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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES
Obamacare's Image Problem; News Tweets With a Twist; Covering America's Largest War
Aired October 27, 2013 - 11:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
JOHN AVLON, CNN HOST: The dust finally settles in Washington as the government gets back to work. Lurking behind that cloud is a new story of government dysfunction.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS)
MIKA BRZEZINSKI, MSNBC: Lawmakers from both parties are calling for someone to be held accountable over the flawed rollout of healthcare.gov.
CAROL COSTELLO, CNN: The botched rollout of Obamacare on its Web site that's left thousands of Americans angry and frustrated.
MEGYN KELLY, FOX NEWS: The administration say it is will be almost December before the Obamacare Web site is mostly fixed.
(END VIDEO CLIPS)
AVLON: But the confusion extended to some news organizations, as well, as they struggled to make sense of the system.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS)
BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS: Broadcast tonight, breaking news on the topic of Obamacare. NBC News has learned the White House now intends to delay the deadline requiring every American to have health insurance.
The deadlines in this new health care law are confusing, and if we added to that confusion here last night, we want to clear it up.
(END VIDEO CLIPS)
AVLON: And the cabinet official in charge of it all goes under the media microscope, amid calls for her political head on a platter.
Plus, news by Twitter with a twist. A White House staffer by day becomes anonymous administration critic by night, and an Amtrak passenger tweets as he eavesdrops on a former spy chief's phone call.
Also, a rare interview with a legendary columnist. Jimmy Breslin looks back at a life in newspapers and his classic story about the man who dug JFK's grave. I'm John Avlon, and this is RELIABLE SOURCES.
AVLON: Obamacare signups started October 1st, but the struggles of the healthcare.gov has dominated the news cycle since the shutdown ended. Reports of nightmare signups, dropped connections, and overloaded servers, all led to finger-pointing, congressional hearings, and calls for heads to roll.
For a look at the coverage, whether it was fair, accurate, or even helpful, I'm joined here in Washington by Joe Concha for Mediaite, Rosie Gray from BuzzFeed, and Jamelle Bouie from "The Daily Beast," where I also work.
Joe, let's start with you. You had a piece up really taking aim at Sebelius' attempted defense of this dysfunction, with Jon Stewart, specifically Sanjay Gupta. She's got no safe harbor here, does she?
JOE CONCHA, MEDIAITE: Oh, no. And what's ironic about this is, the guy who exposed Sebelius in terms of everything that went wrong with the Web site is a doctor, who also is a reporter, you know, for CNN obviously. But he's a doctor first.
And what made this interview so effective, it was conversational and not confrontational. If she goes on FOX, she probably has a finger wagging on her. If she goes on MSNBC, she'll probably get the pat on the back.
She goes with Sanjay Gupta, I think the White House decided on him because he was tapped to be surgeon general in 2008, politely declined, but, hey, we might get a friendly interview her. Instead, he asked questions that revealed two major things here. And one was that she knew the site wasn't ready for launch but went ahead with it any way. And, oh, when did the president know about this? He didn't know about it until a couple days after the launch.
This was devastating stuff. And she was lulled into having a nice conversation. I don't think she realized just how damaging this was to her and to the cause of healthcare.gov and Affordable Care Act in general.
AVLON: That's always the best practice for journalist, get them comfortable, and you might get the truth.
But, Rosie, this administration has known this deadline is coming up. The world's most predictable prices. And yet, they botched. So, now, all of a sudden, the media is paying attention.
ROSIE GRAY, BUZZFEED: Right.
AVLON: Is this a pile on the administration because they own it after the Republicans got the hell beaten out of them on the shutdown, or is this really a sustained effort that we should have been paying attention to a long time ago.
GRAY: Well, I think this is a deserved pile-on. I don't think the media is piling on the administration as a result of the piling-on of the Republicans after the shutdown. I think it's a disastrous situation with this Web site, and it deserves to be covered as such.
AVLON: But, Jamelle, the whole "fire Sebelius" meme, was actually started by the RNC during the shutdown. They were really pushing this. And lo and behold, it has really taken root. It's snowballing to the point where that seems to be the marketer of accountability.
Is that fair? Or are we buying into an RNC talking point that's taking a life itself?
JAMELLE BOUIE, THE DAILY BEAST: I don't think it's fair. I don't think firing Sebelius gets anything fixed with healthcare.gov, but will help, but will help accountability is the media focusing on the problems of the Web site consistently, not just the administration's new deadline for when everything should be fixed, but continuously.
This needs to be a beat for a paper or a news organization, just following healthcare.gov and making sure that it is living up to its promises.
AVLON: And yet, Rosie, I don't want to be the cynic. But we don't do such a good job of covering sustained stories. Crises, we cover very well.
AVLON: We don't cover governing so well. So, give the fact that this is going to be a months' long process to fix, what do you think the media is realistically going to do in terms of keeping the focus and the administration's feet to the fire?
GRAY: I think the media is going to lose interest, probably in the next few weeks, or even sooner than that. I mean, a crisis shutdown, the shutdown, it will get a lot of intense media coverage. This is sort of, as the Web site problems continue, eventually the interest in the media will peter out.
AVLON: Well, and, Joe, that doesn't necessarily serve the citizens very well. What do you think the media needs to do to step up to keep the focus where it should be, covering governing and the solutions to this scandal?
CONCHA: Well, holding people accountable, like a Jay Carney, for instance, who said -- he's been asked since day one, since this launch, when are the numbers going to come in for who signed up for Obamacare. I don't want to know about page hits and 20 million. I want to know about how many people created accounts. I want to know about how many people have signed up.
This is very important -- 7 million people need to sign up, and 2.7 million young healthy people need to sign up to sustain the loss. So, it actually can feed itself.
And that's been stonewalled time and again. And the White House press corps asked, and Carney is asked in every kind of form.
Finally he said, in mid-November, I will get you a number. OK. When November 15th comes, I guess that's mid-November, if we don't see a number there, the media has to hold the Obama administration accountable, because if you know page hits, right, and you know account, you probably know the number right now. It's probably because it's so low, is because they don't want to reveal it at this time.
AVLON: Well, and, you know, false metrics is a classic way to weasel out of accountable, but the D-Day is out there, November 15th. We'll be watching.
We want to move on to another story. There was kerfuffle over the marine cap. Quote, "Obama wants Marines to wear girlie hats," making the case that President Obama wanted a uniform standard.
There was some pushback on this story, as might imagine. "Business Insider" had one memorable headline, calling it B.S. But "The Post", which is one of the great tabloids, I think fair to say, pushed back and defended their story pointing to documents that showed at least in the uniform command, there were e-mails going out, really ballots, if you will, showing that there was a debate actively in the administration about a uniform cap and saying it had been encouraged in air quotes from the Department of Defense.
Is this just a case, Joe Concha, of "The New York Post" doing what it does, going for the headline? Or is this really just a slide back to a proxy, for attack Obama at any cost with narratives like president wants to bring gays to the military and feminized marines?
CONCHA: "The Post" is owned by Rupert Murdoch. Rupert Murdoch owns FOX News. That sends to be right of center, if I can be forgiving about it, and they attack the president more than most publications do.
You can attack the president on things like healthcare.gov, and IRS and NSA, and every other acronym that's coming in the form of scandal this year.
To start going after the Obama administration for hats, that I get Colonel Nathanson, Jack Nicholson of "A Few Good Men" wouldn't approve at, then you're diluting your other arguments by saying, ahh, look at these girlie hats.
Please, come on. This is a non-story and yet, they're taking it seriously. It's pretty quite comical actually.
AVLON: Well, but, Rosie, I mean, look, tabloid leaves on in the Web, certainly. So, there's the temptation to dial up the headline up to 11. Did this get to the point of distortion fundamentally?
GRAY: I mean, well, who says the hats necessarily look girlie? Like who says that a unisex hat is a girlie hat? I mean, that to me is sort of a problem with the story that seems like a little bit of distortion.
CONCHA: That's a good point. In the NFL, they're wearing pink cleats for breast cancer awareness month. No one is saying that they're girlie.
AVLON: That's a good work.
Jamelle, final word on this.
BOUIE: I'm with Rosie. I don't see anything particularly girlie about the hats. They're just hats. I mean, I imagine it's a cost- saving measure, like you don't have to design different hats for different people. But this idea that a unisex hat is by definition girlie, well, it could be masculine, a unisex hat is a masculine hat.
AVLON: I'll tell you one thing -- don't mess with the marines. Don't mess with the marines, people.
CONCHA: If I'm dropping a drone, flying a drone plane with that hat on, guess what, I'm still hitting my target.
AVLON: You might not be wearing the hat when you're doing the drone thing.
Still to come, a spymaster gets spied on, and social media bites back at a White House staffer moonlighting as a secret Twitter critic.
We'll be back.
AVLON: Social media is a core part of the way the journalist works today, but we saw some twists this week. White House staffer Jofi Joseph provided one of them. For years, the national security staffer has been sending out tweets under a pseudonym. His inside information and sharp critiques of administration officials were closely followed by journalists and policy wonks, until he was discovered and quickly fired in a scoop first reported by Josh Rogin.
Still with me here to discuss and much more are Joe Concha, Rosie Gray and Jamelle Bouie.
Jamelle, let's start with you. You got a guy with a lot of drama in his real life, real job, National Security Council, and yet he can't resist becoming a Twitter. Is this social media democratizing journalism, or is this everyone wants to be on TV, everyone wants to be a critic.
BOUIE: I think it might be everyone wants to be a critic. I know working in some places, you have snarky things to say, and usually you keep them quiet. And I think he couldn't resist going to the public and knowing that his colleagues happened to be policymakers of the United States of America, just -- you know, irresistible. So -- AVLON: Irresistible, but deeply irresponsible.
BOUIE: Incredibly irresponsible.
AVLON: Dumb, dumb, dumb.
AVLON: Joe, another story, and this really does, also, show the democratization of journalist. Michael Hayden, former CIA director, NSA chief, he's on Acela going between New York and Washington, and he's giving background interviews, apparently very loudly. And somebody overheard him.
A few seats away, former political director of MoveOn.org starts tweeting the live conversation, to the point where he gets a lot of followers on this fact. And Hayden confronts him about it, and says, do you want a real interview? Well, he says, "I'm not a reporter." Hayden wisely says, "Everybody's a reporter."
This story really does pull the curtain back, and you would think the former NSA chief would know better.
CONCHA: I've got four words for Michael Hayden, OK? And I'm going to break it into two blocks. The first two is quiet car, OK? They have that on Amtrak.
CONCHA: If you even -- forget about the phone, you can't even talk to somebody, you can't whisper loudly, (INAUDIBLE) and they take you to the bathroom and waterboard you right to the spot. So, take the quiet card, Michael. That's one thing.
The second, the two words are Mitt Romney. You can be recorded at any time. It doesn't matter. You think you have your privacy, particularly on a train with 100 people. What are you doing?
So, yes, you might want to remember the 47 percent rule the next time you're that annoying guy in the train that's talking so loudly that --
AVLON: But, Rosie, you would think the former head of the NSA would be more hip to unsecured cell phone conversations, let alone interviews on the Acela.
GRAY: Right, you would think so. That's kind of what's confusing about it. Michael Hayden I guess is sort of on the older side and maybe he was not -- I mean, would you assume someone would be live tweeting your conversation on the train? Probably not.
AVLON: Maybe you should.
GRAY: Maybe you should, yes.
AVLON: And if he doesn't appreciate that the Internet is not a series of tubes at this point, we all have bigger troubles, I think.
AVLON: Jamelle, I want to move on to another Twitter story. This is the Twitter block. "The Atlanta Journal-Constitution" this week tweeted out from an official account after a Georgia man won $1 million lottery, this. They tweeted out, "$1 million Georgia lottery winner Willie Lynch can get 40 acres and a whole lot of mules."
What the hell, man? I mean, this -- this really does -- defies intelligent description. They backed off it quickly. They said they're dealing with it internally. Is this just a sign of the times? Or is this just beyond idiocy?
BOUIE: I don't even know what it is. I'm guessing he thought it would be a funny joke, but I just don't know -- I don't know the conversations they're having on a regular basis that 40 acres and a mule becomes hilarious on the Internet. So, yes, I hope the guy will get fired. It just seems like a bad joke that went wrong, but --
AVLON: You know, I mean, Joe, when people are going to war on the civil war reparation, as people are want to do. I mean, it's completely mind boggling this would go out on the feed. As we find out more, contrition really isn't sufficient.
This is in Atlanta. This is in the South. And there's weight behind these words when they come out from official Twitter.
CONCHA: Absolutely. The problem with Twitter is that it's unfiltered. And I brought this up a couple of weeks ago on the show, and we need two editors now. We need one for your standard publication, and we need one for Twitter, because reporters are, or anybody for that matter, can send out anything, and it's not being filtered. It's not being vetted.
As a result, you're getting -- I don't know what -- I'm from Hoboken, dude. We don't have that mules and -- I'm just --
AVLON: Before that, it was a different deal.
AVLON: You know, look, this is -- twitter is your home page, people. Don't just delegate it out to somebody who's liable to crack idiotic jokes, because you're going to be held to account. It's basic, but not obvious, apparently.
Rosie, a fascinating story, Grambling State University player strike for poor conditions, because of major budget cuts related to some extent, refusing the stimulus funds, but reported by student editors of "The Gramblinite", the state -- the university there, they tweeted this out, getting a lot of publicity for their cause. But they were suspended.
Now, this is a real deal. The essence of student newspaper, but there are still standards and talk about wanting to set the right tone, what do you think the implications of the suspension are, and this overhauled story in terms of promoting?
GRAY: Well, I think the implications -- this kind of thing has happened on college newspapers before. And I think that it's setting a really bad example in terms of First Amendment issues for these students who are working on the newspapers.
AVLON: Jamelle, I mean, in is basic stuff. And the alleged person who did this, the suspension, is a former journalist himself.
But looking at this Grambling story, this is something from the grassroots. Students strike. It is publicized by student journalists.
Is this a great moment for the brave new world of digital democracy? Or is this a chilling moment with the university trying to suspend these staffers?
BOUIE: I think it's both, right? It is chilling that the university would go to students and say, you know, for reporting what you saw, we're going to ask you to leave.
But for these students, for the journalism, it's a fantastic moment. It's something -- it's genuine journalism. It's the kind of thing they can build on skills-wise and career-wise in the future. So, it's unfortunate they had to resign. I hope they can get back into the game somehow.
I have a feeling, Joe, there's going to be not just a little bit of blow back, but a teachable moment for the administration, as well.
There's one lesson here that you can't believe people still don't know. You can't keep digital media down. Suspending is not going to help. The story's out there, give it up.
CONCHA: Exactly. Before, we talked about our age, which I will not reveal on the air, but we went to school in the '90s, and then, there was not Twitter, right? So, if you spend these two students, by the time people find out about it, there's not reaction is over, it's too late.
So, just like with Michael Hayden, he found out he was being tweeted about in that -- in 15 minutes while he's on the phone, when he gets off, they said, hey, you know what, you're being tweeted about, by the way. That's how fast it is now.
So, there's accountability everywhere, and that's because of Twitter, John.
AVLON: And it's not going away, folks. So, get with the program.
Ahead on RELIABLE SOURCES: as U.S. troops leave Afghanistan, the media's attention seemingly go with them. My conversation with CNN's Jake Tapper is next. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)
AVLON: As America's longest war draws to a close, the timeline for U.S. troop withdrawal raises major questions about the road ahead -- for the soldiers serving in the Afghanistan and journalists covering the conflict.
And his new book now out in paperback, Jake Tapper, CNN's chief Washington correspondent and anchor of "THE LEAD" follows several U.S. soldiers through one of the deadliest periods of the Afghan wars. Earlier, I talked to Jake about his book and the factors he thinks contributed to the media's dwindling Afghanistan coverage while the war still rages on.
AVLON: Jake Tapper, thanks for joining us on RELIABLE SOURCES.
JAKE TAPPER, CNN CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.
AVLON: Well, congrats on the paperback release of your book, "The Outpost."
Here's my question. Writing a book is a labor of love, and this book so intimately about the military. How did it change you as a journalist going forward?
TAPPER: Well, I think, you know, at the time I was a White House correspondent and I was covering the war in Afghanistan, but I was doing so from the comfort of the north lawn of the White House. And I think my coverage was focused like a lot of coverage on troop levels that were glibly bandied about, 10,000, 20,000, 40,000, about the political rivalries between the Pentagon and the White House and General McChrystal versus President Obama.
And I didn't really get to the individual battles, the individual people. And so, obviously, writing this book made me appreciate the war in a much more substantive manner than I think some of the typical Washington, D.C., coverage of war gives it. And I'm focusing on my own coverage at the time. Not so much everybody else's.
But, also, I think people in Washington very glibly talk about sending force in here and sending force in there, and I think it gave me a greater appreciation of the complexities of sending in force, and how it's not necessarily the right answer all the time, and that if you do do it, if a generals and president sends troops in, they need to have everything they need and deserve to do the job effectively.
AVLON: And I'll say it, it certainly affected your coverage, it seems, on the Medal of Honor ceremonies that have occurred. You know, sometimes these are a 30-second hit on the nightly news. But you've really gone in depth into the individuals and their stories and given them a lot of honor -- in some ways bucking that trend.
TAPPER: Well, that's because of the three Medals of Honor that have been awarded to living service members since I started at CNN, where there is time and space for documentaries. I knew two of the guys, because two of them were in the book, two of them I had -- I had their cell numbers on my phone. So, when I -- they got the Medals of Honors, I was able to call them and congratulate them. Actually, for both of them, I knew it was coming ahead of time.
So that's been -- that's the story behind that. It's the first time, actually, since 1968 the awarding of Medals of Honor to former Staff Sergeant Clint Romesha and Sergeant Ty Carter, the two living service members were honored for the same battle.
John, to your larger point, I think there's a lot of tendency in the media and in the public, I think, to blame the media for not covering the wars more and for not covering the troops and their families more. And that's -- that's perfectly valid criticism. And I agree with it, and I'm trying to --
AVLON: Well, let's get into that a little deeper --
AVLON: -- because here we are towards the end of America's longest war. And there is a sense that this has just been a hum and a buzz in the background. It's not been brought into our living rooms every night. How much of that lack of sustained attention, of focus, of honor is the public's responsibility? And how much of it really is the media's responsibility for not keeping it front -- front and center during the entire time of this interminable conflict.
TAPPER: You know, I think it's -- you're right to not let the public off the hook. I think, you know, for instance either of the Medal of Honor documentaries that I've done for CNN drew eyeballs as much as, you know, "The Voice" on NBC, or some variety show does typically, then not only CNN but everybody would be rushing Medal of Honor documentaries onto the air.
And, look, as a reporter and an anchor, I totally accept responsibility for the fact that I do not cover war enough. I do not cover troops enough. I do not cover veterans enough. I aspire to do it more. But I definitely fall short.
On the other hand, it is not only my fault. It is also the fault of the public and what they choose to view. And the magazines they choose to buy. And the newspapers they choose to read.
There would be more war coverage, there would be more coverage of veterans if the public bought those magazines and newspapers and watched those TV shows and listened to the radio stations.
And one more thing, John -- the public is not the only one to blame here. Our political leaders are, as well. President Obama, John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, these people talk about troops a lot. They could talk about them a lot more.
AVLON: That's right. And we do, though, to your larger point, we all vote with our wallets and eyeballs every day, and there are real impacts of that.
Let's talk about the attention at this specific moment in what will ultimately be the history of this war. We are in a drawdown period where there is far from clarity or certainty, even at the level of leadership, about what residual force will be left.
What are -- what are you hearing both from the soldiers on the ground and from your sources in Washington about the status of this drawdown?
TAPPER: Well, the troops I know who are in Afghanistan, they're just doing their jobs. Right now, a lot of that has to do with training Afghan soldiers. And they are following orders and hoping that this wasn't all for naught.
The ones I know are on -- they've been on multiple deployments, so it's not their first time there. What I'm hearing in terms of what's going to happen next, I think there was a goal, and still probably remains a goal to have some sort of troop presence in Afghanistan after the December 2014 deadline. I think that that was going to be some sort of smaller counterterrorism force, and, also, perhaps some sort of military trainers.
But right now, there's an impasse between the U.S. and Karzai, and it's an open question about whether or not there's going to be the kind of arrangement for U.S. troops to be there and do their job the way that the pentagon wants them to be able to do their job in order for them to remain. And we saw it happened in Iraq, that impasse ultimately meant that there wasn't a troop presence in Iraq, beyond security for the U.S. embassy.
So, we'll see. I can't predict at this point, and I would have predicted and have predicted months ago that ultimately there would be an agreement. At this point, I can't.
AVLON: The only thing for certain is, the Taliban is likely to still be there.
Jake Tapper, thanks for joining us and congratulations on the paperback publishing of "The Outpost."
TAPPER: Thanks, John.
AVLON: Coming up next on RELIABLE SOURCES, NPR's David Folkenflik takes us on a journey into Rupert Murdoch's world.
AVLON: Few people have done more to craft the modern media landscape than Rupert Murdoch. The Australian-born mogul's News Corp empire spans the globe, including newspapers like "The Wall Street Journal," the "New York Post" and TV networks like FOX News and BSkyB.
But for the past two years, Murdoch has been under a cloud as details have emerged over a phone-hacking scandal that led to the closure of Murdoch's British Sunday tabloid, the "News of the World."
More damaging revelations could soon emerge as the trial of two former "News of the World" editors begins in London tomorrow. NPR's media correspondent, David Folkenflik, has delved deep into this story for his new book, "Murdoch's World." He shared some of his insights with me when I spoke with him earlier.
AVLON: David Folkenflik, thanks for joining us.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, NPR NEWS CORRESPONDENT: Hey, delighted to do it.
AVLON: So you've got a very well-timed new book out, "Murdoch's World," and on Monday, a major trial in this saga begins in London, involving Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson. Obviously innocent until proven guilty, but tell us a little bit about what's likely to play out in this trial.
FOLKENFLIK: Well, what we're going to see are a few things. Obviously prosecutors are going to make their case. They're trying people, a variety of defendants, on different counts. You've got the question of hacking, which is what we all remember in this country, the breaking into the cell phone messages of so many hundreds and thousands of people.
You've got the question of bribery of public officials there, politicians and people in defense ministry and others.
And then you've got the question of obstruction of justice, which Rebekah Brooks, Rupert Murdoch's surrogate daughter in the U.K., the former CEO of his British newspaper arm and, in fact, somebody he used to lead the two top-selling tabloids in that country for him, the "News of the World" and "The Sun," she's on trial with her husband also for conspiring to conceal evidence from the government.
AVLON: This is one of those moments where truth meets power and the outcome is going to be fascinating.
Your book opens up with a vignette of Rupert Murdoch himself apologizing to the family of a young girl whose phone had been tapped after her disappearance.
Set that scene for us.
FOLKENFLIK: Sure. Well, this was in the days after the revelations, you know, if you go back to July of 2011, "The Guardian" newspaper, which had been almost alone on this story, said that not only had celebrities and some politicians had their phone hacked, not only had the two princes had their phone hacked some years earlier, but a young dead girl who had been a cause celebre when she vanished in 2002, she, too, had been victimized by this.
And a wave of national revulsion occurs. Murdoch, who had been able to hold the line for so long to protect not only his newspapers, but his top executives, particularly Rebekah Brooks, could no longer do so. He meets in this suite in this posh hotel in the middle of London and holds his head in his hands, as he keeps saying, I'm sorry, I'm sorry.
And acknowledging not only that he's ashamed by this, but that his father would have been ashamed by this, Sir Keith Murdoch, the well-regarded Australian journalist, who inspired Murdoch in so many ways and who fostered in him a sense of grievance that in some ways he wasn't recognized fully for all of his accomplishments.
This touchstone for Rupert Murdoch was something that he came back to as he thought about these parents and their young dead daughter.
AVLON: It's powerful, powerful stuff. And it brings out the human side.
There's another scandal as well, perhaps small in some eyes, but profound in our age of digital journalism, which is the seeding of "Comments" sections and effectively trying to push back and rebuke or discredit people who'd criticized the Murdoch empire.
FOLKENFLIK: There was an astonishing array of things, you know, I've dealt with the FOX PR team for years. I've covered the media for over 13 years now. And they are the most aggressive, intensive shop that I've ever dealt with.
It's not personal; it's very intentional. It's supposed to dissuade you from doing it and they try to warn others not to.
In this case, part of what they did was that they had staffers for years go online and rebut every blog post that was negative, every article.
They would go in the "Comments" section and do this. And then the amazing thing is even if the articles themselves were positive or neutral toward FOX, they would go and attack commenters who had themselves posted online, which means these PR people were up till, you know, 2:00, 3:00 in the morning, trying to do this, using a variety of subterfuges.
One person told me she used 20 aliases; another used over 100. One of them tried to camouflage the involvement of FOX News by using old laptops. A third had to use an AOL dialup so that the IP address couldn't be traced in any way back to News Corp or FOX News, an astonishing array of things.
One other thing they did was that they tried to discredit reporters, reporters for "The New York Times," doing a very modest story about (inaudible) by this channel, CNN, in 2008, found that the fact that he'd been treated for substance abuse splashed over various gossip blogs, as retribution. He had been warned not to do it; that showed up later.
Another one was baited. He was given false information under an email account set up in the name of an actual FOX News producer, saying, hey, we're going to make a change; it turned out it was completely untrue.
He mistakenly ran with it and when he made the mistake, FOX News publicly denounced him as unreliable, trying to destroy his credibility as a reporter for something they themselves had set him up with.
AVLON: That's chilling stuff.
But most people in America know about Rupert Murdoch through FOX News.
He is a successful competitor but also a conservative ideologically driven agenda throughout that network.
And yet there's a dichotomy, because when you follow Rupert Murdoch's Twitter feed, which by all accounts he does himself, it is not a Tea Party conservative diatribe you see. Instead, he takes oppositions that some people might find surprising, a strong advocate for immigration reform, a strong advocate for education reform.
That doesn't dovetail with the stereotypes, the sometimes cartoonish stereotypes.
How do you account for that gap between perception and reality and more importantly, the channel and the man himself?
FOLKENFLIK: Well, I've got to say, I think that he doesn't always get credit for being a more interesting and textured creature than he's often vilified as being or often lauded as being. He is definitely a creature of the Right. He is a conservative voice.
But he is of the center Right. You mentioned immigration; he, himself, an immigrant to this country, a naturalized now American citizen, but Australian by birth, he -- I've a chapter in the book about his stance corporately to advance the notion of carbon neutrality.
He pointed to some severe weather devastating his native country of Australia and said, you know, we can no longer sit back and do nothing. And News Corp, his company, beat his own five-year deadline to become a carbon neutral company through offsets, but also through a series of environmentally minded reforms.
On the other hand, he's very against taxation. He's very against government regulation and he's very set against a lot of the government involvement in that kind of issue.
So you see him taking a stance which is more to the center than you would find reflected on any of the opinion shows or most of them on FOX News. And certainly he's outflanked on the Right by the editorial pages of his own "Wall Street Journal." They are much more conservative than he is.
He at once empowers them to do this; it serves the audiences of FOX. It serves the core audiences of the editorial page of "The Wall Street Journal." And yet his heart is on the center right, which you can find often in the pages of the "New York Post," the pages of "The Sun" of London.
AVLON: Final question, what do you think Rupert Murdoch's legacy will be when all is said and done?
FOLKENFLIK: You'll see somebody who was passionate about newspapers and about news. He sees it, somebody who was willing to shake up some fairly sclerotic broadcast industries in his native Australia, in this country, forcing FOX to the table, in Britain with BSkyB, and who forced his competitors to step more lively.
At the same time, I think you saw the introduction in some ways of a crueler form of journalism than might have sustained in this market and showed ways in which it would work to his benefit, not only as a journalist, but as a businessman, that it served both interests.
AVLON: David Folkenflik, thanks for joining us on RELIABLE SOURCES.
FOLKENFLIK: Thanks for your interest.
AVLON: Now for the record, David Folkenflik has also served as a guest host here on RELIABLE SOURCES.
Up next, a rare conversation with the legendary columnist and author, Jimmy Breslin, one of the great deadline artists.
AVLON: Some reporters become legends. They inspire readers to become writers. And Jimmy Breslin is the best living example of this, a man whose newspaper column expressed the soul of New York City for decades. His no-B.S. independence and commitment to telling a story developed a devoted relationship memorably expressed in this clip from "When Harry Met Sally."
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SALLY: Let me just say I'm really just not a big fan of Jimmy Breslin.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, the reason I became a writer, but that's not important.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AVLON: Breslin was so famous in his prime that he became that rare reporter who was called on by ad agencies to give credibility to their beer pitches.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JIMMY BRESLIN, WRITER: I'm Jimmy Breslin, a writer. But beer is a subject that's not exactly unknown to me. So I tried one. I liked it. It's good beer. I tried another. It's better than good. It's a good drinking beer.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AVLON (voice-over): Now 83, Jimmy Breslin still lives in New York City with his wife, Ronnie Eldredge. He recently published a book on Branch Rickey and still writes an occasional column for the New York "Daily News."
I had the rare opportunity to sit down with him in his home earlier this week and talk about his life in newspapers.
AVLON: When you look back at your career, as a journalist, as a columnist, what did you love the most?
BRESLIN: Doing it. Yes, it was good to do it, it still is. Well, I mean, you can get some work -- some jobs that will bore you until you're dead, so you better look for something that's got a little tingle to it.
AVLON: When you were picking a story back in the day, what did you look for in a great story?
What made you -- got you fired up to write?
BRESLIN: Let that happen to you. You're not going to force it. Let something going on -- just keep looking and stop freaking talking when you're out. Just go out and listen. Keep your mouth shut and your eyes open and keep moving. That's the main thing, I would say.
AVLON (voice-over): Breslin pulled no punches in his columns. He once said that rage is the only quality that's kept me or anybody I ever studied writing columns for newspapers.
BRESLIN: Disliking people is good. That helps.
AVLON: In what way?
BRESLIN: Well, because you'll write about anybody you don't like. And it's good. I think that's very good.
But the other, the ones that you like, I know you've got to take a lot of time to get to the -- under the likeness to the lousiness that must be there. You've got to look for it if they are likable but that takes too long. It's much better if they are right out front with what they are.
AVLON: And one of his most famous columns came just days after the death of President Kennedy. While all of the other reporters were chasing the same story of the funeral procession, Breslin looked elsewhere and told the story of the man responsible for preparing the president's grave at Arlington National Cemetery. I asked Jimmy Breslin to read part of that work.
BRESLIN: "Clifton Pollard was pretty sure he was going to be working on Sunday, so when he woke up at 9 am in his three-room apartment on Corcoran Street" -- and this is a Washington dateline -- "on Corcoran Street, he put on khaki overalls before going into the kitchen for breakfast.
"His wife, Nettie, made bacon and eggs for him. Pollard was in the middle of eating when he received the phone call he had been expecting. It was from Mazo Kawalchik, who is the foreman of the gravediggers at Arlington National Cemetery, which is where Pollard works for a living.
"'Polly, could you please be here by 11 o'clock this morning?' Kawalchik asked. 'I guess you know what it's for.'
"Pollard did. He hung up the phone, finished breakfast, and left his apartment so he could spend Sunday digging a grave for John Fitzgerald Kennedy."
AVLON: Breslin was a deadline artist, able to write beautiful stories under punishing deadlines, such as his column on the death of John Lennon, reported and written in just a few hours.
AVLON: What would you do to inspire yourself when you were writing a column on a deadline like that?
BRESLIN: Fear. The clock. That's the thing. If there's a lot of time, it's good. I'll stop and talk about how great I am. Have a cup of coffee or something, you know, screwing around.
But, no, this was -- you had -- every minute was precious. It was -- there's something in yourself you had to know was important and that was it. As long as it got done quick enough, I was going to get paid for doing it that way. Yes.
AVLON: It's always for money, never for love?
BRESLIN: You better have the money to get home with, yes. I don't know. You work at it. It's a life -- I mean, you're working. It's a working life. That's what it is.
AVLON: And that, ladies and gentlemen, is Jimmy Breslin, one of the all-time greats.
And up next, we all know some political pundits say crazy things occasionally, but now their statements are in for some serious scrutiny. I'll explain after the break. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)
AVLON: If you're angry at the division and dysfunction in Washington, you already know that politicians deserve plenty of blame. But the rise of partisan media is a huge part of the problem as well.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GLENN BECK, COMMENTATOR: This president I think has exposed himself as a guy over and over and over again who has a deep-seated hatred for white people.
ED SCHULTZ, MSNBC HOST: The Republicans lie! They want to see you dead. They'd rather make money off your dead corpse.
RUSH LIMBAUGH, TALK SHOW HOST: What does it say about the college coed Susan Fluke who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex? What does that make her? It makes her a slut, right?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AVLON: You know, the intense, ideological and sometimes unhinged voices who distort facts and inflame partisan passions. Don't be fooled, it's part of their business plan. They profit from polarization. There's plenty of outrage but not enough accountability.
That's why I was happy to find out that the folks at PolitiFact, a Pulitzer Prize winning fact checkers from the "Tampa Bay Times" are branching out to create PunditFact, a website that will fact check journalists, columnists and, yes, TV commentators. Now they've funded the project with grants from The Ford Foundation and The Democracy Fund, as well as individual donors, like the founder of Craigslist, set to officially launch in November, PunditFact will direct the truth-o-meter at the news business, where there is, unfortunately, a real need to help cut through the spin and establish the facts.
Take the current debate over the seriously screwed up implementation of healthcare.gov. Sean Hannity told listeners on his radio show that, quote, "In 45 out of 50 states, the average men are seeing their premiums double, going up 99 percent; women up 62 percent."
Now with all of those statistics, it sure can sound credible but PunditFact analyzed the data and the truth-o-meter found that Hannity's statement was mostly false.
Now over at MSNBC, Lawrence O'Donnell raised some eyebrows when pushed back on claims that the IRS will target people who fail to purchase insurance. Here's what O'Donnell said.
"The IRS has specifically been forbidden from ever actually pursing either civil or criminal remedies for people who don't purchase health insurance."
Well, it turns out that that statement is mostly true.
Finally, let's look at a claim from Ann Coulter in her syndicated column, saying that "No doctors who went to an American medical school will be accepting ObamaCare."
Now, sure sounds scary and Halloween's around the country. But perhaps not surprisingly, the truth-o-meter rated it a "pants on fire," a rating they explained in great detail.
Now it's no accident that trust in media is on the decline at precisely the same time that partisan media has gained outsized influence. The independence and integrity of the news business has been compromised and we need to push back to earn that trust back, always keeping in mind some durable wisdom offered by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, "Everyone is entitled to their own opinion but not their own facts."
That's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm John Avlon. If you missed any of today's program, you can find us on iTunes or on our blog. If you have comments about today's show, you can tweet us @CNNReliable or use the #reliable. Join us here again next Sunday morning at 11:00 am Eastern.
"STATE OF THE UNION" with Candy Crowley begins right now.