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President Obama Makes a Statement on Iran; Rezaian Freed After Historic Prisoner Swap; Nearly 200 Journalists Imprisoned Worldwide; Preview of Tonight's Dem Debate; Interview with Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz; Actor Sean Penn Speaks Out. Aired 11a-12p ET

Aired January 17, 2016 - 11:00   ET


[11:00:00] BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: But they never gave in and they never gave up. At long last they can stand tall and bring deep the fresh air of freedom. As a nation, we face real challenges around the world and here at home. Many of them will not be resolved quickly or easily.

But today's progress, Americans coming home, an Iran that's rolled back its nuclear program and accepted unprecedented monitoring of that program, these things are a reminder of what we can achieve when we leave with strength and with wisdom, with courage and resolve and patience.

America can do and has done big things when we work together. We can leave this world and make it safer and more secure for our children and grandchildren for generations to come.

I want to thank, once again, Secretary Kerry, our entire national security team led by Susan Rice. I'm grateful for all the assistance that we received from our allies and partners. I'm hopeful this signals the opportunity for Iran to work more cooperatively with nations around the world to advance their interests and the interest of people who are looking for peace and security for their families.

Thank you so much. God bless you. God bless the United States of America.

REPORTER: Mr. President, where do you see this relationship going --

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: President Obama speaking in the cabinet room of the White House this morning, speaking for just over 15 or 16 minutes, heralding two big steps when it comes to Iran.

One, the implementation of the deal with Iran, the nuclear deal to remove all of the weaponized, potentially weaponized material from Iran that could be used for a nuclear weapon while at the same time sanctions against Iran are lifted that could be roughly $100 billion in assets being returned to Iran.

At the same time also talking about how these diplomatic relations, this thaw in relations between the United States and Iran has allowed much progress when it comes to very, very difficult situations when it comes to Americans being held, starting, of course, with the ten sailors who were held roughly three days ago or so and then released, but also with the five Americans that were released that we knew about, including Amir Hekmati, the former U.S. marine held for four and a half years, Jason Rezaian, "The Washington Post" reporter held for a year and a half, Saeed Abedini, the Christian pastor held for three and a half years.

And then two individuals that the United States did not know much about, Nosratollah Khosravi, somebody who's disappearance was not reported although he's been released. He's staying in Iran at least for now, and then a fifth individual, Matthew Trevithick, a researcher who was studying Farsi who was held. Again, that was another situation that had not been reported. Oftentimes these cases are not brought to the attention of the media because it's easier for those negotiating for their release, those in the Obama administration in this case, if there is not public attention brought to the situation.

Let me bring in Fareed Zakaria, and Brian Stelter, my colleagues, to talk more about this.

Fareed, heralding this as a victory for diplomacy, a victory for the Obama approach for dealing with enemies. He talked about strength and wisdom. He also slipped in a small reference to a financial dispute resolved in which the United States will be releasing some money to the Iranians.

I hate to put you on the spot, but do you know what he's talking about with that situation?

FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN HOST: I did not. But the United States has been able to freeze certain moneys that -- certain revenues that Iran gets. And presumably this is one of those.

I think it's important to remember when people talk about Iran getting all this money, the United States giving Iran all this money, the vast majority of the money they're getting is theirs.

It goes like this -- Iran sells India or South Korea oil. For the last two years when Iran has sold India or South Korea oil, the Indians or South Koreans have paid for that but it's been frozen in an account in an Indian bank or South Korean bank because of the U.N. sanctions. Not the American sanctions, the U.N. sanctions that have been put in place. Now, with these U.N. sanctions lifted, that money that was money paid by India or South Korea to Iran for buying Iranian oil will now go back to Iran.

[11:05:07] In some cases, it's a lot less than people think because the Iranians desperate and frustrated did barter agreements. So, with the Chinese, for example. The Chinese, you know, owe the Iranians a lot of oil money but they gave them some stuff, you know, infrastructure equipment in return. That's the 95 percent, 99 percent of the money we're talking about. There are a few places where the United States had directly gotten some Iranian revenues, not directly, indirectly, and presumably the president is talking about that.

TAPPER: And, Fareed, Iran saying that it is extending the hand of friendship and it wants to pursue a better relationship with the United States, with the world. One thing the president did not mention in his speech, as far as I could tell was the fact that a few weeks ago, Iran broke, violated a treaty when it came to a ballistic missile test. And the United States, this weekend, the Treasury Department announcing some further sanctions against individuals in Iran.

There is a compartmentalization almost of the nuclear deal, and now, this great news about these Americans unjustly held in Iran being released. That's all good. But there's also much more progress, much more work that needs to be done, obviously.

ZAKARIA: I think you put it exactly right, Jake. What's happened is that this is a compartmentalized relationship. And the nuclear deal has been put aside as one thing to try and put Iran's nuclear program into a kind of shrink wrap mode. But then it does infect these other compartments because you have relations, you have negotiations.

So, whether it's the release of the sailors, whether it's the release of these prisoners, the hope is, you know, that each compartment begins to open up. But the president and the secretary of state very clear that is not their expectation. That is their hope. And the president making the final plea as he has in the past to the Iranian people directly, clearly this was I think about next month's elections in Iran both for the parliament and the assembly of experts saying, you know, help us to open up your country, help us to integrate your country into the world.

So, there are a lot of subtle efforts and not-so-subtle ones, to open up the other compartments but for now they remain sealed.

TAPPER: And there's going to be much, a lot of time to debate the merits of the Obama diplomatic effort and Republicans have been criticizing it for years and I'm sure we're going to be hearing much more about that.

But, Brian Stelter, let's take a moment as the president did to talk about the families that have been reunited. These Americans held against their will in Iran. The former U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati held for four and a half years. Jason Rezaian of "The Washington Post" held for a year and a half. Saeed Abedini, the Christian pastor, held for three and a half years. Also, two other individuals that we didn't know much about.

But, Brian, I know you've been covering the Jason Rezaian case since it happened for the last year and a half. This is "The Washington Post" bureau chief in Tehran who has been detained for a year and a half. He's now finally on his way back to the United States.

What are you hearing from your sources at "The Washington Post"? They must be overjoyed.

BRIAN STELTER, CNN HOST: Absolutely. A day they have been waiting 545 days to have happened. For each of these men, they were in Iran for different reasons. In Jason Rezaian's case, it was because he was there to tell Iran's story. He would have been writing the stories today about the continued implementation of this deal. Instead, of course, he's on the way to Europe, expected to land very shortly.

I think it's worth reflecting on the fact we haven't seen any photos or videos of him since his detention. We're showing pictures on the screen here from before July of 2014. And I believe that's the case for some of the other men as well. We haven't seen them. So, we haven't had physical evidence of how they are doing, what their condition is. And that's why these medical check ups are so important.

It seems to me that this is a reflection on the media news cycle. The hyper-speed environment where we are in, where there are instant decisions, instant critiques, instant reactions to news. We saw that earlier in the week with the sailors that were in Iranian custody briefly.

If we look back at some of the comments that were made on Tuesday, some of them don't look so good on Sunday, several days later. Same is true for the comments that were made last summer, last fall, as there was so much understandable concern about these men that were being held in Iran.

Some of the judgments, some of critique of the administration don't sound so right now that we're aware of these 14 months of secret negotiations. Seems to me there's a clash between this hyper speed news environment where we all want answers instantly and, of course, as we know, the slow pace of diplomacy.

[11:10:08] TAPPER: That's right. And in fact, there's been criticism from the right. There's been criticism from the left.

One of the hikers who was detained in Iran who was freed in 2011 when former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Saturday, heralding the deal, talking about how great these Americans were being free and talking about the need for sanctions against Iran for violating the ballistic missile treaty that they had signed for firing that missile. That former hiker who now writes for "Mother Jones Magazine", very critical of Secretary Clinton for putting this deal, because the Americans weren't out of Iran yet, putting it in peril.

Any time there is something as sensitive as the negotiations for release of prisoners or hostages, whatever you want to call them, there is obviously a great sensitivity about it, Brian.

STELTER: That's right. I thought it was very wise when we heard Hillary Clinton trying to address that question you asked her this morning on "STATE OF THE UNION". You were bringing up Shane Bower's case, and that's an example of that criticism from the left. It makes the Democratic debate even more interesting to see Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley on the same stage in the wake of this news this morning.

TAPPER: And, Fareed, let's take a moment to look at this U.S.-Iranian relationship going forward, because obviously, Iran still a state sponsor of terrorism, according to the U.S. State Department, Iran in violation of the ballistic missile treaty. And yet, obviously, today is a day of reckoning. It's a day where the relationship between the United States and Iran is better than it has been since the 1970s.

ZAKARIA: Absolutely, since 1979, since the revolution. And look, it has paid dividends already. My own suggestion would be for those that want to criticize the president for diplomacy, for this diplomatic approach, there are frankly other places you could look.

You could say the reset with Russia didn't work very well. You would argue that perhaps the diplomatic pressure with Israel backfired.

But this is a case where it strikes me, it clearly has yielded benefits. Look, I have a personal experience here, which I was the editor of "Newsweek International" when Iran took one of our journalists and put him in, Maziar Bahari, in prison. In fact, he was the longest serving American journalist put in prison before Jason was.

It was hellish to try to figure out way to get him out because the United States had no one to talk to because the United States had no relations. I spoke with Secretary Clinton. I spoke with people at the State Department time and time again.

Finally, I had to go to the Canadians because Maziar had a Canadian passport. And that proved to provide some avenues because the Canadians at least had relations with Iran.

The simple fact that John Kerry and Javad Zarif have negotiated a lot together, know each other, trust each other to a certain extent, makes an enormous difference when these kinds of things crop up, and they will crop up, because it's important to remember that Iran and the United States still have an adversarial relationship.

This is like the Cold War with the Soviet Union, and it is precisely in those circumstances that you need that personal connection. If a hiker strays into France by mistake, an American hiker, it doesn't matter who knows whom, you know, it's a friendly country. The guy is going to come back.

It's when you have these tense relations that you need diplomacy.

TAPPER: All right. Fareed Zakaria, thank you so much. Obviously, there's going to be a lot to discuss and celebrate. Stay with CNN for all the coverage about this historic day.

I'm going to throw it to Brian who is going to pick it up and resume his show, RELIABLE SOURCES -- Brian.

STELTER: Jake, thanks very much.

We have a lot to discuss about the media angles on this story, including what's next for Jason Rezaian, what his experience has been like in prison and what will happen next for the others who were detained as well.

We'll talk about that and also the choices by some news outlets not to report on the secret prisoner swap talks, even though they were known about for months. More on that in a moment. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[11:17:35] STELTER: Hello again. Brian Stelter here in New York. A special edition of RELIABLE SOURCES, as we cover the breaking news about the American prisoners who are now leaving Iran now believed to be in the air flying to Europe.

We want to talk about what happens next here, because we know that Jason Rezaian, the jailed "Washington Post" journalist is with his wife Yega and his mother Mary. They are on that flight. Part of a historic prisoner swap that includes Marine veteran Amir Hekmati and Christian pastor Saeed Abedini.

One of newly released men made the decision to stay in Iran after his release. The rest are on the plane. When we get where they have landed, we'll let you know.

I want to talk about what is going to happen now for Jason and for the other detained Americans that are free. The expectation is that the three of them will spend a few days at least, maybe more, at a U.S. military facility in Germany and then perhaps return to the United States.

Now, "The Washington Post" is celebrating this morning. For 545 days, this newspaper has been tirelessly campaigning for the freedom of their reporter. You see this morning, Jeff Bezos, the owner of "The Post", weighing in on Twitter, saying, "Wheels up and out of Iranian air space."

The hashtag is notable, it says #jasonisfree. The campaign hashtag for 18 months was #freejason. So, now, flipping that on its side.

What I can report to you this morning is that the top editors of "The Post" are already in Europe. I'm told Marty Baron and the foreign editor, Doug Jehl, actually flew to Europe on Friday in expectation of this news on Saturday.

Now, for the families involved, all the families, it's a relief to know their loved ones are on the way out of Iran.

We've heard from Ali Rezaian, the brother of Jason Rezaian, you may have seen here in the RELIABLE SOURCES in the past. Here is his statement from this morning. The whole family says they are "relieved that Jason is on his way home. He is a talented journalist who was simply doing his job fairly, accurately and lawfully. After nearly a year and a half of arbitrary delays and unfair, opaque judicial process, Jason's release has brought indescribable relief and joy to our family. This nightmare is approaching an end."

But what you didn't know is the secret negotiations were happening. These talks about this prisoner swap were ongoing. And at some news outlets, including CNN, were aware of the talks and chose not to report it for fear that it could interrupt, disrupt or affect the talks in some negative way. We're going to talk about that this morning and also what is next to Jason Rezaian and these other Americans. Let's bring in two experts to begin the conversation this morning.

[11:20:01] Michael Oreskes, the head of news at NPR, and Joel Simon, the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

I want to say something right off the top, Joel. One hundred and ninety-nine journalists around the world were imprisoned last year. And as of today, there are 19 journalists still in jail just in Iran.

JOEL SIMON, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, COMMITTEE TO PROTECT JOURNALISTS: That's right. Well, actually, 18 now that Jason is released. He was one of them.

But there are 18 left in prison. They're Iranian journalists. They have covered the country from a variety of perspectives. There's actually a crackdown under way in Iran.

So, we obviously need to celebrate Jason's release. But this is not breakthrough in terms of press freedom or human rights in Iran.

STELTER: Let's discuss how difficulty it is to report from the country, because Jason Rezaian perhaps is an extreme example of the interference that takes place.

Michael, you have firsthand experience with the difficulty trying to have your reporters in the country.

MICHAEL ORESKES, HEAD OF NEWS, NPR: Iran's extremely difficult country to operate in. You know, in 1948, the United Nations said that gathering and sharing information was a fundamental human right. Iran is clearly one of a number of countries in the world that's not close to recognizing that right.

One of the things we'll be watching is what happens now. Does it become even more difficult to operate there? Do they accept visas? Did they issue visas for international journalists to enter?

And as Joel was pointing out, the people in prison are not mostly international journalists like Jason. They are local journalists who've been arrested because of things they did inside Iran.

STELTER: Those cases tend to get a lot less press attention. That's the sad truth, the sad reality of the situation.

I wonder, Michael, if you can talk to us about the last 18 months. We're talking about the future right now, but let's go back in time to the efforts that were ongoing to secure Jason's release. Just about ten days ago, you and the head of other news outlets including CNN sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry urging the government to do more.

At the time, did you know about these secret prisoner swap talks?

ORESKES: I think you have to put it into two pieces. We did not know about the specific details of the last minute talks. It was publicly known, not just to journalists, but it was public information that Iran had offered a swap, that the United States had at first rejected it and the United States was having separate side bar talks. Secretary Kerry himself said he was working on the issue.


ORESKES: So, what was secret and what was publicly known need to be separated a little bit. It was not a secret that this idea was on the table. But some news organizations, I gather, this was not true of us, but some news organizations I gather did know more detail about what was happening in the last week or two.

STELTER: I think it's really interesting, because it's very rare for a news outlet to sit on information, to put a lid on information. But let's share a little bit more about this. "The Huffington Post", CNN, "The Wall Street Journal and "The Washington Post" were all aware of these negotiations several months ago and made choices not to report it.

Let me share a statement from CNN about this, that put this into more contexts. Now, CNN said in statement last night, share and other organizations, "Like all of our colleagues in media who were aware of these developments, we did not report on this information in order to avoid any possibility of interfering with the negotiations. The decision was made by CNN following a request from the U.S. government to withhold the information so as not to jeopardize the possible release of those being held."

Michael, it makes sense "The Washington Post" was aware of these talks involving one of their men. Whenever you hear about the U.S. government asking a news outlet not to report something, it gets the hair to stand up on people's backs. Was this the right call?

ORESKES: And it should. Yes, I wouldn't second guess this one. There's an old adage on journalism, that we don't publish the sailing times of troop ships. And I think that sums up the fundamental test, which is, if you're going to put lives in danger but what you publish, you need to be extremely careful. And I think that was the test applied here.

You know, I was very deeply involved at the "A.P." in a story about Robert Levinson, who is one of the people still missing in Iran. To this day, we don't know. We don't even know if he's dead or alive.

Robert Levinson was sent in by a rogue group at the CIA. It was a scandalous situation. It was an extraordinary story and it was an enormous public interest in publishing it.

We held that story for quite a long time any way because Levinson's family and the government worried he would be put in danger by publishing that story. So, even though there was a strong interest in publishing, we waited a while. We ultimately decided, and I think we made the right call that the public interest in knowing how badly the CIA has mishandled that situation outweighed even the possibility of a risk to Levinson, which at that point, we judged to be considerably reduced.

So, these are very, very difficult decisions.

STELTER: Before we go to a break, I want to put a graphic that we produced with the help of your organization, Joel. It shows in the various countries around the world, where other journalists are being held today. The number 198 now after Jason's release today.

Is the situation for journalist in these difficult parts of the world getting any less difficult, IS it getting worse?

SIMON: It's getting worse. And I think one way to consider this is -- Jason Rezaian is a correspondent for "The Washington Post".

[11:25:02] This is unprecedented. No journalist has ever been held for -- international journalist, international correspondent has ever been held for this length of time. It's unprecedented.

And if a journalist working for "The Washington Post" is subject to this kind of treatment, imagine what local journalists around the world, the kind of pressure they are under. They are the ones who are bringing us the news.

Now in Iran, it's a network of local journalists who inform the international correspondent. That's how the news gets out. So, this crackdown on the Iranian media, that affects the people in Iran, obviously, but it really affects people around the world who want to understand what's happening in that country.

ORESKES: This is an extremely important point Joel is making. You know, the old days of the swashbuckling foreign correspondent who came dropping in to cover things, but those days are over. More and more, we are dependent on well-trained, well-educated journalists in their countries. Frankly, they know the countries better than any of us did when we came rolling in, and they are the future of journalism.

And their -- the impunity with which they are being not just imprisoned but murdered in many countries is very frightening thing to the free flow of information in the whole world.

STELTER: Jason Rezaian is a dual citizen of Iran and American. Iran said that means he's only an Iranian citizen. They wouldn't respect the dual nationality. And that was partly what we were hearing for 18 months as he was detained.

Joel, you made the point in a column on your website, that this -- this is a situation where he was a political hostage. We didn't use the word hostage very often. You didn't hear the government say it for those 18 months, you didn't hear "The Washington Post" say it, but now, I am hearing more people use that word.

SIMON: Well, that was my frame work all along. I had different ways of describing it. I said it was a judicial kidnapping. I said he was a judicial hostage, a political hostage.

But Iran -- this is typical behavior. When someone is put in jail, somebody of his profile, they want something in exchange. We should celebrate that he is free. We should congratulate the international campaign. "The Washington Post", Ali Rezaian was unbelievable.

But we have to accept that this was a -- that he was a judicial hostage and he's free today because the ransom was paid.

STELTER: Joel, Michael, thank you both for being here this morning.

SIMON: Pleasure.

STELTER: And coming up next on RELIABLE SOURCES, what might be next for Jason Rezaian and the other men that are on the way out of Iran right now. We'll speak to three journalists who were held. One was kidnapped. Two were held by Iran.

We'll hear their stories, next.



STELTER: Five hundred and forty-five days, that's the amount of time Jason Rezaian spent in prison in Iran charged with espionage, ridiculous claims with no proof.

He was at times unable to see his family. There was no clear resolution in sight. But now we know these secret talks, these secret prisoner swap talks led to his release and the release of several other Americans that were in Iranian custody.

Reflect on the fact that he got married in 2013, April 2013, and then arrested in July of 2014. That means he's spent more time as a married man in jail than with his wife.

But, right now, they're together on a flight to Europe and then eventually back to the United States.

I have two guests here who can tell us what this experience may be like for Jason Rezaian right now.

David Rohde is a reporter for Reuters, previously at "The New York Times." He was kidnapped in 2008 by the Taliban and escaped after nearly eight months in captivity. And Roxana Saberi, who spent 101 days in jail in Iran, she was arrested in January 2009, sentenced to eight years in prison, only to have her sentenced overturned in May.

Tell me first, Roxana, since you were in the same prison as Jason Rezaian was, but for a shorter amount of time, what happens today? What happens tomorrow for him?

ROXANA SABERI, JOURNALIST: Well, everybody's case is a little bit different.

But what happened for me is, I just needed time to be with my family and my loved ones and to feel safe and free. I think he's going to just -- he needs time to be with his loved ones, and maybe to enjoy some basic freedoms that you don't get in prison, that you probably never appreciated before you were in prison, just walking down the street, talking on the phone, shutting off the lights at night.

STELTER: When he was interviewed by Anthony Bourdain, coincidentally, six weeks before being detained, he talked about missing burritos and maybe an alcoholic beverage in the United States.

SABERI: Yes. So, he will probably want a lot of those now.


STELTER: David, did you have a similar experience? You were a different case in some ways, because you were kidnapped by the Taliban.

But you were able to free yourself, you were able to escape, and then you wrote about the experience for "The New York Times."

DAVID ROHDE, REUTERS: Yes, I think he will be thrilled. I remember kissing the sidewalk in front of the apartment building where I lived with my wife. She was sort of upset by that. She was like, couldn't you have kissed the floor of the lobby? It might have been a little cleaner.


ROHDE: But he will write. It was a cathartic thing to write about the experience.

But I didn't write at all for weeks. I just sat around with my family. None of this is Jason's fault or our fault, but I apologized to them quite a bit to my editors and my friends as well, because it's a nightmare for editors and families. It's the kidnappers, the Iranians who are at fault here, but it's such a traumatic thing for individuals, but also news organizations and families.

STELTER: I guess I would like to imagine that maybe Jason was writing a story in his mind all the time as a way of processing or getting through what was going on. But we don't know that for sure.

Let me bring in one more guest actually, because Maziar Bahari is able to join us now from London. He's an editor of

He, like Roxana, was jailed in 2009.

Maziar, you were held for 118 days in a Tehran prison. Jon Stewart's movie "Rosewater" is based on your experience. If you say anything to Jason right now, give him any advice about what happens next, what would you say?

MAZIAR BAHARI, IRANWIRE.COM: Well, I think I will -- I have an advice for the media.

I just would like my colleagues in media to leave Jason and the other released prisoners alone for a while. I'm sure that Jason will be writing something for "Washington Post," who knows, in a couple of weeks, in one month. He will write for "Washington Post," for sure, because of everything they have done for him. But I would like to ask -- I implore, I beg my colleagues in the media

to leave these prisoners alone, because no one knows what stress they have gone through. They have to relax at the moment. They have to be with their families. They have to have their private moments. They have to get their thoughts together, their lives together.


So, I don't have -- I don't know Jason personally, so I don't have any advice for him. But I have a lot of advice for my colleagues in the media, to leave these prisoners alone.

STELTER: David, let me ask you a question about something we were discussing in the last block. That is this issue of news organizations, including CNN, keeping it secret, even though we knew about the prisoner swap talk several months ago.

When you were kidnapped, I and many others at "The New York Times" were aware of the situation. It was never reported, however. It was always kept a secret. Lately, there's been some talk about whether that's the right strategy or not in journalist kidnappings, for example, in Syria.

Do you think, in this case, involving Iran, involving Jason Rezaian, did these news outlets make the right decision?

ROHDE: I think they did in keeping these quiet.

And the basic idea is that, if it's going to cause imminent harm, you don't publish the information. But the pattern we see is that with -- when governments hold people -- and the situation is getting worse, as Joel Simon said. It's outrageous how long Jason was held.

News organizations need to be very aggressive about pressuring these governments to let people go. And we have a responsibility as journalists, also. Frankly, we're not very popular. And we need to get it right, do these kind of blackouts only in the most rare circumstances.

But we're all trying, and the public doesn't believe us so much. But we need to be responsible, not publish information that endangers people, but also get our stories right. It's an honor to be in this profession. And we have got to -- these events remind us of that.

STELTER: One last question for you, Roxana. Given that you're now at Al-Jazeera America, you're a working journalist every day, would you return to Iran under these conditions?

SABERI: Probably not at this time. I hope I can one day.

But knowing that journalists are still in jail in Iran -- I have a friend, Siamak Namazi, an American-Iranian, who is still in jail there. And I hope he will be freed soon.

For people like me, I don't think it's the best time, but for other people, perhaps it's totally fine. STELTER: Thank you all very much for being here. I appreciate it

this morning.

And, Maziar, in London, thank you as well.

Coming up here on the program, the Democratic candidates for president gathering tonight in South Carolina, their first debate of 2016. So, why did the party powers pick a Sunday night on a three-day weekend?

DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz joins us right after the break.



STELTER: Welcome back.

We're standing by for any information about Jason Rezaian and the other American prisoners who have left Iran, who are in the air, who are on the way to Europe. When we know more about when they have landed, we will let you know.

Now, tonight, in Charleston, South Carolina, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, Martin O'Malley will debate each other for just the fourth time this primary season.

But you could be forgiven for not knowing that there is a debate tonight, because there's not a lot of buzz about it. It's happening during a three-day holiday weekend, and the last one was held on the Saturday before Christmas.

Meanwhile, their GOP counterparts have already faced off six times. So, let me show you a chart that illustrates the difference. These are the ratings for all the debates so far. The red bars are the ratings for the GOP debates topping out at 25 million viewers, thanks in large part to Donald Trump. The blue bars are the lower-rated Democratic debates.

Even the FOX Business debate a few days ago, that GOP debate had 11 million viewers, which is higher than the recent Democratic debates.

Now, Sanders and O'Malley have been vocal about wanting more debates. I'm not so sure Clinton has been quite as vocal. But this morning's "New York Times" says some Clinton advisers are now regretting that. They're wishing they had pushed for more debates.

So, I wonder, could any more be added to the schedule?

Let's ask DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz. She's in Charleston at the site of the debate.

Congresswoman, I know you have said you don't want an explosion of debates, that there were too many in past cycles. But are you considering adding maybe just one or two more?

REP. DEBBIE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ (D), FLORIDA: Brian, we're thrilled to be here in Charleston, South Carolina, for our fourth Democratic primary debate over Dr. Martin Luther King weekend.

And you know that this was a very important and specifically appointed reason that we brought our debate here to Charleston, South Carolina, and had it over Martin Luther King weekend. Our main debate partners, the Congressional Black Caucus Institute, as well as the South Carolina Democratic Party, asked us to host the South Carolina debate over the Martin Luther King weekend.

And then, of course, when we had the tragedy of the Emanuel nine happen, it became even more poignant and important. So, we're very proud to be hosting this debate over Martin Luther King weekend.

And it gives us an opportunity to talk about the issues that are critically important for the African-American community and to helping people reach the middle class, and draw the really stark and clear contrast that we have from the Republican debate in North Charleston, which was blocks from the Mother Emanuel Church, and yet all of their candidates criticize President Obama for having the nerve to suggest and adopt policy that would prevent people who shouldn't have guns from being able to get them.

STELTER: You scheduled it in Charleston. I hear you on that, but why a Sunday night? Sunday night is "Downton Abbey" night. Sunday night is "Madam Detective" night. Sunday night is a terrible time to have a debate, because there are so many great shows on.

Don't you think that is going to hurt your ratings? And isn't it in your interests to have high ratings for these debates?

WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: We're very interested in having high ratings for our debates.

In fact, we're very proud that we actually have had record viewership for our Democratic primary debates. In fact, Brian, 58 out of the -- our debates have actually bested the viewership of 58 out of the last 61 primary debates in 2008 and 2012.

In fact, our first debate beat at least two of the Republican debates. And our last debate, compared to the Republican last debate, was just -- just a little bit less than theirs.

So, even the debate on the six days before Christmas had almost as high a viewership as our prior debate. We have had a collection of robust viewership that, again, has broken our records for prior debates. And, frankly, we have had, more importantly, a much more substantive and serious discussion, where Americans have a chance, instead of watching the food fight happening on the other side of the aisle, get to hear our candidates talk about how they are going to meet -- move our country forward.

STELTER: Obviously, it's in television networks' interests to have more debates, but it sounds to me like you're not wiggling at all. There's no indication that you may add some to the calendar in the next couple of months.

WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: You know, Brian, it's really important that we have the candidates have a variety of opportunities to be seen by voters.

We have had candidate forums and we will be having additional forums going forward. We have had our debates.



STELTER: But that is what -- but that is what kind of frustrates me.


STELTER: The Fusion forum earlier this week, the Black and Brown Forum, the ratings were -- you couldn't even see the ratings, they were so low on the Fusion network.

I feel like your all's voices aren't getting heard the way they could be if there were more of these events.

WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: Well, we believe strongly that a combination of opportunities for voters to see our candidates and make sure that we're not pulling them off the campaign trail every other day to prepare for a debate.

We have an early primary state window for a reason, so voters can get that up-close and personal look, and make sure that, unlike in later primaries, where there's a big collection on multiple Tuesdays and harder for the candidates to spend that close-up time, that we're giving those candidates and the voters an opportunity to have that really up-close and personal kick-the-tires time.

And a lot more debates would take away from that. Brian, there's no number of debates that will satisfy everyone. So, I did my best to make sure, along with my staff and along with our debate partners, to come up with a schedule that we felt was going to allow for the -- to maximize the opportunity for voters to see our candidates.

STELTER: I agree with you. There's no amount that would satisfy everyone.

On the other hand, your all's next debate is February 11. It's after Iowa and New Hampshire. The GOP has two more between now and then. It just seems to me like we're learning a lot more about those candidates.

WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: Well, keep in mind, Brian, they have...

STELTER: I'm sorry. Go ahead.

WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: They have a dozen candidates, and we have three.

So, I mean, I understand that they have got a reality TV star that is attracting a lot of train wreck, you know, you shouldn't watch, but you can't help yourself-type interest.

You know, on our side, we're getting record viewership for our debates. And we have had three up to now, and this is our fourth. And that's because voters really care about the issues.

They really care about hearing how their candidates for president are going to continue to build on the job growth that we have had, the 70 straight months of private sector job growth, how we were able to pull us out of the worst economic crisis, and how we're going to continually keep moving us forward.

STELTER: T-minus...

WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: On the other side, they like watching, in the same way that they like watching a train wreck.

STELTER: T-minus nine hours to Charleston.

Congresswoman, thank you for being here this morning.

WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: Looking forward to it. Thank you.

STELTER: Up next on RELIABLE SOURCES here: Is Sean Penn a journalist? And why I even asking that question? We're going to talk about the context for that question for his big magazine article in "Rolling Stone" and hear from Jann Wenner, the publisher, right after this.



STELTER: Actor Sean Penn speaking out for the first time since that very controversial interview with Mexican drug cartel leader El Chapo was published this time last week in "Rolling Stone."


SEAN PENN, ACTOR: When you get the story that every journalist in the world wanted, there's a lot of green-eyed monsters who are going to come give you a kiss.

CHARLIE ROSE, CBS NEWS: Those are jealous journalists, you're suggesting?

PENN: Yes.

Of course, I know that there are people who don't like me out of the gate.

ROSE: You're not without controversy.

PENN: Not without controversy. Fair enough.

At the same time, you know, when journalists who want to say that I'm not a journalist, well, I want to see the license that says that they're a journalist.



STELTER: I do love that answer from Mr. Penn.

So, how should we be viewing him? And does it matter if he's a journalist or not.

Joining me now, vice president at Poynter Institute Kelly McBride, and the former editor in chief of "People" magazine Larry Hackett.

Thank you both for being here.

And let me start with Jann Wenner, the publisher of "Rolling Stone." I was able to speak with him on the phone the other day, asking him about his position about this article and how he feels about all the reactions.

Let me put on screen what he said to me.

He said he thought this was one of the biggest scoops in "Rolling Stone"'s history. He said he thinks some people would have given their first-born child to get this story and that giving El Chapo story approval was a small price to pay.

Kelly McBride, he says anyone would have done the same thing, meaning anyone would have let El Chapo read the story ahead of time and then suggest or demand changes.

Now, "Rolling Stone" says this drug lord didn't actually want anything changed in the article. But do you believe that it was unethical for the magazine to offer story approval in the first place?


A controversial figure like El Chapo, you can let him know what his quotes are. You can let him do an accuracy check on the story and you can address his concerns that way, but you don't need to let him read the story ahead of time.

It changes the way the reporter interacts with the source when you know that that's a condition. So, that was a huge mistake.

STELTER: And I know that you don't think Penn qualifies as a journalist. Do you think it matters, the label journalist or activist or writer?

MCBRIDE: Not so much, really.

I actually think Jann Wenner has a point there, that it's not -- it's not -- we aren't a licensed profession. However, the editor of the magazine, he has a job to do, and he needs to make sure, whichever reporter he's sending out, that that person has the magazine's audience in mind.

And that means acting journalistically, putting your loyalties with that audience, and giving them a story that will inform them and help them understand the situation a little better. And that's where "Rolling Stone" failed.

STELTER: Larry, you have been in this position. You were an editor of "People" magazine for many years.


STELTER: If Sean Penn had come to you with this opportunity, what would you have said to him?

HACKETT: You would have sat down and figured out a way to do this.

I think -- we don't where in the operation this idea about story approval came in. Jann is absolutely right that people do get a chance to look at quotes. And I think the idea of a label is also ridiculous.

The fact of the matter is, Sean...

STELTER: Ridiculous? Why?

HACKETT: Because -- because Alexander Hamilton, the first secretary of the treasury, was a journalist. Winston Churchill spent a career being a journalist.

We don't label these people. You don't have to go to some guild to get approved. He did a bad job being a journalist. I think the failure is absolutely with the editors and with the story. It is a -- part of me feels sorry for El Chapo, if he in fact had to read that story to give approval for it, because it's absolutely interminable.

It's kind of like bad warmed-over Hunter Thompson stuff. So, I don't think Sean did his job. I have no problem with Sean Penn coming to Jann Wenner and saying, hey, I have a bead on this. Do you want it? Absolutely. Let's figure out a way to get this.

I think to kind of slice a little bit thin with what Kelly was saying, the sin is not necessarily letting someone see the story. The sin would have been, do you change the story based on what he asked for?

I think the story -- ultimately, the idea is to give the readers a clear view of what happened. At the top of that story, "Rolling Stone" said he asked for approval and we gave it to him. If the readers knows that, they can decide themselves whether or not the story's worth it.

STELTER: In this case, was it worth it?


HACKETT: No, it was not worth it.

I think the story goes on. Again, this idea -- the kind of cloak and dagger stuff that begins in New York and goes to Los Angeles is not there.

STELTER: Right. HACKETT: The idea that he sat for seven hours without a pen or

pencil, and then had to recreate it, I don't think it really paid off.

Now, that may not have been his fault initially. He didn't know what was going to happen. But any editor would have said, you have El Chapo, let's figure out how to do this.

STELTER: Kelly, Sean Penn said to Charlie Rose he thought his article failed. Penn wanted to start a conversation about the drug war, which Penn believes has failed, but instead the conversation was about Sean Penn. Shouldn't he have known that was going to happen?

MCBRIDE: Oh, absolutely. Yes.

I mean, you can't write a self-indulgent, 10,000-word piece of pap and expect to achieve some intellectual masterpiece. If he really wanted to do that, he would have been working with an editor who was capable of helping him get there.

And maybe he was a little too ambitious in the first place. Writers can't go from zero to 60 without any experience. And nothing that Sean Penn has written in the past suggested that he was capable of achieving the article that he set out to do.

STELTER: Kelly McBride, Larry Hackett, thank you both for being here this morning.

And still ahead on RELIABLE SOURCES: a cable news channel shutting down after just two-and-a-half years. Find out why right after this.


STELTER: Al-Jazeera America, a bold attempt to take on CNN and the BBC, is shutting down. We're working on an in-depth story about what went wrong. And we will be sharing it on later this week.

Also, sign up for our RELIABLE SOURCES newsletter there.

And join us this time next week for the program here on TV.