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Brian Williams Demoted To MSNBC; Lester Holt's Son On His Father's Promotion At NBC; Reporting A Tragedy: Charleston And The Press; Seeing Media Bias In Charleston Coverage. Aired 12-1p ET

Aired June 21, 2015 - 12:00   ET


[12:00:35] BRIAN STELTER, CNN HOST: Thanks, Jake.

This morning all of us, all across the country are able to go to church today thanks for that live coverage.

We are starting at a special time now with the special edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. And we're going to continue to cover aftermath of the shooting in Charleston later in the show and all day here on CNN.

But first, the week's biggest RELIABLE SOURCES' story is a resolution to the Brian Williams question. For a month now, the media (INAUDIBLE) has been wondering if a suspended anchor man will ever be back on NBC. And now we know that he will, but not on the "NBC Nightly News."

The announcement this week was that Williams will mostly be on "MSNBC" covering breaking news while Lester Holt will be taking over the network's flagship "Nightly News" officially tomorrow night.

Now, on this father's day, Lester's son, Stefan, an anchor man in Chicago is standing by to join me for an exclusive interview. That's coming up in a few minutes.

You know, weeks like this, days like today are a reminder that what anchors do really matters even in a digital age, especially in a digital age. When the shooting happened on Wednesday, there was so much confusion, so much conflicting information online. People turned to news anchor who they trusted. Anchors in the true sense of the word who can help us make sense of the senseless.

So, the new question about Brian Williams is whether he will ever be trusted again. NBC is not releasing the results of its internal investigation into William's tall tales and falsehoods. But the network is punishing him by keeping him off the "Nightly News." It's going to be a no go zone for him.

Sources tell me that he will not be seen on any late night talk shows anytime soon either. Now, Williams has declined our interview request and so is his boss, "NBC News" chairman Andrew Lack.

But this week Williams broke his silence in an interview with colleague with Matt Lauer. And here's a part of what he said.


MATT LAUER, "THE TODAY SHOW" CO-HOST: Did you know when you went on "Nightly News" that you were telling a story that was not true?

BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC ANCHOR: No. It came from a bad place. It came from a sloppy choice of words. I told stories that were not true over the years, looking back. It is very clear I never intended to.


STELTER: He says it was ego. Now, just a quick recap of the event leading up to this moment on "Nightly News" this past January 30th, Williams retold a 2003 tale of being in a military chopper over Iraq that was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. After veterans questioned the accuracy of the story Williams admitted he misremembered and apologized on the air. But then other questions about other exaggerations arose that led to the internal investigation and then his suspension a few days later.

So now you might be wondering, why is NBC bringing Williams back, but not as "Nightly News" anchor? What kind of compromise is that and will it work? Well, I have the perfect person to ask, a former anchor on MSNBC, a former general manager of the channel and the founder of Mediaite, Dan Abrams. Thanks for being here.

DAN ABRAMS, FOUNDER, MEDIATE: Glad to be with you.

STELTER: And we should say now the chief legal correspondent for "ABC News," a rival of NBC. So you get (ph) all the bases covered. Tell me first was this a smart corporate move by NBC?

ABRAMS: Yes. I think, this is a great compromise for them meaning Comcast NBC does not want to work with Brian Williams. Brian Williams has gotten to know, I think, probably a lot of things about the way that Comcast runs.

STELTER: You mean, he knows where the bodies are...


ABRAMS: Yes. I mean, I think, he knows a lot. And I also think that they -- that they like him. That they really didn't want to give him what is the equivalent of the journalistic death penalty here.

And it think what they did is they reached a compromise. Some people are saying, wait a second. This guy is now allowed back on the air?

Let's be clear. He has been found guilty. The question is, what's the punishment? What's the sentence in this case?

STELTER: Right. You are coming at this from a legal perspective.

ABRAMS: Right.

STELTER: We've heard now from NBC, they have waited and said he is guilty. But you're saying they shouldn't have said that this was a -- you know, a sin that can never be --

ABRAMS: Even if they banish him, right, from the air.

Look, this is a big deal. I am not minimizing. I think it's a big deal. And I think his apology, his interview with Matt Lauer was not helpful to his case. I don't think he was --

STELTER: Why is that? Why do you think he --

[12:04:52] ABRAMS: I don't think he came clean enough. He's saying it was sloppy. It's more than sloppy. He made things up.

To just say it came from a bad place. I don't know what that means. He made things up and in that role you can't make things up.

OK. Let's agree on that.


ABRAMS: But the question is, what should be the punishment?

And I think that they came up with a very good compromise here. Let's be clear. Being the breaking news anchor for MSNBC is a huge demotion for Brian Williams. If you told him a year ago he would be throwing back to Reverend (ph) Al (ph) in the studio, he would have laughed in your face.

And so this is a big demotion, it's a big move by NBC. And I think it's a strong move by Andy Lack, who's the new president of NBC again who I think -- I happen to have a lot of respect for and think that this is a good compromise. There are going to be people on both sides who are going to complain.

STELTER: Absolutely. And they have.

I mean, people have said that this is a journalistic -- I mean, journalist (ph) in (ph) malpractice (INAUDIBLE) journalistic (INAUDIBLE) to have him back in the chair at all.

ABRAMS: Yes. Look -- and I hear that, but, you know, there are some people who are saying, look, he'd been like an intern or a low level person, right? He never would have survived this. And the answer is, that's probably true. You know why? Because let's give Brian Williams some credit that the 20 something years of work he did in journalism.

Yes. You can say -- you can criticize him. You can say that this negates some of that, but I am willing to give him a lot of credit for a lot of the work he did. He didn't just sit in the studio. He went out in the field. He did real work. He did very good work. And I think as a result, you know, he can have a second chance.

STELTER: That's what I heard from NBC as well that you have to consider his 22 years at the network, all of his good work.

ABRAMS: Having worked for him, having worked with him, I am willing to do that.

But I think that we also have to be honest about what his interview with Matt Lauer was and wasn't because that's the most recent thing we've seen. I think Matt Lauer was great in the interview. I think Brian Williams wasn't (INAUDIBLE) up enough. He is not owning it still which I think is the problem.

STELTER: And yet we hear there is going to be no more interviews of Williams anytime soon. He won't be speaking to outside interviewers.

Is that a mistake on his part? Does he need to go further?

ABRAMS: No. Look, I think he needed to go further in that interview.

STELTER: But now it's over.

ABRAMS: If that's what we are going to hear, don't do another interview.

I mean, if Brian is not going to come forward and say, I was -- this is horrible. I can't believe I did it. I made stories up. And instead sort of avoided the questions to some degree. I don't think he should do another interview.

But again, that doesn't mean I think Brian Williams should be banished. I still think he is -- I still think he is a terrific journalist. I think he's going to be great at the MSNBC breaking news desk, whatever that means.

STELTER: Yes, let's talk about what that is.

I mean, he's suspended until mid-August. He'll be back on MSNBC in mid-August. He'll also be filling in for Lester Holt if there's breaking news during the day on NBC. NBC said he won't be allowed on "Nightly News."

So, as the former general manager to MSNBC do you think he will fit on the cable news channel?


I mean, the question is what is he going to be doing all day? Right? As the anchor of "NBC Nightly News" what do you do? You have a meeting in the morning. You then go have some other meetings. You have lunches. You have -- you have a lot of downtime.

As the MSNBC breaking news desk anchor, in theory you should be sitting there from 9:00 a.m. until 6:00 p.m. or whatever the time is waiting for breaking news. Is Brian Williams going to be sitting around sort of reading (ph) through the wires waiting to see when he is on? I don't think so.

I think this is going to be some sort of blended role where they're going to allow him a sort of elevated status where -- yes, they will put him on for breaking news. But I don't think they're going to have him sort of sitting around to (ph) someone else. The question is, what is this the steppingstone towards? I think Andy Lack is a big fan of Brian Williams. I would not be surprised if, you know, they were hoping they'd be able to put him in other positions later down the road.

STELTER: What kinds of positions?

ABRAMS: I don't know. You know, I think this is the way to reestablish Brian Williams' credibility. And that's why by the way I think that he's probably very grateful in the sense that they are allowing him to restore his reputation.

STELTER: Right. This is a big win for him.

ABRAMS: Huge win. They're going to allow him to now get back into the news game to be at the desk covering news which he does really well.

I mean, there are very few people who are as good as him in breaking news situations.

STELTER: That's right (INAUDIBLE) in Charleston at the top. He could have been on MSNBC that night as all this information was spreading, helping people make sense of it.

ABRAMS: Yes. So, I think it's going to be a very It will be a big win for MSNBC in that way.

Look, MSNBC is in the midst of a big transition. It has been lord (ph) of the flies (ph) over there for a number of years now, where the anchor with the best ratings basically runs the show. I think that Andy Lack is now moving in and saying, OK, we're going to start treating this like a news channel again. And Brian Williams in the beginning of that. You can say, wait a second. Putting in a guy who did this as the beginning of your breaking news strategy? Fine, make that journalistic argument if you want to. But as a practical matter I think it's a really smart move for them to have a big name, a big face who does this stuff really well. Leading breaking news coverage which MSNBC really needs to start doing again.

[12:10:06] STELTER: And we're going to get more into those journalistic questions in the next block.

1210 - MP

1220 - MP


STELTER: Welcome back. Lester Holt has been in limbo ever since February, filling in for Brian Williams. But starting tomorrow he is the permanent anchor of the NBC "Nightly News". This morning, the weekend "Today" show bid farewell to him with a tribute and a champagne toast.

And joining me now on the phone on this Father's Day, a very proud son, Stefan Holt, who's following in his father's footsteps as an anchorman at WMAQ, NBC's station in Chicago.

Stefan, welcome to the program.

STEFAN HOLT, SON OF LESTER HOLT, WMAQ CHICAGO ANCHOR (via phone): Hey, thanks, Brian. How are you?

STELTER: I thought it was really important today to talk about Lester Holt. Not just to talk about Brian Williams, but to talk about the new permanent anchor of the "Nightly News". And I wanted to know what was your dad's reaction when you were on vacation this week and you all found out that the promotion was about to be announced?

HOLT: I think that it was excitement. I think the reaction was certainly one of really feeling honored to take on this sort of role and this sort of responsibility. And, yeah, the news came while we were on vacation. We were all traveling together as a family. So I don't know if you saw the tweet that my dad sent. We were trying really hard not to talk about work and not about the things that were going on back at home, but when news like that travels to you while you're on vacation, you celebrate and you look forward to the opportunity that awaits now. So it was very exciting.

STELTER: I've said in the program in the past that Lester has kind of been in the dark about what's going on until recently. He didn't know if he was going to get this job or not. How do you feel about the fact that he's getting one of the most important jobs on TV, but in such a bad way? With Brian Williams doing damage to the NBC brand?

HOLT: You know, I can tell you, from my perspective as his son, I'm extremely proud. I'm extremely excited and proud of my dad. I think this is a great opportunity for him. I'm also excited as a viewer of "Nightly News". Honestly (ph), I don't think anybody would have wanted to get a job under these circumstances. You know, a lot of eyeballs were on this and a lot of questions were surrounding this as well. But, at the end of the day, I think this is a chance for my dad to really shine in this role, and that he's been given a shot to do this. And I know he takes it extremely seriously and he's going to do a great job, as he has been doing since February and from whenever he's filled in.

You know, as a son, it's interesting because I've watched my dad's career from an early age, as a kid, and now I see it as well from the perspective as a fellow journalist, as someone whose footsteps I'm trying to follow in as well. So I think this perspective, it's really interesting for me to see this, and all I can do is just wish my dad the best, congratulate him, and support him in every way that I can.

STELTER: You mentioned following in footsteps, and your dad is a historic figure for black journalists. He is following in the footsteps of Max Robinson, who was the first black co-anchor of a network nightly newscast. And now your dad is the first solo black anchor of a weekday network nightly newscast. Have you given much thought to this? Have you discussed with him the historic nature of his appointment?

HOLT: Yeah, I think it's exciting and I'm glad so many people are excited about it as well, a lot of viewers of "Nightly News". And, yeah, looking back at history, this is -- this is a big moment. But I would say that not any of us really define our careers just by race. I think as a news division you're not defined by one anchor or one report. If you look at NBC News, it's a really diverse team, and I'm glad my dad is a part of that diversity. I'm glad to be a part of that. And they can bring that to homes and families all across the country.

I think this is a really exciting moment that my dad is able to take on this challenge and move it forward.

STELTER: It's important to see networks reflect the diversity of the country, its increasing diversity. What do you want viewers to know about your dad? I know he's a bass player because I've seen he's done conference here in New York; I'm never able to go but I've seen that. You also played the bass?

HOLT: I also play the bass. You know, I've followed my dad in a lot of ways, which is interesting I guess. It's interesting we're talking about this on Father's Day. I've always admired and respected my dad, and from an early age, his passion for aviation, for music, for journalism, all these things rubbed off on me.

I remember as a kid, and teaching me how to play the bass. Eventually I played bass in high school and in college and I still play a little bit -- not nearly as accomplished as he is. But aviation as well, going to air shows and talking about airplanes with him.

I remember talking to my dad about making the decision that I wanted to become a journalist, that I wanted to become a reporter and work in local news. And he was extremely supportive and told me about how the business changed just in the last 10 years, last 15 years. But also about the importance of that role, of being a reporter, of being an anchorman, in the times, where you mentioned earlier in the program, when the nation needs clarity. When people need clarity and they turn to news to find that clarity.

So it's a really important job. I know those are all things that he impressed upon me, and it's just been a real joy as a son to watch his career go in this exciting new direction, and to have him not only as a professional mentor, but as a dad, which I know that's his No. 1 job, is being my dad.

And it's been funny, actually, I'm getting the chance now to work at NBC to do things together with him. And I think you played a clip earlier of when we did a crosstalk, and I tossed to him. I said, hey Dad. I didn't know what to call him.

[12:35:07] Do I call him Mr. Holt? Do I call him NBC's Lester Holt in New York? I just called him Dad on the air because that was what's natural and that's what felt right. And that's what I call him; I call him Dad.

STELTER: I love hearing that, especially, as you said, especially on Father's Day. Any plans to celebrate his reintroduction tomorrow?

HOLT: I don't know if my mom and dad and my brother -- my brother lives in New York as well -- if they have any plans. I'm going to work dark and early here in Chicago. I do the morning news at 4:30 a.m., but I know my parents are extremely happy about this. My dad's really excited to get started. And, look, he's been doing this since February; I think Monday this is just the official kick-off. This is where it really begins. And it's an exciting new chapter for my family and for NBC.

STELTER: Stefan Holt, thanks for being here this afternoon. I appreciate it.

HOLT: Brian, thanks so much. Good talking to you.

STELTER: The circumstances for this have been tough, but I think I said on this program before, I've tried to find people at NBC who speak ill of Lester Holt. I haven't been able to find them. He's just all around good guy according to everybody at NBC, and so even though the circumstances are very bad, it's good to see him get promoted here, a big marketing campaign, by the way, for Holt this weekend.

When we come back here, we want to return to Charleston and have the latest on the aftermath of the shootings. Talk about covering the strategy to hit so close to home. We will hear from a local TV anchor who knew the slain pastor of the Emanuel Church in a moment.


STELTER: Welcome back. The church bells ringing across Charleston, South Carolina today as the city mourns the victims of a mass murder, of a modern day lynching. Nine killed at a prayer meeting at the Emanuel AME Church, worshippers returned this morning.

As I was watching the coverage on Wednesday night, I wondered what it felt like for the local reporters who knew some the victims and had to cover their murders.

Let's go to Charleston and find out. Raphael James anchors the coverage at WCSC and has been reporting the story from the very beginning. Thanks for being here today.


STELTER: You were so close by. How did you hear that this had happened?

JAMES: I just had come back from the dinner break actually and the scanners were going crazy about a shooting downtown and possibly eight people gunned down and then it happened at a church. And when I heard that -- first of all, that's so bizarre for that to happen, and then when I heard which church it was, I knew that my friend, Reverend Pinckney was the pastor of this church.

And to hear that going out over the scanners, I begged off of the anchor desk that night so that I could run down here. When I got here, it was a mad dash trying to gather information, trying to see what was going on.

The coroner's van pulled up and automatically this is not good. Nobody is saying that anybody is dead. They aren't confirming any names at this point. You just know it's not good.

STELTER: Turned out the initial reports of eight dead were almost cored. It turned nine dead. I wonder for you, I mean, overnight at some point, you had to go off the air. Is that when it struck and the grief became overwhelming?

JAMES: That is. We had been reporting on it and as long as we weren't saying who the names were even though we kind heard it unofficially, it wasn't official. I could put it into the back of my mind and say as long as I'm telling the people, we don't know then I don't know.

But then when it was official and when it started the realization of who had passed and it started hitting me. It became unbearable at that point. Reverend Pinckney and I, every time we saw each other, we would say we always say this, but let's get together sometime.

Let's go out and break bread and have lunch. Do something. We always said we were going do that. We never did and sadly that opportunity now will never happen.

STELTER: I had a hard time watching up here to New York. What happened here is ungodly. I always wonder when someone is in the middle of covering a story like this, I wonder what it's like when people come up to you and they thank you, and they even congratulate you for the coverage. That must be so hard to hear that from people.

JAMES: Normally it's what you live for. It's what you want to hear. You want that validation of a job well done and say look, we appreciate your coverage. We didn't know what was going on, but with you, now we did, and we appreciate the way you told them.

But that night I couldn't hear it. I was respectful and said thank you and tried to tweet, but say let's pray for the families. That's how I try to end that and then that was one of the themes, one of the callous that really make me breakdown when I got back to the newsroom.

Everybody was like you did good out there and great job. I couldn't hear it. How do you tell me good job when I am talking about friends and neighbors, and community members, who just died. They were still in the church at that time. It was definitely hard coming at it from that aspect.

STELTER: And yet that's what we are there to do, right, someone has got to tell people what happened in that church. Mr. James, thank you for spending time with us this afternoon.

JAMES: Thank you very much for having me.

STELTER: When we come back, a guest who was in the church this morning, who was at the service, want to talk about the language used in this story, terrorist, thug, mentally ill, do news outlets label crimes involving black and white people differently? The biased questions will be answered next.


STELTER: Welcome back as we look at live pictures outside the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. It is impossible to see a story like this week's massacre in simple black and white terms. How you see the story varies depending on who you are and where you come from.

So we have to ask if media coverage of this situation is skewed by the personal bias, these are just the backgrounds of the journalist covering the story.

Joining me now from Charleston, the civil rights activist, Deray McKesson of Deray, thanks for being here.

[12:50:06] DERAY MCKESSON, SOCIAL MEDIA ACTIVIST: Thank you. It's good to be here.

STELTER: Since you were inside this morning, I want to hear first what it felt like for you.

MCKESSON: It was really tragic to revisit the scene of a heinous crime and I entered in the back where they bible study at the beginning and it continues to be really sad to think about. I'm hopeful that this will be a turning point where people can actively confront the issue of race and racism and that will be the only way to move forward.

STELTER: Is that why you are there and you became a prominent activist in the wake of Ferguson and people see you there. Your name is trending on Twitter and the #gohomederay from people who think you hurt situations like this. What is your response to them?

MCKESSON: You know, I wouldn't be here if nine people had not been killed. Racism is alive and well in places like South Carolina and in towns cross America. So I'm here in solidarity like many other people who come to express their sympathy for the victims and to figure out how we fight systems of oppression that continue to kill people.

I remember, you know, racism doesn't always exist to the extremes. Like I said here before, it's the seemingly small things like this flag that such a clear symbol of hate and these other things that empower people like Dylann Roof to kill.

STELTER: Let me put up a tweet on screen that you wrote in the past couple of days, you wrote that "Whiteness will work to preserve its innocence at all costs." This got me thinking about issue and I wonder if you say white journalists are protecting a killer in this case.

MCKESSON: You know, it's just interesting way that whiteness always humanizes white people, right. So I have seen many pictures at this point of Dylann Roof and really calms faces.

I have seen pictures of him opening presents as a child and humanizing photos of someone who killed people as a terrorist, and I've not seen any of those similar pictures of any of the victims and that is a humanizing function of whiteness in this America. And that's what I was referencing in that moment.

STELTER: Your argument is that minorities who are committing violence are not humanized in the same way?

MCKESSON: I'm saying that even the victims, right, so the victims of this crime have not been humanized. We have not heard all of their stories in the same way that we have seen these photos that sort of -- that encourage sympathy with the killer.

So I haven't seen any baby pictures or any toddler photos of any victim and I monitor news outlets, but I just stumbled across these photos of Dylann Roof, just haphazardly, right, they are just present in ways that like humanized them. They encouraged us to believe that, you know, he was a troubled teen as opposed to like a cold hearted killer who is racist.

STELTER: Before I go, I just want to ask you about the idea that you expect the worst out of the media in situations like this, and yet, I've heard the word terrorist all over television. Did the media get your message?

MCKESSON: You know, I don't expect the worse from the media. I'm always interested in seeing how the media does it. In South Carolina, they have done good work. The thing about the language of terrorists, they have hidden in the text as opposed of putting it front and center.

So what we saw the other day was every newspaper has these sensationalized messages about forgiveness. None about the terror of the victim and the terror of the killer that's what we are talking about.

It's one thing to hide terrorists in the 15th paragraph. It's another thing to put it front and center on major newspapers. That's not what we have seen.

STELTER: Deray, I appreciate you being here and sharing the perspective especially after attending the services. Thank you.

MCKESSON: Thank you.

STELTER: And our live coverage from Charleston will continue right after this break.


STELTER: Thanks for being with us on this special noon edition of RELIABLE SOURCES and happy Father's Day to all of you at home. Let's head to the CNN NEWSROOM and Fredricka Whitfield for an update on today's many headlines.

FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: All right, thanks so much, Brian. Hello, everyone. I'm Fredricka Whitfield.

Here are the big stories we are following at this hour. All morning we have been watching the first Sunday service at Charleston, South Carolina, Emanuel AME Church after that horrific massacre. Hundreds gathering at the house of worship.

CNN correspondent's Nick Valencia is there.

NICK VALENCIA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Fred, today we continue to see the community of Charleston handle this very difficult situation with incredible integrity and grace. Yes, there are people that are angry and upset, but those that I had spoken to said that frustration has given way to compassion and healing as those conversations and that dialogue continues to happen here.

We saw hundreds inside Mother Emanuel Church and hundreds outside came from all-around, some as far as Paris, France to pay respects to the fallen victims -- Fred.

WHITFIELD: Thanks so much, Nick Valencia. Also today, new developments in the hunt for two escaped killers on the run from a prison in upstate New York. Take a look at live pictures right now from Alegany County, New York where we are expecting a news conference on that manhunt momentarily.

Today, police are focusing their search on the town of Friendship on the New York-Pennsylvania state line. They are calling it their new hotspot after another possible siting of Richard Matt and David Sweat. The convicts have been on the run for 17 days now. Search teams are warning people not to approach them. Many people are scared.