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Reliable Sources

Inside Look at Reporting from Ukraine; More Questions Than Answers After Second CNN Exec Resigns; Fox's Hillary Clinton Obsession May Backfire; The Rise Of Conspiracy Culture. Aired 11-12p ET

Aired February 20, 2022 - 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 figure out what's reliable.

This hour, Hillary Clinton versus Fox. I'm going to show you what Clinton's camp is saying to the network behind the scenes.

Plus, COVID-19 mask mandates are lifting, but what should the press be focusing on now? David Leonhardt joins us live with answers.

And later, mapping out why people believe conspiracy theories. The author of a fascinating new book about flat-earthers is here.

I'll also have all the latest on the shake up here at CNN.

But, first, the media war surrounding Ukraine, Russia, NATO and the U.S. "The Columbia Journalism Review" dubbed it a week of whiplash, with so many claims and counterclaims, partly because the U.S. keeps sharing intel, trying to remove any element of surprise from the Russians.

Today, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Russia is -- Russia's playbook for an invasion is still moving forward. Reporters in the field are seeing signs of that, and evidence is coming from other directions as well, like commercial satellite mapping and crowd sourced video verification.

Here is one of the most interesting media angles right now. TikTok videos of Russian vehicles near Ukraine are one of the ways that anyone can track what's going on, see for themselves. But there's also a whole lot of disinformation and propaganda polluting the air.

So, let's get the story behind the story first from chief international correspondent Clarissa Ward. She joins us now from Kyiv.

Clarissa, great to see you.

Tell us about an example of the confusion or the disinformation that's out there because there are a lot of these amateur videos and crowd sourced content, satellite maps and all this data that we can see, anybody on the Internet, and yet sometimes, your eyes can deceive you. CLARISSA WARD, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, Brian,

it's a difficult story to cover for exactly that reason. I'll give you a most recent example. In the far eastern part of Ukraine and these sort of breakaway pro-Russian separatist republics, they have been describing scenes of carnage with incoming shells from the Ukrainian military. We've not seen anything to back that up in any way.

And on Friday, one of their leaders actually released a video saying everybody needs to evacuate, there's going to be an imminent attack from the Ukrainian military. And then you started to see busloads of people being evacuated to the Russian border.

But when CNN studied the metadata on this video that was released, it turns out that it wasn't recorded on Friday, but it was actually recorded on Wednesday. Now, that does seem like a very strikingly bizarre thing, Brian, if you are recording it on Wednesday, you would assume you would release it immediately. The fact that it was prerecorded and then released at a specific time indicates indeed that there is some kind of premeditated plot here.

And similarly with some of the videos that you're seeing of people being bused to the border, that are playing out on Russian TV screens across the country, with sort of tearful women and old ladies crying about escaping, you know, the carnage inside of these separatist areas, and then on the other hand, you will see glimpses through some of these TikTok videos and other things that you're talking about, the things available on social media, that indicate really highly that these are, in fact, staged.

It's so difficult as a journalist obviously because in any case, you can never take a narrative at face value, you have to try to verify it. But nowadays, we're having to use so many different tools to go about that verification process, and whether that's relying on our investigative team who are looking at the metadata, whether that's relying on people who are on the ground in certain parts of the country who can get a better sense of things --


WARD: -- it all makes the job just that little bit more complex.

STELTER: And best of all, we go there, as you are, and your colleagues are.

We learned about a CNN team and other journalists who are accompanying the Ukrainian interior minister, they came under mortar fire yesterday. The video was airing earlier today here on CNN.

What more can you tell us about this episode? How unusual is this?

WARD: So, this was Katharina Krebs and Alessandro Giantelli (ph), they traveled to the front lines with the Ukrainian foreign minister and they quickly found after he had given some remarks and he left, the interior minister, they came under fire. They came under heavy shelling. They were pinned down for a while. They were, you know, brave enough

in that moment to still gather editorial and to take video that captured the scenes, and then they were quickly evacuated from the area by the Ukrainian military.

And all I would say, Brian, apart from, you know, saluting the bravery of my colleagues, is that we've spent a lot of time down on those front lines and for the last few years, they have been largely frozen.


You might see two or three or four incidents a day of major ceasefire violations, the vast majority of them would take place in the evening. But what you're seeing in the last few days is a significant -- it's a major uptick, a major escalation, and particularly when you're seeing shells landing in -- you know, on civilian buildings, a house.

We visited on Wednesday near the front lines a kindergarten where two shells had hit the -- had hit the area around the kindergarten, hit the kindergarten. And so, for that reason, there is concern here that this could very quickly turn into something really ugly and at a time when many feel you desperately need cooler heads to prevail, you're actually seeing a real heating up along those front lines, which, as I said, had been largely quiet for some years. Yesterday was the highest amount of ceasefire violations in at least three years according to our count.

STELTER: Clarissa, thank you so much for the report from there.

I want to get a perspective on this from a media critic now. David Zurawik is the long time Baltimore sun media critic now a professor at Gaucher College teaching media studies. And today, we're welcoming him to the network in his first role here, his new role here as CNN media analyst.

David, welcome to CNN officially.

I keep hearing after listening to important reporting from folks like Clarissa, I hear these Twitter critics and trolls saying the media is rooting for war. The media wants war.

How do you feel? How do you react to that?

DAVID ZURAWIK, CNN MEDIA ANALYST: Brian, that outrages me and especially after hearing Clarissa's report right now. I don't think the correspondents that CNN has out in the field and I think CNN has more of them than anybody else at that front line, I'll tell you what? I don't think they're wishing for war when there's mortar fire coming in on them.

It's outrageous. It's the wannabe journalists, the wannabe critics sitting back here saying we're rooting for war.

Do you know what? War is not that great a financial inducement at least in the television industry. A lot of sponsors don't want their product being shown during war, for one thing. It's like a natural disaster. And the other thing, to cover war honorably cost a lot of money.

So, for hotdog critics to say, oh, television wants war, the media wants war -- not at the high end. That's not the case with reporters who are out in the field like Clarissa.

STELTER: Furthermore, CNN all the way back in November had reporting from Jim Sciutto and Natasha Bertrand and others saying Russia is making moves here. And some folks didn't believe at the time, but you look back months later, you see those stories were spot on. They were signaling what was coming. Those leaks have been backed up by video evidence and proof we can all see.

David, please stick around, much more with you coming up.

After the break, another shocking resignation here at CNN. I have new reporting about why it happened.

Plus, why Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is talking about the on air attacks from the right. Why she's using the word "libelous".



STELTER: When CNN president Jeff Zucker abruptly resigned earlier this month, people wondered if another shoe was going to drop. Zucker tied his exit to his failure to disclose a romantic relationship with his subordinate, Allison Gollust. But was there more to the story? That's what everybody around the story wondered.

Well, a few days ago, Gollust also resigned and now there are stories swirling about the reasons why. It seems the second shoe has landed. Multiple well-placed sources have told me the situation involves, quote, serious ethical violations.

But Zucker and Gollust's reps have pushed back on that strongly and CNN's parent WarnerMedia is not sharing specifics.

So here is what we do know -- we know that Zucker and Gollust were personally involved in CNN's coverage of Andrew Cuomo, while Cuomo's brother Chris was an anchor here. We know those brotherly interviews at the start of the pandemic were controversial. We know that later on, Chris helped Governor Cuomo and the governor's aides fend off sexual harassment allegations.

We know that Zucker stayed loyal to Chris while critics called for the anchorman to be suspended. And we know that Zucker eventually did suspend and then fire Chris Cuomo in December.

Zucker said he would not pay out the rest of Cuomo's contract. Cuomo's legal team then turned around and said basically, why was he fired for ethical lapses if Zucker and Gollust were guilty of the same thing?

And that's what caused a third-party law firm to ask lots and lots of questions, including about Gollust's interactions with the former governor and Zucker's relationship with Gollust. A lot came out through this third party legal probe.

And on Tuesday, WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar gave some specifics about it, saying in a memo, quote: Based on interviews with more than 40 individuals and a review of over 100,000 texts and emails, the interview found violations of company policies, including CNN's news, standards and practices by Jeff Zucker, Allison Gollust and Chris Cuomo.

News, standards violated -- that's a serious charge but it's vague. What happened?

WarnerMedia is not saying. But on Friday, "The New York Times" and "Wall Street Journal" offered new and in some ways differing details.

"The Journal" said Warner media determined a statement that Gollust gave about her romantic relationship with Zucker was misleading, suggesting that it started before COVID, years ago. They basically said she misled CNN viewers. But Gollust's spokesperson doubled down on the timeline she presented and hinted she might sue Warner.

"The Times" story came out a few minutes later and offered a different explanation, suggesting the standards violation had to do with Gollust's communication with Governor Cuomo. She briefly worked for him before joining CNN, and she was, according to her own representative, the personal booker for Governor Cuomo during the early days of the pandemic.


In one case, "The Times" said, the governor told Cuomo what he would like to be asked about on air and she passed along the topics and replied to Cuomo and said done.

The investigators clearly reviewed many other emails too, but none of those have come out. Gollust's defense is that newsmakers tell shows what they want to talk about all the time, and that's true. It does not mean the hosts are going to ask about it or limit the interview to those topics.

I think this next part is probably the most important. This weekend, I have spoken with multiple anchors who interviewed the governor here on CNN and none of them saw signs of interference. This material about Gollust surprised them.

But it is definitely unusual that the head of PR was involved in booking Cuomo and relaying information back and forth. Gollust's spokesperson says, quote, this was well-known by the entire network.

But that's not true. It came as a surprise to many staffers who read about it in "The New York Times." And the fact that this is dripping out that way, it's dripping out through leaks, that adds to the frustration inside CNN.

I've been pushing for more details about these violations. Other reporters have been pushing too. That's what reporters do. Who knows if any more information will come out? But "The Journal" story and "The Times" story, they don't necessarily

conflict. This all may be of a piece. The answer to the question may be all of the above.

And there's one piece of this that's indisputable. That's what Kilar wrote on this memo on Tuesday. He said, quote: We have the highest standards of journalistic integrity at CNN and those rules must apply to everyone equally.

That's the point. That's the principle. And according to the company, that's why two top CNN executives are out.

Here to discuss this in detail now, Joe Peyronnin, a former president of Fox News, former vice president of CBS News, and an adjunct journalism professor at NYU.

Also here, Mara Schiavocampo, former ABC and NBC correspondent, host of the "Run Tell This" podcast.

And David Zurawik is back with us as well.

Joe, you've been closer to situation like this, running networks. Unpack it for us. After reading these statements this week, hearing about violations of news standards, and then reading these two different newspaper accounts, what do you think is going on here?

JOE PEYRONNIN, FORMER FOX NEWS PRESIDENT: The first thing is there's nothing more important than -- to the brand than the credibility of the organization when you are in news, and you must do everything you can to maintain that credibility. In fact, all the news organizations have standards and practices, all the major news organizations.

We at CBS, we at Fox even had them where you cannot even do anything that appears to be a conflict of interest. You are also to fully disclose anything that could be considered a conflict of interest to management.

Let me back up by saying that Jeff Zucker was one of the best executive producers I have ever seen in the business. He was a hell of a competitor when he was at NBC and I was at CBS News. He, really, I thought, was a great leader.

And I don't know Allison at all, other than informally, but I would say that there were some mistakes made here for sure, because if you adhere to the point that there can't even be the perception of a conflict of interest, you've made a mistake if you allow a relationship to continue, you're trying to run a news organization. And also if you're coordinating with a candidate or a governor or a president and you're trying to allow information to pass through channels that are suspicious, and that would be, why would you go through a marketing person or a promotion person?

STELTER: Well, they would say it's because she used to work for him, she knew him well, she was the best equipped to get the bookings that we needed. That's -- that would be the argument, right? That she's just using her connections to benefit CNN. PEYRONNIN: But doesn't that lead to a perception possibly that there

could be a conflict where we're trying to help Cuomo out here?

So I say avoid that and that's what should have happened. So, I think mistakes were made and I don't know all the details.



PEYRONNIN: But from what I do know -- but from what I do know I think ultimately, what has happened here was what's best for CNN.

STELTER: Mara, we've been tracking this for months. You and I talked about this the weekend Cuomo was fired -- Chris Cuomo was fired. If Zucker just put him on a leave of absence, maybe none of this would have happened. How do you register what's happened now this week?

MARA SCHIAVOCAMPO, FORMER ABC AND NBC CORRESPONDENT: Yeah. You know, Gollust is accused of a, quote, serious violations but when you look at the information, her communications with the governor, that doesn't come close to being unethical or even unusual. It is extremely common for interview subjects to request that you talk about certain things, and it is also common for people to grant them that. It's a common courtesy.

Now, what would be unethical would be, say, making the interview conditional on those things, agreeing not to ask about certain things, specifically when it comes to politicians, giving them the opportunity to vet questions in advance or weigh in on the final product. But what Gollust is being accused of is not the, quote, serious violation that you would expect that would lead to a fireable offense or being forced out.


So, there have been -- since the very beginning, there have been questions about whether there's more. Maybe we don't know the full story yet and that is, in fact, what happened with Chris Cuomo. Initially, it seemed like there were minor transgressions and then it came out that there was a lot more to the story.

So, perhaps there's more here, too. As you noted, though, why is it coming out in these drips, in this leak form, and why is it just not fully presented to the staff at CNN and also to the public?

So the question is, were these fireable offenses or were these minor technicalities that should have been handled in another way?

STELTER: Well, to your point, why is this all not being shared? Maybe for legal reasons, right? I was told by a source that Zucker can't comment further on the substance of why he left when he did and what happened. Maybe that's because of some legal agreement.

Wouldn't that make sense, Joe, in situations like this? Everybody is lawyered up. Chris Cuomo might sue. Cuomo's lawyer apparently wants tens of millions of dollars out of this network.

So, this is now a legal mess for CNN.

PEYRONNIN: This is a legal mess for CNN and absolutely they want to be careful about what they share because everything that goes public ends up -- could be used in a lawsuit. And Cuomo is after $40 million or something like that.

In terms of Allison and in terms of sharing questions and all of that, we don't know everything that was shared. We don't know what was said, what Cuomo, the governor, said to her.

To avoid that, why have her in the process knowing that she was working with him? Why even have her in the process? Why not have somebody deal directly, a producer instead, with Cuomo?

Let me also add, that we do have rules about interviews in all the major networks and they do not allow you to share questions, they do not allow you to take any questions from the -- whoever the subject is. You can certainly mention the subject area, we're going to talk about Syria, we're going to talk about New York politics, but you cannot provide questions.

That's -- that is a rule because you want -- you don't want anything to damage potentially the quality of the interview.

STELTER: Now we are in a situation where maybe everything has come out, maybe we found out everything, or maybe there's more and frankly we just don't know and that's frustrating for CNN staffers as well as fans of this network.

Zurawik, my question to you, how much damage has all of this, you know, the Cuomo brothers, his resignation, how much damage has this done to CNN?

DAVID ZURAWIK, CNN MEDIA ANALYST: Yeah, that's my question. You know, looking at all the war coverage this week and the job CNN is doing, people risking their lives out there at the front lines, made me think back to CNN, all the way back to the Gulf War and all the great kinds of reporting it brings to the American public.

And I hope, I really hope that this -- this situation and the continued conversation about it, it's an important story and it needs to be reported at the intensity it's being reported at, but I hope it doesn't wind up leaving CNN a badly damaged institution at this time when the merger is going through and there are all these other forces in play. This could damage CNN and that is a real -- that would be -- that would be a journalistic tragedy, I think, given the media ecosystem in which we now live and the few sources that bring us information worldwide that we can trust.

STELTER: David, thank you. To the panel, everybody, please stick around, much more in a moment.

The right wing media scandal that wasn't. We're going to unpack that. We'll talk with a top Hillary Clinton confidant. Plus, why we haven't seen or heard the last of Sarah Palin versus "The

New York Times."



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

Last week, the right wing media spin machine went no overdrive because of this legal filing, this vague legal filing by special counsel John Durham. This legal filing pointed to Internet traffic that may have been linked in some ways to the Clinton campaign and it became this alleged scandal all across Fox and Breitbart and the right wing web, all these shouts that Trump, Donald Trump was spied on by the Clinton campaign.

Those shouts were not based in reality. And by the end of the week, they really fell apart under fact-checking and even under Durham's own cleanup effort.

But during that week on Fox, this was covered -- I don't want to just say extensively, it was recovered ferociously. We added up the mentions of Durham throughout the week, we came up with more than 600 mentions of Durham and of this so-called scandal.

All of it really focusing, targeting on Hillary Clinton, that candidate, that former candidate that Fox just can't quit.

So, with that in mind I got an email overnight that I want to share with you. This is from -- this is an email exchange between a Fox producer, actually a Fox editor, and Philippe Raines, a long-time Clinton confidant.

Let me show you this because it gives you a sense of what Clinton world is thinking about Fox, maybe you will agree or maybe you'll disagree. This email is a request for comment, a pretty standard request of comment from a Fox digital editor, saying, hey, we'd like to request a short interview with you, talk about your reaction to the recent headlines regarding the alleged surveillance of Trump's team.

So, again, rooted on a lie, but they're asking for an interview. So, it's good they asked for an interview.

Here was the response from Philippe Reines, he said: I don't do TV anymore. But he said, what the right is doing right now with its insanely overwrought and hysterical reaction to the most recent Durham filing will be a case study in yet another plunge deeper into the abyss.

Fox and others like it pretended it's providing information nobody else is covering. The audience is made to feel they are in on a secret, that only they are over-informed and the rest of us live in a bubble devoid of inconvenient truths.

Philippe went on to say, you know that's BS. The distinction in coverage is in two interrelated ways, truthfulness and volume. Those covering it truthfully have looked at it factually and given it the appropriate time. Those treating their audience like fools to buy anything sold to them are being inundated with it. So, what did the Fox editor say in response? He said I'm going to request a write-up on this. We're going to get it up on the website.

I'm also -- I think these are the channel will most likely pick up and air portions of it, meaning Philippe's e-mail. We're going to quote this on TV, we're going to air this on the website, that's what the fox staffer said but that was days ago and none of those comments from Philippe Reines have appeared on Fox, they haven't shown up on the website, as far as I can tell, either.

So it's another example of how the Fox machine works. They obsessed over Hillary Clinton all week talking about this being bigger than Watergate, trying to cover every supposed angle, then when the Clinton camp actually has something to say when one of Clinton's former senior aides has something really interesting to say, they ignored it. In fact, Fox dropped off its Clinton covers by the end of the week. Right around the time she attacked Fox in his speech and said the network was coming close to actual malice, a legal term that people usually use when they're thinking of suing someone.

Adrienne Elrod is familiar with this Fox machine firsthand. She's the former director of strategic communication for Hillary for America. She's the Democratic strategist who was a regular on Fox back in 2017, but it's been some time since she's appeared on the network and she's here with me now. Adrienne, why did you decide to stop appearing on Fox?

ADRIENNE ELROD, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Well, you know, Brian, first of all, thank you so much for having me on today and I'm glad that you read Philippe's e-mail in full because it really does paint the picture of what the Clinton campaign and Hillary Clinton as a person has been dealing with for a long time when it comes to Fox News.

And the -- look, you know, I thought, you know, Brian, after Trump won in 2016 that perhaps you know some of us who were senior aides on Hillary Clinton's campaign going on Fox News and trying to you know, have a dialogue, ongoing dialogue with the viewers would make some sort of difference.

And I soon learned very quickly that it just simply wasn't going to happen. You know, I looked at the topics that I often got about four to five minutes before I would go on air. And no other network was covering some of these topics because they weren't newsworthy, because they were conspiracy theory-driven, very much related to what we're -- the topic that we're talking about today.

And it became that much harder to go on and even have a, you know, quasi serious conversation because, again, the topics that I was given were oftentimes about Hillary Clinton, who, of course, at that time had retreated into private life.

And secondly, they were incomplete diversions from all of Trump's problems as President. So I decided soon, after, you know, maybe going on for about eight, nine months in 2017, this just simply wasn't working. And the network was not even trying to have their "fair and balanced coverage," which they still like to tout.

STELTER: So this is the tension the Democratic strategists feel. And in the case of Clinton, there's constant talk on Fox, I think fantastical dream we've thought that she's going to run for President again in 2024. Would you like to address that? What would you say to that?

ELROD: I think Hillary Clinton's made it very clear that she's not running for President in 2024. But look, Brian, you cover this constantly and I'm so glad that you do. If Hillary Clinton, if there's even one tiny inkling that she might run for public office again, Fox News is going to grasp onto that and they're going to cover it. Why? Because she drives ratings.

Driving ratings means driving advertising dollars, which means more revenue for the network. So the very thought that she or even her husband, Bill Clinton, won't be running for office again, drives them absolutely crazy because they need to try to find some narrative, some line of -- you know, of news reporting that they can use to try to keep their name in the news so they can drive advertising dollars into their network.

STELTER: And they talk about Hillary the spy while they ignore Trump's classified documents scandal. Adrienne, thank you very much for being here.

ELROD: Exactly.

STELTER: Let me bring the panel back with you --

ELROD: Thanks, Brian.

STELTER: Mara Schiavocampo's here, Joe Peyronnin and David Zurawik. Joe, you are former President of Fox News, you left, raise Roger Ailes came in and it became a cable network in the mid-1990s. But you've you observed Fox up close. Do you recognize the place that you were at in the 90s when you were trying to build a news division for Fox?

PEYRONNIN: Where you did not have a cable news organization, as you pointed out, and when Roger came in as chairman, he asked me to stay on but he asked me if I would agree to go along with creating an alternative news channel, and that was a buzz for me. And Buzz -- I just said I can't get involved in alternatives and I left. I do want to point out one thing though, that this is a business.


PEYRONNIN: This is not about journalism for them. This is about -- as pointed out a moment ago, this is about driving ratings and revenues.


PEYRONNIN: And the way to be able to get ratings from revenues -- and this is a problem throughout the cable news, quite frankly, is that journalism is sort of subordinated to the idea of having to be number one, get the ratings and being able to make money. Fox is making billions of dollars. They've got what, three to 5 million people watching in primetime, that's less than -- that's a 1 percent of the population, but they're able to monetize that. And every time you mentioned -- they Hillary --


PEYRONNIN: -- Or I can name Biden as senile all that stuff, you end up engaging your audience, they stay with you, and that drives your ratings up. So this is a business.

STELTER: Another example of that, is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Let's put onscreen her recent tweet about Tucker Carlson. Carlson was smearing her for a long time on Friday night. She responded by saying I want to know why is Tucker allowed and paid to engage in clear targeted, libelous harassment that endangers people and drives so many violent threats that people have to fundraise for their own safety that they have to fundraise to protect themselves.

David Zurawik, your reaction to this? People on every side, in the public space, get threats, Tucker Carlson's family gets threats, but AOC's point is these you know, individuals that he goes after who don't have the resources Tucker has, they end up feeling endangered, and she's using the word libelous. What do you read into that, David?

ZURAWIK: You listen, I really -- you know, when watching both of these, and I think the attack on Hillary Clinton and the attack on AOC are connected -- is connected. When Fox hosts go after a lot of people, they're creating what Joe talked about, they're creating a narrative, and here's the villain and they get very personal and they want you to hate the villain. But when they do it with women, I thought, well, it gets kind of sexist. No, it's steeped in sexism and misogyny.

In Tucker Carlson, I really think the way he went after AOC is really problematic. And I'm glad, you know, as a journalist I shouldn't be saying, but I'm glad that Hillary Clinton, a lawyer raised the issue of libel and defamation with what Fox does.

I think, you, Brian said this in a Newsletter this week a lot of people on the right are wishing for an attack on Times versus Sullivan and Supreme Court. You said boy, Fox, better watch out if that happens, the right-wing channel. I agree. They are way closer to violating it than anybody else at CNN or even MSNBC.

STELTER: Well, that catches up the Times v. Palin, so this week, the Times prevailed in Times v Palin. But there's a controversy about the judge sharing his ruling before the jury actually weighed in and so now, you know, even more reason why this is going to go to the appeals, there's going to be more and more debate about libel laws to loosen them up.

So, you have Hillary Clinton saying Fox's close to actual malice, you have AOC saying Tucker's libelously harassing me, what is -- what is this environment where you have people now really engaging in legal talk saying, look, remember, there's way, Mara, you don't think Hillary is actually going to sue Fox, right? She's not actually going to sue Fox News.

SCHIAVOCAMPO: No. For Hillary Clinton, to sue Fox News for defamation would be the greatest gift that she could hand to them. And in fact, Sean Hannity says bring it on, he was practically salivating at the prospect because it would be great for their ratings, they would likely win so would be a huge PR victory for them. So I don't think that Clinton is going to invite something like that. But when it comes to all of these cases that we're seeing of public figures exploring avenues like this --


SCHIAVOCAMPO: -- Actual malice, libel defamation, it really brings to the forefront the challenge that public figures have because they don't just have to prove that it's false or that it injured them or damage them in some way, they have to show actual malice, which is an almost impossible standard. Now, that is part of what makes the United States one of the most press-friendly countries in the world, and people can debate about the fairness of that but it really is about protecting the freedom of the press. But we are now seeing some challenges to that.

And there's a really phenomenal article that I would refer people to in the Washington Post today, an opinion piece by a law professor that talks about some of the challenges to these laws, and that these defamation laws were maybe one of the most vulnerable points that we've been in, in decades.

And so it remains to be seen whether this is something that the Supreme Court could reconsider because as Justice Thomas has argued, this is not something that's in the Constitution, actual malice is not listed in the Constitution and so he, at least, is making the case that this should be re-examined because if it's not the Constitution, why is it being applied in this way?

STELTER: Joe a quick note, you and I are both teaching at NYU, teaching journalism. What do you tell your students about this, Joe?

PEYRONNIN: I think that the first thing I say is that there are no consequences. That's a problem. People can say. They can lie. They can do whatever they want. It's like a soapbox in many of the cable news programs. I blame the ownership. I don't want anybody putting legal restrictions in terms of a free press but I do blame the ownership, and I think the ownership if they're saying they have a journalism channel, they ought to make sure that they maintain that.

STELTER: That's a great point. That's why the Zucker story matters from earlier this hour. When I screw it up, I knew I'd hear about it. And that's how it needs to be at a network. You need to make sure you got editorial independence but also oversight so that you don't have these crazy conspiracy theories airing on TV. All right, everybody, thank you very much. Much more RELIABLE SOURCES here in just a moment.


STELTER: You know, at the beginning and the middle of a COVID-19 surge, the news coverage is constant. But as the surge ends, the coverage fades and so does a sense of urgency. There are still many pressing questions but not as much pressing is happening. More blue states are now joining red states in ending masked mandates but there are still all sorts of restrictions in place in big ways and small.

And they should be reconsidered with the same urgency that they were added in the first place otherwise pandemic rules will linger for no good reasons. And that breeds contempt and cynicism, some of the very traits that have hindered the response to COVID-19.

So, what questions to the press be prioritized at this stage in the pandemic? The New York Times senior writer David Leonhardt is here with me now. He writes the Morning Newsletter. And you've got a lot of attention, David, for your comments about COVID lately, some positive attention, some negative, we'll get to that in a second. What question should the press be prioritizing now you think?

DAVID LEONHARDT, SENIOR WRITER, THE NEW YORK TIMES: I think in many ways, it's the same question. It's been important to prioritize all along which is, what's the best way for the largest number of people to stay healthy and to be OK? It's just that, over time, the answer to that question and where we should focus changes. So before we had vaccines really the only way to avoid this terrible virus was to avoid getting it.


LEONHARDT: But vaccines, which have now been widely available in the United States for almost a year, fundamentally change that because they turn COVID into something that's a relatively ordinary illness for the vast majority of people not everyone, but for the vast majority of people. And so I think in addition to --

STELTER: Not ever. Do you find -- do you find that your readers are afraid to hear that? Are there some liberal readers that don't want to hear what you're saying?

LEONHARDT: I mean, I would say that we have some conservative readers who are too hostile to vaccines. I would say we have some conservative readers who reject the idea that masks make no difference. And then to answer your question, yes. I mean, polling bears this out.

If you look at polling, it's clear that many liberals in the United States, many Democratic voters, and particularly younger Democratic voters, are exaggerating their own personal exposure to COVID -- their own personal risk, what would happen if they get it? And I think many of them respond by saying, but yes, I'm doing that for a larger good. I'm -- what I really care about is not hurting vulnerable people, which is a deeply admirable goal.

STELTER: Yes. LEONHARDT: I think what's missing from that are the enormous costs of our mitigations. I'm having kids miss school has a cost, having kids up to stay home for two weeks if they get a positive test has cost, masking has cost.


LEONHARDT: Conservatives don't want to hear that masking makes any effect, it does. Liberals don't want to hear that as costs, masking has costs. And so when you look across American society right now, there are just so many measures of it that are not working well. Vehicle deaths are up, they started rising during the pandemic, mental health problems are up, drug overdoses are way up, suicide attempts are up, learning is down, educational inequality across races and across income groups is up. These are really alarming measures.

And so I understand why many people have a hard time moving on from a total COVID focus. But what we need is a public health focus that includes both COVID and all of these other threats to society.

STELTER: I like the name of that doctor's group, Urgency of Normal, trying to get kids back to normal as quickly as possible. I like that word, urgency. We took urgent steps at the beginning, we need to take urgent steps when we can, as well, to get back to normal.

LEONHARDT: Yes. And so obviously, these are all hard choices, right because as I said, masks, for example, do have some effect. It's not massive, but it has some effect. Um, distancing can have an effect. If we all stayed inside our homes, we would reduce the spread of COVID. You can see that in China, for example. But up -- but you have to balance the two and I worry we're not doing that.

STELTER: You have to balance the two and that's what you're trying to do in your columns and I appreciate it. David, thank you very much for being here and sharing your own time.

LEONHARDT: Brian, thanks for the time.

STELTER: Coming up here, the relationship between black holes and rabbit holes. Kelly Weill is here with a fascinating story.



STELTER: Conspiracy theories have been around as long as human beings have been. The difference now is the internet. Let's take Flat- Earthers and no, the Earth is not flat for the record. In 2019, social media sites began taking some efforts to curb the growth of this bizarre theory. And if you search for flat Earth content on YouTube, you'll see disinformation warnings now. You'll see links to accurate information.

It can be kind of hard to find videos now except those debunking the movement. That's one of the points made in this fascinating new book by Daily Beast reporter and author -- Daily Beast reporter Kelly Weill. The new book is titled Off the Edge, Flat Earthers, Conspiracy Culture, and Why People Will Believe Anything. So of all the conspiracy theories, you could have written about, why did you pick Flat Earth?

KELLY WEILL, REPORTER, THE DAILY BEAST: I think Flat Earth is fascinating because it's proof that people really believed anything that they want to. You can believe a fringe theory about contrails in the sky, but Flat Earth asks you to discard every known fact and replace them with your own.

STELTER: And how many people actually do that? Do you have a sense of how big this is?

WEILL: It's very hard to tell how many Flat-Earthers are because most won't be forthcoming about it. Most are a little private or embarrassed about it. But I've been to Flat Earth conventions that had 600 people there. It's not a small movement.

STELTER: It's not small. And there are links to other conspiracy theories, you know, Q'Anon, etcetera. If you fall down one rabbit hole, is it fair to say you might fall down several?

WEILL: Absolutely. There's a lot of cross-pollination and conspiracy beliefs. That is how they recruit across movements.

STELTER: But as you experience this and explore this and report on this, and you would present people with accurate information, it's not like you convinced a bunch of Flat-Earthers to go on a global trip around the round earth, right?

WEILL: No. No such luck. I've met some people who've de-converted, but it's actually pretty hard to talk people out of beliefs that they are really dead set on holding.

STELTER: So then, how do you get people to a conspiracy off-ramp? Is there such a thing?

WEILL: It's difficult and it requires the conspiracy theorists to be somewhat open to changing their minds. But I found that compassionate discussion rather than tense debate and trying to prove someone wrong. I found that that often welcomes people back into reality.

STELTER: To compassionate conversation. And didn't that applies to other conspiracy theories as well?

WEILL: Yes, and no, there are some theories that I think are a bit more hateful. And in those cases, it's hard to have that sort of discussion with someone. It's hard to open your heart like that. But I do think generally, seeing someone as a person and understanding why they came to believe that way helps them to understand where you're coming from.


STELTER: Right. And when you're writing about a topic like this that's from another planet so to speak, do you ever start to wonder yourself? Do you like, wait is the Earth -- is the Earth really flat? Like is it -- did you start to wonder, did you start to believe it ever?

WEILL: You know I've seen enough of the round earth that I have never really come to question that but it's --


WEILL: I keep an open mind.

STELTER: OK. Well, I learned a lot from your book about why people believe what they believe. I thought this was a fascinating psychological portrayal so thank you for writing it.

WEILL: Thanks for having.

STELTER: Thanks for being here. The book comes out on Tuesday. The title is Off the Edge. We talked about something related to this week's RELIABLE SOURCES podcast. We're getting into COVID-19 vaccine disinformation, who believes what and why? That's the conversation. I highly recommend it. It's on the RELIABLE SOURCES podcast.

Here on CNN later tonight, a big debut for Presidents Day weekend, a new original series about the legacy of Lyndon Baines Johnson. LBJ premieres tonight at 9 p.m. Eastern Time right here on CNN.