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Will Brian Williams Ever Come Back to NBC?; Jenner Transitions from Punchline to Icon. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired April 26, 2015 - 11:00   ET


[11:00:09] BRIAN STELTER, CNN HOST: Hey, good morning. I'm Brian Stelter, and it's time for RELIABLE SOURCES.

It's the morning after the White House Correspondents' Dinner, which means there are some hung over correspondents waking up in Washington. It was a night where per tradition President Obama took some hits.


CECILY STRONG, COMEDIAN: After six years in office, your approval rating is at 48 percent. Not only that, your gray hair is at 85 percent. Your hair is so white now it can talk back to the police.


STELTER: That was "SNL's" Cecily Strong. I thought that was her best line of the night. But as always, the president hit back, this time with the help of his anger translator Luther played by Keegan Michael Key.

Take a look.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Because despite our differences, we count on the press to shed light on the most important issues of the day.

LUTHER: And we can count on FOX News to terrify all white people with nonsense! Sharia law is coming to Cleveland (INAUDIBLE)!

OBAMA: We won't always see eye to eye.

LUTHER: And, CNN, thank you so much for the wall to wall Ebola coverage. For two whole weeks, we were one step away from "The Walking Dead." And then you all got up and moved on the next day. That was awesome. Oh, and by the way, if you haven't noticed, you don't have Ebola!


STELTER: Obama's anger translator there. We'll have more from Washington and more from the dinner coming


But our top story is about the credibility of one of the country's top news outlets. It really is important. You know, there are new leaks about whether the suspended NBC "Nightly News" anchor Brian Williams is ever coming back at all. At this point, he's mostly the butt of jokes.

Let's go back to Cecily Strong from last night.


STRONG: NBC is here. You know, even us at "SNL" got criticized this year for making fun of ISIS. I think that's unfair. I mean, if anyone is guilty of taking ISIS too lightly, it's him. You know?

Oh, and what can I say about Brian Williams? Nothing, because I work for NBC.



STELTER: Take a look at who's laughing here, Chuck Todd, Andrea Mitchell, but you do see Williams fill in Lester Holt trying to keep a straight face.

Cecily Strong brought up the verboten topic again when mocking disgraced Congressman Aaron Schock who resigned after charges he used taxpayer money to fund lavish trips.


STRONG: Here we are here at Aaron shock's own dinosaur island. And here we are after hunting the dinosaurs.

But, wait -- is that, Brian Williams? You weren't there. What are you doing, you rascal?


STELTER: Yes, that's that Williams me again joking about Williams being in places where he wasn't. Williams was not in that room last night, but his new boss Andy Lack was.

This week, Lack and the CEO of NBC Universal, Steve Burke, were given a secret briefing about the almost three-month-long internal investigation into Brian Williams' alleged embellishments. You remember how he said he was in a helicopter hit by an RPG in Iraq, but was actually on a different chopper, and then, how questions came up about the claim he received a souvenir from SEAL Team 6, and whether he really saw a dead body floating outside his hotel in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

All of those stories have been known but there are other ones as well. All told, the investigators have found at least 10 instances of exaggerations or embellishments by Williams.

According to sources who've spoken with me and with other news outlets, this may not be over yet, the investigation continues to go on.

So, let me bring in "Washington Post" media reporter Paul Farhi who broke some of this news yesterday.

Paul, I had to have you here because you scooped me twice this week. You've been all over this story. I want to know what you think the significance is about the fact this investigation is not over yet. I mean, we heard about this internal investigation back in February. It's been going on and on and on and NBC is indicating it still hasn't finished.

PAUL FARHI, WASHINGTON POST: Yes, I think they are looking for more, but I would say substantially, it's over. The main stuff has come out, and they are aware of it. They have turned up a couple things that we who reported this back when Williams was first suspended weren't aware of. There was one incident in Egypt that we weren't aware of.

So, I think substantially, it's over. But, you know, there is maybe a little bit more to come. They want to keep their options open, get the full bill of particulars.

STELTER: Tell us about the Tahrir Square example. This is a new one we learned about a (AUDIO GAP) ago.

FARHI: Right. Well, Brian Williams went and covered the Arab Spring uprisings in Tahrir Square in Egypt, in Cairo, back in 2011, and described seeing pro-government forces on horseback coming into the square to beat people with whips.

[11:05:07] And he says he made eye contact with the lead horseman in this brigade.

It's unclear whether or not he actually was there to see what he said he saw. There's doubt raised in this internal investigation within NBC whether he was actually truthful about that.

STELTER: So, when your story came out on Saturday, these are the kind of text messages I received from people at NBC.

"Is Brian Williams done? It sure sounds like the groundwork is being laid to push him out of NBC."

It's awkward to talk about sourcing in situations like this, but do you think that all of these leaks are part of an effort to lay the groundwork for him to leave?

FARHI: I do, and I do believe that at least they are raising the temperature so that NBC, if it's thinking about bringing him back, will do so against a big barrage of bad PR. You know, I don't know, frankly, whether he's coming back or not, but it is clear that he has plenty of enemies within NBC who would like to see him retired at this point.

And that's what the totality of these leaks is really all about is poisoning the ground so that if NBC was thinking about it, they will do so up against a very tall barrier to getting him back in the anchor chair.

STELTER: The flip side to that is last week here on the program I had Michael Wolff on who said he was sure Brian would be on and three fans of Brian Williams on who said they'd probably turn the channel to ABC if Brian Williams never returns to the anchor chair. It does sort of feel like a lose/lose situation no matter what NBC does.

FARHI: Yes, although I think there's something very important here. I think viewers and advertisers are going to have a much bigger vote in this than people like you or I. They will do lots of focus group research. They will find out if viewers are prepared to watch NBC again, and that's going to be the more telling question, not these leaks, not the internal reports, not anything but that.

You know, television is a business, no surprise there. They've got to do the research to tell them whether they have an ongoing business or not.

STELTER: And amid all this mounting speculation, I have a source trying to pop the balloon and say the announcement is not imminent. I was told this morning, still weeks away from a decision and from an announcement about Brian Williams.

What does that indicate here, Paul? Because the up fronts, the advertising up fronts are these annual events where networks like NBC promote their new shows and talk to advertisers and get big commitments from advertisers. It's coming up on may 11th for NBC. If NBC doesn't make any announcement about Brian Williams until after the upfront, does it indicate something about the process?

FARHI: Well, it puts them in limbo. On May 11th, they will go in front of their advertisers and say here is "Nightly News" and here is our plan for "Nightly News" and they don't have a plan.

STELTER: They don't have an anchor, not a permanent anchor.

FARHI: They don't have an anchor: And they're going to expect advertisers to commit millions and millions of dollars without knowing who is going to be sitting in that anchor chair and anchors are very important to advertisers. They need to know who is going to be the person around which you build and promote the news and if they don't have assurances about who that's going to be, some of them are going to withhold their advertising commitments because it's going to affect the readings, it's going to affect the investment by the advertisers in the program.

So, I am surprised by the reports that they will wait five weeks. I think the pressure is on them actually to come up with a decision by May 11th when they meet with advertisers. STELTER: And so, perhaps if they're going to wait until after

the upfront, they're trying to lower the temperature. You said certainly the temperature has been rising inside NBC. Maybe they're trying to take a little bit of the pressure away here, but this is just -- it's really an unbearable situation.

And let's remind viewers -- Brian Williams hasn't been allowed to defend himself. He hasn't been allowed to speak by NBC. He hasn't been allowed to do anything really in public. So, as a result, we don't have his side of the story.

Paul, thanks for being here this morning. I appreciate it.

FARHI: Thank you, Brian.

STELTER: And later, we're going to have legendary CBS anchor Dan Rather join me. He's currently stuck in legendary New York traffic, but he will be here to weigh in on the Williams' situation, and more coming up later this hour.

We're going to turn to the biggest media hype of the year. I would say it's exceeded expectations. America reacting to Diane Sawyer's historic interview with Bruce gender -- excuse me, Bruce Jenner. We're going to talk about his gender transition with two expert guests, right after this quick break.


[11:13:12] STELTER: Welcome back.

You know, this next story is really an example of the media's power to change hearts and minds. Seventeen million people watched Bruce Jenner tell Diane Sawyer that he has lived a lie as decades. That he's lived as a man but with the soul of a woman.

Friday night's two hour special was the culmination of months of planning and months of producing. And we're going to peel the curtain back here. But first, let me put the ratings into perspective, because ABC usually has 7 million viewers on Friday nights, not 17 million. This was ABC's highest rated Friday episode of "20/20" since the year 2000.

But the key question is this, do the ratings translate to acceptance, real progress for transgender equality, or something else? Because in the weeks leading off the interview, Jenner was often a punch line or punching bag. The tabloids had a field day. One of them dressed him up in lipstick and even suggested he was on suicide watch.

In the interview, Jenner revealed he did once think about suicide, and that was because of the paparazzi's behavior. In this clip, he tells Sawyer about being stalked by the press.


SAWYER (voice-over): A year and a half ago, he made a doctor's appointment to get a tracheal shave, reduce the size of his Adam's apple. Someone leaked the appointment, cameras were waiting.

BRUCE JENNER: That night I thought, oh, it's like over.

And I was in this -- walking up and down this hall right here back and forth, back and forth all night long, heart is pounding. And I thought wouldn't the easiest thing to be right now and I could see where people get to that is go in the room, got a gun, boom, you know? Pain is over, it's done. You know, go to a better place.

And I thought, I can't do something like that.

[11:15:01] I mean, I want to know how this story ends.


STELTER: Let's talk about the media's treatment of this story and what the high ratings really mean, with Sara Kate Ellis, the CEO of GLAAD, one of the nation's foremost gay and lesbian, bisexual and transgender advocacy groups.

Thank you for being here this morning.


STELTER: Tell me a little bit about the preparation for this because I think you were a part of it. You knew for months that this announcement was likely going to be made.

ELLIS: I think anytime there's a big story that affects the LGBT communities, we are definitely heavily involved in what's going on. And I think for this particular story, you know, Diane Sawyer and the team at ABC were treating this really, really well.

STELTER: There was a lot of speculation that it would feel exploitative. You know, this was a two-hour special that was scheduled. They wouldn't say what was going to be in it ahead of time.

But I was struck by how educational it was. It wasn't exploitative. They didn't wait until hour two to reveal the big news. They revealed it in the first two minutes.

ELLIS: And they used to platform to expand hearts and minds, to educate people. For first time, a lot of those 17 million viewers you were talking about were meeting someone who is transgender. So, they used this opportunity to educate about what transgender means, how at risk the community is.


ELLIS: So, I thought it was really well done.

STELTER: So, groups like yours essentially knew this was coming, might have been in touch with the Jenner family, and had to prepare statements ahead of time because of the monumental nature of this?

ELLIS: Well, we like to be ahead of any kind of breaking story --


STELTER: So, that's why your statement came out about five minutes into the show.

ELLIS: Well, you know, we had been thinking about this a long time. We had been watching the coverage, the poor coverage in the press of Bruce.

STELTER: You were discouraging people like me from speculating ahead of time.

ELLIS: Yes. We don't do it for people who are gay and we shouldn't do it for people who are transgender. It's disrespectful.

STELTER: You mean to out them before they choose to talk about it.

ELLIS: Yes, exactly. Thank you. Uh-huh.

STELTER: And what about the choices been the media world about saying he versus she. This has been a difficult one, because in the interview he indicated he wants to be referred to with the pronoun he. And yet, he is talking about being a woman, having the soul of woman, dreaming as a woman.

What is the right choice for journalists in this situation?

ELLIS: So, the way we should follow is follow the lead. So, Bruce is our leader here, and it's up to him to decide. Right now, he would like male pronouns and to be referred to as Bruce.

He's also going through a very delicate transition right now and he's doing it very publicly, and I think he really is genuinely doing it to make the world a better place so we should be very respectful of that.

STELTER: The next step is a documentary series on E! that will premiere this summer. Let me bring in one more guest, Christina Kahrl, a baseball writer for ESPN, who's in Chicago this morning covering the Royals.

Christina, I had you on the program here last year. We talked about transgender issues because you're an activist as well as a writer in ESPN, and you wrote that Jenner's stage was really unprecedented in the transgender community.

Tell me what your takeaway from Friday's special was.

CHRISTINA KAHRL, MLB WRITER & EDITOR, ESPN: Well, my takeaway was that it was extraordinarily well done and I think covered a wide variety of issues. And so, as an introduction to a mainstream audience to a lot of ideas and a lot of experiences that they don't have a lot of familiarity with, I thought it was perfect. Now, that said, it affords us the opportunity for a larger

conversation about trans issues and transness. Hopefully, you know, that's something will lead to some positive change particularly in areas of public policy and areas of discrimination against trans people that will make life better for all transpeople and not just better for Bruce Jenner.

STELTER: I was curious to hear your reaction to the idea that high ratings may translate to higher acceptance, better acceptance of the trans community. Do you think it's true that high ratings may lead to better acceptance or were some people tuning in to see this man and whether he would look more like a woman?

KAHRL: Well, you know, again, appearances are like pretty superficial. I think like, again, this is just an extraordinary moment in media history and in the history of popular culture.


STELTER: Tell me why you say that. What makes it extraordinary?

KAHRL: Well, I think just because, you know, one, the number of people who checked it out, and I think that's something that kind of like is building on like, you know, I think a changing zeitgeist on the nature of, you know, acceptance in transpeople and the fact that we're achieving greater and greater visibility in society and in mainstream society, not just in the spaces that have been afforded to news the past.

So, as a result, you know, like I thinking about able to talk about trans people in America today in a way that goes beyond -- maybe that's the power of celebrity culture and being used to a positive purpose, but it's also something that I think because we know about Bruce Jenner through sports, that really this is an opportunity to let us talk about things we have in common and in common with trans people like sports, but also just in general, as part of our lived experiences.

STELTER: This may not be the best analogy but when George Clooney goes to Sudan, reporters follow and they talk more about Sudan. And you're saying celebrity culture in this case may have a similar result.

[11:20:01] KAHRL: Well, I definitely think this is something like -- I'm sorry.

ELLIS: I was just going to say also when we talk about --

STELTER: Go ahead, Sara. Yes.

ELLIS: When we look at Harvey Levin of TMZ --


ELLIS: -- who pointed out and sent out a tweet apologizing for his past coverage and saying he would be way more sensitive and he has a deeper understanding of what the community is going.

STELTER: The tabloid press has been awfully restrained in the last 36 hours, don't you think?

ELLIS: Very, very. And I think that's very good. That's showing a changing culture. That's showing acceptance growing. People don't want to make a misstep. You're dealing with somebody's -- somebody, a person, and you met that person on Friday night or you knew that person and they re-emerged on Friday night and that has a profound effect on people.

STELTER: Christina, let me give you the last word in this conversation. I do want to ask you about the idea that I have heard all weekend on Facebook and online and even in person, some people saying I just don't want to hear this. Bruce Jenner should do whatever Bruce Jenner wants to do but I don't want to hear it. Some might call that intolerance.

I wonder if you have heard it and what your reaction to people who say that is.

KAHRL: Well, I think this is a situation where people need to develop more general empathy for fellow human beings and that includes trans people. I think that looking at Jenner's story and looking it through the lens that his family has been so accepting and has done a tremendous job of support for him, and his developing situation, there's a lesson there for all Americans to be able to reach out and feel for trans people and accept us as who we are.

STELTER: The next step is a reality show on E! as I mentioned. I think we'll be seeing a lot more in the coming months and certainly in the year. I think didn't he refer to a coming year, 2015, as a time of transformation.

ELLIS: Yes. And our co-chair, Jenny Boylan is a consultant on that E! docu-series.

STELTER: That's right.

ELLIS: So, we're involved in that as well. So --

STELTER: So, E!, a channel not necessarily known for being subtle and sensitive, it's entertainment news channel. But in this case, you're saying they're trying to get it right.

ELLIS: They definitely are.


Sarah, thanks for being here.

And, Christina, as well, thank you for joining me. I really appreciate it.

ELLIS: Thanks for having me.

KAHRL: Thank you, Brian.

STELTER: Let's take a quick break here and come back in a moment with Dan Rather, as I mentioned. And one of my other favorite guests on RELIABLE SOURCES, Jeff Greenfield. Both are standing by and they'll join me right after this quick break.


[11:26:47] STELTER: Welcome back.

Earlier this hour, we were talking about Brian Williams and the new revelations in NBC's ongoing investigation into apparent exaggerations in his past. The new reporting this morning is that NBC is starting to get to the point where they'll make a decision about Brian Williams' fate, but that decision is still weeks away according to a source.

There was a big meeting in Rockefeller Center this Thursday. It was of the head of all NBC Universal, Steve Burke, the man who will ultimately decide what happens with Brian Williams, he met with the investigators that had been combing through Brian Williams' reporting, and he heard about the findings that there are at least 10 instances of embellishments or misstatements from Brian Williams.

Joining me now to discuss this further, two veteran journalists, Dan Rather, the former "CBS Evening News" anchor, and Jeff Greenfield, also a CBS veteran, now a columnist for "The Daily Beast."

Thank you both for being here.


STELTER: Dan, I was interested in your perspective on this because I haven't heard you talk about the Brian Williams' case in a couple months. In February when this all erupted out of nowhere, I know you expressed support for him. Where do you stand now on this issue of whether Brian Williams can return to the "Nightly News" chair?

RATHER: Well, first of all, Brian is a friend of mine and has been for a long while. I have not spoken to him. What I am about to say to you is not based on any conversation with him whatsoever.

Look, this is painful for all of Brian's friends, but objectively, it's very hard to see how NBC brings him back. I hope I'm wrong about this. I said some time ago that I thought his chances were slim to none, and you can make a case that slim just left town with these leaks to "The Washington Post" and "The New York Times," vicious really in their own way.

STELTER: Vicious.

RATHER: Yes. I think they were vicious. I mean, why dump this on him if he's not able to speak for himself. I think NBC has asked him to be quiet.


RATHER: But the investigation goes on. It's very hard to see how the corporations -- corporations, they want to put things behind them, and if they make a decision to bring Brian back, that doesn't put this problem behind them.

I have no idea how this will turn out, but I have to say the turn most recently has not been -- definitely not been in Brian's favor, and when I said vicious about the release --


RATHER: I read what they say. They say, listen, our name is not going to be on it but these are really bad things we found out about Brian Williams. I hope the investigation will be fair.

Andy Lack was brought back for NBC --

STELTER: To run the news division, yes.

RATHER: -- is a friend of Brian's, is a very experienced journalist and a fair person. I think it will be fair. We need to know what the facts are. Right now, we don't know what all the facts are. We have had this leak for one side, sort of when Brian is down, they come from behind and give him a whack on the back of the neck.

But network television is extremely competitive and it's not usual to have knights with the long knives, and that's what's happening at NBC now.

STELTER: Let me ask Jeff about this as well -- because, Jeff, we have never seen a drama white like this play out in network news. You know, these claims of misstatements by Brian Williams.

I wanted to put up on screen, if I can -- a tweet from a viewer who asked me this morning, we're talking at this point about almost a dozen apparent cases of misstatements. In any other industry wouldn't these be called lies? Aren't journalists supposed to hold polices accountable in the same way?

So, Jeff, what would be your answer to that? Why are these being called embellishments and not lies?

JEFF GREENFIELD, VETERAN JOURNALIST: Because it's not clear to me in some of these cases that they rise to the level of an outright lie.

A couple of months ago when this controversy first emerged, Kimberly Dozier, who almost lost her life in Iraq, actually noted that when she went back and tried to get an account of what happened, both of the soldiers that she talked to turned out to have false memories of what happened, and I think to some extent there is some slack that's given when people were in a situation and they can't quite remember.

STELTER: Right. GREENFIELD: The problem here is twofold.

One, the embellishments all went the same way, to put Brian Williams closer to scenes of danger than they actually were. And so, it's not like the fish was four feet long and not one foot long.

The second thing, and the most telling problem and why I think Dan is right about the dilemma is put yourself in the shoes of NBC and Brian Williams if they did want to bring him back. What do they do? Where does Brian Williams go to say, here is what happened?

You know, Oprah is not around anymore.


GREENFIELD: Do you do a confessional on TV? Do you -- I'll be flip about this, do you claim you were embellishment addict and go get treatment in some celebrity rehab place for a month?

It's not at all clear what the path back is, especially because Brian Williams has not only been made to be a figure of criticism, he's also to some extent been made to be a figure of fun as we saw from the White House Correspondents' dinner last night.


GREENFIELD: And that's a really difficult -- really difficult thing to overcome when people are laughing and not just criticizing.

STELTER: Dan, I wanted to ask you about the corporate culture issue here as well, because you mentioned that in your earlier answer and you rather famously left the "CBS Evening News" in the wake of pressure from CBS, it seemed.

I'm curious what we should know about these corporations that own these television networks and these news divisions and how they operate, how they think?

RATHER: Well, first of all, our case was completely different case --

STELTER: It was.

RATHER: That can be explained later on.

But the way it works at corporations -- corporations do not like controversy. They do not want trouble. We're talking about the very upper reaches, and anything that causes controversy makes them very nervous. That's number one.

Number two is the emphasis is they want to -- whenever there's trouble, the first instinct and the second instinct and the third instinct, get it behind this. Let's get this --

STELTER: And move on, right.

RATHER: Just move on. Whatever the situation is, let's move on.

STELTER: That's why the suspension is so complicating, right? Because it's a six-month suspension. It's been going almost three months and there's speculation all over the TV business about what's going to happen.

RATHER: Well, and a decision may be at least two or three weeks away.

STELTER: Yes, that's what I'm wearing.

RATHER: That for everybody concerned, this is extremely painful and hurtful for everybody, for the corporation, for NBC News, for Brian, for everybody inside. And the longer it goes on, frankly, I think the greater the damage is, and the corporation will take that into account when they're making their decision about when to do this.

At one time, I thought they'd wait until midsummer to see whether it blows over. Right now, I'm not sure they can wait that long, but sometimes these corporations, they behave in strange and mystic ways. And this may be --

STELTER: Mystic.

RATHER: This may be one of those times.

But it will come to this. Brian has real friends or what he thought at least were real friends in the absolute upper reaches of the corporation. That stands him in good stead.

When I said his chances now are slim to none, and slim may have left town, if slim is still in town, it will be because he has these friends in the very top of the corporation. They would like to keep him. I think they want to keep him. It's in the end, can they figure out a way to do it and move on from it?

And right now, it's very hard to see how they can do that particularly with these latest leaks.

STELTER: Jeff, I'm reminded by the idea that so much of this is about personal relationships. So much of the things in this business are about those kind of relationships. The viewers at home aren't aware of.

GREENFIELD: Yes. I -- I'm not sure that I fully agree that it's -- that that's a defining issue here, because I think what's being calculated here is however much the personal relationships play out, there are very hard bottom line decisions.

You know, NBC in particular has had a very rough go of it over recent years, starting actually from the death of Tim Russert, the problem with the "Today" show, the problem with "Meet the Press", the declining ratings, the challenge from ABC News. And in that context, when you're talking about tens of millions of dollars, if not hundreds of millions of dollars, I think that's basically what a company like NBC -- by the way, I didn't even mention Comcast which owns NBC has just take an huge hit in that their $45 billion --


GREENFIELD: -- attempt to merge with Time Warner Cable has just been blown up.

So, you know, their -- I think the corporate culture itself must feel as if it's been undergoing this continual barrage of problems, and I'm not sure whether that will contribute much more to the resolution of the Brian Williams' case than any personal relationships.

STELTER: Dan, in 30 seconds we have left, if we can talk to Brian Williams, what do you think he's been going through? Do you have any sense of the personal feelings he must be going through?

RATHER: He's been going through a version of Dante's Ninth Circle of Hell -- extremely painful, extremely hurtful for him and his family.

I understand, by the way, Brian, the sort of soap opera aspects of this that makes the story is so attractive and it is a big media story. But in the great scheme of things, how big is it? With the networks generally are losing power with the audience and, therefore, the power of any individual anchor has been reduced in the whole new digital world of "BuzzFeed" and "Vice". Just how important really is this in the overall and for that matter to journalism as a whole? Fair questions.

STELTER: You're suggesting that digital ethics, the Internet media ethics, may be mattering just as much as this point as the ethics of a news anchor on television?

RATHER: Either that or more.

STELTER: Either that or more. To hear that from Dan Rather is something really striking.

RATHER: Well, look, it's a new world, the digital world. Look at what's happening today, these reports on the earthquake in Kathmandu are being filed by local journalists who are tweeting the material out of there.

STELTER: And most of the best reporting out of Baltimore last night during the violent protest -- unfortunately, some looting that happened -- was from people on Twitter.

RATHER: And that's why I say that the power of network news divisions and, therefore, the power of the anchor is considerably, drastically reduced.

STELTER: Dan Rather, thanks for being here. Great talking with you.

Jeff, thank you for joining thus morning. Very much appreciate it. Up next, we are talking about the charges facing Washington Post

correspondent Jason Rezaian. It is truly an awful situation. He's been sitting in an Iranian prison for nine months. The editor of the Washington Post is standing by for an exclusive interview, next.


STELTER: Welcome back.

Now to a journalistic outrage. At last night's White House Correspondents' Dinner you may have noticed this pin worn by some of the high-profile attendees, like FOX News' Major Garrett. "Free Jason," it says; 1,000 of these pins were handed out by "The Washington Post" to highlight the case of their Tehran bureau chief, Jason Rezaian.

He has been detained in an Iranian prison for over nine months now and we know he's facing four charges. They were revealed this week; one of them is espionage.

President Obama appealed for his release last night. Take a look.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We remember the journalists unjustly imprisoned around the world, including our own Jason Rezaian.


OBAMA: For nine months, Jason has been imprisoned in Tehran for nothing more than writing about the hopes and the fears of the Iranian people, carrying their stories to the readers of "The Washington Post" in an effort to bridge our common humanity.

As was already mentioned, Jason's brother, Ali, is here tonight and I have told him personally we will not rest until we bring him home to his family safe and sound.



STELTER: I misspoke there a moment ago. Major Garrett used to be at FOX, now at CBS.

This is one of the rare stories where the entire journalistic establishment is all lined up, trying to get Jason freed.

The executive editor of "The Washington Post," Marty Baron, has called the charges against him absurd and Marty joins me now from Washington.

Thanks for being here, although I wish it wasn't under these circumstances. MARTY BARON, EXECUTIVE EDITOR, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Well,

thanks for your continued interest in this subject.

STELTER: We heard about the charges this week. You called them absurd. Tell us why they're so absurd. Tell us why you're so confident that they can be proven false.

BARON: Well, they are absurd. There's been no evidence actually provided by the Iranian government that he engaged in espionage or did anything other than actually report on what was happening in that country.

In fact, most of his coverage focused on the culture and daily life of people in Iran. He's been a reporter for us since 2012 and been in Iran for 10 years. You can assume that during that time the Iranian government probably monitored everything he did and yet he's been accredited as a journalist for a very long time.

And the Iranian government, the revolutionary court has provided zero evidence of anything tantamount to espionage or anything even close to it.

STELTER: What then do you think are the motivations of the Iranians here?

BARON: Well, it's hard to speculate on what the motivations are. There's been a lot of -- there has been plenty of speculation that there's some sort -- the conflict between the Revolutionary Guard and the government of President Rouhani and his foreign minister, Zarif. But we don't know that for sure. We're not in a position to really speculate on what's going on here. We're mystified by it.

STELTER: I am, too and I wonder what the next step is. There's been reports a trial might be held soon?

BARON: Well, it looks that way. It's heading toward a trial. His lawyer, who is not a lawyer of his own choosing but the lawyer that we have, that he was allowed to use, said that -- announced what the charges would be and then indicated that the court is kind of busy and that maybe there would be a trial within the next few weeks, maybe a little longer than that.

STELTER: As an editor, has this ever happened to you in your career?

This seems like the scariest situation for a reporter or editor to be in.

BARON: Well, it's a terrifying situation and an entirely unjust situation. There's just absolutely no justification for this happening.

I have not experienced this before. There are other journalists who have been held in prison, including in Iran before but ultimately they were released. He's been held longer than anyone and he's been there now for nine months in the worst prison in Iran, much of that time in isolation and much of that time denied the medical treatment that he needed.

He's only been able to meet with the lawyer only within the last week and then only for 90 minutes.

That is not a system of justice. That's a system of officially sanctioned injustice and not a shred of evidence has been provided that he's done anything wrong.

STELTER: What can you do?

What can "The Post" do next? What will "The Post" do next?

BARON: Well, what can we do? We are obviously talking to the U.S. government. The U.S. government has had conversations, repeated conversations, with the Iranian government about getting him released and, at least in the interim, getting him better conditions. He's gotten somewhat better conditions but he certainly has not been released and at the moment there's no prospect of him being released.

We hope for better. We are talking to other governments in the region and elsewhere around the world but this is something that appears to be directed by the Revolutionary Guard. It's being handled in a revolutionary court. And that's not the same as having a conversation with President Rouhani or his foreign minister.

We don't know what more we can do but we continue to plan to speak out about this as much as we can and we appreciate the support of the administration, our colleagues in the press and on programs such as this one.

STELTER: Our hopes and our prayers are with Jason and his family.

Marty, thanks for being here this morning.

BARON: Thank you for having me.

STELTER: And coming up, more big media news from Washington, but this time business news. It proves that Brian Williams and the troubles at NBC News are actually far from the only headache for parent company Comcast. The inside story of a merger that went from being inevitable to impossible. That's next.


STELTER: In the end, all the lobbying, all the marketing, all the money in the media world could not save Comcast. It's the number one cable company in the country and it's been trying for over a year to merge with the number two cable company, TimeWarner Cable.

But this week, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts gave up after government regulators made it very clear they were not going to approve the deal. In fact, Eric Holder's Justice Department is ready to go to court to block it. That's how serious this was.

All of Comcast's rivals, including Netflix and the parent company of CNN, TimeWarner, are celebrating, some publicly, some privately because, for a long time, this merger looked inevitable. Comcast spent $32 million influencing D.C. Its chief lobbyist raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for President Obama's campaign.

Oh, and did I mention that the CEO, Brian Roberts, golfed with Obama?

That just leads to us this Bloomberg headline -- "Comcast Finds Golf and 128 Lobbyists Can't Sell the U.S. on the Deal."

So we have to figure out what happened here.

Why did the deal die? In Comcast's hometown of Philadelphia this morning Hannah Sassaman; she's a community organizer who's been challenging Comcast for years. And here in New York with me, Frank ELIASON, who used to be a Comcast executive. He's now the author of "At Your Service."

Thank you both for being here.



STELTER: Hannah, what happened here?

How did this deal die?

SASSAMAN: Well, I think that we saw, Brian, over a million consumers from every city in the United States, including Philadelphia, just say that they've had enough. Whether you're someone who's low income struggling to access the Internet, whether you're a customer who was disrespected with hours on hold.

There's a generation of frustration that people have been expressing at their media companies, who just haven't let them have communications as a human right. And so we --


STELTER: Yes, but conventional wisdom is that lobbying power always beats community organizing power.

SASSAMAN: I think this year has shown the absolute opposite. I think we've seen 4 million people stand up for 'Net neutrality. I think we've seen over a million stand up against this merger. I think President Obama, Chairman Wheeler and countless other communities are saying we need competition in our hometowns and Philadelphia is the perfect example.

We are the poorest big city in America. We have the third worst broadband penetration of any big city in the United States. Only Memphis, Tennessee, and Detroit, Michigan, are worse.

We're looking at -- a big report came out from the mayor from the city of Philadelphia showing that Comcast has the worst customer rating here in Philly of any other major city they've surveyed in the past six years.

This is the canary in the coal mine for what big media can do if it's not stopped, if it's not regulated as a human right in D.C. and on the local level. It's great that this merger was stopped and now we need to fight even more for the competition that our communities need and deserve.

STELTER: Frank, let me ask you about that customer service data. I profiled you for "The New York Times," what, like seven years ago because you were on the forefront of replying to customers on Twitter who were angry. You did some good work and yet Comcast still one of the lowest-ranked cable companies.

ELIASON: They have to improve dramatically and they haven't done so over the past few years. It wound up being the message instead of actually fixing things that were wrong. Now they've had --

STELTER: You're saying they were busy lobbying; they should have just improved service.

ELIASON: Exactly, exactly.

Now, in the fall of this year with the backdrop of this merger they had a number of issues that happened. The names changes that were wrong. The issues that centered on the call that was recorded. The retention call heard around the world.

STELTER: That's embarrassing press.

ELIASON: Very much. That's when they started to, say you know what, maybe there's a true problem here. They put Charlie Herron (ph) in charge of customer experience. He previously worked on their X-1 (ph) set-top box. He's a really good guy. Met him --

STELTER: Are you saying service is going to get better? You're saying we're going to have better cable even though this merger collapsed?

ELIASON: I think it's imperative and I think they know that, they recognize that. That's why they put Charlie there. I think it's going to be interesting to watch. It's going to take them a long time.

STELTER: So even though you're a former Comcast executive, you think the customers won on this one?

ELIASON: I think they won. I think they totally won.

When you pay attention -- so one of the things I do is I listen to online -- to all the conversations. We could talk 'Net neutrality. We could talk any of these other things.

At the end of the day the bottom line was I don't trust this company and I don't trust this company because of the service they provided to me. That is what it comes down to. That's what it comes down to -- Hannah discussed a few moments ago. It's all about that service experience that we create and then

does it build trust. Service is about relationship building, not cost-cutting.

STELTER: Frank, thanks for being here. Great talking with you.

Hannah, thank you for joining me from Philly as well.

One of the few senators who actually opposed this deal, Al Franken, is also celebrating. You can watch my interview with him on

We'll be right back with more RELIABLE SOURCES in just a moment.