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Rep. Ilhan Omar Versus Right Wing Media; The Media's Fascination with "Mayor Pete". Aired 11a-12p ET

Aired April 14, 2019 - 11:00   ET


[11:00:13] BRIAN STELTER, CNN ANCHOR: Hey, I'm Brian Stelter. Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, our weekly look of 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.

This hour, will Julian Assange be extradited to the U.S.? And does this prosecution endanger the press? Two experts are here with answers.

And, what does it mean when we the media say that a candidate is having a moment? Olivia Nuzzi just came out with this Pete Buttigieg profile in "New York Magazine" will join me live.

And later, why this errant tweet by the president reveals so much about the Trump/Fox feedback loop.

But, first, let's talk about something that's been in the headlines for days now. Let's talk about where controversies come from. You probably heard a lot about Congresswoman Ilhan Omar this week.

But do you know why? Do know how it started? Controversies don't just erupt like a bolt of lightning sparking a fire. No. Controversies are created like an arsonist lighting a match.

Too often, our news coverage in the papers and on the TV, and online starts mid-story. We say there is a controversy brewing between these two people, but we leave out the most important part, the lighting of the match.

So, let's look at how the Omar 9/11 controversy started and how it is being framed. Omar gave a speech to the Council of Islamic Relations last month. Her focus was on the importance of protecting civil liberties. The speech didn't really get picked up at the time.

But then last Monday, the conservative website "The Daily Caller", cofounded by Tucker Carlson, picked up on Omar's reference to the 9/11 hijackers. She said, quote: some people did some while arguing that all Muslims should not be punished for the action of a crazy few.

So, "The Daily Caller" posted four minutes of video to YouTube. Then, an Australian man who calls himself a Muslim scholar and is very active on Twitter sets the frame for a week's worth of news conference. The framing is that Omar was downplaying 9/11.

His tweet took off and spread the right wing websites. It was all over the sites by Tuesday. Then on Tuesday night, Sean Hannity brought the video to television.

He covered it on Tuesday night. And then, come Wednesday, "Fox and Friends" was all over it. Brian Kilmeade was questioning Omar's patriotism. This went on and on for days and days.

Then on Thursday, this was the cover of 'The New York Post". Some people did something. Four words, probably not the best choice of words. It is easy for me to sit here and say I would have chosen different words, right?

But the point is that this controversy was created. The construction of the frame, Omar downplays 9/11, is a key part of the story. These viral videos and tweets are how we argue about the future of America. But so much of it is based in bad faith. These outrage cycles corrupt us.

Omar's comment was used as a weapon against her, including by President Trump who has pinned this anti-Omar video to the top of his Twitter page. Trump's video is what propelled this story all way to the nightly news.

So, now, it is being framed as Trump versus Omar. Some critics say Trump is putting her life in danger.

But there is something bigger going on here with this story. It tells us something about right wing rage machine and how news stories are set. The history of the United States is a tug-of-war over who belongs and who is equal and who has power. It is the biggest story of all.

And yet, those of us in the press oftentimes cover this in tiny discrete bits. We put a small frame on the biggest story. I think we do a better job when we wide in and way out.

And part of widening out is showing where does the controversy come from? How was it created in the first place? Who created it? Who stands to benefit from it being created? And who stands to lose, who stands to suffer?

These are the big questions I think we should be asking when there are these eruptions that happen.

So, let's do that. Let's bring in an all star panel to talk about this. Waleed Shahid is the communications director for the Justice Democrats. It's a group representing the progressive end of the party.

Former adviser to Hillary Clinton's campaign is here, Karen Finney. She's a CNN political commentator.

And another CNNer, conservative commentator Matt Lewis is a senior columnist for "The Daily Beast".

Thank you all for coming on and helping unpack this with me.

Waleed, you have been outspoken about the way this Omar story has taken off. As I described there, it started in right wing media almost a week ago. How have you seen it evolve over the course of a week?

WALEED SHAHID, COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR, JUSTICE DEMOCRATS: Well, so many stories are like this. First of all, it starts off with alt right far right Twitter. Then it gets to "The Daily Caller" which boosts it up.

[11:05:02] And then it goes to outlets like Fox News. Then, it's the entire Republican Party is united around a singular message, which is to, you know, defame and destroy the character of Ilhan Omar. It's like you were saying, it's part of this long 50-year strategy that began with the Southern strategy in the Republican Party to divide white voters from voters of color.

This is what we are seeing with the right wing ideological war machine is that they target Ilhan Omar because they want leaders like her, and leaders like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, they want to show to their white voters that those leaders don't have anything in common with white voters. Because what would happen? Well, the owners of these outlets, Rupert Murdoch for Fox News and "New York Post", Robert Mercer for "Breitbart", they're billionaires.

At the end of the day, it's kind of a divide-and-conquer strategy to make sure that no one ever comes together. The American people don't come together to tax billionaires like them and provide health care for all. So, this --

STELTER: You are telling a big story here about a specific event that happened this week.


STELTER: You are saying it is about a larger political motivation?

SHAHID: Yes, exactly. I mean, it's common sense why people on top in society want people on the bottom to be divided, fearing each other, heating each other, resenting each other, so that the few on top could thrive.

I mean, there is a second reason for why this is happening as well, which is that the right wing media machine knows that these three women, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, have all been targeted, have all been facing death threats in recent months. The reason they are good targets is because they have significant disagreements with the Democratic Party leadership and it's another divide-and-conquer strategy because they know the Democratic leadership will be slow in their response or sometimes dismissive of these leaders because of their significant disagreements with the three progressive women of color on Medicare-for-All, on the Green New Deal, on foreign policy on Israel --

STELTER: On the issues.

SHAHID: Yes, on the issues. This he know that Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer, and Chuck Schumer will not come out swinging for them and fighting and advocating for them, which is -- you know, it was -- it makes sense why Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren were the first independent could of national level Democratic leaders to take this issue on.

STELTER: All right. That's a view from the let about how this media machine works.

Matt Lewis, what's your view from this as a conservative commentator who nonetheless has been quite critical in the past of some right wing media actions of anchors?

MATT LEWIS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Right. I do think we have to put this in context, though. Ilhan Omar has said things likes Jews hypnotized the world. Like if you are an American politician who supports Israel, it's all about the Benjamins. So, she has played on some very anti-Semitic stereotypes just in the last couple of months.

Now, she goes and gives this speech and see says something, that some people did something. I don't know whether that was just her being like a little bit tone deaf or inconsiderate. I'm willing to believe it is her being clumsy or inartful.

But I think just putting it in context, there's a reason why conservatives and people in the media didn't give her the benefit of the doubt over this one. It's because she has injected herself into the conversation by I think saying things that are anti-Semitic.

Are people exploiting that? Does Donald Trump want to -- want to create a culture war about this? Does he benefit from that? I think he does.

Should we be talking in the media so much about a freshman congresswoman? I think it has something to say about the celebritization of politics, you know? They are out there tweeting saying interesting controversial things. That's good for business. It's good for the cover of a tabloid in New York.

STELTER: A very honest statement from Fox's Stuart Varney the other day. He said, look, AOC is good for our ratings at Fox News and Fox Business. That's why we talk about her all the time. Some honesty from Varney about that.

Isn't this all, fundamentally, Karen, about negative partisanship? Meaning the way President Trump motivates his base, frankly, the way that Omar or Ocasio-Cortez motivate their base, is to foster resentment of the other side and create negative partisan feelings?

KAREN FINNEY, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, let's take a step back as you were doing in the very beginning. I disagree obviously with some of what Matt said, but also what with my friend here on the left also said, because I don't think it's about they attacked her because they didn't think that Pelosi and Steny Hoyer would come out.

This is a much bigger, longer conversation in this country about, I do agree, about power, right? Donald Trump, right wring, their strategy, how he won in 2016, there are multiple studies that showed their whole strategy was about stoking fear and dividing Americans. And when we talk about a Muslim ban, when we talk about -- there are these dog whistle flash points they continue to go to. And so, Donald Trump is willing to abuse his power and his platform as the president of the United States of America.

[11:10:02] He also, by the way, a number of media folks admitted has been good for -- he's good click bait. It sells papers, right? I mean, it's good fodder.

But I think we don't want to get distracted from what is happening here which is, you know, this is -- yes, Trump is trying to stoke his base, to stoke racial resentment, to say those people -- and as a New Yorker and somebody who was in New York on 9/11, it is really appalling because he did endanger her life. And I remember the time immediately after 9/11 where we had a president who I didn't agree with on much, but who actually used the bully pulpit to say, this is not a war against Muslims.

Instead, we have a president who is using all of his resources to essentially scapegoat black and brown people as part of a political strategy. And we see a very just unsettling symbiosis between right wing media and the president where they sort of act as an arm of the things that he -- you know, this hate machine.

STELTER: Speaking of that, this cover of "The New York Post".


STELTER: The cover of "The New York Post" is a great example. Was it ethical to run this cover?

FINNEY: No. It was absolutely unethical. But that's an example of how you know how unsettling it is. And -- I mean, "The New York Post" obviously is not a serious journalist newspaper, right? It's one of the reasons they call it the rags.

STELTER: They have got real reporters. They break news. I don't think you paint with that broad a brush.

FINNEY: Well, but a cover like that says we are not going to take journalism seriously. We are just going to just attack and we're going to basically feed into attack.

Matt, I really take issue with the fact that yes, Omar said some thing that I don't agree with. She apologized and was willing to sort of learn that maybe some of the tropes that she was repeating weren't appropriate. But when you endanger her life --

LEWIS: Come on.

FINNEY: -- and if you take the full context of everything she was talking about 9/11, and how Muslim Americans were endangered after 9/11.

LEWIS: Three thousand people died there and she said some people said some thing. FINNEY: Muslims died that day, too, by the way.


LEWIS: I'm willing to believe she was inartful and clumsy. But this was not the (INAUDIBLE). She was not being terribly eloquent there talking about Americans who died. I understand why some people took offense at that. By the way --

FINNEY: But you also understand why they elevated that. They elevated it to stoke racism and fear. You know that.

LEWIS: She's a 40-year-old member of Congress who is in the arena. And if she says something controversial, she has every right to be challenged. Not doing so I think would be wrong.

FINNEY: So, you think endangering her life is challenging? I think --

LEWIS: How is her life in danger by challenging her?


LEWIS: What if there is a debt threat against me because you criticized me?


FINNEY: Well, we already she's facing death threats. And we know that -- the president of the United States of America took a -- you know, a sort of doctored clip and tweeted it out. He used his platform to put out misinformation that would -- we knew it would stoke fear and stoke hatred.

LEWIS: Look, Trump is a horrible person. But what about all the things -- when people said that Donald Trump, I heard a member of Congress running for president earlier today implied that Donald Trump is colluding with Vladimir and in the pocket Russia. There are probably going to be some death threats against --

FINNEY: Well --

LEWIS: Will, there are probably going to be some death threats toward the president. Should that congressman not be allowed to criticize Donald Trump?

FINNEY: I think it is different when we are talking about racial tropes, the way the president used that in 2016 to win this election, which by the way we also know the Russians were very interested in exploiting those fractures. And when we have a president who uses his platform not to solve policy problems like immigration, not to heal us as a country and say Islamophobia is wrong. No, instead, he stokes those flames and in stoke those --


LEWIS: I am not going to defend Donald Trump, I never defend Donald Trump. But Ilhan Omar saw all sorts of anti-Semitics stuff.

FINNEY: -- on top of that, you have a media organization trying to make money off of it.

LEWIS: And by the way, Ilhan Omar attacked George W. Bush, the guy who you just said went out of his way to like go to mosques and try to calm things down after 9/11. She sent out tweet, which -- it's hard for me to tell what she really means by her sort of cryptic tweeting. But it seems like she was attacking George W. Bush.

STELTER: I do wish she would give interviews. I wish she would come out and speak and not just tweet. I know Twitter is powerful megaphone, but I wish she would come on and give some interviews.

LEWIS: Yes, won't you come on CNN --


STELTER: Waleed -- and we did invite her on today.

Waleed, last word to you because there were other covers I want to show from the New York City tabloids this week. There was another cover from "The New York Post" invoking Trump's tweet to send border crossers to sanctuary cities. You take 'em. And then "The New York Daily News" saying, OK, we will take them.

[11:15:01] This is the divide right there on two covers.

SHAHID: Yes. I think we're in the battle of the soul of multiracial democracy in this country and I think what you just witnessed is kind of what "The Daily Caller" and Fox News and Trump want, is to kind of both sides this like. Ilhan Omar and Trump are doing the same things, when Ilhan Omar was making a speech about Muslims being disproportionately painted with a broad brush on 9/11, being accused of being responsible for by terrorist attacks done by a few horrible people. To equate that with someone who's called for the complete and total shutdown of Muslims, wants to get rid of Muslims in this country altogether is completely nonsensical.

But that's exactly what the Fox News wants to do is feed into this thing that both sides are just saying, kind of ridiculous things when one man is the president of the United States, and other is a freshman woman of color in Congress who's the first Muslim ever elected into Congress. I think one of things that's exciting is that Yemeni bodega owners, the corner store owners here in New York City are going to go on strike and not allow "The New York Post" to be served in their restaurant.

STELTER: Yes, this is interesting. They announced over the weekend they are not going to sell "The New York Post" in their stores. We've seen it in the past. Sometimes it can be effective.

SHAHID: Yes. I mean, right after Donald Trump, you had Yemeni Americans, Muslim Americans come out into the streets and, you know, with American flags claiming that this country was theirs. And I think that's kind of, you know, to weaponize 9/11 in this way is the same way that people who were trying to drum the -- beat the war drum for the Iraq war were doing in kinds of unnecessary ways.

I think the parts of 9/11 we should remember are the way people came together, people were in solidarity with each other through a hard time. I don't think, you know, Trump weaponizing this is right.

To get back one second to what Karen was saying. I had numerous Muslims in life, I'm a Muslim, reached out to me and saying how disappointed they were in the Democratic Party's leadership lackluster response. You had Rashida Tlaib go on Twitter yesterday and say, they used my photo say that we are the most diverse Congress ever, and then they don't back me up when I need it.

So, I think there is something happening here --

STELTER: There is a very interesting split. I agree with you, and it's a newsworthy split.

SHAHID: But the thing is, you know, the Democratic Party leadership is a little afraid of conflict, a little afraid of controversy. But this is not going away. This is a battle -- Ilhan Omar represents the country becoming a multiracial democracy in the way that it has been a long for a long time, the way it has been thwarted for a long time by conservative forces in this country that want the divide and conquer us.

FINNEY: Yes --

SHAHID: I think she becomes a character as a new rising leader in the party just like Alexandria, just like Rashida Tlaib.

STELTER: Karen, 15 seconds, last word.

FINNEY: Yes. I don't disagree with that, but I would just remind you that there were African-American leaders in Congress, and women leaders in Congress -- this is the part of the way we push forward. That was the only point I was trying to make that, historically, this is a long historic battle for the balance of power. And I think you have a media corporation like the conglomerate that is Fox News and "The New York Post" under Rupert Murdoch that found a way to weaponize information and monetize the process.

STELTER: The battle is going to continue.

Waleed, Matt, Karen, thank you for being here and setting us up this morning.

Next, we are talking about the media's fascination with this Indiana mayor. I'll ask Olivia Nuzzi who just penned this brand new profile of Pete Buttigieg about what she learned.

And later, why this local headline from "The Fresno Bee" sent Devin Nunes scrambling for a lawyer. The newspaper CEO will join me to respond to Nunes right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [11:22:18] STELTER: Pete Buttigieg is about to go from exploring the presidential run to actually running. His campaign is historic for a few reasons, including this one. The United States has never had someone go from being mayor to being president. Maybe we never will.

But thanks to the collapse of media and political gatekeepers, it's a lot more conceivable than it used to be.

Let me ask you. Have you ever heard of the name Larry Agran? Probably not. Agran was the mayor of Irvine, California, in 1992, when he tried to run for the Democratic nomination for president.

But news outlets barely mentioned him. Power brokers kept him out of the debates. He was actually arrested while trying to attend one of the debates.

Irvine was about the same size back then as South Bend, Indiana, is now -- 100,000 people. That's where Mayor Pete is from.

But things were so different back in the '90s. No World Wide Web, no social media, just this one cable news channel back in 1992. So, the media ecosystem was, quote, far narrower and more constricting, NBC's Steve Kornacki wrote recently. To compare what Agran endured as a candidate then to what Pete Buttigieg has already experienced now is to recognize just how drastically that ecosystem has been revolutionized and what the revolution has made possible.

This is one of the upsides of the itemized fragmented media playing field, more candidates are able to get in the race and share their ideas.

So, with Pete Buttigieg announcing his 2020 bid this afternoon, let me bring in Olivia Nuzzi. She's a Washington correspondent for "New York Magazine". She's author of this brand new cover story in "New York Magazine" to be out on Monday. It asks, "How About Pete?"

So, Olivia, are you contributing to Mayor Pete mania? Because the media seems to be talking about him a whole lot.

OLIVIA NUZZI, WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Yes, I think anyone giving him a platform right now at this early stage of the primary is probably contributing to this kind of mayhem surrounding him. So, "The New York Magazine" is as culpable as any other outlet I guess. But I think, you know, the piece really explores what is the source of all this excitement. You know, he's having this moment. And what does it mean to have a moment?

It seems like in some ways, he has been preparing for it his entire life. He is kind of this walking cover letter on a resume. And I think it's very interesting.

And so much of the media and mayhem around him I think it comes from two different places. I think on the one hand, people are nervous about reliving 2016. We don't want to have the same debates and same conversations with the same people once again because many people feel a sense of fatigue from 2016. So, he is new. Nobody heard from him other than the last couple of months.

[11:25:01] I think also his campaign has been very savvy, giving a lot of access to really whoever asked for it.

STELTER: That's a key point. He has been giving so many interviews, from "The View" to the podcast. He's everywhere it seems like.

NUZZI: Yes, he's really everywhere. Even if you look at the magazine itself, it comes out on Monday. You know, these side bars where it's his favorite books, that he talked to "Vulture", an entertainment site, about, or what he can't live without that he talked to "The Strategist" or shopping article about.

It is like nobody else is that accessible right now. I think that really counts for a lot. It makes a big difference I think in how much attention you get at an early stage if you are available for comment for an interview.

STELTER: And he seems wholesome, he seems sincere. You spent time with him. Do you think he's a real deal?

NUZZI: I don't know how -- only he knows if he is truly wholesome or sincere. But I think he is a very intelligent person, very thoughtful. And it doesn't seem like he is phony. I'll say that.

STELTER: So, your piece is up on now. Actually people can check it out.


STELTER: I did wonder -- I wanted to get your take on some other news this week. It's about the president versus the "New York Times." Trump's tweets about the media keep getting more and more hateful. Last night, he claimed that the "New York Times" reporting about sanctuary cities, about Trump wanting to ship immigrants to sanctuary cities was, quote, knowingly wrong in almost every fact, they never call to check for truths.

So, he is claiming the "New York Times" doesn't ask for comment.

Maggie Haberman at "The Times" obviously responded and said that's crazy. He said, POTUS really ought to check in with his press team more often. "New York Times" emailed three times for comment, and the press office acknowledged the receipt of the emails.

So, this puts Sarah Sanders in a bind. Sanders was on ABC this morning. She was asked about this. She said "The New York Times" was often times out of bounds, said, I side with the president, but she basically admitted "The New York Times" oftentimes does reach for comments.

So, what's going on here? Why is it the president would ever claim that a major news outlet wouldn't ask for comment? We all know that's journalism 101.

NUZZI: Right. Well, you said it put Sarah Huckabee Sanders in a bind. It would have put her in a bind if it mattered whether or not the press secretary for this White House told the truth. I don't think that that matters in this administration. So, it didn't really put her in a bind.

But I think we saw this -- you can think back to Bob Woodward's book, "Fear", when it turns out he had asked several different people around the president for an interview with the president and nobody gave it to him. And it turned out that nobody even asked Trump if he wanted to talk to Bob Woodward. I think there is a lack of communication that Maggie got to in her response on twitter when she said he should check in with his press team or they with him.

I think sometimes maybe the people around the president are nervous to approach him with a bad story that might be coming out. They don't want to upset him.

STELTER: Ahh, right.

NUZZI: And I think a lot of times, he's just not really that accessible to them. Even if they are around him, he is doing his own thing. He is rattling on about what is on his mine and people around him are nervous and don't feel comfortable, even those people who are allegedly the closest to him right now in the White House.

STELTER: In his attacks, I mean, on Twitter, calling the press corrupt and all these other nasty words, he does seem worried about something. I don't know if it is the Mueller report but he does seem to be inoculating his fans against real news reporting in a way that keeps get uglier. I suppose I shouldn't act surprised anymore, right, Olivia?

NUZZI: Right. I mean, I think he's been doing this pretty consistently. I don't know if I buy he does it more in lead up to some sort of damaging event that he is fearing. I think sometimes it's out of boredom. He doesn't have an enemy. He is not running against anybody in particular right now.

The 2020 election is not yet really getting started. So he's kind of sitting around and looking for a fight to pick.

STELTER: Sad. All right, Olivia --

NUZZI: To borrow a word from the president.

STELTER: To borrow words, exactly.

Check out Olivia's piece in

And coming up next here, with Julian Assange now behind bars, is a case against him a danger to journalists everywhere? Should reporters be rushing to his defense? We'll talk about that, next.


[11:30:00] STELTER: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES, I'm Brian Stelter. U.S. government prosecutors say Julian Assange is a criminal. U.K. police arrested him on Thursday on behalf of the U.S., and now we will see if Assange gets extradited to the U.S. or not. Government officials here in the States also say Assange's Web site WikiLeaks is a hostile non-state intelligence service working to undermine Western values.

They're saying he's an enemy. But technically he's not being charged with publishing anything, he's being charged with something really specific, conspiracy to commit computer intrusion. The charge dates way back to 2010. Here's the quote from the indictment. It says, on or about March 8, 2010, Assange agreed to assist in cracking a password.

Then-Bradley Manning, now Chelsea Manning was working with Assange. The met -- the two people were talking on the internet about this effort and the allegation here is that Assange helped crack a password. Now that's not something a journalist would do. So there are concerns about whether this case, however, could have damaging effects for journalists, for major newsrooms.

So let's talk about that with Ryan Grim, he's the D.C. Bureau Chief for the Intercept and Bradley Moss, he's a National Security Lawyer. Ryan, is it fair to say the Intercept is sympathetic to WikiLeaks and has been supportive of WikiLeaks over the years? Is that a fair way for me to set this up?

RYAN GRIM, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, THE INTERCEPT: We're supportive of press freedom, absolutely.

[11:35:02] STELTER: And sometimes sympathetic toward WikiLeaks. Your site has a war on WikiLeaks banner on the homepage.

GRIM: Right. I mean, there are also all sorts of battles that we've had with WikiLeaks over the years that would really bore the heck out of viewers.

STELTER: Well WikiLeaks has changed a lot over the years, right. Back in 2010, when it was obtaining this classified information from the U.S. government and publishing it, journalists many of them were eager to read the contents and interested in what this new era of transparency was all about. Is that fair a decade ago?

GRIM: Right. And he was exposing war crimes and government lies at the time in a -- in a way that was exciting and also won awards for all of the different news outlets that that collaborated with him. It didn't actually lead to you know, judicial accountability for any of the people that participated in the war crimes but it did at least expose them publicly, you know, the --

STELTER: Yes, since then WikiLeaks --

GRIM: -- Apache helicopter that killed dozen Baghdadi's including two journalists is just one example.

STELTER: At the time in 2010 when he was doing that, I interviewed Assange when I was working in the New York Times. This was filmed for a documentary. Please excuse my messy desk, but here's what his sons told me on the phone that day.


STELTER: Is journalists the word you attach to yourself?

JULIAN ASSANGE, FOUNDER, WIKILEAKS: It is a word I attach to myself. It is certainly fair to say that I am also an activist. But if I had to choose between the two, I would choose the values of activism.


STELTER: So Assange is saying if he has to choose, he would call himself an activist, not a journalist. Does that matter in the context of what is happening now with him under indictment? Do you view this indictment as a threat to press freedoms?

GRIM: It is a threat to press freedom, no question about it. You know, the First Amendment doesn't distinguish between journalists and non-journalists, and the profession of journalism has always resisted any attempts at licensing schemes for that very reason because then the government will just license journalists that it approves of and then say that well, OK, yes, they have freedom of the press that they're not really going to employ in a way that threatens us and everybody else is not a journalist and can be punished.

But yes, this is a threat to press freedom particularly in the way that the Department of Justice has kind of convinced the press in its reporting of this to kind of slit its own throat by taking the word of the Justice Department. You know, they put hacking in the title of the press release but it doesn't appear anywhere in the indictment. Yet all of the news coverage around this is that Assange is not a journalist. he's a hacker.

But if you look into the contents of the indictment and you can go on what's publicly known, that's not at all the case. He was engaged in source protection.

STELTER: It calls the 2016 elections in mind when they say hacking even though this has nothing to do with the 2016 election. Are you -- do believe though that this indictment is just a pretext in order to punish Assange for what happened in 2016?

GRIM: Well, of course, it is. You know -- and they're exploiting the public's kind of ignorant and the press's ignorance around computer technology. They -- you know, they went hunting for something that they could find that in the public's mind would distinguish Julian Assange from the rest of journalism, from the New York Times, from the Washington Post, from the Intercept, from everybody else.

The Obama administration couldn't find it. You know, they went after whistleblowers and Press Freedom relentlessly. They concluded that they could not come up with anything that sufficiently distinguished Assange from other journalists. The only thing has changed is now that like Mike Pompeo and Donald Trump wanted to go after Assange. They came up with this which isn't new. You know, we've known about this since Chelsea Manning's trial. We've

known about this password cracking failed attempt since then. And so they're just hanging the entire thing on this and the press is falling for it so far.

STELTER: So Bradley, I know you see it differently. How do you see it?

Yes, sure. Look, I mean, when it comes to whether or not Julian Assange is a journalist, I've made clear I don't view him as a journalist in any way shape or form. But from a criminal liability standpoint, I never wanted that to be something a government, any government, the U.S. government, any other government deciding.

So in that, you know, week no Ryan and I are probably you know stands side by side even though we went on most other issues. And if this indictment had been about just publishing the materials that were leaked by Chelsea Manning, then I would be opposed to it.

But the way the indictment is written, and I will concede it is not the most clear written indictment, there are a lot of fuzzy details about the nature of the unauthorized intrusion and whether or not giving Manning the password if Assange had been successful would have granted him additional accesses, but the way the indictment is written is it's focusing on something that goes beyond what journalists are trained to do.

Journalists do not pay sources, they do not hack systems, they do not crack locks to houses to get into them to get additional information. That is what -- at least that's currently written Assange is accused of having done. The details will come out in the trial if he's ultimately extradited.

STELTER: Ryan, back to you.

GRIM: Right. It appears from the indictment that Manning was trying to crack a password so that he could get an anonymous account so he that he could continue looking for evidence of war crimes without exposing his own identity. And that's what the -- that's what the indictment actually says. I think it reads, you know, it would have it would have made it more difficult for investigators to identify Manning as the source.

[11:40:17] So that that's what the DOJ is saying Assange was doing, was trying to mask the identity of his source which is what journalists do, and should do, and must epically do all the time. We teach sources how to use encryption, we teach sources how to download signal, we you know, we scrub metadata, we do all sorts of other things in order to prevent the identity of the source from being known to the people who would put them in prison.

We are therefore you know, conspiring to intrude into a computer network by doing that. If they -- if the government has more evidence that Assange actually hacked or was trying to hack into areas that Manning did not have access to, that's a different question, but they don't have that. And the bigger point is that none of this is going to be viewed with the nuance that we're bringing to it by authoritarian governments around the country.

What they're going to see, oh the U.S. is cracking down on press freedom, we can crack down on press freedom. They're not parsing the indictment to see whether or not he was gaining access anonymously or he was gaining access to additional elements of it. What they see is what it is which is an assault on press freedom and they're going to take that around the world. And we haven't gotten to the extradition point which is the most dangerous.

A lot of the things I've published break laws in say China, the United Arab Emirates. You know, these countries have power over Interpol. Why can't they now issue arrest warrants for me and other journalists as we travel and say look, you know, the U.S. extradited Assange who's not an American citizen for violating American laws. We want to extradite these Americans citizens and let them face trial in our countries.

STELTER: So Bradley, as a lawyer, what's the answer to that concern?

MOSS: Look, OK, every country is going to take whatever spin and view they want off this. The U.S. government does not have to make its law enforcement decisions based on how all the other countries in the world view things. No matter what Julian Assange, the nobility or lack thereof of his publications of the material that he released, it doesn't give him the author authority, it doesn't make -- give him the immunity to break the password, to give Manning that administrative level access to which Manning did not have,

So which one, that's not just encrypting your identity and using signal, that's literally giving Manning the privileges of someone else in the United States government to which he otherwise would not have had.

GRIM: Well, we don't know that.

MOSS: We don't -- that's in the indictment that he did not have administrator level privilege. What we don't know is whether or not that gave him access to additional documents. That's going to be in the government to prove. That's going to be their burden.

STELTER: So there is more we need to find out.

MOSS: We're still hearing those details.

STELTER: Yes, there's more we need to find out. We need to see what is actually presented if there's a trial.

MOSS: Absolutely.

STELTER: Brad, Ryan, thank you both for being here. Coming up, another story involving federal prosecutors, is Jeff Bezos winning his battle against the National Enquirer?


[11:45:00] STELTER: Who wants to buy the National Enquirer? American Media is selling the scandal-plagued tabloid. The company's CEO David Pecker, you know, the guy who was ensnared in the Donald Trump-Michael Cohen porn star hush money scheme, totally normal stuff, he's offloading the tabloid. Accorded the Washington Post, it's partly due to pressure from the hedge fund that has a controlling stake in peckers company.

The Enquirer, of course, is under scrutiny for its scoop about Jeff Bezos his love life. Federal prosecutors are looking into the Amazon CEOs allegations that AMI tried to blackmail and extort him. Sarah Ellison broke the Enquirer for sales story along with her colleague Mark Fisher and she's joining me now.

Sarah, what happened? The hedge fund owner of The Enquirer you say became disgusted with the tabloids tactics, but hasn't the Enquirer been buying scoops for decades?

SARAH ELLISON, STAFF WRITER, THE WASHINGTON POST: Right. Well, I think what it's important to do is look at the timeline of this. So they discussed -- they first started talking about -- the board of the net of AMI first started talking about maybe doing something with the National Enquirer in August. And that is when AMI was talking about setting up this non-prosecution agreement with federal prosecutors.

STELTER: Right. They weren't going to be prosecuted by the government and --

ELLISON: They're going to cooperate. They're going to cooperate. And so that already is a moment where there's a lot of risk for the company because they're about to be indicted and they come up with this on prosecution which is great. Then, not that long afterwards they come out with the Jeff Bezos story which is blockbuster and everyone's reading it except for the alleged extortion attempt.

Then it makes people like Anthony Melchiorre who is the hedge fund manager who's in charge of Chatham Asset Management which controls the National Enquirer do a real sort of head-smacking saying like how could you possibly do this now when we're already under so much scrutiny and have so much risk because now the prosecutors have to go back and see if that attempt to what Jeff Bezos says is an extortion attempt, if that violates that non-prosecution agreement and puts the company again at legal risk. And so I think that was the real thing that sent him over the edge, Melchiorre.

STELTER: So it's a quagmire, a legal quagmire of sorts, none of which relates to actual journalism.

ELLISON: Correct.

STELTER: You know, all these allegations about Saudi Arabia connection and the White House connection, all this stuff from Bezos federal prosecutors are now looking into it. CNN reported that Bezos is going to be sitting down with them anytime to talk through this stuff.

ELLISON: Correct.

STELTER: It's a mess for the owners.

ELLISON: It's a mess for the owners and they want to get out of that.

STELTER: They want to get out, right. So we'll see if they do. We'll see if they can sell it. All right, let's do a quick break here. Much more with Sarah, more RELIABLE SOURCES in just a moment.


[11:50:00] STELTER: Before we go, a note on the Trump-Fox feedback loop. President Trump liked what he saw on Lou Dobbs show the other night. Dobbs had this poll showing the President with a 55 percent approval rating. Of course, the President doesn't have a 55 percent approval rating. The poll have him at 43 percent.

That didn't matter to the President. He tweeted out to the public. Even after Dobbs corrected the record, the tweet is still up on that Twitter page. Sarah Ellison with the Post is back with me. And Sarah, this really shows Lou Dobbs influence with the Trump White House. I mean, he was calling for the DHS Secretary to be fired, and then lo and behold, a week and a half later, Nielsen is out.

ELLISON: Absolutely. It shows how Trump can really elevate the voices of not the most powerful Fox Hosts. So Lou Dobbs has a show on Fox Business, which you know, does its thing, and the President of the United States comes out and trumpets this false report to the entire world.

Now, when Lou Dobbs corrects it, Trump doesn't. And I think we talked earlier about what would have been truly shocking is if Trump had himself corrected something like that. He never had admitted it.

STELTER: Right, if the President said I'm actually not as popular as I thought. That would have been the actual news.

ELLISON: Right. That would have been shocking. That would have been shocking. But it does really -- I mean, the point here is somebody like Lou Dobbs has his show, and the president is a loyal viewer, and then he creates a much, much bigger audience for that -- for that message.

[11:55:02] STELTER: Yes, he really does. I mean, Lou Dobbs' show might have you know, a few hundred thousand viewers a night, but when you have a presidential megaphone attached, you get so much more air time that way. Sarah, great to see you. Thanks for being here.

ELLISON: Thank you so much.

STELTER: And thanks all for joining us this week on the program. A quick tease for what's coming up on our RELIABLE SOURCES newsletter. You can subscribe at It's a lot of news coming up this week. Game of Thrones premiering tonight, the Pulitzer's announcement, a writer versus agents job action. Get all the updates at Sign up for our nightly newsletter at We're also going to be posting our interview with McClatchy's CEO

Craig Forman. He's being sued by Representative Devin Nunes. So we'll have that interview up on as well. Thanks for joining us. We'll see you right back here this time next week for more RELIABLE SOURCES.