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New Information About Brian Williams; Bill O'Reilly Accused of Exaggerating

Aired March 8, 2015 - 11:00   ET


BRIAN STELTER, HOST: Good morning. I'm Brian Stelter and it's time for "Reliable Sources."

We have a lot of news this morning, including surprising new information about Brian Williams. This just came out. It's a much- anticipated magazine article that says Williams thought about moving from NBC to late-night comedy and even pitched himself as a successor to David Letterman. A big story and we're going to have all of that coming up.

But let's begin with a guest who has never been on CNN before and a story you have never heard before. It is about the biggest star on cable news, Bill O'Reilly. We've been talking a lot about him recently because the Fox News host has been at the center of controversy for weeks now over allegations that he misled or even lied about his experiences as a reporter many years ago. And now nuns are weighing in. Yes, nuns.

The first discrepancies were about the Falklands War. O'Reilly said Argentina was a war zone, but pretty much everyone else who was there disagrees. Another one of his stories was about seeing injuries from bombings in Northern Ireland. But then, later, a spokesman told The Washington Post that O'Reilly had only seen pictures of the bombings.

And last week we covered O'Reilly's claim that he was on the scene of a suicide during the JFK assassination investigation. Audiotapes proved he was not there.

And here is another one, one that is really outrageous. O'Reilly reported from El Salvador for CBS in the early 1980s. You can see him right here. It's not disputed. He was there. In fact, you can see; here's video of him in the country.

But listen to what he says here about his time there.


BILL O'REILLY, HOST, FOX'S "THE O'REILLY FACTOR": My mother, for example, doesn't understand evil. When I would tell her, "Hey, Mom, I was in El Salvador and I saw nuns get shot in the back of the head," she almost couldn't process it.


STELTER: He said, "I saw nuns get shot in the back of the head." So Fox's liberal foe, Media Matters, questioned this claim. And guess what, O'Reilly did not actually see any murders. He only saw photos, pictures of the murders, according to him.

Now, that story was a horrific tragedy. It was a big story at the time. You may remember it. Three American nuns and a missionary were abducted, sexually assaulted and shot execution-style on one day, one infamous day in 1980. Some of the family members of the victims are now offended that O'Reilly made himself a part of the story. And so are some Roman Catholic nuns.

We've been looking into this, this week, and two of the victims were members of the Maryknoll Sisters here in New York. Here's what they told CNN.

"Maryknoll Sisters were deeply saddened when our sisters were killed in El Salvador and shocked when we learned of Mr. O'Reilly's statement inferring he had witnessed their murder. This is, of course, not true. And we hope Mr. O'Reilly will take greater care in the public statements he makes in the future."

The other nun was a member of the Ursuline Sisters of Cleveland. And here's what they told us.

"The brutal murders of our sister, Dorothy Kazel, and other church women on December 2, 1980, is a sorrow forever etched in our hearts. And we hail these women as witnesses to justice and truth and call on all charged with reporting the news of the world to do so in the same spirit of integrity and honesty."

Now, O'Reilly says he did not infer he saw the murders. Let me read his statement. This is what he said about it.

"While in El Salvador, reporters were shown horrendous images of violence that were never broadcast, including depictions of nuns who were murdered. The mention of the nuns on my program came the day of the Newtown massacre."

He went on to say, "I used the murder of nuns as an example of that evil, the same kind of evil from Newtown."

And then he concluded, "That's what I am referring to when I say I saw nuns get shot in the back of the head. No one could possibly take that segment as reporting on El Salvador."

No one? Media Matters points out that O'Reilly also said on the radio in 2005, quote, "I've seen guys gun down nuns in El Salvador."

Now, to make sense of all this and this continuing O'Reilly controversy, I have just the right guest. Eric Burns is not just a media critic; he knows the Fox world inside and out because he hosted "Fox News Watch" for a decade, and he joins me now here on set.

Eric, thanks for being here. ERIC BURNS, FORMER HOST, FOX NEWS WATCH: Well, you put me under

a lot of pressure to say that I can make sense of this, first of all.


STELTER: Oh, really?

Well, you used to be me. You hosted Fox's media program for about a decade. You left in 2008.



STELTER: So you've been an observer of O'Reilly for a long time. Does this make sense to you that he's been puffing up his credentials?

BURNS: Well, not only puffing up his credentials, Brian, but he's been -- and this has amazed many people. He's also been puffing up his ratings. Since -- as you know, since this latest O'Reilly scandals...

STELTER: Yeah, we can show one of the headlines. He's been getting good press for the fact -- I wrote a story about it -- that his numbers are up since this controversy started.

BURNS: His numbers are up. And I think the way to understand this is to make a distinction between the words "culture" and "cult."

STELTER: Are you saying Fox is a cult?

BURNS: I'm saying that the people who watch Fox News are cultish. Because, for many years, conservatives have been extremely upset in this country because the only newscasts they had to watch were liberal, you people at CNN and how liberal you are, and NBC and ABC and CBS. And they -- they never had -- the extreme right -- they never had their own television station. When they got one, their appreciation, their audience loyalty -- and I know what the audience loyalty was like when I was there -- their audience loyalty soared.

And so O'Reilly, as the head of the cult, is not held to the same standards as Brian Williams, who was part of the media culture, the larger culture. Every time, it seems, Brian, that O'Reilly lies -- and he's lied so many times. You know, Keith Olbermann used to be on opposite him with his show "Countdown." He later wrote a book, all the segments in his show called "The Worst Person in the World."

STELTER: Oh, right, right. And O'Reilly was the worst person dozens of times.

BURNS: Yes. But every time he was, there was a charge that was made by Olbermann about something O'Reilly had said or done that was a complete fabrication. Yet -- I got ahead of myself there -- a complete fabrication, and it was also completely substantiated. I mean, Olbermann had all the evidence possible.

STELTER: So you're saying this is not new.

BURNS: No, it's not new.

STELTER: It's getting attention now because Mother Jones and other media outlets covering O'Reilly's background, but some of it's been hidden in plain sight.

BURNS: Oh, yeah, it's been there for a long time. I think...

STELTER: So how did you handle it? You used to be on Fox every weekend on -- covering media. How did you handle working in the same building as Bill O'Reilly?

BURNS: Well, since he was so unfriendly, it was easy to handle.


I'd run into him occasionally. I'd say, "Hi, Bill." And without deigning to call me by name, he'd say "Hi."


BURNS: That's how I handled it.

STELTER: And that was it?

BURNS: That was it.

STELTER: Now, you were terminated by Fox in 2008. I wrote a story about it at the New York Times at the time. I sensed the media program you hosted was going more to the right, was being more conservative in its orientation.

And just now, you said Fox caters to the extreme right. Is that what you mean, that -- I mean, you're a former Fox host. You say it caters to the extreme right in the U.S.?

BURNS: I thought that, as Fox got more and more popular, that Roger Ailes, who runs the network, would think, "Well, the right has nowhere else to go. So if I move a little more to the center, I can get a bigger audience and not lose my core audience." He did just the opposite. He went more to the right.

And for that reason, when people see these charges against O'Reilly -- now, the reason the mainstream media are covering them as they are is that these are, let's say, "allegedly," shall we?


BURNS: We're supposed to do that, aren't we?

Allegedly, he was with CBS at the time. You'll notice that distinction.

STELTER: Right. BURNS: No one expects much out of O'Reilly as a Fox News host.

No one expects the truth. He's been caught in numerous lies, and those have never been a story. We have a story now for two reasons. One is context. Brian Williams has set up the -- the media to be looking for things like this.

STELTER: Right, right.

BURNS: And the second reason is that he did this -- O'Reilly did what he was supposed to have done when he was with CBS.


BURNS: It doesn't matter that he does it with Fox. But when he did it with one of the major networks, the attempt is to make more of a story out of it.

Yet the cult, the Fox News cult -- to the Fox News cult, this kind of thing doesn't matter. It's a lie from the liberal media. It's -- who cares what it is? The point is, it doesn't matter.

STELTER: There was a little bit of red news, blue news this week, as I like to call it, between O'Reilly and Maddow. Let me show the viewers at home. This is pretty wild.

First it was MSNBC's Rachel Maddow who started to cover the O'Reilly controversy and said this.


RACHEL MADDOW, HOST, MSNBC'S "THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW": We asked them for comment on the substance of the allegations. What they sent us was a lot of information about how great Bill O'Reilly's ratings are.


And, yes, (inaudible), your ratings are great. I've seen your ratings shoot my ratings right in the head. Well, I've seen pictures of that, I should say.



STELTER: Now, Fox says that they sent ratings as well as other information to Maddow. Then the next night, maybe purely a coincidence, O'Reilly shot back.


O'REILLY: Now we have the collapse of the ultra-liberal MSNBC network. On Tuesday, after Benjamin Netanyahu gave his speech, millions of Americans tuned into the news. But they did not tune into MSNBC. The ratings for them were catastrophic. At 8:00 p.m. "The Factor" had nearly five times as many viewers as a program on MSNBC. At 9:00 p.m. Megyn Kelly slaughtered her opposition three to one.


STELTER: Slaughtered Rachel Maddow, he says. Now, it was not a coincidence, of course, that O'Reilly followed up, nor was it a coincidence that Maddow returned the volley right here.

Well, I don't think we have the bite. Basically, she went on and on about the O'Reilly story. And, Eric, she said that, until Fox addresses this matter, it shouldn't be treated as a news network. But am I right to think we shouldn't expect Fox to say anything more about this O'Reilly controversy?

BURNS: Well, they're not addressing the controversy. If you say -- if you're charged with lying and you say "Our ratings are up," you're not answering the question of whether or not you told a lie. I think it's astonishing that that's the way they operate. There's not one word in there about, "Well, I did see nuns in the shot; I did see that CIA fellow commit suicide." That's not part of the defense. It's all ratings.

STELTER: Are you enjoying post-cable-news life? You're working on a book about the 1920s, right?

So are you happy to be outside the cable news world?

BURNS: The 1920s, so much more peaceful.


STELTER: No television, for one thing.

Well, Eric, thanks for being here. Great talking with you.

BURNS: Glad to see you again, Brian.

STELTER: We are just getting started this morning. Much more ahead, including the big political story of the week. A reporter is here who first noticed Hillary Clinton was using private e-mails two years ago. He's standing by to tell us his story. He says he might sue the government, actually, to get a hold of those e-mails.

Plus, later, the man whose life inspired the new hit sitcom "Fresh Off the Boat."

And, in just a moment, an exclusive look inside this week's shake-up at NBC News, what suspended news anchor Brian Williams is doing now, why he feels haunted by Tom Brokaw, and this question: will the new boss let him back on the air? All the answers, right after this.


STELTER: There is breaking news this hour about the turmoil inside NBC News. This edition of New York magazine coming out tomorrow has some shocking stories about what led up to Brian Williams's suspension from the NBC "Nightly News." And we have an exclusive first look right here, reporter Gabriel Sherman's story. It's now online at

Sherman reports that many NBC journalists had been frustrated with Williams for years before any of the embellishment accusations. In fact, they had been frustrated that Williams had gained so much power internally. And Sherman paints a picture of a news division, frankly, in severe disarray, not just "Nightly News" but the "Today" show and "Meet the Press," too.

And NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke seems to agree. Because, on Friday, with NBC well aware that Sherman's story was about to come out, Burke moved his news chairman Pat Fili-Krushel out and moved Andy Lack in.

Now, you may not know Andy Lack's name, but every single person in the TV news business does. He was the president of NBC News during its glory years in the 1990s when Katie Couric and Matt Lauer became stars, when Tom Brokaw led "Nightly News" and when Tim Russert made "Meet the Press" a Sunday morning staple. And now he is back, back to clean up the news division. And now he has to figure out what to do with Brian Williams.

So what is he going to do? Well, Sherman joins me now on set for his first interview about the new story.

So, Gabe, let's dig into what you're reporting here.

Number one, most importantly, you're saying that Brian Williams is not the news division's only problem, that this is about the "Today" show and others as well.

GABRIEL SHERMAN: I think the Brian Williams scandal really, sort of, pulled the lid off of a whole cauldron of, just, messes that have been going on at NBC News.

STELTER: Which is why we are seeing Andy Lack...

SHERMAN: Yeah, and so I think you can understand the Brian Williams crisis in the context of, just, a news division that has been reeling for the last year.

STELTER: And with Brian Williams, you're saying it's still unclear whether he will be allowed back or not. You say that the head of NBC, Steve Burke, has not made up his mind?

SHERMAN: Truly has not made up his mind. And what I learned through the course of my reporting is just the real internal frustration with Brian. Brian Williams got so much power inside the news division that he was really, sort of -- there was no checks and balances, which is how a discredited story like his Iraq anecdote got on the air. Where were his executive producers? Where was -- where were the people fact-checking Brian Williams? They were not there.

STELTER: So what you're saying is he doesn't have a lot of fans internally right now.

SHERMAN: Yeah. And I heard many stories. One example is that he suppressed difficult reporting that investigative reporter Michael Isikoff was doing on the Obama White House's drone program. He got an exclusive look at the Justice Department's memo about how the justification of killing American citizens with drones -- the rationale behind that. Brian Williams did not want that on "Nightly News."

Brian Williams also did not want a tough Lisa Myers investigative segment on Obamacare. And so the journalists are saying, "You have the biggest platform at the network for news and you don't want our tough reporting."

That's going to be a really tough bridge for Brian Williams to cross, to come back and say, "Not only did I get a story wrong, but now I'm going to really, you know, roll up my sleeves and welcome your tough reporting onto my show."

STELTER: So NBC's not commenting on your article. I just spoke with someone there. You know, they are going to let it speak for itself. I haven't seen anything in the article that I think might be wrong, to be honest.

Let's explore two elements of it.


STELTER: The first is about Tom Brokaw. Let's put on the screen part of what you wrote about Tom Brokaw. You said that "Last summer, around the time Chuck Todd took over as moderator of "Meet the Press," several staffers recalled Williams told them, 'At least your ghost is dead' -- meaning Tim Russert -- 'mine is still walking the building' -- meaning Tom Brokaw."

You're saying there's a coldness between Brokaw and Williams and that has hurt Williams?

SHERMAN: Oh, it's -- it's a very cold situation.

I wanted to understand, well, how could Brian Williams, you know, really get himself into this mess? And a story I heard over and over again is that he tried to live up to Brokaw's legacy. You know, Tom Brokaw is an icon in the TV news business. And Brian Williams followed him. So he always felt this deficiency, that Brokaw traveled the world, was a reporter, covered Washington, covered the fall of the Berlin Wall.

And so Brian Williams, I think, tried to inflate himself into Brokaw's shoes. And so he told people that, you know, Brokaw was very frosty to him. And I think that, sort of, is one of the events that led to where we are today.

STELTER: This week we asked Brokaw for a comment about Andy Lack. He declined. Let's also read a piece about David Letterman. The thing that got

me most surprised in this story is that you say that Williams pitched CBS CEO Les Moonves about succeeding David Letterman.

Here's what you wrote. You attribute this to a high-level source. You say Moonves wasn't interested and CBS declined to comment.

Basically wasn't there a fork in the road last year. Contact was up. And he was choosing news or comedy.

SHERMAN: Yes. I think the trouble he got into, once he decided to stay in the news business, his heart was still in comedy. He loves late night. He was on Letterman last year where he made in 2013 -- two years ago where he made some of those comments.

STELTER: There he is.

SHERWIN: There he is. He re-signs his contract with NBC but he still wants to be in the comedy world. You can't be an entertainer or a journalist. One, a journalist has to be willing to anger people, entertainers want to be liked, they're just fundamentally two different roles.

STELTER: Last thing I'll say is there is still an opening at "The Daily Show" when Jon Stewart leaves.

Gabe, thanks for being here.

SHERMAN: Good to see you.

STELTER: Your article's online at

In some ways NBC News is back it to where it was in 1993 trying to recover from self-inflicted wounds. Back then, the news magazine "Dateline NBC" caused a huge crisis when it set up this collision between a car and a GM truck.

Remember this story? This was a huge scandal at the time. This segment suggested that the trucks were unsafe. But NBC had secretly rigged the truck to make sure that fire would happen. GM sued NBC and the network apologized on the air, three and a half minute long apology. It was really an awful ethical scandal at the time.

Afterwards when the news division's president was pushed out, Andy Lack took over. Now he's taking over again. The question everybody is asking is what is he going to do?

Andrew Heyward worked with Lack at CBS in the 1980s and competed against him in the 1990s. And he joins me now here on set.

Andrew, thanks for being here.


STELTER: So you've been on both sides. It used to be Andrew versus Andrew when you were the president of CBS News in the late 1990s.

What do you think Andy Lack is going to do now to try to stabilize NBC News?

HEYWARD: I think first of all, I think he's a great choice. He's very seasoned, he's been there before. He had a terrific track record. I give Steve Burke (ph) credit for saying here's somebody that did it before.

STELTER: It's one of those moments where it's like you can go home.

HEYWARD: Right, which is rare in American business. I think he's going to have a steady hand, he has a number of challenges. But I think it's easy to exaggerate the challenges.

We can talk about the Williams decision if you want, but the main broadcasts are still the ones who kicked off with Gabe, and it's an excellent story, they're still all in contention. I don't think you'll see dramatic moves there.

STELTER: (INAUDIBLE) third place in the ratings.

HEYWARD: Correct. And they're certainly a nip and tuck (INAUDIBLE) going on, particularly in the demographic on which news gets judged.

I think I would keep an eye on MSNBC. There you have a 24-hour cable channel. Andy was instrumental with that deal, when Microsoft had gotten that --


HEYWARD: -- which was a giant achievement at the time. And I think you have real serious problems there that have to be addressed. In terms of financial impact, today has to remain stable, evening news, "Nightly News" does not have large financial profit impact on the network but fixing the cable network, doing some things to make MSNBC more competitive, is really going to be critical. That's a very big laboratory, big playground.

STELTER: What worked for Lack in the '90s? You were competing against him.

What did he do that drove you nuts?

HEYWARD: I thought he was very bold. So you gave the example of the "Dateline" scandal. The conventional wisdom would have been, let's get rid of "Dateline."

STELTER: (INAUDIBLE) off the air.

HEYWARD: Absolutely. Instead, he doubled and then tripled down on it. He created multiple segments not only right at deadline but made it into a tremendously profitable and successful franchise that's still on the air today. So that's indicative of the counter-intuitive move that he's capable of.

STELTER: On Friday he came to the NBC staff meeting, he jokes, so how many hours of "Dateline" are on now? He was doing a throwback to the '90s.

It was a really special time at NBC back then. Now the head of CNN, Jeff Zucker, was the head of the "Today" show back then. Neil Shapiro (ph) was the head of "Nightly News." There were these top producers in these roles, steering these shows. I have got to wonder if he's going to come in, and think about talent on camera and off camera.

How many changes do you think he will make?

HEYWARD: I think he'll think about it. I don't think you'll see sweeping immediate changes. I think those tend to be showy and not necessarily effective. He's going to carefully evaluate. What he will do, what he did last time, I believe -- I know what he did last time. What he'll do again and actually (INAUDIBLE) did it as well. He's a very good producer. He's going to quickly weigh in on what he thinks about the programming. And he will immediately make his presence felt. That doesn't mean that you go to see a game of musical chairs begin right away.

STELTER: People say he's close to Brian Williams.

Does this help Brian Williams' chances getting back to "Nightly News?"

HEYWARD: I'm glad you asked me that, because I've heard this speculation. The implication that somehow this is a banana republic where your cousin gets to be in the cabinet is ridiculous. No matter how many barbecues or steaks they've had together, this will be a business-like decision that Steve Burke (ph) makes --


HEYWARD: -- right, I'm sorry -- with Andy's help and it's going to be a decision that has the interest of NBC News and, not to sound too corny, the American public at heart. It's not going to be based on friendship or anything like that. It's going to be a business-like decision based on whatever facts are on the ground at the time, including the review that NBC is still doing.

STELTER: Still doing.

One of the questions for Lack is whether he'll release the results of that review. So far he's given no interviews. We don't know the answer to that.

HEYWARD: He's right to keep his powder dry, give him a chance to actually find his old office.

STELTER: As much as I'd like to interview, I understand, I understand that point.

Andrew, thanks for being here.

HEYWARD: My pleasure. Thanks a lot.

STELTER: All right. Coming up here, a standoff between the government and a few angry journalists and the fight is over Hillary Clinton's e-mails. Are lawsuits going to be filed to pry those e- mails into public view. Stay tuned for the answer.


STELTER: The President of the United States knows all sorts of secrets and inside info. But sometimes, President Obama says, he finds out information just like the rest of us -- from the news. Like this story in "The New York Times."

The title here, "Hillary Clinton used personal e-mail account at State Department possibly breaking rules."

In an interview last night on CBS, the president seemed confident Hillary Clinton would turn over her e-mails. Reporters on the Left and the Right and in the middle are less sure. They are highly concerned that her communications as secretary of state may be forever hidden.

The Associated Press, the world's biggest news organization, which has been requesting Clinton records for years, to no avail, is considering suing. They said -- quote -- "We have exhausted our administrative remedies in pursuit of important documents and are considering legal action."

But Clinton's e-mail behavior was not entirely a secret before this week. John Cook of Gawker first figured out that Clinton was using a private account two years ago, and he's been trying to get to turn over her records ever since.

Cook is the executive editor for investigations at Gawker and he's here with me now.

John, thanks for being here.

JOHN COOK, GAWKER MEDIA: Hey. Pleasure to be here.

STELTER: March of 2013, you filed what are known as Freedom of Information Act requests. These are basically requests to get ahold of Clinton's private e-mails.

COOK: Right.

The law says that we can send a letter to the government and demand records that they have. In this case, we understood that Hillary -- that there was communications between Hillary Clinton and one of her former staff members, Sidney Blumenthal. And we knew that because they had been leaked by the hacker Guccifer.

And Sidney Blumenthal was sending these e-mails to So, one of my reporters at the time, Nitasha Tiku, filed a FOIA request to the State Department for those particular e-mails, specifically mentioning that e-mail address.


STELTER: And the State Department said they did not have them.

COOK: No record response.

STELTER: So, that was an early hint of something amiss.

COOK: Yes, exactly.

And that was the reason that Hillary Clinton set up this server and kept her e-mail off the books was so that when there were FOIA requests for these kind of communications, the State Department would say no records, and we would say, oh, I guess they don't have them.

And if congressional investigators asked for those records, they would also say we don't got them.

STELTER: Yes, we have been hearing a lot about congressional investigators being angry about this, being furious about this, and wanting to pursue these e-mails now.

But it's important to note that journalists like you are also mad, because they have been -- you have been trying to get these documents for years.

COOK: Right. And we have a right to -- and it's not just journalists, anybody, citizens, the freedom of -- the United States Congress in its wisdom decided that we should -- that citizens should be able to seize records created by the government, if they don't meet certain national security and privacy exemptions.

But anything else that is created by government workers, you can ask for it and they have to give it to you under law.

STELTER: When you and I e-mail .gov addresses, you and I know those e-mails are probably going to show up somewhere someday.

COOK: Absolutely. Absolutely.

And this was a deliberate attempt to frustrate that process, and, again, not just for good government groups, for -- there are all -- for opposition researchers. There's all sorts of people who troll through e-mails and stuff like this and other documents. And this was literally a conspiracy to frustrate that process.

STELTER: You say it was a conspiracy.

COOK: I'm not saying it's a criminal conspiracy. But it was -- several people got together and concocted a way to avoid the normal due process of the law taking course with respect to the e-mail records that Hillary Clinton created.

STELTER: What is Gawker going to do? COOK: We don't know. We're considering suing. I think we're

probably likely to -- there are some claims under the FOIA that we could make, but we don't have anything to announce at this point.

STELTER: You can sue because your initial requests were rebuffed?

COOK: Right.

And in this case, it's sort of extraordinary because we have pretty solid evidence that it was rebuffed not for -- it wasn't a case where they applied the wrong exemption or they argued that this should be exempt from the FOIA, but they were wrong. It's because there was this highly unusual, deliberate system created to prevent her records from being released under the FOIA.

STELTER: I'm sure you saw what she tweeted the other day. She says she wants her e-mails released. Quote: "I want the public to see my e-mail. I asked State to release them. They said they will review them for release as soon as possible."

And you reacted how?

COOK: She can release them. They are hers. That's the entire point of the scheme, was that she would retain control.

If you think about it, if she wanted these to be not releasable under FOIA, she could have used like a Gmail address, right, which is actually more secure, because Google has hundreds of people who are devoted to ensuring the security of those e-mails against attacks from foreign adversaries. Right?

If you have like some random server with one tech guy, you actually aren't as secure. She could have used Gmail. The reason she didn't is Google has those e-mails. She wanted a scheme where she controlled the e-mails, not State, not Google, Hillary Clinton.

STELTER: When you hear the president say to CBS he found out through the media, doesn't that mean that they never e-mailed? Isn't that kind of strange?

COOK: That is kind of strange. Yes.


COOK: But also I alerted his spokesperson in 2013. I sought comment from the White House. So, it's not like, oh, we published a story about this and they kind of missed it. I e-mailed Josh Earnest, who is now his spokesperson, and said, this e-mail address exists. Is it -- does it comport with the Presidential Records Act and the Freedom of Information Act? And I got no response.

STELTER: There are lots of ways for the president and Hillary Clinton to have communicated, but it did surprise me when I heard him say that to CBS.

John, thanks for being here. Great talking with you.


COOK: My pleasure. All right.

STELTER: As always, let me know what you think. Is the media being fair here? Send me a Tweet or a message on Facebook. My username is Brian Stelter.

And speaking of media fairness, Ben Carson says this network, CNN, was unfair to him this week. See why and hear sex columnist Dan Savage's reaction. Well, it's best described as Savage -- next.


STELTER: Well, hopefully, Ben Carson went to bed early last night, because if he stayed up for "SNL," well...


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Potential Republican candidate Dr. Ben Carson, a neurosurgeon, said this week that homosexuality is a choice because many people go to prison straight and when they come out, they are gay, kind of like how, in that last sentence, Dr. Carson went in as a neurosurgeon and came out as a complete idiot.



STELTER: And that was just the first joke. There were like three more.

And this whole story started here on CNN, when Carson was pressed to defend his position on gay marriage. He said being gay is different than, say, being black or Hispanic because people have no control over their race. And here is what happened next.


CHRIS CUOMO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Do you think they have control over their sexuality?


CUOMO: You think being gay is a choice?

CARSON: Absolutely.

CUOMO: Why do you say that?

CARSON: Because a lot of people who go into prison go into prison straight and when they come out, they're gay. So did something happen while they were in there?

(END VIDEO CLIP) STELTER: The left, the right, both sides were critical right


And several hours later, Carson appeared on Sean Hannity's radio show, where he blamed CNN for trying to make him look bad. Listen.


CARSON: It was a 25-minute interview. They chopped. And you see what part they emphasized.

We talk about some really important things. None of that was brought up. But I did learn something very important. For certain networks, never do a pre-taped interview. I'm not going to really talk about that issue anymore, because every time I'm gaining momentum, the liberal press says, let's talk about gay rights. And I'm just not going to fall for that anymore.


STELTER: So, some context here.

The interview was taped. But it wasn't chopped. Cuomo asked Carson about Iran nuclear negotiations, ISIS, and U.S. health care. And all of that aired on TV, before turning to same-sex marriage.

But this assertion that being gay is a choice, it is significant. And my next guest says it comes from some of the same media echo chambers as conspiracy theories about 9/11 do and as theories about the president's religion do.

Dan Savage is a gay rights activist and the most prominent sex advice columnist in U.S. and he joins me now from Seattle.

Dan, thanks for being here.

I guess being a sex advice columnist keeps you in business all the time, huh?


Abstinence education programs are basically full employment bills for sex advice columnists in America.


STELTER: Well, I want to ask about a couple of things. The first is the newsworthiness of what Carson said, because he seemed to be saying that CNN emphasized his comments about gays and that that was unfair. Tell me why his comments were newsworthy to you.

SAVAGE: Well, first of all, the president gave his amazing speech in Selma yesterday, and he talked about gay rights and linked it to the civil rights struggle, that African-American civil rights activists opened a door that women walked through, immigrants walked through, and that gay rights activists also walked through. You can't duck this issue. We are -- the LGTB civil rights

movement is the civil rights movement of our time, as Joe Biden has said. What was really most significant about his remarks, though, for me is how hateful they are, how destructive they are and how easily disproved they are.

Whenever someone says that being gay or lesbian is a choice, I always look at them and say, OK, prove it, choose it. If it's something that you can choose, if you can reach into your head and flip a switch and be gay or lesbian or bisexual, then flip it and show us it's how it's done.

It's not a choice. And they know it's not a choice. And that's really not the argument they are making. What religious conservatives and Republicans are saying when they say that being gay or lesbian is a choice is that gay or lesbian, queer people shouldn't be covered by civil rights laws, we shouldn't be protected under the 14th Amendment, that the Bill of Rights doesn't apply to us because being gay is not an immutable characteristic, it's a choice that we have made.

But other things that are choices are covered by the Bill of Rights, the 14th Amendment, civil rights statutes, including faith. There are constantly people trying to ask you to choose their faith, to change your faith, to take a different faith. And religion is a covered, protected status under settled civil rights law. And it is a choice, marital status, military service also protected.

So, if they are arguing, if religious conservatives are arguing that something is a choice, like being gay, which they would like to argue is a choice, and is not, therefore, it doesn't deserve civil rights protections, then they need to be consistent and argue and advocate for stripping away civil rights protections for people of faith.

STELTER: Let me ask you. You probably think that what he said was vile, but you wrote up in a follow-up blog post that Carson could prove what he's saying by having him perform a sex act on you.


STELTER: Now, some people thought that was equally vile. Why do you think it's appropriate or necessary to lower yourself to that level?

SAVAGE: Because sometimes you have to fight fire with fire.

Famously, my readers and I redesigned Rick Santorum's last name to something vile. Rick Santorum and Ben Carson have compared gay people to child rapists, to people who have sex with animals. Necrophilia, Ben Carson has compared gay people to. He really says the most -- the vilest and most disgusting things about gay people.

And sometimes to get the attention of someone like that, to really make it clear to them how low and disgusting they are being, how vile they are being, you have meet them on the field where they are doing battle and take them on. STELTER: I have got a few second left.

You founded the It Gets Better project, something I wrote about years ago. I have got to ask, is it getting better? As someone who studies this, is in the media, is the climate for gay rights and for gays and lesbians getting better in the U.S.?

SAVAGE: It is.

We're seeing a backlash with these -- -- quote, unquote -- "religious freedom laws." But it is getting better. When I came out at 18 to my very Catholic parents, to tell them I was gay meant to tell them I would never marry, I would never have children, I could never be a Marine.

And just in the course of my adult life, I am married. I have a child that I have raised with my husband. And I could be a Marine. I don't want to be a Marine, much to the relief of the United States Marine Corps, but things have gotten better and continue to get better.

STELTER: Well, Dan, thanks for being here this morning.


STELTER: I appreciate it.

I checked with Chris Cuomo, by the way. His comment to me was, you can't blame the interview -- interviewer for what you say in the interview.

And that makes a lot of sense to me.

Well, taking a break here, but when we come back, it's one of the hottest sitcoms on TV and the first to feature an Asian-American family in a generation. So, what's got its creator complaining? He will tell me. He will join me right after this break.


STELTER: Let me tell you what I think is the single most interesting thing happening right now in network television. Almost all the new hits this season have diverse casts and characters.

FOX's "Empire" and ABC's "Black-ish" and ABC's "Cristela" and "American Crime," all these shows are making the whole industry pay attention. And it's already influencing what shows are being piloted for next season.

Another example of this is ABC's new sitcom about an Asian- American family. It's called "Fresh Off the Boat" based on a memoir by Eddie Huang. And he will join me in just a minute.

But, first, let me show you what one of the top executives in Hollywood says about this issue diversity. And when I was in L.A. recently, I sat down with Paul Lee. He is the head of ABC Entertainment, the guy in charge in all of prime time. And this is what stood out to me most.


PAUL LEE, PRESIDENT, ABC ENTERTAINMENT GROUP: We look to reflect the country. And, frankly, the demographic changes in the country are just as important in television as the technological changes that are coming in, but it is also our job to tell great stories.

And I do have to say, in the end, we pick the best shows that we find. Right? And if "How to Get Away With Murder" is extraordinarily powerful because Viola turns in an extraordinary performance and because Pete Nowalk Shonda Rhimes have written a great show, that's the one we're going to pick up.

STELTER: So, you are saying that as much as the industry has to focus on technological changes, it also has to pay attention to demographic changes.

LEE: Absolutely. The American demographics are changing dramatically.

As we speak, the millennials are now dominated by a lot of Latino audiences. And we see it as our mission to reflect America. So, as we go out there to tell stories that are very specific from very specific audiences, we have African-American shows like "Black-ish" and "How to Get Away With Murder." We have Latino shows like "Cristela." We have an Asian-American show like "Fresh Off the Boat."

STELTER: And yet everybody's watching them.

LEE: That's the point. Not only are we telling specific stories that reflect the demographic changes, but we tell those stories in a way that's relatable to all of America.

STELTER: Fresh off the boat has gotten a lot of attention for having the first Asian-American family at its core in 20 years on network TV. That number has been put out there a lot. Why is that? Why do you think it took 20 years to see another show like that on network TV?

LEE: I can't speak for before I was in the job. What I can speak to is, we found this book by Eddie Huang. It was a fantastic book. It spoke to us because we tell stories of family.

This was a very authentic story about Eddie's youth, when his family dragged him down to Orlando, or at least took him to the great place of Orlando.

STELTER: Eddie's been awfully outspoken.

LEE: Yes. Well, we love that about Eddie.

STELTER: Do you?

LEE: That's why we choose him.

If you look at the show and you look at his biography, he's been outspoken since he was 5.

STELTER: Paul, thanks so much.

LEE: Great pleasure.


STELTER: So, "Fresh Off the Boat" premiered last month and it has been growing, growing, and growing in the ratings. It's been the number one comedy on Tuesdays for four straight weeks.

And Eddie is the voice of the show. It is based on his book. So I asked him, what does he think about how it's turned out?


STELTER: Eddie, thanks for joining me.

EDDIE HUANG, AUTHOR, "FRESH OFF THE BOAT": Oh, thanks for having me. Any time.

STELTER: So, "Fresh Off the Boat" is inspired by your memoir of the same name, but you were pretty critical of ABC's adaptation before the show premiered.

Let me put on screen what you wrote for a "New York" magazine article. You said: "I began to regret ever selling the book because 'Fresh Off the Boat' was a very specific narrative about specific moments in my life." You went to say, "The network's approach wanted to tell a universal, ambiguous, cornstarch story about Asian- Americans, but who is that show written for?"

Explain what you meant in that essay.


The thing is, with a lot of comedies that you see on TV or especially animated comedies, their approach to race relations is to say we made fun of everybody, so we're not racist. And to me that doesn't really make sense because there are so many power dynamics and privilege issues at play.

People don't know Asian-America because they have never been able to see it in a true, raw and real form. And the powers that be, network television, whatever have decided for them what version of Asian-American families they will not or will see.

And so just going through the system was very, very difficult for me. And it doesn't just happen to Asian-American families. With black, white families, network television shows you one very, very cornstarch version of family.

STELTER: What elements do you feel like you had to compromise in order to get the sitcom on the air?

HUANG: For instance, domestic violence has been a huge issue in the United States this year, whether it was Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson.

Domestic violence is a huge issue in the Asian community and especially growing up. Parents will hit you at home sometimes. And so when you have been hit at home and you go to school, and you see other people aren't being hit at home or you talk to your friends, it is something that is very difficult for Asian kids to deal with.

You don't know who to talk with. You don't know where to go. And obviously this is an ABC comedy, but I dealt with it in a comedic and a funny way, but still shined light on it in the book. And I just want them to touch on issues like that.

STELTER: So are you proud of the show, even though you feel there were some compromises made?

HUANG: I'm very proud of the show. I'm very proud of the show.

I'm extremely proud of the actors. And I'm proud of the community for jumping in, supporting it and talking about it. But this is a fight for all communities to get your real stories told.

STELTER: Why do you think it's taken so long to have another program like this on? It was "All-American Girl" in the 1990s that had Margaret Cho as one of the stars. Why 20 years until another sitcom with an Asian-American family came to the forefront?

HUANG: I genuinely think that a lot of it has to do with the values that the generation before us placed in, say, law, medicine, engineering, accounting.

Our parents always told us to go into the professional field. Do not go into the arts. Being a chef or being an actor, it is not a profession that's looked up to and really valued in our culture. Even my father was the one -- when I was a kid, I had applied to Syracuse University. I wanted to be a sportscaster. And he told me, they will never let someone with your face on television.

STELTER: "They will never let someone with your face on television."


And he didn't mean it in a bad way. He just really felt like structural racism was so heavy and oppressive that I would never break through the bamboo ceiling. But we have, and we did it. And there's going to be a lot more people like me to come through and tell our stories.

STELTER: Eddie, great talking with you. Thanks for being here.

HUANG: Yes. Thank you so much.


STELTER: And up next, the importance of video cameras in Selma 50 years ago this weekend. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STELTER: Now a final note about the power of pictures.

This is footage of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, taken by a CNN drone camera ahead of this weekend's 50th anniversary march. This video marks the first time the FAA has ever allowed a drone to be used for news gathering.

And I think it is significant, because television cameras and reporters played such a pivotal role at that bridge on that Bloody Sunday. They were truly the eyes and the ears for the country, truly bearing witness and forcing viewers home to bear witness, too. Pictures matter, and what we do with pictures matters as well.

Now I'm out of time here.