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Reporters Exposing Flaws In Government's Virus Response; The Importance Of "Social Distancing" In An Epidemic; Joe Biden's Whirlwind Campaign Rebound; Scrutinizing Fox's Narrative About Joe Biden; How Bernie's Critiques Of The Media Differ From Trump's; White House Faces Backlash For Off-Camera Coronavirus Briefings. Aired 11a- 12p ET

Aired March 08, 2020 - 11:00   ET



BRIAN STELTER, CNN ANCHOR: Hey, I'm Brian Stelter. This is RELIABLE SOURCES. We are covering the story behind the story -- so let's get right to it.

Aides from both the Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders campaigns will join me live.

Plus, why Chris Matthews suddenly stepped down from MSNBC.

And why President Trump's campaign is suing several news outlets, including CNN? Is this a re-election strategy?

Lots to get to, but, first, lying and leadership breakdowns when it comes to the coronavirus. We are at a critical moment with governments around the world taking action and companies canceling travel and cities calling off big public gatherings.

Every hour, every day you can feel the spread of the virus and the spread of the quarantines. The scope of this story, it's hard to get your arms around. That's a challenge for newsrooms like this one and many others. Right now, we near clear-eyed no nonsense news coverage during this crisis.

Just consider where we are versus a week ago. This time last Sunday, there were 89 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the United States, half of those from the cruise ship. Now, there are at least 450, according to CNN's count. This count is being updated constantly, and the truth is, no one knows the exact or full number because of testing failures. That's why these kinds of headlines are important to make clear about what's going on.

Health officials are sounding alarms because they don't have enough test kits. This story said the flawed rollout of test kits snowballed into an embarrassing fiasco of national proportions. "Politico's" lead headline, if you go to, right now, it says Trump's mismanagement helped fuel the coronavirus crisis.

"The Washington Post" says the Trump administration has squandered time and lost control. Let's just pause on this. We've seen this before. The other day, "The New York Times" said Trump has dealt with the coronavirus, quote, the first external crisis of his administration by repeating a string of falsehoods.

Falsehoods, yes, but this is not the first crisis of his administration. Category 5 hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico in September 2017. And the similarities between the responses are glaring. As news coverage convey the scope of the crisis in Puerto Rico, the government's sluggish response was being scrutinized by the press.

What did Trump do? He doubled down, he defended himself and he lashed out at others for their shortcomings. He downplayed the death toll and outright rejected the math and accused Democrats of trying to make him look bad.

He said he was the best thing to ever happen to Puerto Rico. So in both cases, Maria then, the coronavirus now, we're seeing wild boosterism and bogus claims, they are abounding. We've seen bewildering photo-ops showing off the government's response. We've seen people at the epicenter trying to point out failures in the response and we've seen stories exposing how government agencies were underprepared and ill-prepared.

These stories are crucial. Journalists play a key role right now in putting pressure on local and federal governments and exposing flaws in the response. Journalists are spreading word about people who believe they are infected or not getting help. These are signs of a healthy news ecosystem.

But the U.S. president, of course, perceives this as a bad thing. He says in a brand-new tweet the fake news media is doing everything in order to make the U.S. look bad, make us look bad he says.

In the tweet, Trump is still patting himself on the back for restricting travel from China, something that happened weeks ago. We are so far past that point right now, the virus is spreading rapidly in the United States. But Trump is doing things that undermine the response. He's continuing to contradict health experts like by saying anybody can get a test which is not true right now. It's not true.

His behavior at the CDC on Friday spoke volumes about his mindset. He wore a campaign hat to this event. He asked about Fox's ratings, he insulted the Democratic governor of Washington state, and he brought the Ukraine scandal.

Most of the news coverage of this visit downplayed just how strange it was and that is a problem. We've kind of describe reality exactly as it actually is, and not shy away from the aberrant responses that we are seeing from the commander in chief. But also includes his aides, some of his aides have been out there saying this has been contained. That is a lie. Thankfully, there's been fact checks on that point.

What we need do in this moment is prioritize accurate information from experts over misinformation from politicians. You know, Trump and the news media both have a tendency to make, well, everything about Trump, right? But this virus story is only a little bit about Trump. Should he be

doing things differently? Yes.

For example, the CDC says older Americans should limit travel. But he's not amplifying that message. He should be right now. In fact, he can tweet about it right now.

The president should lead or else he should get out of the way. By all means, sir, please don't go out of your way to make a bad situation worse. Lead or get out of the way. Don't be an obstacle. Maybe just stay on the golf course.


So, that's the story about the president. But the press should point out when he is an obstacle and then move on. Don't make it all about Trump.

This story is too important for that. The health consequences are too serious. We're heading into a storm. And the mostly east coast media needs to focus on the west coast, on locals like Washington state where it's already hitting hard.

Let's take a look at some of the Sunday morning front pages from Washington state. This is "The Sunday Herald" in Everett, we're circled through this. In Everett, saying a lack of testing is raising doubts. "The Seattle Sunday Times" front page is totally dedicated to the story.

And "The Olympian" in Olympia, Washington, is quoting health experts -- they are saying this is a pandemic and should be declared so.

So, let's talk about this now with my experts who are assembled here in New York and across the country.

With me here is the editor in chief of Kaiser Health News, Dr. Elisabeth Rosenthal, a former CDC disease detective and current director of the Stanford Health Communication Initiative, Dr. Seema Yasmin, and former U.S. secretary of health and human services, Kathleen Sebelius.

I'm going to take my own advice and pivot, past the president and not talk about the president right now.

Seema, let's talk about the state of the crisis, what has happened in the past couple of days and how should journalists be covering the story.

DR. SEEMA YASMIN, DIRECTOR, STANFORD HEALTH COMMUNICATION INITIATIVE: I want to shout out those local journalists that you've pointed out, Brian, they are doing fantastic work on the ground, in the areas hardest hit and I think really giving readership in those areas advice and information about what isn't happening that should be happening.

And I'm really appreciating the look at how overwhelmed health care systems can quickly become, so that the devastating news coming out of the Life Care Center in Kirkland just outside of Seattle where we've seen a number of deaths, but alarmingly, we've seen 180 staff there, 70, are showing signs of this coronavirus infection.

And, of course, we're learning that what health officials have been saying anyone, well, anyone wants a test can get one are not panning out to be true. Reporters are covering that story.

I want to point out that emotion is not helpful when you are reporting. Emotion can get in the way. I'm starting to see reporters tweet in all caps or become frustrated while live on air.

I share those frustrations, trust me, I'm a medical journalist. I'm a public healthy physician. I see what's going wrong. But as reporters our job is to let the reporting do the talking.

STELTER: You know, right now, health experts are the heroes in this story. Reporters can bring more attention to those health experts to get the world out.

So, Elisabeth, one time, you're a "Times" reporter, now the head of Kaiser Health News.

What are your dos and don'ts for reporters right now?

DR. ELISABETH ROSENTHAL, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, KAISER HEALTH NEWS: Well, I think the most important thing is to put the -- put out the numbers, put them in context. When you hear the WHO saying 3.4 percent death rate, you say yes, but only people who were really sick are mostly tested.

You know, we hear the president saying, oh, I like good numbers. Well, good numbers are not low numbers in an epidemic necessarily. It may mean, as it does in the United States, that we're not testing very well, right?

South Korea has bad numbers, quote, unquote, but they' going out and testing, which will save peoples lives and help understand the outlines of this epidemic.

So, I think we really have to put on our science hats, go with the numbers and make sure we always put them out there, but put them out there with the proper context.

STELTER: Context.

And, Kathleen Sebelius, about the tests or the lack of test, just how big a story is the delay in getting sufficient amount of testing?

KATHLEEN SEBELIUS, FORMER U.S. SECRETARY OF HEALTH & HUMAN SERVICES: Well, I don't think there's any question that the United States is behind on testing. And what we're doing is testing people who present themselves mostly at a hospital and very sick. So, we are not doing the proactive testing.

Epidemiology is really about pattern, and it's about frequency. So, you need to know what the pattern of the disease is, where it's spreading, how fast it's spreading and frequency in terms of the percentage of the population. And we really don't know either in the United States yet. That really is the kind of information that would give people confidence about making rational decisions.

We have to get the scientists out front. We have to get the scientists to tell us regularly what we know and what we don't know and how fast we can know it. And I think you made a great point earlier, have the president stop talking. His hunches are potentially very dangerous, because we don't want to rely on his hunches, we want to rely on the science.

There's no way to speed up a vaccine and skip over safety and efficacy trials. So, we need the scientists to talk to the American public, and then people can begin making decisions for themselves, their families and communities that make some sense.

STELTER: The president lacks credibility, most Americans know that. But, of course, millions of Americans do believe what he says when he downplays the situation.


And, Dr. Yasmin. That's especially true with Fox News viewers who have been told over and over again for three years not to trust anything else.

YASMIN: Yes, and I want to point out that we think that viewership skews older.

STELTER: It does, yes.

YASMIN: And those are the folks we are more worried about. When you talk about those fatality rates, provide the context and break it down by age group.

Let's be honest, the more deaths we're seeing are in the over 70s. And so, we want that viewership to really be aware. I just want to say on the testing kit issue --


YASMIN: -- from a journalistic perspective, it's not only a testing technical failure, it's a regulatory failure. I want to see that reported on, because that, Brian, has implications for the next epidemic and the one after.

We will be here again talking about another epidemic in a year. I don't know when, but we need to get those red tape issues sorted out now so that we're not having the same conversations.

STELTER: Let's have everybody stand by for a moment.

Quick break here. Then I want to show you a graph that explains social distancing, all of this and will put it in perspective. That's in just a moment.



STELTER: Sometimes an info graphic is worth a thousand words.

So, let me show an example. This is from the CDC explaining social distancing, the idea of mitigation when a virus is spreading, all right?

So, you see there's an X axis and a Y axis. You have the rise in daily cases and the number of days since the first case. The idea here is that there's no action taken, no intervention, no protective measures.

You're going to get a rapid rise in the outbreak, you know, a lot more cases every day. If you take actions like canceling travel, avoiding public events, et cetera, you know, you're gong to get a much slower rise in the number of cases over time. And that helps the health care system keep up.

Let's advance this and show you how this graphic is spreading in its own way, in a good way. This is a version published by "The Economist". It's been going viral on social media, again, showing if you delay the epidemic, you reduce the height or peak of the epidemic and thus the health care system can keep up.

Again, let's advance it again and show you a version showing up on Twitter. This added line says health care system capacity. Again, the idea here is if you take a lot of protective measures, hopefully, you're not overwhelming the health care system.

Now, these graphics have been made by a number of people on Twitter. This is from Drew Harris, who is taking "The Economist" point from the CDC, and adding that health care capacity line. He says this is the difference between finding an ICU bed or ventilator or being treated in a tent in the parking lot. His point is that the health care system capacity is crucial.

I think we should talk more about this. Let's bring our panelists back.

Elisabeth Rosenthal of Kaiser Health News, when we talk about protective measures, as that graphic shows, what are those protective measures?

ROSENTHAL: Well, I think the problem people hear protective measures and they think masks and gloves. But that's not really what we're talking about for the ordinary public. We're talking about not going to tight events, maybe closing schools. When we lived through SARS in China, my kid's school stayed open, but no kid went to school with a runny nose, they washed their hands a thousand times a day, and no kid got SARS and no kid got stomach flu or anything else during that time.

So those things like social distancing, hand washing, staying out of tight spaces, they make a huge difference, and we can all do those pretty easily. STELTER: So, we are seeing conferences and events being canceled, events like South by Southwest, that are big media events, news outlets like CNN have dramatically reduced the amount of travel that we are doing, although in certain degree, we have to cover the news. So, there is some travel that continues.

So, Kathleen Sebelius, let's see if I can get this straight. We can put this infographic back up on screen. The idea here is that this virus is going to keep on spreading. We've got to be honest about that. But if we can reduce the speed of the spread, then supports the health care system.

Is that it in a nutshell?

SEBELIUS: Well, that's an accurate picture what, again, we tie back to testing. And I think we have to know, this is a great, big country, and there are going to be hot spots. Seattle we know right now is a hot spot. That may move.

We may see bigger outbreaks in certain areas of the country than others. We need to identify those very quickly, get out ahead of them, figure out how wide it spreads and then take action.

I think what's happening right now is people actually don't know what to do. So, out of an abundance of caution, they're canceling all kinds of things. And I'm not sure that that's what the scientists would say is the best measure.

Libby (ph) just outlined basic precautions that everybody should be taking -- hand washing, stop shaking hands, making sure you're cleaning surfaces, those kinds of things that will make people healthier in the long run. We need to quickly start reassessing hospital capacity and making sure we have a stockpile. I was pleased to see that Congress added billions of dollars to replenish the stockpile of important equipment, ventilators and, you know, masks and -- for health care workers.

But we need to be able to map and accurately identify for business travel, for events for schools, what is going on in the United States, what the pattern looks like, what the frequency looks like and who is most vulnerable. Then you can make decisions.

STELTER: You know, speaking of this, the sense of reactions versus overreactions, Dr. Yasmin, you look at social media this weekend, you can this -- the Twitter threads and Facebook posts, telling you the entire country is going to be infected in a matter of weeks or months.

YASMIN: Right.

STELTER: Are those examples of overreactions that we have to watch out for in social media?


YASMIN: We do have to be careful about overreactions. We want to get the accurate information out there. There are modelists doing incredible work, trying to help us build good case scenarios and also the worst case scenarios.

When we think about the health system capacity, Brian, we're not just thinking about the equipment, which we're worried about the strategic national stockpile in terms of N95 masks and things like that, but we're also worried about the people who work in the health care system.

So, look at Lombardi in Italy, the area really hard hit, 10 percent of the doctors and nurses there tested positive. They were talking about bringing older doctors out of retirement and accelerating graduating dates for nurses. Like that's not the position we want to get into here, which is why having taking measures early on, having testing kits available, and doing all of that public health work now can make a difference in the future.

STELTER: Elisabeth, final thought?

ROSENTHAL: Final thought is --


SEBELIUS: Brian, I first --

STELTER: Kathleen, go ahead. You're on a delay. Go ahead, then we'll go to Elisabeth.

SEBELIUS: All I was going to say is the other thing I think we have to be telling the public right now, this is not a short-term issue. It will be a year likely before we have a vaccine. So, this is not about particular March. This is about the next multiple months.

We don't know if it's going to come in the fall with a vengeance. So, need to actually prepare people, not just what they're going to do for the next two weeks but what they're going to do for the next six, seven, eight, nine months. And I think that's an important message to start to deliver right now.

ROSENTHAL: And I think it's really important for viewers to know that the cases are going to go up.


ROSENTHAL: The number of cases are going to rise dramatically in the U.S., and that's because we're now starting to do the kind of testing --

STELTER: We're looking for it.

ROSENTHAL: -- that should have been done.

So, when you see the number of cases triples in your town or in your state, don't get alarmed right away. Think, wow, this may be a good thing, now we'll understand more about the denominator, how does this virus spread, who needs to be worried? And respond appropriately.

STELTER: The news coverage is always about proportionality. And that's especially true it sounds like in this case.

ROSENTHAL: Yes, absolutely.

STELTER: Thank you all for being here.

Much more coming up on RELIABLE SOURCES, including a look at the Democratic primary race and what a difference a week makes in the primary season. Joe Biden now riding a high after what one aide called a tsunami of earned media. We'll talk with T.J. Ducklo, national press secretary for the campaign, next.




Turning to Democratic politics now and the Joe Biden campaign in front-runner status after Super Tuesday, now looking ahead to the next Super Tuesday. I have a guest with me for his first CNN interview, T.J. Ducklo, who is the national press secretary for the Biden campaign.

T.J., thanks for coming on.

T.J. DUCKLO, NATIONAL PRESS SECRETARY, BIDEN FOR PRESIDENT: Yes, thanks for having me. Long-time listener, first time caller.

STELTER: OK. We'll take that. That's great. Hey, you were at NBC News doing public relations before going -- joining the Biden campaign.


STELTER: What's it like now to be on the other side going from other newsroom to going into a campaign?

DUCKLO: You know, it's great. It -- it's exciting. It's fun to be in the action. It's fun to be in the game.

STELTER: Do you ever have gripes with NBC's coverage?

DUCKLO: You know, we -- our job is to make sure we have fair and objective coverage across the board. And so, that's constantly what we're doing every day. But, yes, no, it's been great.

STELTER: In December -- some viewers know this, some viewers don't -- you were diagnosed with lung cancer while in the midst of this incredible campaign season. What have the last few months been like for you?

DUCKLO: You know, they've been hard, but they've been -- they've been good. You know, I got an incredible support network of family and friends that my team -- you know, the Biden campaign has been truly amazing.

It's been great to be back at work and sort of take my mind off things and I mean --

STELTER: So, you've been back for over a month at this point, have to work?

DUCKLO: I have. The last week certainly made me feel better. That's for sure.


STELTER: So, last weekend, the South Carolina win happens, and then, from my perspective, you all produced one heck of a television --


STELTER: -- with these announcements of endorsements, with these big rallies ahead of Super Tuesday.

How strategic was that or was it just all luck?

DUCKLO: Well, look, I mean, last -- it was a brilliant case study in earned versus paid media. It was the power of the narrative. I mean, you know, we knew after Iowa and New Hampshire, we'd have to do well in South -- excuse me, in Nevada and then sort of use South Carolina and a strong performance there as a spring board into Super Tuesday. And that's exactly what we did.

We had 150 endorsements over three days. We used that momentum. The Joe-mentum, if you will, which, of course, continued this morning with Senator Harris' endorsement, to, as you said, produce a television show Monday night, you know --

STELTER: And, by the way, a free television show, right? Michael Bloomberg is out there buying a television show --

DUCKLO: Right.

STELTER: -- by spending a lot of money on ads.

DUCKLO: Right.

I mean, between 7:00 and 11:00 on Monday night, from Mayor Pete's endorsement to Senator Amy Klobuchar being at the rally, to the surprise guest of Congressman O'Rourke, and then the Whataburger visit. I mean, it was -- it was a blackout television, right? It was wall to wall Joe Biden.

STELTER: Is that the strategy for this weekend now as well?

DUCKLO: Well, look, I think the strategy is, is that message, which is -- which is what folks heard the night before they voted on Super Tuesday, which is that Joe Biden is the candidate to unite the Democratic Party, to bring folks along, to win down-ballot races. I mean, that is -- what, if you turned on your television the Monday before Super Tuesday, that is what you heard.

And the other point I'll make about that is, you know, it's the message that's important and powerful but it's also the messenger. I mean, Joe Biden is someone that folks across the country know. He is someone that, you know, has character and values and that people know is the polar opposite of Donald Trump. I think without a messenger that is credible with a message like this, I don't think it would have been as powerful or as effective as it was.


STELTER: People know Biden, but some are also worried about his cognitive decline. That's the claim we're hearing oftentimes on Fox News. Let me just show a few examples.




TUCKER CARLSON, HOST, FOX NEWS CHANNEL: He's a doddering old man who grins a lot.

INGRAHAM: The man barely knows where he is or who is with at any hour of the day.

HANNITY: He seems not to even remember what day it is.

INGRAHAM: He's not in charge and everyone knows it.

CARLSON: That's one reason the other candidates were so eager to swing in behind Biden.

INGRAHAM: The party machine's geriatric puppet.


STELTER: What's the Biden campaign going to do to respond to that daily drumbeat?

DUCKLO: Well, look, Brian, Fox News, and Donald Trump and his allies had been throwing everything they have at us for the last 10 months and voters on Super Tuesday roundly rejected what they are selling. I think that this campaign has shown you over the last 10 months that we can take everything that people throw at us. We can address it head- on. We can address it aggressively.

STELTER: But for eight more months, it's going to be dementia and Hunter Biden.

DUCKLO: But we can also -- we can also keep our eye on the ball. We can walk and chew gum. And we can address those lies -- and because they are, Brian. They are their lies, they are smears, they are invented claims. We can address those claims while also talking about the issues that voters care about. Things like health care, things like climate change, things like gun safety reform, that things that Joe Biden is fought for his entire career. We're prepared to do it. We've shown that we can do it. And voters

have shown that they reject it. And so we're looking forward to continuing to do it into the fall.

STELTER: It's going to be eight busy months.

DUCKLO: Indeed.

STELTER: T.J., thank you for being here.

DUCKLO: Yes. Thanks for having me.

STELTER: Best of luck. A quick break here, and then we're going to turn to the Bernie Sanders campaign. You know, Sanders has a plan for the journalism business. Hear about that and more with David Sirota in just a moment.



STELTER: Turning now from Joe Biden to the other contender for the Democratic nomination for president, Bernie Sanders. He's on four of the Sunday shows today making a big push ahead of Tuesday's primaries. David Sirota is joining me. He's a Bernie 2020 speechwriter and senior advisor. David, thanks for being here.


STELTER: Earlier in the week, Sanders said don't believe what you hear in the media. He seems to be bristling at some of the coverage of his campaign. He's criticized the corporate media all season long. It's actually been a trademark of his even going back decades. What are your critiques of the news media's coverage of the Sanders campaign?

SIROTA: Look, we don't we -- the main critique is that the media often doesn't focus on the issues that are of real importance to the American people. The issues that Senator Sanders has campaigned on. Climate change -- I mean, there's a recent study out that said something about -- something like four hours of total network coverage went to climate change over the year. You know, coverage of poverty, coverage of low wages in America coverage of the healthcare crisis.

So the critique is that a media that is owned by big corporations and billionaires is often not all that interested in covering the major issues that are not necessarily of economic importance to billionaires and corporations.

STELTER: A lot of people say, hey, Sanders is attacking the media just like Trump. I think he does it differently, but what do you think?

SIROTA: Yes, it's not the same critique. I mean, here's the deal. Trump, Donald Trump impugns the existence of the media, he makes clear -- he doesn't really think the media has a worthwhile role in our democracy. Bernie Sanders who has put out a plan to protect journalism, Bernie Sanders very much believes in the Free Press as an integral part of our democracy.

But his critique is again, that the media often ignores the fundamentally important public policy issues that the media should be covering, and, frankly, that we need the media to be covering.

STELTER: You were a journalist for many years. You decided to join the campaign. Why is that? Why did you make the leap?

SIROTA: Because the crises we face right now I felt are just so important that while I was reporting on them, and that reporting is important, I just felt that this campaign to try to tackle climate change, the healthcare crisis, the wage and the economic crisis in this country, it was just so important.

And really, in this primary, there's a very stark choice and in the entire election, that you've got one candidate, Bernie Sanders, who has put forward the most far-reaching plans to deal with these crises. And we have a chance to actually elect that person president. And so for me, it was basically that that was the most important thing I could do in my life to try to better our society, our country, and our world.

STELTER: We were just showing from the Columbia Journalism Review, Bernie Sanders op-ed about his plan for journalism. Here it is. You can find it on Tell me a little bit more about this. Because he says he wants to support independent journalism and strengthen media ownership rules so that big media companies can't get bigger.

SIROTA: We have a problem in the -- in the media industry in this country that the media industry is consolidated. I mean, it is very much the ownership is in the hands of a handful of billionaires and corporations. And what that ends up doing as we -- as I've alluded to before, what Bernie Sanders believes it's done is that, again, it makes the focus of media coverage not necessarily on the issues of the most importance to the people.

So one of the things he's talked about is making sure that antitrust rules are stronger to make sure that media mergers, major media mergers are better reviewed. He's also talked about his workplace democracy plan which would strengthen union rights, workplace rights for people like journalists who can unionize and collectively bargain with their employers, not only for economic benefits, but for protections for their editorial independence. So that's really what that plan is about.

STELTER: And by the way, I was talking with a Biden aide about this a moment ago, this criticism of all of the candidates in the field, Trump, Biden, Sanders, about their age. You know, Politico has a column this morning entitled 2020 is the dementia campaign. How do you respond to that critique of Sanders people saying they're just too old to be in race?


SIROTA: If you try to keep up with Bernie Sanders on the campaign trail, you'll see that Bernie Sanders is in certainly very, very good health. I mean, I've tried to keep up with him on the campaign trail. I'm younger than him and there -- I'm not going to lie to you, there are times where I find myself exhausted and he's pushing forward.

So the point here is that you have to judge people not just on their age, but on their stamina, on their physical capabilities. And I don't think anybody would argue that Bernie Sanders is weak on the campaign trail. Again, reporters themselves who to try to keep up with him, I mean, it is not easy. That guy is an energizer bunny.

STELTER: David Sirota, thank you so much. Thanks for being here.

SIROTA: Thanks for having me.

STELTER: We have a panel standing by. Lots more to talk about the Democratic race, Chris Matthews, and much more. Stay with us.


STELTER: The Trump administration has dusted off the White House Press Briefing Room for updates on the coronavirus. Briefings have been happening pretty much every day although a couple of them were held off-camera for no good reason. It is great to see government officials taking questions from reporters. But it is also worth noting the absence of the briefing room's usual occupant, the White House Press Secretary.


Wednesday will be the one year anniversary of the last formal on- camera White House briefing by a press secretary. This ended during Sarah Sanders tenure and they have not come back since Stephanie Grisham took over. Instead, what Grisham does is she does lots of interviews on Fox News instead.

Let's talk about this and several other stories with editor at large for the nonprofit news organization, The 19th, Errin Haines, CNN Political Commentator Joe Lockhart, and Axios Media Reporter Sara Fischer. First to our former White House press secretary here, Joe Lockhart. The Clinton years, the Obama years, the Bush years, everybody was having press briefings regularly. What is the significance of this ending of the briefing one year ago?

JOE LOCKHART, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, you know, I think most people out in America don't spend a lot of time thinking about the press briefing, but it really is the removal of one guardrail of our democracy the fact that every day Monday through Friday, someone would stand up and take all questions from all comers from reporters in the briefing room. It's great that they're doing some coronavirus stuff, but there are a lot of other issues out there.

And one of the things the press secretary does this kind of run interference or you know, referee within. And my view is, if Stephanie Grisham have been doing her job, we wouldn't be getting all these mixed messages on coronavirus. That there's a discipline that gets instilled in the government, in the interagency process where the government speaks with one voice. STELTER: Interesting.

LOCKHART: And now, you know, basically their strategy is you let Trump speak and everyone follows in behind.

STELTER: And try to clean it up.

LOCKHART: Yes. And Trump changes his mind. He doesn't tell the truth. And it's, you know, I understand why it's hard. But this is it -- it's an important thing that that's gone away.

STELTER: One other Trump-related story from this week that I want to note, John Bolton's book which was supposed to come out on March 17th, it's been delayed till May now because that White House review is still ongoing. Let's turn out to the Democrats and a sense of loss in this primary season. Because look, we've seen now Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders are going out for the nomination.

But the departures this week from Elizabeth Warren, and Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg, I think, Errin, there's a real sense of loss that a lot of people feel that this historically diverse field of candidates has now come down to two white guys, two old white guys. I love all white guys but what happened to the diversity of this field?

ERRIN HAINES, EDITOR AT LARGE, THE 19TH: Yes, I think it really raised the question of, you know, who was electable in this country and in a fear election year --

STELTER: Electability.

HAINES: Electability, right? Like that word has loomed over this 2020 Democratic primary. What we saw is that in a fear election, electability has come down to two old white men.

STELTER: You said in a fear election. It's interesting.

HAINES: Yes. I mean, that is really what Democrats are so focused on. They're so fearful of, you know, having a candidate that's going to be able to oust President Donald Trump in November. They say that that's their priority. And so, the person that they see as being most capable of doing that apparently is going to be, you know, a white man over 70.

And that really is just really stark when you think about the diverse field that we had. You know, more candidates of color, more women than we've ever had running at one time in the history of American politics, and yet, you know, we end up here, you know, barely after Super Tuesday. It is really striking.

And especially when you consider for the women, in particular, the idea that women are the majority of the American electorate, and yet they will not be able to vote for anyone who looks like them after having so many people to choose from a year ago.

STELTER: And Kamala Harris, one of those people, she as she endorsed Joe Biden today, also call this out. Let's put her statement on screen. Kamala Harris said, look, it is -- she walked with sadness. Like a lot of people, she says, we still find ourselves without any women on -- women on a path to the Democratic nominee for president. This is something we must reckon with and it is something I will have more to say about in the future. It's an interesting ending to your statement there.

Let's move to one of the other people to drop out of the race this week, My Bloomberg, a media mogul running for president caused a lot of headaches at his media company, Bloomberg News. And one of the headlines we have on CNN this week is that Bloomberg News staffers are breathing a sigh of relief now that he's out of the race. What do you make of that, Sara?

SARA FISCHER, MEDIA REPORTER, AXIOS: Well, I think they don't have to worry about whether or not their credibility is at stake anymore. For a long time, they had a compromised editorially some credibility by not covering him the same way that they would cover potentially other candidates on the right like Donald Trump. Now, they don't have to worry about that.

And I think for folks in the press, what we don't have to worry about anymore is it's awkward for us covering Bloomberg News. We have good colleagues and friends there. We know they're great journalists. But we had to cover this really clinically, which was the fact that this is unusual for a newsroom to restrict the coverage of an election because your owner as a billionaire running.

STELTER: Yes, so unusual. Another story this week, Chris Matthews suddenly stepping down from MSNBC. This is a situation where he was -- he was jumping because he was about to be pushed in the midst of a bunch of controversies there. Errin, any reaction to that?

HAINES: Well, certainly that came as a surprise to a lot of folks just the way that that unfolded. And you know -- but really a lot -- seeing a lot of praise to for just the words that he had to say on his exit, just his awareness of being, you know, somebody of a certain era and of a certain age who understands that things that he may have said or done were out of step with the moment that we now find ourselves in.


STELTER: Yes. Journalist Laura Bassett wrote about being treated inappropriately by Matthews. Other women have described experiences where he would make sexual comments that were inappropriate. You know, this is something that was going on for a long time. And there was a history here, but it looks very different in 2020 than it did let's say pre #MeToo. Is that a fair assessment?

HAINES: Yes, absolutely. That's absolutely the way that I think it's being seen and the way that he came to see it and how they came to part ways last week.

STELTER: Yes. It is striking to see Chris Matthews, one of the senior statesmen of MSNBC stepping down at a time, Joe, where we're talking about these older candidates for president. LOCKHART: Right. Yes --no -- and I listen, I think in the case of NBC,

they had a particular vulnerability given all of the Ronan Farrow stuff and the fact that they killed that story. So I think they were -- they were ready to do this. There was some erratic comments about Bernie Sanders which I think went over the lines.

You know, I think, you know, getting to Errin's point, the Democrat -- this is, you know, for women, I hope they aren't discouraged. I hope they keep -- they stay in this. This election is I think, an anomaly. And I know as the old white guy, it's -- you don't have to agree with me. People are in the Democratic Party are so afraid of Donald Trump getting a second term and destroying the country that they wanted something that they -- that that was safe.

It's unfair. The coverage of the women in this race was not the same as the men in the race. But at the end of the day, I think the party came to believe, you know, the Joe Biden, you know -- and you know, maybe it'll be Bernie Sanders, but the people who've been in it the longest had the best chance of beating Trump. And I think that's the single driving force in this race.


HAINES: You know, to Senator Harris' point, like when will women not seen as a risk? You know, I think that that is the question. You know, in 2016, the woman candidate won the popular vote by three million votes. You know, the question of can a woman win I think is something that should be settled, and yet it is still very much an open question in our politics.

FISCHER: And one thing just to acknowledge about this race which I thought was interesting is we had so many women that you heard woman saying, I don't want to come out and endorse anyone because it looks like I'm biased against the other woman in the race. So you have females who aren't getting endorsements from other females. That makes it hard for female voters to believe that those women can go out and win.

You saw Emily's list endorse Elizabeth Warren to like what, three days before Super Tuesday. I think that having a multiple candidacy of women actually in some cases may have also made it harder.

STETLER: Boy, it's so interesting. I was glad to see the day after Warren stepped aside from the race, front-page stories and all the big papers about this issue, about this question about women being able to make it you know, in these races. It is such a giant story that we have to keep paying attention to.

All right, to the panel, thank you very much. A quick break here on RELIABLE SOURCES. When we come back, Trump's re-election strategy suing the press.


(COMMERCIAL BREAK) STELTER: Most of the President Trump's attacks against the media are mere words, verbal threats. He has a long history of threatening to sue news outlets. But now his reelection campaign is taking action in the form of libel lawsuits. Three so far, three very similar suits against the New York Times, the Washington Post, and CNN.

Each of the lawsuits are over opinion pieces, all of them published last year. Each of the pieces was about Trump and Russia, like this headline from the post claiming Trump just invited another Russian attack. The Trump campaign is alleging defamation saying these sorts of statements have been disproven. But the statements were made in opinion pieces, not in news stories.

That's one of the reasons why as the Wall Street Journal put it, these libel claims are longshots. Legal experts all seem to agree these suits are going nowhere. So what's the motivation then? Does he truly feel defamed or are these just publicity stunts? In the case of the lawsuit against CNN on Friday, Fox News was tipped off in advance and Sean Hannity gave it lots of attention.

So maybe this is just about making Trump-like a fighter and making the news outlets spend money getting the suits thrown out. Then, of course, the campaign can attack the courts and the media. These suits will likely linger through the campaign season, giving Trump a recurring and convenient line of attack.

But even if that's all this is, staging a show, it still comes at a cost. As media law professor Jonathan Peters said, the essence of our political system is public participation and baseless suits like this one can chill speech about newsworthy political issues, intimidating and discouraging others from speaking out in view of the risk of being sued in the corresponding costs.

It's possible these lawsuits are an attempt to appease Trump or perhaps there's a genuine desire to eventually reach the Supreme Court and revise the country's libel laws. There's clearly some sort of strategy at work here. As the CNN team reported last month, the Trump campaign has showed out more than $2 million to a law firm known for suing media companies.

The firm is harder LLP led by Charles Harder. The same lawyer who took on the Gawker Web-site for allegedly invading Hulk Hogan's privacy. Harder won that case. And you know, Harder and Trump have something in common. Both men believe America's libel laws should be revised to make it easier for the subjects of new stories to sue and win.

We'll see what happens. We'll keep track of it. We will keep covering this court action because that's what the press does, even while being sued. We'll see you back on RELIABLE SOURCES this time next week.