Return to Transcripts main page

Reliable Sources

Wall-To-Wall Impeachment Trial Coverage Starts Tuesday; Capitol Hill Reporters Protesting Restrictions On Access; Why GOP Senators Don't Want To Answer Questions About Trial; New Book Portrays Trump As "Dangerously Uninformed;" Book Says Trump Struggled To Read Constitution Aloud; Fox Firewall Is Supporting Trump As Trial Begins; The Importance Of Low-Information Voters. Aired 11a-12p ET

Aired January 19, 2020 - 11:00   ET



BRIAN STELTER, CNN ANCHOR: Hey, I'm Brian Stelter. It' time for RELIABLE SOURCES. This is 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.

This hour, we're talking about why this book is on President Trump's mind. Explosive claims about a very unstable genius and why everyone needs to hear what's in this deeply reported book.

Plus, just in time for the impeachment trial, new restrictions on Capitol Hill reporters. These restrictions are being called ludicrous and burdensome. We're going to tell you about them.

And speaking of ludicrous, that, right, that attack, that insult from Senator McSally. We'll get into why Republican senators are dodging questions.

And later, cracking the attention code. How the 2020 Dems figured out how to do it. That's a question I'm going to ask Obama speechwriter- turned-podcast star Jon Favreau who will join me live with fascinating results from his recent focus groups of voters.

But, first, on this Sunday, a few questions, here is the three-year anniversary of Donald Trump's inauguration. What happens when a president can't handle the truth? What happens when the best information doesn't reach the president or the public because the information angers him or contradicts his opinions?

What happens when the president mislead voters at such a rate -- such a rapid rate of nine false claims a day? What happens when some people don't care about it and others just check out? What happens when members of the president's inner circle come away saying he's dangerously uninformed. That's in this book. What happens when the press secretary only thinks she serves the president and not the public, too?

What happens president tries to make his own reality and had a network to back him up and do it? What happens when he buys into conspiracy theories about his opponents, conspiracy theories that were fed to him by the very network, by the very people that he trusts?

What happens when he attempts to shake down a foreign government as a result of the information? What happens when the evidence of the shake down is withheld from the people who are in charge of investigating it? What happens when the case against him is so damning that his defenders resort to ad hominem attacks? Or when they say the best defense is "so what", so what? What happens?

What happens is an impeachment trial starting on Tuesday on every channel. But this moment is bigger than the trial. But this moment is about power and information and it's about who has access to that information, and what they do with it?

It's about a concerted effort to misinform people, to throw smoke bombs and manipulate social media, to make everything sound loud and really confusing when it's not actually. This moment is about using power to distort what really happens and what's happening right now.

And these dynamics are going to outlive the impeachment trial and they're going to outlast the Trump's presidency. So, newsrooms that strive to be reliable sources of information have to defend the truth even, especially when people in power can't handle the truth.

And all those factors, all part of this trial that's getting underway, this is a moment to get back to basics for the news media to start from the beginning, to tell the story in-depth for audience that might just be now tuning in and getting up to speed.

So, let's talk today about how to do that and how newsroom should be doing that and what that process is going to be like.

Here with me in New York, senior editor for "Slate Magazine". Also, media columnist for "The Washington Post", Margaret Sullivan. And in Washington, "Politico" White House reporter, Meredith McGraw, is with us as well.

This is an incredibly high stakes week that's beginning, Margaret. What is the number one priority for the American news media when thinking about trial coverage.

MARGARET SULLIVAN, MEDIA COLUMNIST, THE WASHINGTON POST: Right. Well, I think we should be thinking of our coverage in terms of what serves citizens and the public best. Some of that has to be understanding what you just said that some people are really going to be tuning in this in a serious way for the first time so to kind of be, don't assume that people are familiar with all the players that they may know what's going on. I think we have to be, you know, we never want to dumb down but we have to be kind of explanatory in everything we do.

STELTER: Right. And I think there's an attempt sometimes to make this seem boring or too complicated or too convoluted.


But, Dahlia, that's a political attempt. DAHLIA LITHWICK, SENIOR EDITOR, SLATE: Right. And I think that that's

been Mitch McConnell's sort of go-to play, is to hide behind process, and behind -- look, I'd love to call witnesses. But, you know, we just can't have witnesses.

I think the attempt to take down the temperature in a hundred different ways right now, it looks like it's taken down the temperature. It is, in fact, limiting public access to facts, whether that's having no access to journalists to talk senators, or whether it's to having no witnesses or no documents. That's not a process problem. That's a fact problem.

STELTER: What's the status of the evidence that needs to be provided to the public? How much is still being hidden from the public.

LITHWICK: Well, we don't know, because it's being hidden from the public.

STELTER: We don't know.

LITHWICK: But I think that the short answer is as we've learned this year just this week from the Lev Parnas revelation, we have seen a tip of the iceberg and that the more that Congress probes, the more the press probes and more we discover. The fact that that's all been obstructed by the president is actually become the second article of impeachment. And so, it's essential.

That said, Brian, I think it's important to recognize, even if we had nothing but what was found in the House, that is enough, that is sufficient bases to go ahead and probe for more.

STELTER: And yet, Meridith, the attempt we are seeing from the Trump administration and Trump aides and his lawyers is to say that this is a lawless process. I kind of think we're going to have to get up basic definitions of law and start putting them on screen to explain to people what's going on.

MERIDITH MCGRAW, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, POLITICO: Certainly. That's going to be a huge priority for reporters going forward is walking the public through the process. But the very fact that the president is facing the Senate trial, the White House thinks this works in their favor in terms of public relations because most of the public knows sort of basic of how a trial works either from their own experience or because they seen how things play out on television and certainly that played a role into who the White House picked to defend the president, people who have experienced with television and presenting a legal argument to a wider audience.

STELTER: Yes, this is a FOX News defense team with people like Ken Starr who until this week a paid Fox News contributor, now, he's off the Fox payroll. Now, he's working for Trump officially.

You wrote something this week in your "Politico" story, Meridith, that I didn't know. Your story said that the president gets a weekly report full of TV ratings so he knows what those ratings are for various shows. That just speaks to how he has a television mindset about this trial, doesn't it?

MCGRAW: It does. The president acutely aware of how television works and, of course, the power of TV and his own presidency, the visuals, how he's presented to the world through the television is and incredibly important to him and something that he certainly keeps an eye on and that something to be looking into with this trial that's coming up is how they're going to be explaining their legal argument through the visual medium of TV.

STELTER: I love how you call the president the executive producer of his presidency. And he'll certainly try to do that with the trial as well.

We can put on screen some of the Fox legal team members. Dahlia, what's the significance of Trump's defense team trying to appeal to the Fox News base.

LITHWICK: Well, I think they're aware they're not going to win on the facts. What they can do is rally up the base and the best evidence we have that came up this weekend is 111 pages from the House manager asserting in absolutely granular detail what the facts of the case are. A response from Trump's Fox News team of seven pages saying essentially fake news and throwing sand into the gears.


LITHWICK: So, I think part of the strategy and I think Meridith has defined it really well, is to take complexity and render it chaos. And if you just keep taking that, which is complicated, you need flash cards to know the names of all the Ukrainians here, even I can't remember all of it, if you take that and just render it kind of a big glove of three talking points, fake news, you know, Hunter Biden --

STELTER: Witch hunt. Yes.

LITHWICK: -- and corruption. That's it.

STELTER: Yes. You said it's also about making it boring when this is nothing but boring.

Margaret, you wrote a column this weekend for about proportionality, and bout how there is so much going on, there is so much chaos going on, we all need a sense of proportion.

You wrote here: A sense of proportion, what is significant and what is trivial seems strangely missing right now. What truly deserves our all-out attention and outrage? What's the small stuff?

Do you think newsrooms aren't getting this, right?

SULLIVAN: Well, some -- some of them are getting it somewhat right. And I think "The Washington Post" is doing a pretty good job with it.

But I do think that we -- you know, the obsession this past week with the, you know, supposed feud between Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, I think, is the small stuff, and I think the Lev Parnas interview, and as we head into impeachment trial week, that's the big stuff.

And to kind of present them as roughly equal, like, here is a couple of stories coming out of Washington and they're kind about politicians fighting with each other, I think that misses the point.


STELTER: Well, it depends of the medium, right, and where this is happening, because if you're listening to a radio broadcast and they only have two minutes --

SULLIVAN: That's true.

STELTER: -- everything does start to sound equal --

SULLIVAN: Exactly.

STELTER: -- when it's not.

SULLIVAN: Right. And you do want to -- you know, there is -- you want to hit a number of different stories, but you have to be able to say, you know, this one matters more, and we flag that in different ways. Where is it in the broadcast? How much time does it get? How is it framed?


SULLIVAN: All those decisions that editors and producers make.


Everybody, stand by.

Dahlia, you mentioned this issue about access, restrictions on access on -- in Capitol Hill. We're going to go to Capitol Hill with one of the reporters who's advocating for improvements to the situation.

Plus, we're going to talk about Manu Raju and Martha McSally. What is it with the Republicans reluctance to answer basic questions?


STELTER: Hey, welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Brian Stelter.

You know, there are 100 different ways to say "no comment".


Lately, the Republican senators haven't even saying it. They're just giving reporters the silent treatment.

Case in point: Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado, who may be a key vote in the impeachment trial.

Local station KUSA in Denver says Gardner has been a very tough man to reach. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Senator Gardner has avoided our impeachment questions for months. He's been ducking other journalists, too. So, tonight, we caught with Gardner at the airport after he flew back from Washington.


STELTER: Walk and talk on a moving walkway at Denver International and Gardner didn't really say much, but props to this news crew for the effort.

Other senators have been trying to different tactics to avoid scrutiny, like Senator McSally's cheap shot at CNN's Manu Raju earlier this week. She then leveraged her insult through primetime appearances on Fox and a fundraising effort, which kind of seemed like the point all along. It seems like media bashing unites the GOP.

But is the reluctance to answer questions, is the avoidance of the basic questions, does it explain why there are new restrictions being put in place on Capitol Hill in time of the impeachment trial?

Joining me to discuss that and more, "L.A. Times" Congressional Reporter, Sarah Wire, and Joe Lockhart, White House press secretary in the Clinton years, now CNN political commentator.

Sarah, you're the chair of the Standing Committee of Correspondents in D.C. representing print reporters on Capitol Hill. What restrictions have been put in place, and what are you doing about them?

SARAH WIRE, CHAIR, STANDING COMMITTEE OF CORRESPONDENTS: So, reporters' access is going to be limited. For about 15 minutes before and after trial, we'll be kept in pens. And then about 30 minutes before the trial, we won't be able to walk and talk with senators anymore.

And if you've been to Capitol Hill, that's kind of the bread and butter. That's now we get the majority of interaction with senators.

So, we got a lot of concerns about those restrictions.

We're also extremely concerned about the placement of the magnetometer that's going to search members of the press as they walk in and out of the Senate chamber. That's something that's never been in place before. It could make it really inconvenient and pretty much impossible to cover the trial from within the chamber itself.

And that's really important because the Senate controls the cameras that people are watching and there are no photographers allowed in the chamber, and, you know, the American public deserves have an eye witness in there, being able to give them an unfiltered view of what's happening.

STELTER: Yes. Let's break it down piece by piece. A lot of people don't realize that the cameras in the House and the Senate are controlled by the House and the Senate, right? So when you see it on C-Span or you see it on CNN, these are not our editorial controlled cameras. We are only seeing what the Senate wants us to see. And C- Span and the other networks are trying to fight that.

But right now, it looks like we're only to going to get the Senate view of this trial.

And then with regards to access in the hallways, is there anything you can do at this point to make it more free, to make you all be able to roam freely?

WIRE: There are a lot of conversations happening behind the scenes. We are hoping for at least moving some of these press pens so there in places that the senators walk by frequently. You know, there was a bit of a hubbub on Thursday because police officers were stopping reporters from talking to senators.

We've been ensured that is not going to happen next week. That's a major concern because the optics of that is not something I'm sure the Senate wants.

But, you know, we're hopeful that some changes are going to be made and some flexibility might come in the coming days, but we have no official guidance.

STELTER: Yes, between now and Tuesday.

Joe, what do you think is going on? You have some familiarity with the impeachment process. Do you think this is an attempt to avoid tough questioning from reporters or is it actually just about security?

JOE LOCKHART, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Oh, I don't think it has anything to do with security. There is nothing that's going to be happening in the Senate that changes the security dynamic from, you know, last week to this week. The chief -- the only new person is the chief justice, he has adequate security.

This is about Mitch McConnell and Republican senators trying control a flow of information. The ability to turn that camera off, the ability to turn it away from -- you know, if there is an argument that breaks out on the Senate floor, it's why you need someone in there and able to go and file their story. They can't do it from the Senate floor.

So, it is about trying to control information and limit the ability of reporters to see what actually happens.

STELTER: Yes, these moments that we are seeing in the hallways. These are vital as well. These are some examples of Manu Raju, but other reporters as well.

What do you think McSally was thinking when she called Raju a liberal hack, knowing that Raju is one of the most respected members of the press corps?

LOCKHART: Yes, it's a strategy on her part. All of these vulnerable Republican senators are in a box, which is independents, conservative Democrats are looking for them to show some independence from the president.

Trump voters, you know, which makes up 35 percent to 40 percent of the electorate in Iowa and in Colorado and Arizona are looking for absolute loyalty to the president.

So, what Martha McSally did last week and to use Manu Raju as a prop in it was make her choice.


She's going to be with the president. And one of the ways you're with the president is by criticizing the media, putting out misinformation, attacking and doing exactly what she did.

Now, she's going to have to face the consequences of it. She was ready with fundraising material. But having to talk to Mark Kelly who's running against her and running ahead her on the polls, he also told me that he had his best day, you know, of fundraising in the long time.

STELTER: So, it goes both ways.

LOCKHART: So, it goes both ways. And it's just -- it represents the box the Republicans -- these Republicans are in.

It's hard to see Martha McSally being able to get people enough in the middle when she goes in with Trump.

STELTER: To me, it's also about this broader attempt of media bashing. Media bashing is what unites the modern day GOP. You see this at the White House as well.

It has been 314 days since the last on-camera, formal White House's briefing. You have been keeping close tabs on this.


STELTER: You recently co-signed a letter urging the White House to resume briefings. It's not going to happen, though, is it? To be honest, this is working for Trump. Trump likes it without briefings.

LOCKHART: It's working in one respect.

I mean, one of the things you see a lot of now is Trump officials go on Fox and then everybody quotes them from what they say, Stephanie Grisham, Hogan Gidley, Kellyanne Conway.

Make one exception of Kellyanne Conway. She comes on CNN.

STELTER: That's true. She was on this week.

LOCKHART: And I give her credit for that.

So, in a narrow sense it's working for them. In a broader sense, it's not. One of the things that we wrote in this letter to the president was

having these briefings keeps the government accountable and keeps the government communicating. The messaging around the Iran strike was disastrous because people were just going out every day not coordinating. There wasn't a briefing at the Pentagon every day, a briefing at the State Department, a briefing at the White House where you're giving regular information.

And it makes the policy process much more honest and much more effective.


LOCKHART: So, I think in the long-term, they are hurt considerably by this.

But there is a short term, right-in-front-of-you benefit that where they get to launder (ph) the news through Fox and OANN and other conservative outlets.


Last word to you, Sarah. I'm just curious, as someone preparing to cover the trial, how do you prepare? Like, what do you do? Is it about extra snacks, sensible shoes? What's the plan?

WIRE: You always wear sensible shoes on Capitol Hill.


WIRE: Marble hallways are -- hallways are pretty tough.

But, yes, extra snacks, and you're hopeful for extra staff. My focus has been a lot on this press access the last few days, and I'd really like to get back to focusing on what's happening inside the chamber.

STELTER: Amen to that.

Sarah, Joe, thank you both for being here.

Coming up, this new revelation from the book, "A Very Stable Genius", describing the president as dangerously uninformed and angry. How explosive revelations from this new book are putting Trump's fitness for office back in question. That's next.



STELTER: The disorder, the dysfunction, it's always worse than we thought, worse than we knew. That's the takeaway almost every time there's a new book about the Trump White House, and it comes clearly in "A Very Stable Genius: Donald Trump's Testing of America".

This is the book coming out on Tuesday from Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig of "The Washington Post." It's been lauded by reviewers and described as a comic horror story. And let me tell you, thanks in part to these reviews and excerpts, it is already the number one book in the United States, number one in Amazon, number one in Barnes & Noble. It's number bestseller maybe in part because the president has already criticized it.

Look, here are some of the words used by and about the president in the book, verbally and emotionally abusive, angry, volatile, it goes on, it goes on.

In fact, we've created a little bit of a scroll to show you some materials in the book that's so shocking, calling Afghanistan a loser war, talking about the Constitution like it is written in a different language. He's insulting some of his aides like Kirstjen Nielsen, Jeff Sessions, of course, as we've known.

But some of these quotes, they are shocking. They are newly revelatory and that's partly why the book is getting too much attention. But the question I think for all of us, the reporters, for viewers, everybody is any of this shocking anymore or should it be?

Now, back with me now to discuss that is our aforementioned panel, Dahlia Lithwick, Margaret Sullivan and Meridith McGraw.

Meridith, it does seem like every time when there's one of these books, there's, you know, newfound revelation of what happens in the Trump White House. How is it? I'm curious, you work for "Politico", rival news outlet to "The Washington Post", how is that these sources still keep oncoming out of the woodwork with new information all the time?

MCGRAW: Well, there seem to be plenty of stories to go around about working in the White House --


MCGRAW: -- and what goes on behind the scenes, I have not read Phil and Carol's book yet, and I look forward to doing so. But time and time again, we get new revelations of how the president bucked sort of traditional presidential ways and I think this is just yet another book that shows more evidence of that.

STELTER: It sure does. And I guess the key question, Margaret, is whether it is possible to remain shocked every time another book comes out suggesting that the president doesn't know basic geography, is confused about reading the Constitution. These are -- this is about his fitness for office, and yet, I don't think it's even leading many newscasts.


STELTER: It's not even leading this newscast.

SULLIVAN: I think that the -- that's true. I think that the overall themes are very familiar to us. But some of the details truly are shocking and the excerpt that was based on the president's meeting with military officials in which he disparaged them and calling them dopes and losers and so on.


And really, I think for me and I read all of this stuff and kept up with it closely. It still was something pretty dramatically new in terms of the level of it and the reactions to it and so on. I mean, I think that, you know, it's a really -- it's a very potent view of what's happening.

STELTER: Yes. There's a lot of detail in here about the President's media diet as well, and I'll put a couple of the full screens up. The book says, Trump loved watching Morning Joe and CNN to see how the enemies were describing him. But Fox and Friends was where the President picked up his preferred ideas. We certainly know that.

There's another line here that talks about Trump lashing out at a foreign leader, Macron, saying Trump doesn't want to lose in the media, especially on Fox. If he appears weak on Fox, that's totally unacceptable. That sentence I think tells us a lot about the past three years, Dahlia.

LITHWICK: Yes, it's so interesting. It's sort of like we're slowly dying by a reality show and those tropes the sort of formulaic. We know all this. All this was in Michael Wolfe's book in some sense.

STELTER: But a lot of people didn't believe Michael Wolf's book.

LITHWICK: Right -- no, this is -- I mean, what's amazing about this book is it's not snarky, it's not --

STELTER: Not at all.

LITHWICK: It's not deeply reported journalism quad journalism, and yet it lands the same way because we've sort of heard the contour so many times. And I think really the thing that we have to ask ourselves is what is it about this reality show presidency allows us to do, live the same day out over and over again. There's no Perry Mason moment. We just keep living the reality and reacting less and less.

And maybe for me, the question is, why does Rex Tillerson, Kirstjen Nielsen, John Kelly, people who are named in this book as being in the room where it happens? Why have they ghosted? Because at some point, reporters can't move the needle beyond reporting the truth.

STELTER: That's interesting. Speaking of reporting the truth, a shout out to your newspaper, The Washington Post for this reporting over the weekend. You probably all saw this, about the National Archives having altered, blurred an image that said God hates Trump from the Women's March in 2017.

Thanks to one of your colleagues of the post to notice this The Archives. The archives now apologized and said, it's going to look into what happened, what went wrong here. But it's a great example of reporting really mattering. Within 24 hours, the museum apologized.

SULLIVAN: Right. I mean, it's it was a great instinct on the part of Joe Heim, who was the reporter. He was over at the archives for another reason, saw this and said, oh, that's funny. He went back -- you know, noted the photo credit, went back to the office, looked up the original photo and found out that it had been altered.

And, you know, I think that it -- this was a different take on what we already know but it did have the power to shock that the National Archives which was supposed to be the place that preserves history was actually altering history to, you know, to keep the sort of political tension out of the area.

STELTER: Right. But it shows reporting can still matter. So Meridith, last question to you, the same question I asked Sarah last block, how are you prepared? I want to know how reporters are getting ready for this monumental week ahead.

MCGRAW: Well, over the weekend, the White House hosted a briefing call for reporters to talk through some of their thoughts on the week going ahead. My colleagues at Politico have compiled some really excellent guides on what's going to be happening in the next week, what we can expect in terms of the calendar and the timeline for what's going on.

And then, of course, we're all talking to our sources and to folks on Capitol Hill about what they're thinking moving forward. But there's obviously a lot of anticipation for this week ahead and what exactly is going to happen when things kick off this week.

STELTER: I think for a lot of people who just kind of tuned out for a while, they'll be tuning back in as of Tuesday for this event. Meredith, thank you. Dahlia and Margaret, thank you all for being here. After the break, a brand new study about the President's relationship with Fox News. Meet the man who tracks the Fox feedback loop right after this.



STELTER: For three years now, President Trump has used Fox News as inspiration, as affirmation, and as raw material for his tweets. What used to be so strange is now so common that you know Fox and Friends will say something and the President will say it 10 or 20 minutes later.

So let me introduce you to the man who tracks this for a living. He's here to share his most recent numbers from 2019. Matt Gertz is a Senior Fellow at the liberal media watchdog group Media Matters for America and he joins me now. So, Matt, this is part of your beat. Every time the President tweets something, you go and try to figure out if he heard it on Fox News. Is that right?

MATT GERTZ, SENIOR FELLOW, MEDIA MATTERS FOR AMERICA: Yes. I've been doing it since October of 2017. Sometimes he makes it easy for me. He will put the name of a host in the tweets or he'll be quoting something outright. Sometimes he's talking about one of the weird Fox obsessions that no other network is talking about so that makes it clear. And sometimes I'm just sort of lining up the time and showing how a large number of tweets in a row all matched up with Fox's programming over the last couple of hours.

STELTER: Yes. So you've been in this for more than two years now. It's kind of like in the same way that fact-checkers have found new importance in the Trump years. People who figure out where the president is getting this information have found new importance. Let's put up your 2019 data on screen. This is Trump's total live tweets by network. Last year, according to Media Matters, you found Fox News was the source for 559 of the President's tweets.

GERTZ: And that's just Fox News. There's another 98 from Fox Business, Fox's sister network.

STETLER: Right. Now, Media Matters is a liberal group, I describe it as an anti-Fox group. Is that accurate? Is that fair to say?

GERTZ: I think it is fair to say that we are very harshly critical of Fox News.

STELTER: You all oppose Fox News?

GERTZ: We spend a lot of time watching what they say and do, yes.

STELTER: But the point is you just try to get this data because why? Because you want people to know how influential Fox is?

GERTZ: Sure, and how much what they are saying is impacting the President of the United States and through him, our daily lives and the policy that our government carries out.

STELTER: Do you think it's fair to say that right now as the impeachment trial gets underway, the Fox firewall is holding very firm, very strong?

GERTZ: Absolutely. I think they have been strongly in the President's quarter through all this. In fact, if you look at the last few months, as the Ukraine story heated up, and as it turned into impeachment, the President really fixated on Fox's commentary. He is trying to catapult their propaganda into the mainstream, picking up quotes and arguments that they make. And then telling all of his followers all about it.


STELTER: Yes. A former White House aide once made the point to me that Fox is like a content creation engine for Trump. That, you know, that what he sees in the graphics and banners, he takes video clips and puts them on Twitter. So it's like Fox is creating content for him, even though that's not what they say they tend to do, it's what ends up happening.

GERTZ: Sure. And, you know, the point of a lot of Fox's programming is to rile up its audience, to make them very angry so that they come back and watch more of those programs. So that's the impact that it's having on the president.

STELTER: Sean Hannity this week said that MSNBC and CNN or state-run T.V. I'm just curious how you reacted to that. GERTZ: I mean, I think this is a fairly common tactic that Sean Hannity uses. He sort of parries back comments that are made about him and his network to the other ones. I think he's trying to hide the sort of depths of relate -- of the relationship that he has with the President. You know, he reportedly speaks with him virtually every night after his show. He advises him. The President advises him on particular angles to take on his show. He's been referred to as the shadow Chief of Staff of the White House.

And just this week, we learned that Paul Manafort, the President's former campaign chair, had been trying to use Sean Hannity as a backchannel to the president to let him know that he wasn't telling Mueller's team too much about what the President had done.

STELTER: Matt Gertz, thank you so much for being here.

GERTZ: Thanks for having me.

STELTER: When we come back from the break here, Jon Favreau and Peter Hamby will join me for some frank talk about 2020 campaign coverage. First things first, let's get rid of the Twitter primary.



STELTER: In a matter of hours, The New York Times editorial board will reveal its pick for the Democratic primary, its endorsement ahead of the Iowa caucuses. But will this matter to the average American voter? I'm going to go with no. What about the report to beltway drama and Democratic infighting? Is this what the public is attuned to? Again? No.

Newspaper endorsements do matter sometimes, infighting is a real issue in some campaigns, but let's have a sense of proportion and perspective. Peter Hamby recently put it this way for Vanity Fair. He said, "There are plenty of divisions in our conventional wisdom, insider versus outsider, progressive versus moderate, young versus old. But one of the biggest splits in American politics is simply between those who follow politics closely and those who do not." This is sometimes known as low information voters.

Political scientists have been studying this for decades. Low information voters can be said often view all politicians and all media with contempt, deciding to sit elections out. So how about a reality check for where voters heads are at in the weeks running up to Iowa.

Jon Favreau is here to discuss that. You may know him as a Pod Save America co-host. He's out with a brand-new second season of his podcast called the Wilderness. He also -- he traveled across the country for this new podcast series to meet four focus groups to gauge how difficult it might be for Democrats to break through in the Trump age.

Plus, Peter Hamby as aforementioned is with me here. He's a Contributing Writer for Vanity Fair, and the host of Snapchat's Good Luck America. So thank you both for being here. Peter, your piece got me thinking a lot about this topic. And so, we want to talk about what low information voters actually means. It is not a pejorative, it is not a negative term, so define it for us. What is a low information voter?

PETER HAMBY, CONTRIBUTING WRITER, VANITY FAIR: Yes, you're exactly right, Brian. It's not negative, this is normal. Most people don't actually care about politics. In the Trump era, Trump has mastered attention capture Trump is politics, but if you subtracted from the equation, a lot of people don't follow this stuff closely. The term Twitter isn't real life has become kind of a savvy thing to say these days. Both John and I have been saying that for much longer than that.

But one thing that these folks focus groups illuminated for me was that it reminded me of, quite frankly, as someone who spent most of his journalism career on the road is that for a lot of people, politics isn't real life. I mean, polls measure this in every poll. There's a -- there's a question that almost every poll asked which is how closely are you following the election?

You know, 50 percent of Americans say a lot, really closely. 50 percent of Democrats say the same. But 15, 20, 25 percent of voters including Democrats are not following this stuff closely. And that over indexes among African Americans, Hispanics, younger people, and non-college educated voters. Those are all Democrats, the voters need to show up. Those are the voters that Obama got to show up. Those are not the voters that Hillary Clinton got to show up.

And it was really important that I think for Democrats that Jon did these focus groups because I think it teaches us the lesson both for Democrats, and in the media, and reminds us that people are not spending their time watching cable news, they're not on Twitter, and that voters are much more complex, they see things differently than a lot of us in Washington and, frankly, in Iowa and New Hampshire do. But those are the spaces where the primary campaign is being fought right now.

STELTER: Being fought. So, Jon, what did you learn? What were the top takeaways for you?

JON FAVREAU, FORMER SPEECHWRITER FOR BARACK OBAMA: Yes, I mean, look, I think the biggest challenge for Democrats is not just Donald Trump, who a lot of these voters didn't have a lot of love for Donald Trump, even some of the Trump voters, it's this cynicism and distrust that these voters feel towards the entire political system, and that includes the media, and that includes both parties.

And look, it's not that these voters are ignorant or apathetic, they care. They really -- they need politics to be relevant to their lives, but right now politics isn't relative relevant to their lives, and partly that's because they think that the media covers this stuff like it's a game and they treat it like it's a circus. And it's exhausting to them, and they turn on T.V. and they see 10 people on a panel yelling at each other. And that's not relevant to any of the problems they have in their lives right now. [11:50:16]

STELTER: Right. So then they tune out as a result.

FAVREAU: Right. And then it's harder to reach them because they know they're going to vote but they don't know who to trust. They don't know what each politician's positions is because all everyone's talking about on television is some stupid fight that everyone's having on Twitter. And so you know, they become distrustful of the entire system. And that is why --

STELTER: But when you say everyone -- when you say everyone on Twitter, meaning actually a small group of the political class on Twitter.

FAVREAU: That's right. That's right. Which isn't representative of the electorate as a whole even by a mile.

STELTER: Yes. So, Peter, you've written about the attention -- the attention primary. A lot of this is about cracking the attention code, are Democratic candidates able to get attention when Trump sucks up all the oxygen?

HAMBY: The short answer is absolutely not. You know, it was actually Barack Obama who cracked this code in the first place. I mean, if you are a low information voter, if you're a casual voter, you only pay attention to politics when elections are coming up. And quite frankly, you pay attention to candidates who attach themselves to culture. Sometimes that means they're cool. Sometimes that means they're trolly.

One of the things that Donald Trump has done is on his side of the equation, he has made politics at least entertaining for non-college voters, for rural voters, for low information voters who used to think the politics was broken, irrelevant, and stupid, and not worth participating in. He's made politics fun, and trolly for a lot of people on the right, and in 2016, at least for a lot of independents.

He's given them a reason to pay attention that has nothing to do with, you know, his credentials. You know, we have lots of conversations these days about the Democratic Party and electability. You see candidates on stage saying, you know, I won in the collar counties outside of Minneapolis, St. Paul, so I can win or I got elected statewide in New Jersey or I passed this bill in the Senate in 2007. I'm sorry, nobody cares.

Elections in modern times are about attention capture. They are about bringing people together under an umbrella message, motivating them and getting people to pay attention to politics and make it feel relevant to their lives. And these focus groups, I thought, you know, when I read through the transcripts were a huge wake-up call for the political media class that makes the assumption that voters are following wind caves.

I mean, if you look again at these poll numbers, 30 percent of Democrats don't know who Pete Buttigieg is. 50 percent of Democrats don't know who Amy Klobuchar is. But those are all words that are on the tip of our tongue every day and I think this the sort of folks who produce and create the news as a commodity, I think the Democratic campaigns need to rethink how they're waging their campaigns because most voters are getting their news and chopped up bits from a variety of signals on their screens.

STELTER: On bits and pieces, yes.

HAMBY: Right, on bits and pieces. And one other note on this that was very interesting from Jon's focus groups was that they named CNN, Fox, local news, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter as places they got their news, but they said in the same breath that they didn't trust any of those places, either. And I think that cuts to Jon's point which is that a lot of news coverage is outrage porn, hot takes, and it's not about things that are relevant to people's lives.

STELTER: Let's keep this going. This is really good. Let's see a quick break. Let me talk about what I learned from Jeopardy with you guys in just a moment.



STELTER: We're back on RELIABLE SOURCES talking about how to improve political coverage. And this moment from Jeopardy a few days ago really says it all.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: U.S. representatives for 12.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: 153rd of California is House delegation is this Intelligence Committee chairman? His name is Adam Schiff.


STELTER: All right, John Favreau, that really proves the point about Twitter chatter not reflecting real life. But are you still seeing social media distort campaign coverage all the time?

FAVREAU: Yes, of course, because social media doesn't reflect the views of the electorate and the things that people care about and social media coverage. Like, look, if I'm a one of those voters in a focus group, and I haven't checked in in the news in a while, and I turn on the T.V. and I see all bunch of segments about Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, you know, an open mic and who was yelling at who about what, and nothing in the conversation is about healthcare, wages, climate change, gun control, any of the things that people actually care about that would feel relevant to their lives.

And so, what everyone spends all day on Twitter and on cable talking about in these races in politics just is so divorced from the realities of people's life from their concerns, from what they're worried about. And so, the more they see this silliness on their television screens and on their phones, the more disengaged they get from politics and you can understand why.

STELTER: It's a vicious cycle. Peter Hamby, I have 15 seconds left, and they're all yours.

HAMBY: Tom Patterson at Harvard University is one of my favorite writers and thinkers about this stuff for decades, wrote in 1994, that "the press is not a mirror held up to society." That echoes what Jon just said about Twitter.

I would also say, as to the press, I think a lot of people think a corrective to Twitter to spend more time in Iowa and New Hampshire. No, it's to spend more time you know, in a Safeway parking lot, it's to spend more time in Charlotte, it's to spend more time in Phoenix or El Paso. Like, go to places beyond just these states where people are highly engaged. I think that's an important lesson as well.

STELTER: On that note, Peter, Jon, thank you so much. We're out of time here on RELIABLE SOURCES, but we'll see you back here this time next week.