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"The Washington Post": Kushner Proposed Secret Line to Kremlin; Leaks from Government Officials Reaching their Limit; Congressman Body Slam; Media Bias is Negativity. Aired 9-10a ET
Aired May 27, 2017 - 09:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
MICHAEL SMERCONISH, CNN HOST: I am Michael Smerconish in Philadelphia. We welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world.
It is another Saturday and another major revelation. "The Washington Post" is reporting that President Trump's adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, talked to the Russian ambassador, seeking a back channel to the Kremlin to avoid monitoring. I will ask General Michael Hayden about the possible explanations.
And America's newest member of Congress charged with assault of a newspaper reporter the night before he was elected. You'd have thought that would have cost him the election. But wait until you hear from one of my Sirius XM radio callers and what this violence says about our partisan divide.
Plus a new study from Harvard confirms that the media is indeed biased; not in a liberal or conservative way but biased toward negativity. I'll explain with the author.
And some advertisers are fleeing FOX News host Sean Hannity after he peddled a conspiracy about the killing of a DNC staffer. Hannity calls it "liberal fascism." I will ask the man who orchestrated the boycott of Bill O'Reilly, Media Matters president Angelo Carusone, whether he is trying to censor Hannity.
And the jury has finally been chosen for Bill Cosby's trial for felony aggravated indecent assault.
So which side benefits from its racial and gender composition?
But, first, the latest bombshell in the unfolding inquiry into Russia's connection to the Trump campaign. "The Washington Post" reporting that Trump son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, allegedly discussed with Russia's U.S. ambassador possibility of setting up a, quote, "secret and secure communications channel between Trump's transition team and the Kremlin."
"The Post" labels this, quote, "an apparent move to shield their pre- inauguration discussions from monitoring." According to intercepts of Russian communications reviewed by U.S. officials, Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak told his superiors in Moscow that Kushner made the proposal during a meeting on December 1st or December 2ng at Trump Tower.
Also at the meeting, Michael Flynn, at the time about to be Trump's national security adviser. "The Post" reports the FBI now considers the encounter of, quote, "investigative interest," along with another meeting that Kushner had with a Russian banker. CNN hasn't corroborated the report. "The Washington Post" got no comment from Kushner, the White House or a lawyer for Michael Flynn.
Joining me now the perfect guest, General Michael Hayden; I say that because he is former head of both the NSA and CIA.
General Hayden, is this nefarious or is this naivete?
GEN. MICHAEL HAYDEN, FORMER DIR., CIA: Well, Michael, right now, I'm going with naivete. And that's not particularly very comforting for me.
What manner of ignorance, chaos, hubris, suspicion, contempt would you have to have to think that doing this with the Russian ambassador was a good or an appropriate idea?
HAYDEN: So again, the naivete out, doesn't make me feel very good about many things.
SMERCONISH: Some will read this as another sign of potential collusion. I guess a more benign explanation but not in my view defensible but perhaps more benign is the idea that the incoming Trump administration felt they couldn't trust the Obama administration, the intel community or both and, therefore, thought they had to go in this direction.
HAYDEN: Yes. That's one of the points I was trying to raise just a second ago, Michael, what degree of suspicion of the existing government, what degree of contempt for the administration they were replacing, would be required, again, to think this was acceptable course of action?
It says an awful lot about the campaign, Michael. It says an awful lot about us as a society, that we could actually harbor those kinds of feelings, that the organs of the state would be used by my predecessor to come after me or to intercept my communications or to disrupt my administration in a way that made it seem legitimate to me to use the secure communications facilities of a foreign power?
And, oh, by the way, a foreign power that some in government alleged you were cooperating with to effect the American election.
So here you are, willing to risk the perception of secret communications with your alleged co-conspirator because you fear the existing government so much. Boy, Michael, that suggests we're in a really dark place as a society.
SMERCONISH: "The Washington Post" says that it was the communication between Kislyak and the Kremlin that was picked up, that it was not the meeting December --
SMERCONISH: --1 or 2 at Trump Tower that was surveilled. Let me explore this with General Hayden.
Is it possible that Kislyak was lying and that this was part of a disinformation campaign?
That's not a question I would have asked but for the report this week about Jim Comey as the FBI director, having to deal with misinformation pertaining to Loretta Lynch.
HAYDEN: Yes, always a possibility, Michael, given how much manipulation the Russians were doing, how much fake news they were putting out there.
By the way, fake news that some members of the Trump campaign were then pushing out forward into our own information sphere.
My instincts here, Michael, no, they weren't. This is probably Kislyak reporting to home base along the lines of, Anatoly, you won't believe what they just brought up to me. I think this was perhaps as off-putting to Kislyak as it is to you and me. It goes so far out of the norm that he was probably shocked by the request as well.
SMERCONISH: I take it that this is unprecedented, General, that there are no such side arrangements for any particular nation, where an administration sets up a back channel like this, going through that organ of the state as a means of having dialogue.
HAYDEN: No, this is off the map, Michael. I know of no other experience like this in our history, certainly within my life experience.
But, Michael, can I add one additional footnote to a subplot you and I have talked about in previous exchanges?
Let's assume perhaps --
HAYDEN: -- for a moment that that communication was intercepted and let's assume for a moment that the U.S. entities that were being referred to in that Russian-to-Russian communication were masked.
Now we might begin to understand why the national security adviser, Susan Rice, might ask for those identities to be unmasked so that she can understand the intelligence value of that conversation. Makes sense to me.
SMERCONISH: And it's something that you referred to in the past as an attempt at criminalization of routine intelligence gathering.
HAYDEN: Right. And this example kind of stands out, that if this were one of those cases where she asked for unmasking, she would be derelict in her duty if she didn't try to find out more.
SMERCONISH: OK. Let me try and be generous toward the Trump administration with regard to this inquiry.
The fact that "The Washington Post" broke the story, the fact that General Hayden, the former head of NSA and CIA is on CNN now able to discuss it, means someone leaked it.
Do they have a point when they say national security is being jeopardized by all these leaks?
HAYDEN: They absolutely do, Michael, and it is very discomforting for me, anybody of my background, and it should make all of us as a nation uncomfortable. We have seen a degree of leaking here in the 120 days of the Trump administration that's unlike any I've seen in the past.
I can suggest some reasons for it, some background that might indicate why there's more, but doesn't forgive it or excuse it, it's still wrong, it's still very bad.
SMERCONISH: Right. It's wrong, it's very bad but, yet but for the leaking, we as citizens wouldn't know about this extreme case of the incoming administration wanting to set up a back channel with Russia. So I don't know who to root for.
Do I root for leaking to continue?
HAYDEN: Well, you know, with my background, I view leaking as bad. And taking on responsibility as an individual, it should be the responsibility of government processes.
But what I see going on here, Michael -- and, again, not an excuse for the leaking but perhaps an explanation as to why we're seeing so much -- is that you're seeing government professionals who think they're reaching their limits in terms of containing damage because some of the things that the administration has done or is about to do -- and they don't see any self-correcting mechanisms within government itself.
It's kind of like squeezing the toothpaste tube really tight, Michael. with the cap still on. Under that kind of pressure, that toothpaste is going to come out. And here it comes out in the form of leaks, again, which I can't endorse, I can't support.
But I agree with you, an awful lot of this would be unknown to the American people. Michael Flynn could still be national security adviser without these leaks having taken place.
SMERCONISH: My final observation because, when I gave you at the outset a choice between naivete and nefarious, you say, thus far, you're going with naivete. General Flynn was in the room. You could say that Kushner was naive but Flynn had been around the track. Surely he had to know how extreme this was.
HAYDEN: He would know that it was extreme but, again, Michael, I don't think we have a prima facie case, even if this took place, that anything here would have been illegal. He would have known it was outside the norm --
HAYDEN: -- but General Flynn had a reputation at the tactical and operational level which actually made him quite successful of breaking China. This may be just another example of Mike being willing to color outside the lines for what he viewed to be a higher purpose.
SMERCONISH: It is Memorial Day weekend. Thank you for your service, General Hayden. We appreciate it.
HAYDEN: Thanks, Michael.
SMERCONISH: What are your thoughts?
Tweet me @Smerconish or go to my Facebook page. I'll read some responses throughout the course of the program.
Hit me with one, Catherine (ph), what have we got?
"Doesn't matter. Naivete, much like ignorance, is not a defense for breaking the law or committing treason or espionage."
Right, Betty (ph). I am just trying to discern whether this is evidence of collusion or evidence of inexperience. Whatever it was, Betty, I am not excusing it.
Up ahead, it was the body slam heard around the Internet. What did now congressman Greg Gianforte's alleged assault of a reporter tell us about the partisan divide?
And a new study from Harvard confirms media bias not tilted toward the Left or Right but toward the negative -- and the author is here.
SMERCONISH: Welcome back.
We had another Rorschach test for political bias this week. It came the night before the Montana special congressional election, when Greg Gianforte allegedly assaulted a reporter, Ben Jacobs.
What caused the candidate to snap?
How about a question about the CBO scoring of the American Health Care Act?
Gianforte didn't help us discern the truth when, his campaign issued a statement that now seems full of falsehoods.
The whistle for some: a line in the statement labeling Jacobs, the reporter, "a liberal."
Having been told that, not even an audiotape and eyewitness accounts that supported the reporter's version as a victim could stop some from donning their partisan jerseys, like this caller to my Sirius XM radio show yesterday.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The journalists are making the news instead of reporting the news. Ben Jacobs is now a celebrity by sticking a microphone in a man's face and demanding that he respond to a question that he is pursuing. It just seems like the journalists are getting way uncivil, that -- we need more stability in this country.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
SMERCONISH: Not even the fact that the victim's account was supported by a FOX News reporter who was there could take such partisans off their message.
Alicia Acunia (ph) wrote that Gianforte, quote, "grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground behind him."
In the end, Gianforte won the statewide election by 7 points where this past November Donald Trump won by 20.
There was more to the race. Gianforte's opponent, Rob Quist, had liabilities, unpaid taxes and loans and a claim that he was unable to work at a time when a video revealed him to be playing in his band.
Plus many had already voted by the time that the incident took place. But still, not too many seemed motivated to let the violence alter their vote. The "Billings Gazette" reported that only 2,000 registered to vote on Election Day, where, in 2012, 8,000 did so. So there was no Election Day groundswell to protest the behavior.
The newspaper also polled readers as to whether the alleged assault would change their vote; it was nearly evenly divided, 51 percent saying yes and 49 percent saying no.
Gianforte went into hiding after the incident, didn't emerge until he claimed victory and only then did he express remorse.
To me the incident represents a new low in our national discourse. I don't blame President Trump for Gianforte's behavior. But Trump's labeling of reporters as, quote, "the enemy of the American people," that certainly didn't help.
And neither does the response of the Texas governor, Greg Abbott, at a gun range. He held up a bullet-riddled target and said this yesterday.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GREG ABBOTT, GOVERNOR OF TEXAS: I'm going to carry it around in case I see any reporters.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SMERCONISH: It seems appropriate to me that the same week in which Gianforte was elected ended with yet another bombshell political report. We've -- been a lot of those lately, this one on the front page of "The Washington Post."
While some are training their grit and guns on the press, not since Watergate has the media played such a vitally important watchdog role.
So is the media biased?
That's the go-to in American politics. People all across the spectrum love to holler about being treated poorly because of a slant against them.
A new study has found there is media bias; it is not what you might think, not pro-liberal or pro-conservative, it's pro-negativity. That's a fascinating finding of a Harvard study from the Shorenstein Center of the Kennedy School of Government.
And in an interesting twist, people are using even this study to suit their own agendas.
Consider that back on May 5th, FOX News host Tucker Carlson trashed a study from Shorenstein that had been done on the general election coverage, saying he didn't trust the source. Watch this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TUCKER CARLSON, FOX NEWS HOST: These independent studies are done by political hacks posing as journalists. The Shorenstein Center? I mean, let's be -- I am a journalist. I sort of know people who work there. And you're not going to tell me -- because, again, I know them -- that they're politically independent because they're not.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SMERCONISH: These "political hacks" at Shorenstein.
Well, two weeks later, Shorenstein released a new study about the media's treatment of Trump -- exact same place, same professor, same staff, same methodology. This time, Carlson was now praising their accuracy because this time he agreed.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CARLSON: But exactly how liberal and how biased is the press? Well, for the answer to that, we have to go to social science. And now for the first time in a while, we actually have some, some real data. A new study from researchers at Harvard University looked at 10 major --
CARLSON: -- news outlets and found the overwhelming majority of their coverage of the new administration's first 100 days was hostile.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SMERCONISH: Yes. Thank God for social science.
Joining me now, the author of the study, Thomas Patterson, he's professor of government and the press at The Shorenstein Center at Harvard's Kennedy School.
Professor, I want to talk about the presidential race and then the first 100 days. The coverage of both major candidates was incredibly negative; 62 percent of the time for Hillary it was negative, 56 percent of the time for Trump it was negative. You point out there that was not a single week when it reached into positive territory. Explain.
THOMAS PATTERSON, THE SHORENSTEIN CENTER: Well, I think the bias of the press is a negative bias. And I think the reason that Tucker Carlson didn't like our first study is that it showed that Hillary Clinton had more negative coverage than Donald Trump during the election.
And -- but the point was that the press, when it looks at the political world, picks up what's going wrong rather than what's going right. If you look at the last eight presidential elections and look at the coverage of the presidential nominees, there's only one of those nominees who received, on balance, positive coverage during the general election and that was Barack Obama in 2008.
SMERCONISH: I have a graph that displays what you just referenced. We will put that on the screen.
I guess the question is, if it has been negative since 1984, are the candidates to blame?
Is it their messaging?
Or is the media looking to pick at that scab?
PATTERSON: Well, I think there's a little bit of both going on here. You know, I do think that Watergate and Vietnam changed the relationship between the politician and the press.
And the press ever since has been more critical in its perspective on politics.
You know, at the same time, we have this polarization and you had that wonderful tape out in Montana, about people's reaction to the body slam. And you can see that we are polarized. And a lot of that is working its way into our political discourse. So it is more negative but the press is really concentrating on what's going wrong.
SMERCONISH: Professor, we love to claim that we yearn for more substance. There's a pie chart in your analysis of the 2016 election, which says that the coverage was 42 percent in the 2016 race, about the horse race nature of this; only 10 percent of coverage was on policy.
Do we really want policy coverage or do we just say that?
PATTERSON: Well, I think to a degree, we do say that. You do surveys and people say they would like to hear more about the issues and then they do the issue coverage and we don't pay very much attention to it.
But to me, the striking thing about the coverage in 2016 was that how much these policy and leadership controversies, how big they were in the coverage. They got more than twice as much coverage as did the substantive policy issues.
In Hillary Clinton's case, her e-mails got about four times the coverage of what she was saying on all of the issues of the campaign, domestic and international. And she said a lot about the issues. So it wasn't as if she wasn't talking about them. But the press was concerned primarily about her e-mails.
SMERCONISH: Shifting now to President Trump's first 100 days, we'll put another graph on the screen that shows that 80 percent of the coverage has been negative.
He never had a honeymoon. And the viewers can see that really puts him at odds with his predecessors.
Is that, in and of itself, indicative of bias, that 80 percent of his coverage was negative?
PATTERSON: Well, again, if you look at the chart, Obama is the one exception, the one president who did get a honeymoon from the press in the first 100 days. The other three on the chart did not.
But it's not an indicator of bias. Again, it is an indicator of negative bias; the press is looking for what's going wrong with an administration. And what you see when you look at the -- at Trump's first 100 days, it is more negative than Clinton's or George W. Bush's.
But this has been a tough 100 days. I think even if you asked Donald Trump, would you like to do it all over again, I think he would say yes, let's restart the clock.
So this has been a very rough 100 days. And I think the press coverage reflects that.
SMERCONISH: And to your point, if you roll out a travel ban and it gets stymied by the courts or if you campaign on a pledge of repealing and replacing ObamaCare and you can't get that deal done, despite the control of both houses of Congress, that gets reported negatively, but that doesn't mean it is biased, it is factual, right?
PATTERSON: No, that's true. And if you look -- we did -- FOX News was one of the seven outlets that we looked at in our coverage of the first 100 days. And if you look at FOX coverage of the health care issue and of the immigration issue, it's also overwhelmingly negative.
There wasn't very much good news for Donald Trump in those two issues during the first 100 days. So to some degree, the press --
PATTERSON: -- is reflecting what's going on out there. But again, there's a selectivity to focus primarily on what's going wrong, rather than also what might be going right.
SMERCONISH: And, finally, we put on the screen a graph that shows those seven outlets and overall the coverage that they've had for President Trump and people can see, CNN is at the top of the list, and NBC and CBS and CBS and "The Times."
But FOX News, 52-48 by a more narrow margin. But this needs to be underscored.
I'll say it this way. Even the coverage from FOX was more negative than positive of President Trump.
PATTERSON: No, that's true. And FOX did find some silver linings in the first 100 days. So one reason that it came close to being positive, they paid a lot more attention to kind of the economic trends since Trump took over the Oval Office.
The other thing they did, they underplayed the Russia connection. So FOX gave less than half the attention as other outlets to possibility of Russian involvement in the 2016 election.
SMERCONISH: Professor Patterson, thank you.
I encourage viewers to Google The Shorenstein Center and actually read these studies for themselves. They're fascinating and full of good data. Thank you, sir.
PATTERSON: Michael, thank you.
SMERCONISH: Now let's see what you have been tweeting @Smerconish and commenting, I hope, on my Facebook page.
"One body slam does not come even close to the constant assault by the mainstream media on all persons conservative."
Yes, but, Terence (ph), your tweet frustrates me so much because I heard it from a handful of my callers, not the majority of callers. I just don't know how you can excuse that and turn it into a tit-for- tat. I haven't heard this word used. It was thuggish. And it would have impacted my vote. Still to come: is an advertiser boycott of FOX News anchor Sean Hannity for pushing a conspiracy theory proper punishment or censorship?
A jury has also been picked in the Bill Cosby assault trial, the only criminal case the comedian faces.
Does its racial and gender composition help or hurt the celebrity?
[09:31:03] SMERCONISH: So the jury has now been selected in the trial of comedian, Bill Cosby, for felony aggravated indecent assault. The jurors, four white women, six white men, one black woman and one black man were drawn from the Pittsburgh area, even though the case will be tried in suburban Philadelphia.
Now, they bussed 300 miles east of Montgomery County and sequestered for the duration of the trial, which begins on June 5, and is expected to last about two weeks. The accuser, Andrea Constand, who says Mr. Cosby drugged and assaulted her at his home outside of Philadelphia in 2004.
Though dozens of other women have come forward accusing Cosby of sexual predatory behavior, this is the only case resulting in criminal charges. And of all of the accusers, only one other will be permitted to testify.
Joining me, Criminal Defense Attorney Mark O'Mara, and Civil Rights Attorney, Areva Martin. Areva, prosecutors struck two black females from the voir dire panel and the defense lawyer said this was now systemic exclusion of black jurors, that sort of thing goes on routinely in cases like this. How important is race where, in the end, there will be two people of color among 12?
AREVA MARTIN, CIVIL RIGHTS ATTORNEY: Race is very important as you know, Mike, when cases like this -- and there have been studies that have shown that when you have an all-white jury pool, African- Americans are convicted 81 percent of the time. And studies also show, even with just by adding one additional juror, an African-American to that jury pool, you still get African-American defendants convicted 71 percent of the time.
So those -- you know, in the media and those pundits that want to say race doesn't matter are absolutely incorrect. Race plays a huge role in the conviction rates, particularly of African-American defendants.
And that's why Cosby's expert legal team wanted jurors to be bussed in from Pittsburgh. They wanted more diversity on this jury pool, and they got two African-American jurors, but they're not happy. They wanted more. They wanted more African-Americans on this jury.
SMERCONISH: Mark O'Mara, it is literally a he-said, she-said without any forensics because of the passage of time in this case. I want to drill down on you picking a jury in a case like this and how you would regard female jurors. Because when I represented female clients in a civil context, my experience was often that women on a jury box looking at a female witness could be pretty harsh and maybe even more so than a male.
MARK O'MARA, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: It's interesting. Yes, the dynamics are very difficult to fully identify until, as you say, you drill down into it, because you're right. Females look at other female witnesses, and they do look with a great deal of trepidation, a great deal of concern, having -- and that will be in this case as well for a number of reasons.
One, she waited a full year before the report. That piece of evidence is devastating to the state because one thing is that when a crime occurs, you report it right away, and the delay may be for other reasons. Those reasons could be such as they're going against a celebrity in Bill Cosby. So there's that issue.
But on the other hand of how a female juror is going to look at a female witness, the other side of it is the maternal instincts, that women instincts where women, we know, are more sexually abused in our society, so they're going to have that sympathy going with a woman. And, most devastatingly, is the fact that the judge allowed at least one other, what we call, similar fact evidence, which I think is going to be very compelling testimony for this jury to look at and consider.
SMERCONISH: Areva, Mark made reference to similar fact testimony, and all viewers, I think, know there have been dozens of women who've come forward, but only one, in addition to the victim herself -- in this case, alleged victim -- only one of those other women will testify. Weigh the significance of that.
MARTIN: Well, this is a victory for the Cosby team. The prosecution, at first, wanted multiple women to come forward. At some point, there was suggestion that there may be 10 or 12 witnesses that would come forward and tell similar stories.
So for the Cosby team to only have one woman is, in many ways, a victory, but that's going to be very compelling testimony because when women hear, I think in particular, that other women have experienced something very similar to what this victim is alleging in this case, that's going to be very persuasive.
And the defense has to distinguish that testimony. They have to keep those jurors focused on the facts of this case and keep them from making the leap in logic that, if it happened to this other woman, that it's likely that it happened to the victim in this case.
SMERCONISH: Mark O'Mara, is one enough to be a tie-breaker in a case like this?
O'MARA: I believe so. I truly do. On a close call, in this case again, if I looked at this case without the similar fact evidence witness, then I would say the state's going to lose. Thirteen-year delay in getting it, memories fade, people fade. People don't like making decisions on an event that happened 13 years ago. The one year delay, which led, of course, to absolutely no forensic evidence. The argument that a celebrity is being, quote, "attacked" or focused on. However, the one witness is going to easily change that because although Areva says, you know, they have to focus on the facts of this case -- and that's correct -- similar fact evidence can be given great, great weight, but when a jury has to say, "Who do I believe?" And another witness comes out and says, "He did it to me too," it is almost game over.
Having said that, if there were two or three, never mind a dozen other similar fact evidence, this case would be over almost before it started.
MARTIN: And let me just say (INAUDIBLE)
SMERCONISH: Final question for -- go ahead, Areva.
MARTIN: He talked a little about the celebrity piece, it's going to be hard for a lot of those jurors to separate Bill Cosby from his image as America's Dad.
SMERCONISH: That is exactly what I wanted to end with. How, Mark O'Mara, does the celebrity factor cut? Areva thinks it benefits Cosby, might it hurt him?
O'MARA: It could because, again, he's presented himself out there. The reason why we're in a criminal trial is because the judge allowed the deposition testimony because Bill Cosby put himself out there as America's Dad after the deposition. So he is known as America's Dad. He has held to that high standard, and the jury may look back and go, "How dare you? With everything that you've been given, with everything that you have, how dare you do this?"
So it could easily work against him. But the O.J. Simpson case we look at and say, did he -- was he acquitted because of his celebrity status? And there are a lot of people that will argue that he was.
SMERCONISH: Areva, Mark, thank you very much. Appreciate you here as always.
MARTIN: Thanks, Mike.
O'MARA: Thank you, Mike.
SMERCONISH: Let's check in on tweets @smerconish and the Facebook page as well. What have we got? All these women cannot make this up. Hey Joni, I asked it. I asked exactly that question of Bill Cosby when I interviewed him a week ago. And I said, "What do you say to people like Joni, who say, say isn't there strength in numbers?"
He didn't answer that other than to say that it was a potential piling on. I think his quote was something like, "When the numbers didn't work in the first go round, all of a sudden, others came out." Interesting.
Up next, Fox News anchor Sean Hannity championed a conspiracy theory about the death of DNC staffer, Seth Rich. Now, the same progressive media watchdog that hastened Bill O'Reilly's exit is publishing a list of Hannity's advertisers. Is it working and is it censorship of opinion?
SMERCONISH: Fox News Sean Hannity has been pushing a conspiracy theory about the killing of DNC staffer, Seth Rich, tying his death to the WikiLeaks e-mail hack. After the Rich family complained, as did several of Hannity's own colleagues, Fox retracted a story from its website saying it was, quote, "Not initially subject to the high degree of editorial scrutiny that we require."
But Hannity didn't back down. He merely pledged to stop talking about it for now, out of respect for the bereaved.
SEAN HANNITY, HOST, THE SEAN HANNITY SHOW: The unsolved murder of former DNC staffer, Seth Rich, continues to get a huge amount of attention. However, out of respect for the family's wishes for now, I am not discussing this matter at this time.
SMERCONISH: Enter Media Matters, the politically progressive media watchdog group that has already spearheaded the advertiser boycott of Fox anchor Bill O'Reilly over his sexual harassment, leading to O'Reilly's departure.
This week, they published "75 things to know about Sean Hannity," providing links to his other controversial stances, and published a list of his advertisers. Hannity then responded on air and on Twitter by labeling the move, quote, "Liberal fascism. Media Matters for America is targeting my advertisers to silence my voice. They hope to get me fired. Rush, O'Reilly, Beck, Imus, and now me."
Joining me now, the President of Media Matters, Angelo Carusone. Angelo, you say you're not leading this campaign. I read your statement, but that he is essentially running a campaign against himself, I'm paraphrasing, but you're certainly goosing it along, right?
ANGELO CARUSONE, PRESIDENT, MEDIA MATTERS FOR AMERICA: I'm trying to provide information about Sean Hannity to people that have to make business decisions about their relationship with Sean Hannity. And I think that, you know, if there was nothing objectionable or concerning to both the businesses as well as to Sean Hannity, I don't think you would have seen the reaction from him or the advertisers that you've seen.
SMERCONISH: I'm referencing the posting of a list of his advertisers. We can put that up on the screen.
SMERCONISH: I guess my question is, why not run a campaign that says, "Hey, what he's saying is offensive, turn him off," instead of trying to exert leverage on the advertisers because -- and you and I had this conversation before, relative to Bill O'Reilly. To me, it gets to the realm of censorship. Why can't you reach the audience instead?
CARUSONE: I don't think that it's censorship if a company doesn't want to associate with or give money to a personality. I don't think -- I'm not saying that Sean Hannity shouldn't be able to say the things he says, I'm just saying that businesses should have some intentionality behind their advertising.
One thing that happened during the Bill O'Reilly, you know, sort of flare up was that it was very clear that advertisers weren't being intentional about where they were putting their money. And so, what we've been doing is working with media buyers to say, "Look, just ask yourself the question, do I know where I'm advertising and is it intentional?"
And if the answer is yes, fine. Then they'll have to deal with the volatility or the consequences if that's who they choose to associate themselves with. But if the answer is no, I don't know that, then at least inform yourself, and then see if you're comfortable with your decision. And that's sort of where we're at right now. So yes.
SMERCONISH: Yes, but it kind of presupposes that they don't know what they're buying, right? I would think that if I'm one of the advertisers, I've investigated the product and I made some value judgment, that is, until Media Matters leans on me.
CARUSONE: We agree. They actually don't know what they're buying. That's been the exact issue. And that's why you see the reaction that you see. That's why a campaign or attacking the advertisers or criticizing them or pressuring them to, you know, leave Sean Hannity was not necessary, because they actually don't know.
Many of them do not know that their ads are running on programs like Sean Hannity. And to the extent that they even become aware of that, they don't really know the depth of, say, the volatility or riskiness associated with Sean Hannity's programming. They might think of him as just another conservative talker, and that they don't fully recognize just how volatile he actually is.
I mean, he's at war with both Fox News right and his own advertisers that are still on the program. The guy's incredibly volatile and a bad bet.
SMERCONISH: I want to ask you, which of two headlines is more accurate? Put them up on the screen. Both are from yesterday. One from "New York Times" which says, "In controversy, Hannity isn't seeing advertisers' exodus that O'Reilly did." The "L.A. Times" Stephen Battaglio, "Sean Hannity goes on vacation as some advertisers drop out of his show." What's the deal according to Media Matters? Are advertisers fleeing Hannity like they did O'Reilly?
CARUSONE: So I think both of those headlines are accurate. No, advertisers are not leaving Bill O'Reilly's -- I mean, Sean Hannity's program at the speed at which they were leaving Sean Hannity's, that's just the case. And that's because there actually isn't a massive campaign here. It's literally just asking the question. All we've done is hold up a mirror. However, it is true. Advertisers are leaving Sean Hannity's program. The moment that many have become made aware of that, they have made the decision that that is not what they want to be associated with. And in fact, one company --
SMERCONISH: Has it --
CARUSONE: -- Crowne Plaza was so upset that their ads were running on the first place that they fired their media buyer. And I think it's a lesson to all media buyers out there that if you're going to place ads, just do it intentionally. That's all I'm saying here, is just have some intentionality behind your advertising strategy.
SMERCONISH: Final question. Has it occurred to you that you may create yet another conservative behemoth? Because if you're successful in dislodging Hannity, maybe he pals up with O'Reilly and heads over to, say, Newsmax.
CARUSONE: That very calculus further reassures the idea that I am not out there just trying to drive these people away or have censorship or shut them down. All I want is some intentionality behind where people put their money.
And I do think that -- frankly, I think the media buyers are grateful for what we're doing right now because what we're doing is educating them and informing them about a risky business association that they have now, and they have a chance to avoid the next controversy, because what Sean Hannity did with Seth Rich's story, resurrecting this old conspiracy from last summer and hurting these people's families, this is not a one-off. This is part of his business model, and it is a bad business model, and many companies of the companies that are paying for that business model don't even know it.
And so, I'm not trying to shut them down, but I just think if you're going to -- you should have some intentionality in this marketplace, and I think Sean Hannity, leading the campaign to pressure advertisers and stoking it, he's been doing -- and launching this, we go if he goes boycott that he started, is not going to help matters at all and is only going to further antagonize and inflame the situation. And lastly, reinforces and proves the point that Sean Hannity is volatile and bad business.
SMERCONISH: Angelo Carusone, thank you for being here.
CARUSONE: Thank you.
SMERCONISH: Still to come, your best and worst tweets. Hit me with another one. What have we got? It's not so much censorship as mob rule orchestrated by social media. Carol, listen, I'm happy to hear him out, just as I did relative to Bill O'Reilly, but something wrong here when you can't reach the audience, and instead, you lean on the advertisers. I don't know.
To me, it does reach the realm of censorship, and I think the appropriate advocacy would be to say, "Hey, here's what he or she," whoever it happens to be at that particular moment is doing, "Maybe you want to change the channel?"
Except for right now, because I'm coming back in just a moment.
SMERCONISH: It's Memorial Day weekend in the United States, and we thank all those who have served. What do we have via Twitter or my Facebook page? Hit me with something.
Smerconish, I can't decide you're a shock jock or an idiot -- probably more of the latter -- if it wasn't for Leaks, Flynn would have never been fired. Leakers are the heroes. And there's something unsettling about this.
I said exactly that to General Flynn in the course of this program. I said, but for "The Washington Post" story today, we wouldn't know that Jared Kushner had made contact in an effort to open up a back channel communication. But there's something about that that also jeopardizes national security, and that's what I'm trying to balance. What's next?
Let's not treat nefarious and nai as mutually exclusive. Strategic deployment of naiveteseems to characterize this gang.
Laurence Tribe, nice of you, by the way, to be watching from Harvard. I appreciate that. Maybe they are. I mean, maybe they are both naive and thinking they couldn't get away with it and nefarious at the same time.
Hey Prof. Tribe, let me just underscore something. Mike Flynn -- Lieutenant General Flynn was in that room. I mean, you know, maybe Jared Kushner is a bit of a governmental rube because he's not -- never been down this road before, but Flynn -- this is most troubling to me -- Flynn is sitting there while Kushner is saying, "Let's have a back channel communication."
Unfortunately, I'm out of time. That's the last one. I'll see you on Facebook and see you here next weekend. Enjoy the weekend.