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What Really Happened to the Pride of Russia's Fleet?; Is Musk's Twitter Bid About Free Speech Or His Own Ego? Harrowing Story Of A Reporter Detained In Myanmar; Why Is Biden Granting So Few Interviews; Richard Roth Undergoes Successful Kidney Transplant. Aired 11a-12p ET

Aired April 17, 2022 - 11:00   ET



BRIAN STELTER, CNN ANCHOR: Hey, happy Easter and Passover to you and yours. I'm Brian Stelter and this is RELIABLE SOURCES, where we examine the story behind the story, we figure out what's reliable.

This hour, an interview that took my breath away, American journalist Danny Fenster who spent six months in a Myanmar prison now speaking out, revealing what kept him going all that time.

Plus, a whole new meaning to the term tweet storm. What to expect from Elon Musk this week as he tweets his way through a hostile takeover of Twitter.

And, later, political fear factor? Why are Republicans breaking away from the bipartisan presidential debate commission? We haven't even made it to the midterms yet. We're going to get into all of that and more.

But, first, there are big holes in the story about the Moskva, the flagship of Russia's Black Sea fleet, a warship that now rests at the bottom of the sea. It's described as the biggest wartime loss of a naval ship in 40 years, but there's very little vetted information about what happened. There were no reporters, no witnesses when the ship began to sink.

So what we are left with are dueling story lines. With Ukraine claiming to have hit it with anti-ship missiles and Russia trying to say otherwise, claiming a fire broke out on board the warship, that's what caused ammunitions to explode, that's what damaged the vessel and forced the crew to evacuate. A more complicated story, right?

There is no way for news outlets to truly get to the bottom of it. But consider this, the normal crew on the Moskva would have been about 500 sailors, 500. We don't know whether the entire crew was on board when the ship began to sink but we do know that in a free society, family members, neighbors and lawmakers would be demanding answers from the government. Then again, with he also know Russia is not a free society. Even asking questions about this could raise red flags in Moscow.

Now, Russia's ministry of defense did put out some video on Saturday. Here it is, showing dozens of sailors allegedly those who escaped from the Moskva. The number of sailors in this formation is unclear, but it's not 500. And they look remarkably fresh-faced for a group that's just endured a harrowing rescue at sea. Skepticism must be applied very liberally to this.

Now, at least one crew member was reported killed and has been publicly mourned on a Russian social networking site. A widow posted that her husband, quote, fought to his last breath for the life of the ship. So we know that from a stray social media post.

How many more were like him? How many others? In war, so many of the dead are not even counted. In Ukraine right now their stories never even told. Will we ever know the full story of the Moskva or will it be warped by propaganda and the truth never revealed?

Joining me now for more on that, Masha Gessen, staff writer at "The New Yorker" and author of "The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia". Also the author of "Surviving Autocracy", one of the foremost experts about Russia.

Masha, welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES. Thank you for coming on the program.

I think we need to unpack soft of the information wars with regard to this warship, because I'm seeing contradictory messages from Russian state media. On the one hand, this ship was not attacked by Ukraine, there was a fire they claim and that's what went wrong.

On the other hand, you have pundits on Russian state TV saying, bomb Kyiv, this is war. You know, we need to retaliate for the sinking of our ship.

Can both those messages be true? Do they make sense together?

MASHA GESSEN, STAFF WRITER, THE NEW YORKER: Brian, what we are doing right now is exactly what Russian propagandists want you to do.


GESSEN: Which is amplifying ridiculous messages.


GESSEN: Do you not understand?

STELTER: Tell me more.

GESSEN: You know, everything that we hear from Russian official sources, everything that is on Russian TV is a lie, right? This has been documented over and over again.

I really don't see why we would go on broadly watched CNN program and try to engage with these lies. That is -- we know that these are propaganda messages, right? The only legitimate way to look at the Moskva is to say, okay, here is what is known and here is what we don't know, right?

Anything that comes from the Russian propaganda machine is unreliable and engaging with it is irresponsible.

STELTER: I think that's really, really interesting and it's exactly what newsrooms are wrestling with, including the CNNs of the world, where, you know, think about journalism school 101, right, Masha, you are taught to present both sides, ask for comment, try to be very careful not to jump to conclusions.


And yet in this particular situation, in a 21st century information war, where propaganda seems to win the day, some of those journalism 101 rules may have to be revisited. What would you say?

GESSEN: I would say that those are not journalism 101 rules. I think journalism 101 rules are so begin with evaluating your sources and you don't go back over and over again to somebody who has been lying to you. That is the classic both-sidism and classic false equivalency.

There is no equivalence between the Ukrainian information sources and Russian information sources. The Ukrainian information sources by and large in the more than 50 days this have war have proven to be largely reliable. Russia information sources over more than 50 days this have war and preceding it have proven to be profoundly, consistently false.

Setting them side-by-side is completely irresponsible. This is not journalism 101. It's the exact opposite of it.

STELTER: The opposite.

So tell us more about your impressions of the media coverage of this war, more than 50 days in now. Are you seeing too much of a horse race mentality in the coverage?

GESSEN: Yes, I am. I'm glad you asked.

You know, it's -- there are so few ways that we have of telling ongoing stories and one of them very consistently is the way that we cover, you know, football games, right? And I'm really noticing a lot of that going on with coverage of the war in Ukraine, especially by news organizations that have to do stories day in and day out, right, where they go, oh, this is a loss for Russia. Russia -- Russia is doing blank, but this means it's going to -- it's suffering setbacks, right? This is how Russia is advancing on Mariupol.

That's not what the war is about. Yes, this is what war is about if you listen to military strategists, but I think our job as journalists is to listen to people on the ground. That's the one thing that we can do that our readers and our viewers can't, which is actually talk to people who are there, right? And not just listen to official sources who will tell you about advancing troops or retreating troops.

When you listen to people on the ground, what you hear is death, destruction, cruelty, but also mutual aid, right? Whatever these human stories are. And I think that, you know, when the headlines turn to advance, retreat, took this city, controlled this air space, it really becomes too much like score keeping and that is terrifying and dehumanizing.

STELTER: It is -- it is dehumanizing. So important to hear from people on the ground. Are you finding that's getting harder and harder as the weeks go on inside Russia? You have so many contacts, so many friends, some of whom had to flee Moscow and other parts of Russia but the banner on screen now says dearth of reliable information coming from Russia. If anything that's an understatement.

I get more worried every week about how little we know inside Russia right now. So what's it been like for you?

GESSEN: It's very hard to get what's going on inside Russia. We -- in the first week of the war basically all of the Russian independent media and there weren't many to begin with, but there were a handful, they were forced to shut down, their journalists were forced to flee and their websites were blocked to Russians.

So, for Russians who want to get reliable information, follow Telegram channels for independent media, they use VPNs to try to get around the blocking, that's hard, that's time consuming, that requires at least some technological savvy and I think people get tired of it over time and kind of try to correct for the lies that they're listening to or they're seeing on official media.

I -- it's really extraordinary. You know, I actually spent last night watching official TV to try to get a handle on what's going on there and it is every single story is the opposite of truth. They tell -- they take things that would be true about Russians and they tell these same stories about Ukrainians.

No matter how much you realize that that is a lie, it starts to seep into you after about an hour of it. Your reality -- your hold on reality begins to slip. And living in that environment 24 hours a day with less and less information coming in from the outside, less and less information that is actually factually based, your grip on reality starts to slip.


STELTER: It's a scary ongoing situation. Something that's becoming a bigger issue as the weeks and the months grind on.

Masha, thank you. I think this was a great journalism 101 course. Thank you for coming on today.

GESSEN: Thank you, Brian.

STELTER: Let's stay on this theme now about Russian propaganda. Russian speakers in one of Russia's eastern neighbors Estonia have long been hooked on the programming coming out of Russian state TV. But since the start of the war they've been partly cut off from that programming.

With more on this, Scott McLean is live in Tallinn, Estonia. That's the capital.

Scott, tell us more about why you are in Estonia and what you are learning there.

SCOTT MCLEAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey, Brian, yeah. Estonia has taken in a heck of a lot of Ukrainian refugees, 30,000 of them. It may sound like a small number but this is a country of 1.3 million only and so that's more than 2 percent of the population now is a Ukrainian refugee.

You can understand why Estonians feel so passionate about helping Ukraine, they have a lot in common. They are both formerly part of the Soviet Union. They both have very large Russian-speaking populations and they have both lived for the last few decades with the constant fear and threat of Russian aggression.

As you mentioned, Estonia has also gotten used to Russian propaganda beaming into living rooms across the country. It is trying to change that, but in practice it is tougher than it looks.


MCLEAN (voice-over): In Eastern Estonia, the vast birch forests and open plains dotted with industry and concrete apartment blocks can feel a lot like Russia. Most people are ethnically Russian, many signs are in Russian and Russia itself is just across the river. In the Estonian border town of Narva, more than 86 percent of the population speaks Russian.

Even on this side of the river, Native Russian speakers make up a substantial chunk of the Estonian population, one of the many lasting legacies of the soviet era. Many older people don't speak Estonian well, and in the absence of a whole lot of Russian language media in Estonia, Russian state media has been left to fill the void, giving people a steady dose of Kremlin propaganda.

That is, until the start of the war in Ukraine when Estonia blocked many Russian news outlets and TV channels, a decision that came with plenty of controversy.

VLADIMIR ZAVORONKOV, NARVA CITY COUNCIL CHAIRMAN: Why don't I agree? Because I think great democracy don't -- can't be afraid of any propaganda?

Many people here is buying some systems to become the Russian colonels, it's not the way of reality. Restrict is not the way.

MCLEAN: Antennas are suddenly a popular item at electronic stores, Russian speakers to easily pick up Russian TV channels. Others watch online through VPNs.

Ilya Federov and his father Oleg have a better setup in their home right across the river from Russia.

ILYA FEDEROV, NARVA RESIDENT: Basically this is just a lineup of the channels people usually get in their Russian households as well.

MCLEAN: They have this TV hooked up to a Russian satellite dish, another to an antenna, both picking up all the Russian channels though some they'd rather not watch.

FEDEROV: I can only watch 10, 15 seconds maximum because the levels of aggression and paranoia and the lies, just brazen lies, it's crazy.

MCLEAN: A lot of people here are still very connected to Russia. Do you think that they believe everything that the Kremlin is saying about the war in Ukraine?

OLEG FEDEROV, NARVA RESIDENT (through translator): I don't just think, I know there are a lot of people who think Russian state media is the truth. But for sure it's a lot of false news and lies and only a minority in Narva don't believe Russian propaganda.

MCLEAN: Some of those true believers are reluctantly tuning into this channel, ETV+ was launched in 2015 to give Russian-speaking Estonians access to reliable news about their own country and the world.

MARGARITA TANAJEVA, ETV+ ANCHOR: We don't have propaganda. We can make news about corrupted ministers or presidents in our country or politics. Many Russian journalists can do it.

MCLEAN: On Friday, ETV+ plus reported on the sinking of Russia's warship the Moskva, giving Ukraine's claim that its missiles sunk the ship and the more benign Russian version that it sank after the fire.

Since the channel's launched, ETV+'s ratings have made gains but gaining trust is much tougher.

TANAJEVA: Many of our viewers are ready to blame us, are ready to judge us because they don't believe us, but we are ready to speak with them. I don't want to judge them. I am ready to wait. I'm ready to give those people time to make them believe me.



MCLEAN: Margarita Tanajeva, the anchor there, says that covering war is especially difficult because she has to be especially diligent with the detail. Any mistake is likely to be held up by her many skeptics and especially the new viewers of ETV+ who have come over from watching Russian state media and evidence that ETV+ is Western propaganda or that it's unreliable.

Now, both Tanajeva and the Narva city council chairman that you've heard from earlier in the story, Brian, they don't think that these channels are going to get unblocked anytime soon, not until at least they change fundamentally and that would take they think a change in the Russian government.

I should also point out that there is a generational divide here, those older Russian-speaking citizens who don't speak Estonian well, some of them aren't even Estonian citizens, they are much more likely to believe the Kremlin line. Younger people are much more likely to be reading English sources, Estonian forces. Estonia also has this problem with integrating its Russian speaking

minority. Even today you can go through the public school system and come out of it, you will speak Estonians but sometimes not all that well. You don't have a lot of places to practice.

So, Estonia is going to have these Russian-speaking bubbles for a long time, they just want to make sure that they are not Russian Kremlin propaganda bubbles, Brian.

STELTER: Scott, thanks so much. We learned a lot from that. Thank you again.

We will break in at any time if there are alerts from the war zone from Ukraine and Russia, we will bring you the latest.

Also coming up here, must-see TV, a media frenzy over Elon Musk's bid to take over Twitter, is it all just an elaborate trolling? Two top reporters on the beat are standing by.

And what about this? Is this a story about trolling, too? Biden's press secretary with some sharp words about Fox's White House reporter.



STELTER: Is Twitter biased against conservatives? That's the title of this new working paper by professors at MIT and Yale. In the words of Professor David Rand, the root of the challenge when looking at this is that Republicans, conservatives, are substantially more likely to share misinformation or fake news than Democrats are. Thus, as social media's platforms, the policies aimed at reducing nonsense and boosting real news would ensnare Republican users more often.

This research team found wide bipartisan support for platforms trying to reduce misinformation. People don't want QAnon craziness all up in their news feeds, but Professor Rand says putting these two observations together shows the problem. In responding to bipartisan demand, platforms may wind up enforcing on conservatives more than on liberals.

Now, complaints about conservatives being censored online, they are core to the GOP's identity. See this Heritage headline as an example, it plays into the cancel culture narrative that powers Trumpian fundraising efforts, and now it is at the heart of Elon Musk's hostile takeover bid for Twitter.

Right wing media is celebrating Musk's bid saying he's going to rescue free speech, he's going to rescue free speech, he's going to reinstate for millions of Americans, people around the world who'd been muzzled by Twitter, and the villain in their story is, of course, the mainstream media.

Musk is getting a lot of criticism, a lot of skepticism. But what about the foundational claims here? Let's dig into it with Jessica Toonkel, a senior reporter at "The

Information" covering media and telecom, and Clare Duffy, tech reporter for CNN Business, covering the business of tech and the strategies of these companies.

Welcome to you both.

Clare, it is Sunday morning, we are awaiting the next move by the Twitter board. They have announced a poison pill provision that might make it harder for Musk to take over Twitter.

What's going on now? Is this about to become a big negotiation between Musk and the Twitter board?

CLARE DUFFY, CNN BUSINESS TECH REPORTER: Yeah, it will be interesting. You know, I think that a lot of tech reporters have sent their weekends refreshing Elon Musk's twitter feed to see what he will say about this defensive move by the Twitter board. Basically, what this does is that Elon continues to try to grow their stake in Twitter, it will become much more expensive and difficult for him to acquire the whole company. It gives the board a little bit more time and power and the situation back and potentially gives them more opportunity to negotiate with other potential buyers.

So, you know, it will be interesting to see what happens in this next week, whether Elon will make some comments about continuing to try to buy up shares despite this poison pill, whether we will hear more about other potential bidders for Twitter. I think there are now -- there are a maybe more options on the table now that the board has taken this defensive measure that gives them a bit more time and space to consider their options.

STELTER: Right. And maybe find other bidders, figure out what to do. Jessica, speak of Elon Musk's twitter feed he is replying to folks online, he replied to a user that said this is going to be rigged. If musk can't buy twitter it proves the game is rigged. Very much a conservative conspiracy theory. Can we unpack that for a second? Is that true?

JESSICA TOONKEL, SENIOR REPORTER, THE INFORMATION: I mean, I think Elon is obviously playing to his base, right? He is playing to the people who see him as the liberator of the platform and giving the platform back to the people. That is one camp that is viewing him and the other camps use him as an eco maniac who wants to buy twitter to be a megaphone for him.

I think about it in the same fashion you see billionaires buying newspapers, right, to control the public perception of them. Both of these things can be true, right? I think that to your point about is he just trolling right now or does he really want to buy the platform, I think that's what the board is trying to figure out right now.

STELTER: Right. It's amazing that we are in a situation where he's made this bid and we don't know how serious he is. Jessica, where do you come down on this free speech conversation?


It's obviously incredibly complicated. We could spend hours talking about it.

When you're suspended or banned by a social network that is a very intense thing and not to be taken lightly but this cry that it's all about Republicans being censored, do you buy into that?

TOONKEL: I think that his push about free speech and that he's going to like open it up to everyone, I mean, despite all the rhetoric like he can't do that. That's not realistic. We are going into midterm elections, all the tech executives we talk to say they are expecting much more pressure going forward, more than what we've seen already, which is quite a bit, and so how much he will actually be able to do really remains to be seen.

STELTER: Yeah, it definitely does. I think if he actually became the head of Twitter, he would realize how complicated it is, local laws, you know, regulations, also what users want. Most users don't want to live in a sewer on their phones full of bull -- you know, they don't want that. They actually want some moderation.

We could go on and on. Here is the counter question for you, Clare. Is Elon Musk exactly what Twitter needs? Tell us, what's the pro-Musk argument for coming in and blowing up Twitter?

DUFFY: You know, I think Twitter has had this problem in the last couple of years, their share price has flattened out, they are having trouble attracting users so some people could say Elon clearly understands this platform really well, he has built this massive audience, has more than 80 million followers, knows how to go viral, he has this deep understanding of how the platform works and how to attract attention on it.

So, you know, I think the argument on that side could be, hey, look, maybe Elon will find a way to attract more users, he has also talked about the fact that for this -- for him this isn't a money play, this is, you know, something that he feels is really morally important and so, you know, maybe this is a way for Twitter to be focused less on attracting advertisers, which is something that has sort of driven their desire to moderate the platform because advertisers don't want their content next to angry harassment or misinformation. Maybe this will accomplish that.

STELTER: Maybe it will. Clare and Jessica, thank you both.

We will keep covering this every day on "Reliable Sources Daily". That's our CNN+ program at 11:00 a.m. Eastern Time. Sign up for CNN+ for that.

Up here on the program next, we are going to have an incredibly emotional interview with Danny Fenster. He is the American journalist who was behind bars in Myanmar for six months. Hear how his wife and a pad of paper helped him through it. He's also going to share the link between his ordeal in Myanmar and what's happening now in Russia.

And later, how a CNN colleague came to the rescue and gave correspondent Richard Roth a new lease on life.



STELTER: And welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Brian Stelter. When the military seized control of Myanmar last year, the resulting violent crackdown led to many reporters being locked up. Danny Fenster was one of them.

He was a reporter for Myanmar now, then managing editor of Frontier Myanmar and he was targeted by the authorities, picked up at the airport as he was about to fly home to Detroit. He waited and waited behind bars not knowing how long he would be imprisoned.

And his wife, Juliana, a Brazilian diplomat waited with him, staying in the country despite the danger. She would drop off books and fruit and secret notes for him at the jail. He was there behind bars for almost six months. So I sat down with fencer to hear his story. What was it like when he was finally released and what here's -- why he says connections between his ordeal and now Russia's invasion of Ukraine.


DANNY FENSTER, AMERICAN JOURNALIST IMPRISONED FOR 6 MONTHS: Well, so I mean, after I mean, immediately, once we heard that the military had seized power in a coup, I mean, on February 1, you kind of wonder -- I mean, there weren't any explicit threats or anything but then everyone starts wondering how is this going to be for journalists.

And it slowly started getting worse and worse, but they were largely targeting local reporters and -- I mean any escalation for me personally, in terms of worry or fear, I mean, there was none. And so I was at the gate, the boarding gate, and all of a sudden that group of police came in and so they were looking for Daniel Fenster.

STELTER: So, for you, it was a split second, or your entire life changed?

FENSTER: Yes, basically. And it didn't even set in, I -- that entire day. I didn't think this was going to last very long. And then another week or two, I didn't think it was going to last very long. There's a real reluctance for me to realize what was happening.

STELTER: And so when did it begin to sink in that this was going to be a long-term ordeal?

FENSTER: Oh, man, well, it's hard to -- I'm trying to write all this down but it's difficult to piece together the exact timeline. For a while, I had a notebook and a calendar but at a certain point, they took all that. But within, I think, three or four weeks, I realized that we were going through with this trial or the legal system is absurd to joke, but they were going to go through this trial.

And I was talking to others in prison about the process and it just drags on for so long. I think by the time I had a court hearing, I realized that this might take, I thought two or three months. And I was like, OK, well, I'm going to be here for two or three months. I'll just kind of accept that. And that's when I kind of thought it'd be long-term.


FENSTER: After two or three months, but the three-month mark when I realized that there was no progress being made and that it was just a political negotiation, then I thought, wow, I might -- I might be here for a year, several years, I'm really not sure. But I had Juliana was bringing me packages of food and books once every two weeks, then she would bring fresh fruit, fresh vegetables, you know, things that were getting me through it, sometimes a little bit of candy, snacks, and things.

STELTER: I think I would have been fearing for her as well, fearing that if they can do this to you, they can do this to her too.

FENSTER: Yes, every time -- I mean, I was never able to see her and I wasn't really talking to her when she would arrive at the prison. But every time she'd come to the prison, I was worried that something had happened.

STELTER: When you're -- when you're behind bars, when you're in detention don't how long you're going to be in, do you try to take notes, do you treat it like a reporting assignment, like the reporting assignment from hell, or does that part of you go away?

FENSTER: Yes. No, not at all. It intensifies. It's funny. It's a great question. I've come out of the experience. And I think a lot of people were worried if I'd be traumatized, you know, something, how my mental health was and I seem to be, you know, doing very well, for -- I think there's a number of reasons for that. But my wife said, you know, I think what happened was you got in there and you immediately thought, OK, I'm a reporter, this is really interesting. Nobody else -- no other Western journalists has this view or this experience.

And you just -- I just went into reporter mode, so there's like, there's almost a reason or meaning to be there. And when I -- the first phone call I had with her and with my parents, I told them, you know, listen, don't worry, it's -- you know, I'm doing OK. You know, I said the words I'm chilling, don't worry about me. And she said -- she said afterward when we've been talking about it now she's like, I think it's because you went into that reporter mode.

And I was taking lots of notes and writing down a lot of things and sketching things. And that added, I think, to the sense of like, OK, that something will come up -- something decent will come out of this. And then I got caught, maybe three months into it, trying to sneak notes out to Juliana. And when they found me sneaking notes out, then they really cracked down, they raided the cell, they took every piece of paper, every pen, and all of a sudden pen and paper became like, extreme contraband for this one prisoner. It was like do not let him touch a pen.

STELTER: I think that would be the point I would lose hope.


STELTER: Was there a point of that for you?

FENSTER: Yes, absolutely. It was that -- it was that. It was terrible. It was awful. And I was thinking I've just gotten in trouble so they're going to keep me here longer. And I started thinking like, well, I'm -- if I'm -- if I'm going to stay here, let's say I'm going to stay here for three years. If I'm going to stay here for three years, I need to negotiate with them to have a notebook.

We can keep it at the ward -- Superintendent Guy's office, let's just leave it there and you know, when I want to write something, I'll go there. They can monitor it. They can let me write things down for an hour a day, two hours a day. If I can negotiate that, maybe it'll be manageable, but I couldn't. I just -- if I had to stay for that much longer without being able to write anything down, I think I would have gone nuts.

STELTER: When did you start to have a sense that something was happening diplomatically that there were negotiations, that you might have a chance to get out?

FENSTER: While I was in prison, I had sporadic access to phone calls with the embassy, to my consular representative there and they were assuring me that they were doing everything they could. And I was talking to my brother and my brother was telling me all the things that he was trying to do.

So, I knew there were negotiations going on. I knew that in Myanmar, everything is decided by one person and that it's going to be up to him and that people are lobbying and negotiating with him. But I didn't know any of the details of what was happening.

STELTER: But this was clearly a sham trial. There's no other way to describe it. And yet there was still hope for you, thanks to the diplomatic efforts.

FENSTER: Yes, it was a sham trial. You know, the funny thing that I -- early on in the trial, I said, I had a lawyer and I said to the lawyer, look, it was kind of understood they've arrested you. They need to find you guilty so that they can't say that they've wrongly held you this long, they'll find you guilty and then kick you out. I said to the attorney early on if that's the case, let's just plead guilty.


FENSTER: Let's just plead guilty (INAUDIBLE) and they'll call me guilty and then they'll send me home. They said no, there's a -- there's a phrase in Myanmar. In courts -- in the legal system in Myanmar, it's like, you know, we're making a movie. So when you go to court, it's like action and everyone's playing this part. And it's all show and everybody knows that, like, we have to go through the process. They have to listen to these absurd witnesses and then they'll find you guilty.


STELTER: What a terrible position to be in, a sham trial where the defendant is just an actor. Fenster was sentenced to 11 years in prison but amazingly, the former U.S. diplomat Bill Richardson was able to secure his release. Fenster is readjusting to normal life now and reconnecting with old colleagues. Recently, he returned to Myanmar's neighboring country of Thailand, and start to get back to reporting.

But he made one more really important point during our interview. He talked about the global trend against democracy toward autocracy and he said that what people have in places like the U.S. is really fragile. Watch this.


FENSTER: No matter where you see signs of progress at home or out in the world, it's always possible these things are always somewhat fragile, they can always be taken back and that can be declined. I think that's a -- that's the kind of a global trend right now.


FENSTER: We're seeing this happen in various places. Yes, I mean, it's just not -- it's not coincidental these regimes, you know, once Russia invaded Ukraine. Both of these countries have a long history of suppressing dissent so I don't want to overstate this. But as soon as Russia invaded Ukraine, you saw so many similar tactics.

In Myanmar, they banned in media the use of the word coup, the use of the word junta, this is a caretaker of government you must call it that. In Russia, they banned the use of the words war and invasion. They've shut down media, you know, licensed -- they've revoked media license, shut down newspapers in both countries. They're trying to -- you know have imposed these bans on the internet.


FENSTER: And yes, it's just remarkably similar to watching it play out. And one thing, I think that Western countries make the mistake in is like, RT is this sort of that can be used as this Russian state propaganda. Banning it in European countries, in the West, I don't think is the answer. I mean, that stuff is so on its face, obviously, unconvincing. Just like in Myanmar, the state media, I don't think anybody really buys into it. Banning it just isn't, you know the right thing to do. So I think that goes both ways. But obviously, it's much more intensive bans in Myanmar and Russia.


STELTER: Hear the rest of my conversation with Danny on the RELIABLE SOURCES PODCAST. Put that out by Apple or wherever you listen to your pods. All right, coming up. These empty chairs are a symbol of political leaders avoiding hard questions. We have important insight from Lynn Sweet in Washington next.



STELTER: Welcome back live from Philadelphia where the founding fathers were never afraid of tough questions. So let me get this straight. This week, the Republican National Committee called out President Biden, rightly in my view, for not granting many interviews. Biden's only given two interviews this year, one, on NBC and one to a Substack author.

But then the same week, the RNC pulls out of the debates that are always organized, where they have been for decades, organized by the Bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates. I don't want to both sides this, but I see problems on both sides. Let's discuss it with Lynn Sweet. She's the Washington bureau chief at the Chicago Sun- Times.

Lynn, I think it's a legitimate issue that Biden isn't giving interviews. He takes questions from the press in informal settings, but he's not going on TV, he's not giving interviews to folks like you. That is a real issue. What do you say?

LYNN SWEET, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, CHICAGO SUN-TIMES: OK, what I say is on the first question of Biden, the clear analysis is that his staff feels that the risk doesn't justify what possible reward there could be because of all the issues pointing to why his popularity has is waning. It isn't because he doesn't have enough primetime press conferences or even during the day, OK.

And we know why is that he says things that get him in trouble. He needs to I suppose have forms to show his humanity, his warmth, his empathy. As a journalist, I say, half him out there, he can handle it because in the end, the more the public sees of Biden, he has a chance to get his story out. The people that don't like him, the Republicans are looking for gaffes. They're out there anyway. The issue you bring up with Trump -- with debates actually is a Trump issue.

This has his fingerprints all over it. It's a smokescreen, right, that it's the RMC, Brian. They want to appease -- Ronna McDaniel seems to want to apiece Trump. What Trump is able to do, he's not even the nominee, but he also wants to insulate himself against having the potential of preparing and dealing in a one-on-one debate with the Democratic nominee. Quick prediction, if Trump isn't the nominee, you may see the RNC change its tune.

STELTER: Does this relate to White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki taking a swipe at Fox's White House reporter, Peter Doocy? You know she was on his liberal podcast the other day and she made a comment about Fox providing him questions that are stupid questions. She clearly doesn't like Fox's narratives, but Fox is defending Doocy now. Is this related, do you think, to the point about Biden and Trump?

SWEET: Actually, I don't think so. Maybe I have a little different view on it. [11:50:00]

SWEET: She got lulled into losing her discipline. This podcast is made by her friends. They go back to the Kerry campaign. They worked in the Obama White House. She was forgetting what her real job is, which is to communicate on behalf of the President, OK? She even repeated some of the swear words that the questioner asked, and the question, upping the ante.

Now, if you listen to everything she said, however, she also said, why she said what you said about taking a swipe about if Peter was given questions, she went on to say in the whole totality is. I also have a very nice Peter Doocy story, where she complimented him on a moment of grace as she put it. One other quick thing --

STELTER: That's true.

SWEET: It's not an acuative to consult your colleagues on what questions to ask.

STELTER: Right. Lynn, thank you very much, great to see you. More on all this in a nightly newsletter at sign up for free right there. And next, the most important story of the day, a story of sacrifice and rebirth on the (INAUDIBLE).



STELTER: On this day of hope, and renewal, a CNN legend is reminding us what family is all about. Richard Roth, senior UN correspondent at CNN, he's been with this network ever since the launch. He's the last remaining CNN original, the last person who's still an employee here 42 years later. And this week, he was given new life, thanks to a CNN colleague who answered his call for help. Roth was in desperate need of a kidney so he turned to his CNN family, e-mailing the entire company last fall looking for a match.

Multiple people stepped up, took the tests, including Samira Jafari, and she was a match. The surgery was on Tuesday and it was a success. Jafari, the Deputy Managing Editor of CNN's investigations unit is what Roth calls his heroine. You can see them there on the screen together. Jafari took to her Instagram thanking everyone for all the support and saying the true heroes were the members of the Yale transplant team. But I think we all know she was a hero as well.

And she wrote this that really struck me today. She said. The last few years have often left some of us feeling a little helpless. It was nice to just get to fix one thing in the world. I'm grateful for that opportunity now and always. Let's try to fix one thing at a time. Amen.

Roth is now out of the hospital. He's resting at home and he wants you to know there are over 100,000 people waiting for an organ in the U.S. alone. If you can help, try. What a great example of a work-family coming together. And by the way, Roth and Jafari are going to be on together on CNN New Day tomorrow to tell more of the story. Stay tuned now, Jake Tapper's extensive interview with the Ukrainian president is next here on CNN. We'll see you back here, this time next week.