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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES

Did the Media Do Baltimore Justice?; From Instagram to Cover of "TIME". Aired 11-12:00p ET

Aired May 3, 2015 - 11:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[11:00:00] FRANK SESNO, GUEST HOST: As Baltimore burned with anger, did the media do their job? Did they capture the complexity and depth of all the stories following the death of Freddie Gray?

Good morning. I'm Frank Sesno, sitting in for Brian Stelter.

It's time for RELIABLE SOURCES.

A difficult week for America and the American media. The death of Baltimore resident Freddie Gray while in police custody resulted in six officers being charged, but it also triggered a familiar cycle of shock, anger, and protest. This time, there was widespread violence and looting as the city erupted.

The media captured it all amid questions of coverage, context, and the impact of words and pictures played over and over. And many asked why the media only showed up when Baltimore was burning?

Sentiments summed up by an indignant man confronting Geraldo Rivera of FOX News. It became a YouTube sensation.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KWAME ROSE, BALTIMORE RESIDENT: A black man can raise his voice and you don't have to be intimidated. Because I want you and FOX News to get out of Baltimore city because you're not here reporting about the boarded up homes and the homeless people under MLK. You're not reporting about the poverty levels up and down North Avenue. Two years ago, when the 300-man march, we marched (INAUDIBLE), you weren't here. But you're here for the black riots that happen.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SESNO: Of course, it was another viral video of Freddie Gray that ignited the outrage and ended up with murder charges being filed Friday.

And the Geraldo clip raises important questions about the media's approach to this complicated and volatile topic. Political cartoonist Mike Luckovich over at "The Atlantic Constitution" summed it up pretty nicely here.

"What do the words and images being tossed around this week really mean and what are the lessons to be learned?"

Well, joining me now is Helen Holton, a member of Baltimore's city council.

Welcome to you.

HELEN HOLTON, BALTIMORE CITY COUNCIL: Thank you.

SESNO: Do you think the media have gotten this story right?

HOLTON: Sometimes, yes, sometimes no. But what I know, it was Carl Bart who said in the 1920s that we must pray for the journalists because the journalists have the ability to shape public opinion. We are witnessing journalism shaping public opinion. Those of us on the ground who know when the journalists' story is not accurate, we have a responsibility to try and dispel myth for truth and inaccuracy --

(CROSSTALK)

SESNO: What's the story that you have seen that's not accurate? What have you seen that's not accurate?

HOLTON: Well, so maybe inaccurate is not the right word, but, you know, the story of Freddie Gray inflicted these injuries upon himself. Oh, Freddie Gray had spine surgery and this is why he has ended up in this position with a broken vertebrae.

You know what? There was no evidence released, verifiable evidence, stating that this is what caused his injuries. We have just begun the process of justice for this young man, but in taking the lid often and addressing this injustice, there are many more deep rooted injustices that even led to the arrest of Freddie Gray in the first place.

SESNO: Do you feel --

HOLTON: You know, when the state's attorney -- wait, wait. When the state's attorney spoke about this arrest and the charges against him, that what he was charged with were false. He was within his legal right to carry the knife that he had in his pocket. It wasn't a switchblade with a flip button on it. So, you know, it is our role as local elected officials all the way up to the federal level to continue to press for the truth.

SESNO: And --

HOLTON: We can't control what the media writes and what they say.

SESNO: Well, and you are the sources. I don't know where the information came from that he was carrying that switchblade, that it was a switchblade which proved not to be. So, that's important, too.

HOLTON: Well, it didn't come from me or any of my colleagues. It didn't come me for any of my colleagues. SESNO: Right. Do you feel that all the media attention,

national media attention, has in some fashion accelerated some of the activities and some of the legal actions that are being taken?

HOLTON: I'm not in a position to answer that. You know, we are in a unique opportunity, one that we have not faced that has led us to this point in time.

SESNO: Finally, let me ask you this question, as someone who knows the city as well as you do -- if you could be shaping some of the coverage that we know is going to be coming from out of Baltimore over the next several days and weeks and months, what is the story line that you most would like to see?

HOLTON: The story line is that Baltimore is en route to healing, restoration, and repair of damage done to our city for decades. The eyes are open, the covers are off and it's time to do the right thing for all the people of our city.

SESNO: Thank you very much and good luck to you.

HOLTON: Thank you.

SESNO: Baltimore City Councilwoman Helen Holton.

[11:05:01] The troubling story of Freddie Gray's death while in the custody of the Baltimore police is just the latest in a series of recent confrontations between law enforcement and private citizens. Ferguson, Missouri, Charleston, South Carolina, among them.

Are the media too reactive, too limited, too predictable with stories like these and how do the media affect what's happening on the ground?

Well, joining me now are two accomplished journalists: CNN contributor L.Z. Granderson, a senior writer for ESPN, and CNN commentator Sally Kohn who tweeted, "Take a moment to realize that media/national attention wouldn't be on Baltimore and Freddie Gray were it not for the riots. Shame on us."

Well, welcome to you both. I'm going to get to Sally to the shame on us in just a minute, but I want to ask you both to start with something that veteran media critic and "Baltimore Sun" reporter David Zurawik wrote.

And it's, quote, "The question we all have to ask ourselves, after all the hours of coverage on all the channels focused on Baltimore this week, are we really any smarter about race, police community relations, or the death of Freddie Gray?"

L.Z., what do you think?

L.Z. GRANDERSON, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I think we have all the information. I think the real question, is it enough information to make us care? In other words, I think the average American understands that racism hasn't been eliminated. I think the average American understands that the remnants of institutionalized racism are still very much at play. The question is, do we care?

SESNO: And that's the media's job to make people care?

GRANDERSON: It's the media's job to give them the information, but it's up to the individual to process the information and decide how, if any way, that's going to impact their lives, the way they go about their day, the way they decide to vote, the way they decide to call or not call city hall or the Congress. I mean, there are many things that the average American can do to express their concern for the world around them. The question is, do they care enough to go out and do those things?

SESNO: Sally, I'm seeing some expression on your face that suggests you're not quite sold on all this.

SALLY KOHN, CNN COMMENTATOR: Well, no, I do agree with L.Z. it's up to the people to decide whether they care. I do think, first of all, to the quality of the coverage, I think the information about, oh, this is in fact a rampant problem, it is a problem in Baltimore, you know, that information has gotten out there.

There's a level of nuance, sort of depth and breadth that I'm not sure the media has across the board achieved, both --

SESNO: So maybe smarter about the big issues but not smarter about the nuances yet, is that what you're saying?

KOHN: You know, we talked about implicit bias. Have we talked about the fact one of the narratives out there is, well, this can't be about race because, you know, they're black cops, black police commissioner, black mayor? It's more nuanced than that. Have we made the connections as a media between Baltimore and Ferguson and other places so that they don't just seem like aberrations, that it seems clear to people it's a systemic problem.

To the point about caring, I actually do think it's the job of the media to make people care, whether we consciously take on that role or not. I think more and more as the line between news and opinion is blurring and more and more anchors are showing their human side, showing their opinion, then it becomes more transparent --

SESNO: But care about what, Sally? Once you get into that area, you get into very interesting and sometimes dangerous journalistic territory.

KOHN: I'm not sure.

SESNO: Wait a minute. If you're the reporter covering the story, you're covering the story, aren't you, or are you there as an advocate or are you there as an activist? I mean, where -- there are lines that blur here.

KOHN: I think what we cover -- so, just you kind of slice it in a number of ways, but just what we cover and when we cover it is a reflection of the values of the media and what we care about. So the fact that, to take this example, generally by and large the national mainstream media, aka the mostly white national mainstream media, did not go to nor cover Baltimore with the same energy, intensity, blanket coverage until things turned violent shows what the media cares about. They --

(CROSSTALK)

SESNO: And that's what you meant -- and that's what you meant in your tweet when you said shame, right?

KOHN: Yes, exactly.

SESNO: L.Z., weigh in on that.

GRANDERSON: I will add, I was going to say I would add that, you know, the "Baltimore Sun" did a pretty scathing report a year ago detailing the horrific things that the Baltimore police had done and looked at -- you know, from 2011 to today how much money the city had to spend because of cases involving police brutality. The information was out there a year ago and it didn't really register enough to make people want to do things.

I would challenge the notion that we didn't start to care until violence broke out. Well, if you look at that 2011 report or that 2014 report about the Baltimore police, we've known that violence has been going on in that city for a long time.

I think the part about caring, what I was referring to was, when you began to see that the people who expressed outrage are not the people who are directly impacted by the occurrences, it's when you begin to realize that people care.

[11:10:03] So, when you start seeing -- when you start seeing older Asians and white Americans out marching and protesting, when you begin to see people in the top 5 percent beginning to actively protest and put their voices out there, such as the COO for the Baltimore Orioles did early on during this conversation, then you begin to realize that people begin to care, and they're beginning to put themselves out there a little bit more.

SESNO: What do you both have to say -- what do you both have to say, maybe this is caring or it's also showing up because there are those who say that the media swarm made in some ways some of the violence worse -- Sally.

KOHN: I don't think there's any question that a perverse incentive is created by the media only paying sufficient attention to cases like these, to situations like these, when they turn violent.

SESNO: And, L.Z., what do you think?

KOHN: And, look, there had been weeks of peaceful protest. They did not get the same kind of coverage.

SESNO: L.Z.?

GRANDERSON: I don't -- I'm not big into blaming the media for people being outraged. You know, that's like blaming a doctor for you having a cancer diagnosis. Just because we're telling you that there's ill in the world doesn't mean we're responsible for that ill. I just think it's a cop out and I think it's a way for people not to deal with the fact they have to do something about the ill that's being pointed out by the media.

SESNO: I want to ask you both, we talked about the mainstream media, but the other very big change we've seen over recent years is the social media, where people themselves are weighing this. And we're going to be hearing from Devin Allen in a few minutes. He's a citizen journalist wants to be an aspiring photographer and his pictures have had impact.

We also heard from a young woman named Julia Blount with a Facebook post that absolutely, positively went viral. She wrote, "Dear white Facebook friends, I need you to respect what black America is feeling right now." And she said, "I need you to just listen."

And she did her list, "I hear hopelessness. I hear oppression. I hear pain. I hear despair. I hear anger. I hear poverty."

Is what she's hearing not what mainstream media, whatever that means, is hearing, Sally?

KOHN: You know, I don't think so. And I mean, again, this isn't -- like L.Z. I don't want to blame the entire media. Because there's no question, you know, I've seen this phenomenon within social media. I remember during Ferguson black journalist friends or sort of citizen journalists, not official with big news network journalist friends on the ground in Ferguson reporting certain things happening. And people being skeptical of those reports because they weren't coming from the, quote/unquote, "official" and in that case mostly white reporters who were on the ground.

So, even within that context, there's a sort of skepticism and, frankly, segregation, and it relates to the segregation of experience. The sort of, oh, well, as a white person, that's not my experience of the cops, so that's not how cops are.

SESNO: L.Z., let me give you the last words on the citizen journalist, citizen social media impact.

GRANDERSON: Well, I applaud them. I want more of it. The fact of the matter is, is that we wouldn't have been talking about Trayvon Martin, we wouldn't have been talking about Michael Brown. We wouldn't have been talking about any of the cases, and now, Laquan McDonald in Chicago, if it wasn't for social media, if it wasn't for the citizen journalists, if you will.

But it's also important to keep in mind that a lot of social media, particularly Twitter, are just citizen journalists, if you will, tweeting out stories they have seen or has been printed or published by maybe stream journalism. So, it's just another way, another method of getting the word out, and I applaud them. I think that you should be skeptical of both mainstream media as well as social media, and we shouldn't vilify one or automatically think one is more valid than the other.

SESNO: Thanks to Sally Kohn and L.Z. Granderson. Really, thank you both. L.Z., also, who is a fellow, I should say, at the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago.

Up next, what's it like to have the media descend on your city and not recognize the city they're describing? When we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[11:17:30] SESNO: And welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Frank Sesno, in for Brian Stelter this week.

We're looking at the media's handling of the death of Freddie Gray in police custody and Baltimore's response.

In stories where race is involved, there is often criticism that the media buy into a dominant narrative then miss the distinctions and nuances of a story. So, we were struck by an essay by NPR's Steve Inskeep, in a piece called "Baltimore is not Ferguson." He engaged different voices that suggested a different storyline.

We welcome Steve Inskeep now.

Steve, thanks for joining us.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST, NPR'S "MORNING EDITION": It's an honor to be here, Frank. Thanks.

SESNO: So, tell us about this story and what prompted you to do it.

INSKEEP: This was basically street reporting. I went to Baltimore. I don't live very far away, and I went out into the streets, into the affected areas on the morning after Monday night's violence, and I simply talked to who I talked with. Who do you find in the streets? What are they saying? What are they doing?

And I encountered a lot of people, we had 16 interviews with different kinds of people, black and white, young and old, different kinds of people, different parts of town, although all in the same general area, and they demonstrated a side of Baltimore that I thought made the story more complex.

I don't want do say that race is not a factor here. Obviously, race is a huge factor in the history of Baltimore and in the history of the United States and in the history of police/community relations. But we have a situation where you have a black mayor, a black police commissioner and a half African-American police force.

So, what does that mean in the black community? And I heard people saying it was about class.

SESNO: Right. And you had people saying it's less about race. Some said it's not about race and about class.

So, how did that jive with what you were seeing on the streets?

INSKEEP: Well, you have to find some way to think about this situation where some of the police officers involved in incidents like the one that is still being investigated in which the officers have been charged, some officers in those incidents are African-Americans. So what do you make of that?

That doesn't mean there's no racism in the system. That doesn't mean there's no racism as part of the equation but people on the streets who spoke with me saw it as a function of class and also a function of the drug war. We're in West Baltimore. It's a city with a serious drug problem. Certain areas are especially bad, and there were people in the community who felt that regardless of whether the officer was black or white, that they were targeted simply for being from this poor area with a drug problem.

SESNO: When you wrote this piece, and you thought of the piece, were you trying or sort of making a statement, that's obviously too heavy-handed perhaps, that the story was more complex than many of the media were portraying it?

[11:20:04] INSKEEP: That is what I learned, and I'm simply going on what I learned here and what I have learned from covering other stories. Every place is a little different. Every story is a little bit different.

Even Ferguson is not exactly what we thought Ferguson was, was it? As we learned more facts about what exactly happened in the central incident there, ultimately, even the Justice Department found no reason to charge the officer.

The facts turned out to be different than we thought, although the broader problem in Ferguson turned out to be quite severe and led to the resignation of a number of officials there. In Baltimore, you have just got a different particular history. You've got a different police force. You've got a different population.

And I think it is fair to point out the complexities of a particular situation. We in the national media have this tendency to plug each new incident into a narrative that we think we already know.

SESNO: It's totally true. It's totally true.

INSKEEP: Yes, it's familiar, it can be easy, but it can also be just in very subtle ways a little wrong.

SESNO: Well, the thing that's really hard, too, when there's a huge story like this with violence on the street, and that story in some ways at least while it's happening is kind of writing itself, is to stand out in front of that and say, hang on a second, there are things people here need to know and we need to say. I mean, there isn't a story I have covered where I show up on the ground and I'm not saying this is more complicated than I thought or than it looked and sounded from afar.

INSKEEP: Yes, and I want to say one other thing I did, Frank, and no offense to CNN and the outstanding TV reporters that you have, but as we drove around West Baltimore, there were TV trucks and whenever we saw one, we just kind of went another direction. We wanted to see what was happening where the TV --

(CROSSTALK)

SESNO: You think something is happening differently away from the camera --

(CROSSTALK)

INSKEEP: I think sometimes that can be the case. And that's inevitable. I'm not saying TV is doing that deliberately. But there's something about the circus of the lights and of the cameras and everything else that does tend to attract attention and maybe changes the situation in a little way or in a subtle but important way. And so, I'd go over a few blocks and see what was happening a few blocks away.

And ultimately, though, I wasn't trying to make some point about the media. I was just listening to what people were saying and watching what they were doing and trying to understand their struggle to grasp what was going on in their community and also to deal with it.

SESNO: Steve Inskeep, thanks so much and look forward to your next essay.

INSKEEP: All right.

SESNO: Another view of the street was provided by a local, aspiring 26-year-old photographer, Devin Allen, whose shot ended up on the cover of "TIME" magazine. A Baltimore resident, he had been protesting situations like Ferguson and Charleston, only to find his hometown of Baltimore up in arms.

Devin Allen, thanks for joining us.

DEVIN ALLEN, BALTIMORE RESIDENT: Thank you.

SESNO: I want -- I want to start with this picture that ended up on the cover of "TIME" magazine. What did this picture mean to you?

ALLEN: That's a very powerful picture right now for my city. Basically, that was the first incident that happened here during the protests where it got kind of out of hand. You know, it's not the most positive picture, but I think it tells a story of exactly what's going on in my city right now.

SESNO: What is the picture you want your pictures to tell of your city?

ALLEN: Basically, I want to tell the truth, you know, like I stated on my Instagram. I want to tell the good, the bad, and also the ugly. You know, I want to show the -- you know, the rioting, the fighting, but I still want to show you the guys cleaning up the city. I want to show the people protesting with their hands up, and how unified and peaceful my city really is.

SESNO: Devin, I have seen a lot of your pictures online. Some of them are very powerful, which -- describe one or two or three of your favorites, the ones that you think tell the story that the world least understands and most needs to know.

ALLEN: One that actually touched me personally was a guy holding his son and he had his -- his son had his hands up. Me being a father, that touched me the most because my fear is the way the world is, is raising a daughter. A child (INAUDIBLE) in this town is tough, and the way what's going on in the world now, it scares me.

So, as I was taking that picture, it actually touched me. You know, I teared up a little bit. A lot of those pictures touched me. That's why I love this city so much and I love these people. This is where I grew up. That's why the pictures are so intense because my heart is in every single shot before I snap.

SESNO: You also have pictures of police.

ALLEN: I want to show both sides of the fence, not just on, you know, what's going on on my side, me being a protester and the people in my city. But I want to show the struggle on being officers in these hard times, because they're getting profiled as hard as we are right now.

SESNO: How do you feel about the media from all over the world really that have come into Baltimore in droves to cover the story because of the disturbances?

ALLEN: I felt as though they should have been here. They come after the fact, you know, to televise and they want to talk. Just focused on the riots, worried about what riot is going to break out next, if the city don't want to here what they want to hear.

[11:25:07] You know, they should have been here. We needed them last week, you know? And that's what kind of has me mad.

And, then they're here but they're not focusing on the key points which are the people that are here. You know, they are focused on the police. They follow the police around. They go where they're told.

No. Instead of sitting on Pennsylvania Avenue and North Avenue with the National Guard or the SWAT team, you need to be hitting these side streets, Baker Street. Some of these streets, talk to these people. Photograph these people because they ever the ones that stories need to be told.

And that's what I think the media should focus on more so than just the police aspect and the negative aspect that's being showed on TV.

SESNO: Devin Allen, as a citizen journalist and photographer, you certainly have made a mark. I wish you luck. I hope you keep taking pictures and we're going to be watching to see what you do. Thanks. ALLEN: Thank you.

SESNO: Coming up, there's a new four-letter word that's come out of Baltimore. We'll explain that when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[11:30:15]

SESNO: Welcome back. I'm Frank Sesno, sitting in for Brian Stelter.

The word thug has gotten a lot of media attention this week. We first heard it from Baltimore's mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, and even from President Obama, when they described the rioters who looted several businesses and set fires across Baltimore on Monday night.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

STEPHANIE RAWLINGS-BLAKE (D), MAYOR OF BALTIMORE, MARYLAND: Too many people have spent generations building up this city for it to be destroyed by thugs.

GOV. LARRY HOGAN (R), MARYLAND: This is lawless gangs of thugs roaming the streets causing damage to property and injuring innocent people.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You have got some of the same organizers now going back into these communities to try to clean up in the aftermath of a handful of protesters -- a handful of criminals and thugs who tore up the place.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SESNO: And we saw the word surface on Twitter. The word thug appeared in roughly 50,000 tweets on Monday, like this tweet from Donald Trump. "Our great African-American president hasn't exactly had a positive impact on the thugs who are so happily and openly destroying Baltimore."

But there's also been a lot of criticism for using the word. Take a listen to FOX News' Megyn Kelly and CNN's Erin Burnett pushing their guests to define the protesters.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MEGYN KELLY, FOX NEWS: When they threw cement blocks at firefighters who were trying to save the neighborhood. I'm thinking thugs is not far off the mark. Am I wrong?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think not far off the mark is six police officers putting an uncharged man...

KELLY: So it's a dodge. Answer my question.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... into a police officer -- I'm answering you.

KELLY: No, you're...

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But you don't want dialogue. I'm trying to have a conversation with you.

(CROSSTALK)

KELLY: You're trying to talk about somebody else's behavior. I'm asking you about that behavior.

(CROSSTALK)

ERIN BURNETT, CNN ANCHOR: They know it's wrong to steal and burn down a CVS and an old person's home. I mean, come on.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Come on? So calling them thugs, just call them (EXPLETIVE DELETED). Just call them (EXPLETIVE DELETED). No, we don't have to call them by names such as that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SESNO: So, is the T-word the new N-word? And should people in the media use it or avoid it? Why do words and pictures, for that matter, matter so much?

Joining me now is Soledad O'Brien, CEO of Starfish Media Group, a former CNN anchor who hosted the documentary "Black in America."

Soledad, thanks for being here.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CEO, STARFISH MEDIA GROUP: It's my pleasure.

SESNO: Why has thug become such a loaded word?

O'BRIEN: Listen, I think what the Baltimore city councilman, Carl Stokes, was trying to tell Erin Burnett is that thug is a proxy, is a word we use instead of the N-word. And I think that's really true.

I can't think of a situation where there's ever been a headline or someone has called a white young person who is in the middle of a violent protest demonstration, whatever, a thug. We use it all the time when we're talking about people in the inner city.

And so, I mean, listen, here, I randomly grabbed a bunch of headlines. "San Francisco Giants World Series Marred By Violence." The word thug doesn't come up at all, by the way, but they're talking about baseball fans marred by shootings and fires and arrests. Ohio State football revelers, mostly white, by the way -- this was back in January -- screaming in delight set nearly 90 fires, tear down a goalpost, blah, blah, blah, blah. We never describe them as thugs in that headline.

SESNO: But, Soledad, I looked the word up in a bunch of different dictionaries. In no place did I find a racial connection.

O'BRIEN: No, no, and, obviously, right?

(CROSSTALK)

SESNO: And -- and the African-American mayor of the city and the African-American president of the United States used the word.

O'BRIEN: Doesn't necessarily mean...

SESNO: So, if it's the equivalent of the N-word, how does that work?

O'BRIEN: Right. Well, doesn't necessarily mean that they don't have a specific agenda in how they're using it.

When you talk about journalists, though, I think journalists shouldn't have an agenda. Richard Sherman, who played for the Seattle Seahawks, plays for the Seattle Seahawks, he really said, like, listen, it's the new N-word.

And I think that's true. And I think when you examine when the word is used, it's used to describe the actions of people of color, specifically people who are in the inner city. I think for journalists to have a debate back and forth about thug and thuggery is naive and sort of misplaced, because it's not really the question.

Journalists should strive to use words that describe accurately what's happening. So, for example...

SESNO: So, what are the -- so, what are the words journalists should be used to describe the people who are out on the streets doing this kind of thing?

(CROSSTALK)

SESNO: It is lawless activity that they were seeing, right? Or are you -- we're not -- we're not trying to do -- to -- to excuse it in the process, are we?

O'BRIEN: Oh, gosh, not at all.

I literally think you should use words very specifically. So, I think you say, these are protesters who are now throwing cement blocks at blah, blah, blah. These are people who are now doing this. Look at this picture. That group right there is doing this. Thug doesn't describe...

(CROSSTALK)

SESNO: But let me challenge you on that though, Soledad...

O'BRIEN: Sure.

SESNO: ... because wouldn't the protesters, people who have been going out of their way on the streets of Baltimore in peaceful protest...

O'BRIEN: Right. Those would be peaceful protesters.

SESNO: ... object to being -- to you using the words that there are protesters throwing the rocks and bottles?

[11:35:03]

O'BRIEN: I think there's violent protesters. I think there's peaceful protesters. I think there's drunk protesters. I think there's angry protesters.

I think when you look specifically about how the word riot is used, the word thug is used, it's always used around people of color, specifically in an inner city context. And, again, I can't tell you how the black mayor does it or the president of the United States chooses to use the word.

I can only comment on how I think journalists should think about a word that actually doesn't have a lot of nuance and isn't specific, but somehow seems to be used a lot when you're talking about African- Americans.

So me personally, I wouldn't call someone a thug. I think it's not a descriptive term. The journalist's job, and I think what's been sorely lacking in this story, frankly, is context, right, description and context.

(CROSSTALK)

SESNO: And the words -- words deliver meaning. They deliver context. They also can trigger emotions...

O'BRIEN: Absolutely.

SESNO: ... in different kinds of people, so it's really very important that they are close adhered.

But we also don't want to run away from the English language. So, this isn't easy. And that's why the debates take place in newsrooms like this.

O'BRIEN: No question.

SESNO: I'm not sure I want you to have to be my editor next time.

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

SESNO: You're tough. It's good. That's good.

(LAUGHTER)

SESNO: Thank you very much. O'BRIEN: It's my pleasure. Thanks.

SESNO: Well, coming up: more leaks coming out in the Brian Williams saga and what they say about his chances of returning to NBC News. A veteran of both the anchor's chair and corporate intrigue joins me next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[11:40:26]

SESNO: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES.

We're now three months into Brian Williams' six-month suspension for exaggerating his Iraq reporting. The leaks continue to flow out of NBC, possibly shedding light on the future for Brian Williams and whether NBC will even allow him to return to the "Nightly News" anchor chair. Imagine that.

But not all the leaks seem to be on the same wage. This "Daily News" article shouts, "Exclusive: News Chief Wants Brian Williams Back on the Air," while this story from "The Hollywood Reporters" says, "NBC Chairman Andy Lack Not Convinced Brian Williams Can Return."

Well, one thing is certain. NBC's ratings have softened. It's fallen behind ABC's "World News Tonight" with David Muir, who just claimed his fourth week on top, winning more total viewers, as well as the coveted 25-to-54-year-old demographic.

What's at stake? What are network execs thinking, calculating? What's the view from the anchor chair?

Joining me now is a veteran news anchor, Carole Simpson, who was ABC News weekend anchor for "World News Tonight."

Carole, thanks for joining us.

CAROLE SIMPSON, FORMER ABC NEWS ANCHOR: Good to be with you, Frank.

SESNO: Is there any way, in your view, that Brian Williams returns to that anchor chair? What do you make of Andy Lack's leaked "NBC News Chief Wants Brian Williams Back on the Air," which was, by the way, contradicted by another leak not very long after that?

SIMPSON: I think Brian Williams has got to go, and I think Andy Lack knows that he has to go.

SESNO: And you say that why?

SIMPSON: I say that because NBC's image has been tarnished by its anchor making exaggerations and fabrications about his exploits.

How can you believe a network whose major anchor of the flagship broadcast, you can't trust what he's saying? SESNO: What do you make of these stories, Carole, that have come

out? And I say this because I know you know something of network intrigue and how network execs think or don't think or whatever you want to think of these leaks that have been coming in the press that, well, he shouldn't be back, he should be back?

SIMPSON: I -- well, you know, it's the question of, is it about the money or is it about the news and the integrity of the news?

SESNO: So, are these just trial balloons to see how the audience might react?

SIMPSON: I don't know, Frank. I just -- I just know how people leak things.

And there are people with certain interests on one side or the other. And so they try to put forward their position. But regardless to what is out there in the ether, they can't bring him back. They can't have him back. I'm sorry.

(CROSSTALK)

SESNO: It's just a matter of credibility.

SIMPSON: Well, of course.

I started at NBC News. And this was a network that took a chance on a young radio reporter in Chicago and gave me a chance to become a network news correspondent. And I have great fondness for NBC. And just the idea that the Nancy Snyderman situation and then the Brian Williams situation, that my former network is hurting, is damaged, damaged goods...

SESNO: So, how does your former -- how does your hurting, damaged former network, then, as you see it, repair the damage, repair the credibility, and get on to its next phase?

SIMPSON: Well, I think Lester Holt has been doing a terrific job.

And while there may have been some slippage in the ratings, the bottom has not fallen out, and he is credible, and he has integrity, and he has proven himself capable of taking on that whole job.

So I think they ought to go with him and start grooming somebody else that can take Brian's place permanently, on a more permanent basis.

SESNO: Does it have to be Lester Holt? He certainly has worked long and hard, as you say.

SIMPSON: He has. I think it should be Lester Holt. And I think there would be an uproar if Lester Holt was not given the job and it went to somebody else if Brian leaves the network.

SESNO: Let me just ask this one last question. I think everybody would agree with you about the whole credibility thing, but this is also a business. And the business turns on the ratings. And if the focus groups say that Brian Williams would be stronger, there may be those within the network who say, find a way to bring him back. The world is a different place. America is all about redemption. Brian Williams can find a way to do that.

What would your reaction be to that?

SIMPSON: That would be not good enough for me.

I remember when journalism and the news divisions at the networks didn't have to make money. They just had to go off and do good work and win awards and that kind of thing.

[11:45:02]

But when the networks were bought by different companies like GE and now NBC Universal and maybe Comcast, everything changed, and the news division was just like any other division and it had to have a bottom line that it met.

You can't cover news that way, with a budget that says you spend one day on a story, and that's it, whether you have got the story or not. So if the bean counters are the ones that make the decision and say he must come back because the ratings are better with him, what a sad sign for television network journalism.

SESNO: Well, Carole Simpson with a memo to the bean counters.

Thank you very much for being here this morning.

(LAUGHTER)

SESNO: Appreciate it.

SIMPSON: Thanks.

SESNO: Well, up next, here is a provocative question for a Sunday morning. What makes one natural disaster deserving of more news coverage than another? We will look at the reporting on the Nepal earthquake with a key editorial decision-maker after the break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[11:50:14]

SESNO: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES.

This week, as often happens, the American media found a huge international story overshadowed by a huge domestic story. The riots in Baltimore took up much of the bandwidth that might have been devoted to the deaths of over 5,000 people in the Nepal earthquake, Nepal, a tough remote place that few Americans know or have ever seen.

Nonetheless, it got a great deal of coverage. And in the Twitter era, how can social media affect the news media's efforts to tell a complicated story from a far-off land? How do news organizations mobilize and make this story matter?

Well, there are few better to answer these questions than Tony Maddox. He's executive vice president, managing director of CNN International. He joins me from Atlanta.

And, Tony, good to see you.

TONY MADDOX, EXECUTIVE VICE PRESIDENT, CNN INTERNATIONAL: Good to see you too, Frank.

SESNO: It's one of the things that changes with the advent of social media, because people, viewers from all over the world can get involved in a story in a way they couldn't have done 10 or 15, 20 years ago. The coverage of a story like this 10 or 15 years ago would have been a one-way conversation.

How does that change the coverage of a disaster like this, Tony?

MADDOX: It changes everything, really.

I mean, in terms of the perceptions of the story, in the introduction, you highlighted the fact that Baltimore came along, and, of course, domestic has to focus very strongly on that. But CNN across all of its platforms here at International and all through our online services, not only are we reaching many people, but they're also reaching us.

They're giving us feedback. They're telling us about people who they think might be missing, places where they think it might be really appalling. You will notice one of the most arresting videos was the avalanche video which we got down via YouTube. People were filing their material to us.

The video you're sharing right now, this is shot by individuals. They post that online. So, the news-gathering process has become much more of a two-way street than it ever used to be.

SESNO: What do you say to people who say that this is a very sort of subjective kind of thing, that, when there was the Haiti earthquake, for example, CNN was wall to wall with so much of it, others were wall to wall -- in Nepal, there's been a lot of coverage, but not nearly enough -- and this is a very subjective kind of coverage?

MADDOX: It is.

And it's always a judgment call on how much these stories you feel are going to resonate with your audiences. And, candidly, you also have to take your place in the news queue. Baltimore has been an American moment. There's no doubt about that. We're fortunate at CNN that we can do many big stories at the same time and get enormous exposure across all platforms.

This Nepal story has been eight out of 10 of the top stories on our international digital sites this week. The videos have had millions of views from there, and across domestic as well. So, I just want people to not just think of these stories in terms of how much they're on CNN in the U.S. You have got to look at the entirety of all our platforms. And this story has had a huge impact.

SESNO: Stories like this are important in their own right, to get the information out, but they're also important for people to know to get the aid in.

MADDOX: CNN has a huge impact on these stories, Frank.

We can do these stories like few others can. And once we get inside that story, we know that we can open this up to people. You write in your introduction it's a remote place, many people haven't been there. But many people have heard of Kathmandu. They have obviously heard of Mount Everest.

And if you see a piece like Arwa Damon did going to the epicenter, seeing a little girl whose back was injured, the kind of pieces that Sanjay were doing where he was talking to people in the hospitals, helping the people in the hospitals, you humanize these stories, and people then want to help. People want to do the right thing. They want to get involved.

SESNO: All right, Tony, Tony Maddox, thanks. Always a pleasure. Appreciate it.

MADDOX: Thank you.

SESNO: And coming up: Iran's top foreign diplomat is speaking about jailed "Washington Post" reporter Jason Rezaian. But is there cause for hope?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[11:58:07]

SESNO: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES.

Today marks 285 days, 285 days that "The Washington Post"'s Tehran bureau chief, Jason Rezaian, has been detained in an Iranian prison. Rezaian was recently charged by the Iranian authorities with four counts, including espionage.

This week, Iran's foreign minister, Javad Zarif, spoke with The Washington Post's David Ignatius at NYU, giving some hope that a top Iranian official may actually favor Jason Rezaian's release.

Here's what he had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MOHAMMAD JAVAD ZARIF, IRANIAN FOREIGN MINISTER: Unfortunately, your friend and my friend, Jason, is accused of a very serious offense. And I hope that he's cleared in a court.

But he will have to face a court. He's an Iranian citizen. It is unfortunate that some overzealous low-level operative tried to take advantage of him. And I don't go into further detail, because that's a pending case before the court. And I hope that he will be cleared of that charge.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SESNO: Rezaian is accused of a very serious charge, which could carry a maximum sentence of 20 years if he's found guilty.

Last week on this program, we spoke to "The Washington Post"'s executive editor, Marty Baron, who called the charges absurd.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MARTY BARON, EXECUTIVE EDITOR, "THE WASHINGTON POST": We're 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.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SESNO: Like Marty Baron, all of us here at CNN are also hoping for Jason Rezaian's quick release. We will stay on top of this story. And we hope they are watching in Iran.

Well, that's it for this televised edition of RELIABLE SOURCES.

I'm Frank Sesno, sitting in for Brian Stelter. Thanks for watching.