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BuzzFeed Editor Defends Publishing Unconfirmed Trump Memo; BuzzFeed Panned for Publishing Trump Dossier. Aired 11a-Noon ET

Aired January 15, 2017 - 11:00   ET


[11:00:06] BRIAN STELTER, CNN ANCHOR: Hey, I'm Brian Stelter. And this is RELIABLE SOURCES, our weekly look at the story behind the story, of how the media really works, how the news gets made.

This week, let's start a little differently, with some words to live by, really some words to report by.

"The president should be supported or opposed exactly to the degree which is warranted by his good conduct or bad conduct. His efficiency or inefficiency in rendering loyal, able and disinterested service to the nation as a whole. Therefore, it is absolutely necessary that there should be full liberty to tell the truth about his acts and this means it's exactly necessary to blame him when he does wrong as to praise him when he does right. Any other attitude in an American citizen is both base and servile."

"To announce that there should be no criticism of the president or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile but is morally treasonable to the American public. Nothing but the truth should be spoken about him or anyone else, but it's even more important to tell the truth, pleasant or unpleasant, about him than about anyone else."

Tell the truth, pleasant or unpleasant. Today's program is about this message. And later this hour, I'll tell you which American president said this and why he said it.

The words are especially important today decades and decades later because President-elect Donald Trump does not respect dissent. He attacks truth-telling journalists and he bullies critics.

He may think this is a winning strategy for him but the rest of us lose. Let's face it, these are challenging times for journalists, very challenging times, and they are about to get more so five days from now.

Looking live here at the U.S. capitol, preparations under way for President-elect Trump to take the oath of office becoming our 45th president.

Today, there's a brand new report in "Esquire", a new report saying that Trump aides may want to evict the press corps. We have fresh reporting on that just coming in. We'll get to that in a few minutes.

But let's look first at the bold truth telling journalism that is happening. We all witnessed it this week, when CNN reported that intel chiefs, let's quote the headline here, "Intel chiefs presented Trump with claims of Russian efforts to compromise him." These claims came partly from a former British intelligence agent's 35-page dossier.

CNN did not print it or quote from it, but BuzzFeed did. The big news site, BuzzFeed. Even though this memo is full of unverified allegations, some of them known to be false.

Was this a violation of journalistic ethics? Some media critics supported BuzzFeed, but many, many did not.

So, joining me now for an exclusive Sunday morning interview about this is Ben Smith, the editor-in-chief of the website.

Ben, you made the call when this happened. Do you regret it now a few days later? Do you have regrets about publishing this entire document?

BEN SMITH, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, BUZZFEED: Absolutely not. We're proud we published it. And I feel, three days later, it seems clear it was the right thing to do, if you look at how much more we know than we knew three days ago. And I think in three months, it will look even clearer.

STELTER: What is it more know that we know now that you believe justifies the decision?

SMITH: We know this saga that dozens of journalists, intelligence officials, elected leaders knew of a British -- of a former British spy creating this document, handing it over to the FBI, John McCain handing it to the FBI of briefings which Jake Tapper and your team got an amazing scoop on of the CIA briefing the president and the vice president-elect.

It's really about incredible fight of highest levels of U.S. power, but away from the eyes of the American people over this document, and over the claims that as -- in the headline you showed. The claims that CNN and many, many other outlets reported and repeated. And I guess our call was, that in the first instance, once you have the document, as we did and many did and we --

STELTER: When did you get a hold of it?

SMITH: I'm not going to say exactly, but weeks before we published it.

STELTER: So, you've had it for weeks before CNN published the story.

SMITH: Yes. And we, like you, I think like you, like certainly other outlets who we ran across in the reporting, we're staking out places where we thought we could get information in Europe. We're running it down every way we could.

And at some point, you know, as Harry Reid is sending a letter based on it, as government and powerful officials are taking little actions based on it, not just sort of seeing it but acting based on it. I think there becomes an argument, should you print it? We were having that conversation. We had not certainly -- we're not close to doing that.

But then I think when your great scoop puts not just the fact of the document but claims attributed in your reporting to a source seen as credible and specific summaries of the claims into public, I think -- I think everybody's obligation then is to say, well, here are the actual claims. We're just not going to summarize --

STELTER: Well, you say summary in those claims -- CNN was careful not to share those details.


SMITH: I saw in that headline, the headline is, claims he was compromised by Russian intelligence. That is an incredibly explosive claim.

[11:05:01] And to say, you and I have here between us, a secret document with explosive, dark claims, and we don't -- you guys on the other side of the camera can't see it, but we can -- I don't really understand.

I guess I'm sort of interested actually -- because I see the case for reporting it out and not sharing it. I see the case for saying, here are these claims, here is this document that center of the fight. Take a look.

I think I actually don't see the case for the middle position. I actually thought, I realize you're not a spokesman for CNN, and I don't mean to put you --

STELTER: The middle position is journalism.

SMITH: No, the journalism that we were all doing was to try to verify the claims. Once you repeat them, and put them out there but to not share the underlying documents --

STELTER: But the actual claims were not put out there. The story that CNN published and the story "The New York Times" published said --

SMITH: The headline I saw, the headline I just saw --

STELTER: -- this was a topic briefed to the president-elect and that's was the news was.

SMITH: The headline you put up was claims he was compromised by Russian intelligence.

STELTER: But you're conflating these two the Trump aides.

SMITH: I'm actually --

STELTER: What you're saying you all published the claims. No, CNN did not. Neither did "The New York Times" or "The Washington Post" or others.

SMITH: The he was compromised --

STELTER: Nobody went into these sordid details --

SMITH: The details, I agree.

STELTER: -- that you all put up on the web.

SMITH: I guess we thought that it was important when you had a blanket claim like he was compromised by the Russian intelligence, to share the details. I think that's important. I think our audience basically at this point expects you. And this is what you do on the Internet with hyperlinks. You do it by showing your source documents that you can.

But the default is, if you want your audience to trust you, you're not -- you don't just -- our job is not to be gatekeepers to decide what to suppress and keep from our audience. It's primarily to share with our audience what we've got. All that said --

STELTER: You say suppress. Journalists every day make editing decisions. And this was just an editing choice a about not putting a completely unverified rumors out on the internet.

SMITH: Well, you put some of them on the Internet. You just didn't put the details on the Internet. Yes?

STELTER: No. What happened from CNN and "The New York Times" and other outlets is they reported the existence of this concern inside the intelligence community and the existence of this briefing.

SMITH: And several of the details of it. But in summary, I agree not the most explosive detail, but the summary that you've been covering and I think it was worth -- there was a big difference between saying there are these dark and explosive claims that we're not going to tell you about and here's the actual thing. I'm not sure reading the thing and our report which said, not only it is unverified, we know there are specific things wrong, I think that's important to put out there and to let people see the underlying document.

That said, I also reasonable people can really disagree on this and they are. I don't think you're acting like a Trump aide. I don't think I am either. And I think like that's -- this is a -- this was a close call. I'm not suggesting otherwise.

STELTER: I'm trying to figure out if you are a "Washington Post" or WikiLeaks. It seems to me you're trying to be both, saying, we're going to dump this document online. We don't know if it's real. We don't know if you know it's a real document. You don't know if the truth -- you don't know if the facts on it are true or not.

That's not "The Washington Post" or CNN or "The New York Times" would do. You all aspire to be one of the world's great news divisions. But aren't you trying to be more like WikiLeaks in this case? SMITH: We are I think well within the tradition of American journalism, which is every time you use the world alleged on your air, every time you see the word "alleged" in print or on the web, that is saying we are repeating a claim we can't verify. That is a totally, within the standard particularly of covering law enforcement.

But, you know, you'll hear that dozens of times on CNN. You'll hear that word quite a bit in coverage.

And I think from our perspective, if you're going to say that, your obligation if you've got the indictment, you know, even if you think there's lots there that's false and the fact you can particularly -- you can point to things that are false, if I can see it, if it's not going to scald my eyes out, I think, I mean, it's a question to reasonably ask your audience. If I'm up here saying I have a secret document, I'm going to summarize it but not I'm sure I'm comfortable showing it to you because I'm not sure I can trust you with it. Do you feel that you shouldn't see it?

STELTER: It's not about trusting the reader. I mean, let's put on screen what you said to the audience at the time.

SMITH: What do you mean it's not about trusting the reader?

STELTER: You said, "Americans can make up their own minds about the allegations about the president-elect that have circulated around the intelligence community."

But how can they make up their own minds without providing reporting to them? Without, you know -- how do you expect your readers to make up their own minds?

SMITH: I think that I would say is that, I think -- it's -- if you're going to report on a document, the presumption is that you share the document with your audience, let them know what you know.

STELTER: So, that's where this is really interesting, right? I would say and I think you and I agree on this, big old fashioned established news organizations start from the premise of, why should we share this?


STELTER: You start from the premise of, why shouldn't we?

SMITH: Why should we suppress this? Yes, that's right.

STELTER: And you use the word "suppress".

SMITH: That's a little tangential. Why shouldn't we share that? Yes.

STELTER: It's OK. But that's a fundamental -- that's a profound difference that we're describing between legacy media and digital media.

SMITH: I think that's right.


SMITH: But I don't think it's a difference of values. I think we are trying to best inform our audience to be true to our audience, to treat our audience with respect. I think you are too. I think these are different traditions of that.

But I think that conflation of that, with deliberate deception, is really inappropriate. We put that -- we put this out with a very clear summary of what it was, where it came from and we really stressed that there were false things in this document --


STELTER: You did. But why not publish a full reported explanation to the reader about what you've learned so far, what's false in it? Why not help them understand what they were seeing in this memo?

[11:10:02] SMITH: I mean, I don't think that you or I or the FBI apparently can say with great confidence that either they have stood this up or knocked it down.

STELTER: There were some details that we both know were false. You could have annotated that. You could have put a lot of redactions.

SMITH: I think, right. I think there are levels of how many reductions, of how much annotation. We did point out that things that we really, were very, very confident were false, in part to say to the reader, caveat --

STELTER: You did a little bit of that. Let's be honest, you rushed this out. CNN published and you published a couple of hours later, trying to get this on the Internet as fast as possible.

SMITH: I mean, it is both of our jobs to be fast and accurate as we can.

STELTER: Accurate and then fast.

SMITH: I think -- yes, of course.

STELTER: So, Sean Spicer, another Trump aide, tried to conflate what CNN published and what BuzzFeed published. Let's take a look actually what Sean Spicer the next day.


SEAN SPICER, INCOMING WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The fact that BuzzFeed and CNN made the decision to run with this unsubstantiated claim is a sad and pathetic attempt to get clicks. The report is not an intelligence report plain and simple.


STELTER: Were you trying to just get clicks? SMITH: I mean, I think Sean quoted me as he continued there in saying

it was unverified. I think -- you know, there's obviously an attempt to divide the press, to turn us on each other and to turn reasonable differences about editorial decisions into screaming matches between us on this show. I think that's a trap that the media has obviously repeatedly fallen into over the last couple of years, but I think it's better not to right now.

STELTER: OK. Well, there's attention between there's reasons to have unity and the other hand as CNN's Jake Tapper said, what you did was irresponsible and that irresponsible journalism hurts us all.

SMITH: I wouldn't say it was irresponsible to say we have a secret document. We're not going to share it. I would disagree with that. But I think it's a reasonable problem.

STELTER: So, it's not possible to have unity in the press corps if BuzzFeed is acting more like WikiLeaks, just dumping material in the Internet and telling the audience to decide if it's true or not.

SMITH: I think we reported a very important story about --

STELTER: Reporting? You just published. There's a difference between publishing and reporting.

SMITH: We explained the origin of the document. We described the extent to which it was accurate and inaccurate, and we shared information that was being -- by the way, that not just, you know, the head of the CIA, dozens if not hundreds of journalists, intelligence officials, elected leaders were seeing and acting on. I do think when you have a document in that kind of circulation among the country's elites, at the center of an incredibly heated political battle, the argument for keeping it away from the American people has to be really, really strong.

STELTER: I'm glad we're talking about this, because I think for the audience at home it's hopefully educational and informative.

SMITH: Yes, I think they should -- and I would if I were them, ask themselves, do I not want to see this. Do I not feel that I am responsible do I not feel that I can handle the notion that this document is not verified, that I can't trust the claims in it, but it's the document at the center of this fight.

STELTER: Let me give you one more example in trying to frame this. In 2013, you wrote about a decision not the go with a story about allegations of prostitutes and a U.S. senator. This was a Democratic U.S. senator. You decided not to go with it specifically because it wasn't verified.

Here is what you wrote at the time, "Stanton, McKay Coppins and I felt more or less vindicated in making the traditional don't-touch-it call when the story appeared to fall apart or least got murkier in a way that stories based n the testimonies of anonymous prostitutes in foreign counties are vulnerable to." Now, this 35-page memo also has lots of anonymous information, unverified information. What's the difference now? Is the difference that Donald Trump is a Republican?

SMITH: No. The main difference is CNN initially has a great scoop, that the president of the United States and the president-elect were being briefed on the document. Had this document -- had the -- you know, I'm actually not going to mention the case because I don't want to get it wrong, but I'm pretty sure I know which U.S. senator we're talking about here. Had that document been picked up by the FBI and briefed to the president of the United States, I think it would have been inappropriate of us to say, but we're not going to show it to you.

STELTER: Has anyone from Trump --

SMITH: And I guess conversely, you and I get e-mail every day making outlandish charges against people. And whether or not widely circulated among the American elites, but U.S. senators are not acting on it.

STELTER: So, for you, the big difference was senators, intelligence officials, journalists all have this?

SMITH: Not just seeing it, but acting on it.

STELTER: Acting on it.

SMITH: People are making decisions based on it.

STELTER: Has anyone from the Trump's transition team or the Trump organization threatened to sue BuzzFeed this week?

SMITH: You know, I guess I am -- I am not always sure that I can identify on Twitter who specifically works for the Trump and his transition.

STELTER: You're saying you've received tweets from people threatening to sue.

SMITH: I've gotten tweets, many, many tweets this week.

STELTER: But no letter, no legal letter from any authority?


STELTER: I asked because there's been threats of suits in the past. We haven't seen that from Trump this week.

SMITH: It's also a tradition. You don't report on lawsuit, A, now, discarded American journalistic tradition of not reporting on lawsuit threats before they have been filed. But no, there haven't -- no, there haven't been any.

STELTER: Do you worry or do you care that publishing this sort of inoculated Donald Trump? That it conflated a lot of these news outlets and a lot of them just dismiss it entirely by calling you a failing pile of garbage?

SMITH: I mean, I saw this -- you know, I really didn't understand this. I saw the next morning people saying, you know, this was the moment after two and a half years of really getting totally rolled by Donald Trump and in many cases, apologizing for coverage of Donald Trump that this was the morning that we were going to -- this was the morning the media was going to turn it around and really do a fantastic job and hold him to account and had only BuzzFeed not published this.

[11:15:21] And I really do think that's -- I mean, that's a fantasy.

STELTER: What's the BuzzFeed motto for covering Trump going forward? You wrote a memo last month to your staff, saying practically every story now, it all comes back to Trump. All roads lead back to Trump. What's your strategy for covering Trump in the weeks and months ahead?

SMITH: First, I would say, I don't think it all comes back to Trump. I think it all comes back to a broader, we're a global organization with reporters all over the place, in the U.K. and France. I think it comes back to this broader kind of rise of global nationalism and that's the story I feel like is at the center of things.

But, really, you know, I think we plan -- I feel -- I'm really proud of how we covered him through the campaign, because we were fair. We were tough. We didn't -- and I think we never engaged in the kind of fantasy of the Trump pivot that he was somebody other than he was going to be.

I think we also reckoned with as you do this very challenging fact that he and his spokespeople say things that aren't true all the time. And I think you have to engage that very directly. So, I think we plan to continue to cover him like that.

STELTER: BuzzFeed was blacklisted from much of the campaign --


SMITH: We were the charter --

STELTER: Outlets were not given press credentials. Do you expect that in the White House?

SMITH: I don't know. I mean, I'm certainly -- we have not had any trouble covering Donald Trump since about October.

STELTER: And last June, Trump told me, no, he will not, if he's elected president, be banning reporters in the press briefing room. However, now, we're five days. We'll see what happens.


STELTER: Ben, good to see you. Thank you.

SMITH: Yes. Good to see you. Thanks, Brian. STELTER: Coming up next here on the program, an all star panel of media observers and decision managers standing by with their thoughts on BuzzFeed's decision.

And later in the hour, FOX News and its biggest star, Bill O'Reilly, now in the news. Fox settling sexual harassment claims. How is O'Reilly being treated by FOX? How does that compare to Roger Ailes' departure from the network?

We'll cover that in a few minutes.


[11:20:04] STELTER: Hey, welcome back. We're just getting started here.

We heard from Ben Smith, the editor in chief of BuzzFeed, about the controversial decision to go ahead and publish a 35-page memo involving unverified allegations about Donald Trump.

Let's bring in an all star panel of media critics and observers. Jeffrey Goldberg is here, the editor-in-chief of "The Atlantic"; Margaret Sullivan, a media columnist for "The Washington Post"; Mollie Hemingway, senior editor of "The Federalist"; and David Zurawik, media critic for 'The Baltimore Sun".

Margaret, you wrote this week that BuzzFeed crossed the line by publishing this dossier. Tell us why.

MARGARET SULLIVAN, THE WASHINGTON POST: Well, for me, it's fairly simple. There's a time honored and I think very wise rule in journalism that we try to get as close as possible to the truth. And in doing so, we don't make huge information dumps of unverified material which is what this was.

STELTER: David Zurawik, do you agree?

DAVID ZURAWIK, BALTIMORE SUN: I totally agree. You know, I think it cuts even deeper than that. I mean, I thought at first when I wrote about this the first time, I thought was I being too hard on Smith, Ben Smith. When I heard him now with you trying to say this is respect for the intelligence of the audience and all that, I thought we haven't been hard enough.

They jettisoned one of the most important principles of American journalism, the one that trust with our audience is really based on, which is verification especially in case like this.

Dan Rather who had a storied career up to that point lost his job in 2004 because he went on the air making a claim about George W. Bush that wasn't verified. We don't know if it was wrong or right. Terrible price paid by CBS News in terms of ratings and revenue to end his career. But they did it. That's how important verification is to us.

And, Brian, when he sits there, you correctly called him on it. When he said we felt we had to report this. They didn't report anything. They did exactly what Margaret said, they dumped this stuff on the public.

How is the public going to know what's true and what isn't true? And then to say, well, some of it is false. Then, why don't you tell us what's false?

You know, the thing about one of Trump's aides, Cohen, being in Prague, and then Cohen put his passport online to show that he wasn't, they could have called him up. How hard is that to call him up and ask him?

STELTER: You know, I think about this, and I don't mean to sound fatalistic, but isn't this always what's going to happen? We're in a digital age where someone, somewhere is going to publish a secret document like this?

ZURAWIK: You're so right, Brian, really. And I looked at how many people viewed it at BuzzFeed and I thought, hey, he won. By his standards, he won.

STELTER: So, let me ask, Jeffrey Goldberg. Jeffrey, you're the head of "The Atlantic", would you have published this memo?

JEFFREY GOLDBERG, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, THE ATLANTIC: Well, you know, we had access to the same information going back for a while and we didn't. I was trying to figure out if it was true or not.

So, clearly, I made a decision not to go forward unless we can verify information because I think that's what we're supposed to do. I think Ben is a great journalist. I just disagree with this decision. We're supposed to help the reader understand what's true and what's false. And that's why we exist.

I don't want to work ourselves out of jobs. I mean, to put in quotidian way, that's what we're here to do, is find out to the best of our ability. We'll get it wrong, but to find out whether something is true or false. I said, I do think that once this dossier, once this document worked its way into the official bloodstream of Washington, if you will, in other words, once John McCain took it to various other officials, I think it was inevitable that this was going to come out.

So, I do understand Ben's argument that once there's a story, a CNN story that this thing exists and people at high levels are discussing it, it becomes -- the pressure becomes inevitable to tell people what's in it. It's unfortunate, but that's the way these things work now.

STELTER: Now to the response from the Trump transition team, Mollie. Take a look at this montage we produced, all of the mentions of fake news by the Trump team this week.


DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT-ELECT: You are fake news. SPICER: For all the talk lately about fake news.

TRUMP: Some of the media outlets that I deal with are fake news.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This fake news.

TRUMP: That fake news. It's all fake news. It's phony stuff. Fake news. Fake news. I was indeed as fake news.


STELTER: Mollie, isn't this a cynical attempt by Trump to appeal to his base labeling fake news, all the real reporting about this topic this week?

MOLLIE HEMINGWAY, SENIOR EDITOR, THE FEDERALIST: Well, just real quick, I want to say about Ben Smith, his original note. He said that this is what journalism is in 2017. I think sadly, he's right. That pushing unreliable stories to advance a highly partisan narrative is what too many journalists are doing.

But he did have a good point when he talked a about how this information that BuzzFeed provided did add context and meaning to the story. The original CNN story sounded so unbelievably bad, like Russians had the goods on Trump and CIA was taking it very seriously.

[11:25:07] BuzzFeed publishes the dossier, and that's what the CNN story was about, was the dossier, and people could see for themselves how ridiculous, how preposterous, how immediately debunkable some of the most outrageous or important claims were. It cast doubts not on CNN but on the intelligence community, what they are doing exactly. Obviously, they are leaking like sieves in an ongoing war against the president.

So, BuzzFeed kind of pulled the curtain back, showing how the intelligence community and particularly the more partisan brass, not the actual intelligence officers who do the good work, how they use the media to punish or destroy their political enemies. And that is a very important journalistic story and one that it think should be covered as journalists are cooperating with this intelligence community campaign against the president.

STELTER: Well, let's save the fake news part for later then. You're saying that intelligence sources are leaking trying to discredit Trump, that's what you see happening?

HEMINGWAY: I think -- you know, it's rather obvious there are these stories we're seeing, they come from not just the intelligence community, but very high levels of the intelligence community. As we report on them, we should maybe not be so gullible or accepting of these stories.

I mean, DNI Clapper is a guy who lied to Congress about whether he was spying on them. He lied under oath about whether he was collecting information on hundreds of millions of Americans. We had the intelligence community get in trouble for some political decisions about releasing information on Syria, creating an echo chamber to push the Iran deal.

So, as we take this information from them, we should be applying skepticism. And that's something that's not just right now, but really going back decades and it's a lesson that we keep on sort of failing to learn that we should be skeptical and understanding again of how they use information to destroy those they oppose.

STELTER: All right. My fearsome foursome, stand by. Grab a coffee. We're going to be bring you back in a couple of minutes.

Taking a quick break here because after the commercial, we want to talk about how Trump aides addressed this story, what they said about both the CNN and BuzzFeed story. My essay on denials and distortions right after a quick break.




Deny, deny, deny. And when that doesn't work, conflate and confuse.

That's what spin doctors do. They have done it for decades, both Democrat and Republican. And, right now, that's what President Trump and his aides -- president-elect Trump and his aides are trying to do, number one, deny.

This is Kellyanne Conway reacting to the breaking news about the claims of Russian efforts to compromise Trump on NBC's "Late Night With Seth Meyers" on Tuesday.


SETH MEYERS, HOST, "LATE NIGHT WITH SETH MEYERS": The press report was about them...


MEYERS: ... going to the president.

CONWAY: And it says that they never briefed him on it, that they appended two pages to the bottom of his intelligence report.

MEYERS: I believe it said they did brief him.

CONWAY: Well, he said that he's not aware of that.


STELTER: "He's not aware of that," she said.

In fact, CNN said that it had confirmed that a two-page summary of the allegations against Trump was included in the documents that were presented to Mr. Trump, but cannot confirm if it was discussed in his meeting with the intelligence chiefs -- so, the difference between this paper and a verbal discussion.

That was on Tuesday. Deny.

So, now for number two, conflate.

On Wednesday, Trump press secretary Sean Spicer lumped BuzzFeed and CNN together, wrongly suggesting that both outlets had dumped all the allegations from that 35-page memo online.

Conway seized on an NBC story that further muddied the waters. She tweeted: "From NBC, Trump was not told about unverified Russian dossier, official says. Will TV anchors, networks correct story?"

That brings me to number three. So, we have deny, conflate, and now confuse.

Listen to how Conway sowed confusion in this interview with Anderson Cooper.


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: What's inaccurate about what CNN reported?

CONWAY: Oh, my goodness, the whole headline.

You -- the -- the -- go read the entire story, four bylines, and a story that's just not true...


CONWAY: ... that the president-elect was presented with this information, that it was appended in a two-page document to the briefing.

NBC has said it was not. Other people have said it was not.



STELTER: Cooper challenged her at every turn, but Conway glommed on to NBC's reporting and confused people.

"The New York Times," "The Washington Post" and other newsrooms did confirm the thrust of CNN's reporting. And so did government officials on the record.

Here's the thing. Journalism really is a process, sometimes a long and frustrating process. You pull information from sources while you push other sources to talk. Sometimes, it's wise to be transparent and tell the audience what you don't know.

And case in point, CNN originally said it could not confirm if the summary of the allegations was verbally discussed in Trump's meeting with the intel chiefs. But, on Thursday, there was a reporting breakthrough.


COOPER: As we just learned tonight, the information actually came from Mr. Comey himself directly to Mr. Trump.

That's not fake information. That's not fake news. That's accurate reporting.


STELTER: The conservative news site Red State called this more evidence CNN was right. It was confirmed by other news outlets pretty quickly.

I would add it's also more evidence that the denials and conflations were wrong. Maybe team Trump wanted all of us talking about the media, and, you know, not about the implications of a foreign government claiming to have compromising information about a U.S. president.

But this case did reveal something about Trump's media strategy.

I thought Jim Sciutto said it really well on Thursday night.


JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: What I worry about is a broader issue, which is a hostility to facts, right, and an effort, a concerted effort by Donald Trump and his team to call into question the very existence of facts, right, the very existence of nonpartisan news.

And it seems to be part of its strategy to attack information it finds inconvenient or critical. That's a problem for the way this country functions.


STELTER: Jim's right.

That's why it's absolutely necessary that there should be full liberty to tell the truth about his acts.

Now, I read these words at the start of the program today. These words came from a Republican president, Theodore Roosevelt, in 1918. After leaving office, Roosevelt was disturbed by Woodrow Wilson's efforts to tamp down on dissent.

Roosevelt said, "Free speech, exercised both individually and through a free press, is a necessity in any country where the people themselves are free."


Those words were true 100 years ago. They are true again today. And I think we have all got to be reminded of that.

Coming up here, our A-list panel back to discuss Trump's treatment of the news media and this breaking news today, to talk about what's going to happen with the press corps at the White House, if they're going to move from their current location in the West Wing -- the details right after this.


STELTER: Welcome back. I'm Brian Stelter.

Let's turn now to Donald Trump and his treatment of the press. Take a look at this breaking news from "Esquire" magazine, this story published overnight. It says the Trump administration may look to evict the press corps from the White House.

Now, this is a little bit more complicated than the headline makes it sound. There is conversation going on between Sean Spicer, who I just spoke with via e-mail here, telling me there is conversation about looking for a new setting for press conferences and for news briefings, the daily briefings that the current White House administration has.

Spicer is saying maybe the room is too small. Maybe we need room for more journalists.

But there's a deeper, deeper concern among White House correspondents and others about exactly how Trump is going to approach this. Let's be honest. He's being aided, egged on and encouraged by conservative commentators like Sean Hannity and Republicans like Newt Gingrich, who wants Donald Trump to just ignore and dismiss the press.


Listen to what Newt says here on FOX.


SEAN HANNITY, HOST, "HANNITY": Journalism is dead. Did Donald Trump bury them today?

NEWT GINGRICH (R), FORMER SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: He didn't bury them today, but he certainly, I think, began to draw the lines for the fight that's coming.

They can close down the elite press. They can create totally new venues for informing the American people. They can go to Facebook and to YouTube and to Skype and they can have average citizens asking questions.

I think you would have a much richer dialogue if you broke up the monopoly of the elite news media.


STELTER: Sean, journalism is not dead. Just ask FOX's journalists. And as for what Gingrich said about breaking up the elite news media, let's talk about that with Jeffrey Goldberg back with me, editor in chief of "The Atlantic," Margaret Sullivan, media columnist for "The Washington Post," Mollie Hemingway, senior editor at "The Federalist," and David Zurawik, media critic for "The Baltimore Sun."

Jeffrey Goldberg, these reports this morning about changes to the press briefing room, there's a lot of uncertainty, a lot of curiosity. I think that is exactly how the incoming administration wants it, wanting journalists to be back on their heels, to be on edge about this. What's your take?

GOLDBERG: Well, my take is that for generations presidents have allowed -- and the word is allowed -- allowed the press corps to have space within the White House itself.

It's an important signal to the country that this is the people's House. It's an important signal to the press that we treat you with respect and you're an integral part of governance. You're here to check us. The press has never felt as free as it wants to feel in terms of wandering around the White House.

But the optics here of moving the press out of White House, look, no one wants a battalion of reporters living on their first floor, except maybe you. You would probably have that in your house.


STELTER: I would. I would.

GOLDBERG: You would. But most people wouldn't.

But this is the price that you pay to have a free country, a democracy, a system of checks and balances, informal and formal. And so the optic of moving them out to some other more distant part of the White House complex is just terrible, in my opinion.

STELTER: I posted a full story about this on You all can see the reporting from Jim Acosta and Jeremy Diamond and I.

But, Mollie, let me go to you on this. What I see the Trump administration doing is trying in a very purposeful way to disrespect the press. And that's something perhaps many of Trump voters like to see.


There's this larger context where our profession, unfortunately, has very low credibility with Republicans in particular. I think only 14 percent of the Republicans trust the media, only 30 percent of independents. Much higher favorability and trust ratings with Democrats.

That's a really dangerous thing. We need to hold Trump accountable. But we don't really have the credibility to do that. And so he's exploiting that situation. And I think it's really incumbent upon us to really get our house in order and think about how to cover him, so that we will be in a position to hold him accountable.

Right now, it seems like much of our reporting is designed to whip half the country into a frenzy and get the other half to tune out. We need to kind of buckle down and figure out what are the appropriate battles to fight and what are the appropriate lines of questioning, so that we can regain credibility with our people.

STELTER: You say designed. You think it's intentional?

HEMINGWAY: Is what intentional? Sorry

STELTER: To have reporting that tears the country apart?

HEMINGWAY: Oh, there's all sorts of reasons why we have gotten to the point we're in. And certainly Donald Trump provokes this response in people.

But it doesn't really matter. It's our credibility on the line. It's our profession that we need to uphold. And we're just not doing a good job. The more we freak out, it just becomes like we're having a temper tantrum, instead of doing out job.

STELTER: Where is the freaking out? Where is the freaking out happening?

HEMINGWAY: You're seeing it just in the general tenor of the Twitter conversations and whatnot, but even in the press conferences and whatnot.

We really need to think about how we're going to pursue questioning, how we're going to deal with an administration that does a very good job of avoiding precise language, and also in just showing some good faith efforts. I don't think the media community has responded to our failures of 2016 with any sort of meaningful self-reflection, systematic changes or the type of changes that need to happen to regain that credibility with a huge section of the country.

STELTER: Margaret, what's your view on what Mollie is saying? Do you see authoritarian tendencies from Trump, or is that an example of a journalist freak-out when it comes to this new president?

SULLIVAN: Brian, there's definitely reason to be concerned.

I think we're in for at least a somewhat combative relationship with the Trump administration. He's made his scorn for the press a centerpiece of his campaign and his time during the transition. So, I think there is a lot to be concerned about.

The thing that I would like to stress is that the press here does represent the public. And so it's not really about where the press is going to sit and whether there's going to be enough room in a particular briefing room and all of that. It's about the press being the representatives of the people. And to the extent we can drive that message home, I think it will be very important, and it's very true.


STELTER: Mollie, you have a more conservative audience at "The Federalist." I think your inbox is different from mine.

Margaret is describing how we do represent the audience, the public. I get a ton of e-mails from viewers right now asking us to hold this new president accountable, hoping that CNN and other outlets like it will stand up to this president.

I think your inbox is different, right, Mollie? What are you hearing from your audience?

HEMINGWAY: Well, I know enough, since people tag us both on Twitter, to know that your inbox is a little different too. You're getting a lot of people who are complaining that the media are unnecessarily hostile to them, their way of life, their views, the things they care about and value.

And this is something that has been going on for decades. When they see Donald Trump fight back against the media, it makes them feel like he's fighting back for them. And that's why this whole conversation is happening in the context of a larger media environment that has been very unfair.

There's a reason why our ratings are so low, our credibility ratings, our trustworthiness ratings, and our favorability ratings. They're low because people don't trust us to do a good job of accurately reflecting the views of a huge swathe of the country. And there's no reason to deny that. We're not going a good job.

And so if we want to represent the people, we need to start representing the people. We need to have newsrooms full of diverse voices and having different arguments make it into news stories. We're not doing a great job with that right now.

And it's causing us major problems again that Donald Trump is able to exploit. And that's dangerous, because the media are important for holding all politicians accountable.

STELTER: Let me get David Zurawik in it.


ZURAWIK: Brian, yes.

Brian, both sides of this are -- I'm sitting here. I'm thinking both sides are true. Jeffrey is absolutely right. You move the press out of there, it's beyond optics. It's deep cultural symbolism, the representatives to the people moved literally off.

But you know what? President Obama did a lot of this himself. He limited the photography from inside the White House from independent sources. That's number one. He did all the things that Trump is taking to the exponential level now of trying to go around the press, talking to alternative sources. And I think there's some -- there's truth to what Mollie says as well in terms of the kind of coverage during this election. If you think back to the CNBC debate where the first question from John Harwood is, isn't this a cartoon campaign, that was -- press -- some people in the press were thinking that way, Brian.

And it was a brilliant campaign that Trump was running. He was spending almost no money. He was using social media. He was using television, but yet we came at him at that tone. A lot of us in the media wanted to ridicule him.

So, two things. One, he absolutely does need the press as an enemy, so he's going to do things to infuriate us to his base, just as Mollie said. And it's not justified. We have to stop him before he moves them out. Yes.


STELTER: That's the most important part of the "Esquire" story from overnight. There's a quote from an unnamed senior transition source saying the media is the opposition party.


STELTER: That's maybe the Trump view. I asked Sean Spicer. Spicer said: I respect the role of the media in a democracy.

But that unnamed quote is crucial.

Jeffrey Goldberg, I'm almost out of time, but last word to you. What are you telling your journalists at "The Atlantic" with regards to all of this we're talking about here?

GOLDBERG: Well, the general instruction, I think, is, we're not here to take cheap shots. If they are hard shots that are justified by the facts, take the hard shot.

I'm telling them that access is important. I want to interview people. I want to cover these people fairly, but we're not going to beg for access. We're going to just cover things as fairly as we can. And I think we're talking about something that's still theoretical. He's not president yet.

So, I don't want to go into this conversation about authoritarianism quite yet, because it's all prospective. And so let's just take this one day at a time and cover this White House vigorously, the way we would cover any White House.

STELTER: One hundred and twenty hours until inauguration hour.

Jeffrey, Margaret, Mollie, thank you very much.

David, please stick around for one more block.

But let's take a quick break here, and, afterwards, a story that might have slipped under your radar this week. It's been a busy news week. But FOX News reportedly settled a sexual harassment charge made against Bill O'Reilly made by a former on-air colleague -- the details right after this.



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

So much media news this week, you might have missed this development, Bill O'Reilly and FOX News.

This is FOX News settling a sexual harassment allegation made against big star Bill O'Reilly by former on-air colleague Juliet Huddy. Now, the settlement is reportedly in the six figures, according to CNN's own Dylan Byers and also reporting from "The New York Times" and the blog LawNewz.

Now, this is not the first time allegations of sexual harassment have been brought against O'Reilly. He settled apparently in the millions of dollars with producer Andrea Mackris in a well-documented, much- covered story in 2004, when she made similar claims.

Of course, the question here on the table is about O'Reilly in the context of Roger Ailes, the former FOX News boss who resigned under pressure last July. Ailes' behavior, the charges of harassment by Ailes, is what resulted in his downfall.

So, what about O'Reilly? Is there a double standard? Is there a difference here?

Joining me now, David Zurawik, media critic for "The Baltimore Sun" back from earlier.

David, one of two things could be going on here. Juliet Huddy had her lawyer send a letter to FOX last summer making these allegations against O'Reilly. Then there was this quiet settlement that was disclosed this week. Either she was harassed by O'Reilly or she was taking advantage of FOX at a time when the boss had just been taken down by harassment allegations.

What's your read on this story?

ZURAWIK: Brian, my read is that there has been so much of this, from Megyn Kelly to Gretchen Carlson to this case.

It's impossible that that was not the culture of FOX News that Roger Ailes established. And it's a sick culture. It's a troubling culture that talented women journalists -- Brian, you know how hard it is to do a show five nights a week, like Megyn Kelly did, and at the level of excellence that she did it.

Now imagine doing that when you were sexually harassed or afraid of being sexually harassed. And in her book, she talks about being sexually harassed by Ailes.


How in the world can you expect somebody to achieve there? And some of the -- and now it's like Penn State at FOX News with Jerry Sandusky. Nobody knew this was going on for all of this time with all these women. I don't think so.


One theory here is that Ailes is close to Huddy and her family. Maybe Huddy decided to write this letter to FOX last summer because Ailes was trying to take down FOX and take down O'Reilly. That's a theory.

Another theory here is that Huddy finally felt like it was a comfortable environment where she could actually bring this allegation to actually talk about what had happened.

Let me show on screen the statement from FOX News saying there were very inaccurate things in this letter from Huddy's lawyers. It says: "The letter contained substantial falsehoods which both men have vehemently denied."

Along with O'Reilly, the other man that was brought up here is a co- president of FOX News.

Now, let me also show the statement's from O'Reilly own lawyer, who is denying these allegations. The lawyer said: "There is absolutely no basis for any claim of sexual harassment against Bill O'Reilly by Juliet Huddy."

This all comes, of course, David Zurawik, at the same time Gretchen Carlson, the fired FOX News anchor who then sued Ailes for harassment, is doing television interviews, including here on CNN and elsewhere, talking about this broader issue of harassment in newsrooms.

David, I'm almost out of time, but what do you think viewers need to take away from these kinds of allegations?

ZURAWIK: Listen, it's really troubling that it persisted to this day.

And it's not just troubling. Troubling sounds like a high-minded word. When I talk to some of the women who have dealt with this in the industry, it's really painful to hear their stories.

And I'll tell you what. I have never seen a corporation...

STELTER: You're right.

I'm out of time, but you're right. It's not just about FOX. This is not just about FOX. It's about an industry-wide and culture-wide problem.


STELTER: David, I'm sorry I'm out of time.

ZURAWIK: OK. STELTER: We will keep this going in our newsletter.

Thanks for tuning in today. And I will see you next week.