Return to Transcripts main page

Reliable Sources

White House Reporters Criticized For Biden Presser Questions; Dominion Lawsuit Alleges A Fox Plot To Profit Off Of Lies; Is The Media Taking Trump's Bait Yet Again?; NPR: Fearmongering Vaccine Stories Go Viral Online; You Can Help Local News Survive: Subscribe. Aired 11a-12p ET

Aired March 28, 2021 - 11:00   ET



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 we try to figure out what is reliable these days.

This hour, we're going to dissect Trump's post-presidential media blitz, and those hugging and kissing comments. Why is he calling into all of these shows?

Plus, Dr. Sanjay Gupta on a new study that finds bias in COVID-19 coverage.

And new trouble for the Murdoch family. I'll have exclusive interview with one of the lawyers who filed the Dominion lawsuit against Fox News. A lot of questions for him.

Oliver Darcy and others are also coming up in just a few minutes.

But, first, the president and the press. Let's talk about President Biden's priorities versus the media priorities versus the public priorities. Should they be aligned? Is the White House press corps pressing Biden on American people's top concerns? And if not, why not?

Those questions were broadened to stark relief when everyone heard their questions, there is the White House press corps, at Thursday's presidential press conference. The press focused so many questions on immigration, and on the filibuster, and there was really a widespread criticism of the performance of the journalists in the room, specifically on how the questions ignored problems that Americans clearly care about.

Here is the data from Pew Research earlier this year, showing that front and center on American's minds are issues like the economy, the pandemic, unemployment, the scourge of terrorism and health care.

So, are White House reporters out of sync with the country?

Individually, of course, there are outstanding reporters on the beat with lots of great questions. Collectively, though, there were zero questions about the pandemic on Thursday. And as you can see here, a former Obama spokesperson called that a ridiculous failure by the press.

Overall, ten reporters were called on. Obviously, a lot of others had other questions they wanted to ask. And the press corps doesn't coordinate questions ahead of time so it's not like there was a single person to blame for any of the missteps or the things that were missing from the press conference.

But nevertheless, the lack of questions about the pandemic and the economy was a real shock. This infectious disease doctor told "The Washington Post" she was almost on the floor so stunned by the oversight.

And this tension extends beyond the press conference. It goes to the overall coverage of the new president and his agenda. From the right, there is obviously nonstop criticism of both Biden and the media, no surprises there. But lately, there is more and more criticism of media's priorities from progressives and from moderates.

There's a perception the Republicans are setting the narrative about the border, for example, and Biden is getting more questions about the border than the economy as a result. Ted Cruz there.

Now, obviously, the immigration situation is serious. But this Pelosi aide presumed the reporters didn't ask about the COVID relief law because it's popular. He's said, because it's popular, it didn't come up.

And as "Esquire" put it, the press corps was a reminder for the press to think about who they represent. By all means, the writer said, challenge the president but on behalf of Americans who are voiceless. Is that where the press is falling down?

Why are there so many critiques of Biden coverage right now? Are reporters missing the big picture and the historic nature of Biden's agenda? And if so, why?

We're going to speak with press corps insiders and outsiders. ABC's chief Washington correspondent Jon Karl is standing by.

But, first, two liberal critics of the press corps starting with Amanda Marcotte. She's politics writer for "Salon" and the author of "Troll Nation". And Greg Sargent, opinion columnist for "The Washington Post" who writes "The Plum Line" Blog. He's the author of "An Uncivil War."

Amanda, you first. What went wrong at Thursday's press conference?

AMANDA MARCOTTE, POLITICS WRITER, SALON.COM: I mean, I think you touched on a lot of it. After weeks of the press corps demanding this press conference, they asked Biden questions about immigration, they asked him if he's going to run in 2024 and they didn't ask questions about the sort of things that the American public wants to know about, mainly the pandemic.

When it's going to be over? What steps are being taken? How progress is on that? Which is what Biden said that he's focused on. It was extremely frustrating because I think that was the information

that most of us want the most and it didn't even come up.

STELTER: Greg, why did it not come up, do you think?

GREG SARGENT, OPINION COLUMNIST, THE WASHINGTON POST: Well, I'd like to go to something that you said earlier that hasn't gotten the attention it deserves which is that the Republicans are setting the agenda on immigration.


The press conference was a perfect example of that. The questions and there are nothing wrong asking questions about immigration. To be clear, they should be asking about that.

But a number of the questions accepted the tacit right wing frame that a lot of migrants seeking asylum here is inherently a bad thing. Look, there are serious challenges at the border but they are management ones.

The crisis is no the fact that people are seeking asylum, the crisis is what is happening in Central America, what is happening to the migrants themselves and our failure to adequately manage the effort by the people to seek -- exercise their legal right to apply for asylum.

In many discussions, all of that is just erased and all we get is you're seeing a crisis at the border borne of large numbers of people trying to apply and that ends up distorting the data and misinforming people.

STELTER: And now, the new Fox narrative is, when will Biden go to the border? Why is he gone there yet? Why isn't he there right now?

We're going to hear that every day until he takes the trip. That is how right wing narratives trickling to the rest of the press and they divert attention.

Amanda, what are the broader complaints from the left about coverage of Biden so far?

MARCOTTE: I think one of the biggest problems is what Greg said, which is that the right sets the agenda, they decide that there is a border crisis and they don't want to look into the reasons for it. But more importantly --

STELTER: But is that Democrats' fault? Is that Democrats' fault? I mean, they passed this giant bill on a weekend, right, and then Biden went out and held a few press events to try to get attention for it. But isn't it their fault if they're not working harder to get attention for their priorities?

MARCOTTE: I mean, I think, you know, the Democrats could always be doing more. They really can, obviously. But I think one of the complaints that the press has is that all of the micromanaged presidential photo ops situations are happening instead of press conferences.

And one of the reasons is Biden knows that if he has a press conference, it's going to be a bunch of questions that are basically from the right-wing agenda that are not about what the American people want. And so, of course, he's going to do more photo ops and really micromanaged events.

STELTER: That's interesting.

Greg, what are the left's frustrations with media coverage right now?

SARGENT: Well, I think one of the very big ones concerns the war on voting we're seeing across the country from Republicans. There is a huge wave of voter suppression underway in states and the way the press covers this as a quote/unquote partisan battle, as if there was an equivalence on one side making it hard to vote based on zero public rational of any kind, and based on the lie that the election was stolen from Trump and on the other side, trying to make it as easy to vote as possible.

There isn't a midpoint between a fireman and an arsonist as a clever person marked on Twitter. And this debate is distorted as nothing more than two parties equivalently trying to gain the system for bipartisan advantage. But the deep moral and substantive differences between the parties on the underlying issue, should we make it harder to vote based on lies or should we make it easier to vote so that more people could participate is just always erased.

STELTER: Amanda, and do you feel the press has not learned from the Trump years? Are they trying to be tough on Biden in a bid to appear fair in the wake of Trump when, of course, Trump was such an abnormality, such a liar, that there's no equivalency between the two?

MARCOTTE: Yeah, I mean, I think the problem isn't being tough on Biden, right? The problem is mistaking coming up at Biden with right- wing talking points that are based on lives and misinformation as if that is being tough on Biden.

I think there is a lot of things that people want to ask president Biden and it is not being asked because instead we're giving Fox News setting the agenda on immigration, on other subjects like that. I think there is a way to be tough that gets us real answers to the questions that most of us actually have.

STELTER: I love the "Esquire" story put it. Give voice to the voiceless. That is the opportunity when you're in front of the president, let's help those folks.

And, by the way, some of the reporters did that about immigration. I loved when Cecilia Vega from ABC said, I was just at border talking with these kids, let me tell you what I heard. I thought this was powerful.

Amanda, Greg, thank you both.

Now, let's hear for someone who has logged hundreds of hours at the White House Q&As, ABC's Jonathan Karl, the author of "Front Row of the Trump Show", which is back on the bestseller list this week. Now, it is out in paperback.

Jon, thanks for being on.

You were, of course, chief White House correspondent in the Trump years. Now, I just mentioned Cecilia Vega, is at the briefing at the press conference on Thursday asking questions.

There has been so much criticism of these ten reporters for what they asked and what they didn't ask. How do you see it?

JONATHAN KARL, ABC NEWS CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Well, look, you could always second guess the questions that were asked. I mean, as you said, I've been in there many times under four different presidents and press conferences.


And you know, you go in there with a list of questions. One of the big things for me when I when I was going into a press conference is, you know, I had the mine, you know, one or two that I wanted to do this question but I was worried depending on when you're called on, those questions could be asked, so I went in with a long list in case the question had already been asked to hit a different subject.

There is never a shortage of things to ask a president about. So, yeah, watching from home, I would have like to have seen more questions, certainly questions on COVID. But there were good questions asked and you know, I mean you pointed to Cecilia Vega, that is not right-wing talking points.

She had just been at the border, she had just talked to migrants who had come over, including some that said point blank that they had come because they thought they would have better treatment now that Joe Biden was president.

That's a legitimate question to put to the president. And I thought that his answer was one of the more interesting moments in that press conference.

STELTER: Do you think it is a hard adjustment from the Trump years to the Biden years? I mean, all the details in your book about the craziness of the Trump years and now reporters are covering what is much more like the Clinton White House or the Bush White House where the trains run on time and the tweets don't run the day.

KARL: I mean, my God, what a difference. First of all, you get the sense with Biden that he does not want to be center stage. He wants his policies to be center stage.

Look, it took him two months to actually have a press conference. He does events. He does events almost every day. They are a carefully -- carefully managed.

For Trump, it was all about him and he wanted to be in the middle. Look at the difference between's first press conference as I remember vividly, his first, you know, solo press conferences, I think he called on 17 different reporters. He went round and round.

At one point he said, you all are going to say that I was ranting and raving and, yes, that's what it said because he was ranting and raving.

STELTER: He was, right.

KARL: Biden was much more measured and much more tempered and regardless of the questions, he kept it in a much -- the temperatures was much lower.

STELTER: And beyond Biden's accessibility, you interview the White House comms director on ABC this morning, are you finding that White House spokesperson are available, accessible enough now?

KARL: Absolutely. One big difference is, you know, you have regular briefings, you have the people in the press and communications office very accessible.

One other difference those is much less rampant leaking coming from senior advisers and other senior officials in the West Wing. You had so much in-fighting in the four Trump years. You could counts on the various power centers to leak on the others or to dish on the others. Much more disciplined in the Biden White House.

STELTER: That's a good point. I haven't noticed what we are not seeing or hearing, which is we're not seeing as many leaks from the Biden White House.

Jon, thank you very much.

I want to know what you at home think about this. Tweet at me @BrianStelter or email me

Coming up this hour, the problem with narratives overtaking national news, and up next, what might be a problem for Fox News. A defamation lawsuit that has stunned the TV industry. One of the top lawyers on the case joins me in just a moment.



STELTER: If a party's political leaders spend four years telling people that real news is fake and real reporters are fraud and real newsrooms are out to hurt them, it's no wonder why the parties members would stop watching and reading and believing real news. It's little wonder why they would turn to talk show hosts who claim to be the only sources of truth.

And so, it was the millions upon millions bought the big lie last year about Democrats stealing the 2020 election from Republicans. They trusted people like Maria Bartiromo and they were tricked, they were conned. And now, some of the victims are trying to tally up the damage that's been done.

So, how about $4 billion? Defamation lawsuits against Fox News are seeking more than $4 billion in damages. And the latest is filed by Dominion to the tune of $1.6 billion. The lawsuit by this voting technology firm lays out a plot to profit off of lies.

So let me take you through it for a minute. Dominion lays it out in chronological order in the complaint, alleging that Fox suffered a ratings decline for reporting accurately that Biden won the election, and then choose to defame Dominion in an attempt to bring back viewers.

By mid-November, Dominion says that it sent information to Fox disproving the falsehoods, but the network stuck with the lies for the ratings. Why?

Well, the lawsuit claims that lying about Dominion was good for business, while telling the truth risked Fox's future, since even Trumpier channels like Newsmax were hitting them from the right.

Dominion says this happened despite election security experts audit, hand recounts, all affirming the truth in mid-November.

By November 20th, Dominion demanding that Fox retract the false statements but Fox refused and doubled down. According to the lawsuit here, Fox kept indulging in Sidney Powell's conspiracy theories, kept booking her on TV, and at the end of the month, the lawsuits says, Fox's strategy paid off big time because Trump agreed called Maria Bartiromo for his first post-election interview, where he continued to deny reality.

Now, one of Fox's responses to this case is going to be that a Dominion spokesperson was interviewed on Fox, there he is. He was interviewed on a Fox newscast and he was able to deny the crazy charges and he was able to present the truth.


But this is where the multi-year long campaign to deny and dismiss and delegitimize the news media comes into play. Because that one interview on the Fox newscast was seen by far fewer people than Bartiromo's propaganda.

Years of smears against reporters have created this poisoned environment where the GOP base doesn't even trust Fox's anchors. Fox's ratings rise when far right wing talkers come on air and the ratings fall, sometimes fall off a cliff when news anchors come on.

The anchors bend to the right but I guess not far enough for their viewers. This is radicalization in action and this is why Sidney Powell's argument doesn't hold any water. You've probably heard about this. You know, her defenders are saying that no reasonable person would have accepted her frenzy fraud claims as fact. They say it was merely her opinion.

But Trump's world (ph) has tried to destroy the common ground of fact and replaced it with opinion. They've tried to say for years that you can't trust the news. There's no such thing as fact, that you should just trust Sean Hannity or something.

Now in that environment, there is not a sucker born every minute. There is an unreasonable person born every minute.

So let's explore what could come next.

With me now for his first TV interview about the case is Stephen Shackelford. He's an attorney for Dominion Voting Systems and a partner at the leading trial firm for the case.

Thank you for coming on the program.


STELTER: We all know what happened on Fox's airwaves was unethical but how you do you prove that it was actually defamatory?

SHACKELFORD: As you know, part of proving that a statement is defamatory is to prove -- is to prove that it was made either knowing the statements were false or with reckless disregard for the truth.

You pointed out to your viewers that our complaint lays out in gory detail the -- of over days and days and weeks in November and December of last year, Fox kept spouting these lies about Dominion, these devastating lies about Dominion on their airwaves even while they were being told the truth over and over again.

And yes, they were told the truth by Dominion. Dominion sent multiple emails and letters and retraction demands, but there was also a chorus of bipartisan officials explaining how these lies were false.


SHACKELFORD: How the election -- how Dominion machines performed as they were supposed to and accurately counted the votes.

STELTER: How do you respond to the argument that Fox has already made against Smartmatic, which is, you know, we were just covering matters of legitimate public interest, there was a grand debate going on about the election results and we were just airing all sides of the matter.

SHACKELFORD: So, Fox was not reporting the news with these reports that are outlined in our complaint. Fox was not giving voice to some grand political debate.

Fox was repeatedly stating as fact, putting on Sidney Powell and Rudy Giuliani and also with their own anchors endorsing what Sidney Powell and Rudy Giuliani were saying, all of these lies about Dominion and they were stating them as fact.

And you're right. They did have a Dominion spokesperson on at one point. It was much -- was much smaller viewership for that show --

STELTER: It was.

SHACKELFORD: -- and Fox did not promote it like they promoted the Bartiromo and the Dobbs and other shows that they put throughout the massive social media network.

But as you also know, Brian, you can't get away from defamation by saying the truth in the morning and then lying through your teeth in the afternoon. That doesn't cut it. If that were the case, all the media they would have to issue retraction demand after they've done all the damage, and that would be it.

But that's not the law of defamation.

STELTER: Your suit suggests --

SHACKELFORD: When you knowingly or with reckless disregard -- go ahead.

STELTER: I'm sorry. Your suit suggests a conspiracy or a plot to do this because the Murdochs wanted to profit.

Now, I wrote a book about Fox. I found a lot of trouble inside of Fox but I did not find clear leadership. Actually, what I found were -- was a lack of leadership.

You know, there wasn't somebody plotting anything. It was just a bunch of people putting their own shows, trying to help the president, President Trump, however they could.

Do you think you'll be able to prove there was a conspiracy like from the top to do this?

SHACKELFORD: Well, we don't have to prove a conspiracy. We don't have to prove motive for defamation. That's not one of the elements we have to prove.

We've laid out the evidence in our complaint as to all of the different people at Fox that knew the truth or recklessly disregards it, and that goes to the top. People who had the power to stop this and prevent this from happening and choose not to. Whether that amounts to a grand conspiracy in the end or not doesn't really matter for our lawsuit, the facts are there.

What they were saying on the airwaves were false and they knew it and recklessly disregarded the truth.

STELTER: And will the president next be sued next by Dominion?

SHACKELFORD: We have not ruled out any potential defendants who participated in this -- in this defamation campaign against Dominion.

But right, we're focused -- today, we're focused on Fox. Their pre- eminent conservative media company in the country really just -- Fox had an enormous and caused enormous damage to Dominion through this particular campaign and that's who we're focused on today.


STELTER: Stephen, thank you very much for being here.

With me on the Fox angle is Oliver Darcy.

SHACKELFORD: Thank you, Brian.

STELTER: He's been covering the story for us, CNN senior media reporter.

Let's look at Fox's statement on this newest lawsuit. They say: Fox News Media is proud of our 2020 election coverage which stands in the highest tradition of American journalism, and we will vigorously defend against this baseless lawsuit in court.

Oliver, they're proud of it.

OLIVER DARCY, CNN SENIOR MEDIA REPORTER: Yeah, and that statement is absurd on two fronts, Brian.

First, you've talked to a number of First Amendment attorneys. I've talked to a number of attorneys. They all say that this lawsuit and the Smartmatic lawsuit lay out serious claims against Fox. They have serious teeth.

And so, to call it baseless or meritless like Fox is doing is simply not really in accordance with reality.


DARCY: The second point I make is that it is a bit ridiculous for Fox to pretend that they were standing in accordance with the proud tradition of American journalism given what they did. They peddled conspiracy theories. They pushed the big lie. They tried to cast doubt on the results of the 2020 election.

Frankly, they stood more in accordance with the tradition of a company like Info Wars than they did with reputable news organizations like "The New York Times" or "Washington Post" or CNN.

STELTER: And Fox's journalists who are inside that operation, they are embarrassed by what happened.

Look, we didn't see the connection between the big lie last fall, these lawsuits now, attempts of accountability and what's happening in Georgia with voter suppression. It's all related and we've got to cover it that way.

Oliver, stay with me.

Quick break here. After the break, Mary Trump answers this question, is the media taking Trump's bait yet again?


(COMMERCIAL BREAK) STELTER: Hey, welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES, I'm Brian Stelter. You

may have noticed something about the former president. I don't know what it is. Either it's an unwillingness or an inability to leave the spotlight. But it's been on full display this week, actually five times, President Trump making appearances on Fox News, Newsmax, and on a Fox personality's podcast.

Here is -- we just -- we wanted to summarize it all in one soundbite. So, here it is. Here's a summary of what Trump said about the Biden administration.


DONALD TRUMP, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: They're destroying our country. They're destroying our country. They're destroying our country. They're destroying our country, Lisa. They're destroying our country, Lisa.


STELTER: Right. It's like he was singing a song, but really off key. He's saying the same thing on every show and he was back on Fox last night, visiting with Jeanine Pirro. Now, let's contrast Trump with the last one-term president, the last guy who was defeated after a single term, that is George H.W. Bush. You want to see what Bush was doing after losing re-election? This is what he was doing.

Oh, it looks great, doesn't it? Look so relaxing. Bush told his successor, Bill Clinton, quote, you're not going to have any trouble from me. And he kept his word. Now, Trump is the anti-Bush, of course. But to borrow a fishing metaphor here, is the media taking his bait? Does this feel like 2015 all over again, with outrageous statements, stoking days of news coverage?

Well, with me now is someone who knows the former president very well. Mary Trump, of course, a clinical psychologist and the author of "Too Much and Never Enough." Her next book is called, "The Reckoning," and I'll ask about that in a second, Mary, thanks for coming on. Is this just plain old narcissism? Is that why Donald Trump is showing up on Fox almost every day?

MARY TRUMP, CLINICAL PSYCHOLOGIST AND AUTHOR: Well, that goes without saying. But it's also desperation. The only thing that's surprising about the last few weeks is how little we've heard from him, aside from CPAC. So, this latest spate, I guess, is just his way to make up for lost ground. Because as you know, he did not fare very well in some of those CPAC polls.

STELTER: Yes, that's interesting point. There were quite a few Republicans who said they were interested in other candidates for 2024. Obviously, one of the unspoken rules of the President's club is, you let your -- you let your successor have a chance. You lay low for a while. You let the next guy -- hopefully, in the future, the next woman have a chance at the job. No one expected Trump to do that. Right? So, it makes sense that he's attacking Biden. But it's still -- it's does speak to his nature, or even his morality, that he can't let the new guy have a term.

M. TRUMP: Well, it's obvious to anybody who's paying attention that the first 50 something days of President Biden's administration has been undoing the damage that Donald's administration has caused to this country. So, Donald can't let that go unanswered. He needs to pretend--

STELTER: Can't let it happen. Yes.

M. TRUMP: -- that what -- instead of saving us from COVID and the horrific economy wrought by Donald, Biden is somehow destroying this country.

STELTER: And I was on the air talking about his insane comments about hugging and kissing. We know they weren't there to hug Mike Pence on January 6th, they were there to hang Mike Pence.

M. TRUMP: Yes.

STELTER: Didn't the media -- yours truly here, did we all take the bait? Is this a replay of what happened during this campaign?

M. TRUMP: I -- it feels different. It feels like people aren't taking him seriously. People aren't taking -- aren't giving him the oxygen that he was given, unfortunately, in 2015, 2016, and 2020. So, there does seem to be a waning of influence. And I think we're even going to see that aside from outlets like Fox and Newsmax and OAN. We're going to see that across the Republican Party, as well. Because the last thing people like Cruz and Hawley want is for Donald to run again.

STELTER: Does run again. Your next book is called "The Reckoning," and it's coming out June 20th. What are you trying to do with this book?


M. TRUMP: Partially, I'm trying to help us understand how we got here. You know, this country has been dealing with a series of traumas, self-inflicted, and otherwise since its inception, that we've never appropriately dealt with. And that includes, of course, slavery and the genocide of Native Americans, but also our failure to handle the 1918 pandemic and traumas that we didn't sufficiently treat after World War I and World War II.

But also, how do we go forward? How do we learn from our past mistakes to grapple with what is going to be the greatest mental health crisis this country has ever faced after not just COVID and the ensuing economic crisis, but the fragility of our democracy and how close we came to losing it. And also, how divided we still are after four years of just the most hardcore partisanship?

STELTER: That's a lot. I hope you can fit it all into one book.

M. TRUMP: Doing my best.

STELTER: Mary, thank you for being here. For the latest on all these subjects, sign up for our nightly Reliable Sources newsletter at Coming up, is there any bad news bias when it comes to reporting about COVID-19? Dr. Sanjay Gupta shares his insights right up to the break.



STELTER: Does America have a bad news bias? Is it baked in to our news system? Well, that's what these researchers identified. They looked at news reports about the pandemic from around the world, from last spring and summer. This study titled "Why Is All COVID-19 News Bad News?"

It claims that U.S. news sources placed a disproportionate focus on negative news about the pandemic and that we were actually outliers on the international stage when compared to news outlets from other countries and scientific journals. You can see the volume of negative news does begin to dip after vaccination results are first reported. So, there is something changing, and that's important.

Let's talk about this with Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN's Chief Medical correspondent. Dr. Sanjay, I look at this, and I think, well, of course, the news was negative --


STELTER: -- because this was a horrifying thing. One of the worst things that happened in our lives. And yet the study says, the coverage was more negative in the U.S. than it was in other countries. Hey, are there explanations for that do you see?

GUPTA: Well, you know, I think that the reality is that the United States, you know, obviously got hit particularly hard by this as well, you know, Brian, that, you know, we're not even five percent of the world's population. And at various times was 20 to 25 percent of the world's overall new infections and world's deaths. So, I think that that was part of it, as well.

But it was a, you know, a constant balance, I think for the last year for certainly me and all the other medical reporters, sort of finding that balance between just being honest, transparent, and a lot of the news was bad. But also, you know, finding the hope, when there was, you know, legitimate hope to talk about, and that inflection point, you know, is a constantly dynamic thing.

I know that sounds like a joke, but I started to feel hope when you got a haircut. So, it's like, all right, if it's safe for Dr. Gupta to be able to get a haircut, right, you know, and now more are getting vaccinated. But did you see this NPR story the other day about how these random headlines that pick off one terrible, you know, death here, one terrible death there that are cherry picked are creating fears about vaccinations?

NPR found this and then showed how, you know, out of context, out of, you know, proportion stories are being used to stir vaccine hesitancy. Is this a concern of yours? GUPTA: It is a concern. And you know, this is -- this sort of thing is predated the pandemic. I mean, the vaccine hesitancy has been out there for a long time.


GUPTA: And those are very provocative sort of stories, right? I mean, for anybody who's already a little bit hesitant, and that's 33 percent of the country, Brian.


GUPTA: They find these stories, and then they amplify them, they share them, and they sort of feel like they've been vindicated in terms of their belief, because see -- now, most of those stories -- I mean, there's been no confirmed deaths due to a vaccine. And in fact, there was nobody who died in the vaccine trials who received the vaccine, you know, they all compared to people who received placebo. So, it was very effective in terms of actually protecting people against it. But this is a longstanding issue. In fact, we had another documentary film coming out next week about vaccine hesitancy which we started filming before the pandemic --

STELTER: Oh, wow.

GUPTA: -- because the measles outbreak in Brooklyn. So, yes, it's concerning.

STELTER: For the record, my second Pfizer shot, I felt just fine afterwards. I think I felt a little better, actually. Right? You feel like a little bit of a superhero when you're vaccinated. And all of us have to keep spreading that message. Let's talk about this evening's documentary, "COVID WAR." What I need to know is how did you do it? How did you get all six of these leaders to sit down with you?

GUPTA: Well, that was the biggest challenge, you know, and I got to give a lot of kudos to you know, the producers, Jessica Small and Jim Murphy and everybody, but we spent a lot of time building relationships, a lot of people, you know, they -- all of them are now private citizens, except for Dr. Fauci.

And, you know, we wanted to talk to them at a time when they felt like they could actually talk, and they could be -- feel like they were unbridled, you know, and, and, and it was it, that was the key. I also approach this, you know, they're all doctors.

I'm a doctor, Brian, by saying we're going to -- we're going to approach this like an autopsy. This isn't an, you know, autopsies are tough to watch. But they are important. There's a lot of lessons to be learned for right now, because we're still in the middle of this pandemic, but also for the future. So, I think that that was one of those sort of vehicles that they felt it was going to be tough these interviews, but more familiar, doctors often have this codified introspection. And I wanted to sort of, you know, rely on that to get through this documentary.


STELTER: And the journalistic lesson is sometimes you have to wait a while, right, to really get to the full truth of what happened.

GUPTA: Absolutely, absolutely. There's no question and you'll see tonight, Brian, I think I'd be curious to see what you think after. But censorship is not a word that people use lightly. We can use it here. You'll hear exactly how messages were getting out there or not. People often say,

Well, why didn't you say something at the time? Well, as you know, Brian, I mean, everyone had to get approval from the White House to talk about these things, and many times they could not get those sorts of approvals.

STELTER: Wow. Dr. Gupta, thank you. We will all be watching. This Special Report is titled "COVID War;" the pandemic doctors speak out. And it begins tonight at 9:00 p.m. Eastern, 6:00 p.m. Pacific here on CNN. My -- up next here on the program, we're going to look at new layoffs in the media business, and what you can do to help.



STELTER: When a story breaks, there's always a hunger for more information right away. And when the story is a tragedy like a mass murder, there is a rush, a desire for understanding for some way to make sense of it. This is a perfectly natural instinct, but it sometimes causes deep misunderstandings, because scraps of news get overshadowed by a rush to judgment, by a pre-baked narrative. And there's a risk that the narrative is the only thing that's remembered, instead of the truth that emerges slowly over time.

Case in point, the Pulse Nightclub massacre in 2016. It was initially characterized by many as an anti-gay hate crime. But it was eventually found that there was no evidence to that effect. His actual original target was somewhere at Disney. This Huff Post headline really says it all, that everybody got it wrong.

More recently, in 2019, 12 people were murdered at a Virginia Beach municipal building by a veteran employee who had recently resigned. So, it was a craze guy, who was enraged his co-workers, right? That's what a lot of people assumed, but maybe wrongly, a new report said this week, the police still don't know what his motivation was.

Assumptions are natural. We're all human. But reporters covering these stories have to resist assumptions at all costs, so do other media figures who have big platforms. I think it's fair to ask whether some folks jumped to conclusions a couple of weeks ago, when a white man attacked workers in the Atlanta area spa, and then another -- and then another. We know the shootings were despicable.

And we know the shootings stoked fear among Asian Americans amid a sickening string of hate crimes across the U.S. But we still don't know the conclusion in Atlanta. We still don't know the killer's motivation, or how the cases will be prosecuted. There's been talk of a sex addiction and his religious mania. And of course, there's this easy access to deadly weapons.

That's why the New York Times columnist Bret Stephens questioned the focus on race in the coverage earlier this month. He said it has the laudable goals of raising awareness and combating hate. But those goals do not relieve journalists of, quote, the responsibility to report facts scrupulously. He warned about playing to fears in the service of a higher good. Of course, the term hate crime came up right away, and hate crime laws are really complicated, often narrowly defined, maybe too narrow.

The role of the press is to follow those facts. And if the investigators fall down on the job to say so. But to follow the facts. Oliver Darcy is back here with me. Oliver, did you see this happen again with the Boulder Massacre just a few days ago?

DARCY: Look, I think, Brian, that you said -- what you said was smart. Hate crimes are very complicated. And I think in 2021, people want easy answers right away. They want to know what happened. They want to digest that and have the answers all within you know, even hours sometimes after these mass shootings.

Unfortunately, these investigations like authorities will say they take time. And so, as journalists, I think we need to be careful to report the facts, follow the facts. And sometimes that does take time. And we need to be cautious before I think playing into some of these larger narratives.

STELTER: It's -- yes.


STELTER: It's almost like the most attend -- there's always the most attention when we know the least. Right? When people are still calling in an active shooter situation. That's when everyone's watching, hoping it's not as terrible as it might be. And then, by the time we actually know all the details, folks have moved on.

Frankly, Oliver, sometimes by then, we've had to move on to the next mass shooting. And that's part of the problem. But look at some of what happened in the wake of Boulder. There was -- there was this assumption by some people that it had to be another white guy, because so many white -- so many of these killings are caused by white guys.

Mina Harris, the vice president's knees, tweeted out that violent white men are the greatest terror threat to our country. She wound up deleting that tweet. And there was an editor at USA Today who was fired after posting a tweet that said, "It is always an angry white man, always." And of course, in this case, it was not a white man. It just feels like these narratives end up filling the void, but they eclipsed the real news.

DARCY: Definitely. And it underscores how important it is in the aftermath of these horrible acts of violence, to be careful, to be cautious, to report what the facts are and what the authorities are telling us before making, you know, conclusions or drawing any conclusions based on narratives that are out there, and that people might want to play into. And again, these things are complicated, and they don't always fit into clean lines. And we need to be careful as journalists because our platforms, they're big and they matter.

STELTER: And you know, we should be skeptical of what the authorities say. But most importantly, not jumping conclusions in either direction. Oliver, thank you. My guest on this week's Reliable Sources Podcast is John Temple, a veteran journalist who covered Columbine and wrote 20 years later that the endless cycle of mass killings shows the limits of journalism. But he still has reasons for hope. So, check out this week's podcast to hear from him. We'll have more RELIABLE SOURCES in just a moment.



STELTER: This brand new story by CNN's Kerry Flynn tells the media business story of the moment, the media slashing jobs again, as the pandemic continues to hinder ad revenue. And local papers are really feeling the brunt of it. As illustrated by this blank front page, Wednesday's issues of the Northeast news in Kansas City.

How the editor is asking a question, what happens if we're gone? What happens if the paper goes out of print? The Washington Post called it a warning from the small but mighty neighborhood newspaper.

And it prompted the public to reach out and start to chip in. The paper's publisher said, you know, what happens? Who's going to research these candidates if we don't? Who's going to host the candidate forums. Who's going to take pictures of the kids playing sports? Who's going to do it if we don't?

That's what I want to ask you, as well. Money is tight, I know, but there is something you can do to support news gathering in your community. It can be as simple as a subscription. For local news to survive, we all have to subscribe. Thanks for joining us here on the program. We'll be back with more RELIABLE SOURCES this time next week.