Return to Transcripts main page


Pro-Trump Media Campaign to Take Down Mueller; Trump Confidant Reacts to Nunes Memo Coverage; State of the Union Reaction Examined. Aired 11a-12n ET

Aired February 4, 2018 - 11:00   ET


[11:00:00] BRIAN STELTER, CNN HOST: Hey, I'm Brian Stelter. Happy Super Bowl Sunday. This is RELIABLE SOURCES, our weekly look at the story behind the story, of how the media really works, how the news gets made -- and this week, how misinformation gets made.

The right unleashed its version of "Fire and Fury" this week, the GOP memo. But what exactly does it mean and where do we go from here?

For today's show, Chris Ruddy is standing by. He's the CEO of Newsmax and a personal friend of President Trump.

Plus, historian Julian Zelizer is here to put the memo fight into context.

And Julia Ioffe, as well. I'm going to ask her, are we missing the real Russia story? Because I think we are.

Let's be honest. This week, Sean Hannity won. And the rest of America lost.

The pro-Trump media led by Hannity has circled the wagons around President Trump. They've distracted people about the truth involving Trump's Russia ties and they've done everything possible to destroy faith in Robert Mueller's probe.

And look, Hannity won, it worked. You've got to give him credit where it's due. Hannity gave a megaphone to the GOP congressman who said they had a smoking gun memo, proving a deep state conspiracy against Trump. Hannity hyped it night after night after night in January, like a human countdown clock.


SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS HOST: We have massive breaking news tonight. The biggest, frankly, we have ever reported on about the Russia investigation. And they will make Watergate look like an insignificant blimp on your radar.

A source is telling me, this is going to all be proven right. I have a message tonight for the special counsel Robert Mueller. Your witch hunt is now over. It is the biggest national scandal by far in our lifetime.

What we are uncovering here is far worse than Watergate. People need to be held accountable.


STELTER: Trump reportedly watched that and loved it. And he told aides the memo need to come out because it would undermine Mueller.

And on Friday, we all saw the coverage. It was never going to live up to the hype when you've got Hannity talking about this being Watergate times a thousand. But the noise around the memo doesn't make much sense anyway. Devin Nunes alleges surveillance abuses have been though he recently voted to grant greater surveillance powers.

And the timeline doesn't make much sense, either. But come on, when you're trying to confuse people, that doesn't matter. All the questions, all the headlines, all the doubt, all the curiosity, all the concern, that was the point. To get it auto on the front page, to sow doubt and division, that was the point.

And look at cable news. The nation's deep divide was visible in prime-time.


HANNITY: There is new vital information that is even more damning, more damaging than anything we've told you so far. This is Watergate times a thousand.

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC HOST: That's it? That's all they've got?

LAURA INGRAHAM, FOX NEWS HOST: Nunes hinted that there's more to come, that this is only the tip of the iceberg.

JOY REID, MSNBC HOST: You know the only thing better than one whack memo? More whack memos!


STELTER: There it is. That's a preview of what's coming next.

GOP congressmen are promising more memos, more revelations. And FOX is already telling people to stay tuned. Meanwhile, MSNBC is already making fun of it.

But, you know, the memo, this entire memo thing, I know it's confusing, but it gives the Hannities of the world an alternative reality to live in. It gives Trump a way to say he's vindicated, even though he's not. It lets Trump allies say Mueller's probe is tainted and needs to be shut down.

It allows them to turn every claim around on its head. Collusion, yes, there was collusion by the Democrats. Obstruction? Yes, the Dems obstructed.

It's like that old childhood schoolyard taunt. I'm rubber, you're glue. Whatever you say bounces off of me and sticks to you. Now, the current in vogue talking point is there is an important

investigation going on, but it's not the investigation into Russian interference and election, it's the investigation into the FBI. That's that alternative reality.

And look, this campaign of confusion is good for Hannity. His ratings are way up. It's good for Trump, as well. But it's bad for the country.

So what can we learn from this GOP campaign?

Let's try to make sense of this week, if that's possible, with Michael Isikoff. He's the chief investigative correspondent at Yahoo News and he's mentioned in the memo. He's the co-author of the upcoming book, "Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin's War on America and the Election of Donald Trump". Also with me, CNN politics media and business reporter, Hadas Gold, and David Zurawik, media critic with "The Baltimore Sun".

David, what happened here? Do you think -- you look at what happened here and agree with me that Hannity won or am I giving him too much credit?

DAVID ZURAWIK, MEDIA CRITIC, THE BALTIMORE SUN: You know, Brian, I don't know about -- Hannity won sounds strong.

[11:05:00] But I agree with the premise, totally. I am shocked at the traction this Hannity narrative has gotten.

And here's what's shocking to me this week. When I saw -- when you see Ron Johnson, the senator from Wisconsin, out there talking about, we have an informant, there are secret -- there's a secret meetings being held off-site. That's a loop. It goes from Hannity to somebody like Johnson and the president and that is gaining real traction in this country. I'll tell you --

STELTER: And we have to remember, yes, Hannity is a presidential adviser.

ZURAWIK: Exactly.

STELTER: "The Daily Beast" pointed out again this week, they're talking all the time.

So, Hadas, how significant is it that Fox and the "Washington Examiner" were the first to get a sneak peek of the memo contents?

HADAS GOLD, CNN POLITICS, MEDIA & BUSINESS REPORTER: Listen, it definitely doesn't help the idea that this is some sort of objective memo and that the point of this release was for more transparency when the first people to get their hands on it are outlets that have been friendlier to the president and to his agenda than anybody else. This whole memo, though, has reminded me of sometimes when you go to museums and other countries and they portray a war that we've learned about from the other side and you just see these two alternate realities. STELTER: Right.

GOLD: And you have to remember in all of this, that for the people who support Trump, who voted for him, they voted him into office to drain the swamp, to get rid of what they like to call the deep state. So for them, this memo is a great thing because if it leads to this House cleansing of the FBI, that is what they voted for. They voted to get these people out of office.

So, while to some people that might mean --


STELTER: You mean the concerns about a constitutional crisis, the concerns about our institutions eroding, it's actually a good thing to his voters?

GOLD: To some voters, that's exactly -- they wanted him to literally drain the swamp. If that means getting rid of these people who politicians might praise as being long-serving members of the intelligence community who have dedicated their lives to this, to some Trump voters, that's the deep state and that's who we need to be getting rid of.

STELTER: The talking point on Fox this morning from Corey Lewandowski was, are they spying on you and me, or are they spying on all of us? It had the feel of a new conspiracy being born, using this memo.

So, Michael Isikoff, what do you take away from the right-wing narrative of the past few days?

MICHAEL ISIKOFF, CHIEF INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT, YAHOO NEWS: Well, look, it's not surprising. There were some new details in the memo, but the problem with the memo is, it's so selective and obviously incomplete that it's hard to know what the bottom line take away should be.

I mean, the fact that the Steele dossier was used as a basis for the original FISA warrant against Carter Page is interesting and important information. We don't know to what extent it was used, how much weight it was given by the court, as opposed to all the other information that the FBI presented to the court that is not detailed in the memo.

It's also highly relevant, I thought, and perhaps one of the most significant parts of the memo is that the FBI got three renewals from the court on that FISA warrant --


ISIKOFF: -- which they could only have gotten if it was getting -- if it was providing fruitful information. So, that in and of itself undercuts the idea that this was all some conspiracy to go after Carter Page because of his ties to the Trump campaign. They were -- if they got it renewed, the FBI, the Justice Department, and a federal judge would have had to have found a sound basis for that. STELTER: Right. So, there's more we should know. Journalists are

talking about transparency.

ISIKOFF: Absolutely.

STELTER: There's more documents we should see.

My problem is when there's an attempt to ignore everything Mueller's investigating, all the serious concerns, and talk solely about FISA abuses, instead.

Let's look at this, Isikoff. This is Sean Hannity talking about you in the memo a couple nights ago.


HANNITY: The FBI then used a Yahoo News report that was written by Michael Isikoff. The source for the information and the Yahoo News report was none other than Christopher Steele, the same author of the dossier that they were using. This is what we call circular reporting because the FBI was pretending that they had two sources when in fact it was the same source.


STELTER: Michael, you've said that Steele was one of your sources. So, why is Hannity wrong here?

ISIKOFF: Well, what we don't know from this memo is what the FBI was citing my article for.


ISIKOFF: And I should point out that Adam Schiff, who has seen the underlying documents, was on another TV show this morning, and said it was being cited for information in the article other than what Steele had provided.

So, again, we haven't seen the FISA application.

[11:10:02] We don't know what it was they were specifically citing. I was surprised to see a reference to me in the memo. I had no idea I was going to get such a --

STELTER: Yes, now, you've got to change your book before it goes to press.

ISIKOFF: Exactly. We'll be doing that this weekend. Yes.

STELTER: But here's the thing, Michael, I saw you saying on other programs that you knew Christopher Steele was working for someone opposed to Trump, a Democrat, perhaps.


STELTER: Shouldn't you have told your readers that? ISIKOFF: The ground rules for my interview on Steele was it was on

background. I can only talk about it now because he has disclosed the fact that he spoke to me.


ISIKOFF: So I am free to share that.


ISIKOFF: But, you know, what was significant to me was Steele made these allegations is, was the FBI investigating them? Were they taking them seriously? And that was the gist of the article. So if you go back and take a look at it, you'll see that the primary point here is that I had confirmation that this was -- there was a U.S. intelligence investigation relating to somebody who at that point was an adviser to the Republican nominee for president.

That's what was significant about my article. And that's the basis for it.

STELTER: Do you feel, Michael, that there's a noise machine trying to distract from the actual Russia probe? The actual Russia questions?

ISIKOFF: Well, I think that's obvious, isn't it?

STELTER: I'm not crazy. I'm just checking. I'm just checking. To me, it's overwhelming.

ISIKOFF: Yes, no. I mean, yes, I mean, that's -- that is the entire drift of everything that you're hearing on Fox News and from the president's defenders to take the ball off the Mueller investigation.

STELTER: They're so scared to find out what happened before Election Day. They're so terrified to find out what happened in our election and so scared about how Trump tried to cover it up that they can't bear to talk about it.

ISIKOFF: Yes, but look, you know, there's going to be a reckoning at the end of the day. I mean, Mueller is going to produce a report. He will undoubtedly be asked to testify before Congress, whether or not he brings additional criminal charges.

So, I mean, you know, we will know, at some point, how much weight, you know, all these matters will be given. How much accuracy there was in the Steele dossier. But more broadly, what did Papadopoulos, what has he been telling the special counsel? What has Michael Flynn been telling the special counsel? What else has he learned?

And, you know, at some point, my guess is, it's going to be far more nuanced than either side wants it to be.

STELTER: David, we've talked for a long time about this issue. And in the past, we've talked about how this is corrosive to democracy. I think the counterargument would be, hey, you know, people, worried about this for a long time. The FBI is still standing. What's the big deal?

How do you react to that, David?

ZURAWIK: Well, Brian, you know, even when -- I don't disagree with Michael that there would be a reckoning. But even when we say there would be a reckoning or when we dismiss it, people want to take from that, look it. The institutions are strong. We'll survive this. This will be OK.

And I understand that thinking, I thought it. But I have to tell you, we turned this thing up a higher notch. And when I saw the senator from Wisconsin talking about secret societies --


ZURAWIK: -- and I hear them talking about the rot and the stench, the words used on Fox for within the government, you tell me how this is different from Joe McCarthy, the Wisconsin senator in 1954.

I think we are in an incredibly dangerous place right now. And the outcome is not predetermined.

You are right in the sense that Hannity and those guys won with this. I think they've made -- they've dug that narrative deeper into the American brain, that there's corruption at these -- you know, look at McCarthy. The State Department, it's riddled with communists. Now, they're riddled with dishonorable, politically motivated FBI people.


ZURAWIK: In Justice, you know, you hear it on Fox. Now they're saying, it's not just FBI and Justice, we've got to get the deep state out of everywhere. Very bad type -- first time, I was off this week, so I got to watch this like a citizen, it scared me.

STELTER: Oh boy. Yes, well, that's why I think the hardest question has to go to Hadas.

We've laid out a pretty confusing, troubling media landscape here. Hadas, what's the average citizen, the average news consumer supposed to do in this environment?

GOLD: Well, I've -- we've been talking to people who are just everyday people, who are even in some ways connected to the news and they're confused, because they tune in and they feel like they miss the first part of the series, and they don't quite understand what the memo is and what it's about and all they're hearing are these top-line narratives, because when you look at the memo, you see that it has more specifics to it, but there's so many underlying stories to it, it has so many tentacles all over the place.

But for the average person, if you already are on some sort of narrative train --

STELTER: Yes. GOLD: -- that the deep state is against our president, that these people need to be out of government, then that's just going to support you even further.

[11:15:005] And if you're on the other train that the conservatives and the Republicans have somehow fallen into line with President Trump and they're doing everything they can to protect him, then that's just going to be the narrative that you continue on.

But what's really stunning to me had been the headlines about conservatives and the FBI when typically the conservative party and Republican Party have been so supportive of the FBI and what they do. And I'm thinking of the FISA debates and the NSA debates from a few years ago --


GOLD: -- about wiretapping and things like that. And it's like we've flipped it on its head, where now you suddenly have Democrats and liberals are supporting the FBI and their -- and all of their efforts. And what's unique is, I don't know if we've been in a time period before where the FBI or another organization like that has been under attack, but where it's both by the president and the party in control of Congress. And that I think were unique.

STELTER: We are living in the upside down, that's where we're living.


STELTER: Michael, Hadas, thanks for being here.

David, stick around, come back a little litter.

Up next here, we're going to go live to Florida. A friend of the president, Chris Ruddy, standing by. We're going to have an exclusive interview with Chris Ruddy.

And later in the hours, three newspapers in bankruptcy in this country. What can we do to save local news?


[11:20:00] STELTER: We've heard from reporters, talking heads, and politicians about the Nunes memo, but what about the view from those inside Trump world?

Joining me now is Newsmax CEO and Trump insider, Chris Ruddy.

Chris, you're in Florida. I know the president is in Florida this weekend. Have you seen him recently? What's his mood like?

CHRISTOPHER RUDDY, CEO, NEWSMAX MEDIA: Well, I bumped into him last night. We had a brief chat. I think he's -- he had an incredible home run with the bases loaded this week with that State of the Union address. The approval numbers are up. You know, Rasmussen has him at 49

percent. The Real Clear rolling average has him up at least 10 percent over the past few weeks. And the generic poll where the Democrats were beating the Republicans by 12 points, the president has cut that in half. It's now six points.

And I think he's riding a high with this tax cut bill where we're seeing companies all across America increasing bonuses. Charter just came out, is giving a $15 minimum wage to every employee. So, I think the president is doing some amazing stuff and I think he's feeling it.

STELTER: He is seeing increases in some of the polls. But for what it's worth, Rasmussen we generally don't report on CNN, because it doesn't call cell phones, only calls landlines, and so we don't think it's as reliable.

But here's the thing, Chris, you talk about the polls, let's take a look at what the president said on Thursday about polls. He said this at an RNC winter meeting.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Because even the haters back there gave us good reviews on that one. It's hard for them. They came up with fake polls. You know the fake polls. But the fake polls were even good.


STELTER: The president just told me polls are fake, Chris. Who am I supposed to believe?

RUDDY: Well, you should ask him. I certainly don't speak for the president. I can only speak for Chris Ruddy.


RUDDY: I don't think -- I think everybody I'm talking to says the polls are showing the president's improving his numbers.

STELTER: Yes. It looks like it.


STELTER: Yes, I don't know why he goes out there and lies about the polls. He knows they're real.

RUDDY: Well, I think he's very frustrated, because you know, like this memo that came out this week, this whole case has been a false, fake, phony allegation of a crime. It's been about a fake allegation in search of a crime. Usually, when you have an investigation, the Justice Department or whoever, you have a crime, and then that leads to an investigation of who did it.

STELTER: The Trump Tower meeting was not fake -- George's meetings were not fake. Carter Page's chat with the Russians -- (CROSSTALK)

RUDDY: The Trump Tower thing was not a -- but the Trump Tower meeting was not a crime. It was not collusion. It was just a meeting to find out information. You can question --

STELTER: We don't know that for sure.

RUDDY: -- whether the propriety was good.

Well, we do know pretty much what's happened in that meeting and it was not a crime. And they had a meeting -- see, Brian, you at CNN and CNN and all the other networks have been covering this for 18 months. Give me one piece of evidence of collusion or a crime involving the president or his associates involving their campaign.

STELTER: It hasn't been 18 months and I think you're painting with a really broad brush when you say all of CNN has been doing something.

RUDDY: Oh, it's definitely been 18 months, because we know the FBI opened the investigation based on political evidence in the middle of the campaign.

STELTER: Yes, the coverage, though, started later.

RUDDY: We had an unprecedented -- wait, wait, wait. We had an unprecedented surveillance of a political campaign in American history. The House Intelligence Committee says that at least 100 members and associates of Donald Trump were surveilled and unmasked.

And I think that's the big story. Why did that go on, based, again, on a phony allegation in search of crime?

STELTERR: Because there were very real fears that there was something very suspicious going on with Russia. Don't you want to know?

RUDDY: You can't base -- just because a liberal group -- just because a liberal group has a fear about a conservative candidate doesn't mean they should open up a political investigation.

There's a circular illogic to everything you've been saying. You create the false allegation. The president says, hey, wait a minute, you guys are after me. This is a political witch hunt. And you turn and say, oh, he must be obstructing justice.

So, there's no underlying crime of collusion.

STELTER: We don't know that.

RUDDY: No evidence of it. And now you're accusing him of obstruction. Just listening --


STELTER: There was certainly evidence of a willingness to collude. I think as a lot of analysts like Jeffrey Toobin would say, yeah, there was clearly some collusion, it's a question of how much collusion there was.

RUDDY: Brian, show me the evidence.

STELTER: There's a lot we don't know about the social media efforts and the attempts to spread fake news by Russian bots and whether Trump aides were involved. But, hey, this is the issue, right? There's two different narratives about what happened.

RUDDY: You still haven't given me any evidence of collusion. I totally --

STELTER: I would love for Robert Mueller's report to come out tomorrow.

RUDDY: The Russian interference -- the Russian interference in that election was egregious and outrageous and a threat to our democracy. And I'm still wondering why you haven't asked Barack Obama --

STELTER: Tell President Trump to say that.

RUDDY: Why did Barack Obama do nothing, do absolutely nothing when the Russians interfered in our election.

STELTER: He did some steps, he should have done more.

RUDDY: He did nothing.


STELTER: Fair point. I agree with you. He did a little bit. He should have done more.

[11:25:00] I think he regrets that.

RUDDY: OK, good.

STELTER: Can I ask you about Robert Mueller? Because you were in the news recently for this interview you had on PBS last June. You were on PBS with Judy Woodruff. You mentioned this about Robert Mueller.

Let's check -- let's watch the tape.


RUDDY: I think he's considering perhaps terminating the special counsel. I think he's weighing that option.


STELTER: So back then, some White House aides sort of suggested you were wrong, then it came out recently in "The New York Times" that Trump did order Mueller fired, but then his lawyer threatened to quit, so he backed down.

Looking back now, have you been proven right? Are you happy you were proven right? RUDDY: Well, I don't know if I was proven right or wrong. I knew

what -- the information that I was saying on PBS that night was accurate. I think it was considered as an option. I don't -- I can't say that the president had ordered, like "The New York Times" indicated, but I do think he was considering it an option.

But, look, the White House press secretary has said --


STELTER: And you said it would not be a good idea. Have you changed your position that he should not fire Robert Mueller?

RUDDY: I don't think he should fire Robert Mueller or Rosenstein. You know, there's two ways of a president approaching an investigation like this.

One is the Nixon model. You know, Nixon didn't know about the burglary, he didn't order it. Yet he got involved in the investigation. He fired the prosecutor. It did not end up well for him.

Reagan model, 26 indictments and plea agreements of officials, Reagan stayed completely out of it. He remained popular the whole time.

My view is, the president should wall himself off from this. None of the crimes that have been involved so far with Mueller involve his campaign or impact him. The president should stay away from it.

If at the end of these prosecutions, the president feels some of these people have been mistreated, or the investigations have been unfair, he can always exercise a pardon, just like elder Bush did, Bush 43 did with the commutation of Scooter Libby.

STELTER: Chris, great to see you. I would love for you to come back soon. Great to see you this morning.

RUDDY: Always good. And when I come back, I want the evidence of collusion.

STELTER: We will look for that.

And after the break here, is Putin the real winner of all of this? Is the Nunes memo distracting us from the real story? One of the top journalists covering all things Russia and collusion joins me next.



STELTER: One country, two narratives about President Trump and Russia. That's where we are. And a lot of news consumers are stuck in the middle of that.

So, let's talk about it with Julia Ioffe, staff writer with "The Atlantic." She wrote a recent cover story for the magazine titled "What Putin Really Wants."

Julia, wanted to hear from you. Chris Ruddy, a Trump confidant, was just said there's no evidence. He said, show me the evidence of collusion.

Is there any?

JULIA IOFFE, "THE ATLANTIC": Yes, show me the evidence in 30 seconds while I constantly interrupt you, right?



IOFFE: So, I think that, you know, there's no crime called

collusion. There's a lot of other, kind of less sexy laws that may have been broken, like campaign finance laws, like the -- you also don't need to actually collude and have Putin and Trump on the phone saying, you do this, you do that, you do this other thing at this time.

It's enough to show a willingness to accept, for example, in-kind donations, which is what would have been happening at Trump Tower in the summer of 2016 when Donald Trump Jr. said he loved it, the idea of the Russians bringing essentially oppo research to him, right?

And that is -- and it would have been an in-kind donation, which is oppo research that the Trump campaign could have paid for by itself. I mean, there's a lot of stuff out there that's -- you know, it's -- there's a lot we don't know yet, right, because the investigation hasn't concluded.

But there's also a lot out there.

STELTER: That's the hard part for journalists, isn't it, that there's so much that Mueller knows that we, as reporters, don't know.

IOFFE: But we also -- there's a lot we do know. We do know that Donald Trump Jr. was in touch with WikiLeaks, that WikiLeaks was telling him to contest the election if Donald Trump lost.


STELTER: You broke that story, I should tell viewers, because you're too humble to say it.


IOFFE: We also know all kinds of things.

We know that, for example, thanks to the amazing reporting from "The New York Times," that George Papadopoulos was, you know, bragging that the Russians had the deleted e-mails. He was bragging to an Australian diplomat.

And then you have a few months later, you know, because this is the kind of man Donald Trump is, you know, people around him are talking about stuff, and then he comes out and just says it in the open: Russia, if you're listening, bring us the 33,000 e-mails.

I don't think that's a coincidence. There's a lot -- there's a lot of there there that we already know. I think the stuff that will probably come out in the Mueller investigation is going to be a lot of the financial ties, which is very hard to uncover, given how Russians operate, you know, shell companies that buy shell companies that buy shell companies that buy shell companies.

So -- and that stuff is going to be -- and this is kind of getting back to the news of this last week, the Nunes memo. And Hadas said this very well. You know, people feel like they're tuning in, in the middle, and they have missed the first three episodes of the season.

People are just getting, I think, from the overarching narratives from their side, from the media that they watch and they believe, all these details about, you know, in-kind donations and what did and didn't trigger the investigation -- which, by the way, the Nunes memo admitted that it was Papadopoulos that triggered the investigation, not the dossier, right?


People aren't getting into the weeds of this. It's too much.

STELTER: So what do we do, Julia? What's the solution?

IOFFE: I think we stay true to the facts. And we try to -- you know, the other problem with this is...

STELTER: Very clear writing, right? We need more explainers and fact-checks and Q&As about this.


IOFFE: Yes. That's right.

But, also, I think, part of the problem is that the media sphere is so bifurcated. And on one side, we have a very politically motivated media, FOX, Breitbart, Infowars, et cetera, that are pushing a dishonest narrative, frankly, that is politically motivated.

And on the other side, we're trying to be like, well, we're not on any side, here are the details. And I think people's eyes glaze over.

And I'm not saying that we should go in a political direction, far from it. But I think that's part of the problem, is that one side is very politically motivated. And the other side, you and myself included, are trying to stick to the facts. And the facts get more and more conflicted as -- you know, with every day.

STELTER: Well, we will keep trying, right? IOFFE: Yes.

STELTER: Julia, thank you for coming on. Great to see you.

Check out her piece at

IOFFE: Thank you.

STELTER: A little bit later, my take on Trump's ridiculous ratings claims.

But up next: turmoil at one of the nation's top newspapers. We have brand-new reporting on the open warfare between "L.A. Times" reporters and the paper's owners.



STELTER: "We are under siege." That's what a source in "The Los Angeles Times"' management tells me.

There's a battle going on in L.A. between the people who write the stories and the people who write the checks.

And Margaret Sullivan's headline in "The Washington Post" captures it. She says the place is -- quote -- "screaming for adult supervision." She describes chaos and secrecy at a paper that's had three editors in six months.

Now, back in January, after a report by NPR's David Folkenflik, the publisher of the paper was suspended without pay. He's now the subject of a harassment investigation.

But chaos and turmoil are not reserved for big papers. In fact, we count three different papers in this country currently in bankruptcy, "The Boston Herald," Current Newspapers, a chain in D.C., and another, and the West Virginia paper "The Gazette-Mail." All of them have had to file for bankruptcy recently.

Margaret Sullivan has been covering local newspaper woes. She joins me now from Washington.

Margaret, first, the "L.A. Times," this chaos at one of the biggest newspapers. What is going on between Tronc, which is the company that owns the paper, and the newsroom?

MARGARET SULLIVAN, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Well, it's really a very unfortunate situation, Brian, in which the management of that paper and the larger management at Tronc, which is the publicly traded company which owns "The Los Angeles Times," as well as owning "The Chicago Tribune" and "The Baltimore Sun" and other papers, has really, in my opinion, very poorly served that newsroom.

And it's a situation in which the paper, "The L.A. Times," which is the largest regional newspaper in the country, still with a staff of 400 people, has had three executive editors in a period of less than six months.

And, as you said, it's a place in which the publisher has been suspended without pay while charges, serious charges, allegations of sexual harassment are being investigated.

So, as someone described it, it is a hot mess. And I think that's accurate. And I also think it's a very difficult, difficult situation for the journalists, some of the best journalists in the country, who are trying to do their jobs amid this, you know, real chaos.

STELTER: Is there a link between behind-the-scenes chaos and tension at a big publisher and the bankruptcies we're seeing at smaller newspapers?

SULLIVAN: I mean, they're two signs of the crisis in local and regional news.

Certainly, the takeover of these -- "The Los Angeles Times" was owned for a long time by the Chandler family. And it has a storied a really legendary history of great journalism and 44 Pulitzer Prizes.

I think the thing that ties these two situations together is that the ownership of newspapers in cities has gone to big corporations, in some cases, to, you know, equity funds, in some cases to big chains.

That doesn't mean that every chain is evil, but it does mean that, in general, newspapers are not owned by people in their own communities any longer. And that's a bad thing.

STELTER: And, meanwhile, digital is gobbling up the ad dollars. Google and Facebook are taking over more and more power. It means that print is continuing to decline.

And you say this is the biggest story in journalism today, the decline of these local papers. What do we do?

SULLIVAN: Well, I do.

I think this is the biggest crisis we have in journalism right now. It might not be the most visible crisis, because you're not really seeing papers go out of business. You're seeing papers be diminished. And that is where most of the local reporting is being done.

You know, I don't know what the answer is. I think it's starting to get more attention now from philanthropic organizations and from people who can start to make a difference. But we're very far, really 10 years or more, down the road of real diminishment. And it's a huge problem.

STELTER: One thing we can all do is subscribe, right, pay for, not just big papers like "The Post," which I pay for, but the local outlets as well.

SULLIVAN: We like having you as a subscriber, Brian. Thank you for that.


STELTER: I actually forgot my password yesterday. I had to look it up to re-log in.

But it's one thing to sign up for these big organizations. It's another thing to pay for local news and actually help your local community.

SULLIVAN: That's right. And that's extremely important.

When people complain and say, oh, I hit the pay wall, this is terrible, I try to remind them, it actually costs money to employ reporters and to send them out and get them on the street and doing the digging that they need to do to serve the public.



Margaret, thanks so much for being here.


STELTER: After a break: an inside peek at the White House spin machine.

You saw President Trump's bogus boast about having the biggest State of the Union ratings ever. Hey, it wasn't lost on "SNL."


ALEC BALDWIN, ACTOR: Huge ratings, of course, not as big as the ratings for my State of the Union speech, which was watched by 10 billion people.




STELTER: Do you remember the State of the Union? I barely do.

By noon the next day, the headlines from this speech had been overtaken by other stories. But when the ratings came out, there was a kerfuffle over just how popular it was.

So, let me show what it's like to cover the White House in the age of alternative facts. I'm actually going to show you my e-mails with the White House.

But, first, here are the actual ratings. Trump's first State of the Union drew a solid 45.6 million viewers, which, as you can see here, makes it the sixth highest rated State of the Union in modern times. Pretty good, number six behind these other presidents.


Now, on Thursday, Trump tooted his own horn on Twitter. He got the 45 million number right, but he wrongly called it the highest number in history.

So, I wrote a quick-fact check story for and moved on. But then this became a repeat of the inauguration crowd size spat.

A White House official who insisted on anonymity tried to tell me Trump was right -- quote -- "Trump was referring to the highest in cable news history. That's why he mentioned FOX News as well."

So, I wrote back, how do you know what he meant, and why won't you just go on the record and say so and why won't he post a correction tweet?

And this went on and on and on. And the White House official repeatedly said there was no correction needed because Trump was talking about a cable news record.

So, let's go ahead. Can we put the tweet back on screen?

He specifically said the 45 million number was the highest ever, period, then a new sentence about FOX News.

But this aide would not budge. This went on and on. And that's how it happens. And that's how Trump aides try to make things so confusing that we just throw our hands up in the air.

But the facts are the facts. The ratings were strong. They just weren't a record.

And when the president gets this wrong, it makes you worry about the much more important stuff on his desk, the data and decisions that really do matter.

David Zurawik is back here with me. And we're joined by CNN analyst Julian Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University.

So, final couple minutes here.

David Zurawik, does this rating thing matter at all? What do you think it means?

ZURAWIK: Brian, as somebody who once covered only television in the '70s and '80s, where it was all ratings, you and I both know -- I know that you can tell -- you can stack them up any way you want them and spin them.

And the worst television that was made in America was made by people who only care about ratings, like Donald Trump. And Donald Trump, it's even stranger, Brian, because, as you just showed, if the numbers aren't good, Donald Trump will say they were the greatest ever.

And I'm telling you, I took such pleasure in seeing that back and forth with you. I have done that so many times, where you're in that circular loop.

STELTER: You have to try. Yes.


STELTER: Exactly.

You know, State of the Union is one tradition. Another tradition is Super Bowl Sunday. I'm wearing my green Eagles tie.

Julian, I think it's notable that we're not seeing President Trump give a pre-Super Bowl interview. He declined NBC's invite for a pregame interview.

Do these kind of traditions matter at all?

JULIAN ZELIZER, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, they do matter, not necessarily the Super Bowl tradition, but the tradition of the president opening himself up to the national press.

The thing is, we have seen again and again he breaks tradition. And he is insulated from the kind of fallout we would expect. There's an entire universe of conservative media that will support whatever he says or does or doesn't do.

And he has fiercely loyal Republicans, who will stand by him regardless of what they think privately. And that insulates him. And he can basically control how he interacts with the news, rather than vice versa.

STELTER: Yes. For the past 10 years, presidents give this kind of fun pregame interview.

It got a little bit of attention that Trump was skipping it. Here is how Stephen Colbert played it on his show.


STEPHEN COLBERT, HOST, "THE LATE SHOW WITH STEPHEN COLBERT": It's also something of a tradition for the president of the United States to sit down for a big interview before the game.

But, this year, Donald Trump has opted out of the Super Bowl interview.

Mr. President, it's just the Super Bowl. It's not the NFL draft. You don't need to dodge it.


STELTER: All right, there we go. Pretty funny.

But now it's Sunday. People will barely notice that he's not there.

I mean, I wonder, Julian, what traditions matter more, for example, press conferences. We have not seen many -- really any solo press conferences by this president since this time last year.

That's a tradition that I think we should try to hold on to.

ZELIZER: I agree.

I do think there's a danger in this path that we're taking where President Trump is primarily accessible to the press that is sympathetic to him or accessible through his Twitter account.


ZELIZER: We need him accessible to the press that will press him, that will ask tough questions, that will come from a different political perspective. Otherwise, what we have is a presidential echo chamber.

STELTER: And we need that from other politicians as well, including from Democrats.

ZELIZER: Absolutely.

STELTER: We need to see them accessible to all.

I'm out of time.

Julian, thank you very much. David, thanks for being here.

Quick tease here for our Super Bowl podcast. If you're looking for pregame content, log on to for our podcast. We previewed the Super Bowl, but also looked back at a rough year for the NFL.

You can also sign up for our nightly newsletter at It will be out right after the big game tonight.

Fly, Eagles, fly.



STELTER: And finally this morning, a reminder.

The MeToo movement, the Times Up movement continues. And there are new stories still on a daily basis, more than four months after the first Harvey Weinstein revelations.

In this weekend's "New York Times," Uma Thurman adds her name, adds her story to the accounts of wrongdoing by Harvey Weinstein. He denies parts of her claims, but admits to trying to come on to Uma Thurman about 25 years ago. She says that he attacked her, not once, but twice.

Her disturbing account to Maureen Dowd just the latest example of the alleged wrongdoing by Weinstein.

We continue to see new stories on a daily basis. And it's so important for journalists not to drop this thread, not to let it go.

As Jodi Kantor of "The Times" wrote on Twitter, we may never know how many Harvey stories are out there, but journalists have to keep trying to find out.

We will see you next week.