure out with the story is true because if not you end up in a mess like the one we're in now.

STELTER: Let me play a clip from MSNBC, because in the past two weeks, this story has gotten national and even international headlines. Sabrina was on CNN once before, and there were questions raised about her reporting. And then even after there were questions raised about her reporting, she was on MSNBC's "Melissa Harris-Perry" last Saturday.

Here are a couple of sound bites from that segment.


SABRINA RUBIN ERDELY, ROLLING STONE: I think that when we talk about rape and sexual assault, we've started becoming very mired in euphemism. We call it sexual misconduct, sexual assault, what does that really mean? So, I thought it was important to show this is not some form of misconduct. This is a violent crime and it was important to shine a spotlight on just how violent it is.

CHLOE ANGYAL, FEMINISTING.COM: Before I say anything else, I have to thank you, Sabrina, for writing this. I think you've done an act of public service and I'm genuinely very, very grateful.

EDERLY: Thank you.

ANGYAL: It is hard to read an article like this and avoid the conclusion that we live in a culture that hates women. Just hates us.


STELTER: The media outlets that uncritically picked up on this story I think have to do some introspection.

On the other hand, "Rolling Stone" has an excellent reputation, many important stories over the years.

Do you think this is sample an example of activism journalist gone wrong and should we learn from that piece of this?

ROSIN: Yes. I think part of what went wrong is belief getting in the way of facts. So, belief in two senses. Belief in this story.

You know, this story is an amazing story. It's a really important story to be told if it's true. So, you know, wanting the story desperately to be true got in the way.

And then also activism in the traditional sense. I mean, that's what -- what happened to Sabrina is a little bit getting into the survivor culture which is you can't question a victim, which I think is true. It's important not to question the victim if you're her support group because you want --


STELTER: And we've actually made progress in that respect, haven't we? As the decades have passed, the Cosby accusers, for example, were not taken as seriously as they should have been. Now they are being taken more seriously. And that is progress.

ROSIN: Yes. I mean, we have a ways to go. The Cosby story couldn't have come at a worst time. You see what it was like in the '70s and '80s. These women were sure that nobody would believe them. And we are making progress. What you don't want obviously is for a story like this to set back the progress.

STELTER: Hanna, thank you for being here.

ROSIN: Thank you.

STELTER: We're going to keep covering this story on and here on CNN all week long.

We're going to turn now, though, to the week's other big media story -- outrage over the grand jury decision in the Eric Garner chokehold case. Protests against excessive use of force by police are really giving birth to a nationwide movement. Well, last night, you may seen ugliness in Berkeley, California, windows smashed, smoke deployed. And media is being criticized here. Police say two officers were injured by protesters, but the other

side said several protesters were injured by police, and do the media should be covering both sides of that?

Here's another media question for us after the break: how is it possibly appropriate that Al Sharpton is both an adviser to the Garner family and a cable news anchor? We'll be back with that in just a moment.


STELTER: There's never been anyone quite like Al Sharpton before. You could say that admiringly or you could say that pejoratively. He gives headaches to media critics by simultaneously hosting a TV show on MSNBC and leading a civil rights organization.

I talked to him about that this week actually and we'll get to that in a moment. But, first, let's look back because he has been right in the thick of it, right in the thick of the national debate about Michael Brown's death in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner's death here in New York City.


AL SHARPTON, CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVIST: But if you are choking a man who is down with other police helping and hovering over him, even if the guidelines don't kick in your mind, even if the law don't kick on your mind, after 11 times of "I can't breathe," when does your humanity kick in?


STELTER: But here's the thing about Sharpton: often times, the debate is about his involvement.


GLENN BECK, BLAZE TV: Stop calling Al Sharpton a preacher. He's a cleric. He's a dangerous, extremist cleric.

REP. PETER KING (R), NEW YORK: President Obama, if he's serious about trying to bring racial peace to this country, the last thing he should be doing is having Al Sharpton sit in the White House.

SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS: Time for tonight's question of the day, has the Reverend Al Sharpton been irresponsible in how he's handled both the Ferguson and New York City grand jury decisions? Of course.


STELTER: There was a lot of that on cable this week. You know, you might say Sharpton wear twos hats, anchor and activist.

But really it's a lot more complicated than that. He's wearing like seven hats. He's a preacher. He's a fund-raiser for his organization. He's an unofficial adviser to President Obama and other administration officials.

On Wednesday, when that grand jury decided not to indict a police officer in Eric Garner's death, Sharpton tweeted that he and garner's widow talked on the phone right away with Attorney General Eric Holder. Then he told his MSNBC viewers about the call.

Sharpton is also a confidant of the New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. Here is the cover of "The New York Post" calling Sharpton the co-mayor.

And importantly, Sharpton is also a sort of grief counselor to families in need like Brown's family and Garner's family. And then he sometimes seems to be coordinating their media appearances. Garner's mother and widow's first words after the grand jury decision were on Sharpton's MSNBC show. And then the group traveled uptown for a press conference led by Sharpton.

Remember, MSNBC is owned by NBC. I don't think it's a coincidence then that Garner's widow and Sharpton were both on NBC's "Today" show the next morning.

So, are Sharpton's critics in politics and media right? Are they right to resent this? Are they right to call it inappropriate?

I have just the right group of people to talk about this morning, beginning with Mark Morial, the president of the National Urban League, who's worked alongside the reverend, and Minister Johnathan Gentry, who has been critical of Sharpton's roles.

Thank you both for being here.



STELTER: Jonathan, we heard Glenn Beck in that sound bite calling reverend Al Sharpton a dangerous extremist cleric. Do you think that's accurate? Do you think that's fair to call him that?

GENTRY: I mean, you could call him a lot of different things. I just think when it comes to what's happening in this country today, I think he's picking and choosing, and I think not just myself but millions of other people could just see he wants to pick and choose issues that can keep himself relevant and it shouldn't be like that.

People are tired of the racism. People are tired of racism, period, in this country and it's time to move forward.

This man wants to come in a place that just perpetuates hate into generations when a lot of these incidents and some of these incidents doesn't even have to do with race. But when he comes into the equation, he makes it about race. He forces that down your throat and wants to change the way you think, and poison a community and a nation into thinking it's all about black and white and divide the country in half. And that's what's not acceptable to myself or to God and a lot of

other people in this country.

STELTER: Marc --

GENTRY: It's sickening.

STELTER: Marc, as an ally of Al Sharpton, how do you respond to that?

MORIAL: I don't think the gentleman who is on television today with you can speak for God and say what God thinks about Al Sharpton.

Here's what's true: Al Sharpton does not need me or anyone else to defend him. But here is what I do know, and that is, for a number of decades, he's made working on behalf of the victims of police misconduct a very important part of his calling card.

Now, the reverend has his critics, but what I found in working with him is that he's been an important part of a broad coalition of people, a broad coalition of social justice and civil rights organizations, and the issue herein is that the Garner case and certainly the Brown case have struck a chord not just with civil rights and social justice organizations but with the thousands of people of all races and backgrounds who are in the streets protesting in New York and all across the country. This conversation with as much about them and their reaction as it is about anyone else's.

STELTER: I'm wondering with the MSNBC piece of this. You know, he has a daily show on MSNBC, and obviously the channel has supported him, defended him having that position.

But do you think that's OK? Do you think someone like you, do you think someone with your point of view should have a program to balance him out?

GENTRY: Balancing the man out or however you want to put it is just about us taking responsibility. Ask me this and correct me if I'm wrong, I'll leave the studio now, when have you seen an African- American male in the black community say, you know, let's clean up our neighborhoods, you all?

The same intensity you're seeing across the globe, the foolishness that we've seen in Ferguson, all over the country, the foolishness, you've seen -- when have we put that in our own communities and said let's change who we are? It's time for us to take some responsibility in our communities and our leadership, you know, as far as what we're doing out here.

You and I can agree with that. Do you understand? That's all I'm saying.

MORIAL: I want to make a point for a factual reference. I think in today's world whether you look at FOX or to some extent MSNBC and many other stations, you see a lot of hosts who write blogs, who lead or participate in organizations. Some have radio shows. We're in an age of opinion journalism. It's a different world

when it comes to television hosts on television. If you look at a lot of cable television, you see lots of hosts who wear different hats along the way.

In that regard, I don't think Reverend Sharpton is much different. He may be better known, but I don't think he's much different from a lot of other hosts who have a lot of other things that they work on to promote their voice, to promote their work, and to promote their philosophy.

STELTER: Marc Morial and Johnathan Gentry, I appreciate you both being here.

MORIAL: Thank you.

GENTRY: Thank you.

STELTER: I did ask Sharpton to come on this show this morning and he declined, but we talked about phone on Friday and he pointed out Jesse Jackson had a show on CNN in the 1990s while heading up the Rainbow PUSH Coalition. Sharpton said it's the same thing. He told me I wear the same hat he wore.

I would say there's one major difference. Jackson's show was on the weekend on CNN. It was a talk show, vs. Sharpton having a show every weekday at 6:00 p.m., almost in prime time.

But let's take a step back here with a longtime Sharpton watcher.

Errol Louis is a CNN commentator and the host New York 1's "Inside City Hall." And he joins me here on set.

Errol, take me through your thoughts about the ethical issues here. Are there ethical issues for MSNBC to have Sharpton anchoring every night?

ERROL LOUIS, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I think the answer is a definite maybe. I think for the first time it's probably gotten a little bit sticky.

When you see him interviewing somebody who he's also representing in a sort of a political sense or in a civil rights sense, and, you know, then he goes to the Justice Department or to the White House, which the civil rights organization is now petitioning for action, you have to wonder.

It's like, well, who in all of this stuff is he really speaking to and for? And the short answer is, if you like to watch him, if you like to listen to him on the radio, if you're part of his civil rights organization, there's no conflict at all.

For the rest of us, it can be a little bit tricky to figure out who he's speaking for.

STELTER: I mentioned at the top of this segment about how on Wednesday he had the first interview with Garner's mom and Garner's widow. They happened to be on the way to the studio anyway before the grand jury decision came in.

So, in some ways, it was a weird case of right place, right time. But then they go uptown and have a press conference with Sharpton and then they're on "The Today Show" the next morning. I wondered if there was a financial relationship at play here and whether his National Action Network supports the Garner family financially, helps the Michael Brown family financially, and then somehow that relates to the interviews he has on MSNBC.

He told me no. He said there's no direct financial relationship. Seems to be more like he's a counselor or a confidant to these families in their time of need.

LOUIS: That's right.

In the past, before he had the media platforms that he had -- and I have known Sharpton for a long time now. In the past what he would do is he would sort of walk them over to "The New York Times" or "The Daily News" and put them in touch with the media source. Now it so happens you have got I guess vertical integration. He is that media source. Who better to send them to, right?

STELTER: Vertical integration, it's a perfect phrase for it.

Errol Louis, thanks for being here.

LOUIS: Thank you.

STELTER: We have just seen this video of Eric Garner and we have also seen Michael Brown in Ferguson. But why then do we draw the line then at showing beheadings, for example, for showing some deaths, but not others?

The power of the tape -- when we come back.


STELTER: Press play and watch a man die. Press play again and watch him die again.

If you were watching cable news on Wednesday, I think you know what I'm talking about. When a New York grand jury declined to indict a police officer in the choking death of Eric Garner, this is the video that was played almost on a loop here on CNN and on other cable channels and on the local news.

One of the reasons why it played and played and played is because it was a powerful tape. I would argue that, without that cell phone video, the tragic death of Eric Garner would not have been a national story.

The video is evidence. It's the reason why commentators from MSNBC to FOX were almost universally shocked by the grand jury decision. But that evidence is graphic. Yet it was sometimes wallpaper. That's a TV term we use when we play photos and videos over and over. It was wallpapered.

And Garner's widow noticed. She said this about it to Al Sharpton on MSNBC.


ESAW GARNER, WIDOW OF ERIC GARNER: And then every day I try to look at TV to keep my mind off of, you know, thinking about what's going on and what had happened and everything. But every time I turn the TV on, I see that video, and then for them to come out with this verdict, like they didn't -- it's like they're not even seeing what I saw.


STELTER: Cell phone cameras are in every pocket. Surveillance cameras are on every corner. So, this issue is not going away.

When confronted by video like this, what is the ethical thing for newsrooms to do?

Let's look at this two ways, one journalistic, one psychological.

First, let me bring in the legendary journalist Carl Bernstein, one half the Woodward and Bernstein team that cracked open the Watergate case. Later, he was the Washington bureau chief for ABC News.

Carl, thanks for being here.


STELTER: So, with your experience at "The Washington Post," at ABC and elsewhere, do you think it was ethical to have this video playing over and over again this week?

BERNSTEIN: I think this discussion is a no-brainer in this particular case, that, obviously, this is news. It's real news, and the news is what the video shows.

And we certainly can understand the discomfort of the widow, but she also made the same point, that it shows something somewhat different than the verdict, in her view, and that's why it's important.

Look, I think we need to look at some basics. If you're talking about beheadings that are that -- but can become a kind of news video porn and have a sensationalistic aspect, and there's no reason that I can think of that we need to see the actual beheading, the actual moment, then you leave that part out.

But in this case, it's very easy to know what to do and I don't think we need to even think about it too much.

STELTER: So sometimes in the cases like this, we have seen videos or pictures blurred. When Michael Brown died in Ferguson, Missouri, some of the photos that came out of his body laying on the ground were blurred by organizations like CNN because I think there was blood there and so people didn't want to show the blood on television.

But in that case, we're not showing the blood, but we are showing a man die on a street on Staten Island. How do we square those two thoughts?

BERNSTEIN: I would say, in the case of Ferguson, probably the blood should be shown.

We're dealing with human beings here. And we're dealing with people who have been killed by police. And the news is that they have been killed by police, and we ought to be able to see as much as we can to make judgments about what happened, and as well as the emotional impact of seeing the victim of a gunshot wound.

STELTER: The other recent example of this is Tamir Rice, the 12- year-old in Cleveland who was shot and killed by police officers a couple of weeks ago.

The video of that moment came out. We're showing it on screen now. And it seemed to contradict the original story told by the police about what happened. I suppose that's the most important part here, Carl, that the video can sometimes verify the official account and sometimes contradict it.

BERNSTEIN: The real thing is that the video shows what occurred as best we can tell, and videos incidentally are not the answer, either legally or existentially, because things happen that we don't see in the video that are not part of it.

But you take that Cleveland case, for example. That video is remarkable. It is the news, and everybody who is concerned about this story ought to see that video.

STELTER: Carl Bernstein, thanks so much for being here this morning.

BERNSTEIN: Good to be with you.

STELTER: Now let me turn to another friend of the program here Dr. Gail Saltz, a psychiatrist and author.

Gail, thanks for being here.


STELTER: What's the impact of seeing horrible video like this over and over and over again?

SALTZ: I think the impact is one we have been seeing for a while now, which is, as a public, we have really become increasingly desensitized to violence in front of our eyes, to terrible things happening,whether it be on the news constantly and seeing increasingly graphic images.

Or, frankly, our entertainment has bled into news very realistically, violent video games that are not only watching it, but actually doing it, being the actor in it. So we have an increasingly higher threshold for what we view as violent or we shouldn't look at it. I think that's a problem.

STELTER: There may be some double standards about what we think is profane and graphic and what is not, because people will freak out when you hear a curse word on television. Some of the protesters this week saying "F CNN" because the cameras were on them.

SALTZ: Right.

STELTER: But it didn't even occur to me until several hours into the Eric Garner coverage that I was watching him die over and over again. I noticed the curse words right away, but not the violent video.



Well, I think that's partially because what is kept from us is basically blood. Right? Something like that we're told, OK, don't look at that. And I think that it took people a while to figure out that what they were seeing was not the wrestling of somebody to the ground, but actually, you know, essentially the killing of somebody.

STELTER: Homicide is the word used by the medical examiner.

SALTZ: Exactly.

And I don't think that people realize that's what it was, until they'd already seen it, at which point they'd already been desensitized to it. And now they're consumed to some degree with watching it. I do think it's important to say though the good news is, we're not so desensitized that people aren't outraged and willing to take action.

If we were exceedingly like, who cares anymore, I have seen this all before, then I don't think you would see so many people galvanized to protest in a very organized and reasonable fashion, but with the kind of power and anger that they do feel because what they're seeing is horrifying to them.

STELTER: Dr. Gail, thanks for being here.

SALTZ: My pleasure.

STELTER: And just ahead, there are not many people who get to advise the president of the United States on what to do and how to communicate, but my next guest is one of them.

Senior adviser and former White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer, he will join me and tell me all about media and messaging after a quick break.


STELTER: With racial tensions seemingly ratcheted up this week, much of the country and even the world wonder how America's first black president would respond.

And here he is, President Obama, after the Garner decision on Wednesday.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This is an American problem, and not just a black problem or a brown problem or a Native American problem.

This is an American problem. When anybody in this country is not being treated equally under the law, that's a problem. And it's my job as president to help solve it.



STELTER: Do you ever wonder in moments like that how Obama decides what to say and when to say it? What are the calculations made before the president decides his message?

Well, one guy knows the answer to this better than anybody. That's the president's senior adviser and former communications director Dan Pfeiffer. I have been wanting to talk to him here on RELIABLE SOURCES for a year. Pfeiffer has been in the Obama White House since the very beginning. He's actually one of the last remaining of the original White House cast.

So, I had a lot to ask him when I sad down with him earlier.


STELTER: Dan, thank you for joining me.

DAN PFEIFFER, SENIOR ADVISER TO PRESIDENT OBAMA: Absolutely. Thanks for having me, Brian.

STELTER: With Ferguson in the news, with Eric Garner's death in the news, there's been criticism of the president for being too restrained, for not really saying everything he wants to say about race.

Is that the case? Is he really saying everything he wants to be able to say about a topic like race?

PFEIFFER: Well, I don't think a president ever gets to say everything they want to say about anything. That's sort of the nature of the job. We're always going to get criticized from both sides for

everything we do. We understand that. And I think certainly there are some of his supporters and allies who would like to wish he didn't have that prohibition to speak specifically about specific cases, but he does.

And so he's going to do it the best way he can because he's speaking to the entire country about these matters, not just his supporters or some side of either of the opinion on this.

STELTER: Do you think there's too much pressure put on him as the first black president to address issues about race?

PFEIFFER: I don't know if it's too much pressure.

That's what probably comes with being the first black president. And so I understand why the press would want to hear about that, why people around the country would. And there have been times during the course of his time on the public stage where that's been very important.

The 2008 speech in Philadelphia on race came at a very important moment. And I think people around the country were struck when the president went to the Briefing Room in the White House last year to talk about the Trayvon Martin verdict and how -- to be able to sort of show to the country, help explain to the entire country, based on his experiences, why so many African-Americans felt the way they did about this case.


STELTER: Let me play you a sound bite actually from that Trayvon Martin moment.



OBAMA: When Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is, Trayvon Martin could have been me.


STELTER: So that moment, was that scripted? Was that planned ahead of time?


In fact, when he went to the Briefing Room for his long speech on this, or his long set of remarks on this, he specifically told us that he didn't want written remarks. And I had gone in there to ask him because I had heard he had wanted to go to the Briefing Room and I wasn't sure that was potentially the best idea.

It's not always a great format for long discussions of complicated issues. But I went in to see him. And I was like, well, what are you going to say? And then he basically said to me, almost word for word, without notes, what he ended up saying in the Briefing Room. So it came right from the heart. I think that came through to the people.

STELTER: I was struck by the fact that President Obama watched the Garner tape, and that the White House confirmed he had watched the video of Garner's death.

Were you there when he watched it?

PFEIFFER: I was not. But it's not surprising to me that he would. It's something -- he is sort of essentially the first Internet president. He has an iPad. He is seeing what a lot of Americans see as they're surfing the Internet and seeing what is on news sites.

STELTER: So, he watched it on YouTube?

PFEIFFER: I don't know what the format was. I'm sure it was probably linked to a news site, maybe even I don't know.

But he consumes a lot of this information the way a lot of Americans do, in front of a laptop or a tablet.

STELTER: President Obama said this. He said: "There are times, there's no doubt about this, where I think we have not been successful in going out there and letting people know what it is that we are trying to do and why this is the right direction."

That sounds to me like criticism of the White House communications structure. So, is that criticism of the White House communication and how much of that falls on you?

PFEIFFER: The point the president is making is -- which is one we have talked about for a long time -- which is, it is hard to get good news covered.

And this is not a new thing. You know, for a long time, local news has always covered the building on fire. And there are not a lot of stories on really good fire prevention. They cover the building that falls down, but not when it gets rebuilt. So, that is a fact of life.

And the world is changing in a way that makes it very hard to get our message out. It's harder for us than any previous president. It will harder for the next president. And so we are constantly looking for new ways to do that. We absolutely have to do a better job of doing it. And we are looking at new and innovative ways to do it.

STELTER: What is a recent disagreement you have had with the president? I'm interested in the times when you're talking about messaging, you're talking about communicating and he decides to go in a different direction than you.

PFEIFFER: It does happen. The president's natural instinct always is to sort of address the

elephant in the room. And sometimes that may fit with what is the message of the day is. And that is always a debate we have. He almost always wins that debate, because he is president, and he gets to do that.

There is an inherent tension that we have to deal with in terms of doing what is very important, which is to have the White House press corps ask questions of the president, so the president and White House officials like Josh Earnest can be held to account, and the American people can see that interaction.

I think that is very important. That is also not in this day and age a particularly efficient way to communicate with the public writ large. So we have to do other things. We have to do that, but we also have to do things like appear on ESPN, do the late-night and daytime talk shows, do a Facebook chat with Mark Zuckerberg or a Twitter town hall. We have to do all of those things.

STELTER: This has arguably been the biggest theme of your work with the president, having communicate in new ways.

Are there any that fell flat?

PFEIFFER: Yes, there are lots that we have tried.

Part of this is, no one knows the answer to how you wrestle with this contradiction. People in this country are more interested in issues and engaging in their community than they have been in recent memory, yet all the traditional means for gathering information about that stuff have declining viewership and readership.

So, how do you get the people, right? And so part of this is that there is no secret sauce. So we try a lot of things. We throw things against the wall.

STELTER: Well, you all did "Between Two Ferns" with Zach Galifianakis.

PFEIFFER: Right. Right.

STELTER: Is that an example of one that fell flat that you wish you had not done? If there one that you wish you hadn't agreed to do?

PFEIFFER: That one did -- no, we thought that was a raging success.

In terms of actual -- people up signing up for health care, it was one the most successful things we did, so we feel very good about that. There are things we have done that -- I'm trying to think of a specific one -- that -- I don't think that we had any disasters on the hands, but things that just turned out to probably not be worth the time.

STELTER: Dan Pfeiffer, thanks so much for being here.

PFEIFFER: Absolutely. Thank you, Brian.

STELTER: Great talking to you.



STELTER: And on the topic of Obama's media strategy, the president will appear tomorrow on "The Colbert Report." Stephen Colbert landing the world's most powerful men for one of his final shows, since, as you know, Colbert's show on Comedy Central comes to the an end December 18. Then Colbert will taking over for Letterman next year. Should be a very interesting interview with the president.

And as we go to break here, something that amazed us this week, one YouTube video that has been viewed so many times, it sort of broke YouTube's counter. I bet you know the one, "Gangnam Style." Yes, YouTube has to rejigger its counting system. It now has an incredible 18 zeros, because this video has almost 2.2 billion views.

That makes it the most watched video of all time on YouTube. And here are the other four just behind it.


STELTER: Welcome back.

If you have a chance to Google the name today of Luke Somers, please do. Please look at his remarkable pictures.

Somers was a beloved photojournalist in Yemen taken hostage by an arm of al Qaeda last year. And on Saturday, we learned that he was killed during an attempted U.S. rescue mission. Luke Somers was 33 years old. You can read my profile of his life, his career on

And there is more troubling news from the Middle East this morning, and it's about Jason Rezaian, "The Washington Post"'s correspondent in Iran. He has been detained for four months now. And last night, the Iranian authorities said he has been officially charged, but with what crimes? We still don't know.

"Washington Post" editor Marty Baron calls it appalling.

Let me read to you what he told me this morning: "It is disgraceful treatment of a good and decent man. There is no justification for his continued imprisonment, just as there was no justification for his arrest in the first place."

And, finally, this morning, it has been a privilege for the past year to hand off at noon to "STATE OF THE UNION WITH CANDY CROWLEY," but on Friday, CNN announced that Candy is about to leave CNN after 27 brilliant years.

Our colleague Dana Bash wrote a wonderful tribute to her on, saying Candy represents the soul of CNN, whose name is synonymous with television political reporting.

So, what might Candy do next? She's not quite saying yet, but here's what she told me when I asked her. "The bottom line truth is, after 27 years, I want to do something new someplace new. I knew I had to leave before the next election got started in earnest because I am like a moth and elections are my flame. I worried when 2016 really got under way, I couldn't bring myself to leave."

CNN is not quite saying who will take her place, but I know this. Candy has been a generous colleague to me and so many others. And we will miss her here on Sunday mornings.

And so now I get to do that handoff one more time. It's time for "STATE OF THE UNION WITH CANDY CROWLEY."