Return to Transcripts main page

Reliable Sources

Pro-Trump Media Facing Consequences For The Big Lie; Dominion Spokesman Explains Legal Strategy; Biden White House Is Brining Back Press Corps Traditions; One-On-One With White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki; Should Biden Be Doing More T.V. Interviews?; Two Controversies, Two Departures From NYT. Aired 11a-12p ET

Aired February 07, 2021 - 11:00   ET



FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN HOST: I should make it clear that Canada has promised to donate its excess supply of vaccines to developing countries. Let's hope others follow this excellent example.

Thanks to all of you for being part of my program this week. I will see you next week.

BRIAN STELTER, CNN ANCHOR: Hey. I'm Brian Stelter live in New York, and this is RELIABLE SOURCES, where we examine the story behind the story and figure out what is actually reliable.

This hour, CNN's exclusive interview with White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, including how she compares President Biden to his predecessor.

Plus, it is known as "doomscrolling". Maybe you do it just like I do, scrolling for bad news about COVID-19. But the news is improving, and we're going to talk about it with an expert.

And later, new reporting about upheaval at "The New York Times."

We have a lot to come in the next few minutes.

But let's begin by going behind the scenes of Fox's surprise ouster of Lou Dobbs. It's not cancel culture here. It is consequence culture.

What are the consequences for riling up people with reckless lies about a democracy that most Americans cherish?

Well, lately, there have not been many consequences. But maybe that's changing. Maybe.

The pro-Trump love-in, the lie-fest known as "Lou Dobbs Tonight" was canceled on Friday one day after Dobbs was singled out in a $2.7 billion lawsuit from the voting tech company Smartmatic. The company alleges that Fox and Dobbs and Sidney Powell and Rudy Giuliani all waged a disinformation campaign against the company in a desperate bid to keep Trump in power.

There are other lawsuits coming too, and we're going to get to those in a little bit with the spokesman for another company that was smeared by the likes of Dobbs. But here's the thing, yeah, Dobbs is off the air, but Jeanine Pirro was named in a Smartmatic lawsuit too, so as Maria Bartiromo. And as you can see, they were both on the air, back on the air this weekend.

Fox is vowing to fight the Smartmatic lawsuit. And I'm told that the plan to cut Dobbs loose was in the works before Smartmatic filed in court.

So, then, why was Dobbs dismissed? What isn't Fox explaining? What does this tell us about Fox's direction in the post-Trump age? What pressure is Fox feeling from networks like Newsmax? And how significant could all these lawsuits potentially be?

I have four great guests standing by with answers. So, let's begin with David Folkenflik. He's the media correspondent for NPR News. He's been all over this story.

And Danna Young. She's a professor of communications and political science at the University of Delaware.

David, why was Lou Dobbs canceled on Friday night?

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, MEDIA CORRESPONDENT, NPR NEWS: Well, it wasn't ratings. I mean, the man was among the leaders for Fox Business Network.

It -- you know, Fox officials are telling me, I'm sure they are telling you, hey, look, we announced in October, we were going to make a bunch of changes. This is just one of them.

Yet, it happened very abruptly. Not a seamless handoff. I think that you saw a guest host sit in on Thursday night saying you'd see Lou tomorrow. And you sure didn't see Lou Dobbs Friday night.

And it was, as you pointed out in your introduction, just 24 hours or so after this filing of $2.7 billion with a B, billion lawsuit, right?

Dobbs, it seems to me, was in some ways the avatar for this -- which should be a scandal for Fox News. They ran this little crazy corrective, 2-1/2 minute correctives in a sense on Dobbs' show and Pirro's show and Bartiromo's show, which viewers would have been hard pressed to make any sense of his fact check, because it never referred to Fox's (ph) previous reporting.

And in addition, this reminds me a little bit, to be honest, of the way in which scandals were handled at Rupert Murdoch's news tabloids in London, you know, about a decade ago where what they would do is throw somebody over the side and see if that was enough.

And it seems this is an effort to cauterize the wound, to distance Fox from this feverish conspiracy theory with consequences as opposed to so many conspiracy theories that are ventilated on Fox that might now play out this severely.

This really did have a severe and deleterious effect on the American public's understanding of the election that just happened and influenced in some regard the way in which some people arrived at those protests on January 6th. I think that it's going to be hard for Smartmatic to prove there was a correlation legally. But it doesn't mean there isn't a journalistic obligation for Fox to try to handle that in a responsible way, which they sure didn't do.

STELTER: And your point about "News of the World", and what happened to Murdoch's British tabloids, it does seem like a similarity here. Your book about that Murdoch's world is an essential read, by the way. I just want to make people know they can order it on Amazon.

Danna, here's what I kind of see going on, tell me if I'm crazy about this, OK?

In the reality-based community, right, Biden is president. Trump is off in exile in Mar-a-Lago, pretty much silent.


And yet the Trump fan base wants to watch shows that tell them unreality, that tell them a fantasy about how Biden stole the election and how Democrats are evil.

And, so, there is a real market demand for shows like Lou Dobbs. And yet, shows like Lou Dobbs could also get you into legal jeopardy. They can also cause advertisers to flee because they don't want to be associated with the nonsensical content that's going to embarrass their brands.

So, there's this tension between what the audience, the right wing audience wants and what networks are going to give them, versus what's actually in the business interest of those networks. Am I -- am I getting that right?



YOUNG: Second of all, in terms of the source of this demand, where does the demand come from in the first place?

STELTER: Yeah, yeah.

YOUNG: Organic demand on the part of these viewers, or is this demand that has resulted from the cultivation of this sort of distrust that happened over the last several decades?

Also, I just want to say lawsuits have a way of forcing people and entities to reckon with empirical fact and reality, because the judicial system is predicated on evidence, empirical, verifiable reality. And when you're looking at the conservative media ecosystem, their sort of dominant lens is one that's driven kind by truthiness and intuition and gut and what feels right and they are able to sort of cloak themselves in the First Amendment, right, freedom of speech. And because these programs are opinion and analysis shows that, by the

way, Fox does everything they can to try to hide that fact from the viewers, their viewers would be hard pressed to recognize the distinction between the analysis programming and the news programming.

And journalism as a profession has reputational and professional norms that are self-corrective in a way that outrage and opinion programming does not.

STELTER: Right. That's absolutely right.

Look at what happened on Fox's opinion shows the other night. There was this ceremony at the Capitol for the slain U.S. Capitol police officer. MSNBC and CNN were showing it live of course, because that's what all television networks would do, news networks would do. And Fox just stuck with its hard core right wing talk and just barely dipped in for a few seconds when Biden was there to pay his respects.

But these are not choices of a news network. These are -- David Folkenflik, it occurs to me that Fox News is afraid of the news, like they're avoiding the news. They don't want to cover the news because it -- their viewers don't want to hear it or don't want to see it, even when it's about a police officer.

FOLKENFLIK: I think that you basically got that right. They dipped into that, but not in a way that other news networks did.


FOLKENFLIK: I think what, you know, that you are seeing is Fox is being led by its viewers right now. It doesn't have a clear sense of how it wants to operate on the post-Trump world when Trump still commands so much loyalty from its core viewers.


FOLKENFLIK: And I think what you are really seeing is a dangerous element where Fox isn't in control. It has yielded so much of its news program to its opinion hosts and opinions anyway, fusing them with segments from some of their most outspoken figures as a way of kind of serving up red meat. And it's to the great frustration of the journalists who remain.

STELTER: So, Danna, when you heard Marjorie Taylor Greene say the other day that, you know, that she was allowed to believe things that aren't true, that's the entire basis of the world right wing media universe, these conspiracy theories and things that aren't true that stick in the minds of tens of millions of people.

What can we learn from psychology about the power of these conspiracy theories?

YOUNG: So recognize that her language when she said, I was allowed to. Before she said that, right before she said, because I was upset about things and didn't trust the government because people here were not doing the things they should be doing, the problem with that is I was allowed to believe things that weren't true.

Now, let's talk for a second about she didn't trust the government, didn't trust the media. She deals with those things as factual and deserved, that they're appropriate responses to her direct experience with the world. And she talks about sort of being maligned for her views.

The question I ask you is, what are the dominant themes of Fox News programming? Those are the themes. Distrust in media, distrust in the government and the notion that you, for being conservative and because of your values, are socially maligned and looked at with contempt by the left, by liberals, by media and by other institutions in the world.

So, she kind of got close when she talked about this, and those three things really are the special sauce that kicks off an interest with conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theories are really tempting for individuals who have this sort of need to understand the world in a gut-driven way.


YOUNG: They're socially maligned if they distrust institutions in power. And if you consistently reinforce that sense and consistently plant the seeds of distrust by hinting at conspiracy theories and note that Fox doesn't start them, they simply amplify them.


STELTER: Right, right.

YOUNG: They amplify them. And I guess I just thought it was interesting because when she framed how she ended up being Q curious, it actually was a quite accurate depiction of how it happens, but she didn't quite go far enough in explaining where are the roots of that distrust lie. And I would argue that they come through the conservative media ecosystem.

STELTER: That's what I want to underscore here. Dobbs is going away. That's one show on one channel. There are many other shows like him.

There was no sign that Fox is moving toward the center, or back to the kind of the centrist, you know, reality-based middle. No sign of that at all.

Dobbs seems like an anomaly, and I think he was partly dismissed just because management had enough of him. They're just tired of his B.S., but they've got a lot of people there selling the same stories.

All right. Danna, thank you.

Yeah, David, one last though. Yeah?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, what I was going to say was, don't forget -- Maria Bartiromo is technically under the news division. I've asked this question repeatedly at Fox. STELTER: Right.

FOLKENFLIK: She's supposedly straight news. And yet, she's amplifying these conspiracy theories just the same.

STELTER: Right. And she's named in the Smartmatic suit just like Dobbs.

David, please stick around. Danna, thank you so much.

YOUNG: Thank you, Brian.

STELTER: Let's look forward now and find out what is next for these defamation lawsuits. In the words of reporter Michael Grynbaum, litigation represents a new front in the war against misinformation.

Dominion Voting Systems has filed suit against Sidney Powell and Rudy Giuliani. And in these new letters to big tech platforms, Dominion says more lawsuits are coming soon. These letters ask Facebook, and Twitter and Parler and Google to preserve social media posts from Fox News, MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, Michael Flynn, Donald Trump and other potential targets of lawsuits.

Michael Steel is a spokesman for Dominion and a partner at Hamilton Place Strategies. He's here with me now.

Michael, what are the conspiracy theories you are fighting against is that Dominion and Smartmatic are secretly in cahoots when they're actually separate companies. It seems to me like these two separate companies are trying to one-up each other with lawsuits. When will Dominion's next lawsuits be filed?

MICHAEL STEEL, SPOKESMAN FOR DOMINION: Well, look, these are rival -- these are business rivals.


STEEL: These are rival companies competing for customers across the country. And I think that what you're seeing is them pursuing their legal strategy, us pursuing our legal strategy. But there's no coordination between us.

At the same time, I think we share the same goal, which is to get the truth and the facts out to the American people, that this was one of the most secure elections in American history. That there is no reason to believe that there was widespread fraud, which affected the result.

And so, I think we have a shared goal in that regard, but in no way coordinated.

STELTER: Can you give us a preview of when the next lawsuits by Dominion will be filed?

STEEL: I'm not here to make news on that front. But let me say this, Mike Lindell is begging to be sued and at some point. we may well oblige him. STELTER: Well, he did say, I believe, overnight, he thinks he's going

to ahead and sue you, sue Dominion and sue Smartmatic. I guess that's like a preemptive countersuit. What do you think is going on there?

STEEL: I think he's trying to get ahead of the fact that he is spreading disinformation, spreading lies. This latest, quote/unquote, documentary that he aired is the same old half-baked conspiracy theories repackaged and the truth is catching up with him.

STELTER: Interesting.

What about Fox News? Is Fox News a possible target?

STEEL: We've sent preservation letters asking them to maintain the records in case we choose to pursue litigation at some point. It is definitely a possibility.

STELTER: And what about this notion of Dobbs being pushed out because of Smartmatic suit? Do you think that's a possibility? Is there a connection between those two things?

STEEL: You know, I don't know. But I think the right thing to do would have been to silence Dobbs, shut him down, get him to stop spreading these poisonous lies months ago before the assault on the cathedral of our democracy, the capitol of the United States, before he was facing billions of dollars of lawsuits of his network.

STELTER: Well, this is a leadership issue when it comes to Fox or Newsmax or any of the other media outlets that have been singled out for promoting the big lie.

At CNN, you know, we have all these layers of standards. Lawyers are involved in sensitive stories. It doesn't seem like that was happening at Fox in November and December when Dominion was being defamed. It seems Dominion (ph) was being defamed.

What about the -- this argument that any defamation suit is a risk to the press, a risk to media companies? When you go out and sue a media company, it puts press freedom at risk. I know a lot of reporters are concerned about that.

STEEL: Look, I'm not an attorney and I'm no longer a journalist. But I studied journalism law at the University of North Carolina and the Columbia Journalism School. All I can tell you is that the First Amendment is first for a reason. The protections are important.

But it does not protect repeatedly, knowingly, willingly lying to the American people, particularly about something as important as our election system.

This is an attack on thousands of local elected officials and poll watchers who conduct our elections, and it's an attack on the faith in democracy that undergirds our constitutional republic.

[11:15:04] STELTER: It is remarkable, you know, a month after the attack at the Capitol, that so many Republicans are just trying to move on. You were the press secretary for Paul Ryan, press secretary for John Boehner, a veteran Republican strategist. Do you look at this and say, shame on the Republicans that are just trying to pretend that the riot never happened?

STEEL: Taking off my Dominion hat for a moment and speaking as someone who worked in that building for many, many years, and had friends there that day, I hope we never forget. I hope we never move on until we have a reckoning with the truth.

STELTER: Right. And there is still so much we don't know about how it happened.

Michael, thank you so much for coming on.

STEEL: Absolutely.

STELTER: Media companies that propagated the big lie are reacting in different ways to the specter of these defamation suits. You heard Steel there suggesting that Mike Lindell might be next.

So, let me show some of the ways companies are reacting. Before Rudy's radio show on Thursday, WABC aired a lengthy legal disclaimer attempting to distance the company from whatever Rudy says.

Just take a listen to this.


ANNOUNCER: The views, assumptions and opinions expressed by former U.S. attorney, former attorney to the president of the United States and New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, his guests and callers on his program are strictly their own and do not necessarily represent the opinions, beliefs or policies of WABC radio, its owner, Red Apple Group, and other WABC hosts, or our advertisers.

RUDY GIULIANI, FORMER TRUMP ATTORNEY: I would have thought they would have told me that before doing what they just did. Rather insulting.


STELTER: They didn't even tell him it was going to happen.

So, then there is that epic showdown on Newsmax where anchor Bob Sellers clearly concerned about legal dangers cut off and corrected Mike Lindell. Sellers said Lindell was there to talk about being booted from social media sites but Lindell went off about voter fraud instead, and he said he was going to reveal everything on Friday. Watch.


MIKE LINDELL, MYPILLOW: They did this because I'm reviewing all the evidence on Friday of all the election fraud with these machines. So --


BOB SELLERS, NEWSMAX ANCHOR: Okay. Mike -- can I ask our producers. Can we get out of here, please? I don't want to have to keep going over this.


SELLERS: We have not been able to verify any of those allegations that you're --


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mike, hold on a second. Everybody hold on a second. Mike, Mike, hold on one second.


STELTER: Bob Sellers was right. I mean, he should have gone further and just ended the interview.

But Newsmax sided with Lindell who, of course, is one of their biggest sponsors, buying air time for countless pillow ads. Newsmax booked Lindell, again, later in the day, for an interview in prime time.

And the next day, Sellers came back on the air and basically apologized for trying to do his job. Watch.


SELLERS: In hindsight, there is no question that I could have handled the end of the interview differently. At Newsmax, we seek out all points of view. Mike was back last night with Rob Smith on his show to continue the conversation about cancel culture and the censorship by social media.

Mike also made clear he thinks Newsmax is great, his words, and I can tell you he will continue to be an important guest on Newsmax.


STELTER: So he's saying, don't fret, angry viewers, we will still prop up Mike Lindell.

On Friday, Lindell bought hours of air time on One American News to make his delusional case about fraud. And OAN aired this amazing 90- second disclaimer ahead of time basically saying, yeah, yeah, Lindell, he's a Trump dead ender, but we're not endorsing all of this stuff he's saying.

Does that work? What are the implications of these lawsuits for pro- Trump outlets? What about the rest of the media world?

Lynn Oberlander is a First Amendment attorney and media law professor at the News School. Lynn, when you see these networks, you know, trying to distance

themselves from their guests, putting disclaimers on the content, is that just because they're trying to avoid being sued and will it work?

LYNN OBERLANDER, FIRST AMENDMENT ATTORNEY: Well, it certainly is important to do, and it may very well be to make sure they're not sued or at least to give them some defense if they are sued. Will it work? Well, it might.

I mean, you have to make sure that your viewers know that what you are -- what the guests are saying are opinions. You need to put context around it. You can't let them go ahead and just make assertions of fact, especially false fact and potentially defamatory facts about people or companies. So, which I think is important.

STELTER: Are lawsuits the right way to tackle the disinformation plague out there?

OBERLANDER: Well, I think they are one way. I mean, obviously, if you file a $2.7 billion lawsuit or $1.3 billion lawsuit, you are going to get somebody's attention. And while it comes a little bit late, I do think it is one approach.

STELTER: A little bit late. How is it late?

OBERLANDER: Well, we had -- we had months and actually several years of misinformation, right?

STELTER: Right, right.

OBERLANDER: So it may not affect it in the future, but it does (AUDIO GAP) effective (ph).


STELTER: Fox Corporation makes enough profit that it can afford this lawsuit, even though it would be very damaging to have to pay out hundreds of millions of dollars to Smartmatic. What are the odds that Fox News actually will lose to Smartmatic?

OBERLANDER: Well, the complaint is -- the complaint is very strong. Let's say that.

I mean, Fox may, in fact, have some strong defenses as well. It -- I haven't seen all of the whole pieces of the things that were cited in the complaint. It is possible that Fox did put context around it, that they did make it clear that it was opinion, that they did make it clear that it was challenged. Both of those will be very effective in terms of fighting the complaint.

Similarly, they have a chance of knocking down the damages and the damages -- the numbers -- I'm sure the companies were damaged. But $2.7 billion, that's a lot.

STELTER: Yeah. OBERLANDER: And finally, political speech really is our most important speech and it does deserve an awful lot of protection. And I think Fox will be able to rely on that as well.

STELTER: And Fox News says the lawsuit is meritless. They say, we are proud of our 2020 election coverage. That's a remarkable thing to say about some of the crap that was spread on Fox, but okay, whatever.

Lynn, while I have you, President Trump's -- former President Trump's second impeachment trial starts on Tuesday. He's going with his First Amendment defense. Tell us about that. Is that going to be effective?

OBERLANDER: I don't actually think he has much of a First Amendment defense. I mean, there is -- first of all, you can be impeached about things that have nothing to do with the First Amendment or have something to do with the First Amendment.

But second of all, even under the First Amendment, you cannot -- you can be criminally punished for imminently -- for intending and inciting imminent lawless action. And at least some people have made an argument that that's exactly what President Trump did in his speeches on January 6th and before and so that there is not a first amendment bar to that. The Supreme Court has said you can be criminally punished if you are intentionally citing imminent lawless action.

So, I don't think it is (INAUDIBLE)

STELTER: I think he's just taking the words of First Amendment, throwing it against the wall and see if they stick. I think that's all he's done.

Lynn, thank you so much for being here.

OBERLANDER: Thank you.

STELTER: Coming up, two views from the White House briefing room. Hear from Press Secretary Jen Psaki and one of the reporters holding her feet to the political fire. That's next.



STELTER: Moments ago, President Biden seen leaving St. Joseph on the Brandywine. That's the Catholic Church he frequents when in Wilmington, Delaware. Beautiful Sunday morning, a snowy Sunday here in the Northeast. You can see him walking back to the motorcade.

Biden is at home in Delaware this weekend. He has been attending mass every weekend since taking office.

Biden has been all over the airwaves lately, making daily appearance to push the new administration's priorities, and he's keeping up with tradition by giving a pre-Super Bowl interview to the broadcaster of this year's big game, CBS. He also sat down with the first lady for a joint interview and cover story for "People" magazine.

The Biden White House is also reviving a weekly radio address tradition. This is something that Trump dropped for a while.

In the podcast era, this radio address is going to be casual and informal and sound more like a podcast. Most importantly, Biden is speaking up in defense of a free press. Watch what he said at the State Department the other day.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We believe a free press isn't an adversary. Rather, it is essential. A free press is essential to the health of the democracy.


STELTER: In the past, those words would have been taken for granted. I wouldn't have aired them for you, but not now, not after four years of Trump's attacks. Biden reiterating the obvious, stating the obvious, emphasizing the importance of the press is important.

But I would tweak his words just a little bit. I would say it is essential, the press is essential, but it's also essential for the press to sometimes be adversarial, to sometimes be an adversary, to challenge the administration and make sure everything is on the up and up regardless of whether Republican or Democrats are in office.

Now, Jen Psaki is feeling some of that heat already. She's one of the most visible members of the new administration. Out in front of the cameras, holding press briefings five days a week, which is something reporters very much appreciate.

In an exclusive interview, CNN's Sunlen Serfaty sat down with Psaki to dig into the Biden press shop's ambitions.



SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): As a high profile face of the Biden administration --

PSAKI: With that, let's kick us off.

SERFATY: White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki says that she's confronting a challenge like no other.

PSAKI: It requires something different that has been required in the past because of the administration we're following.

SERFATY: An environment she believes is unique to this specific moment.

PSAKI: There is an incredible level of distrust in government, in the media, in information. There is a lack of understanding of what's truth and what's not, what's accurate and what's not.

And so, our role is different from what it has been in modern history.

SERFATY: CNN sat down with Psaki on her second week on the job, with the contrast between President Biden's press strategy and the messaging style deployed by former President Trump already very clear.

PSAKI: What is different is that he does not see himself as the only player in this administration.

SERFATY: Admitting that after four years of the commander in chief acting as his own chief spokesperson, a return to normality may feel a little abnormal.

PSAKI: I think that's a little jolting to people because the prior administration was around one -- around the communications of one person, and the president, President Biden, wants it specifically to be about the policy team.


SERFATY (voice over): She's vowed to restore the press briefing to five days a week and given a nod to some long-held press traditions in the briefing room, like calling on the Associated Press first.

PSAKI: I'd love to take your questions, Zeke. Why don't you kick us off?

SERFATY (voice over): Bringing a critical ear to the totality of the White House message.

PSAKI: I have two little kids. And I felt that there were a couple of days where I didn't quite understand what we were saying about reopening schools. Like, can we do a better job of communicating what we're doing?

SERFATY (voice over): She is trying to project that this White House will be more transparent.

PSAKI: When the President asked me to serve in this role, we talked about the importance of bringing truth and transparency back to the briefing room.

SERFATY (voice over): A notion that was purposefully chosen to be among her first words spoken from behind the lectern on day one.

PSAKI: It was important to set that tone from the beginning.

SERFATY (voice over): Tone, however, is different than accountability. The challenge for the Biden White House isn't just to return to the pre-Trump norms of transparency, but to improve on them. (INAUDIBLE) in the Obama White House, an administration that entered office pledging open government, but which critics contend fell short of that goal, aggressively pursuing leakers and frequently bypassing the press with its own media operation.

SERFATY (on camera): Do you vow to be more transparent than the Obama years?

PSAKI: I think what we vowed to do is be honest and be transparent. Yes, we vowed to do that. And to commit to explaining at every moment we can, the policies of this president and the objectives of this administration.

SERFATY (voice over): Like her predecessors, Psaki will be under an intense microscope, with every word parsed. She's had some small stumbles on day one, dodging a question about whether Biden had confidence in the FBI Director.

PSAKI: I think I have not spoken with him about specifically FBI Director Wray in recent days.

SERFATY (voice over): Sparking a flurry of speculation and prompting a quick clarification, acknowledging she caused an unintentional ripple and confirming that Biden had confidence in the FBI Director. Then, this week, a quip in response to a question about Space Force, comparing it to a query about the color scheme of Air Force One.

PSAKI: Wow. Space Force. It's the plane of today.

SERFATY (voice over): That retort prompting sharp criticism with something she was diminishing a branch of the military, leading Psaki to take to Twitter again, calling the team's work important and extending an invite to the briefing room.

PSAKI: My goal is to correct myself, and what fortunately I have going for myself in this role is that President of the United States has been pretty clear that when you mess up, you fess up.

SERFATY (voice over): Psaki is no stranger to the pressure cooker that is Washington. She's a former State Department spokesperson and White House Communications Director in the Obama White House, Barack Obama's traveling press secretary for his first presidential run, a veteran of Capitol Hill, and a former CNN contributor, but this role is her highest profile position yet, approaching a job with what she jokes are her obsessive tendencies, from the preparation of the massive briefing binder she makes herself every day.

PSAKI: I try to be kind of just like a laid-back cat. But I have a color-coded with kind of printed labels ...

SERFATY (voice over): To watching hours of old White House briefings all the way back to the 90s. And she sought advice from several of her predecessors, both Democrats and Republicans.

PSAKI: One of the consistent pieces of advice was to remember who your audience is and who you're speaking to, and that you're speaking on behalf of the President and the White House, but you're speaking really to the American public.


SERFATY (on camera): And Psaki did reveal a few of the details of the note that former White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany left for her. It was about a conversation the two had had in the past, where they talked about how serving in the White House is the honor of a lifetime. And Brian, she calls that a very nice note.

STELTER: Sunlen, thank you so much. Let's head down to the other side of the White House podium. With me now is Brittany Shepherd, a white house correspondent for Yahoo News. I love your assessment, Brittany, of the Psaki era thus far. Regular briefings are great, but there have been a few times where the White House has seemed to step in it.

BRITTANY SHEPHERD, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, YAHOO NEWS: Well, Brian, it's been really refreshing to have briefings every day and to even know who the senior officials talking to Biden are. We we're not getting that in any of the Trump years, especially in those waning days of the McEnany briefings.

And it is refreshing, I do kind of put it towards like having a really bad ex-boyfriend. We were getting essentially abused by Kayleigh for so long, or at least she was calling us fake news and inciting her followers and followers of the president to not only harass us online, but obviously go to deadly ends for some people with death threats.

Now, we have Jen and the entire Biden team. It's very refreshing. But it's important to remember that the bar has literally been left on the floor and just being able to show up and clear it isn't enough. So, it's great that we're having briefings every day, but it is -- we're seeing -- like we heard in that package, Jen kind of chiding about the Space Force question, dodging on questions about Marjorie Taylor Greene and some other things that we should be allowed to ask the questions even if it makes them uncomfortable. Showing up is important than being there --


STELTER: You brought up Greene -- yes. You brought up Greene in the press briefing and Psaki said, they're not going to give her any attention. They're not going to give her any attention, or answer questions about her. Is that going to be tenable?

SHEPHERD: I think it's completely untenable. And you're talking a little bit about something in the beginning of your program, that there is a huge appetite for content that pushes disinformation, whether it's on cable, on Facebook, whatever, right?

So, this is a growing problem for the Biden White House. If they just kind of pretend that polite society doesn't talk about anti-Semitic tropes, or that that individual wasn't elected to Congress, it's going to be a big, big issue because that disinformation bubble is only going to grow bigger and bigger before it bursts in their face.

STELTER: Should Biden be more accessible to the media? I know Psaki is taking questions. A lot of aides are taking questions, but Biden not as often. Are there some rumblings yet in the press corps about Biden's accessibility?

SHEPHERD: Absolutely. I think that we kind of hit the nail on the head that a lot of Obama staffers are now in the Biden administration, and they like to keep a tight leash on their principal, so that he doesn't come out in front of the camera and gaffe. I understand if I was a staffer, I would have that perspective. But I've never going to advocate against more transparency from Biden.

A lot of times we do hear him speak to us, you know, signing these E.O.s, maybe having some chopper talk, is a really, really manicured and it's veneered. So, if a Biden staffer says, get out of the West Wing, we don't really have an option, something Trump did give us was ability to kind of ask him unvarnished questions. Of course, we would get ridiculous and crazy answers, but we knew what his perspective was at all times.

And Biden has kind of built this blue wall of his staffers between us and him. And I think it'll be a bit of an issue if he doesn't come out and do sit down. So, today, before the Super Bowl, we're getting his first sit down interview. I hope this means that he's willing to do more.

The American people and, of course, reporters, we have lots of different questions, lots of different stories. I always say there's kind of two kind of big White House stories, the one they want us to know and the ones they don't. And being able to talk to him as directly as possible, get us towards the second. We have to keep kind of pushing for that.

STELTER: Interesting. And then, speaking of the former President, Trump's second impeachment trial beginning on Tuesday, here's what SNL's Colin Jost said. He's still hoping that Trump will testify. Watch.


COLIN JOST, HOST, SNL: Former social media influencer, Donald Trump, will not testify at his impeachment trial next week. And I think I speak for all of us when I say, come on, please. Give us one last show, man. You know, stop feeling sorry for yourself. Put in your extensions and burst into that trial like it's Maury Povich and you are not the father.


STELTER: All right. Brittany, is there some truth to that joke? Do reporters secretly hope Trump will testify?

SHEPHERD: I think for exciting coverage. Yes, there is a feeling. We've gotten a lot of -- a lot of leeway out of Trump coverage for a very long time. And there's worries when the administration changed over that. Less people will be watching. Less people would be reading.

And of course, it would be entertaining, but you think Trump is now battling with SAG-AFTRA. I think coming up to the Hill, it'll be a cold day in hell if we see him in D.C. He didn't even leave the White House to go to get food for lunch. So, I doubt he's leaving Mar-a- Lago.

STELTER: Right. But, you know, beyond the entertainment value, there is a lot we actually deserve to know from the former President about the crimes of January 6th, but to your point, we're not going to hear from him in the trial. Brittany, thank you so much. Up next here, who is really in charge at the New York Times?



STELTER: All right. New turmoil at the New York Times this week, as two journalists are making exits after two separate controversies. Andy Mills is leaving. He produced the Caliphate Podcast that was effectively retracted by The Times.

And Don McNeil, Jr. is also leaving. He's the papers' veteran science reporter and go-to expert about COVID-19. McNeil's departure comes after a Daily Beast report. Said that McNeil repeatedly made racist comments on a company trip to Peru with high school students in 2019.

Now, last week, executive editor of the New York Times Dean Baquet defended his decision to basically give McNeil a second chance. But then, after 150 outraged staffers sent a letter critical of that decision to top brass, all of a sudden, McNeil was leaving.

He wrote an apology to the students on the trip and to his colleagues at the paper on the way out the door. This is another intriguing example of turmoil inside the New York Times. And the impact of pressure from staffers on management to make changes. It raises lots of questions about what the appropriate punishments are in these various cases.

So, David Folkenflik is back with me. NPR reporter who's been covering these cases for the public radio network. David, the McNeil case is complicated. Absolutely. McNeil says that he was speaking with students. One student asked him about the use of a racial slur, then he repeated that slur in the context of talking with the student about its usage. Am I getting that right? And is that context -- is that relevant at all?

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, MEDIA CORRESPONDENT, NPR NEWS: I think it's relevant in some ways. I mean, we're talking about the N word here, which is pretty terrible word be uttered out loud. Dean Baquet last week made it sound as though that was the limit of the offensive words used and that McNeil had been mistaken to use in that context at all. Daily Beast suggests the parents said, well, actually, there been a number of instances of offensive statements made over the course of that thing.


So, there's some question about the fact base there, but either Baquet didn't -- and his team didn't handle this successfully in 2019, and it doesn't sound as though there any public apology, or now, they are bending to what the newsroom wants, as opposed to making very carefully metered-out decisions. I think there's a lack of clarity about where the leadership is landing on certain things. STELTER: If you search McNeil's name on social media, you'll find a lot of support for him. And a lot of people saying, wow, The Times is overreacting in this case. Is that going to be the new narrative, especially from right-wing outlets that The Times is giving in to the woke mob?

FOLKENFLIK: I think that will be a narrative, certainly from The Times' cultural critics. I think you saw a lot of turmoil at The Times. There's concern about the message being conveyed. Once they saw the extent of the newsroom backlash about what are you saying to young talented journalists of color in particular, you know, are they going to want to work in a newsroom where that's "tolerated?" I think folks, at least leadership thought they had dealt with this.

And clearly, it was not accepted. So, then it's a question of, are they making a political decision less a partisan decision, but more about how do you handle the newsroom? I think there's real sense that on a number of key things, and Andy Nelson is another example, that The Times is not sure footed on understanding how to translate its stated principles into practice when dealing with personnel in the newsroom, and it has greater ramifications because of the role The Times plays in journalism and society.

STELTER: Right, because others take their cues from what The Times does and doesn't do. David, thank you for catching us up on this. Coming up, the COVID coverage balancing act Zeynep Tufekci will join me with insights about balancing the positive, and of course, the gushingly negative news about COVID-19. She's up next.



STELTER: Hey, welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. The daily news updates about the Coronavirus and the death toll are obviously gut wrenching. But in the words of my next guests, the news about the future has actually been really positive for months. For example, you can see here, the daily count of confirmed cases is coming down, it's coming way down off of this winter high. Hospitalizations also coming down.

Deaths, of course, a lagging indicator, but are expected to start to decline more rapidly. And there is a much more competent leadership. Let's just call what it is. The Biden White House has held six COVID- 19 Response Team briefings in 10 days. These events are being live streamed and shown live on networks like CNN.

More good news, of course, mass vaccination sites being opened across the country, more and more vaccines being administered day after day. So, this pandemic continues to occur in a split screen between the bad news of the present, but the hopeful news about the future. Let me bring in Zeynep Tufekci. She's been making me think about this.

She's an associate professor at the University of North Carolina, a contributor to the Atlantic and an opinion writer for The New York Times, and the publisher of the insight newsletter, which is full of insight about this very topic. Zeynep, you say the news about the future is more positive than the media often makes it out to be. What is the press getting wrong right now?

ZEYNEP TUFEKCI, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR, SCHOOL OF INFORMATION & LIBERTY SCIENCE, UNC: I think the key thing we're getting wrong is the representing the juxtaposition between the short term which is certainly grim. We need to up our vaccination, the transmissible variants pose a threat. You know, we have a winter to get through.

So, that's definitely true, we are in a bind. And hopefully, this will get better when the winter ends and we vaccinate more. But for the long term, the vaccines are proving to be home runs, all of them. And what we're getting wrong is there's a lot of concern about the variants and whether the vaccines, you know, will be less effective in the future.

And that's a definitely a reasonable concern for the future. But right now, when we look at the trial results, we see that even against the variance, they have completely, almost completely, or completely cut down hospitalizations and deaths.

Though, people look at the wrong number. They say, Oh, it's like 70 percent efficacious, 80 percent efficacious, 95 percent efficacious. Those are medic -- the clinical trial endpoints, which are about whether there's any symptoms at all like a sniffle, a fever, you know, all those things that the other colds do, as well. And of course, we would love for them to be eliminated.

But the eyes on the prize, these vaccines are homeruns against hospitalizations and deaths. They work really well against cutting down severe disease, even with the variants. And even better, once we get this under control. The platforms that we're using to mRNA vaccines and the other ones are really good, quick turnarounds, we can update them, you know, six weeks, we kind of recode it, start to manufacturing, booster in fall. And we're already getting ready for this.

STELTER: So, the banner on screen --


TUFEKCI: (INAUDIBLE) It's great. Yes.

STELTER: I don't mean to interrupt you. But I said a moment ago why you should stop doomscrolling. Doomscrolling, this idea that people just scroll through social media, seeing the worst possible news, hearing the epidemic was never going to end. We're never going to be able to take off our masks.

TUFEKCI: Yes, it's going to end.

STELTER: You're saying it's OK to stop doomscrolling?

TUFEKCI: It is going to end. In fact, I'm seeing all these articles saying, you know, oh, the vaccines, they're less effective. When for the things we care about, not only are they not really much less effective, we're already working on improving them. And if we vaccinate everyone, as many people as possible globally with the vaccines we have, even just that would get us out of this moment, and we would be able to get on with our lives.

And we have other illnesses. We have flu, we have common cold, we have these other things that we deal with every year, and once we get rid of the hospitalizations and the deaths, we will do boosters, all those other things. The medical science, the vaccine science of last year has been amazing.


It's one of the kind of underappreciated that we hit homeruns. We -- this wasn't, you know, preordained. We could have failed. Vaccines are hard. We did really well. It turns out they're really effective against this pathogen. And what's happening is that people are in a grim place right now, and I understand that it's been a year, it's tiring, it's going to be more months while we get through the winter.

We have to keep our, you know, precautions up. But people have this like idea that it's never going to end, and I see people giving up because they think it's never going to end, where I want to say, you know what, you don't really need to go and read all the discussions about (INAUDIBLE) do we do that with the booster, as if it's a current concern. Right now, the --


STELTER: We'll let the science reporters do that.

TUFEKCI: -- health. And we will get through this. It will end.

STELTER: Zeynep, thank you so much for coming on. I appreciate it.

TUFEKCI: Thank you for inviting me.

STELTER: Very good to hear. Very good to hear. Quick reminder, a couple of new CNN Original Series are debuting this month, including -- here's what I'm really pumped for, "STANLEY TUCCI: SEARCHING FOR ITALY." This is premiering next Sunday 9:00 p.m. Eastern Time here on CNN. Thanks for joining us. We'll see you back here next Sunday morning. Have a great day.