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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES
NYT Editor: We Are Not The "Resistance"; CNN's Clarissa Ward Targeted By Russian Propaganda; First Look At Upcoming Global Disinformation Index Report; The Growing Disinformation Wars; Meet The Journalist Who Inspired The Great Hack; WOPO: Trump Hits 12,000 Lie Milestone. Aired 11a-12p ET
Aired August 18, 2019 - 11:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
[11:00:12] JOHN AVLON, CNN ANCHOR: Hey, I'm John Avlon, in for Brian Stelter. It's time for RELIABLE SOURCES, our weekly look at the story behind the story, of how the media really works, how the news gets made and how all of us can help make it better.
This hour, we're going to have a special focus. Welcome to the disinformation wars. How weaponized lies are being spread through social media with the goal of inflaming divisions and undermining not just the free press but democracy itself. We'll have an exclusive report on the massive disinformation economy with a quarter of a billion dollars being spent to put ads on Web sites devoted to fake news and hate news.
Also, CNN's own Clarissa Ward uncovered Putin's secret army and now she's the subject of a Russian disinformation campaign. We'll speak to her live.
And with 12,000 lies and misleading statements to date, Donald Trump hits a dark new milestone, raising new questions about how to deal with disinformation emanating from the Oval Office.
But, first, the right has long accused the media of bias, but now some on the left are echoing those accusations. Bernie Sanders lashing out at "The Washington Post," accusing the paper of taking orders from its own, Amazon owner Jeff Bezos. An adviser for Joe Biden slamming the press for covering Biden's gaffes, arguing that Trump has taken that issue off the table.
Now, this comes as tensions over coverage of Trump and race hit a fever pitch in "The New York Times" newsroom, with "Slate" publishing a full transcript of the paper's town hall this past week where "New York Times" executive editor Dean Baquet spoke out on covering the president, saying: This is hard stuff. We're covering a president who lies and says outlandish things, but our role is not to be the leader of the resistance.
With me to discuss is staff writer for "The Atlantic", Adam Serwer, syndicated columnist for "Roll Call", Mary Curtis, "New York Times" media columnist, Jim Rutenberg, and staff editor and writer for "The New York Times" opinion section, Bari Weiss, and her upcoming book, "How to Anti-Semitism", is out on September 10th.
Welcome to you all to RELIABLE SOURCES.
Jim, let's start with you. You cover media for "The New York Times". This resistance issue is not necessarily unique to "The Times," but does journalism need to update its approach to confront the unique challenge that Donald Trump presents?
JIM RUTENBERG, MEDIA COLUMNIST, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Well, yes and no. First, I'll start by quoting another executive editor at another newspaper whose transcripts are not out about their internal meeting, and that's Marty Baron who said, we're at work, not war.
RUTENBERG: And I've written about this a lot. And really, the truth is that the job doesn't change. It's being really aggressive about telling the truth.
The Trump administration, the Trump era forces us to be a little more aggressive than we used to be, because we are being met with so much to report, so much disinformation, so much misinformation, so much division, so much direct affronts to what we do as reporters.
AVLON: Adam, you've been tough on "The Times" with regard to their coverage of Trump and their reluctance to brand Trump as a racist, but do you think journalists risk playing into Trump's hands if they start acting like part of the opposition?
ADAM SERWER, STAFF WRITER, THE ATLANTIC: I mean, I don't think that should be a concern one way or the other. The question is whether or not they're describing things accurately. If the president tells a bunch of women of color to go back to the crime-infested places from which they came, that is a classic racist trope and should be described as such.
I don't think it's a question of -- you know, this argument over whether they should be the resistance is actually a sort of straw man distraction from what's actually happening, which is people demanding that "The Times" not moderate its coverage with elaborate euphemisms to describe things that can be described in more straightforward language.
AVLON: Elaborate euphemisms, I like that.
Bari, do you think there's a growing problem with what might be termed liberal intolerance or at least ideological rigidity in social media that's been reflected in newsrooms?
BARI WEISS, STAFF WRITER & EDITOR, NEW YORK TIMES OPINION: Yes, I mean, I think that Trump is the very, very obvious threat to the job that we're trying to do every day at places like "The New York Times," which is to tell the truth, to surface surprising stories, and to tell readers to basically be curators rather than almost like giving readers like a rat with a heroin pellet, like giving readers exactly what they want.
AVLON: I didn't see the rat with the heroin pellet -- (CROSSTALK)
WEISS: Well, I think about that a lot because in a certain sense Twitter and social media in general has become a bit -- like has become another incredible pressure source on news rooms. That happens in more banal ways, right? It happens in ways like, OK, Jeffrey Epstein is trending, we should get more op-eds on Jeffrey Epstein because readers are interested and they're going to do well, right?
But then it can become -- it becomes almost like an assigning editors, sometimes. And what I mean to say is we know that readers, our readers feel -- have very, very strong feelings about -- let me just take an example -- transgender athletes.
[11:05:01] We know they have very strong feelings and that creates incredible controversy. We need to be very careful about the right way to write about that as to not isolate our readers. So, as where once it was advertisers we feared angering, now it's readers.
And not only is it readers in general as an abstraction, you get the feedback from them immediately and right away. And that is an incredibly insidious threat, I think. Very different one from Trump, which is very blunt and obvious and blatant. But this one is, I think, more subtle.
Mary, you know, part of the conversation that Dean Baquet had was the importance of reaching out to achieve understanding. Donald Trump is supported by many, many people, and there's an obligation to try to reach out beyond our various echo chambers to achieve that understanding. I know that's been a core part of what you've done as a columnist.
Is that sufficient in these times when you're trying to build bridges or do you need to, as Adam says, just call it what it is and if that shuts off debate, so be it?
MARY C. CURTIS, COLUMNIST, ROLL CALL: Well, I agree with both of those things. You can call a thing a thing, as Adam said. There was a reluctance to call Trump's words racists until he used tropes that actually are textbooks examples of racism. Also, as you know, I have often reached out to different folks.
I did a narrative on Confederate heritage groups. I covered the first national Tea Party convention in Opryland and Glenn Beck's rally on the Mall, and met a lot of folks who, of course, their rhetoric was personally offensive to me in some ways but I wanted to meet them as human beings. I do think that's incredibly important.
But at the same time you shouldn't soft-soap what they're saying. You should quote them accurately, as Jim said, we have to keep doing our jobs as journalists. And so, I don't think it's basically getting into their heads and becoming empathetic so much as shining a light and seeing what it is they're saying. And then also we can reflect, I can, as a columnist on what their
rhetoric and their policies, and that includes the president, what effect that will have on all Americans. I do believe after Trump was elected when folks were saying it's economic anxiety and we bent off and looked for those examples of white folks who voted for him, that there was a reluctance to say underneath that may have been the resentment of a first black president. It may have been a certain tribalism and we're coming to that now.
CURTIS: So, I think we have to walk that line. Quote folks accurately. Take into consideration their concerns. But also, you know, every journalist frames their story.
We are not immune either. We bring our experiences as well. We have to be honest about that. Yes.
AVLON: Be balanced about that but also wise and not be distracted by convention.
CURTIS: Yes, don't be distracted by that and don't frame it in a way. Look at our own biases. I think we -- we can't basically dismiss all the concerns from the candidates that we may be biased. We should discern what it is -- what that kernel is that maybe we need to look ourselves.
AVLON: So, I want to get to that, and, Adam, I'll go to you because, you know, I think it was striking this week to see Bernie Sanders call out "The Washington Post," to see Joe Biden say -- his team say, look, this coverage of the gaffes is totally disproportionate given who the president is.
Is the left, do you think, sort of catching onto this accusation of bias we've seen from the right? Is it a sign of things to come? Is it warranted?
SERWER: No, I think these are two distinct lines of criticism. And I want to say I disagree with Biden and Sanders' assessment of press bias against them. I think Biden's error -- verbal errors, particularly if he keeps repeating them are newsworthy. I think that Sanders' accusation that the reporters at "The Post" are following Bezos' marching orders is baseless and he hasn't substantiated it.
At the same time, it is true that sometimes rich people buy papers and seek to influence coverage. It's not an unheard of thing. I think that, in general, the left has been critical of the media for a long time. But it's a criticism of emphasis, of framing and sometimes of facts.
What you see from the Trumpist right, as far as critiques of the media is an anger and frustration at the mainstream's press, unwillingness to necessarily create the same -- replicate the same alternate reality that Trump and his supporters live in verbatim in the way that Trump -- pro-Trump outlets do. And I think those are two different critiques, different in nature, different in substance. But I don't necessarily -- I wouldn't say that I agree with either Biden or Sanders' critiques in this particular instance.
AVLON: Interesting. So, what you're saying is asymmetric polarization applies to this as well.
Thank you all. Stick around.
I want to give one quick update before the break, because the White House is taking action against a reporter by officially suspending "Playboy" Correspondent, Brian Karem's hard pass for 30 days. Karem has appealed the decision, stating: I wasn't the first and I won't be the last.
Now, besides notification letter to Karem, who's also a CNN political analyst, White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham has remained silent.
[11:10:05] And a reminder, it has been 160 days since we've had a formal on-camera press briefing.
Up next, CNN's Chief International Correspondent, Clarissa Ward is being targeted by a Russian propaganda outfit for her months-long investigation uncovering Putin's private army in the Central African Republic. Clarissa joins us next and you don't want to miss this.
AVLON: Welcome back.
Now, CNN's Chief International Correspondent, Clarissa Ward is fresh off a stunning months-long investigation into Putin's private army in the Central African Republic. She's exposing Russia's multi-prong presence in the region, as well as links to Kremlin cronies.
Now, she clearly struck a nerve because a 15-minute video surfaced on a Russian propaganda site showing surveillance footage of Ward and her team.
Clarissa Ward joins me from Tehran where she is on assignment.
Clarissa, it is good to see you. And, first of all, congratulations on a truly investigative report.
You've covered some of the world's most dangerous conflicts, but is ever anything like this happened to you before? And did you feel in danger?
CLARISSA WARD, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Thank you, John, for having me on and for saying that about our investigation.
I have been to a lot of dangerous places. I have been the victim of propaganda and disinformation campaigns in the past. But this was certainly unique. This was a highly produced 15-minute video in which it was cleared that we were being followed.
[11:15:02] We were being filmed secretly. There were interviews with men in the Central African Republic, claiming that I had paid them hundreds of dollars to say bad things about Russians.
So, this is deeply disconcerting, particularly the fact that we were being followed. And while we were in the Central African Republic, the deeper we started to dig in, John, and as we went out to the area where the mines are to look at Russia presence in the diamond mines, we actually found ourselves being followed by a car full of white Russian males.
And that really was deeply disconcerting because it was just a year ago that three Russian journalists who were pursuing the same story about mercenary activity, Russian mercenary activity in the Central African Republican were actually ambushed and killed.
So, while this may have been just about intimidation, it certainly gave also us pause for thought and concern about our safety as well. And it hasn't stopped. I should add, John. Just today, another report from the same group surfaced, demanding that we admit to paying bribes and lying and threatening us with legal action in some countries if we do not do that, John.
AVLON: That's the way they play ball. Not the way we do.
But it's evidence of how close you cut to the bone of the Kremlin, particularly the funder known as Putin's chef, Yevgeny Prigozhin who is discovered funding -- is funding Putin's extra military unit in the Central African Republic, as well as Internet Research Agency for which he was sanctioned by the U.S.
Do you believe the chef is acting at Putin's behest?
WARD: I think broadly speaking, a lot of analysts would tell you that there's no way that Yevgeny Prigozhin could be doing what he's doing around the world without the direct blessing of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. And I think part of the reason that we struck such a nerve is that very few Western journalists have actually gone to the Central African Republic. This is an incredibly poor, war-torn nation that has largely been forgotten by the world's media.
And once we were there on the ground, we were able to see how it worked, John. Essentially, Prigozhin is sponsoring the mercenary muscle but he's also in charge of the company that is doing the mining in those diamond mines. And he's in charge of these -- you know, I wouldn't call them news sites but Web sites pumping out propaganda and particularly that pernicious smear campaign against us. So, clearly, we were talking about something they didn't want us to be talking about.
In terms of the direct relationship between Prigozhin and Putin, nobody knows exactly what the nature of that relationship is, but everybody agrees there's no way Prigozhin could be doing this without the blessing of the president.
AVLON: It's extraordinary to see you outline that closed loop between the business, the intimidation and the sites disseminating disinformation.
Clarissa Ward, thank you very much.
Now, when we come back, an exclusive report from the Global Disinformation Index about how advertisers are unwittingly bankrolling hate news and fake news sites. We'll take a look at the lucrative disinformation economy.
[11:21:36] AVLON: The disinformation economy is thriving. That's according to a new report exclusively obtained by CNN ahead of its September release from the global disinformation index. In a sweeping look at a nearly 20,000 domains suspected of misinforming the public, the report pegs revenue from problematic ads placed on these sites at a whopping $235 million annually. That's a quarter of a billion dollars at a conservative estimate.
The GDI called the tally just the tip of the iceberg.
Now, here's one example of what we might call a misplaced ad. A clothing label advertising next to an article about how chemtrails can, quote, infect men with homosexuality. Not a thing.
Another where a well-known insurer advertised on a 2016 article about a Sandy Hook conspiracy theory. That insurance company has broken ties with some lights on GDI's list.
And here to discuss the startling numbers is the chief technology officer of the Global Disinformation Index, Danny Rogers. And Matt Rivitz, founder of the Sleeping Giant campaign, knowing (ph) for alerting advertisers when their programmatic ads end up on extreme sites.
So, first, Danny, talk to us about the methodology a little bit. How are these numbers just the tip of the iceberg?
DANNY ROGERS, CHIEF TECHNOLOGY OFFICER, THE GLOBAL DISINFORMATION INDEX: So, we took our catalog of about 20,000 sites that we've collected that we assess having a risk of disinforming the public. Among those we took a sampling and measured a number of different aspects of those sites, including the traffic, the ad tech ecosystem elements in which -- with whom they interact and we tried to make as conservative an estimate as possible on things like how much money they make per visitor and what those traffic numbers --
AVLON: So, this is at least that number.
AVLON: And we should say some of the sites are outright fraudulent. Some are catering to the extremes and some ugliest elements of human nature and others label themselves as satire but they're trying to sort of skirt the rules.
ROGERS: Right, right. Some label it as satire because it lets them get away with, you know, sending toxic narratives and messages that they can say, oh, we're only kidding. But it's very clear they're not kidding or there's no way to tell the difference.
AVLON: It's fascinating.
AVLON: Matt, Breitbart traffic, which you've been directly involved with in trying to shine a light on their advertisers, has dropped significantly since 2016. Take a look at this. They really were enormously influential. They -- traffic has fallen off. That's in part because of the work y'all have done.
And that's not your word for it. That's Steve Bannon. Let's take a listen to what he said in a recent documentary.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
STEVE BANNON, FORMER WHITE HOUSE ADVISER: This group called Sleeping Giants, a group of tech executives, they literally stripped out -- they took the 35 exchanges that sell the ads, 31 went away. So, the ad revenues dropped like 90 percent.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AVLON: So, Matt, in your experience, how unwitting are advertisers when their ads are ending up on articles that they may want to have nothing to do with but they're, in fact, in effect, subsidizing?
MATT RIVITZ, FOUNDER, SLEEPING GIANTS: They're not -- they're not very aware at all, to be honest. When Sleeping Giants got started in 2016, it became really apparent right away that advertisers were not aware of showing up on the site next to articles like "Hoist It High and Proud: The Confederate Flag proclaims the glorious heritage."
We just let them know and they left. As Steve Bannon said they lost 90 percent of their ad revenue. We count 43 -- almost 4,300 advertisers have left publicly the site. So, basically, you know, Steve Bannon is telling the truth, if he is, is 90 percent of advertisers have left and they were pulling in $8 million of free cash flow a year from ads, from advertisers that didn't know they were on that site.
[11:25:11] So, that's showing you that something is really broken in ad tech.
AVLON: Well, and this is a really hydra-headed problem. So, I want to ask both of you, what do you I think the next steps are that the platforms need to take?
We'll start with you, Danny.
ROGERS: Yes. So, you know, it's partly the platforms and partly the advertisers themselves. They -- often as Matt said, they don't actually know where their ads are ending up in this programmatic world. And so, they really have to demand of the platforms more transparency and more ability to block those sites and block whatever it is they end up paying for, because these are the folks that pay for the Internet.
They have right now in this, you know, distributed ad tech ecosystem very little say over what they're paying for. I think given the choice, they would actively choose to not subsidize this kind of content, but right now, they don't have the choice.
AVLON: So, with great power comes great responsibility, as one said.
Matt, give me your concise solution to this problem. What do you think advertisers need to be doing and the platforms themselves?
RIVITZ: I think Danny's right. Some of it lies within ad tech and some lies within the customers that are buying the ads on the Internet.
Google and Facebook are, you know, two of the biggest players. They basically have a duopoly. There's no real impetus for them to change. They don't have any competition. There's no regulation.
So, even if something breaks there in terms of service, it's pretty clear they're not taking action and removing those sites from their ad network. So, it really becomes incumbent upon advertisers to do something about it. Unfortunately, they don't really have the tools at this point to deal with it. So, they end up unwittingly showing up not just once but sometimes twice and three times on these sites that they don't want to be on.
So, it really becomes down about advertisers looking -- for a long time, they viewed media as reaching frequency and now they have to view it with responsibility because it doesn't only make them look bad, but it's also bad for society if they're funding hate and disinformation and harassment.
AVLON: It's called enlightenment self-interest.
Danny Rogers and Matt Rivitz, thank you very much.
Now, coming up, Facebook is consolidating WhatsApp and Instagram. But have they made any changes to protect our privacy?
[11:30:00] AVLON: As we focus on the disinformation wars online, what our tech companies doing to contain the chaos? Now, this comes as a bombshell Wall Street Journal report reveals that major companies are avoiding posting ads to real news sites to avoid putting their products near controversial content by which they mean news.
With me to discuss is CNN's Donie O'Sullivan who specializes in technology and politics and CNN Senior Media Reporter Oliver Darcy. It's good to have you both here. Donie, I know you've been doing a lot of reporting on the disinformation to convey. I want to quickly get your take on that stunning quarter of a billion dollars report we just released exclusively from GDI. DONIE O'SULLIVAN, CNN REPORTER: You know, I think when we think about
disinformation, there are multiple factors that encourage it and are behind it. So we've spoken a lot the past few years about the political-ideological nation-state, what we saw with Russia posting disinformation.
What we haven't talked a lot about and which was referenced in the global disinformation report is the financial. There are people out there whether it's in Macedonia or in the Philippines or anywhere around the world who are running sites that are designed to look like U.S. news sites. They're not particularly interested in ideology either way but is purely for money.
And who's supporting that? I mean, they're not selling these ads themselves. It's Google. It's these big ad networks. Google has said they're cracking down on it but clearly they have not done a good enough job.
AVLON: Don't undercount the profit motive, absolutely. On the flip side to that is this new Wall Street Journal report, Oliver, because this shows that advertisers are blocking their advertising from digital campaigns and that number is going up -- grew 33 percent from just last year alone.
Take a look at the words they're blocking. One firm said that 500 brands blocked the word Trump, more than 300 brands blocked the word ISIS, more than 200 blocked the word Russia, and 83 blocked the word Obama. I mean, that's extraordinary. We're heading into an election here.
AVLON: And the implications downstream for quality news content are pretty serious.
OLIVER DARCY, CNN SENIOR MEDIA REPORTER: Politics are becoming very radioactive and branched. You know, as the country becomes more divided, they do not want to be associated, it seems like, with political news stories. So they are like you said blocking articles about Trump. They're also taking action against stories about mass shootings, things that can get brands in trouble.
And I think it's worrisome when you -- when you think about it on a larger scale as brand to losing money to Google into Facebook and they're already facing declining revenue. This makes even more difficult for them to sell ads to major companies who normally would spend a lot of money with them.
AVLON: The alternative is what the Romans once called bread and circuses. Speaking of circuses, let's talk about Congress and Facebook because two big stories out of Facebook this week. Bloomberg is saying that publishing an exclusive new -- explosive new report revealing Facebook has been paying hundreds of contractors to transcribe users voice calls from the messenger app while the Instagram fact-check announced it was going to let its users false information on the site to report that information. Donie, what took them so long here, man?
O'SULLIVAN: Look, I think what we see here is a trend with Facebook. When this story was broken by Sarah Frier at Bloomberg earlier this week, Facebook said, well, the users who were involved in this opted in. And then when Bloomberg poked a little further, they said, well, actually, we never mentioned that there was human reviewers of this content.
So always we see what Facebook -- I remember in the days leading up to Cambridge Analytical story, you know, we always hear from Facebook oh it's nothing, this is normal, standard industry practice and it's always a yes boss. And so I think as Mark Warner, Senator Mark Warner said this week, you know, what the companies are telling users that they are doing even if users read those terms and conditions, it's not always actually borne out in reality.
In fact, you know, users in this case, they read -- if they had read the terms and conditions, they would have said a machine-learning or you know, is translating this for you, you read that you don't think that there's going to be humans listening to any snippets of your audio whereas, in fact, they were.
DARCY: In addition to that too, if you look at it, Facebook says, or Facebook owns Instagram, Instagram says now that you can flag misinformation to them and they might take action to reduce how much it's circulated. What's interesting is that for months and months and months, not only have users been flagging this but media organizations like CNN have been flagging to Facebook that they have a problem with vaccine misinformation on their platform.
And still months later, after Facebook or Instagram says they've taken action or they're going to take action, if I search right now, I just did it before the show, if I search vaccines on Instagram search, I will be given and served pages that serve misinformation about vaccines.
They're not in showing us a human and health services pages about vaccines, they're showing us misinformation and it's dangerous. And Facebook and Instagram have said they're going to take action, months and months later, these billion-dollar companies have refused to do anything.
[11:35:28] AVLON: All right, Donie, Oliver, we're going to leave it there. But the theme is responsibility, folks, more responsibility. Thank you guys very much. Now, still ahead, with the great new documentary, The Big Hack is revealing the dark political power harnessed from people's personal information online. The reporter who uncovered the truth is going to join us next.
AVLON: 2016 campaign taught us a lot about the dangers of disinformation and how harnessing voter's personal information but not just target ads but intentionally undermine our ability to reason together. That's the focus of Netflix's popular new documentary, The Great Hack which focuses on how data company Cambridge Analytica access the personal information from upwards of 50 million Facebook users to benefit the Trump and Brexit campaigns.
Featured in the documentary is the journalist who broke the dam on the story and led to investigations that I'll play put Cambridge analytic out of business. Investigative Reporter and Writer for The Observer and Guardian Carole Cadwalladr. And I asked her earlier about how was she first dug into the story.
[11:40:04] CAROLE CADWALLADR, INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALIST: I think this sort of advance which I had was just having this different perspective on it. Because the people I was talking to right from the very start were saying well, this doesn't actually even sound illegal what they're doing with data in Britain.
And in fact, the very first big article that I wrote on Cambridge Analytica very early on -- this was at the beginning of 2017 -- it triggered these two major investigations both of which are still ongoing, and one of which became this -- it's the -- it's the biggest investigation in data protection investigation in the world. And we hope we're still going to -- this was -- this was the investigation that seized the servers from Cambridge Analytica's office and find Facebook its maximum ever fine.
AVLON: Now, one of the open questions speaking of an ongoing journey is we know the Mueller investigation interviewed people about Cambridge Analytica particularly Brittany Kaiser who had been a principal at the company and -- turned whistle-blower and is featured heavily in The Great Hack.
What was so striking to me is that Cambridge Analytica is not mentioned in the Mueller report. And do you based on your sourcing think that's because it's an ongoing investigation whether in counter- intel or some other place, or is it that they simply didn't find anything or chose not to pursue it because it was outside what Mueller defined as his purview in the investigation?
CADWALLADR: So it's just another ongoing mystery, isn't it? Does it form part of the counterintelligence aspect of the Mueller report which is you know, out of public sight? Is that the reason? Because it's not just that we know nothing about Cambridge Analytica from the report, we also know nothing about what actually happened on Facebook during the U.S. presidential election.
And that question about whether there was any overlap between the targeting that the Trump campaign was doing and the targeting that we know the Russian government was doing with its advertisements, that question has not been answered and it seems that that hasn't even really been asked in America yet.
This should be in public site. This is you know, it's of paramount public interest that that information is transparent and it's made public and it can be studied by academics and by forensic analysts.
AVLON: And we know also from The Great Hack that one of Cambridge Analytica's selling points was in a case study in the Trinidadian elections in which they sort of perfected the art of voter suppression through the creation of a third party movement not to vote. So I think as you look at patterns of trying to suppress votes, that was one of Cambridge Analytica's stated expertise.
CADWALLADR: Yes, and if -- I mean, I find that so fascinating. And we know, for example, we know that it was claimed that the Trump campaign was running three different voter suppression campaigns. And we know that were -- at least one of those was racially targeted.
AVLON: One thing that is definitely disturbing that you've experienced personally is the kind of threats and harassment that come to many reporters these days via online sources but you have experienced very personally and legally as a result of the investigative work you've done. And I want to give you a chance to tell folks about that.
CADWALLADR: There's a pattern of harassment that I've experienced now over two and a half years in trying to investigate and write about these subjects. And it has been difficult because it's very personal. It's directed at me. They found it very hard to attack my reporting because it's evidence-based and it's led to multiple legal investigations actually around the world.
One of the individuals who I've been reporting on for a long time who is a businessman in Britain who bankrolled the Brexit campaign who's been close to Trump, he's a man called Aaron Banks. The day after the trailer for The Great Hack was released, he filed formal legal proceedings against me in Britain over a line in a TED talk that I gave earlier this year.
I have very robust defenses, but the idea is to sort of tie me up in litigation for a year to make it more difficult for me to report upon him. And it's -- you know, it's not -- it's not just an attack upon me, it really is an attack upon journalism.
AVLON: There is much more to my full conversation with Carole Cadwalladr on this week's RELIABLE SOURCES podcast available on Apple podcasts, Stitcher, TuneIn, or your pod app of choice. And when we come back, Trump hits another milestone. How should journalists cover a president who consistently lies?
[11:45:00] AVLON: Now, this week, President Trump passed a milestone with more than 12,000 lies and falsehoods during his presidency to date according to the Washington Post. Now, for those of you keeping score at home, that translates to about more than 20 a day. It's a reminder we live in unprecedented times with a unique challenge for the press corps. How do you fairly cover a president who lies all the time?
He famously twisted the term fake news and has deployed it more than 400 times on Twitter since taking office. That's more than times that he tweeted the words freedom or the Constitution, people, seriously and literally.
So as we approach another election, journalists are faced with pressing questions. How do you cover the blizzard of lies without amplifying misinformation, or if we ignore the lies do we risk normalizing them. That's what I want to talk to our next panel about. We've got a great one for you. Catherine Rampell is joining us from the Washington Post, Jim Rutenberg and Bari Weiss join us again.
Catherine, we'll start with you. This week, the president falsely accused the media of trying to crash the economy. Now, he keeps obviously trying to put the role in the press the role of opposition. How do we avoid taking the bait while at the same time confronting him for lies?
[11:50:12] CATHERINE RAMPELL, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: So I think it's interesting. When the economic numbers were good and Obama was in office, they were fake. Then when Trump inherited the exact same economic numbers, they were real.
And now that they're turning south, they might be fake again because the media is you know, fabricating them or economists are lined up against him, or maybe nine economies worldwide that are in recession or tipping into recession, you know, it's all made up still make Trump look bad.
And it's quite challenging. You know, as someone who has debated Trump surrogates including on this network, I can speak personally, attest personally to the challenge of figuring out do you let every single falsehood go by, do you do you challenge all of them, or do you let the other side control the narrative by having to sort of fact check in real-time. It's quite challenging.
As a journalist, I think the best we can do is go out there and say what the truth is. And when it's relevant to fact check in real-time do it, but otherwise, tell Americans what the real story is.
AVLON: But Jim, I mean that really is kind of the crux of the debate, and you're working on book writ large on this subject right now. Do we spend all our time fact-checking a president who lies 20 times a day or -- and does that in effect make -- as Jack Shafer from Politico said, the president the assignment editor for newsrooms across the nation.
RUTENBERG: Well, unfortunately in a way it can, but you know, we're lucky enough and unfortunately not everyone else is in terms of size of our staff, we can walk and chew gum at the same time. Now the industry is changing, a lot of newspapers are losing staff, and you know there's a resource issue for sure.
But what we can't do is ignore misinformation. That's our most fundamental job and it's the most basic thing we do is separate fact from fiction. That's the job. So when we start making decisions that sort of how is this going to affect the president, our relationship with the president, then we're being sucked into a more political debate. But the flip side of that is do people start turning us off while
we're constantly arguing with him, a certain segment of the population. So it can't be argumentative, that tone is really important.
AVLON: So Bari, I mean how do you walk that line and what's the -- what's the line in particular of not normalizing lies through repetition because they do provide a degree of amplification by the President of the United States.
WEISS: Right. I think a huge part of it is you just said before is not letting Trump be the assignment editor, right. One of the huge stories this week was the fact that Benjamin Netanyahu decided to bar the entry of two Democratic members of Congress Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib from entering Israel based on Trump's bullying him into that position. He reversed course.
Now, that's a huge story, one that I wrote a column about. But another huge story, one that has not been covered by any mainstream paper network is the fact that their trip to Israel or as they called it Palestine was being sponsored by a group that literally published neo-Nazi blood libels and said that it supported female suicide bombers, you know, hailing them as heroes. That's a scandal.
If someone like Steve King was going to Sweden or Norway and meeting with neo-Nazi groups, that would be front-page news. One of the questions I think we need to ask is the fact that Trump has you know, lodged racist, horrible attacks on these women has that made them sort of untouchable for us to cover in an accurate way.
I think that's one of the problems of this moment that it's very hard to cover sort of complicated characters and stories like them because the president, everything he touches becomes toxic.
AVLON: And yet that's our job, Catherine. I mean, you deal with the economy. There's not much more that's complex than that, just asserting the facts and trying to keep a sense of the broader waterfront of stories so that we keep things in context to retain our credibility. Is that credibility more important? Is that the most important asset we've got? Quickly.
RAMPELL: Yes. I think the way you get the American people to trust you is by sticking to the facts, calling him as you see him, and you know, telling the American people when the President is lying and when it's irrelevant that he's lying and just you know, what the broader picture is.
AVLON: All right, I want to thank you all for joining us today on RELIABLE SOURCES. All right, now, be sure to check out Bari's upcoming book How to Fight Anti-Semitism out September 10th. And now before we go, my take on being fearless and fair in the Trump era after this.
[11:55:00] AVLON: There's been a lot of debate lately about the proper role for journalists as we all head into an election. We know the disinformation campaigns we saw in 2016 were just the beginning. We know that sources of this disinformation will be foreign and domestic. And we know that they will try to divide Americans into warring tribes while attempting to undermine not just trust, but truth itself.
The Russian exile Garry Kasparov once said, the point of modern propaganda isn't only to misinform or push an agenda, it is to exhaust your critical thinking to annihilate truth. Those are the stakes. And against that backdrop, it's easy to understand why powerful interests including the President, as well as social media mobs on the right and left try to destroy the credibility of the free and independent press.
We can't let them and we shouldn't help them. Because the job of the press is not to be the resistance to any particular president, the job of the press is to be the resistance to lies. It means being the defender of truth, insisting that facts matter and context is crucial. It shouldn't be a partisan issue. And if it is, that says more about our critics than ourselves.
The ideal of perfect objectivity may be elusive and sometimes insufficient. We cannot, of course, be stenographers to people in power. But we also can't give up the goal of fairness, empathy, admit of fact-based debate, reporting without fear or favor. I still believe that we'll look back on this is one of the best times to be a journalist, not because it was easy, but because it was hard, and our mission is clear.
That's all for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm John Avalon. Brian will be back from paternity leave next week. And don't forget tonight at 9:00 p.m., our original series of "The Movies" concludes with the early years of cinema, from Casablanca, Citizen Kane, to King Kong. So don't forget to check that one out and we'll see you here next week.