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Afghan Journalists With U.S.-Backed Media Stranded; Facebook Deplatformed Researchers Studying Misinformation; Rep. Devin Nunes Attacks The First Amendment; One-On-One With AP'S New Top Editor; The Uncancellable Muhammad Ali. Aired 11a-12p ET
Aired September 05, 2021 - 11:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
JOHN AVLON, CNN ANCHOR: Happy Labor Day weekend. I'm John Avlon, in for Brian Stelter.
We are live in New York and this is RELIABLE SOURCES.
This hour, one of Fox News favorite congressman, Devin Nunes, is going after journalists in court and the questions surrounding the murky legal funding of his lawsuits.
Also, a TV exclusive. We'll show you a new NYU study that shows just how much information dominates your news feed on Facebook.
And the great Ken Burns has got brand new doc on Mohammed Ali. We're going to talk to him one on one.
But, first, the fallout from Afghanistan, the longest war in U.S. history ends just days before the 20th anniversary of the attacks of 9/11. And back in Afghanistan, many are stranded with their families past the evacuation deadline, while here at home there has been a fierce debate about President Joe Biden's handling of America's withdrawal. We are covering the story from all angles.
With us now is Ayesha Tanzeem. She's the Afghanistan and Pakistan bureau chief for Voice of America; Spencer Ackerman, a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter who now heads up "Forever Wars" newsletter and the author of the great new book "Reign of Terror". We got Leonard Pitts Jr., a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for "The Miami Herald". And Michael Daly, columnist for "The Daily Beast" who covered the attacks of 9/11 and its aftermath for "The New York Daily News". He is also the author of the upcoming book, "New York's Finest".
But, let's go to the region first. Ayesha, what are you seeing and hearing from your reporters still on the ground in Afghanistan?
AYESHA TANZEEM, BUREAU CHIEF, AFGHANISTAN & PAKISTAN, VOICE OF AMERICA: John, what I'm hearing is they are really scared. I talked to them on the phone almost daily. They send me WhatsApp messages. I wake up in the morning and there are several messages asking is there any update? When are we getting out?
Their biggest fear is now that the evacuation is technically over, that they will be left behind, they will be forgotten. And almost all of them have said to me that despite Taliban promises they will allow freedom of press and they will not take revenge against anyone, they do not trust the Taliban. And they say the Taliban are playing for time, playing nice for international media because they want legitimacy, they want recognition.
And the moment is international limelight is off, they will go door- to-door hunting for people. That's the fear of our reporters on the ground who are saying we need to get out now, while there is still time.
AVLON: So, just to be clear, your reporters are saying that the Taliban's, you know, talk of trust and a new order are nonsense. That once the news blackout that might occur in Afghanistan occurs, that they are going fearing retribution, execution, by the Taliban, correct?
TANZEEM: They are fearing retribution. The women told me they definitely see if future for themselves in a Taliban Afghanistan. Even the male members -- I mean, one of them got beaten up. One sent a message saying, if they kill me, don't forget my children.
I don't know how to respond to a message like that, but they don't want to sit in Afghanistan and wait and we what happens.
AVLON: Well, historically -- I want to put the evacuation in perspective. The Biden administration evacuated a record number of people. Let's compare, 123,000 who were evacuate had the two weeks towards the end of August to the 7,000 people the U.S. evacuated during the fall of Saigon. But even with that objectively impressive record, Biden still stranded around 600 of your colleagues and their family members who are still stuck in Afghanistan.
The Biden administration is vowing to help those folks. But what can you tell bus their status today and any communications you have had with the administration on getting them out?
TANZEEM: I can't speak for the U.N. management. They are the ones speaking to State Department and have communications with the management.
What I do know is they are still trying to get them out. They are hopeful they will get help from whatever process possible.
The colleagues on the ground are still hoping and praying. We are telling them we haven't forgotten them. That we are trying to not only shine a light on their plight but also I have asked the U.N. management, and I asked every day, what are you doing? I have been told they are working night and day, all hours of day and night to get them out.
I am not exactly sure what they are doing but I am told they are not going to sleep at night, sleeping very little working night and day to try to get them out.
AVLON: All right. Spencer, I want to turn to you. Look at the tweet from "Vox" senior correspondent Ian Millhiser. He writes, today the first full day in nearly 20 years that my country is not at war. I'm grateful that President Biden had the vision to make this a reality even though the end of the war in Afghanistan strikes many other journalists sad.
Now, how would you evaluate the media's coverage of Biden's decision?
SPENCER ACKERMAN, AUTHOR, "REIGN OF TERROR": Well, first, the tweet itself is just incredibly factually wrong. The United States is not at peace today. The war on terror continues.
That said, the Biden administration's withdrawal from Afghanistan is an achievement that a lot of the media has really, unfortunately, taken in a direction that shows why this war has been so disastrous and so endless. The media interpretation, by and large, of what happened in Afghanistan over these last two weeks, this enormous human calamity is one that makes the calamity the responsibility of ceasing to fight the war rather than the result of 20 years of fighting a disastrous war. That's a huge problem.
AVLON: Yes. I mean, obviously, once the Taliban took over Afghanistan, there were a new round of refugees, but your point is well taken.
I want get your point on this as well. There has been criticism from some about the overuse of generals commenting on this withdrawal. Now, look, reasonable people can certainly say the generals and military folks know a lot about the context of this evacuation. But do you think an overreliance on military voices is a fair criticism of our coverage today?
ACKERMAN: I do. I do. I think it is a symptom of something much deeper which is that the only context we are viewing this war in is a military context. We are not viewing it in a human context, not in the context necessary.
That context is that this war has killed, according to Brown University's Cost of War Project, which is very analytically conservative, at least 160,000 Afghans. We are not considering that.
A lot of newsrooms, after Black Lives Matter, reevaluated the ways in which they had been previously treating what police departments said about protests and about executions of black people as fact. They recognized that that was wrong, and they started working on it, however belatedly, to fix it.
It's time for our colleagues in the industry to do the same thing, with generals, with intelligence officials, and with people from the security apparatus who served the war on terror, who were custodians for it who bear a measure of responsibility for it. Because those are the people they put on TV and hire to analyze it. And it's basically a priesthood grading its own performance.
AVLON: That's an interesting point about reevaluating how we tally the cost of war. Leonard, I want to turn to you now with the upcoming 9/11 anniversary coming this Saturday, because, of course, that's where all of this began. Back in the days you wrote a classic column that channeled the righteous innate outrage.
Now, looking back 20 years later, how do you think it has all played out?
LEONARD PITTS, JR., COLUMNIST, THE MIAMI HERALD: I think it played out in ways that I certainly didn't and I think most of us couldn't have conceived of or predicted 20 years ago, the rise of this anti-Muslim fervor in the country for instance. I knew there would be some, there always is when we have a conflict with a foreign power, foreign nation or religion that some of us perceive as, quote/unquote, foreign. There is always that.
But I did not have any idea it would be an engine of American politics, particularly American conservative politics for 20 years and counting. I think the argument can be made that had there been no 9/11, there might not have been a Donald Trump, who you will recall came to outside vowing I, Donald Trump, call for a complete and immediate shutdown of Muslims coming to the United States. That would have been nonsensical if he had said something like that before September 11.
AVLON: I think Spencer would agree with you with regard to his new book. Of course, also, Donald Trump advocated withdrawing from Afghanistan. Michael, you have been steadfast in carrying the flag from covering 9/11 onward, the people, the cops, the firefighters, the ordinary citizens affected.
Now, I want to ask you whether you think the press and the country might be in danger of some 9/11 amnesia?
MICHAEL DALY, COLUMNIST, THE DAILY BEAST: The thing that just keeps coming back to me is the people who jumped from the towers. If you were standing down on the street and you saw that, it's -- and then came the sound that stays with you forever.
I think the horror of that day is forgotten. I think that the other thing that's forgotten is that each one of those death certificates -- it says "manner of death" then it says homicide. Those were murders. Those were homicides.
And, you know, you can call it an act of war. Pearl Harbor was a military target.
This was not military targets. These were people at work. These were decent --
AVLON: I think we lost Mike here.
DALY: I'm here. I just -- I lost me for a minute.
AVLON: Go on.
DALY: It was -- you got this Khalid Sheik Mohammad, we caught him in 2003. He still hasn't been tried.
I mean, can you imagine if there was a mass murderer and 19 years later, he was not put on trial, what people would be saying? It was a murder case. We made it into something else.
You know, he should not be at Guantanamo. He should be at Rikers Island. See how he did there.
That's why -- I'm sure it's a lot more complicated and there's a lot more to it. If you were there and standing on that sidewalk and saw those people jump and heard the sound when they hit and saw human beings instantly disappear and become something else, you would feel that way about it.
And one guy I was talking to -- there was a great fireman named Kevin Dowdell (ph) who was murdered at the Trade Center. His son Patrick was 18. He went on to West Point, and then became an officer and he served in Afghanistan.
He watched the footage of the people clinging to the planes. He was the first person who said to me that reminded him of the people jumping because they were so desperate because they were clinging to those planes.
We ended up with bodies falling out of the clear blue sky, yet again. I mean, this thing starts with people jumping out of the Trade Center and then we got to these people falling off of these airplanes. And it's not over still.
It's not over because we didn't really look at it, and we didn't really deal with it. And we didn't really say, all right, what didn't we do to stop this? What didn't we do that we should have done?
We're not doing that. It's like everybody is trying to walk away from it.
AVLON: We shouldn't walk away from it. We are not walking away from it, not really.
Michael Daly, Leonard Pitts, Spencer, Ayesha, thank you very much. It's a very difficult but important conversation.
Coming up, we're going to lead to a lead NYU researcher whose team discovered scathing new data about the spread of misinformation on Facebook, despite being deplatformed by the company. That's next.
AVLON: Now to a broadcast exclusive. A major new study about misinformation on Facebook. New York University's Cybersecurity for Democracy Effort looked into how platform users engaged with thousands of news sources during a five-month period encapsulating the 2020 presidential election.
And here's what they found: misinformation got six times more clicks than factual news. Let me repeat that. Six times more clicks than real news. And get this: misinformation makes up the vast majority of overall engagement with far right posts, 68 percent of far right posts, to be exact. That's compared to 36 percent of posts from the far left.
Researchers found no evidence that Facebook intentionally rewards misinformation but they do argue that Facebook hampered their analysis. With some of these NYU researchers behind the study and another effort to collect and study political ads from the platform were even completely deplatformed last month.
With me now is the lead NYU researcher behind this project, Laura Edelson.
Laura, it's good to talk to you. You say that misinformation on Facebook is partisan agnostic. So, help us understand the disparity between the amount of misinformation being disseminated on the far right and the far left.
LAURA EDELSON, LEAD RESEARCHER, CYBERSECURITY TO DEMOCRACY AT NYU: Hi, John. Thanks for having me.
So, what we found is that while Facebook appears to be partisan agnostic, it equally promotes -- or I should say, rather, misinformation of all partisan stripes out engages more factual content of a similar partisan orientation. What we do find is that these ecosystems are just fundamentals different.
The far right media ecosystem has a much higher share of sources of misinformation, 40 percent n fact. In other corners of the media ecosystem and other partisan groups, this number doesn't go above 10 percent.
AVLON: Forty percent of media sources on the far right are misinformation-laden --
AVLON: -- compared to less than 10 percent in the center and left and center left.
Now, listen, you know, Facebook will say that this is just a tiny sliver of overall. It doesn't measure real reach. But their attempts to sort of down play your insights and studies does seem to fly in the face of the fact that you and your NYU researcher colleagues found is your selves deplatformed apparently in retaliation for your research.
So, what can you tell us about why it happened and where it stands?
EDELSON: So, Facebook has said that their actions against us relate to a separate project, that they relate to our browser extension ad observer that allows users to anonymously share ads they are shown on Facebook back with us. We think this just doesn't make sense because among other reasons Facebook's actions against us haven't taken -- they haven't stopped our browser extension at all. Our browser extension still works, ad observer. You can go and download it right now.
But what it has stopped is work like this -- work into political ads more generally, work into non-ad content on Facebook. We couldn't even replicate this study ourselves right now if we tried.
Well, one other aspect of your findings is that literally thousands of posts around the January 6th Capitol attack went missing from CrowdTangle, the tool that you and your colleagues rely on in the studies. Has this been fixed, do you know, and what are the implications from the January 6 commission investigation?
EDELSON: So, Facebook says that this bug has been fixed.
Unfortunately, because my account has been suspended, I have no way of verifying this. Frankly, if I were the January 6 commission, I would be really concerned, because one thing I know, because we did report this bug, is that Facebook didn't seem to know that it happened. And it took several rounds with them to get them to acknowledge the full scope of this. Frankly, I'd be worried they don't know what's going on in their own systems.
AVLON: Laura, thank you very much for this important new report.
EDELSON: Thanks, John.
AVLON: Up next, a deep dive into Congressman Devin Nunes' bullying tactics towards the press. We got GOP strategist Liz Mair sharing her experience fighting Nunes in court twice, after this.
AVLON: Using the courts to bully the press and his critics. That's a reputation that former House Intelligence Committee Chairman and Trump ally Devin Nunes seems to be trying to build.
In two and a half years, the California congressman and his family have launched at least eight defamation suits against journalists, media companies, and even some Twitter uses, including one unanimous handle supposedly run by his cow, which is utterly ridiculous.
Nunes and his family's suits have requested nearly $500 million in damages. In most cases, have been dismissed or withdrawn, but some remain active. Like Nunes lawsuit against CNN, which was dismissed but remains under appeal.
But with all these lawsuits, which can typically cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees, it begs the question, how is a congressman who makes about $174,000 a year paying for all this?
And it's worth nothing that unlike congressmen who could self-fund these suits, Nunes' own assets are valued in a range between $145,000 and $350,000, according to his latest financial disclosure. It is a fair and important question.
But a curious twist that came to light recently amid a lawsuit between journalist Ryan Lizza and Nunes' family. Nunes himself has sued Lizza for defamation, but while that case was dismissed, then Nunes appalled, one suit brought by his family members went.
Lizza's attorneys sought to compel Nunes family to provide this information, saying that they failed to answer questions regarding who is paying for these lawsuits, which calls into question who is the true party of interest in this case.
Now, "Business Insider" uncovered a poor redacted version of this filing which shows that Nunes' own brother says he has, quote, no idea who is paying for that lawsuit. An insider reports that lawyers for Hearst, which published the article and Lizza wrote that members of Nunes's family paid just $500 to their attorneys for the suit.
While the mystery around the funding of Nunes family's lawsuits continues, a larger one remains, how is Congressman Nunes funding his own lawsuits?
Because early in 2020, the Campaign Legal Center filed a complaint at the Office of Congressional Ethics asking for investigation into how Nunes lawsuits are funded.
In a statement to CNN, a senior director of ethics at CLC said congressional rules are clear, that lawmakers cannot receive free legal services unless the source and amount are publicly disclosed. All the known facts show that Representative Nunes is accepting free legal services and he has not publicly provided any evidence to dispute this.
All that is to say we don't know who might be funding these suits. It could be Nunes. It could be that his lawyer, Steven Biss, is representing him with the expectation of receiving contingency fees if Nunes wins. Or it could be an unknown third party which would raise ethical questions for Nunes.
What's clear is that there are big questions both in and out of court about how Nunes is able to sustain this legal campaign to supposedly silence or intimidate the media and his perceived critics.
We reached out to Nunes and his lawyer Biss for comment of this story on Friday. Both parties did not respond to those requests.
But in the big picture, make no mistake. This kind of law fair against journalists is on the rise, forcing the free press and sometimes individual journalists to spend money defending itself in court, the intended goal to have a chilling effect. It's a strategy often deployed by Russian oligarchs, to silence unfavorable media coverage, particularly in the U.K., and, of course, Donald Trump's own campaign deployed similar tactics.
Now, in deposition for Ryan Lizza lawsuit, lawyers for Hearst saying Nunes regaled about the legal strategy to employ a nationwide assault on journalist and media organizations. "Business Insider" also claims that in the poorly redacted filing, Nunes said, now my policy is and I have a new policy, that if you defame or slander me, I will take you to court.
Joining me now to discuss all this is Republican strategist Liz Mair. She's been named in two of Nunes' lawsuits, both of which were dismissed. And NPR's media correspondent, David Folkenflik. It's good to have you both on this important topic.
Liz, many could describe these suits as SLAP suits, which stands for strategic lawsuits against public participation.
Given your experience, do you consider these tactic a form of harassment?
LIZ MAIR, COMMENTATOR SUED BY REP. DEVIN NUNES: I'm not sure I would necessarily say harassment, I guess partly because I would have to feel a little bit more personally put upon here than what I myself have. With that being said, I think it's pretty clear what Congressman Nunes is doing here is he is trying to use litigation as a cudgel to stifle my free speech and that of others. I emphasize "try" because he has been unsuccessful in doing so, as far as I'm concerned.
My view on this is that the First Amendment gives me a right to speak out and be critical of politicians, and I intend to use that rightfully.
Free speech is fundamental in this society.
AVLON: It is indeed fundamental. I want -- just give a quantified sense of how much these suits cost you in terms of time and money?
MAIR: Yes, so in terms of money, I'm very fortunate that I have pro bono representation here, and that has minimized how much this has cost me. I can't give you a hard dollar figure partly because I'm actually waiting on an invoice to come through from one of my Councils on this.
What I will say is that when I initially talked to people after I found out that he would be suing me, this was in the $250 million lawsuits, there are two, that one in the $150 million lawsuits.
I was told that likely just to get to the point of discovery, probably in that lawsuit just to get through that, probably would have cost me something in the range of 50 to $60,000, so obviously, that's a fairly substantial amount.
And I think that's relevant here because ultimately, I have gone ahead with this, and I have fought this, and I have refused to shut up and have my free speech stifled. But I think there are a lot of other people out there who would be really daunted and really fearful about that amount and instead would prefer to shut up and would prefer to stay silent and not be critical of elected officials.
AVION: That is the risk. David, you've been sued unsuccessfully, based on your reporting around the baseless Seth Rich conspiracy theory by a defendant, represented by Nunes' lawyer, Steven Best. What's your sense of his lawyer's methods and practices?
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, MEDIA CORRESPONDENT, NPR NEWS: Well, you described it as being possibly falling under the idea of slap us. I think this is what critics would call him at times slipshod.
He -- if you look at the public record, he was admonished formally by a judge for claiming to represent more than 100 clients that had no idea that he was making it on their behalf, that he is representing them, by a judge in a case involving City Court. And by the State Bar of Virginia for a significant stretch, a real rebuke in that one.
And in my case, my case formally was settled. What was the settlement? Well, the settlement was that NPR didn't yield on a single paragraph with my reporting. It stood by me and by the reporting more important, but it agreed not to pursue over $60,000 worth of our legal costs.
We undertook to prove that a number of claims -- factual claims made by Best and his co-counsel lawyer named Ty Clevenger, on behalf of their client were untrue, that is that they essentially presented lies as part of their legal briefs.
We prove they weren't true, he would have had to pay our legal fees, and thus their client withdrew from the case agreed never to raise these claims against us again.
So, you know, those are pretty significant missteps by an attorney, even if he did withdraw before the end of the trial.
AVLON: Certainly. So, David, given that the Nunes family statement under oath, saying they don't know who's paying for the suit. Hearst lawyers on behalf of Ryan Lizza have asked the Iowa Judge, in that case, to determine exactly who is paying for this suit. Why is this decision so critical for the future of the First Amendment?
FOLKENFLIK: I think, you know, for fairness and transparency, it's important to understand who's backing such litigation, particularly when so many judges for Congressman Nunes's legal filings have found them to be frivolous or without merit without standing.
And the question is, why are they being filed? Who is trying to take advantage of Nunes's litigiousness to perhaps pursue an agenda against the press?
I think it's worth pointing out that we live in an era where at least two sittings Supreme Court Justices have a signal desire to revisit the standing of what's called Sullivan v. New York Times, which is a ruling, you know, more than a half-century old, that essentially makes it much tougher for public officials to successfully sue the press for defamation of character libel, slander, in order to ensure a robust discussion of issues of public interest.
And I think, you know, there are those particularly on the conservative side who would seek to revisit that use these cases as bludgeons against the press, and also seek to essentially weaken the ability of the press to hold public officials accountable.
AVION: Listen, David, we're going to have to leave it there for now, thank you.
Coming up. The changing of the guard at the world's largest news agency, the AP's new Top Editor, Julie Pace, joins us for her first one-on-one after the break.
AVLON: Welcome back. The Associated Press just got a new top editor. Julie Pace is taking the reins from Sally Busby, making her the third consecutive woman in the top slot. Pace has lead the AP's Washington bureau since 2017, bolstering the outlet's fact-checking initiatives and election explainers, which she plans to expand in her new role.
Joining us now for her first one-on-one as the Associated Press Executive Editor, Julie Pace. Julie, Congratulations, first of all.
JULIE PACE, SENIOR VICE PRESIDENT AND EXECUTIVE EDITOR, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS: Thank you.
AVLON: You know, the challenges facing the news industry and the AP's unique role, what changes do you intend to bring to the AP?
PACE: Well, it definitely is a time of challenge still for our industry, and there were a couple of things I would say about you know where I hope to take the AP.
First of all, you know, we're really going to lean into what I think is our core strength, which is breaking news, both covering the biggest news that is developing from around the world but also really striving to set the agenda.
We have Pulitzer-winning investigative coverage, just incredibly talented and courageous journalists all over the world. So, more breaking news to come for the AP.
We're also going to focus on how our audience and our customers and their audiences are going to interact with our journalism in a new digital forward world.
But one thing I really want to emphasize here is that AP is going to continue to be the world's preeminent fact-based news organization. I think it's really crucial that we are playing a role in amplifying facts, particularly in a time when there is so much disinformation out there. AVION: No question about, facts first. Now, one unique thing that I think AP does is against the backdrop of a lot of local newspapers across America closing their doors, and you've got reporters in every state capitol.
But my question to you is, given the Texas State Legislature being in the news -- there was a lot of coverage about the voter suppression bills, there was not as much cover about the abortion restriction bills until it passed and was made into law.
How do you -- what does that tell you about these dueling imperatives, and how to keep the focus on two important stories at once out of a local but nationally market in terms of its implications for the country and being picked up by other legislatures?
PACE: Well, I think it speaks to the importance of the AP continuing to be in the state capitals where you know, I can only speak for our coverage of the bills in Texas, but we were doing both. We were both covering the voting bills and the politics around that.
But we were also covering the abortion bill back when it passed originally and was signed into law, and then in the lead up to the Supreme Court ruling.
And so it is really imperative for the AP to continue to be in the state capitals on the ground, particularly with some of the declines that we've seen in local news. We feel like it's really important for us to continue to amplify what's happening across this country.
AVLON: I do think that's one of the AP's unique and important roles. And in that spirit too, I want you to tell us what your reporters have been doing covering the continuing impact of Hurricane Ida in small towns across the country? Because once the storm passes, as we know, now the story isn't over, highlight some of your reporters.
PACE: It's absolutely not over. And look, I really want to call out our courageous team that is on the ground covering the fallout of this storm because they're not just covering the news, they are also experiencing in a lot of ways the impact of this storm on their own lives.
And that's one of the most difficult things I think to do in this business, to both maintain your focus on the story even while you are in some ways part of the story because you live there.
And so, there's obviously been a lot of focus on New Orleans and what we want to do though, is focus on the places around New Orleans.
Some of -- as you mentioned, some of these smaller communities that are going to be living with damage from the storm for some time to come. We want to make sure that we're not turning our eyes away from this.
This is going to be a continuing story for us, and again, that's a huge credit to our staff that lives in the -- in these communities and really know firsthand, you know, what it's like to deal with the impact of these types of natural disasters.
AVLON: No question. Local journalism is the lifeblood of journalism. Julie Pace, thank you very much, and congratulations.
PACE: Thank you.
AVLON: Now, before we go, RELIABLE SOURCES tribute the legendary Willard Scott, longtime weatherman for NBC's Today show, who sadly passed away this week at 87.
Scott was known for his buoyant larger-than-life personality and his feature wishing fans a happy 100th birthday. He was in Today's staple for more than three decades and as his successor Al Roker tweeted, he was America's weatherman.
Coming up, filmmaker and documentarian, Ken Burns is here to discuss his upcoming series on Muhammad Ali, and why Ali's life and legacy have such relevance right now?
AVLON: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES, I'm John Avlon.
In the middle of this non-stop news cycle, I want you to pan out for a second with documentarian, Ken Burns. He's known for telling stories from America's past that reminds us of our shared legacy, all to guide us going forward.
And now he has new insights to share as he prepares to debut his new PBS series about the life and legacy of Muhammad Ali, and why exploring the legendary boxer's larger fight for justice and unity remains so important to us today. Take a listen.
KEN BURNS, PRODUCER/DIRECTOR, "MUHAMMAD ALI": This is the story about a man who intersected with all of the most important issues of the second half of the 20th century.
A man who was the greatest athlete of the 20th century without a question who intersects with what the role of sports is, with what the role of race is, about the discussion of politics, and war, and faith and all of these things.
He redefined black manhood. And all of a sudden, in our moment, right now, he seems incredibly relevant.
AVLON: And one of the contemporary themes that jump out, and you're right, your films have a tendency to somehow surf the new cycle, despite being planted a decade out.
Is that -- in being so uncompromisingly himself, and really upsetting the white power structure of the time and the process that he is in effect on cancelable, he is -- there's so many attempts to cancel Muhammad Ali, from the attempts of sort of visually jury-rigging and Louisville courthouses to punish him for not refusing to take part in the draft to his unbelievable sort of defiance after defeating Sonny Liston of joining the Nation of Islam, which really had very little to do with Islam but really was a black supremacist or separatist cult at the time.
And yet, through his talent and his charm and his perseverance, he transcends all of that. He is uncancelable.
BURNS: Yes, you know, he's uncancelable. And the secret weapon is a four-letter word that the FCC allows you and me to use, but we don't because it's so uncomfortable. We don't know how to talk about it. There's a wonderful photograph of Ali in the Fifth Street gym training -- it's Cassius Clay, then training for his fight with Sonny Liston in '64.
BURNS: The Beatles invasion has happened, and who shows up on the second floor of the Fifth Street gym, but John, Paul, George, and Ringo. And there's a fake shot of him punching John, and they're all going over like dominoes. It's a wonderful shot.
But you realize that there are five men in that room who understand what the real story is. Perhaps, Paul wrote it best when he said the love you take is equal to the love you make.
Muhammad Ali understood it, and that transcends all of these dialectics of our on-off, yes-no, black-white, red-blue, rich-poor, gay-straight world that we live in.
These people were transcended, and no one more so than Mohammed Ali. And so when you think about all that brashness, you're also missing what we were able to dig up after years of research, are these incredibly well-spoken out of -- seemingly out-of-character moments.
When the Supreme Court exonerates him essentially, lets him go on a technicality from his prison term, he's asked about the system, and he could have been bragging, he could have said, yes, we won, it was unanimous, whatever.
He didn't. He said, I don't know who's going to be assassinated tonight, I don't know who's going to be denied justice or equality.
He's looking back at 350 years of the treatment of blacks in America. He's thinking about Emmett Till, who is his own age, whose -- was brutally tortured and murdered and his mother had the courage to leave the casket open, so all including a young and impressionable Cassius Clay could see it and change his life.
And so, Muhammad Ali, you know, we don't surf the current news cycle, we have our heads down, nose to the grindstone trying to tell a story, but are always confident that when we finish, and we think we've told a story well, and with a great deal of complexity, and as you see, with all the warts all we don't -- we hold his feet to the fire for his feelings, his unfaithfulness, to at least three of his wives, his abandonment of Malcolm X and his belittling of Joe Frazier in the most racist terms, nonetheless, this is a man who grew, who was an avatar, a prophet of love.
He could have been anything any new from a very early age, John, that he had a mission, and that was much bigger than boxing. And you know, when he died, he died the most popular person on the planet, which, by the way, is not a bad thing for any of us to try to head towards.
AVLON: It's not in the fact that he redefined what it meant to be an American, and a Muslim, and a black man in the eyes of his fellow countrymen in the world is so powerful. And that's one of the many messages of this extraordinary film.
You've made the point in terms of the quest for unity, that at the end of the day, Americans usually can rally together when something catastrophic has occurred. Sometimes that's what's required to focus it on our underlying humanity.
And yet, the attack on the Capitol on January 6 does not seem to have united us instead, there is remains an effort to rewrite even that recent history.
So, what hope do you have about a path forward when we have not been able to unite around an attack on our capital, the worst of the first since the war of 1812?
BURNS: Yes, I -- it's terrifying. This is one of the great crises along with the Civil War, the depression, and the second World War that we have in large measure because things fall apart, the center cannot hold, mere entropy is loosed upon the world.
As William Butler -- he wrote it's a -- it's a terrifying consideration. A lot of it has to do with the platforms of information that promote. It's in their interest to do that.
If you get your news from one echo chamber, you're in dangerous trouble risking now in the midst of this Coronavirus, the law -- your own life and the lives of the people you love the most, and your friends and your community.
You know, where -- we've always wrestled with the idea of freedom in the United States. That's our story. Muhammad Ali is entirely about that. All he wanted was to be free. He said, I got my freedom and I never lost sense of the folks that I was representing. I never left them behind. And that was true and the mark of a real hero.
But let's remember in America, we have to parse freedom. There's freedom, what I want, personal freedom, you know, which is selfish. What I want? I want to do what I want to do.
And there's our collective freedom, what we need. And we have always been our better selves, we have always appealed to our better angels when we have yielded to that collective what we need, rather than what I want. So, when somebody is turned in wearing masks into some anti-freedom statement or taking a vaccine, which will save their lives into some anti-freedom, we've lost the center. The center is not holding, you know, things will fall apart, and I don't think there's any right- thinking American.
We can disagree on how you get things done, how -- what the role of government is that I don't think anybody wants this noble experiment to dissolve just when we have in our grasp the possibilities and the tools with which to solve these things.
And we have looming ahead of us, this huge global threat of climate change that has to be addressed, and we can't now permit the Flat Earth Society any more time.
AVLON: As Ken Burns reminds us, we don't often convince people through argument, we convince people through stories. That's all for this televised edition for RELIABLE SOURCES, probably back next week, but the news coverage never stops on cnn.com. Be well, and Happy Labor Day.