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Reliable Sources

TV's Real-Life Courtroom Drama; Putting TV News on the Couch

Aired April 27, 2014 - 11:00   ET


BRIAN STELTER, CNN HOST: Good morning. And thank you for tuning for RELIABLE SOURCES today. I'm Brian Stelter, coming to you from New York this week.

And this morning, I have a rare and fascinating interview with a stark prediction about our media future. Maybe even our future as a country.

The interview is with Barry Diller, a billionaire and a visionary. He co-founded the FOX Broadcast Network and now, he's the chairman of the IAC, which controls companies like, "The Daily Beast" and so on and so on.

He also has what, for him, is a relatively small investment in a start-up called Aereo. It's a company that uses thousands of old- fashioned antennas to transmit local TV stations via the Internet. In some markets, you can sign up for just 8 bucks a month.

Now, you don't get cable channels, but you do get the big broadcast networks, and that's why those networks want to kill Aereo.

This week, they brought their case against the company to the Supreme Court. Now, as I mentioned here last week, Time Warner, which is the parent of CNN, is not part of the lawsuit, but it is supporting the broadcasters in an effort against Aereo.

I was in Washington for the arguments. It was my first time in the Supreme Court building and it was even more majestic than I imagined. It turns out, it was actually Barry Diller's first time there, too. Afterward, he did not speak to the press. So, what you're about to see is his first and only interview about the hearing.

We started out talking about the last time a major media case came before the Supreme Court. It was the Betamax case 30 years ago which turned out to be a landmark Supreme Court decision that changed our lives by making it legal to record TV programs at home.

I want you to listen to what Diller has to say about how this case could affect all of us, too.


BARRY DILLER, CO-FOUNDER OF THE FOX BROADCASTING COMPANY: I always thought that Aereo very, very much was simply a technological update to the Betamax case which is why I think the most interesting way to look at Aereo is to look back and say, what if what happened instead, what if they had shut it down? What would our life be like without a video -- what would our television and communications be like without the videotape recorder --


DILLER: -- or the DVR or all the technology that followed that?

STELTER: I know they'd watch a lot less TV --


DILLER: What if that had been shut down? It's almost like saying, when we think about these things we think, well, what if there was no telephone? What if they never did that thing? In this case, what if -- you just can't conceive of it. What if the telephone one day in its early development, they said, I can't do this?

I mean, you can't even conceive of what life would be when you look back that far and say, well, the Supreme Court could have relatively easily, certainly every vested interest at the time wanted to stop it. All of the content owners said, how dare you think you can record our program and not pay us every time?

So, they could have said no. Well, they didn't. Progress happened. I believe and I've got an ax to grind, of course, but I believe that Aereo is the same thing. If they stop it, which they very well may, then I don't think it's the end of any world because we'll probably not really know because you can't put yourself 20 years -- you can't make that leap on a maybe-kind of.

But what I think will happen is if it's stopped, it will have profound effects on the development of technology.

STELTER: Not the end of the world but very troubling.

DILLER: Well, yes, not -- look, Aereo as a financial issue for my company is meaningless. I mean, we don't have a very big investment. We're a minority shareholder. It is -- it is possibly an alternative to a completely closed system, and I like that. I've always liked that in my life.

STELTER: So, if Aereo wins, you don't think it would --

DILLER: That's why I started FOX broadcasting, as I said, I'd like an alternative to the three networks.

STELTER: If Aereo wins, you don't think it would hurt the broadcasters?

DILLER: Well, let me say it this way, I think -- Aereo will not hurt the broadcasters for sure. What may happen, though, is that other people will find other methodologies separate from Aereo or using Aereo as a license or something like that, but they'll find other things to essentially go direct to the consumers based upon the consumers' right to receive three broadcast television without paying a toll, which is their right.

I mean, you know, Congress can change the law, and what maddens about all and all this reportage I think they've just been dopey because the essence of it is that Aereo is essentially simply an antenna device that replaces technologically what you used to have to do to go up to your rooftop and erect an antenna. Now, what the media reportage has been that Aereo is a gimmick.

Judge Rogers asked a question, which was -- you're only doing this to get around the copyright laws?

STELTER: Yes, I scribbled that quote down. Was he wrong about that?

DILLER: No, the truth is not only is he wrong, it is -- what we are doing is complying with the law. So rather than saying it's a gimmick, what we did is constructed a technological advance within law as we understood it. I accept the free over the air broadcasting, the quid pro quo, that broadcasters got for getting a free spectrum, which the public own. And up until technology came along, there was no issue with that because that was the only way you could get it.

Cable comes along, all these things come along, all the interests get involved, all this stuff happens, must carry happens, (INAUDIBLE) -- I'm not going to try to define that for your audience, but all these things happen, right? But the one fundamental broadcasting since the very beginning is if you can get -- if you can put your finger out there and you are insight of a transmitter, you can get that programming free, right?

Now, since people did not think at the time I think they wrote these rules that, in fact, people would construct themselves out of used scrap and wires and antenna. They would actually go to a store, buy the antenna, have somebody put it up, service it, whatever, renew it, whatever, right?

So, at the time, people could have said, well, that profit must be the profit in there or you wouldn't provide a service. That belongs to the broadcaster? That belongs to the programming? Well, that's absurd.

Well, that's all Aereo is, a technological update to -- and a clever one. To me without question, it's clever. And its technology is quite sophisticated. That does exactly that.

STELTER: Some of the people covering this story are working for companies that are suing Aereo. They are suing the company.

DILLER: Yes, yes, yes.

STELTER: Do you think that affects some of the coverage?

STELTER: All the coverage was about the questions the judges asked, not about any of the answers given.

I think that to concentrate on the questions rather than answer, what does that do? Since all the questions are asked, any question is asked skeptically, skeptically.


DILLER: You were there, right?


DILLER: The questions to the broadcaster were skeptical.

STELTER: They're very tough.

DILLER: The questions to Aereo were skeptical.

STELTER: thought they were a little tougher on Aereo, though. What did you think?

DILLER: No, I didn't think so. I mean, I didn't. And again, I'm not objective. But I tried --

STELTER: Did you leave?

DILLER: -- sitting there to listen there. I left saying that again I have an ax, but I tried very hard to say don't apply your ax, just listen and see what you get.

STELTER: Did you leave more or less confidence --


STELTER: -- about Aereo winning?

DILLER: By the way, it means nothing.

STELTER: Why is that?

DILLER: Because nobody knows, you know? You can do all the gaming and people have done it. I've read --

STELTER: You've always said there's no plan B. If Aereo loses in Supreme Court, it's over.


STELTER: Do you think it will lose?

DILLER: I think there's a 50 percent chance it will lose, of course. Yes. Always I thought that. But I think it's -- I did not think that it would become this important a moment in the world of technology.

STELTER: Yes, all of the reporting presented it as Aereo, this case may change the way we watch TV. Now, I don't know, maybe that's overstating that.

DILLER: It's not going to change -- you know, when you say change the way we watch TV -- Aereo, if it's successful together with other services, may change and give competition to the closed system of satellite or cable. That's what it may do.


STELTER: Now, all that's left is for the Supreme Court justices to rule, and they're expected to do so in this case in the early summer.

I need to get to a commercial here, but in just a moment, we're going to talk about this time of day, Sunday mornings. It seems like there's always drama on TV. Is Sunday morning just supposed to be more calm, more rational? Well, it turns out there's new drama involving NBC's "Meet the Press." I'll tell you all about it right after this break.


STELTER: Welcome back. Hope you're having a good Sunday morning.

And I want to talk about Sunday morning television here. You know, in TV, when the ratings go down, tensions go up. And sometimes, TV executives hit the panic button.

With my next two guests, I want to discuss what the panic button sometimes looks like.

But first a little history about a historic program "Meet the Press." In the years since Tim Russert died, "Meet the Press" has fallen from first place to third place in the Sunday morning public affairs show ratings. There are a lot of reasons for that. Russert's successor, David Gregory, has gotten the blame for it.

So, what does NBC have been doing it? Well, here's how "The Washington Post's" Al Farhi reported this week. "Last year, the network undertook an unusual assessment of the 43-year-old journalist, commissioned a psychological consultant to interview his friends and even his wife. The idea, according to a network spokeswoman, Meghan Pianta, was to get perspective and insight from people who know him best."

The spokesman then said the story was wrong. "Meet the Press" has brought in a brand consultant, not a psychological one.

Then, in a radio interview on Friday, Gregory said the psychological party was utter fiction.

So, what's true here? Well, according to Lloyd Grove, who wrote about this for "The Daily Beast", the consultant does branding work but has an advanced degree in psychology. So that explains that.

But let's get to the bigger point here. At home, you might be wondering what does a news division like NBC doing studying David Gregory's brand? What this got to do with journalism?

Well, more than you think. I want to peel back the curtain here with two men who know exactly how this works. In Los Angeles, the president of Magid Generational Strategies, Jack MacKenzie, and here in New York, Andrew Heyward, former president of CBS News.

Gentlemen, thank you both for joining me.



STELTER: Jack, tell me how common the use of consultants is in television news?

MACKENZIE: Well, television is a difficult business. It's a challenging business. I thought it was interesting you said when ratings go down, tensions go up. Let me tell you that tensions are higher every single day, and whether you're in first place or third place, there are tensions.

It's a large industry. It's a large industry that serves an important purpose, both in notifying the public of what's going on in their society, but it's also a big business.

STELTER: The way you say it to "The Daily Beast" this week, about -- David Gregory, you said, if you can get more information about how David can be a better David, that makes sense.

MACKENZIE: Well, it's one of the many challenges to anyone on television. Television is a personal media done in a very impersonal way.

STELTER: You can say that again.


MACKENZIE: They're all sitting in studios -- Brian, when you got this job, they probably said, Brian, just be yourself, right? Well, that's a hard thing to do with lights in your face and makeup on your face and having to think fast in essentially a live environment.

STELTER: Andrew, you now are consulted as well. You help media companies understand digital media, how to get ahead about all the changes that are happening in the digital age. But tell me about your time at CBS News, how did you employ consultants? What did they do and what did they bring to the table?

HEYWARD: Well, in our case, we really didn't. CBS News is not a company that uses consultants very much at all. I didn't see a single one in about my almost 25 years there.

But that's not to say I don't think they have a role. I think television news is a mix of artifice and authenticity. We're wearing make up now in an attempt to make us look more natural. I hope it's working.

STELTER: It's working, Andrew. It's working.

HEYWARD: Too much makeup would make us look ghoulish. I think the same goes with too much consulting. And I know that my friend in Los Angeles, Jack, would agree.

The very best things we've seen on TV are not consultant-driven. Take a look at CBS "Sunday Morning", for example. I don't think a consultant would approve of a program that's slow-paced with highfalutin story selection, very sophisticated writing. Yet it's an enormous hit --

STELTER: Highest rated show on Sunday morning television.

HEYWARD: That's right. And yet, it defies the conventional wisdom. So, there's good consulting and bad consulting. Good consultants can help with strategy. Bad consultants just promote sameness.

There was a period when local news or local newscast looked the same. It's still a problem, and a lot of people blamed consultants for that. When you see reporters waving their hands all the time and try to look animated, that could be a consultant's fault.

STELTER: Can you understand why some journalists might uncomfortable, or get sensitive about the use of consultants like that?

HEYWARD: I think, in its purest form, you wouldn't even look at ratings, right? You would just do what you think is important and look at no feedback whatsoever. I think what Jack is saying makes perfect sense, which is to know the context is valuable, but ultimately you have to rely on your journalistic judgment and how you serve the public. It's a tool. If it's overused, then it can be abused.

STELTER: And I've had source at NBC this week say to me, there's false piety around this subject. People might want to pretend like this doesn't happen, pretend like it's not a business, pretend the brand marketers and brand consultants aren't involved, but they are. They are across the board and that's a reality that, you know, viewers might not be aware of, but maybe should be, maybe it helps to be aware of those factors.

HEYWARD: I -- you know, listen, I don't think we should overstate it. I think the best things we see in television news and I know Jack would agree are not because consultants are prescribing what to do, it's because men and women of experience are doing good programming.

STELTER: Let's take this case to David Gregory, though. To interview his wife, even, is that even that something that would actually help a network figure out how to brand or marketers show like "Meet the Press"?

MACKENZIE: What it says to me is that NBC is serious about helping one of their franchises. And anything that they can do to help a franchise, as important to our society as "Meet the Press", and as someone who is a smart and dedicated as David Gregory, then I hope that it helped.

STELTER: Tom Brokaw addressed that in an interview with "Politico". "Politico" wrote a story this week about these Sunday shows. Let me read the quote. He said, he's talking about the network Sunday shows. "It remained a very important four hours of television, but I long for more imagination, new voices and more outside looking in." He concluded with this, "New voices and bold choices."

That tension you're describing between doing something that Brokaw is hoping for, versus keeping the viewers already there and seemingly satisfied with what they're seeing is the overarching tension on television in general, not just on Sunday mornings. Is that right, Jack?

MACKENZIE: Yes, Tom Brokaw sounds like the consultant you were talking about earlier. Hey, listen, the biggest challenge of any business is to innovate while protecting the business that they have. And we are at a unique time in the media industry in which that unique audience that they have is aging and that is just a sign of our times.

HEYWARD: Brian, just to add to that, I agree. But news is different from entertainment. Entertainment thrives on the next fresh, wonderful, shiny thing. News franchises are designed to be durable. In fact, they grow with strength and time.

So, taking a franchise like these Sunday programs, that's very durable and tinkering with it is different from starting a program like "Survivor" or "CSI" or even changing the host on a late night entertainment show. They are really built on familiarity and comfort. As you pointed out, Bob Schieffer is the king of the hill right now.

STELTER: I'm going to steal a word from earlier, illuminating. I think this is a very illuminating conversation and I thank you both for joining me -- Jack MacKenzie, Andrew Heyward.

HEYWARD: Thanks very much.

MACKENZIE: Thanks, Brian.

STELTER: Two more notes, by the way, about the network Sunday morning shows. Amid all the media coverage about David Gregory this week, the president of NBC News came out and publicly reaffirmed her support and NBC's support for him. He's not going anywhere any time soon.

And neither will is ABC rival George Stephanopoulos. On Thursday, Stephanopoulos renewed his contract at ABC and you can read about that on our RELIABLE SOURCES blog on

I've got to squeeze in a break here.

But coming up, the risks and rewards of tornado-chasing. I went out on assignment with "The New York Times" a few years ago with chasers, so I think I can reliably say, these people are a little crazy. And I'm about to talk to one of them. He's from the Weather Channel, and he's going back out to the storm zone this weekend. You'll want to hear what he has to say about how his job works.

So, stay tuned.


STELTER: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Brian Stelter.

What I'm about to show you is a tornado that stretched across more area than any other, the widest in recorded history. It was the El Reno, Oklahoma tornado on May 1st of last year. It measured over 2.6 miles across, 25 people died in that storm that day, including four storm chasers. Many others were injured.

Among them, a team from the Weather Channel. As the storm approached, their truck was caught right in the middle. They tumbled hundreds of yards into a field, destroying the vehicle and injuring the passengers.

One of them was Mike Bettes, veteran meteorologist and storm chaser. He was also newly married at the time. He did an interview soon after it happened. Watch.


REPORTER: What is it that you thought about when you were up there?

MIKE BETTES, WEATHER CHANNEL: I just saw my wife's face, and I thought, you know, that's -- you know, that's my life and I don't want to give that up just yet. And thankfully I don't have to.


STELTER: Well, now, spring is here again. So, another tornado season is upon us. And the Weather Channel has a new truck. Mike Bettes is going back out chasing this weekend for the first time since El Reno.

Now, I'm a weather geek, so I get glued to this stuff whenever it's on TV. But a lot of people, I think maybe including me, think he's crazy to go out there doing this.

So, let's talk to him about that.

Mike, thanks for joining me.

BETTES: Hey. Good to see you, Brian.

STELTER: You, too. After what happened last year, what are your feeling as you go back out today?

BETTES: You know, the plan is to be back out there again. I was one of those people that was very skeptical afterwards whether I go back out again or not. I think I'd be regretting the decision if I didn't go back out this year.

STELTER: What are the purposes of live tornado tracking on TV? Because I remember when I got to meet you was the day after the devastating tornado in Joplin, Missouri, you were one of the first reporters on the scene because you were tracking that storm when it happened. When we talked the next day, you said part of the purpose of this coverage is to entertain. The other part is to inform.

Is that fair, that there's this balance between both?

BETTES: Well, I think there is a balance between both. There are so many people out there that are weather enthusiasts, weather is their hobby, and they enjoy seeing what Mother Nature can do. A lot of the feedback we've gotten from our time out in the field is people are learning a lot from what we do out there. They're learning about the structure of storms, they're learning how tornadoes form, how they move.

Even though nature can be erratic, I think you can learn a lot from actually seeing them and witnessing them on TV. I think one of the big purposes for us being out there is giving ground truth to what National Weather Service meteorologists see on radar.

STELTER: I do agree with you on that, showing live picture of tornadoes, which we've seen quite a few times in recent years, does make people more aware of it. They do take the threat more seriously when they can see the pictures.

BETTES: It's been proven in studies. I mean, I've talked to psychologists who have interviewed people after tornadoes and said, I didn't think it was going to happen to me. Nothing ever happens to you in a tornado, sirens go off all the time. I think there is that cry wolf syndrome almost because a lot of times now when people get the tornado warning, the first thing they want to do is they want to run out to the front door, open the door and see if they can see it. And if they can see it, they believe it.

And I think for us, if we can show them that tornado and they can believe it and they go and they take their family and their kids to the basement and they're safe, that's exactly what we're looking for.

STELTER: Here's the thing, though, you were right on the tail of that tornado in Joplin, you were caught up in the El Reno tornado. Have you taken too many risks in the past?

BETTES: Well, I think there's -- listen, there is an inherent danger in being out there and observing severe weather. There just is a risk no matter how safe you are. You know, I think that there are times, at least in the El Reno tornado in particular last year, where we were actually broadcasting that tornado, Brian, and against all instincts that I have as a broadcaster, when we had this big, massive tornado, the biggest I had ever seen...


BETTES: ... I said, we can't -- we have to stop broadcasting. I wanted to keep broadcasting, but the meteorologist in me said, let's get our crew back in our cars and let's try to get away from this. We just didn't have enough time. And as we tried to get away from it, it expanded, as you mentioned, over 2.5 miles wide. It accelerated towards us.

It intensified and eventually caught us. Thankfully, we were able to walk away from it, but I think lesson learned for a lot of chasers that day that ended up being probably in a tighter situation than they would have anticipated, us included.

STELTER: How does your wife feel about you going back out? I went and covered Hurricane Sandy, like so many reporters a couple years ago, and my wife was not very pleased that I was not at home with her when that storm was hitting the Mid-Atlantic.

I don't know if she would let me go tornado chasing. What did you and your wife talk about before deciding to go back out this year?

BETTES: Brian, it's a very interesting dynamic in my family, because my wife is also a meteorologist, and we have chased before.

And she was none too happy, trust me. She was none too happy that it happened, but she understands. She understands that tornadoes are in my blood, and this is what I do.

STELTER: But, seriously, how did you convince your wife that this was acceptable again? Did she really -- is she really OK with it?

BETTES: She is.

I think she realized that day there were a lot of things at play that caused our accident to happen, and things that we are taking extra precautions this year to make sure things don't happen again. And our crew -- we have our same crew together this year that we have had together for the past six years.

So, that familiarity, having the same crew together, making sure that safety is first and foremost and broadcasting is secondary, I think that is really what's going to keep us out of harm's way this year and still be a great experience on TV, but we need to lead by example. And I think this year, that is the number one priority, lead by example and be safe.

STELTER: Mike Bettes, stay safe and thanks for joining me.

BETTES: Thanks, Brian.

STELTER: I think, as long as we keep watching, people like Mike will still be out there chasing.

Time for a break here, but when I come back, it's time for "Red News/Blue News." And I have got two words for you, Cliven Bundy, and two more, media circus. I will try to sort it all out right after this. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STELTER: Welcome back.

It is time again for my regular feature "Red News/Blue News," in which I analyze how the partisan media, those on the right and on the left, tell the same story in remarkably different ways.

And today, this is the Cliven Bundy story. This was red news until it suddenly turned into blue news. Let me explain what I mean. Bundy is the Nevada rancher at the center of a culture war which very briefly seemed it was going to turn into a real-life range war.

You probably know the story by now. Bundy's cattle graze on government land, but since he has refused to pay his grazing taxes, federal agents came to his ranch earlier in the month to seize his cattle. They came armed and so did Bundy's supporters.

Depending on your media source, Bundy was either an American patriot fighting for his rights or a lawbreaker who he should either pay up or go to jail. Two pretty different stories.

On the left, MSNBC did pay some attention to this story early on.

Here's Chris Hayes trying to put it into context.


CHRIS HAYES, MSNBC: People who break or are suspected of breaking the law find themselves staring at armed law enforcement officials every single day in this country.

But the better question is, I think, when is it that people take up arms against the state and federal governments, point their weapons at federal agents, and face no consequence for it?


STELTER: So, that's some blue news, but for the most part, this was red news, the focus of the right, with FOX News host Sean Hannity leading the way.

Here he is interviewing Bundy on April 9.


SEAN HANNITY, HOST, "HANNITY": You talked about a range war with the federal government. There's a lot of people out there, now that they're taking your cattle, that are fearful that this is another Waco situation. Ruby Ridge has come up in some articles.

What do you mean by range war? How far are you willing to take this?

(END VIDEO CLIP) STELTER: And again a week later, after the government surrendered -- that's Hannity's word -- Hannity kept bringing up worst-case scenarios about what might happen to Bundy in the future.


HANNITY: What would happen, God forbid -- we saw the raid, for example, back with Elian Gonzalez. I'm not sure if you remember that raid.

What would happen if they came in the early morning hours one day to your ranch?


STELTER: For Hannity, this was not just a news story. This was part of a narrative. Here. Watch this. see what I mean.


HANNITY: I have got to be honest. I'm worried about the encroachment of our federal government that spies us -- on Americans illegally. We now know we have an IRS that harasses, intimidates, tries to silence opposition voices.

I'm worried about the lies that are told to us about the NSA, about the IRS, about what happened in Benghazi, and the lies that sold health care.


STELTER: So that's Hannity's narrative.

But others on FOX were not so quick to embrace Bundy. And some conservative bloggers were skeptical all along. On Thursday, they were the people saying, I told you so. That's the day "The New York Times" published those quotes you have seen all over the place, quotes that show Bundy's backwards, racist attitudes.

The red news was over. Now this was blue news. FOX News instantly cut back on the number of stories it aired about Bundy. MSNBC ratcheted it up.

This is what Matt Lewis, a writer I really like at the conservative Daily Caller Web site, calls the boomerang part of the story. That was my attempt at a boomerang. Right-leaning outlets rally around someone, like Donald Trump, for example. Then that someone says something basically indefensible, and then left-leaning outlets seize on the story.

Let's not forget CNN's role in all of this either. Bundy became a big story on CNN toward the end of the week, partly because he agreed to come on the channel several times for interviews. And those interviews breathed new life into the controversy.

By then, of course, FOX had already moved on to another land dispute, this one in Texas. They were continuing to talk about government overreach, but not about Bundy.

Now, I can't believe I'm about to say this, but maybe more people should have listened to one of those boomerangs I mentioned, Mr. Trump. Here's what happened on April 16, when Hannity asked Trump about the rancher.


DONALD TRUMP, CHAIRMAN & CEO, TRUMP HOTELS & CASINO RESORTS: You do have a certain law, you know. I mean, you have it all throughout the United States, and they pay their fees and they pay all sorts of grazing fees and things that I'm not so accustomed to.

You know, if I were Cliven -- and I like him. I like his spirit, his spunk, and I like the people that they're so loyal.

HANNITY: I do too.

TRUMP: I do like him. I respect him.

He ought to go and cut a good deal right now. That's the best thing that could happen for everybody.


STELTER: Donald Trump, voice of wisdom, that's how strange this story got.

Let me know what you think of it and the rest of the program today. Look me up on Twitter and Facebook. My username is Brian Stelter. And I love your feedback. I think it makes the show better every week.

And speaking of all that feedback, we got a lot of it last week about an interview on this program that caused, well, all hell to break loose, among media bloggers. There were conspiracy theories. And I'm going to try to clear it all up right after this.


STELTER: Last week on this program, former CBS News investigative correspondent Sharyl Attkisson made some rather disturbing charges.

First, she claimed that some of her managers back at CBS were biased and that they blocked stories that she tried to do that were critical of the Obama administration.

And then she made another pretty strong accusation. It was against a group that you may not be familiar with. It's called Media Matters. The group polices television news and the Web, looking for conservative bias. And people like me get alerts from Media Matters whenever they think they have found it.

There are similar groups watching for liberal bias. And there are dozens of other political groups that try to influence the media in all sorts of ways. But how successful are they? How much do groups like Media Matters influence the news you watch and read?

That's what I want to talk about this morning, starting with what Sharyl Attkisson said last week, because Media Matters, they name names whenever they think they see something outrageous. And then they try to poke holes in stories, including in some of Attkisson's.

Listen to what she told me last week.


SHARYL ATTKISSON, JOURNALIST: And I certainly was friendly with them as anybody. Good information can come from any source. But when I persisted with Fast and Furious and some of the green energy stories I was doing, I clearly at some point became a target, that they -- you know, I don't know if someone paid them to do it or if they took it on their own. But they were very much...

STELTER: Do you think that's possible that someone paid them?

ATTKISSON: Well, they get contributions from -- yes, they get contributions from...

STELTER: But specifically to target you?

ATTKISSON: Perhaps. Sure. I think that's what some of these groups do, absolutely.


STELTER: "I don't know if someone paid them to do it." That's the key quote.

Those comments were picked up right away by blogs last Sunday. They were also rebuked right away by Media Matters. And the whole thing was still being talked about four days later.

There was another eyebrow-raising thing that Attkisson said to me last week. And it was this: "They used to work with me on stories."

To some on the right, this was proof of a conspiracy, of Media Matters being involved in the production of news. It triggered headlines to that effect on blogs all over the Web.

So what does Media Matters really do, and what do they not do?

Joining me now in San Francisco is the founder of the organization, David Brock.

David, thank you for coming on.


STELTER: Does Media Matters ever receive donations, and then explicitly target a single individual because of that donation?

BROCK: No, we don't do that. We have never done that.

Our donors are funding us because they want an honest discourse. They want fact-based journalism and they want some pushback on all the conservative misinformation in the media.

She came on, obviously made a sensational charge that's not true. But if people knew a little bit about how we worked -- I can tell you in the Sharyl Attkisson case, look, we are almost 24/7 monitoring a cross-range of political media.

And she came on our radar screen in the normal course of events. There was nothing unusual about it. We noticed a pattern of misinformation in her work. We posted critiques to our Web site of her work. And it all transparent. It was accurate. She never said we were wrong about anything. And that's what we do at Media Matters.

STELTER: So, it is true that -- she would use the word target. You -- probably, you wouldn't use the word target, but you do pursue individual journalists who you feel are inaccurate or who are biased?

BROCK: Sure, we do.

So, right. And it's well beyond Sharyl Attkisson. We're watching, we're monitoring all of the national journalism. And once we start to see patterns, we will stay on a story, just like a journalist will stay on a story. And, so, in her case, we did stay on her story.

As I said, she did not say we got anything wrong in the critiques we made. She seemed comfortable coming out here and saying that we worked with her previously. We worked with her on stories. I don't know any specifics about that. But we do work with reporters. We're a media watchdog group. I have no reason to doubt that.

STELTER: On FOX News, Media Matters gets painted as the George Soros-funded group. Is he the main donor? Is it right for FOX News to basically describe it that way?

BROCK: No, it's -- I mean, we appreciate George Soros' generosity, but he's a major donor, but it's not a huge percentage of our budget.

We have a very diverse funding base. And we're really not beholden to anybody.

STELTER: So, for example, what percentage of your funding would come from Soros?

BROCK: Less than 10 percent.

STELTER: So, you're saying that you have a diverse number of donors, but they all have the same interests, don't they, same liberal politics at heart?

BROCK: Sure. I mean, I think their interest is in honest journalism and a fair debate. And I think we think and I think our donors believe that, in the vast majority of cases, if people get accurate information, rather than misinformation, that's going to serve the progressive cause, sure.

And we're open about the fact that we are a liberal organization. That doesn't mean our facts are wrong.

STELTER: Let's talk about what kinds of assistance Media Matters does and doesn't provide.

I'm on the e-mail list that so many other reporters are on. I see your all's e-mails when you notice conservative outrage, for example, something that Rush Limbaugh says that is out of line. Tell me about the kinds of assistance that you provide.

BROCK: We are sometimes a source of news ourselves.

In this past week, the story of the racist rancher from Nevada, we watch FOX News, so you don't have to. And so we were seeing what was going on in the buildup of this fellow as some sort of patriot. And then, when it all unraveled in an interview with "The New York Times," the racist rancher claimed he was misquoted.

We were the first organization to find the videotape that showed the actual quote. And that got played all over television in the last few days, and that was obviously helpful to "The New York Times." And so we can also have a constructive relationship with the press.

And I guess the third way would be, we do work to get retractions or apologies from and redress of situations where we feel that something's been said that's false or wrong.

STELTER: So, what you're saying is, it's perfectly normal, and that viewers, readers, they should be aware that groups like yours do provide basically raw material to reporters, but it's ultimately the reporters who are the ones producing the content?

BROCK: That's right.

And there are conservative groups that are out there also trying to influence and shape media coverage. There's nothing unusual about that. They seem to be particularly incensed about Media Matters' relationship with the media. Maybe we're doing a better job than they are. I don't know what the frustration comes from.

But, yes, I mean, these sorts of groups have existed for a long time. And I think it's an important part of journalism. And I think it's an important part of keeping democracy strong, that all sides are being watched.

STELTER: Well, David Brock, thank you for coming on and telling me more about what Media Matters does and doesn't do.

BROCK: Thank you. STELTER: By the way, one of the chief rivals to Media Matters on the right is the Media Research Center. And we tried to book the founder, Brent Bozell, this week. He declined. But we're going to try to have him on in a future week to talk about his group does and doesn't do.

Right after this: what media news to look out for in the week ahead. Stay with me.


STELTER: And finally this morning, a look ahead to what's going to be making media news this coming week.

That's going to be the White House Correspondents Dinner. It takes place next Saturday night. It's a Washington tradition. It happens every spring. And I personally like to tune in to see President Obama, in this case, gently roasting the press corps, making some jokes at our expense.

CNN will be broadcasting the whole thing live this coming Saturday.

That's all for this televised edition of RELIABLE SOURCES, but keep in mind our media coverage keeps going all the time on the RELIABLE SOURCES blog on

We hope to see you right back here next Sunday at 11:00 a.m.

And, in the meantime, remember to set your DVR if you're going to be away from the TV.