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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES
Mystery of Flight 370; Not Everyone Loves Stephen Colbert; Comcast: Money and Power
Aired April 13, 2014 - 11:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Fredricka Whitfield, live at the CNN world headquarters in Atlanta.
"RELIABLE SOURCES" will begin in a few moments. But, first, our top stories at this hour.
The latest on the search for Flight 370. Now, apparently the search area is expanding in the southern Indian Ocean.
First, we had brand new details about the potential flight path of the plane after it dropped off Malaysian military radar. A senior Malaysian government source tells CNN it appears the plane went north and then around Indonesian air space. The source said that move may have been intentional to avoid radar detection.
And in the search in the Indian Ocean, the focus is on the area where a Chinese ship said it detected two pulse signals. Authorities say the signals heard Friday and Saturday were a little more than a mile apart, and right now, a British ship with advanced equipment is heading there to check it out.
An Australian ship also picked up an acoustic noise but in a different area to the north. But officials say they can't verify that any of it is connected to the missing plane.
All right, let's check in now with Will Ripley in Perth, Australia -- Will.
WILL RIPLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Fred, the search area is larger, as you mentioned, after seeing it go down in size for much of this week, it increased to 6,000 square miles. What that means is that they're continuing to refine the data as they search for this debris field which on day 37 still has not been spotted. Not one single piece of debris from Flight 370 has been recovered.
The underwater search also continues at this hour. And we have at least as we know of confirmed four possible pings, a data analysis still pending on two of them. And we expect to possibly learn this week if they don't hear any more pings, it's now been five days since we heard a ping, the last one was on Tuesday.
So, if we don't hear anymore, at some point, the search is going to shift from listening underwater to deploying the submersible and scanning with side-scan sonar the bottom of the ocean. When that happens, it will slow down the search considerably, so the question maybe that we'll have answered this week is when that next phase will begin -- Fred.
WHITFIELD: All right. Thank you so much, Will Ripley, in Perth, Australia. Appreciate that.
Meantime, we're also following a development in eastern Ukraine.
Pro-Russian protesters have taken over several government buildings and police stations and Ukraine's interior minister confirms that a state security officer was killed. Leaders say an anti- terrorism operation is under way, but our crews are not seeing any signs of confrontations. The White House is responding by sending Vice President Biden to Ukraine on April 22nd to talk with government leaders and other groups.
I'm Fredricka Whitfield. See you later this afternoon.
"RELIABLE SOURCES" starts right now.
BRIAN STELTER, CNN HOST: Good morning and welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Brian Stelter.
And I have some great stories for you in the next few minutes. One man standing alone here on Capitol Hill against a giant corporate merger, that's Senator Al Franken, and he's here to discuss why he thinks the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger would be a disaster. That's his word.
And yet another big controversy at Comcast-owned MSNBC -- it seems like there's always something going on over there. This one raises journalistic questions that we'll get into.
And the search for the Malaysian jetliner from China's perspective. They have their own complaints about the coverage and some conspiracy theories, too.
But up first this morning, Stephen Colbert taking over for David Letterman on "The Late Show".
Whether you think Colbert is a comic genius or not, he's a likable guy. So, we all want to see him shed his blowhard character and make this work, right?
Wrong. Welcome to 21st century America, or seemingly, anything can divide us along political lines, which means it's time for "Red News/Blue News" -- my weekly look at stories that get twisted by the partisan media.
In this case, a lot of conservative media big shots think CBS is showing bias by bringing Colbert over from Comedy Central. Listen to what Rush Limbaugh had to say on Thursday.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
RUSH LIMBAUGH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: I'll give you the short version. CBS has just declared war on the heartland of America. There is a -- here's -- no longer is comedy going to be a covert assault on traditional American values, conservatives. Now, it's just wide out in the open. They've hired a partisan so-called comedian to run a comedy show.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
STELTER: That was the reaction on the day of the announcement. Of course, we're a year away from this transition, so we might be hearing more of that in the months to come.
You know, Bill O'Reilly brought up Colbert and criticized him before "The Late Show" announcement. Here's what O'Reilly said on his earlier in the week.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BILL O'REILLY, FOX NEWS: Like many ideological fanatics, Colbert is misguided in the extreme. His analysis is delivered under the guise of comedy, but believe me, he's a true progressive believer playing exclusively to other believers. Colbert can be dismissed as clueless, but the guy does do damage, because he gives cover to powerful people who are selling Americans a big lie, that this country is bad, that it intentionally oppresses many of its own citizens. That is a lie. That point of view is shameful.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
STELTER: I guess we shouldn't be surprised to hear O'Reilly criticizing Colbert. Colbert became a star by making fun of O'Reilly more or less. You know, a lot of people think that blowhard right wing character that Colbert plays on his show is based on Bill.
And, of course, since this is "Red News/Blue News", you can guess how people at MSNBC, how couple of the host over there were greeting the Colbert news.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS)
RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC: Mazel tov. I mean, Dave Letterman is a genius, and now, as he's leaving, it's going to be Jimmy Fallon on "The Tonight Show" and Stephen Colbert on CBS. And, honestly, we are lucky in this country to be living in this golden age of genius people who are this good at their jobs doing this work for us every night.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
STELTER: Now, as a media reporter, I view this as a business decision by CBS, not an ideological one. But the politics here are awfully interesting. So, I want to get into that in just a minute.
But since it's business, whenever I want to know whether TV programs going to work or not, where do I look? To the demo, of course, the demographic. That's TV shorthand for the younger viewers who when they watch bring in more advertising revenue, more advertising dollars for channels like this one. Let me share two numbers with you that explain what's going on. The median age for "The Colbert Report's" audience is 42. The median age of Letterman's "Late Show" audience is 58.
Now, if you're not in the demo, or even if you are, hold on, because I'm going to bring in a little bit a TV legend who knows more about late night than anyone in the demo, the brilliant and very funny, Dick Cavett.
But, first, to my demo guest, here in Washington, Michelle Fields, a correspondent for PJ Media and a conservative commentator, and in New York, Keli Goff, progressive columnist for "The Daily Beast".
Thank you both for joining me.
MICHELLE FIELDS, PJ MEDIA: Thank you.
KELI GOFF, THE DAILY BEAST: Good to be here.
STELTER: Michelle, let me start with you. Colbert's character is a joke. He has been doing this for a decade. It's a comedy show. So a lot of people might ask, can't the right take a joke?
FIELDS: Of course, we can, but, look, conservatives look at this and they say, typical liberal Hollywood. They go and they swap out their aging liberal comedian for a younger, more liberal comedian who wears his politics on his sleeve. Unlike Carson, Colbert's main goal isn't just to entertain. It's also to push a political agenda.
STELTER: But Colbert is not going to play that character on "The Late Show".
FIELDS: But it's going to be difficult for people to separate Colbert the character and Colbert the person.
STELTER: Keli, do you get why some on the right like Rush Limbaugh this week were offended by the hiring of Colbert?
GOFF: Well, I get why some people on the right, like Rush Limbaugh, are at least pretending their upset, because I actually think for him, it's red meat. I think for someone like Rush Limbaugh or even Bill O'Reilly, faux outrage is what motivates their audience and what gets them viewers. So, I get why they're at least pretending to make hay out of this.
STELTER: Let me bring one more voice here, because MSNBC's Chris Hayes played that same Rush Limbaugh sound bite that I just did and then he had this to say.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CHRIS HAYES, MSNBC: This is the point where I'm supposed to say Rush Limbaugh is being ridiculous, but I don't think he and others are being ridiculous, at least I don't think they are being ridiculous as conservatives. Conservatives have a right to be upset that Stephen Colbert is taking over this huge platform, because part of the reason why I love the guy, and I do love and admire him, is that Stephen Colbert has real politics -- genuine, palpable, sophisticated, thoughtful, liberal politics.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
STELTER: Keli, I think this lends credence to Michelle's argument.
GOFF: Well, I think it's an interesting argument from Chris. But I also think that to one of the conservative writers I was reading about this, you know, he pointed out we've mainly seen Colbert in the public eye in character. And so, we actually don't know what kind of straight man interviewer he's going to be.
FIELDS: I think conservatives are justified being upset because it seems like the executives in Hollywood are trying to push a certain agenda, a political agenda. Why would Jay Leno be pushed out? It doesn't make sense. He had great ratings. It was because he appeal to Middle America and they didn't like that.
GOFF: I think there might have been -- look, I think there might have been a lot of ageism going on because there are plenty of actresses I can think of who have been pushed out or not getting the work that they should.
STELTER: Yes, NBC was making a business decision there by thinking about the younger demographic.
And let me play one clip of Colbert in character before we talk about him out of character. This is that famous White House Correspondents Dinner, keynote speech he gave, feet away from then- President Bush. Watch.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
STEPHEN COLBERT, COMEDIAN: I stand by this man because he stands for things. Not only for things, he stands on things -- things like aircraft carriers, and rubble and recently flooded city squares.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
STELTER: There was so much tension in the room that night. I remember people squirming in their seats because they weren't used to that kind of humor. There was a headline on "Politico" this week. It said, "Washington, beware. Stephen Colbert is coming for you. "
Keli, don't you think politicians of all stripes have to be a little nervous about Colbert?
GOFF: Well, that's the point I'm getting at here, Brian, is good comedians are equal opportunity offenders. I mean, let me be very clear about something -- Jon Stewart was friends with Anthony Weiner. They have been roommates, right? And yet that didn't stop him from making jokes when they were funny. FIELDS: I think as if he's equal opportunity -- come on, you watch the show. He goes after Republicans. So does Kimmel, so does Fallon -- Kimmel at least tried to go both --
GOFF: When they do something funny.
FIELDS: Oh, come on.
GOFF: So you're saying comedians never made fun of Bill Clinton. They're still making jokes about him 20 years later about his sex life.
GOFF: Twenty years after Bill Clinton, they're still making jokes about his sex life. So, I just think there is a little bit of paranoia here among conservatives that there's some conspiracy to only make jokes about conservatives.
FIELDS: Oh, come on. I mean, if you look at Johnny Carson, Johnny Carson wasn't trying to push a political agenda. And now, we have a bunch of comedians that that's what they're trying to do.
FIELD: For you to pretend that doesn't exist and to act as if this is some sort of conspiracy is very unfair.
STELTER: We're not the funny police, but I think we should come back here in a year and talk about how he's doing once he takes over "The Late Show" and we'll see how he's able to shed that skin and reveal who he really is.
Michelle, Keli, thank you for joining me.
GOFF: Thanks, Brian.
STELTER: That was great fun. And now, let's turn to the voice of wisdom.
Dick Cavett has appeared on television for five decades. He writes a wonderful column for "The New York Times" Web site, but he's best known for his career on late night television. He did everything from writing jokes to "The Tonight Show", to, of course, hosting his own, legendary program, "The Dick Cavett Show".
And he joins me now from New York.
Thank you so much for coming on.
DICK CAVETT, TV LEGEND/COMEDIAN: I am glad to join you.
STELTER: Do you think CBS is taking a big gamble here with Stephen Colbert? CAVETT: If they are, it's probably the best gamble anybody ever took. I can't think of anybody -- or whether there has been anyone more qualified to do this show.
STELTER: Wow. Tell me why he's so qualified, because we've seen him for a decade over at Comedy Central.
STELTER: What makes him so qualified?
CAVETT: You don't see it all there, that's the interesting part of this. You know, when Stephen decided to do that, people said, this is the dumbest career move ever, to try to be a character constantly. This in the last three weeks and he'll be out of the business.
Well, he's been in at all that time. And the interesting thing about it is I know him, and there's so much more to him and even he is aware of that. I did a piece in "Vanity Fair" about him and when we were talking about it -- he and I were talking about -- he said, you know, many times in my character I am frustrated because I would like to say what I feel and talk about things I'm interested in. But he's kind of like Marcel Marceau, stuck in the mask of that character.
But it's so thoroughly entertaining that I don't think anybody ever complained about that. But he has everything he needs. He has intelligence, fabulous education, he's read everything you can name, and he is not just a comedian but a wit in the tradition of Groucho and the very best people. If he were only better looking.
STELTER: I think we can all say that about ourselves.
CAVETT: Yes. Or at least about others.
STELTER: What do you think Colbert should be most concerned about? Now, granted, he's got six or nine or 12 months to prepare before he takes the late show chair, but what should he be most concerned about? You saw a lot of conservatives critiquing him this week. Rush Limbaugh said CBS lost the heartland with this pick.
STELTER: Does he have to be concerned about that?
CAVETT: That was the comment from the wasteland of the country -- waistline, sorry. Can I do that joke again?
What Rush Limbaugh said is about as far away from anything I would be interested in as anything I can imagine unless it were Dick Cheney.
STELTER: People get their news from these late night show stuff. Not just from Jon Stewart, from all the monologues on all these shows. So, people's political backgrounds may matter. CAVETT: Well, yes, you get a good bit from those guys, if they're going to, as you say, impose their political views, but they're not dumb enough to do that. It's all right to have them, it's all right to be seen, but that should not ever be a worry.
STELTER: So what's the single skill any talk show host has to have?
CAVETT: Well, they always told me I was a good listener. If they only knew how many times, at least when I began, I would be looking at the guest list and I just see what they signaled me over there, and somebody just let a sign, or they took away a sign, I didn't see it, and I would look back at the guest and think, oh, gosh, this guy's lips stopped moving.
STELTER: What do you watch at night? What shows -- which of these late-night shows, there's a dozen of them now, do you prefer?
CAVETT: Oh, even you aren't devious and clever enough to get me to say which of the most people that I -- all of whom I know, or as they say on panel shows are dear friends of mine.
STELTER: Dear friends.
CAVETT: Than to say I like A more than B. But I -- you can't be falling --
STELTER: Well, you do have a favorite. You just won't share.
STELTER: I think we all do. That's the beauty of television.
CAVETT: It's hard not to.
STELTER: No preference from you. No favorites you're naming, but you will be watching all of them, thanks to your DVR.
CAVETT: I should never be out from in front of my television set, I'm afraid. I'll never get "War and Peace" read.
STELTER: Well, that's the dilemma that you face these days, right?
CAVETT: After you.
STELTER: Dick Cavett, thank you so much for joining me.
CAVETT: Yes, you do a hell of a good jobs and you make it painless. That's great.
STELTER: Oh, stop me. You're flattering your subject. I've already interviewed you, you don't have to flatter me anymore.
CAVETT: OK, I take it back.
STELTER: I'm going to regain my composure after the Dick Cavett interview during the break.
And when we come back, we all that know that money buys some goons (ph) in Washington. But I think you'll be shocked to learn just how much money is being spent over this proposed Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger. You might ask, if they have this much money, where is the cable guy when you need him?
You want to hear our next interview. So, stay tuned.
STELTER: "I hate my cable company." You hear people say that all the time, right? Even cable companies admit customer service is a big problem.
So, here's a question: will the $45 billion plan for a mega merger between Comcast and Time Warner Cable make that service any better? A lot of consumer groups say no. And they showed up on Wednesday on Capitol Hill to watch company executives face off against the Senate Judiciary Committee.
There were a lot of tough questions to ask about this proposed merger, so you might have expected a lot of fireworks at the hearing. It turns out not so much. It was actually quite a snooze. Why is that? Is that because of the vast sums of money Comcast spreads all over Washington?
It's a question I think you have to ask because Comcast is known as one of the biggest spenders in all of politics. It's got an army of lobbyists, more than 100 of them, registered here in D.C.
The company's critics say it is way too cozy with government. For example, did you know that a former FCC commissioner is now a Comcast senior vice president? Or that Comcast CEO, Brian Roberts, played golf with President Obama last year? There are lots of examples like that that critics dig up.
So, we decided to look at, in this case, which senators on this committee got what from Comcast. And we found out that every one of the 18 members of the committee has gotten cash donations from Comcast at some point in the last decade, every one of them.
Like Orrin Hatch, Republican of Utah. Here's what he said at the hearing about the possible merger.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. ORRIN HATCH (R), UTAH: I know some of my friends here have never met a merger they liked. Too often, government intervention in such matters risks harming consumer welfare and innovation by protecting insufficient competitors from market forces.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
STELTER: Senator Hatch likes the deal and Comcast likes him, really likes him. Over the past decade, he received more money than any other Republican senator on the committee from Comcast, that's $45,000.
Let's be clear, of course -- we have no evidence that those donations influenced his thinking on this matter. Comcast likes Democrats a lot, too. Senator Dick Durbin got even more money than Senator Hatch did, the most of any senator on the committee -- $54,000 over the last decade. But he wasn't at the hearing on Wednesday.
Another Democrat, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, has received $52,500 over the past decade. At the hearing, he brought up questions, but Leahy did not openly propose the merger.
The truth is that some of the toughest questions on Wednesday came from those who received the least amount of money from Comcast.
Republican Mike Lee of Utah has only received $17,500. But then, again, he's still a freshman senator, but here's what he said on Wednesday.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REP. MIKE LEE (R), UTAH: I've heard some concerns expressed that the emerging Comcast, the post-merger Comcast might have the incentive or even the predilection, but certainly enhanced capacity due to its larger size to discriminate against types of content, including political content.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
STELTER: And who is the senator who is way down the bottom of the list of Comcast generosity? That's Al Franken, Democrat of Minnesota. On Wednesday, he was the only one to openly oppose the merger.
So, what is the relationship between all this money and how the senators treat cable executives and treat this merger? And why does Senator Franken think this merger is such a bad idea?
He joins me now to talk about all these issues.
Senator, thank you for coming here.
SEN. AL FRANKEN (D), MINNESOTA: Thank you, Brian.
STELTER: I was rattling off some examples on the introduction of Comcast donations to lawmakers. It seems very difficult to believe it doesn't have some effect on the response that Comcast is getting now from Washington.
Do you worry about that? Do you worry, for example, that one of the former FCC commissioners now works for Comcast, that we see that kind of coziness between government and business in this case, and that it may cause the deal to win approval?
FRANKEN: I don't like this revolving door. I don't like this revolving door between regulators in Comcast. I thought that was kind of tacky that one of the FCC commissioners, I think just four months after they approved the Comcast/NBC deal, went over to work a high- paying job at Comcast. I just don't like that.
STELTER: And the money specifically, do you think it influences your colleagues on Capitol Hill?
FRANKEN: You know, I think Comcast does give money to people who support them, not necessarily to buy their support, but -- yes, I really don't like the role of money in politics, and I think it's gotten worse and worse and worse. I think Citizens United was a very disturbing pernicious ruling. I think this latest McCutcheon ruling was awful.
So, you know, it's just giving more power to those who have money.
STELTER: And Comcast would say, you know, Senator Franken used dozen fundraising appeals in the past, when NBC proposed merger was happening. What do you say to that?
FRANKEN: Guilty as charged. I mean, I basically said I'm against this, I have some experience here. You know, as I said, I got over 100,000 people writing me saying, don't allow this to happen.
STELTER: It's not just consumers, by the way. It's also big media companies. There are CEOs of big media companies that own lots of cable channels that are very concerned about this merger, but we haven't heard them speak out.
There are --
FRANKEN: Well, that speaks volumes about how anti-competitive this is. You know why they don't speak out? They come to my office and say, this is off the record. Then they talk about how it's going to be anti-competitive, but --
STELTER: You can't name names, then?
FRANKEN: No. They're afraid of retaliation. Doesn't that tell you everything you need to know?
STELTER: What form of retaliation? Taking channels off or paying less for the channels?
FRANKEN: Yes, not giving them access to the 40 percent of the market on, you know, on broadband or 40 percent or 50 percent on broadband. Yes, that's huge. That's the whole point. That's the whole point.
STELTER: Have you encouraged some of these content owners to speak up?
FRANKEN: Yes, you can encourage them, but they think, you know, they are committing business suicide by, you know, that they'll be retaliated against, and that shows you what's wrong here.
STELTER: It speaks to the closed system of cable and satellite distributors.
FRANKEN: And you close it more by combining the number one -- this is the number one cable TV company buying the number two. And this is the number one internet broadband company buying the number three. And by the way, they also have this vertical integration where they have 12 percent of all television that's produced.
This is just -- this is a disaster. This is more than about cable TV. This is about cable TV --
STELTER: Ultimately, this deal is most importantly about broadband Internet.
FRANKEN: It's most importantly about broadband Internet. And about 30 percent of the country has only one choice in broadband, and another 40 percent has only two choices. That's 70 percent of people in America that have two or fewer choices in Internet broadband.
So, if you're getting your TV from DirecTV, you still got to get your internet somehow. And if you want to watch high -- you know, if you want to watch TV, you need high-speed Internet. And that's Comcast and a combination of Comcast/Time Warner Cable.
STELTER: Do you see any way this merger would help consumers? Are there positives to this? Are there silver linings?
FRANKEN: You know, I can't see one. I mean, I really can't. This is -- look, Comcast has been shown to leverage their position. And I'll give you a perfect example of the leverage. They were told by the regulators, you have the neighborhood. Now, what's the neighborhood? Well, we're on CNN right now.
STELTER: Do CNBC, Bloomberg, FOX News should all be around us on the channel?
FRANKEN: It should be, shouldn't it? Bloomberg isn't. Bloomberg, CNN -- sorry -- Comcast agreed to neighborhood, so agreed to put CNN next to FOX next to MSNBC next to CNBC, 24-hour cable news, and in the case of CNBC, which Comcast owns, a financial news network. What is Bloomberg? It's a financial news network.
So it should be next to CNBC so that people see Bloomberg and say, oh, I'm curious about Bloomberg.
STELTER: This wound up in litigation for years.
FRANKEN: Yes, but they were supposed to neighborhood it and they didn't. They put Bloomberg out in the nosebleed seats. Why? They wanted more people to watch CNBC.
STELTER: You spent more time on the camera than just about anybody on Capitol Hill. You rarely do television interviews, why is that?
FRANKEN: It's been like that. Basically, I won, by 312 votes. I think, the people of Minnesota wanted to know that I was going to focus on them and on the job, and I -- that's what I wanted to do.
STELTER: Would you go on the new "Late Show" with Stephen Colbert next year? What do you think of that announcement?
FRANKEN: I think Stephen is just brilliant, and I think every comedian and every satirist feels the same way. I think it's a great choice. It's going to be interesting to see him do it as himself. I mean, this is -- and not in character.
STELTER: He's going to have to really reinvent himself.
FRANKEN: Well, and isn't that a great thing, to reinvent yourself? Now, it's a high stakes reinvention but because he's been that character and the way he sustained it and the way he grew, I just think he's absolutely brilliant.
STELTER: Senator Franken, thank you for joining me.
FRANKEN: Thank you.
STELTER: By the way, we're going to keep trying to book Brian Roberts or David Cohen from Comcast. We'd love to have them here in a future week to talk about the merger.
Coming up next: another big controversy at MSNBC. And it raises this question. When, if ever, should a TV host be able to participate at a political fund-raiser? What should the rules of this particular road be? We will dig deeper into that story next.
STELTER: Welcome back.
You know, we talk a lot here about partisan channels, FOX News, MSNBC, partly because they're a new species in television. They have hosts with strong political points. And that can cause conflicts. Are they journalists or personalities or political figures or all of the above somehow?
The latest brouhaha involves MSNBC. There's been a lot of brouhahas there lately. But this one involves Joe Scarborough, the Republican co-host of "Morning Joe." He's hosting a GOP dinner in New Hampshire next month sometimes described as a fund-raiser.
And that gained some scrutiny from The Huffington Post and others, because a month or two ago, another MSNBC host, a liberal, Ed Schultz, wanted to speak at a Democratic fund-raiser in Florida, but he had to cancel because of the channel's concerns.
Remember, a few years ago, Keith Olbermann and Joe Scarborough were both suspended for making political donations. In this latest case, MSNBC says the New Hampshire dinner is not a real fund-raiser, so it's OK for Scarborough to be the keynote speaker there. You might say, these people make no secret of their politics, so what's the conflict? Well, it is a very complicated issue.
And joining me to sort of through some of it is Frank Sesno, director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University.
Frank, thank you for joining me.
FRANK SESNO, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY: Great to be here.
STELTER: It seems like there used to be much more clear rules about these issues, now not so much. And MSNBC in this case this week was getting questions from reporters like me for days about what the rules are.
Does it seem like there are rules at all anymore to you?
SESNO: There are rules, but they seem to drift all over the place, and they apply sometimes and not others. And sometimes there's double standards, and sometimes they don't matter at all.
It used to be very clear. If you came out of government, and you went into journalism -- first of all, it was hard to do -- and, if you did it, you gave up government, or if you went from journalism into government, you probably said to yourself, I'm not going back to journalism.
Now journalism is all these different things and media are all these different things, and so the rules are very much, let's call them situational.
SESNO: It depends.
STELTER: There are five or six examples this week of people on television in these quandaries. And Joe Scarborough is just one of them.
Scarborough's is interesting because he's one of the few who identifies as a conservative, as a Republican on MSNBC, a channel where there are lots of liberals, and like Ed Schultz, who was told, you should not be attending that fund-raiser in Florida in March.
What did you make of the fact that the DNC came out with a letter to the head of the network and said, this is a double standard?
SESNO: Oh, I made of it that the DNC is trying to weigh in here and make a little bit of noise.
SESNO: It's sound and fury signifying not very much. But they're trying to make a point, and they're trying to hold MSNBC's feet to the fire. The fact of the matter is...
STELTER: And, by the way, I said to them this morning, any updates, any updates?
STELTER: They said, not from us.
Have you heard anything from MSNBC? They're trying to keep this going, I guess.
SESNO: They just want to keep it going, but they make it work for them when they want it to work for them. They are very happy to have their partisans on the air. They want their partisans on the air. They love what MSNBC does. Are you kidding?
They're weighing in because they want to be part of the noise machine and there is lots of noise out here. The real issue is, what are the real motivations of these people who are on the air? Are they being transparent with their viewers, and what is the position of their employer?
STELTER: Al Sharpton, another MSNBC host, was in the news this week because The Smoking Gun published documents saying that he was an FBI informant in the 1980s.
He is always a target. He was a target again this week as a result from the tabloid covers to FOX News coverage criticizing him, and yet in the very same week, President Obama is going to his conference and speaking.
Let me read what NPR said about that. It said: "For both men, there's a symbiosis that comes from sharing the same stage. By using Sharpton's platform, Obama can be fairly certain his message will be amplified by the civil rights leader to the African-American audiences of his nationally syndicated radio show and MSNBC. For Sharpton, it's just another signal of how complete his self-reinvention has been from outside agitator to inside player."
Sharpton is the kind of person who wouldn't have hosted a cable news program 15 years ago, but who now does and now has that platform. That is, I think, another example of this -- of why the rules may have to be changing or may be situational.
SESNO: Brian, what cameras do for people and what shows like this do for people is, they give them two things. They give them profile and they give them access.
And profile and access equals influence, especially in this town. But it's also the dangerous part of it, because, again, what are you using your podium, your platform for? Is it to inform the audience? Is it to persuade the audience? Is it to feather your own nest? Is it to run for office yourself someday, whether you declare that or not? And that's what the public has a right to know. And everybody should have to post on their Web site, these are my intentions. It's sort of like -- they should be like the pharmaceutical companies. This show may inform, but it also may lead to my political future.
STELTER: A lot more transparency.
And that's true here at CNN as well. Down the hall here in this studio, we have "CROSSFIRE," people like Newt Gingrich and Van Jones, who have been in the political sphere in the past. Maybe they will be again in the future. So CNN is not exempt from this.
SESNO: CNN is not exempt from this. CNN tried to hire several people who have been through revolving door in the past.
STELTER: Frank Sesno, thank you for being here.
SESNO: My pleasure.
STELTER: Coming up on RELIABLE SOURCES: You have seen CNN's sometimes wall-to-wall coverage of the missing Malaysian airliner, but what would you be seeing if you were watching Chinese TV?
We will go inside the story with an American journalist who is working for Chinese state media. You will want to hear this.
STELTER: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES.
For five weeks now, the American media have reported on the search for the still missing Malaysia Airlines jets, and so have the Chinese media, but from a different perspective.
For the Chinese, this story is, in some ways, more personal and more difficult to cover. More than 150 of the passengers on board that flight were Chinese, and the plane was headed for Beijing.
Their story is one of pain and desperation. So, how has the Chinese media approached this story? And are the reporters there freer than we might think to tell the story?
Jim Spellman is a Washington-based correspondent for CCTV, China's English-language channel. And he used to work here at CNN, so he has the perfect perspective to share with us on this.
Jim, thanks for being here.
JIM SPELLMAN, CCTV: Thanks for having me.
STELTER: So, I'm guessing you still watch some CNN. You have seen some of the plane coverage here in the United States. SPELLMAN: I'm as hooked as anybody.
STELTER: Are you?
SPELLMAN: I have been watching as much as I can, yes, absolutely.
STELTER: So, how does it compare to the level of resources that Chinese media have devoted to this story?
SPELLMAN: CCTV, our English-language networks, we have had about eight crews out in the field, plus our anchors in Beijing, our anchors here in Washington, covering this story.
That includes our correspondent Ying Yiyuan, who has been on the Chinese search ship Haixun 01 for over a month now. We have heavily invested in covering this story.
STELTER: Do you have a sense of how much Chinese citizens are paying attention to this story, as opposed to American citizens? Any sense of that?
SPELLMAN: Oh, it's a huge story, absolutely no doubt, especially...
STELTER: Even in the sixth week of it, huh?
SPELLMAN: In the sixth week of it.
I mean, the plane was flying to Beijing, so there is just natural interest there. And there's also been natural interest in the authorities to speak to the Chinese audience. The defense minister of Malaysia gave an exclusive interview to our correspondent James Chau, and he said in the beginning of it, I want to do this because I need to speak directly to the Chinese people.
I think it's an audience on this story, but increasingly on many stories, that you just can't ignore.
STELTER: Have you noticed any hostility in the U.S. media toward some of the Chinese officials or toward some of the information that has been released by China about this?
SPELLMAN: Well, I think that there is a sense, almost a narrative that has built, that if it's coming from the Chinese, it somehow is part of a big propaganda campaign or some sort of secrecy or something, when, in fact -- I may be wrong -- I believe the U.S. has released zero satellite photos, and I believe the U.S. has allowed no reporters on their P-8 search plane, which was in the mix there.
STELTER: We have talked recently on this program about how Russia Today, that cable channel, presents Russia's point of view here in the United States and around the world. Do you feel similar pressures to present China's point of view because it's a state-owned channel?
SPELLMAN: We feel that it's important to include China in the mix in stories where China is relevant.
So the plane is absolutely relevant. Something like the Ukraine, the Chinese position is essentially nonintervention. So, that will be in some reports, but they aren't going to be driving the day-to-day of the story. We are more likely to include, say, their -- them in context of the Security Council votes in the U.N.
But we certainly are not given and I have never received any type of memo to, you know, reflect some sort of party line.
STELTER: What has the appetite been like, as far as you can tell, for alternative explanations for this plane's disappearance, for conspiracy theories? Because we have had plenty of that here in the United States. Has there been a lot of that in China, and has that been reflected at all on television, on CCTV?
SPELLMAN: I'm not sure I can really speak to what that has been like within China, in Chinese-language media. I don't speak Chinese.
But on our air, you will see much, much less speculation. To a degree, it is almost unavoidable, because in ways the search has been speculative. So, we have experts on that will talk about the technology and things like that, possible routes, but we really have avoided speculation.
STELTER: People hear about something like CCTV, and they hear about the state funding of it, and they might be skeptical as a result. Do you sense any pressure on journalists who tell the story of the missing plane a certain way because it's funded by the Chinese government?
SPELLMAN: Certainly haven't.
I mean, is there a Chinese way to describe how black boxes work? I think that, largely, it's not -- it's not a story that has a Chinese perspective, I think, in a way. But, in the details, I think that there -- we bring to our viewers -- CCTV, it stands for China Central Television.
This is not something we hide from. Viewers should know that that's who is funding it. We don't hide from that at all. We are proud of that. It's part of who we are. So they should know on other, more political stories, they probably will hear more of a Chinese point of view.
STELTER: Jim Spellman, thank you so much for joining me.
SPELLMAN: Thanks for having me.
STELTER: Now you know what time it is. Time for a quick break here.
But when I come back, I want to tell you about a British invasion; 50 years ago, it was the Beatles, and now it's a bunch of ink-stained wretches, and they are taking over the news business. I will tell you all about it in just a moment.
STELTER: And finally this morning, this has been one of those weeks where it is a blast to cover the media business.
There was so much news, we have about a dozen stories up on our RELIABLE SOURCES blog on CNN.com for you to read today, including one about a schedule change right here at CNN. A bunch of taped series will be taking over the 9:00 p.m. slot that Piers Morgan occupied until last month.
Speaking of Piers, he is an exception to a rule, a British rule, because, this week, we saw another Brit take the helm of an American news operation. James Goldston, who joined ABC from Britain's ITV a decade ago, was promoted to be the president of ABC News. He is replacing Ben Sherwood, who is taking over the whole Disney/ABC television group.
Now two of the three network TV news operations in this country have presidents who hail from Britain. NBC News hired Deborah Turness from ITV to be its president last year. And the CEO of The New York Times Company, Mark Thompson, came over from the BBC a couple years ago. And on camera, John Oliver starts his HBO show later this month.
And I could go on and on and on. As you may know, newspapers over in Britain have a reputation for provocativeness and for not hiding their points of view. And with a lot of American media seeming to head that way, too, it's no wonder why they keep hiring Brits.
And that gets me into a segue into what I think will be a big media story this coming week. And that is the prize-worthiness of news reporting that has come from the NSA documents leaked by Edward Snowden. Glenn Greenwald and two other journalists from "The Guardian," which is a news organization founded in Britain, were in New Orleans on Friday to accept the George Polk Award for their work processing and explaining the documents that Snowden provided. Barton Gellman of "The Washington Post" also shared in the Polk Award.
On Monday afternoon, journalists' most prestigious prizes will be handed out. Those are the Pulitzers. And while we don't know the winners yet, we do know this. If Snowden coverage is not recognized, if it's snubbed by the Pulitzer Committee, that is going to be a very controversial decision.
Then again, if it is deemed prize-worthy -- and I think it is -- I bet that will stir up controversy as well.
We will be covering all of that and the rest of the week's media news on CNN.com and, of course, right here on television.
So, thank you so much for spending an hour of your Sunday with us. I hope you will do the same thing again this time next week.