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Biden Speaks At Memorial Day Ceremony; Danny Fenster Was Detained While Trying To Fly Home; Journalism 101: How To Judge A Source's Credibility; Interview With The Co-Author Of "How Democracies Die"; The Information Lag About COVID-19; Rare Uproar Within "Associated Press" After Emily Wilder's Ouster. Aired 11a-12p ET

Aired May 30, 2021 - 11:00   ET


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Their sacrifice is not going to be in vain, because every American democracy endures, we have been tested.


But we still will be surely tested further. But I know that we as a people are up to the task. Each generation of Americans received a precious gift of liberty and we work to share it with more people to make our country more open, more free, more fair, to bring us closer, closer to making our American creed reality for all Americans.

That all women and men are created equal. That all women and men equally deserve to be treated with dignity. That all men and women deserve equal rights, equal protection to build a future for their families and hope and opportunity.

The American creed is the connective tissue that binds us. There's a long chain of patriots that come before us and those who will follow us in turn. That creed holds that the ideals that inspire people to service and that us, fill us with pride when we see our loved ones put on that uniform, and our progress toward that creed together as one nation, united, and preserved through their sacrifices, the best and strongest memorial to their lives.

Ladies and gentlemen, America is unique. It's an idea. Unlike any other country in the world, it is formed based on an idea. Almost every other country is based on a creed or religion or geography and ethnicity, but not us. We're based on an idea, and that we hold these truths to be self evident that all men and women are created equal. We're unique in the world.

I had a long conversation with two hours recently with President Xi, making it clear to him that we could do nothing but speak out for human rights around the world because that's who we are.

I'll be meeting with President Putin in a couple of weeks in Geneva, making it clear that we will not -- we will not stand by and let him abuse those rights.

Folks, we're unique in all of history. We really are. But those names etched on that wall and every other wall on a tombstone in America, our veterans is the reason why we're able to stand here. We can't kid ourselves about that.

And so I hope, I hope that the nation comes together. We're not Democrats or Republicans today. We're Americans. We're Americans who have given their lives.


And it's time we remind everybody who we are.

Thank you all for being here. May God bless you all, particularly the Gold Star families and survivors. And may God protect our troops because they're still out there.

Thank you.


BRIAN STELTER, CNN ANCHOR: That was President Joe Biden delivering remarks in honor of Memorial Day, speaking about U.S. military personnel who died in service. We have to carry on without them, he said, saying that he knows how hard it is. We are, he said, the inheritors of their mission.

Biden is speaking there at Veterans Memorial Park. It's near Newcastle, Delaware. If you've ever driven the northeast corridor, you know the spot, right, at the foot of the Delaware Memorial Bridge spanning New Jersey and Delaware.

Biden frequently attended this service, this annual service when living in Delaware, when serving, when running for various offices. But now, he speaks there as the president of the United States.

Let me bring in CNN White House correspondent Arlette Saenz. She's live in Wilmington.

This was also personal for the president because it is the anniversary of his son Beau's death today.

ARLETTE SAENZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It certainly is, Brian. Six years ago today, President Biden's eldest son Beau Biden passed away from glioblastoma, brain cancer.

So not only today is he paying respects, the president to those who have died in battle, but he is also carrying his son Beau in his heart. Earlier in the morning, the family attended mass at their normal parish here in Wilmington, and afterwards, they took a short bit of time to visit the grave site where Beau was laid to rest. He was there with his family, including Beau's son, Hunter Biden, there was a moment where you saw the president and Hunter embracing.

But over the course of the past few days, at both this event just right now and on Friday, you heard the president speak about his son and speak about his service.

[11:05:09] Beau had served in the Delaware National Guard and actually spent some time in Iraq and the president said that seeing his son in uniform made his heart swell.

But so often when the president is speaking of -- to those who have lost loved ones including those ones who are reflecting on the loves ones that were lost in battle on this Memorial Day weekend, the president often relates his own sense of loss and his understanding of what families endure and tries to relate that to people as they are remembering their own loved ones.

So while this is also a very personal day, you also heard from the commander-in-chief saying that the military is the spine of this country and that we -- the country needs to honor the lives and legacies of those that have been lost.

And he also had a bit of a message of unity at the end saying that the country and the military, they're not Democrats or Republicans and that this is also a moment for the country to come together as we remember the fallen heroes of this Memorial Day weekend.

STELTER: Arlette Saenz, thank you very much.

Turning now to this hour of RELIABLE SOURCES, and a theme that President Biden's spoke about moments ago. The coauthor of a book called "How Democracy Dies" will join me with a warning about what the failed vote to have a January 6 commission could mean in the future.

Plus, a follow up to last week's firing of a young "A.P." reporter for Twitter violations. It sparked a rare revolt among staffers. This is a letter of their protest. A top editor at "The A.P." will join me to address the fallout in an exclusive interview coming up.

Our first story, though, on RELIABLE SOURCES is a challenge for Biden's State Department. This case personifies the threat to journalists and a free media in the Southeast Asian country of Myanmar.

Danny Fenster is a 37-year-old American journalist who worked hard to tell the stories of Myanmar citizens both before and after the military coup in February. He's the managing editor of "Frontier Myanmar", a magazine and website based in Yangon. He was trying to fly home a week ago, planning to surprise his family back in Detroit when he was detained at the Yangon International Airport.

He hasn't been heard from since and he's believed -- he hasn't been heard from since and is believed to have been imprisoned.

The U.S. State Department has spoken out saying it is deeply concerned about Fenster's detention. Quote: We have pressed the military regime to release him immediately and we'll continue to do so until he's allowed to return home safely to his family.

This is a reminder of the dangers journalists face around the world. I know you heard recently, Fareed was talking about this last hour, about this Belarusian opposition journalist who was detained in mid- flight. So that's an example in Belarus, this is an example in Myanmar and there are many other examples in Myanmar as well of local journalists who've been caught in the midst of this conflict who have been taken into prison, who've been shut down by the military coup.

This case with Fenster brings it all home because an American family is now hoping safely for his return.

Let me bring them in and introduce them now. Danny Fenster's parents are Rose and Buddy. They live in Detroit and they're here with me.

Rose, I know it's been a week since you last heard from Danny. How are you holding up?

ROSE FENSTER, MOTHER OF DETAINED JOURNALIST DANNY FENSTER: I'm trying to be strong and positive and it's minute by minute, running on fumes, and just keeping my mind on the positive and not letting my mind go where it could go.

STELTER: Yeah. Danny was there covering the stories that are so important to the citizens of Myanmar, you read his work. Did you have any sense he was in danger after the coup occurred?

R. FENSTER: We always have a sense of danger once he went there. But, yes, a sense of danger and awareness but trusting Danny. He's a strong, independent thinker. This is his passion to write and to write what's right, speak the truth. So we always supported him along with being worried.

STELTER: Yeah, I think many parents can relate to that.

Buddy, what was the last message you all received from Danny?

BUDDY FENSTER, FATHER OF DETAINED JOURNALIST DANNY FENSTER: About two weeks ago I spoke to him and he voiced concern, he said all the reporters, all the journalists are leaving this country. You know, it was hard, seemed like it was hard for him to get staff, people were either in hiding or had just left the country completely and you know, I could tell that he was maybe a change in his desire. I got a feeling he maybe felt it was time to start heading home.

STELTER: Right, understandably. He was not the only one thinking that way.

What brought him to Myanmar in the first place?

B. FENSTER: He went out to live in Bangkok just because he wanted to. I mean, he's got a lot of wanderlust in him.


And when a job in journalism opened up in Myanmar, he immediately took it. It spoke to him.

That was the first place he worked, I think it was called "Myanmar Now", more of a daily news kind of thing. And then when the job opened at "Frontier Myanmar", it's more of a monthly publication, gives you time to work on stories deeper, that's really what he likes to do and he took the job there and became a managing editor.

STELTER: He, we believe, is being held in the notorious prison in Myanmar, as the military is taking control. Has the State Department, have government officials in the U.S. been responsive to attempts to find out his whereabouts?

R. FENSTER: We have heard nothing so far.

B. FENSTER: We know they're working on it and we have confidence in our government and the embassy to push this matter, you know, it's number one on their list, but we haven't heard from Danny in a week now. We have no proof. We have no concrete evidence of his well-being.

STELTER: You have had local representatives speaking out supporting you. Here's one of the local congressmen trying to raise awareness of the case.

Now that it's been a week you are putting together a petition to spread awareness that way. This is available at

What are your goals with the petition?

B. FENSTER: It's just awareness. It's getting the word out. It's not letting this story slide away in the news cycle. I mean, we want people to be talking about this every day. We want all our local political leaders to be pushing to get Danny home.

STELTER: In 2020, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 274 journalists were imprisoned in various locales around the world.

Rose, what do you want people to know about what that means in a personal level. It's a big number but every number there is a person with a family.

R. FENSTER: Of course. Of course. You hear these stories in every person, has many people that love them and families and it's heartbreaking. What I've gone through this week, my heart goes out to every single other parent and family and community member. It's a total nightmare, it's a total feeling of no control, it's heart- wrenching.

It's just, it's -- excuse me, I'm sorry. It's just not something you want anybody to go through. Any parent, anybody that cares about anybody, these are human lives and these are people, not just numbers. And I just want my son home, no matter what it takes.

STELTER: A week ago, you never could have imagined you'd be sitting here.


STELTER: He was coming them to surprise you all.

Buddy, he would have been in time for father answer day even with a quarantine on the way home. So what is you all's message for the Myanmar authorities given this live around the world? Buddy, what is your message for the government there, the military regime there?

B. FENSTER: Well, I'm no expert on negotiations. I have no idea who is in control in Myanmar now. I think their efforts to squelch journalism and get the word out is, it's just, it just kills life and it kills freedom, it kills truth, and I think that they just need to let him go immediately. He has not committed any crime there.

R. FENSTER: Yes, I agree. He is just trying to do the right thing, and not hurt anybody or start anything. He was not, you know, feet, boots on the ground behind a desk editing, and just want him home. Please, please, please, please release him and send him home to his family.

STELTER: Rose and Buddy, thank you both for being here. We will stay on top of this situation.

B. FENSTER: Thank you.

R. FENSTER: Thank you so much.

STELTER: Coming up here, is the news media behind the COVID-19 curve.

Plus a little journalism 101 on credibility and trust and how that's playing out in Maricopa County, Arizona.

More RELIABLE SOURCES in a moment.



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

Now to a stark display of America's media divide. Signs of Democratic erosion are seen in every direction for those who are willing to see them right now. Too many people were unwilling to see, unable to face the reality so conspiracy is spreading. Sectarianism is taking root and minority rule is prevailing.

While Republicans on Capitol Hill are blocking a thorough review of the January 6th insurrection, Republicans in statehouses are clinging to the big lie and pushing new voting restrictions and normalizing extreme rhetoric.

Common reality is being dissolved. Right wing propaganda is taking its place and all of this is on display in Maricopa County, Arizona, where MAGA media is trying to claim that Donald Trump won and President Biden lost.

This week, I heard a ten-second clip that summed up all these years of divisions. It was when CNN's Kyung Lah caught up with Karen Fann, the president of Arizona State Senate.

Fann defended the GOP's bogus audit by saying it's been transparent. It's been livestreamed. And Kyung pointed out it's being streamed by One America News, a far-right pro Trump channel that's not credible in any sense of the word. So, here is what Fann said next.


KAREN FANN (R), ARIZONA STATE SENATE PRESIDENT: Are you saying OAN is not a credible news source?


FANN: Okay, I'll remember that. CNN is saying that OAN is not a credible one. Very good.

LAH: Yes.



STELTER: See, Fann sounded sincere. She really seems to think that a conspiracy-laden channel caught airing false content time and time again is actually credible.

This got me thinking about misinformation in a whole new way.

So let's go there, with CNN senior national correspondent Kyung Lah, and Matt Skibinski. He's a general manager of NewsGuard. It's a company that has journalists, not algorithms, but journalists work to come one with trust ratings for news websites.

Matt, thank you for coming on.

Kyung, first to you. This exchange with Karen Fann, this is the divide in the country in a nut shell. One side believes One America News is reality and the other side knows CNN is accurate.

LAH: And doesn't look at, if they are a One America News Network consumer doesn't look at any other news source, and that's particularly a problem when you're talking about one of its most powerful legislators in the state of Arizona, and that's why I was so taken aback. She fully believes that it's credible, according to the words that she said to me and she doesn't seem to want any other input in regards to that.

She has sat down with OAN. She has allowed them to have access to this audit, and it's extraordinary and the lack of other information coming in is what I find so alarming, because of who she is, Brian.

STELTER: Yes. OAN, for those who don't know, very small cable channel, not rated by Nielsen, not very popular. However, it does have a big fan base among the Trump base and it is taken as gospel by some folks even though it has a long history of inaccurate information.

But take it from me, let's hear from Matt.

Matt, NewsGuard has nutrition labels for news websites. You all have criteria for knowing what's reliable. Before you tell us OAN's score, how do you determine what a reliable

source is?

MATT SKIBINSKI, GENERAL MANAGER, NEWSGUARD: Sure, so we use nine basic apolitical criteria of journalistic practice, things like does the site repeatedly publish false news? Does it disclose who owns the sites? Does it separate news and opinion? Does it correct errors when it makes them?

We have nine criteria we assess. We have journalists doing these ratings and based on those criteria, each site gets an overall rating. Green means it's generally credible. Red means it's generally not credible, and trust score of zero to 100 points based on those criteria.

STELTER: Zero to 100, and where is One America News between zero and 100?

SKIBINSKI: They score a 25 out of 100 on our rating system, which gives them a red rating. Meaning they have severe credibility issues.

STELTER: Not great. So that's the score. I just want to unpack this a little bit more. I think a lot of folks have no idea the differences between say CNN and OAN.

Kyung, tell us about your segment with Karen Fann. Tell me about the standards practice. How many editors and producers reviewed your work before it aired?

LAH: After I wrote this story and relied heavily on allowing the Arizona senator to speak because we had not heard from her. We had put in a dozen media requests. We repeatedly asked for an interview. After the script was written, it goes to the political, the assistant political director, it goes to the show producer in this case "AC360". And then went through something we called the triad, which is the row, legal and standards.

That's five different levels and that's not even counting the field team who was with me, that was two producers in this case. So, really, that's beyond what I've written, that's seven additional eyes and you're pushing and fighting for each sentence that is in there and defending your work, because what you want ultimately to be on the air is the cleanest and most fair description of this interview, and that's a lot of people.

STELTER: It's a lot of people. The banners on the screen, these were read by at least four people, reviewed by at least four people before they appear on screen.

Do we still make mistakes? Sure. There are still typos sometimes? Sure, that's my fault. But at least there's an attempt to try to get it right.

And what I think the issue is there's all outlets that are not trying. When I see One America News spreading conspiracy theories and lies about the riot and the aftermath and Trump, they're not trying to get it right.

And, Matt, that's why your nutrition labels come in. I know that, you know, you're not here to pick on OAN. You do this for lots of different websites and sources. But isn't there a broader problem in right wing media where there's not an attempt to get it right, here's a lack of credibility on your scores?

SKIBINSKI: So, you know, we've been tracking election misinformation since well before the election and we knew this would be a problem based on 2018 and other elections in recent history, and we've actually flagged hundreds of Web sites on the Internet publishing different types of election misinformation, many of them amplified by networks like OAN and out of that involves the conspiracy theory around Dominion voting systems. There was a massive false conspiracy theory that Dominion's machines had been switching votes from one candidate to another, really from Trump to Biden.


That was completely false and has been debunked but was spread wildly on all sorts of Internet media sources and on OAN. And quite a few people who consume media online, they're seeing it in the context of a search engine or social media feed. They may not realize it's a credible source or not a credible source. They see a headline and something that looks like a news source, and that's really how this spreads so widely.

STELTER: Matt, how can people find NewsGuard's scores and ratings? Tell us how to find it.

SKIBINSKI: Sure. You can go to, that's owe our website and you can download our browser extension and mobile apps. You can also just search NewsGuard and the browser extension store or app store that you use. And anyone can download our ratings and view any rating for any site that we've rated.

STELTER: Kyung, I wonder, as you cover this bogus audit, do you feel like you're on the next -- the front lines of the big lie or see the next big lie being born? I mean, you're now based in L.A. But you've covered the news around the world.

Is what's happening in the U.S., this fragmentation, this fracturing, this sectarianism, does it remind you what you've seen in other countries?

LAH: It reminds me and this is -- this may sound dramatic but something that is familiar to international journalists. I've spoken to people who have been subjected to state-run media around the world and if you look in the eyes of these people, even after they've left that repressive regime's control, they have this look and this feels very familiar.

People who get told lies over and over and over again, they have this belief and it is -- it is something that is very difficult to break and it feels very familiar, and that's in part why this feels so dangerous to me. This feels familiar. International journalists talk to people who have been lied to over

and over again by a government or by a large media presence, and that is very difficult to break. So this, yes, this feels very familiar and it feels very frightening, Brian.

STELTER: I can't say it better. I'm going to leave it right here.

Kyung and Matt, thank you very much for being here.

Arizona and One America News and so the called audit is like a Petrie dish. It's like you can see future election lies being cultivated, future threats to democratic norms being tested.

So, with apologies to my next guest, it's not a good sign when a book like this called "How Democracies Die" is suddenly relevant and selling lots of copies again.

Arizona is just one example. The defeated commission is another example. The "F.T.'s" headlines U.S. democracy is in the danger zone. Media habits and media trends and conspiracy thinking have a lot to do with this and they go hand in hand.

So, look at this polling from the Public Religion Research Institute that shows that. it shows a disturbing number of Americans believe core QAnon theories about Satan-worshipping pedophiles controlling the government and the media, and the markets, and a so-called storm on the horizon.

Now, lay on top the trusted media sources of the folks who say they believe that stuff. If you trust far right channels like OAN and Newsmax, you are far more likely to say you believe the pedophile sex trafficking craziness.

Now, that bloc of people who trust far right TV is pretty small. PRRI says it's 3 percent of Americans. But that's still a lot of people who are inclined to believe the worst, sickest smears.

So, let's talk with someone who knows how this devolves. David Ziblatt is a Harvard University professor who coauthored "How Democracies Die." The book came out in 2018 and according to "The Washington Post" and "The New Yorker", it was formative for now President Biden. Biden recommended the book to other people and learned a lot from it.

Daniel, thank you for coming on the program.

Can you reflect on what you were hearing just couple of minutes about Arizona and the so-called audit and these data points that show belief in QAnon theories? Does it add up to something bigger in your view?

DANIEL ZIBLATT, EATON PROFESSOR OF THE SCIENCE OF GOVERNMENT, HARVARD UNIVERSITY: Well, you know, Brian, one of the main points of our book that we wrote in 2018 was that the way that democracies die today is at the ballot box. That's much more frequent way that democracies die. Not -- no longer through military coups and attacks of generals. And so, if elections die at the ballot box, then it's really critical to have free and fair elect -- free and fair elections. And what we're seeing across U.S. states right now is an assault on

voting rights. And so, I think the biggest threat facing American democracy today is 2020 may have been a dress rehearsal for what's to come in 2022 and 2024. And so, when people challenge the basic legitimacy of free and fair elections, democracy is in a very precarious position.

STELTER: Some Americans might here this and say, oh, sounds like media hype. You know, I went to the grocery store, nothing's changed.


I voted in my local election, nothing's changed. How are they supposed to know that something is changing?

ZIBLATT: Well, again, this is one of the most striking things that when one looks at this process around the world, democracies that die very slowly. Often voters don't even notice what's happening around them. Ten years in Hugo Chavez's presidency, there was a survey done in Venezuela, and majority of Venezuelans thought they still lived in a democracy.

Now, we're in a very different situation here in the United States. I mean, our electoral institutions at the end of the day did work in November. But we can't be vigilant enough is sort of the main message I would send.

STELTER: The Washington Post reported that Biden had been recommending your book to others, and taking notes in the sides of the pages. Have you spoken with him about these concepts?

ZIBLATT: No, I have not, not directly.

STELTER: It seems like it might be useful. What do you hope that he learned or picked up from the book?

ZIBLATT: Well, I think it's really important to understand the scale of the threats that we're not alone in the world in facing these threats, and to also recognize that dramatic transformations in our institutions are necessary. Democracy requires constant mending, and so we can't just simply stand still and assume that democracy is a machine that runs of itself.

We need to reform our institutions. And I think this is something that the Biden administration is alert to, and the idea of protecting voting rights is hard, grinding work. And it may even take more than just one election cycle. It may take a decade, but there needs to be a dramatic reform movement to protect our democracy.

The reason American democracy thrived in the 20th century, is because in the beginning of the 20th century, we reformed our democratic institutions, under Woodrow Wilson, the Progressive Era. And I think we need a new reform movement today.

STELTER: And what is the role of the reality-based media, the small d democratic media, in trying to preserve a democratic system? ZIBLATT: Democracy is a kind of self-correcting mechanism. I mean, when politicians go too far to the extremes, the way it's supposed to work is that voters punish those politicians. But in order for that self-correcting mechanism to work, there needs to be a free flow of information and true information, and real understanding of what's happening.

And I think the concern I have is that so many voters have insulated themselves from information, and sort of operating in echo chambers. And so, the self-correcting mechanism or democracy can't work, because voters don't even really quite understand what's happening if they don't follow -- if they don't listen to real news, and instead rely on misinformation.

STELTER: Or just outright propaganda. And as Kim was saying, it's so powerful. It's so intoxicating. I don't know if real news can compete with a bunch of propaganda BS.

ZIBLATT: Well, I think that's the challenge of journalism -- and journalism is a profession, right? And I think one of the great things that you just described in the last segment there was an effort to kind of make the system work.

And in a free society, we don't want to have state regulated media so in order to have this operate successfully, we need to have journalists who stick up for their professional standards, and spread information and knowledge in a way that makes our system work.

STELTER: Daniel Ziblatt, thank you very much. The book is "How Democracies Die." And even though it's troubling look at what's going on, it is important to read. Thank you for being here.

Next, take a look at the latest Time Magazine cover, the great reopening it says, but is the public aware of the evolving science? David Leonhardt of the New York Times is up, next.



STELTER: America reopening as this Memorial Day weekend feels drastically different from last year's. But what we know about the coronavirus is also drastically different. And, of course, the vaccine has changed everything.

Now, there is still some reluctance, some fear, some delays in returning to pre-pandemic norms. And that's sometimes for very good reasons, pandemic trauma is real, the PTSD is real. But I wonder if one factor is also an information lag. That's what I'm calling this dichotomy between what we know from the science, what we know from the data, and how people and how institutions are behaving.

There's been an information lag about how COVID actually spreads, about it being airborne. It led to a lot of misinformation early on about how best to protect people. There's been an information lag also from the CDC. They've been quite slow in responding to questions and quite slow in updating guidance.

You see this headline on screen from the conservatives at Hot Air. It says, CDC finally changes summer camp guidance for kids after a critical column by New York Times writer David Leonhardt. There's been information lags in other places as well on vaccine safety, for example.

Lots of people still don't have the right true reliable information about the safety of the vaccine. The data is out there, the facts are undeniable, but the information is lagging. It's not getting to the people, especially Republicans, who need to hear it. There's also been an information lag about COVID-19 origins and we will get into that.

But this idea of an information lag, this is not to blame individual Americans or people in other countries. I think the blame or the responsibility lies with the media, and lies with governmental institutions who need to help people catch up to the science, need to help people know what is actually safe and what is actually risky.

I mentioned David Leonhardt, let me bring him in. He's a Senior Writer for the New York Times. He has been leading the way on trying to correct some of these misperceptions and outdated facts about COVID- 19. David, great to see you.

DAVID LEONHARDT, SENIOR WRITER, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Thank you, Brian. Thanks for having me.


STELTER: We talked a few weeks ago, and the guidance about masks has changed even since then. Here's what I'm seeing today. I was walking along the High Line, that's elevated park in New York City, an outdoor park. And there's all these signs telling people to wear masks.

Now, we know, don't we, that outdoor transmission is virtually non- existent. And yet, months after we found that out, months later, the people that want to -- that are trying to do the best to open parks are still giving people outdated guidance. So, I'm not trying to pick on New York City or the High Line, but isn't this example of information lag?

LEONHARDT: It is an example of information lag. Is it possible to be infected outdoors? It is, but based on all the evidence we have, it requires a close conversation between two people.

There isn't a single documented case anywhere in the world of someone passing someone else and the person getting it that way. And when you dig into the research on how people get it, it's overwhelmingly indoors. There are a couple of examples of close outdoor conversations face to face.

But the notion that you could get it while walking on the High Line, it doesn't seem plausible. And so, I think you're right, it is an information lag. And, look, people -- this has been a horrible pandemic. It's killed millions of people around the world. And so, people are scared and they're not going to just immediately snap back to the way they behaved before.

And so, it is the job, first of all, of the government and public health experts to explain to us, not only how you should be safe, but also what things it's OK to return to. And as you said, the CDC has just been really slow.

STELTER: And why it's OK? I think what's missing is the why. So, we were showing that when Walensky comes out and says take off your mask there. You can take off your masks if you're fully vaccinated. But I feel like she kind of, I mean, I know she briefly explained why, but I feel like government and media have skipped over the why.

We need to spend a week on the why. We need to explain the real science about what's actually happening with COVID-19. And I fear that, I just fear the media ends up in the middle where we're now covering the day to day news, but we missed the why. We missed the reason why the rules changed.

LEONHARDT: That's right. And, look, the why is fairly straightforward. I mean, if you're vaccinated, you don't need a mask. There are certain settings where you should wear one to be part of the shared project of mask wearing, but you don't need a mask if you're vaccinated. And you basically don't need a mask if you're outdoors, even if you're unvaccinated unless you're going to be in close conversation.

But I feel like I can't even say unvaccinated without saying if you're unvaccinated, you're eligible, please get vaccinated. It's the single biggest thing you could do to protect yourself.

And I think -- so for those of us in the media, it's hard both because we don't have degrees in epidemiology and we're trying to sort through what the experts are saying. But it's also the same way that I think some of the experts have this bias toward extreme caution, and making the mistake that extreme caution doesn't have any costs. Extreme caution does have costs.

STELTER: Tell me why.

LEONHARDT: Sometimes in the media we have -- well, so why does extreme caution, of course, because we need to focus people on the true risks that they're taking. And wearing masks all the time does come with downsides. It has real downsides for people who are hard of hearing. It makes any conversation just difficult for two people to have. There's a reason why we didn't wear masks all the time before this.

Wearing masks makes communications difficult. For a minority of people, it makes breathing more difficult when they're exercising. Again, it's really hard on people who don't have perfect hearing, which is a sizable chunk of Americans.

And so, we don't want to be going to permanent mask wearing all the time. We need to be weighing the costs and the benefits of it, and focusing people on this is what you really need to do to protect yourself. Which is, one, get vaccinated, two, get vaccinated, three, get vaccinated and, four, if you're not vaccinated, when you're indoors, do social distancing and wear masks. And so, if we conflate what are tiny risks with real risks, we end up confusing people. And I think we in the media sometimes have a hard time with that, because we do sort of have this bad news bias that I know that you've thought about as well.

STELTER: Right. There is, obviously, the car crash in the highway is a bigger story than traffic just run smoothly. And there's a version of that that's happened during this pandemic. So the facts about COVID-19 transmission need to reach viewers, need to reach readers. I think we need more explainers, more one-on-one, the kind of stuff you do in your newsletter. You wrote about the faulty outdoor transmission sites, for example.

This week, though, you wrote about the lab leak theory, and how the conversation about this possible COVID escaping the Wuhan lab theory has been re evaluated. It's been reckoned with all of a sudden. What happened this week? Why is this back in the news?

LEONHARDT: Well -- so, it's pretty clear that we don't know how COVID started. Many people think the most likely explanation is that it jumped from an animal to a human being at a food market in Wuhan, China. That is certainly plausible. But it's also plausible that -- with some research at a top virology lab in Wuhan, China, it somehow escaped from there. We don't know the answer.


And what happened was a bunch of people started arguing that it likely escaped from this lab in Wuhan. And some of them were scientists who you've never heard of, necessarily, and who made serious arguments. But some of them were conservative politicians like Senator Tom Cotton. And after Cotton started doing it, Donald Trump, when he was president, started doing it.

And I think people made this mistake. I think a lot of people on the political left and a lot of people in the media made this mistake. They said, well, if Tom Cotton is saying something, it can't be true, or they assumed that. And that's not right.

Tom Cotton does deal in misinformation about things like election fraud. He said some things that are just wrong, but that doesn't mean that everything he says is wrong. And it seems like a lot of people, including a lot of people in the media, leaped to dismiss the lab leak theory because of where it was coming from. And the reality is, we don't yet know how COVID started.

STELTER: Facebook says it will no longer remove posts that claimed the virus was manmade. This seems to be related to this reevaluation of these theories. Doesn't this do damage to Facebook's credibility or reputation? You know, the idea that one day they're saying it's disinformation. The next day, they're saying it's OK to post.

LEONHARDT: It does a little bit. I mean, you said in one of your earlier segments today that there's a difference between places that try to get it right and occasionally make mistakes in places that aren't even trying to get it right. And, look, everyone's going to make mistakes at times. I think the important thing to do is correct a mistake when you make it and try to learn from it.

And in this case, I think people were too quick to decide that this was something for which there was a clear right answer and to dismiss debate as part of a conspiracy theory.

There's a connection, Brian, between the two topics we're talking about here, which is, last year, during the pandemic, a lot of Conservatives and Republicans were dangerously hostile to wearing masks. And so, we've now ended up in this flip situation in which I think a lot of Democrats and Liberals are almost too eager to keep the masks because they think of them as this is part of who I am. It's Republicans who are against masks.

The fact is, refusing to wear a mask last year really was a bad, bad idea. But if you're vaccinated now, you really don't need a mask. And continuing to wear a mask, I think it would be a mistake if we somehow turned it into some sort of partisan symbol on both the right and the left.

STELTER: And the left. So what about you? So for me, when I go to Walmart now, I don't wear a mask. But when I did, I thought I had a sore throat a few days ago, I did put on a mask. I wanted to be polite to everybody else's in case I was sick. And now I'm fine. But, David, when do you wear a mask?

LEONHARDT: So first of all, I think that's a really important point, which is if you spend any time in Asia, one of the things you notice, pre-COVID, is lots of people wear masks lots of the time.

I mean, I can't remember -- when I would walk around the Beijing subway, where I last was in 2019, I don't know, 5% of people were wearing masks on a cold day. I can't remember, maybe it was 2% or 10%. But there was a significant number of people. And I think the culture of, hey, when you're sick, you should put a mask on or you should stay home is a pretty good idea completely apart from COVID.

To answer your question, I basically never wear a mask outdoors now that I've been vaccinated. I wear a mask indoors. If the store asks people to wear it, I continue to wear it. But essentially because I'm vaccinated, my attitude is I never need a mask for either my health or anyone else's health. I wear a mask when it seems like the socially polite thing to do.

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

LEONHARDT: Thanks, Brian.

STELTER: Coming up, a social media firestorm at the Associated Press sparking an internal review. Managing Editor Brian Carovillano is here for an exclusive interview all about it, next.



STELTER: We are back here on "Reliable Sources" talking about the turmoil inside the Associated Press. A junior reporter sudden firing at the AP exposed social media policy that has a lot of contention all around it. Management responded to an open letter, it was signed by more than 100 staffers in the wake of Emily Wilders firing. But what is under review and what exactly went wrong?

Joining me now is Brian Carovillano. He's A Managing Editor at the Associated Press. Brian, you've been in the AP for years, you were just promoted, now it's Sally Buzbee in the Washington Post. You're overseeing the entire newsroom, right?

BRIAN CAROVILLANO, MANAGING EDITOR, ASSOCIATED PRESS: That's right. I oversee the AP's global news report. And thanks for having me, Brian. It's good to be here today.

STELTER: So, congratulations on the promotion. But right into the fire with your newly expanded role, Emily Wilder's dismissal earlier this month, she was a news associate in Phoenix. Apparently, she was let go because of tweets related to Israel and Gaza. Can you tell us first why she was let go?

CAROVILLANO: Emily Wilder was let go because she had a series of social media posts that showed a clear bias toward one side and against another, in one of the most divisive and difficult stories that we cover anywhere in the world. It was a difficult decision. It was not an easy decision. And it was not a personal decision, and we wish her all the best.

STELTER: So, it sounds like it was a bunch of editors who collectively decided it was best for her to go.

CAROVILLANO: Yes, it was a unanimous decision among some senior managers at the AP. Yes.

STELTER: Was it because she was tweeting about how Israel and Gaza are covered differently?

CAROVILLANO: Again, this is one of the most divisive stories that we cover. It's really important that we maintain our credibility on these stories and journalists' safety is at stake, and the AP's credibility is at stake. And our credibility is under constant attack.

We're attacked from the right and from the left, from foreign governments and sometimes even from the US government. And so, our social media guidelines exist and protect that credibility because protecting our credibility is the same as protecting our journalists.

STELTER: I totally agree with you on credibility. But why is it that a young brand new staffer in Phoenix, what she's saying on Twitter, why does that matter in Jerusalem and in Gaza City?


CAROVILLANO: Well, first of all, Twitter's not local. And second, because our credibility is so important to us, the AP doesn't publish any newspapers, it doesn't have any broadcasts, it doesn't sell very much advertising. Our credibility and our people are everything to us. And so, I spent part of my career overseas, as you know. I was the AP's Asia editor, and I had first hand experience at being called in front of angry foreign officials to answer to things that colleagues of mine had written in some other part of the world. So, the geography is not the thing here.

And the other thing is, if you're a news associate in Phoenix, and there is a protest, an anti-Israel protest, an anti-Palestine protest, you're probably the person that the AP is going to go and send out to cover that.

And look at last summer. Last summer, after George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, we had people out in Sydney, Australia covering protests that were related to something that had happened on the other side of the world. And so, it's everyone's responsibility.

This is something we strongly believe at the AP. It's everyone's responsibility, regardless of what your job is or where you are to maintain that credibility, which is so important to us.

STELTER: Emily was fired, though, after this conservative outrage campaign that came out of the Stanford College Republicans, and that spread to right wing websites, drawing attention to her old posts about her activism for Palestinians. And it seemed like the AP was caving to what critics call a bad faith trolling campaign to take down one of your staffers, because she didn't have the right point of view in college. Is that a fair description of what happened?

CAROVILLANO: No, that would never happen and it didn't happen here. We take care of our people. We fight to get them out of jail in Myanmar, we rally to their aid when their office was destroyed in Gaza. We've had to evacuate people from war zones. Just this past week, Brian, we worked with a local law enforcement agency to cut off internet access to someone who is harassing one of our reporters.

This is the Associated Press, so anyone who thinks that the AP would be cowed by the College Republicans does not know very much about the AP. And I would just point out as far as the timing, although (inaudible) while there was a war going on in the Middle East, which our colleagues were covering.

STELTER: Right. And just yesterday, the AP put out another statement about the bombing of the building, the house of the AP Bureau in Gaza. There was an Israeli military chief of staff who claimed that your AP journalists were hanging out in the cafeteria in Gaza with Hamas operatives. And you and your colleagues responded and said, there wasn't even a cafeteria in the building. And the AP reiterate its calls for an independent investigation of why that building was bombed.

What do you want people to know about that situation? And how are your journalists in Gaza now operating without an office?

CAROVILLANO: Well, thanks for asking that question. I mean, this is a team of heroes as far as I'm concerned. They're journalism heroes. They not only were able to evacuate the building, but they were able to capture it live while it was happening, and continue to record on it.

Since the ceasefire took hold, things have settled down there a little bit. They have a temporary office space that they're working from. But they've continued to do journalism this whole time, and some of them had damage to their homes, their lives have been personally impacted by all of this. Now, they're continuing to do their jobs. And we are all very, very grateful to them.

I would just reiterate again, the AP would like to see an independent inquiry into what happened there. We still have not seen the information indicating that Hamas was in the building. And we would like to see that information.

STELTER: So, right after that bombing, in the immediate aftermath, that's when these tweets from Emily went viral. That's when she was fired. There's a lot of concern among your staffers that, basically, her being bullied online, her being harassed by critics. The AP didn't have her back. And journalists at CNN, the AP, lots of news outlets, suffer from these harassment campaigns that really take a toll on morale and actually, in some cases, make journalists feel unsafe in their jobs.

Does the AP, going forward, is it going to defend it staffers from these campaigns?

CAROVILLANO: Well, as I said, we defend our staffers from these campaigns every day. But I would say, our internal discussions at AP over the past week have clearly surfaced the need for better tools and better systems to be in place. And not just in this newsroom, in all newsrooms, as you said, when journalists feel threatened or attacked online.

And we're really good at keeping our people safe when they go to cover a war, when they go into an emergency room or a nursing home during a pandemic. And we have systems in place. We have crisis response systems, we need the same kind of systems to be in place when it comes to online harassment and online safety reporters, industry-wide. And people need to know how to access those systems and what to do when that happens.

STELTER: Absolutely. Much work to do. And, Brian, I'm grateful for being here and explaining it to us. Thank you very much.

CAROVILLANO: All right. Thanks for having me, Brian.

STELTER: Before we go, I need to tell you about the new edition of my book, "Hoax." T-minus nine days till it comes out in paperback. And this book is really brand new. It has a brand new opening about the January 6th insurrection, and 12 new chapters about the end of the Trump era and the new beginning of Fox News. Full of new reporting about Fox's newfound struggles in the Biden era hoax comes out June 8th, and I'll have more details for you next week.

Coming up later today here on CNN, a brand new episode of "United Shades of America with W. Kamau Bell." It's a special episode for this Memorial Day Weekend tonight 10:00 pm Eastern Time on CNN. And we'll see you right back here this time next week.