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Trump Still Getting More Coverage Than Biden; What to Expect at Thursday's Presidential Debate. Aired 11a-12p ET

Aired October 18, 2020 - 11:00   ET



BRIAN STELTER, CNN ANCHOR: Hey, I'm Brian Stelter, live from New York, and this is RELIABLE SOURCES, our weekly look at the story behind the story.

This hour, a tale of two moderators. Would-be demonstrator Steve Scully suspended by C-Span, while town hall host Savannah Guthrie at NBC is praised for her performance.

Plus, we have new reporting about the debate coming up this Thursday.

Plus, the origins of right wing media's latest obsession with Hunter Biden. Yeah, we are going there.

And, later, a rare interview with commentator Andrew Sullivan on the role of the media in 2020.

But, let me start with this. This is the media critique that I hear most often from all of you watching at home. It's that President Trump gets too much attention, too much air time, and he crowds out everyone and everything else.

Every week I hear from viewers that say we are talking too much about Trump and not enough about Joe Biden. And this has been going on for five years.

This screen grab is from August 2015 on this very show. I was pointing out that Trump was sucking up all the oxygen in the proverbial room during the GOP primary, winning far more nightly news coverage than other GOP candidates.

Now, flash forward to 2020 and Trump still dominates TV. We checked CNN, MSNBC and Fox News this month, and Trump mentions outranked Biden mentions on all three channels.

Here is another data point. Google searches for both candidates in the last 30 days, Trump is consistently ahead of Biden.

So what's this about? Well, it reminds me of the old saying that plane crashes are news, but all of the planes that land safely don't make the news. Or maybe the better comparison is to a house. Pictures of an arsonist burning down a house are more shocking than, I don't know, speeches by a guy who is promising to repaint the house. I am sure you can think of a better comparison, but we know that the

president is shocking. We know this phenomenon is real. Trump holds nor events and talks longer and tweets more. Biden, on the other hand, is protecting his lead in the polls with a less-is-more approach.

Ezra Klein commented the other day that Biden's low visibility campaign is working and, he said, perhaps people like politicians more when they see them less.

Tim Alberta recently wrote for "Politico" that it's impossible to actually measure Trump fatigue, but it is really even among, quote, die hard Trump supporters. They feel trapped inside a reality TV show and they want a break even if they don't want a new program.

Trump really is testing the limits of the attention economy. But there's one big difference in this election cycle. His rallies are not being shown live all over the place. Sometimes you have to go to his website to watch them.

Still, he says so many outrageous and offensive things, especially at those rallies, that he remains a massive news story, that newsroom have to cover.

Look, even in my newsroom at CNN, within our editorial meetings for this program, RELIABLE SOURCES, we often talk about all the Trump drama and how it's crowding out news about Biden. We talk about whether we need to add a Biden segment to the program. And if so, what would that be?

Well, here it is. This is our Trump and Biden segment talking about this disparity and how it's visible all over the place.

Here is the question now though. Is all the attention, all the air time for Trump, is it working for him this time around, or is it not working against him?

I am sure you heard about the ratings for the recent dueling town halls. Trump's town hall heard on three channels, and yet he still was outperformed by Biden who was on just one channel alone.

Now, is that the ultimate sign of Trump fatigue? If so, what does it mean? And how does the press need to make sure that we are providing balanced, fair coverage of both of these candidates when there are so many natural differences in the newsworthiness of them?

I am joined today by an all-star panel of guests who are going to be with me throughout the hour. With me is the staff writer for "The Atlantic" and author of "Twilight of Democracy", Anne Applebaum; Harvard Law School professor and co-director of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, Yochai Benkler; the national correspondent for "Time" magazine and author of "The Ones We've Been Waiting For", Charlotte Alter; and the editor-in-chief for "The Daily Beast", Noah Shachtman.

Noah, do you talk about this in your newsroom that I do with CNN, this Trump and Biden disparity? NOAH SHACHTMAN, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, THE DAILY BEAST: Yeah, we talk about

it all the time. It's real. It's important and it's unfortunate in a lot of ways. Look, in some ways it reflects the dynamics of the race, too, right?

There is not really in some ways a race between Joe Biden and Donald Trump. There is a race between two coalitions, a pro-Trump coalition and an anti-Trump coalition headed by Joe Biden.


Just look at Joe Biden's -- look at his coalition, right? He's got Angela Davis and Noam Chomsky on one end, and he's got Bill Kristol on the other end.

These people don't agree with (AUDIO GAP), right? The only thing they agree on is that they hate Trump. And so, you know, you see that reflected in the coverage as well.

STELTER: Charlotte, do you pick up on this in your interviews with voters? You have been writing about this for "Time" magazine recently, what you're hearing from voters in battleground states. Do they notice that Trump takes up all the oxygen in the room?

CHARLOTTE ALTER, NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT, TIME: Yeah, they do, and one of the things that I noticed in my trip across the battleground states, it's not just on the news that Trump is sort of dominating. His visibility out in the real world is overwhelming compared to Biden's. And that has a lot to do with, you know, problems the Biden campaign has had in terms of getting their yard signs out, you know, people complain about their yard signs being stolen, and I understand that the campaign is actively working on that and trying to fix that.

But when you drive around, you see a lot more Trump than you see of Biden, and it sort of like reflects in some ways the news coverage. But also I think this is partly an enthusiasm gap between the two camps. The people who are pro-Trump are really pro-Trump, and some of the people who are not for Trump kind of don't really want to get into it as much it seems to me.

STELTER: Right. I was driving earned Bucks County, Pennsylvania, yesterday and counting the number of signs. Every time I thought Biden was ahead, there was another crop of Trump signs.

And, of course, these are all just anecdotes, right? There is no real data we can use about signs. But, everybody, you know, we can't resist the count, can't resist watching this.

Anne, you have a global perspective for us. You are coming from outside of the United States. I want to see your view inside the U.S. of this present situation.

You know, a lot of liberals in the U.S. feel like the press has been tilted towards Trump even though the coverage is very critical some -- most of the time, because we are constantly talking about him, that means he is winning. How do you see it? ANNE APPLEBAUM, STAFF WRITER, THE ATLANTIC: Oh, I am not sure that

talking about him all the time means that he's winning.

You know, we saw what was the result of the first debate. Remember it seemed to Trump he was winning that debate and he seemed to say so afterwards because he was dominating the conversation, he was constantly interrupting Biden, you know, he made his points over and over again, repeated himself. And yet we saw afterwards that people were really repelled by that performance and they recoiled from it.

And so, I'm not sure that more attention necessarily means more votes. You know, quite a lot of the attention is not just that the attention is negative. It's that the more people see of Trump -- remember that most people don't follow politics the way people on this program do. They don't watch it every minute.

And the more they see him in action, the more they hear him, the more they seem to be repelled by him. So, it may not be a bad thing.

STELTER: And we're going to preview the next debate in just a couple of minutes.

Yochai, I want to ask about the bigger picture, the status of this election, because almost every day the current president is saying and doing things to try to delegitimize this election. And his latest narrative, his latest lie is that Biden is illegitimate. These are a couple of tweets from October, one from earlier in the month, one from this morning, the meta message from the president, although a lot of this is nonsensical about made up conspiracy theories, is that Biden shouldn't be allowed to run or he is not allowed to run, that he is not qualified to run, that he is not legitimate, that he legally shouldn't be allowed to win the presidency.

This is yet another flavor of this really dangerous narrative from the sitting president. Is this ultimately a test for American democracy? What is this?

YOCHAI BENKLER, PROFESSOR, HARVARD LAW SCHOOL: Absolutely it's a test for American democracy. And don't forget, this is a president who started his entire political existence with the birther movement and with the idea that the sitting president of the United States was constitutionally unable to be a president.

So what you have is a sustained attack on the possibility that if you are not with him, you're at all eligible. And he has to differentiate himself in that way because he has nothing actually to show for himself. And we focus very heavily on Trump, but at some point, we should focus -- we should expand a little bit to look at the Republican Party more generally. And when you look at the --


STELTER: -- that the Republicans are in an electoral dead end. What does that mean?

BENKLER: Well, here's the basic -- here is the basic problem. They are stuck in, for 40 years now, the Republican coalition has basically been money, focused on deregulation and low taxes, funding a party where the votes come from the white identity voters backlash against the civil rights movement, and the fundamentalist backlash against the women's movement.


So you have this coalition, and it kept becoming more and more constrained as it started to feed from Rush Limbaugh, from Fox News into its own extremism. And so, what you have now is essentially a party that can't expand beyond its base, and it's not just Trump claiming illegitimacy of Biden. You see it in Greg Abbott's effort to suppress the vote in Texas. You see it in Pennsylvania with the state legislature.

Because they are a persistent minority party based on very narrow foundations with a very static coalition that is a shrinking part of the electorate, they have no choice but to lean as heavily as they can on the most anti-democratic aspects of the American republic.

STELTER: So, when we hear about minority rule and we hear about this backlash, you are putting it into context for us.

Everybody, please stay with me. You're all coming back after the break. I want to talk about the moderators, the recent debate moderators, and town hall moderators, and a big problem that the commission on presidential debates has. That's next.



STELTER: After the chaos in Cleveland, aka, the first presidential debate of the fall, the commission that holds the debate said that additional structure was needed to ensure a more orderly discussion. They said there will be additional tools to maintain order, whatever that means.

Eighteen days later, the commission has not announced anything about new structure or new tools. Will the producers cut the microphone of a serial interrupter? We don't know.

But we shall see on Thursday hopefully, because President Trump says he, quote, will play the game and show up this time after skipping what was supposed to be the second debate of the season.

He is working the ref already, unfairly attacking the moderator Kristen Welker of NBC, in a wake of a hit job story in "The New York Post".

And look, this is a tried and true Trump tactic, right, making excuses ahead of time in case he does poorly. Here is Trump talking about Welker on Saturday.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I have known her for a long time. She's extraordinarily unfair, but that's all right.


STELTER: Okay. Here is Trump praising her back in January.


TRUMP: Congratulations on your show.


TRUMP: They made a very wise decision.

WELKER: Thank you very much. And we invite you for an interview whenever you are available.

TRUMP: Okay.


STELTER: Need I say more?

All right. Charlotte Alter and Noah Shachtman are back with me.

So, the second debate of the season was scrapped. There should be a third debate on Wednes -- Thursday coming up. We'll talk about that a little bit.

Let's go back in time to these dueling town halls that were held last Thursday. Savannah Guthrie was praised by -- seemingly everybody in the journalism world for poking and prodding and following up on President Trump when he was dodging questions and spreading misinformation at Thursday's town hall.

And for that, the president is trashing Savannah Guthrie. He has been trashing her for days now. Let's take a look at some of what he said about her.


TRUMP: And then, Savannah, it was like her face -- the anger, the craziness.

OK. You watched last night and you see the anger and the hatred. I'm saying, look, let's just do this thing. Just take it easy. Relax. Just relax. Take it nice and easy, okay?

Last night was -- she was out of line.


STELTER: All right. Charlotte, the president has well-documented issues with women journalists. Is this part of that trend?

ALTER: Yeah. I mean, listen, the president attacks everybody but he saves his most personal attacks for women and particularly for women journalists. And, you know, as we were talking about in the earlier segment, Trump, you know, he's not really necessarily running against Joe Biden. He is kind of running against the media itself.

So, you know, that's why some of these negative coverage and some of these tough questions don't really seem to resonate with his base because the enemy, as he said many times, or as he tried to argue many times, are the questioners, are the refs, is the media itself.

So, he's, you know, feeding into that situation that he has created where he is not really running against Joe Biden. He is running against the entire idea of media scrutiny and the entire idea that somebody would be really, you know, holding his feet to the fire in a way that Savannah Guthrie did.

STELTER: I am glad you said that. People didn't just see what the big deep story he is telling is, even though you can dismiss it as nonsense, it's a deep story about being everything out to get him -- everything and everyone being out to get him, every institution, even the Debate Commission. That's the story he tells every day at his rallies.

And that's appealing or it's not. But that's the story he tells. And so, these clashes with Savannah Guthrie, you're right, they are part of a bigger narrative.

So, Noah, do he see a tale of two moderators between Chris Wallace at the debate that is happen and then Savannah Guthrie at the town hall on NBC? Can we learn from their different strategies?

SHACHTMAN: Yeah, look, Chris Wallace, and I'd add George Stephanopoulos at the ABC debate, or at the ABC town hall with Biden just kind of let those guys go on and on and on unchecked.

And, Savannah Guthrie, I thought, did a great job by getting -- trying to get answers out of Trump, getting in his face, really demanding that he answer the questions.


And I am really hoping that in this next debate coming up, they follow the Savannah Guthrie model rather than the George Stephanopoulos or Chris Wallace model.

STELTER: Meanwhile, Steve Scully was to be the moderator of the second debate, one that was scrapped. He is the C-Span veteran, a journalist beloved by the Washington political class and yet he admitted to lying when he said he was hacked. He said his Twitter account was hacked and that's somehow why a tweet from him to Scaramucci -- popped up on his Twitter feed. He admitted he was lying and C-Span has suspended him for lying.

How much damage does this -- how much damage does this do, Noah, to the national news media as a whole when you have a prominent journalist admitting to lying under pressure? SHACHTMAN: Well, look, he is not the first prominent journalist to

lie about some tweet that he was no longer proud of. He is not the first prominent journalist to claim to have been hacked and then not.

It's a trend that pops up here and again, and it is ugly and it's really got to stop. This idea of, oh, it wasn't me, it was a random hacker is just ridiculous. People have got to own their mistakes. They have got to be able to say that they did wrong.

Nobody's perfect. Perfect isn't on the menu. So people can say, hey look, I made a mistake with that tweet rather than blaming it on some phantom figure.

STELTER: Yeah, it definitely does damage.

Looking ahead to this last debate, what should have been the third debate, it will be the second debate, Charlotte, the Debate Commission is being mum about what they are going to do, what they're going to change. I think they are afraid Trump is trying to back out again, so they're not commenting.

I asked again this morning. I've been emailing and texting and not getting answers about what is going to change in the format, in the structure in order to have an actual debate.

But that raises the broader question. Is this Debate Commission just, is it, you know, is it obsolete? You wrote a book about millennials and politics. The Debate Commission is the opposite. The Debate Commission skews very old.

You got folks who have been around for decades who, you know, maybe they have the best of intentions. And I think that's true. They have the best of intentions.

But is this debate commission idea obsolete?

ALTER: You know, I don't think that the idea of a debate commission is obsolete because I think that there need to be rules for any of these contests and there need to be rules for the events where the two candidates face off against each other.

I do think that there are (AUDIO GAP) needs to have that are a little bit obsolete. For example, I think there is an assumption that they are going to set these guidelines and that candidates are going to accept them out of politeness and decency and, you know, all of the sort of ideals of a political age gone by, that clearly don't necessarily apply anymore. I think we saw that in the first debate, the idea they would set the rules and the candidates would just respect them because they are the rules, and then Trump clearly trampled all over that.

So I think that these -- again, these very experienced and distinguished political minds who make up the Debate Commission are beginning to learn that they actually have to put a little bit of bite behind their rules and do some enforcement because they are dealing with a candidate who has no respect for these kinds of institutional guardrails.

STELTER: Right, exactly. And we will see between now and Thursday what the commission is going to do.

Charlotte and Noah, please stay with me.

Coming up here, how Fox News is like "Game of Thrones." How Fox is like "Breaking Bad." We're going to show you how this new anti-Biden narrative from the Murdoch media machine was manufactured.



STELTER: In every campaign cycle, right around this time of year, Republican-aligned media rolls out a closing argument against the Democrats. You have probably watched this happy happen without realizing it.

In 2014, it was Ebola. In 2016, it was emails, some of them stolen by Russia. In 2018, it was the caravan.

Remember how the so-called caravan of migrants heading to the southern border suddenly filled the airwaves before the midterm election and President Trump said America was being invaded?

Well, it's that time of year again. But the closing argument is not about immigration. It's an echo of 2016. It's about emails again. This time emails from Joe Biden's son Hunter.

So, let's take a look at how a story line is manufactured, in this case, a loudly anti-Biden storyline redounding to Trump's benefit. First, it helps to really view this as storytelling, not so much news coverage, but as political entertainment where crushing the other party is entertaining.

Fox News, the beating red heart of the ride wing media machine, molds reality into a serialized TV drama. That's how "Vox" recently put it. Think "Lost" or "24," think "Game Thrones" or "Breaking Bad." Think "West World" or "The Wire".

Every day, every night, there are what appear to be new developments in this entertainment drama, some new twists to keep you watching.

Fox and Trump have this in common. They both want you to stay mad and stay tuned.

So this political entertainment careens from conspiracy to conspiracy, like a serialized TV drama. Many months ago, the pro-Trump media scandalized the routine intelligence practice of unmasking.

Trump and his allies claimed that Obama-era officials were guilty of, well, something. It's never been clear. It's nicknamed Obamagate. That's the name for this storyline.

[11:30:00] Trump has repeatedly accused his predecessor of treason. And, of course, most of the country ignores him when he says that, but his biggest fans hang on every word that Trump and Sean Hannity have to say about it.

Now, you probably know where this story is going. It's going into the trash. Because on Tuesday night, The Washington Post said the unmasking probe by the DOJ had wrapped up without any charges or any public report. What a humiliating outcome for the Trump flacks who worked so hard to promote it.

This headline in the Washington Post was terrible news for Trump world. But fear not. A new storyline was introduced right on time. There it is, the New York Post front page announcing Biden secret e- mails, more shadiness involving Hunter Biden. As political entertainment goes, this is not a brand new T.V. show, it's just a new season of the show, Hunter Biden's business dealings in Ukraine were a key part of the plot last season in the impeachment of President Trump.

Hunter has already apologized. Well, he's already admitted to poor judgment and swampy behavior. His father has said that it will not happen again. And at this point, most people have moved on. But Trump needs a closing argument. So, he and his media allies usually rely on what about-ism, right? So, you ask about the Trump family swampiness, and they say what about Hunter Biden? You raise Trump's legal exposure, and they say, what about Obama gate. You might say or liberal critics say Trump is compromised, and they say no, Biden is compromised.

What about-ism is like a glue that holds the base together. It also supplies hours and hours of TV drama, so stay mad and stay tuned. That's what it's really about. Let's get back to the New Season's storyline. Let's break down how this will happen because it was launched, as I showed you, by the New York Post, and then promoted by another Murdoch media property. That, of course, is Fox News.

You worry about Trump's corruption and Fox says, what about Biden every hour of the day. So Fox is a producer of this serialized drama, but there are big questions about who might have created this show. That's what's probably most important here. CNN reported on Friday that U.S. authorities are seeing if those e-mails we just talked about, are connected to an ongoing Russian disinformation effort.

Now, we already know some of the American producers of this drama, because the New York Post says it was tipped off to the existence of the e-mails by Steve Bannon, Steve Bannon. Then Rudy Giuliani gave the post a copy of a hard drive containing the e-mails.

Now, here's where it gets even weirder. The Post claimed that the e- mails were found on a laptop computer that was brought to a repair shop in Delaware in the spring of 2019. And a shop employee saw the e- mails and then was worried about getting in trouble or getting in danger and he made copies of them. There's a lot about the story that does not add up. And the employee has not helped matters. He has contradicted himself in interviews with reporters. And I mean, for all we know, these emails are made up or maybe some

are real, and others are fakes. We don't know. But we do know that this is a classic example of the right-wing media machine. A tip from Bannon and a hard drive dump from Rudy let a former producer for Sean Hannity show to write a story for the New York Post that get splashed on the front page that Rudy then used to trash the Biden's all over Fox and they're doing it almost every hour of the day. And Trump has been hyping the drama for days on end. And this is how it goes on and on.

Now, let's pull up Don Junior's tweet from just a little while ago. How -- he says, "How will the media attempt to sweep this one under the rug?" That is the meta-narrative. That's the big story they're telling. It's all about grievance and bias and victimhood. So, let's talk about the significance of these manufactured scandals with Yochai Benkler. He's back with me, along with Anne Applebaum, and Noah Shacman.

Yochai, I get pretty fired up about how this works because, look, I mean, if the New York Post tells you your mom loves you, you should check it out. We are not talking about fully reliable sources here. We are talking about a system that seems to repeat it -- repeat itself every month every year. When one scandal fizzles, another so-called scandal launches. When the unmasking thing fizzled, now, we're talking about Hunter Biden again. How do you see it, Yochai?

YOCHAI BENKLER, PROFESSOR, HARVARD LAW SCHOOL: Look, absolutely. This is -- this is -- we've been looking, my team and I, at this thing for at least five years now since the beginning of the 2016 election cycle. It happens every time. The New York Times has a story about how Trump is mistreating women, Fox News makes up the big pedophilia story that ends up after years being Pizza Gate -- after months being Pizza Gate, and after a year and a half being QAnon.

Comey gets fired and the Kislyak meeting occurs, Fox News revives the Seth Rich conspiracy and claims that the DNC or Clinton had him killed. This is a standard move we've seen every single time. The strategy is to deflect attention, to attack the opponent, and the same propaganda pipeline is there all the time.


It's -- this one from the New York Post is almost like a B-rated version because they just -- what did we have hanging around? Oh, we used to have Weiner's laptop. Let's bring a laptop in here. Oh, we used to have e-mails, everybody thought e-mails -- let's bring the e- mails. It's really almost a poor production of the same story because they seem to be running out of stories.

It's the, in some sense, amateurism of it either is just because they're poor or because they're so confident that the story is just going to be too much fun for serious journalists not to pick up. But I think this time, unlike what we saw with Clinton, where serious journalists fell for the ban and produced Clinton Foundation nonsense, trivially where serious journalists dug into the e-mails. And Gallup shows us, the only thing people thought about when they thought about Clinton was e-mails and foundation.

They're trying to produce it now. But media at the moment, major professional media doesn't seem to be falling for it in the same way. And that's the critical thing in my mind.

STELTER: And clearly, Twitter and Facebook have learned lessons from the past. And Twitter blocked the link to the New York Post, then reversed. That's an entirely separate mess. But Anne Applebaum, I want to get your take on this what about-ism issue.

There are certainly a lot of questions about the Trump family's dubious business practices. So then, of course, they make it about Biden, and an hour ago, Don Jr. is on Fox saying Biden's compromised. I mean, they literally just engage in what about-ism all day. Is what about ism the entire story of this election?

ANNE APPLEBAUM, STAFF WRITER, THE ATLANTIC: So, there are two very weird underlying issues to the Biden story. I mean, what one is the Hunter Biden story. One is the fact that Joe Biden's own actions in Ukraine when he was Vice President, were all about promoting rule of law. Everything that he did, there was about making Ukraine -- creating a better legal system in Ukraine, getting more honest prosecutors there, you know, fixing the kinds of problems that we now have in the United States with, you know, with nepotism. And so there is no there-there. In other words, whatever it is that Hunter Biden was alleged to be doing, it had no impact on his father.

I mean, the second thing, as you've -- as you've said is -- I mean, it's almost bizarre. I mean, nothing that Hunter Biden is accused of doing, you know, fraudulently is worse than what the Trump family themselves do. I mean, this is a family that had a long association, for example, with a hotel in Azerbaijan. Their business partners, there were members of the -- were linked to the Iranian National Guard. You know, this is a -- this is a family who have used the White House to earn money for their companies. Ivanka Trump got trademarks from the Chinese government while her father was the president. I mean, one thing after the next, after the next.

And, I mean, I assume that the focus on Hunter Biden is particularly been chosen to distract from the family's own nepotism an own misuse and abuse of office.

STELTER: So, it's about saying everybody's dirty, everybody's crooked, just stick with your tribe stick with your team. Noah, I showed a graphic earlier in the show that was wrong. And I'm thankful to the Twitter users who caught it. Let's put up the accurate graphic. We've fixed it in the past few minutes. It just shows how all the cable news channels talk more about Trump than Biden this month including Fox.

The numbers on the graph were wrong earlier. But Fox, just like the rest of the network, talks about Trump more than Biden. The difference with Fox is they do talk about Biden a lot. That's why the grout lines here between Fox and Trump are closer -- sorry, Trump and Biden -- are closer Fox. Fox talks about Biden more than the other networks. Why? Because it's an anti-Biden channel. They are trashing Biden seven ways to Sunday. So, Noah, my question to you is, The Daily Beast reports, your Web

site reports, that Rupert Murdoch is privately telling his friends that Biden is going to win in a landslide. So, then what's going on at Murdoch's New York Post and Murdoch's Fox News when they're out to get Biden every hour of the day?

NOAH SHACHTMAN, EDITOR IN CHIEF, THE DAILY BEAST: Right. Well, I think there's probably two explanations. One is a remarkable show and maybe a first time show of editorial independence by the post and Fox News from their owners, or more likely, they're positioning themselves for the next few years where they can be the kind of conservative resistance to Biden. My bet is on the latter.


STELTER: Your bet is on the latter. My bet is on the latter as well. Thank you, everybody. A quick break here on RELIABLE SOURCES. Much more in just a moment.


STELTER: A nation plagued by misinformation. That's what Time Magazine National Correspondent Charlotte Alter found when she hit the road to speak with voters in the battleground states of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. She found the conspiracy theories, informed the views of many voters, and left the president impervious to critique among Trump's hardcore base.

Charlotte is back with me now to tell us her findings. Charlotte this sounds like it was a scary road trip.

CHARLOTTE ALTER, NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT, TIME MAGAZINE: Yes, you know, it was unsettling to, you know, be traveling in these -- in these -- the districts that are going to swing this election and, you know, be seeing all the news that's happening and then talking to voters on the ground about it and hearing that basically they didn't really believe or didn't care what was being reported in the news.

STELTER: You say there was something called unlogic. We will put your definition of unlogic on screen. What is that?


ALTER: So, the way to think about it is that logic is sort of like the mental leap between things that are known to be factually true. You're rooting your worldview; you're rooting your reality in things that have been established to be fact and real. Unlogic I came to think, unlogic is when you're routing your reality in things that are not truth. When you're taking conspiracy theories or, you know, dubiously sourced suspicions and orienting your entire worldview around those ideas.

STELTER: This is why when President Trump says at a town hall, I don't know anything about QAnon but I know they're really against pedophilia, right. He's giving permission for these folks to believe the craziest scariest kinds of theories and then have a lot of unlogic. So, Charlotte, bottom line, we are so far beyond fact- checking. That's what I hear you saying.

ALTER: Yes, because it's not about people, you know, believing something that's not true and then seeing that it's been corrected, and then thinking, I guess I was wrong about that. It's people whose entire worldview, entire way of looking at the world is rooted in this opposition to authority, this opposition to fact-checking, this opposition to verification.

So, there's no way to puncture that because when you present opposing evidence, it's too challenging to their worldview, so they just kind of end up dismissing it.

STELTER: Charlotte, thank you for the warning. Thank you for being here. Read her columns about this at Up next here on RELIABLE SOURCES, commentator Andrew Sullivan. He's joining me in just a moment.



STELTER: We are back on RELIABLE SOURCES. Coronavirus cases are on the rise in 29 states in the United States. Johns Hopkins is reporting close to 20 -- 60,000 new cases and more than 700 new deaths, you know, and that's just in one day. We are seeing these case numbers rising and rising. This emergency is becoming more and more serious, even though the disinformation about it from the usual sources is just getting more and more prevalent at the same time.

There is a new form of news fatigue that has been described by the New York Times and other outlets. It is pandemic fatigue. I wonder if you're experiencing pandemic fatigue and I wonder what we can do about it. Let me ask a commentator and author of The Weekly Dish Newsletter, Andrew Sullivan. He is with me now.

Andrew, lots of topics to talk about with you. But first the virus, it has to come first. The newscasts that are downplaying this emergency I think are doing a real disservice. What do you think are the media's blind spots when it comes to this pandemic? Are there angles to this story that are not getting enough attention in your view?

ANDREW SULLIVAN, AUTHOR, THE WEEKLY DISH: Yes. I mean, one thing that obviously is missing that was prominent in other epidemics is we don't see the sick. There are no images of the dying. We have no visceral visual sense of what it's like to get this and to suffer from it. We have euphemisms, we have secrecy, we have -- we have almost nothing visual that can scare us.

In previous epidemics, people terrified all the time because they saw the consequences of getting the virus or the bacteria. And now the media helps keep this and also medical privacy, of course, completely out of our minds.

STELTER: It's such an interesting point. I'm glad you raised that. You know, you wrote recently in The Weekly Dish about Trump being a germaphobe, and yet he hasn't taken COVID seriously enough. I remember in the very first month of the Trump presidency, you were on this program talking about the President's instability, his mental health. And you said the media was downplaying it, was afraid to talk about it.

So, I was just wondering, three and a half years later, do you think the press has done a better job as the Trump years have gone on in addressing that elephant in that room or we're not?

SULLIVAN: It's basically impossible, really, because when someone is powerful and as important as the President of the United States, who has inherent legitimacy, has to be listened to, is completely delusional and delusional entirely to advance his own interests, and your job is to cover the president of the United States.

You can of course, keep saying these are all delusion, these are all lies, these aren't true. But after a while, that becomes almost surreal, becomes kind of ludicrous. The fact that he's still the President, still able to say these things, and still apparently believed them -- I mean, the ability for him to say, I'm just going to be in denial that we have this virus in this country because I don't want the economy to slow down is a pretty amazing piece of delusion. And that was the consequence of supporting and voting for president for whom reality's entirely optional depending upon his mood at any moment.

And so, I think that cool thing we kind of focused on literally, actually, just after the inauguration, that he will say red is blue, and we have to report that is still a completely unsolvable problem that the media has done decently in covering.

But essentially, the other thing that's happened is the media has become radicalized, obviously, over time. When there is a mentally unwell person in the family, everybody else eventually has that mental illness. I know this from personal experience. And we, as a nation, have been like that family having to cope with this crazy person insisting on a reality that we are not living in. And I think that still provides a massive mass cognitive dissonance in the country that is one of the things I'm just hoping to God we can get behind.


STELTER: Andrew, thank you very much for being here. Thank you for wrapping up this hour of RELIABLE SOURCES with some really challenging issues there. Before we go, I do want to mention. I spoke with Jennifer Agiesta, CNN's Director of Polling and Election Analytics, for this week's RELIABLE SOURCES podcast. We talked about the impact of millions of early votes, how they're all going to be counted. We talked about common misconceptions about polling and much more. You can find our conversation on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen to your podcasts.

Later tonight here on CNN, a really important special, The Insiders hosted by Jake Tapper. This is about the former Trump officials that has spoken out about and against the president. The Insiders premieres at 9:00 p.m. Eastern time here on CNN. Sign up for our nightly newsletter at and I'll see you right back here next week.