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Trump's Revisionist History Love On T.V.; Former NYT Editor Says Paper Is Anti-Trump; Why William Arkin Decided To Leave NBC News. Democrats Are Back in the Spotlight; Inside One Family's 2020 Deliberations. Aired 11a-12p ET

Aired January 06, 2019 - 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 and how all of us can help make it better.

We got big stories this hour, including President Trump saying, in just the past few minutes, that he may declare a national emergency to get more border wall built. It depends on, quote, what happens over the next few days. We'll get into that.

Plus, former "New York Times" editor Jill Abramson causing controversy, saying the paper is anti-Trump. We'll get reaction from inside "The Times".

We're also going inside one family's deliberations about 2020, about running for president. Senator Sherrod Brown is married to Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Connie Schultz and she will join me for a candid conversation.

But first here, the U.S. government still partially shut down, still an embarrassment around the world and news coverage is starting to show the impacts. What may end up turning the tide here is the coverage -- is the news coverage of personal stories of the personal impacts as more furlough government workers begin to share details of what the shutdown means to their bottom line or in the case of the TSA, if more workers decide not to show up to work. That, of course, is an ongoing story, you see the countdown clock there in the corner of the screen.

But let me level with you since the start of a new year here, I thought about leading off this program with President Trump's insults against Democrats, his latest slur against Elizabeth Warren, his new ad blasting Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer. But then I thought that's precisely the problem, framing Democratic policies and campaigns through Trump's shots and smears is one of the things that's wrong about political coverage.

So, let's start with a different kind of conversation today, not about Trump, but about the Dems. Now that the Democrats have retaken control of the House and Pelosi's have been all over television talking about that, and Warren has been on TV too, jump-starting the 2020 race in Iowa with a series of events, are reporters repeating some of the mistakes made in 2016 already? Is sexism creeping into the coverage?

Joining me now to break all this down and preview the year come are three Democratic CNN commentators, including one who's making her debut today, Karen Finney. Let's welcome Karen, of course, a former spokesperson for Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign. She's been a part of several campaigns including most recently, Stacey Abrams' bid in Georgia.

Also joining me here, Symone Sanders, former national press secretary for Bernie 2016, and Dan Pfeiffer, a former senior adviser to President Obama.

Karen, since you're the newbie, welcome here. You're up first.


STELTER: I want to know what you are concerned about or what you are keeping a close eye on in the news coverage of the Dems retaking control in the House and beginning 2020 campaigning?

FINNEY: Well, first of all, thank you so much. It's so great to be here, and so great to be at CNN. I think a couple of things, and one that you mentioned. I mean, we have to really think about language and the language that we use.

You know, this will be the third time in a presidential that we've got women running and that we also have a such a potentially diverse group of people running from different ethnic backgrounds and we have a much more diverse electorate.

And so, how media covers the candidates with -- you know, we can't be afraid to call out things that are racist or sexist in the same way that you know we tend to get these phrases about things that are racially tinged or you know hints of sexism. But yet when we talk about anti-Semitism, we're very direct. So I think part of it is going to be not being afraid to call things out for what they are.

And the second thing that I'll just very quickly mention is polling. So much of the coverage of polling focuses on the what but not the why, and the best example of that that I can give you from 2016 where many journalists have admitted they missed it was the fact that polls were saying people had, you know, economic anxiety. What people were missing is that what was driving that economic anxiety was about fear of change, was about racism, was about sexism.

And so, that whole conversation was really missed on the national level in terms of how -- what that meant for the country and how that meant the candidates were being both covered and perceived.

STELTER: Interesting. Yes, there was not enough talk about racial resentment during the 2016 campaign. We focused a lot on economic anxiety and not about racial anxiety and that's a regret I have personally.

Symone, what about you? I know there's a lot of distrust of the press on the left. We talk a lot about distrust of the media on the right, but also on the left. What do you think are the main reasons why liberals who are passionate about these campaigns sometimes distrust the national media?

SYMONE SANDERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: You know, I think part of it comes from -- that a lot of times the things that are happening on the ground are not in fact the things that folks are talking about on cable news, because oftentimes there is a disconnect between a number a number of the pundits pontificating on cable news and the people who are actually doing the work who have been on the ground in the states and the conversation becomes disconnected.

[11:05:13] So, that's how we get conversations around for instance, Elizabeth Warren, was in Iowa yesterday. She did a blitz all over the state. I think she did something like four or five events.

And the conversation around on cable news for a lot of folks was, is Elizabeth Warren the best to take on Donald Trump, the DNA thing this, the DNA thing that, and she got one question about the DNA testing while she was in Iowa, one prominent question.

But a lot of the questions were around her stance on the economy, a lot of the questions were around what she thinks about the president and how he's being a bully or what she thinks about health care or people of color in general, not related to the DNA thing.

And so, I think it's really important that we don't just have conversations about what we think is going on. I think it's really important that folks go on the ground, and that we are talking to real people and we are marrying the real conversations that are happening. That's how we miss a lot of things that happen in 2018, not just 2016.

STELTER: Yes, healthcare, healthcare, healthcare.

And, Dan, that brings us to this Trump factor that I was talking about earlier. The idea that if everything is framed or refracted through Trump, that's going to hurt the Democrats.

DAN PFEIFFER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Right, I think Trump's political superpower to the extent he has won is to move the conversation towards topics that animate his base and do nothing for Democrats, right? He brings up the caravan. The media talks about the caravan in the run-up to the election. He talks about Elizabeth Warren, calls her Pocahontas.

We have a conversation around a very impressive accomplished senator with a strong economic messages around this DNA test as opposed to who she is and what kind of president she would be, and the challenge for Democrats is how are we going to move that conversation back to the things that matter to our voters?

And I have to say, I don't think that can happen if we rely primarily on the national media to be the conveyors of our message because the incentives to cover Trump are in a Trump drives clicks. And so much of the media, typically online media, is based on it -- it has a clique based economic model.

And so, we're going to have to have alternative mechanisms, alternative strategies to get our message out, or we're going to lose.

STELTER: And are you talking about podcasts like yours, "Pod Save America"?

PFEIFFER: Well, yes, I think everyone should --


PFEFFIER: But it's not just alternative progressive media, right? It is also candidates and campaigns who can develop an alternative media ecosystem. We can find ways to communicate directly to voters.

Barack Obama started with that in 2008, but you're seeing, you know, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez doing a very good job of not relying on the media to get her message out. Beto O'Rourke in Texas doing similar things. Stacey Abrams doing a similar thing.

And so, you're going to -- you have to be able to communicate through the media, respect the role -- the important role the media plays in our democracy but also find ways to communicate with voters who sit outside of the media bubble that did too much -- we're too much the political coverage is focused.

STELTER: Well, I think it's telling that AOC, you know her first big TV interview of the year is on "60 Minutes" tonight, and she used that interview on the highest-rated news program in America to talk about taxes and to talk about the green new deal. So she tried at least in her own way to bring up policy issues and then, of course, Dan, the question, is whether the press will follow up on those policy issues?

PFEIFFER: Right and I think she's done a good job of moving I have having a conversation around policy right, around taxes, around the green new deal and they turn the green new deal into something that every Democrat who's running for president is being asked about and I think that's very important. But that is sort of she -- that has been the exception to the rule. If you read the coverage of Elizabeth Warren's announcement, you would have almost -- you'd have a real sense of how political reporters project voters will think of Elizabeth Warren, but very little about who she is, what kind of person she is and what kind of president she would be, and that's a failure on behalf of the political media.

STELTER: And, Karen, what about -- yes, Karen, go ahead.

FINNEY: I should tell you, that's such an important point because I will tell you in Stacey Abrams race, that was really critical for a number of reasons, number one, because most of the -- even the national media and the Georgia-based media kept talking about viability, can she win, can she win and race versus what she was actually talking about which was, you know, three things: healthcare, jobs and education.

And one of the -- so I would add to what Dan is saying, so campaigns definitely have to have their own ways to have a direct conversation with voters that circumvents what will be kind of the other noise of -- because as you say, its clickbait, it's eyeballs, it's you know what's the latest you know crazy things somebody said. But I also think in 2020, this is why the presidential debates will be so critical, because this will be periods of time where you have Democrats hopefully having the opportunity to have serious constructive policy conversations, there will be differences and hopefully the coverage won't just focus on those differences, you know, as battles but rather as you know, what are that one of those differences really mean for people?

[11:10:04] But that you know that should be a time -- you know, those debates will be a time when the American people can hear directly from Democratic candidates without the comparison of, how does that stack up against Donald Trump, which can't be the yardstick by which we measure as Dan pointed out who's a good president?

STELTER: And yet, impeachment will continue to come up as a topic. There's two kinds of Democrats, ones who want to impeach him right now, and once you say it's not quite time yet. That's going to keep coming up and there's no way to avoid the impeachment conversation.

SANDERS: Well, Brian, if I may, I think that it was Republicans who made impeachment such a topic of conversation during the 2018 midterm.


STELTER: Really? Don't those Democrats want to see action?

SANDERS: During the midterm elections, all -- every time I -- look, every time I would go on to do an interview, my Republican colleagues would bring up impeachment, even though no Democrats across the country were running on impeachment. Folks -- the only person running ads on impeachment was Tom Steyer and he wasn't on the ballot in and so it was not a major topic of conversation.

Now, we do have, yes, Rashida Tlaib, and additional Democrats who even introduced articles of impeachment in this new Congress, and it is a question you have to answer. But it is not as prevalent of a question in the Democratic Party as folks would like to think it is. But this goes back to Democrats and even the media largely, we are having a conversation that has been framed by our friends on the right.

That is something the Republican Party has done very well. They have framed the conversation, and so we are then participating in a conversation using the language and the talking points and the measuring sticks of the Republican Party, when they may not even be the facts.

STELTER: That brings you one last thing, Dan, before a break here. You talked off air about golden age of journalism, but also a garbage age of journalism. Can you tell me what you mean by that?

PFEIFFER: Yes, I think that a very important caveat is, we are living in a golden age of investigative and accountability journalism, stuff that "The New York Times", "Washington Post", CNN, "BuzzFeed", others have been doing to shine a light on what's happening in government, local and national. It's very impressive. But when you look at political coverage, coverage of campaigns, it is bad, with the -- well, obviously, there are some really good local reporters. But the overall conversation is problematic. And I think there is a question for political journalism writ large: is the goal of campaign coverage to inform voters about who the candidates are and what kind of present they would be, or is it to service a group of very engaged political junkies who follow campaigns like sports fans follow the NBA or the NFL? And that's a -- that I think is a fundamental question, because if it is the former, political journalism writ large is failing massively.

STELTER: I think we should have both. We should have both, we need a lot more of the former, a lot more to help educate voters.

PFEIFFER: Yes, right. I would argue that the balance is out of whack.

STELTER: Out of whack.

Now, Dan, thanks for being here. Symone, thanks for being here. Do come up often this year for these conversations.

Karen, stick around since it's your first day.

Coming up here, his first TV interview since leaving NBC. William Arkin is here to discuss the media's failures to question what he calls perpetual war.

Plus, an interview you won't see anywhere else. Connie Schultz, who's married to Senator Sherrod Brown, says they are seriously considering a 2020 run. But despite that, Schultz is defending Elizabeth Warren. Hear why right after this.


[11:16:21] STELTER: Back now with RELIABLE SOURCES.

And we are sizing up how Democrats are being covered by the press in this new election cycle, which brings me to Connie Schultz. She is a nationally syndicated columnist, a Pulitzer Prize winner, a journalism professor at Kent State, and her husband happens to be Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown.

Brown easily won reelection in November and he's probably running for president. Schultz says they are, quote, seriously considering it. So, what does it actually mean?

Here is what she told me.


CONNIE SCHULTZ, PULITZER PRIZE WINNING COLUMNIST: Well, the way I tried to put fellow journalists the other day, I don't know what your dream job -- I mean, let's say you already have your dream job. So, let's pick somebody else, but a journalist who, let's say, you wanted to go -- you would like to be the bureau chief in Egypt. And you have three kids and your wife has a great job in Chicago.

So, there's a lot of moving parts there. There are a lot of lives that are going to be affected and changed.

Considering running for presidency is an earthquake in a marriage, in the best of marriages and we have a great. It's an earthquake for the entire family.

STELTER: "Politico" wrote a piece about you saying that if your husband does run, you would redefine the role of a campaign spouse. What do you think you bring as someone who's a columnist, who's a journalist? What kind of conversations do you all have that might be different than everybody else out there who's thinking about running for president?

SCHULTZ: I am not going to try to cast myself as the most unique woman ever to be married to a presidential candidate, right?

I do know this -- I think of it more in contrast to who is in the White House right now. I love journalists. I made no secret of that. How could I not? This is my tribe, right?

But I also married a man who really respects journalists and likes journalists a lot. We understand the role of journalists. He's always been accessible, for example.

STELTER: Has you and Sherrod think about this possible run for president? Do you look at the news coverage as a reason to say, gosh, this may not be worth it? Is that one of the factors, the heightened scrutiny that comes from the press?

SCHULTZ: Now, this may strike you as naive. I don't know. I trust journalists. I worry about some of the narratives. I have made that clear on Twitter recently, but a couple of things that have been done.

But I trust journalists. So, I don't worry about that part of campaigns. I'm much more concerned about the horrible dirty tactics particularly of the Trump campaign. And worry might not be the word, I anticipate that.

I expect that that will be the worst. I mean, people keep telling us, long time activists in politics are trying to get us to run also warn us that this will be the ugliest race that perhaps we've seen in this country.

STELTER: I know all about the right's criticism of the press, but there is criticism from the left as well. And I wonder if you have critiques of how Dems are covered by the mainstream media?

SCHULTZ: Well, I certainly -- what I worry about is that we're going to do what we did in '15, '16. I'm not blaming the media solely for what happened in terms of elevating Trump in the minds of voters, but we certainly were engaged in that at a level we had never seen before.

And we got really enamored in this quotable nonsense that he was engaging in. And I don't think we saw how it can get away from us. And once -- and I do think, there was a lot of serious coverage of him before the election. But we -- that ball was already so big, and is a boulder, it's rolling down the hill and we're trying to stop and say, wait, wait, wait. Shove that aside, here's what we ought to be looking at, and I think it was too late for a lot of it.

[11:20:02] I'd like us to not do that again. I'd like us -- in this way, I'd like it not, first of all, every time Donald Trump wants to insult somebody's intelligence or appearance, you know this is all coming. Can we do more -- I mean, it's a fact he said it, we have to cover him. I really do believe that.

But we also have a responsibility to try to focus more on issues. I know we say this every presidential campaign, Brian, but if we have not learned that lesson from '16. And I worry when we have, for example, the coverage about comparing Elizabeth Warren, for example, to Hillary Clinton right away. Why? Because they are the females.

That's not a reason to immediately be comparing them. And fortunately the reporters that covered both of them started pushing back on Twitter when that political headline came out.

STELTER: It says, Warren battles the ghost of Hillary, and the tweet from "Politico" that was really wildly criticized said, how does Elizabeth Warren avoid a Clinton redux, written off as too unlikable before her campaign gets off the ground?

That word "unlikable", Politico is ripped to shreds for focusing on this. Do you think all that criticism was fair?

SCHULTZ: I do think it was fair.

First of all, you can't be a woman of a certain age, and I go back to when Barack Obama said that to Hillary Clinton during one of the debates, remember? You are likable enough, as if that was the test of who should be president.

It also to -- again, I'm going to emphasize it, why would the automatic comparison be to Hillary Clinton as opposed to all these other candidates who are running? Why is likability issue only Elizabeth Warren's to own? And some seems surprise that I would say that because my husband may be running. But, look, I'm a feminist all the time.

We have to be careful about this -- we in the media. We can fall for this pretty quickly. I understand part of this, she's the only declared candidate right now in the Democrats side. So, there's going to be a lot written about it and how many different places can you go with it?

I was actually encouraged by how many journalists pushed back on that headline. And again, though, I do emphasize -- this doesn't mean "Politico" gets it wrong all the time. It certainly doesn't mean all journalists get it wrong all the time. I want us to be specific about the story that with which we have a grievance.

The reporter we think may have not got something right, let's not castigate everybody and fuel the narrative of Donald Trump that none of us know how to do our jobs. We do know how to do our jobs. We are going to have mistakes. We're going to have missteps. Own them, let's call it out, and let's own them, and then let's move on and improve the coverage.

STELTER: You are describing constructive media criticism as oppose to destructive, which is enemies of the people, et cetera, et cetera.

SCHULTZ: Yes, it's not just deconstructive, it's dangerous when you start calling journalists the enemy of the people.

STELTER: And wrapping up here with you, can you give us a sense of your time line? You know, of your family's timeline? You talk about a serious consideration, but when do you think there will be a decision?

SCHULTZ: I think we are going to know within the next two months. I mean, we have to. I'm not trying to be coy. I wouldn't do that to a fellow journalist, first of all. That would be really bad.

But also, we just -- Brian, it's incremental, at least in our case. How do I describe this? Think of any big decision you've made in life, you know? Unless you're forced to make it instantly, it's something you have to get used to thinking about.

I am lucky and burdened to be married to a man who will not do this if I don't wholeheartedly want to be a part of it all. He just won't. So, there it is.

I'm blaming him and thanking him at the same time.


STELTER: You can hear my full interview with Connie Schultz on this week's RELIABLE SOURCE podcast. Check it out through Apple, TuneIn, Stitcher, whatever app you use.

Coming up here, the wall dividing the Dems and the GOP is also a divided over facts. Frank Bruni, David Frum and Karen Finney weigh in right after this.


[11:27:37] STELTER: This just in. On day 16 of the partial government shutdown, we've just learned the next meeting between White House staffers and Hill aides is set for this afternoon, 1:00 p.m. Eastern Time.

CNN's Manu Raju is reporting that aides will be going over the White House's budget justification for the $5.7 billion that's been demanded for the border wall and security measures. So far, that justification has not been presented.

Look, this wall fight is partly a fight about facts, about what is true at the border. And since the president keeps spreading misinformation about what he calls a crisis at the border, the jobs of journalists are challenging here. We've got a sort through all the lies and deception that were seen from the government.

One of the most deceiving statements, one of the most deceiving things coming out of the Trump White House are these comments about threats from terrorists at the southern border. We have repeatedly seen lies from the Department of Homeland Security and from White House aides about this, including from Sarah Sanders earlier today the White House is trying to stoke fear, including in a new ad you may have seen here on CNN. It's a new ad by the Trump campaign that's been running on CNN today that stokes fear about drugs and gangs.

There's a lot to fact-check here, a lot to address. So let's bring in the panel. Let's bring back Karen Finney. And joining Karen, David Frum and Frank Bruni.

David, I wanted to ask you first about this fear-mongering that we are seeing with regards to the border crisis. You just put out a new post about this a new tweet what you say is laying out the state of play here. What do you think is going on here on day 16?

DAVID FRUM, STAFF WRITER, THE ATLANTIC: Well, in the Washington crisis, the president's losing and the president's losing in a way that he could have predicted. Shutdowns are tests of political strength. The president is not very popular. If he relied on more honest information, he would have known that and would been careful about his strength.

Instead, he is escalating in every point, refusing any face-saving exit and now he's talking about making the crisis bigger by invoking a state of national emergency.

Had he been more modest, he would have discovered there's a lot of potential support. The problems at the border are real. The problems of illegal immigration and drug closes are real problems, and the United States has built a lot of fencing. Fencing can be part of the solution. But President Trump chose to create an imaginary problem to test his imaginary strength.

STELTER: And one of the -- part of that imaginary problem involves the threat of terrorism.

[11:30:00] Terrorists coming across the border. Let me show how Sarah Sanders hyped this so-called threat and watch how Chris Wallace responded on Fox this morning.


SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, PRESS SECRETARY, WHITE HOUSE: We know that roughly nearly 4,000 known or suspected terrorists come into our country illegally, and we know that our most vulnerable point of entry is --

CHRIS WALLACE, FOX NEWS CHANNEL ANCHOR: Wait. I know this statistic. I didn't know if everybody use it, but it but I've studied up on this. Do you know where those 4,000 people come? Where they're captured? Airports. The State Departments says there hasn't been any terrorist that they found coming across the southern border from Mexico. SANDERS: Well, it's by air, it's by land, and it's by sea. It's all of the above.


STELTER: OK, all I want to say is thank you, Chris Wallace. Frank Bruni, your reaction.

FRANK BRUNI, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, I was just going to say God bless Chris Wallace. I mean, Sarah Sanders did something that the Trump administration, people in it do all the time there which is she took a number from here and then something over here and wed them together in a way that they don't belong and he called her on it. 4,000 may be a real number but those 4,000 people aren't streaming across the Mexican border. And everything Donald Trump says and everything that people around him say gives you that impression, and they are knowingly lying in the service of their political goal.

STELTER: To make people scared.


STELTER: Another example. This the DOJ tried to come out and admit that a report that had published linking terrorism and immigration was wrong. That there were factual mistakes in the report and yet they say they don't have to correct it. They're refusing to actually correct the errors. Karen, this is disappointing whether you support a Republican or Democratic administration. No matter who's in charge, the government should provide accurate information.

KAREN FINNEY, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, absolutely. And I mean, we you know, Trump has so manipulated the conversation to where you know he's merged opinion an actual fact and made everything into anything you say that maybe whether it is a disagreement or whether it is calling out the lie is somehow anti-Trump and that he's the victim.

And so it strikes me that in our coverage, we spend a lot of time playing and having the conversation on his turf and I thought one of the things about that clip with Chris Wallace that was so excellent was he refused to do that because he had the facts in front of him. And I think that's a huge piece of what we need to see more of in the coverage of this administration, right?

It is a fact that the Department of Justice is not meant to be a legal arm of the President, right, it is not the President's lawyer. We should not cover it as such. We should cover it as what is the job in the role of the Department of Justice. It is their job to put forward accurate information. It's not just like a nice to do and they're doing us a favor.

And so, I think there's a there's a lane for us to be a lot more critical and not be so concerned with this idea that well, somehow that means you're attacking and that's something he's done you know, again, very well and I think put journalists on defense. And I don't just say that as a Democrat, I say that as an American that I don't think journalists should have to be defending, checking the facts, and calling out where the -- where the truth and -- versus opinion.

STELTER: One of the most disturbing comments from the President this week was about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. And David, it's something you wrote about.


STELTER: Let's look at some of the headlines fact-checking the President's promotion of Soviet propaganda because that is what the President was doing. He was actually was promoting Putin propaganda. It's very recent. You can see some of the fact checks here. The Wall Street Journal thankfully called this out. The editorial board said, we cannot recall a more absurd misstatement of history by an American President.

But here's the thing, the nightly newscasts didn't even talk about this. Fox didn't even talk about the night it happened. David, I fear there's so much B.S. slipping through that unless you're a news junkie you don't even know what he's saying is crazy.

FRUM: Well, I don't agree with that. I think it does accumulate. And in fact, this is one of the reasons why the President is in so much trouble right now. That date -- I mean, any particular story doesn't get checked but the sense that the President's word is not trustworthy that the things he says are not true. That's an impression that has consolidated, not 100 percent of the country but for enough.

You know, we talked so much about the Trump base that we forget you can't govern from your base. Your base can save you from impeachment. That's probably true. But it can't fund $5 billion for a project. For that, you need to get a bigger chunk of the country. And I understand a little bit why the network's stayed away from that Soviet propaganda story. Because the fact that Trump got another thing wrong in history, that's not news. It's not a fact check story what happened there.

What happened there was it opened a speculative question. How did this particular piece of disinformation get in the President's head? And that's something you can't report, we can only surmise. I mean, we know that the President and Vladimir Putin have a lot of phone conversations many more than have been disclosed. Both the President and Vladimir Putin have said that.

Is this -- is Vladimir Putin another Sean Hannity, another person with whom President Trump has conversations that are not known to very many people and that put ideas in his mind? That's the thing that was raised by that slip. And that's such a dark and terrible possibility that you don't want to deal with it unless you're really sure of what looks like it may be true but we don't know for a fact is true.

[11:35:09] STELTER: It also brings us more into speculation than into reporting. You're wondering you're thinking out loud but that question but there's not reporting to back it up.

FRUM: Right. So you have to be super careful about it because -- especially because the implications are so serious if true.

STELTER: To our panel, thank you. Everybody, stick around. Quick break here and then more to talk about how the President has covered, how these stories are framed. The former executive editor the New York Times just came out and said she believes papers coverage is anti-Trump. So wait, what does anti-Trump mean this day and age? We're going to talk about that right after this break.


STELTER: Anti-Trump. What does that actually mean? In this forthcoming book Merchants of Truth, former New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson says her former paper, and The Washington Post too have an anti-Trump bent. When Fox wrote about her comments a few days ago, she said she was taken out of context. But here's what she wrote in the book about the editor who replaced her Dean Baquet. "His news pages were unmistakably anti-Trump. Some headlines contained raw opinion as did some of the stories that were labeled as news analysis."

She also wrote in the book that The Times has a mostly liberal audience so there was an implicit financial reward for The Times in running lots of Trump stories almost all of them negative in order to gain subscribers. Now Trump is out there saying she's 100 percent correct. I've actually read the book and I can tell you Abramson praises The Times at length. But let's dig into her anti-Trump claim. Frank Bruni, David Frum, Karen Finney are back with me.

Frank, I used to work at the Times, you work there now. You used to be in the newsroom, now you're on the opinion side. How did people react to Jill's comments in the book?

BRUNI: They were not as aghast as you might think. First of all, there's a lot of respect for Jill. Also, we are -- we accept criticism and we criticize ourselves every day. We try to take a tough look at ourselves. But also I think most of us have seen more of the book or talked more to Jill about it, I interviewed her recently for a piece that'll come out in a few days, and this is a small part of what she said.

If you look at what she says in full, its respectful of the Times, unbalanced. She gives us a lot of compliments. And when she asks questions about coverage and coverage of 2016, she spends more time questioning the way we covered Hillary Clinton --

STELTER: That's true.

BRUNI: -- than she does the way we cover Donald Trump. So this one little strand, while it's not being reported inaccurately, has been blown out of proportion as her main point and it is one of many, many points, all of which have some merit.

STELTER: But this idea that news coverage of Trump is negative, is too negative, where does the truth lie?

BRUNI: I disagree wholeheartedly with that. He's a singular president, he was a singular candidate. No one has lied like him, I mean, at that altitude. No one has had the sort of ethical problems that he does. No one has had the areas of ignorance. If you to -- call that out accurately is to end up with a body of coverage that is unusually negative but it is absolutely appropriate to the man in the situation it has,

STELTER: So negative but accurate?

BRUNI: Yes. Anti-Trump connotes driven by some sort of animus regardless of the facts. I don't think we've been anti-Trump. I think we have been negative and I think that's the only honest way to cover this president.

STELTER: What about tone though? Do you think that tone is sometimes off?

BRUNI: Yes. I think the one way in which we leave ourselves vulnerable is our tone can become mocking and sneering and I don't mean just on the opinion pages where that's not so unusual but sometimes in news coverage. When we do that we hurt ourselves because we give his supporters a way to say look, they can't give him a fair shake because they feel so negatively toward him. So I think we do have to watch our tone.

STELTER: So Karen, as a Democratic strategist, where do you come down on this anti-Trump conversation?

FINNEY: Well, a couple of things. I mean, I think -- I look forward to reading the book because certainly as having worked for Hillary Clinton, I did think that some of the way she was covered and some of the ways frankly in 2016 that Trump was covered may have meant that initially there was a little bit of an overcorrection to -- in the way that Frank was discussing. But I think again this goes back to our nomenclature, right?

And this is something as we go into 2020 and as we evaluate Donald Trump and sort of the way language and our use of language has really shifted, you know, it is not anti-Trump when you say that Robert Mueller is investigating him for potential collusion, or that you know, that someone -- that there is -- the evidence that there was you know, campaign finance violations. Those are not negative. That is not anti-Trump, those are facts.

STELTER: So you're saying anti-Trump versus pro-Trump is the wrong framing, the wrong access.

FINNEY: I think that's absolutely the wrong access. I think it has to be more about what is false and what is true, and then what is opinion. And yet -- but what -- the thing that Trump does so well is again, lumps it all together and his people, and frankly many Republicans in their defense of him, they say oh you're just attacking Trump, you're being anti-Trump which makes it then harder to sass out what is fact versus fiction versus opinion.

STELTER: Trump also has a booster network, he has booster outlets, cheerleaders that are unlike anything we've seen before in terms of the amount of coordination and collaboration that exists between the White House and these pro-Trump outlets. I mean, David Frum, is that the other part of this anti-Trump conversation we have to include?

FRUM: No. I think the question is a false premise. Relative to the truth, the prestige press in this country has a pro-Trump bias. Relative to the truth, Trump gets easier coverage than he deserves. The surest way onto the op-ed page of a prestigious paper is to come up with some angle to explain why something the President has done is less crazy or dangerous than it seems.

Network's like this one are -- give a lot of airtime to people who normally should be -- would be working for the Home Shopping Network. It wouldn't be on at all if they want --

STELTER: You can be nicer than that. All right, you say -- you're saying that waiting Trump on a curb, that the cover is on a curve.

FRUM: And that some of the things that you know to be true are so serious that indeed the press can't keep coming back them. And the fact that for example, the New York Times reported and use the word fraud that the Trump family had been gauged in multi-generational tax fraud. The fact that as The Times reported the President falsified documents in order to evade the draft. I mean, the press can't just -- it's just not possible to keep talking about all this all the time.

And meanwhile, one of the patterns of the Trump years is the controversies distract you from the scandals. Because every day there's some new tweet that distracts you from the underlying truth of financial and national security scandal.

[11:45:03] STELTER: Frank, your reaction?

BRUNI: I want to say something about David's use of the word distraction because I think it's so important.

STELTER: Distraction?

BRUNI: Yes. Which is I think when we're talking about tone before, I think one of the problems is we cover so many of these tweets, so many of these tie rates as theater, you know. And when we're talking about them on shows, when we're writing about them, you almost have a sense we've got a bucket of popcorn in our laps as we're gasping and chortling or whatever as if it's national lampoon's Washington government. No, it's -- our actual Washington government. And I think we do distract from the substance by covering too much of this as marvelous theater.

STELTER: As marvelous theater when in fact it's gravely serious.

BRUNI: When it's gravely serious and we need to spend more time talking about the consequences and the context for these tirades and not the words themselves.

STELTER: Karen, last word to you.

FINNEY: Well, I think the other thing that happens is I mean, Trump is very effective at having conversations with the public on two levels right? There is no unified message. He's continuously having one conversation via Twitter and his random statements, and then oftentimes we will see people in his administration say something wildly opposite or completely different.

And so there's also not this anti -- but because it all gets framed as, any criticism we're pointing that out gets framed as anti-Trump. Again, I think it goes to what Frank just said is the theater of it instead of the seriousness of you know, what -- you know, having your national security adviser say something very different than what the President himself has said and what may, in fact, be good policy for the country.

STELTER: Right. When the President contradicts himself every day and he was out nonsense and you know, his words become worthless. And then how to cover that continues to be a conundrum for the press. To our panel, thank you very much. Please come back soon. Coming up here, veteran military analyst William Arkin speaks on air for the first time since he announced he's leaving NBC. We'll talk about the shortcomings he sees in the military and in the media coverage right after this.


[11:50:00] STELTER: I love a good goodbye note, and this one was remarkable. 2,200-word memo from veteran military analyst William Arkin. He sent it to his colleagues at NBC a few days ago explaining why Friday was his last day at the network. Arkin's worked with NBC on and off for three decades, but he described in his memo a national news media held hostage by Trump, obsessed with the Trump circus, and failing to cover the perpetual wars that America is engaged in.

But he wasn't just criticizing NBC. Far from it his critique really applied to the mainstream media in America as a whole. So Arkin is here now for his first interview since departing NBC. Bill, thanks for joining me.

WILLIAM ARKIN, FORMER NBC NEWS CONTRIBUTOR: Thanks, Brian, for having me on.

STELTER: I don't want to summarize the memo anymore because I want to hear from you directly. I think what you're bringing up that's most important is the way the American news media does or does not cover the forever wars that we are engaged in. What do we need to do differently?

ARKIN: Well, we need to have Trump free days. We need to have actual investigative correspondence working on actual investigations. We need to have some courage to criticize the military and criticize the national security community. And I think part of what happens when you're involved in the circus on a day-to-day basis is that you don't have an opportunity to develop the kind of deep sources that are necessary to do these investigations to actually get beyond the spokesman to get beyond the congressional critics. And by not being able to develop those sources, I think ultimately you can't report the story as deeply as it needs to be reported. STELTER: And that's because so much of the oxygen is sucked up by


ARKIN: Well, I don't think it's just the oxygen being sucked up by Trump, I also think it's the nature of the T.V. world these days, it's the nature of social media. We just don't give enough credit to experts, to academics, to people who night might not be so conversant with T.V., who can't talk quickly, who can't give the soundbite. We just don't have them on.

I mean, when I started in the world of television, we had a hell of a lot more academics professors, experts on. And today we basically given up on that. Journalists are the ones who speak and journalists are not necessarily the most skilled or the most expert in terms of talking about foreign affairs.

STELTER: But you are an expert. Why did you -- why did you decide to not renew your deal at NBC rather than stay at NBC and stay in the fight.

ARKIN: In 2016, during the presidential campaign, I contributed to about four dozens stories that were on nightly news and the Today Show dealing with Russian interference and the elections. In 2017, I had a fifth of that number of stories approved, management decisions, the need to cover the horse race, the immediate investigations just fell to the wayside. And I needed to go and do something else.

Look, I am concerned about the world, I'm concerned about the status of our national security, I just don't believe that Donald Trump is the complete and utter story behind it. The national security community itself has gotten stronger and has gained strength under Donald Trump. And part of our responsibility as journalists is to cover the government not just the president. And so I feel like people should know more.

STELTER: It's a great point. And you're describing your -- in your goodbye memo the feeling that there's this reflexive opposition to Trump that actually supports the government, right? It supports the FBI, supports the military, and that may not actually be a good thing for viewers if we're not holding the government accountable, the military accountable for perpetual wars.

ARKIN: Well, I just think it's ironic even amongst Liberals today that they look at the CIA or the FBI as institutions that are somehow going to save them or that they -- these are institutions that somehow are above reproach. I mean, all of these institutions whether they be the Pentagon, the CIA, the FBI, deserve the same kind of scrutiny that the president receives and it just doesn't happen.

And then you have on top of that the real problem which is that on a day-to-day basis right now, right now, Brian, we are bombing nine countries around the world, and I defy you to even name what they are.

STELTER: I can't.

ARKIN: That's how bad our coverage of the warfare is. STELTER: I'll be honest with you. I cannot. I think there's some

incredible Pentagon correspondence and some outstanding outlets like Defense One that covers the military every day, but it doesn't seem like newsrooms make it a top priority every day.

ARKIN: No. We're at war and we have been at war for 18 years and we essentially do not pay attention to it right now until the president tweets something or until there's a catastrophic industrial accident or a human tragedy. But on a day to day basis we're spending hundreds of billions of dollars and we are mucking around in all parts of the world and frankly when Donald Trump says why are we in Syria or what are we doing in Africa or can't we change the situation in North Korea, I'm sympathetic to him. I would just like to have a more intelligent debate about those very issues.

[11:55:37] STELTER: The way he does it for example in Syria seems bumbling. He said we're going to do it right away, 30 days, now he says that's not the case. That's a mess. But you're saying his overarching point may be really important to take seriously and not just assume it's wrong.

ARKIN: Well, I think we just have a knee-jerk reaction to Donald Trump in the case of Syria and James Mattis' resignation as Secretary of Defense. The immediate response was protocol was broken. It wasn't done in the right way. The contract didn't have all the right words in it. The President didn't give the proper notification of the allies, etcetera, etcetera. Yes, OK, the guy just does not know how to sit down at the table in the right way. We all know that by now.

But the truth of the matter is most Americans couldn't articulate if -- for their life why we're in Syria or what we're accomplishing there. And so I think that the fact that the President brings it up and that even the Secretary of Defense says he is resigning because of Syria, it's like no, I don't really believe it anymore. I want deeper reporting to understand what's really going on here. Trump did the wrong thing in not consulting with the allies, in not listening to his advisers. I accept that. But at the same time, I want deep reporting to understand the issues. I don't want to just gloss over the surface.

STELTER: I'm in to that. I'm into that. William Arkin, thank you so much for being here. Great talking with you. And that's all for this edition of "RELIABLE SOURCES" and we'll be right back here this time next week. Thanks for joining us.