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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES

Is Trump to Blame For Putin Meeting Confusion?; Interview with Democratic Congressman Eric Swalwell of California; How Do Reporters Combat Online Harassment?; Robert Leonard Says Only Fox News Can Dethrone Trump; Is Media Coverage on Trump's Attacks on the Media Counterproductive? Aired 11a-12p ET

Aired July 9, 2017 - 11:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[11:00:11] BRIAN STELTER, CNN HOST: Hey, I'm Brian Stelter, and it's time for RELIABLE SOURCES. This is our weekly look at the story behind the story, of how the media really works and how the news gets made.

Right now, the news media working overtime to find out what really happened in that pivotal meeting between Presidents Trump and Putin. One big question hovering over all of it is, who should we believe?

The Russians shared their account on camera. First, the foreign minister holding a press briefing, then, Vladimir Putin held a press conference at the conclusion of the G20 Summit.

But we have to go back on camera because we have no pictures to show you of Trump's press conference because he did not hold a press conference and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson only held an off- camera audio-only briefing. Instead, Trump tweeted about the meeting, saying this just a few hours ago: I strongly pressed President Putin twice about Russian meddling in our election, he vehemently denied it. Then, Trump said it's time to move on. In a flurry of tweets here, he said, maybe it's even time to partner with Putin on a cyber security unit.

Now, is this a case of keeping your friends close and your enemies closer? Perhaps. But it's being ridiculed by both Democrats and some prominent Republicans right now.

Trump also tweeted that sanctions were not discussed at my meeting with Putin. Now, this contradicts his secretary of state. Rex Tillerson told reporters after the meeting at that off-camera briefing that Trump did bring up the congressional push for more sanctions.

So, as we look at all this confusion, is the word of the day. It's hard to know who or what to believe about this meeting, and you have to wonder if anyone here has credibility on the matter. But just taking Trump at his own words and his own tweets, he's been harder on Megyn Kelly than he's been on Vladimir Putin.

Joining me now, John Avlon, a CNN political analyst, editor in chief of "The Daily Beast". In Washington, Lynn Sweet, a columnist and Washington bureau chief of "The Chicago Sun-Times". And also in D.C., John Gizzi, chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.

Thank you, everybody, for being here.

John Avlon, first to you, who if anybody benefits from the kind of confusion that I'm describing, this kind of uncertainty about what actually happened in the meeting?

JOHN AVLON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Not the American people, not the historical record. There's a question of whether Donald Trump intentionally sews seeds of doubt intentionally. I think that overstates the level of orchestration here.

What's clear is that when Vladimir Putin and Erdogan and other folks who are authoritarian-leaning folks, who have a terrible record on freedom of the press are -- making themselves available for questions and the American president does not design to create -- that will not create confidence in the American president. And it's tragic when we can't know who's telling the truth, the Russians or own president. But the president has himself to blame, when he says in morning of the meeting that everyone in the G20s is talking about John Podesta, by everybody he means himself. That sows the seeds of his own credibility gap.

STELTER: And, Lynn Sweet, someone covering the White House every day, there's just an example, just another example that we add to the list of credibility issues for the White House, that this one just happens to be an overseas G20 example?

LYNN SWEET, COLUMNIST AND WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, CHICAGO SUN-TIMES: Well, yes, it is, Brian, because in this case, it's not only confusion between what two heads of states said in their meeting, OK, we've had that before. What's remarkable here is the confusion between Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the president of the United States, that's when we talk about not normalizing relations. We don't want to normalize this when we report and cover the Trump presidency.

This is something that has to be reported out, that the two people on our side of the United States can't even agree on what happened and that is profound, not only as John said for history, but just enjoying the simple day to day reporting of what happened?

STELTER: Should we take Gary Cohn, Steve Mnuchin, Reince Priebus, and others at their word? They weren't in the room, but they have defended the president, saying he was very strong. He was tough on this matter. As a reporter covering this, Lynn, do you take them at their word?

SWEET: Well, you never take anyone at their word unless you have something to back it up. There's no notes, there's no detailed readout. And moreover -- and this is what I hope our viewers understand who are very skeptical about what reporters do, a press conference helps you sort this out, helps you ask questions.

And for people who are concerned about the filter of a professional reporter, I would think these are the people who should be joining us in calls for more press conferences because then they have the raw material to see for themselves, you know, make your own assessment, let people ask questions and follow-up questions to try to get more information out about what happened in their meeting.

And this one episode, Brian, shows how hard it is to get the story straight when people who were there can't even have agreement in their versions of what happened.

[11:05:07] STELTER: "Newsmax's" John Gizzi, your daily presence in the briefing room of the White House. Why do you think the president didn't hold a press conference? This is the first time since 2004 at the end of G20 that an American president didn't hold a press conference.

JOHN GIZZI, CHIEF POLITICAL COLUMNIST AND WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, NEWSMAX: Well, as the person who raised the issue at the White House of why no president conferences have been held since the genesis of his presidency, when he introduced the secretary of labor and have --

STELTER: Oh, right, back in February, yes.

GIZZI: Right, that was the first, the last and everything of the Trump press conferences. I do believe that he should have had a news conference at the end of the summit, and certainly should have at least a second press conference by now with those of us, likely, who cover him. He has now gone the longest of any president without more than one news conference since the present format was established by Franklin Roosevelt and his Press Secretary Steve Early in 1933.

STELTER: I did not know that. Where is that stat from?

GIZZI: Pardon me?

STELTER: Where is that statistic from? I didn't know that.

GIZZI: The statistic is well known because just -- if you read any account of the presidents at that time, there's usually a press conference in the first week. John Kennedy, five days after taking office. Barack Obama, when Lynn questioned him, a week, and then there's usually been one a month later.

STELTER: To the other John, John Avlon, what do you think the motivation is for avoiding press conferences, or none FOX interviews for that matter, Lester Holt on NBC in the middle of May was the last non-FOX interviewer to have a chance to speak with the president in that format. Is it because the president is trying to avoid all the thorny Russia-related questions?

AVLON: It's clearly a discomfort with transparency, and a constitutional discomfort with what the president might say. In that one interview with Lester Holt, he compounded all his problems, by undercutting his own administration's argument that he had trotted out surrogates, including the vice president, to parrot, that the investigation had nothing to do with Comey and the Russia investigation, the firing of James Comey. So, I think there's a question that the president is himself is an erratic messenger, that makes the staff nervous because he could undercut the positions, and the president doesn't want the kind of typical transparency and grilling that comes in a society with a free press. That's the bigger picture, that's even more troubling.

STELTER: Now, that's an issue for the president and his credibility. But I wonder about the media's credibility as well, to other John, John Gizzi. The White House, some White House aides have been promoting the picture that shows all of CNN's banners from the bottom of the screen before the Trump-Putin meeting. Sources had indicated that Trump was not planning or not expected to bring up Russian meddling. Both sides say he did bring up Russian meddling.

This could be a case of sources not having accurate information, but the White House perhaps delighting in the reporting that happened before the meeting. Is this a press credibility issue? Is this an anonymous source credibility issue?

GIZZI: Well, I think it's a conflict between sources and, Brian, I will say for sure I can't answer your question, but I guarantee it's going to be raised at the White House when either Sean Spicer or his deputy Sarah Sanders meets the press next week, because we do not have a consistent answer. We have conflicting answers. And my colleagues and I will try to straighten it out, I assure you.

STELTER: You know, we have talked before about off camera versus on camera briefings, seems like the new normal is one or two on-camera televised briefings a week. Do you have any sense, John Gizzi, of whether that's going to change?

GIZZI: Yes, I will predict here and now, Brian, on RELIABLE SOURCES that within a month, it will change back to televised daily briefings.

STELTER: All right. Noting the date here, July 9th. Why is that?

GIZZI: I'm going to tell you why. This is a president who likes ratings, and here's a factoid for you -- after going for a long period off camera, there was a day when cabinet secretaries came on with Sarah Sanders, Rick Perry one day, and then Mr. Mnuchin, the treasury secretary, and Gary Cohn on another day. And on each of those days, the camera went on, the ratings went up. And guess what, networks besides C-Span and Fox began to cover uninterrupt live.

You don't get that kind of coverage in normal circumstances. And I would say if the administration wants its voice heard, it would be wise to go back to on-camera every day.

STELTER: Lynn, back to you, last word on this topic, what should viewers know about access right now at the White House, press access for you and your colleagues?

[11:10:01] SWEET: You have access if you mean by just getting physically into the West Wing briefing area, you can get in. If you talk about access to different press people, to people who do policy briefings, you don't have it because they don't do these kinds of briefings in the multiplicity that other administrations did. They do some phone briefings. So, if you talk about access meaning hat you can get in to see people

easier, faster, sooner, you don't have that now. We still have the access of seeing the people who work in the press apparatus and lower -- what we call lower and upper press, that Sean and Sarah and some other people who are part of the press workings of the West Wing.

So, you physically have that, but if that doesn't translate to getting information, and that, I think, Brian, is the important point. It's not just physical access, it's whether it's by phone or whatever, a meeting outside of the White House, you want to get people who can give you credible information. That's what you need more of out of the Donald Trump White House.

STELTER: And we did ask a White House spokesman to come on the program today and they declined.

Sweet, Gizzi, thanks for being here. Avlon, stick around.

Coming up later this hour: harassment threats against journalists, is it affecting how the news gets reported?

Plus, the FOX effect in the heartland. An Iowa radio director standing by with an important message for the rest of the country.

And up next here, a Democratic congressman talking about the Russia coverage about the investigations in the House and the Senate. What's going on and what's not going on? An interview you've got to hear right after the break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[11:15:15] STELTER: This weekend, new developments in the Russia investigations, even as President Trump said it's all over. Here's the "New York Times" with a big scoop on Saturday, saying that Trump's eldest son Donald Jr. met with a Russian lawyer linked with the Kremlin just weeks after his father clinched the GOP nomination. That was in June last year.

Now, this "New York Times" report is the first time we have seen reports of Don Jr. being in such a meeting. The story was sourced to confidential government documents obtained and seen only by the "New York Times." And, of course, the story comes on the heels of the handshake seen and heard all around the world. That's about the only thing, speaking volumes about this two-hour meeting between the American and Russian presidents.

As we're talking about before, Trump didn't hold a press conference at the end of the G20, so his only comments have come via Twitter. This is the second foreign trip in two months where the U.S. president has not held a press conference. It's one example of many of a relative lack of transparency.

So, what really happened in the meeting and can the press hold a crucial role in keeping a spotlight on it?

Joining me now, Congressman Eric Swalwell, Democrat of California, who's a ranking member of the House subcommittee on the CIA.

Congressman, great to see you.

REP. ERIC SWALWELL (D), CALIFORNIA: Yes, thanks for having me on, Brian.

STELTER: I think we know what President Trump and his allies think about this story, this drip, drip, drip of stories involving meetings. What did you think?

SWALWELL: I think we are seeing an unprecedented amount of contacts, personal, political and financial, that Trump, his family, his team, his business had with Russia prior to the election. That's not illegal. However, the fact that Russia was interfering in our campaign warrants us probing whether this was a convergence or just a bunch of coincidences. The other pattern that we see is that all of these contacts are undisclosed and only once the media had brought them to light are they acknowledged.

STELTER: And what do you -- what is your take on the press's role here? We've seen a lot of criticism of the press by the president and his allies, saying that this Russia story was dramatically over- covered. He, I think, said obsessed. I suspect you disagree.

SWALWELL: I disagree. It's critically important that the press shine a light on what these contacts were. Again, we're not talking about contacts with the Brits or the Australians or the Mexicans. These are contacts with a country that has not been our friend. And so, it does deserve scrutiny.

But also, you know, to be fair, and if these contacts were just coincidences, the president deserves to be cleared. But so far, every time they're confronted with them, they just say it's fake news. Yesterday, the president's son tweeted out a video of a pilot shooting down a CNN plane, which seems to follow the trend of trying to distract every time a story comes close to the family around Russia.

STELTER: Oh, you think that's what he was doing, trying to distract?

SWALWELL: It's a pattern that we see.

STELTER: This was a week after the president's original anti-CNN video. There's been hundreds of these anti-CNN memes. But I did think it was notable to see one of his sons sharing this stuff, you know, given how CNN said last week this encourages violence against reporters.

SWALWELL: That's right. And what bothers me --

STELTER: This is the video, by the way. This is the meme that Donald Trump Jr. shared on Twitter.

SWALWELL: We don't want a permissive environment where people feel like it's OK, you know, to attack the press just because they are members of the press. I'm afraid that that's what we're starting to see -- STELTER: I wonder how you view your sort of -- your role vis-a-vis as

the press. I see you on CNN a lot, on other networks. Are you sort of taking advantage of the media's interest in these topics, as a member of the minority party, to try to keep attention on these issues?

SWALWELL: I really feel a responsibility after the November election and Russia's interference in the campaign, that if we don't talk about what Russia did and make sure that the American people understand that they will do this again, that the story will essentially not be as important because this is about our democracy. And, you know, we have to secure the ballot box at the next election. And so, I think it's really important that the American people have the awareness of what Russia did and other countries may do, but that lawmakers, we also understand the seriousness of giving states and counties resources to protect the ballot box as well.

STELTER: But this is so polarized now. How do you try to personally persuade somebody who thinks this is all gin up by the press or by Democrats to try to take down their president?

SWALWELL: I hate that it's polarized. And I understand that there's, you know, concerns about the collusion investigation and -- you know, are these just attacks on the president? Look, let Bob Mueller conduct his investigation, regardless of what happens there, we know, though, that Russia will go after us again, so I hope Republicans understand that they could be the victims next time, whether it's Russia or another country, but the unifying factor should be that we care about securing the ballot box.

STELTER: And what about all of the leaks? Some Republican senators released a report this week finding one leak per day involving national security. Of course, these leaks benefit "The New York Times" and CNN and other news outlets. I would argue, many of these leaks benefit the American people. But there's a lot of pressure for leak investigations. Are you concerned that some of these leaks have hurt national security?

SWALWELL: Well, some of the leaks have also been coming out of the White House. We just saw a leak that I think was intentional, where the White House suggested that they may use its ability to approve the Time Warner-AT&T merger as a way to threaten the media.

[11:20:12] So, we have seen the White House conduct leaks, too.

STELTER: Sure, there are different kinds of leaks. You bring up the AT&T-Time Warner ones. Let me ask you about that. This was a "New York Times" story, I think you're referring to, that said Trump aides talked about using the deal as leverage over CNN. For viewers who don't understand Time Warner owns CNN. It's being bought by AT&T, and this is a deal that's being reviewed by the Justice Department right now.

So, "The Times" story said Trump aides have thought about using it as leverage against CNN, I suppose in order to get CNN to try not to be so skeptical of the administration. What was your reaction to "The Times" story?

SWALWELL: That's not how America works. You don't get to threaten the press or bully the press by using your power in office to affect what they do on the business side. But this is --

STELTER: It sounds like you do believe the report.

SWALWELL: Well, I believe that it was put out there not necessarily because the White House is going to have the antitrust division at the Department of Justice not allow to go through, but I think just to have a chilling effect. This is the same thing that the president did when he sent out those tweets about James Comey, saying he better hope there are not tapes. I think the intent there was to make James Comey think twice about whether he wanted to come forward, not knowing whether there were tapes. We've seen this before from the White House.

STELTER: Let me put on screen a "Huffington Post" headline about this. There's been follow-up coverage this week after "The New York Times" story. Michael Calderone of "The Huffington Post" writing this, Trump might try to threaten AT&T/Time Warner deal over CNN's coverage of him.

So, you're saying chilling effect is what you perceived here?

SWALWELL: I think the intent is to make the media think twice, the White House may use its power over the business side of media or just the access that it gives to media, if they don't get coverage that they like. And again, that's not America. That's taken us to a place we have never been. And I hope we don't go too far down that path.

STELTER: One of your colleagues on the Senate side, Amy Klobuchar, released a letter we can put it on screen, I think. This is a letter to Jeff Sessions, the Justice Department chief, asking questions about the review of the AT&T/Time Warner merger. Do you have any plans as someone one the Judiciary Committee of the House to pursue this matter?

SWALWELL: When I go back, I'm going to ask my colleagues if we can find out who at the White House was putting that out there. You know, there are fair questions about whether this merger helps consumers or hurts consumers, and those should be tested. But now, there are fair questions about whether the White House is trying to use this merger to quiet and suppress the press.

STELTER: Congressman, thanks for being here. Good to see you.

SWALWELL: Yes, thanks, Brian. Yes, you too.

STELTER: After the break here, another attempt, it seems, to suppress the threats, and seeing a rise of threats, Internet threats against journalists, not just to CNN but at many other outlets.

And there was that body slamming you might remember in Montana just a few weeks ago. The reporter who was body slammed, Ben Jacobs, is standing by, right after the break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[11:26:59] STELTER: Harassment. Reporters usually experience some form of it at some point in their careers, whether to their crowded gaggle, or an off-color comment during an interview. But we're seeing more and more online threats against reporters, as well as issues in real life, physical threats like what we saw in Montana recently when "The Guardian's" Ben Jacobs was body slammed by a Republican congressional candidate. That candidate won the election the next day as you probably remember and it's now in the House.

Talking now about online and both virtual and physical world threats, I have a panel to talk through all this. John Avlon is back with me, CNN political analyst and editor in chief of "The Daily Beast", Kirsten Powers, "USA Today" columnist and CNN political analyst, and Ben Jacobs, as I just mentioned, political reporter for "The Guardian".

Thank you all for being here.

KIRSTEN POWERS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Good morning.

STELTER: I want to make sure we separate the two different kinds of issues that are on the table here. Ben, what happened to you is something that happened, you know, in real life. I think we all recall that incident. Greg Gianforte then apologized to you for it and now you're trying to get an interview with him, right? What's the status of that?

BEN JACOBS, POLITICAL REPORTER, THE GUARDIAN: I'm still talking to his office. He's new in Congress, so there's sometime setting up. But, you know, this is something that was a pledge he made to me in the courtroom in Montana. So, I'm fully confident we'll work out the logistics soon.

STELTER: And your glasses that were broken during this incident are now in the newseum. What do you think is the broader lesson about what happened to you, about this physical incident?

JACOBS: Well, I think the broader lesson is not just about what happened to me. It's what's happening to journalists all over the country right now, that there's a growing atmosphere of hate and disdain towards journalists and my situation was certainly an aberration. But when you think about the threats that journalists are facing every day, just for doing their jobs in the United States of America, that's what raises the real concern.

STELTER: Politicians, other public officials are also experiencing threats, I don't want to minimize that. But since we're on a program about media, talking specifically journalists experiencing harassment and threats, Kirsten, did you agree that there's a growing amount of this, that there's more and more hate than there used to be?

POWERS: There's no question. I mean, certainly there's been a noticeable uptick in the kinds of harassment or, you know, attacks online. Now, I'd say since Donald Trump basically came on the scene, it's gotten worse since he's been president, and I think in particular, or for anybody who works in an outlet that has been in his crosshairs has experienced it more.

I mean, there's just more comparison. I have never had anybody threaten to or actually post my address for example until now, you know? And it's -- and I have been, you know, I have been doing this for quite some time. I've gotten a lot of hate mail. I've had a lot of people upset with a lot of the things that I have said. But I have never had people saying, you know, I'm going to find out your parents' address, I'm going to harass your family -- you know, the kinds of things that are happening to other reporters. So, you know, something is definitely very different.

STELTER: And I have sensed that here personally at CNN as well, partly because of attacks from the president and his allies.

POWERS: Exactly.

[11:30:00]

STELTER: We saw this, this time last week, that anti-CNN video the president posted.

Then, as a result, CNN dug into where it came from. A version of the video was first shared on Reddit days earlier. Andrew Kaczynski of KFILE was able to find the identity of the person, the anonymous user who first posted a version of that video.

There was a CNN story saying that we weren't going to share his identity, we weren't going to share his name, partly out of concerns he was going to get threats, but that CNN reserved the right to change that stance in the future and go ahead and identify him.

Kirsten, you said you disagreed with that decision at first, You thought he should be outed. Why?

POWERS: Well, I thought -- except for the safety aspect -- certainly, if you want -- you want to protect somebody's safety. And I understand that, and so I said, ultimately, CNN did make the right decision.

But my initial reaction is, why -- why are people who are posting racist things online -- in particular, this person had -- did a roundup of all the Jewish reporters at CNN and put Stars of David next to them and complained about too many Jews in the media -- why does that person have some right to stay anonymous?

It's not -- I'm not anonymous. None of those Jewish reporters are anonymous. And none of the other people that they're attacking online are anonymous. And so I don't understand why that person has a so- called right to stay anonymous to do this.

And what a lot of people were saying is, like, well, you have to stay anonymous to express political views. That's not a political view, any more than the KKK was expressing political views and need to stay -- needed to stay anonymous so that they could do it. Right?

It's like if -- the reason they're anonymous is, they know they're doing something wrong. And I do think that if they were fearful that they were going to be outed, I think we would see a serious decline in these kinds of -- this kind of behavior, and they're also scaring a lot of people off of Twitter, off of expressing opinions that are controversial, because they don't want to be harassed or targeted.

STELTER: That awkward sentence saying that CNN might in the future reserve the right to reveal the identity, it caused the hashtag #CNNblackmail to start trending.

John Avlon, at The Daily Beast, you had a reporter write about this issue, and about what we saw the alt-right sort of do to criticize CNN for it. What was your assessment of this?

AVLON: Look, I think what -- what is troubling is the way that what Kirsten just expired -- explained, which is a -- infelicitous language added by an editor at the request of legal, all of a sudden got made and turned into a fictitious vision of playing the victim that is amplified, moral justification, saying that it was a 15-year-old boy.

(CROSSTALK)

STELTER: Right, that this anonymous user was a teenager, when it was actually a middle-aged man.

AVLON: Not, in fact -- yes, very important that that fundamental lie became part of the narrative that created an aura of moral justification for a social media mob frenzy that was amplified, probably artificially, in part by bots.

But it's part of a larger pattern, which is trying to actually say that we're the real victims, we're going to swarm via social media at the very least with real threats to try to create an aura of confusion.

And if it has to be predicated on a fundamental lie to distract from the original issue, which is the president of the United States tweeting out a meme that shows violence against a news outlet, then we will do that, and we will try to play the victim and get the upper hand. And we will use social media swarm tactics to do it.

That is something new. It is something dangerous. But it's saying that we need to be very firm about not distracted by, because the whole purpose is to distract us from the real issue.

STELTER: Kirsten, I hear you agreeing?

POWERS: Yes.

I think that what is important about this is that they also have cast it as their free speech being infringed upon. And that is not actually accurate. My free speech is not infringed upon necessarily because I get criticized for something. So, if you are posing racist content and somebody finds out who you are, and you suffer social sanction for that, that's not an infringement on your free speech. You were free to say whatever you wanted, and you were held accountable for it.

We're all held accountable for everything that we say because we're not anonymous, right? So, what happens is, the irony is that they are actually chilling free speech, because a lot of people wouldn't write the column that I wrote, because they don't want their address posted. They don't want their parents' address posted.

They are trying to silence people and trying to keep people from saying things through the threat of actual violence.

STELTER: Ben Jacobs, do you see a connection between the virtual world, threats and harassment, and kind of all of that hate that is online directed at media companies and what happens in physical spaces, whether it's on Capitol Hill or when you're covering a Montana election?

JACOBS: Yes, I certainly -- parts of my situation were anomalous.

But having been to 18 months' worth of Trump rallies, and having seen how this bleeds in, that you're seeing it bleed in together. And this is -- to be clear, this is a very small group of folks. This is not -- as John pointed out, this is amplified by bots. This is a small group of people who are just very dedicated, for whatever reason, to pursuing journalists, but that there is that bleeding over, and that it creates something where it's becoming real issues.

[11:35:07]

And we're getting closer and closer to where that line is actually crossed between publishing addresses and showing up, as we've seen with the pizza parlor in D.C. earlier this year.

(CROSSTALK)

STELTER: John?

AVLON: And, look, a lot of this violent energy that's being sent out is also being sent out by members of the president's family, if not staff.

STELTER: Yes.

AVLON: And that complicates and I think raises the stakes significantly.

And the larger...

(CROSSTALK)

STELTER: But, John, they say it's just a joke, they're just joking.

AVLON: Yes. The problem is, when you have the responsibility of presidency, your

ability to tweet out jokes about physically harming the free press is curtailed by common decency, if not common sense.

(CROSSTALK)

AVLON: And this is the larger problem.

You have got folks -- free speech is predicated upon the idea of owning your speech. When it's hidden, that is a complicating factor. When those things are intentionally amplified by positions of power, that's a major complicating factor that we need to confront.

And the overall game that we really need to deal with is that it's designed to make civil debate indecent, so that good people retreat...

POWERS: Exactly.

AVLON: ... because they don't see it as worthwhile.

That's a real challenge that we need to confront in the press and as citizens.

STELTER: John, Kirsten, Ben, thank you all very much.

AVLON: Thank you.

POWERS: Thank you.

JACOBS: Thank you.

STELTER: Up here after the break, a local news leader with a powerful message for the so-called resistance to Donald Trump.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[11:40:24]

STELTER: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Brian Stelter.

Robert Leonard is sort of a Trump land translator. He's the news director for two local radio stations in Iowa. And he occasionally writes op-eds for "The New York Times."

This week, he had a message for members of the so-called resistance to Trump. He said: "Want to get rid of Trump? Only FOX News can do it."

Only FOX News, he says. He's trying to remind the rest of the country about the powerful hold FOX has on its fans.

Robert joins me now from Des Moines, Iowa.

Great to see you.

ROBERT LEONARD, NEWS DIRECTOR, KNIA/KRLS: Thanks for having me on, Brian. STELTER: First of all, your headlines about getting rid of Trump, are you trying to get rid of Trump?

LEONARD: Well, no, actually, this is just sort of a thought exercise and I certainly am not trying to provide advice to the Republican Party.

But in conversations over e-mail with John Guida, my editor at "The New York Times," it was sort of like -- he asked me, what would sort of -- what would Trump have to do to make people turn away, rural voters turn away from Trump? And it got me to thinking.

But, actually, I didn't have to think very long. It would take FOX News to turn, to take some -- something that Trump has done and make it significant, and then also for Republicans to recognize that nothing that Trump has done really couldn't have been done by President Pence without all the drama.

STELTER: So, you're saying...

LEONARD: It was those two things.

STELTER: Yes.

You're saying -- a lot of Democrats think Trump has already abused his power in ways that are impeachable. We've heard Democratic leaders try to downplay that impeachment talk.

What you're saying is if Sean Hannity started talking about these perceived abuses of power, then you think you would see a change in your community?

LEONARD: Maybe. I think so.

And I certainly don't want to speak for all Republicans, but FOX News is a very powerful force here. And it's something that a lot of conservatives trust. And their entire -- well, not their entire, but a lot of their news is interpreted through it.

And it's as much by what FOX News doesn't cover as what it does cover.

STELTER: I noticed a Politico piece a few months back about "FOX & Friends," the network's morning show.

Joanna Weiss wrote about the psychological power of "FOX & Friends." She said it's all about the power of positive thinking, pro-Trump messages.

Let me show you a few. This is Monday through Friday of "FOX & Friends."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "FOX & FRIENDS")

KELLYANNE CONWAY, TRUMP SENIOR ADVISER: The market, stock market loves that this man is president, ISIS is on the run, jobs are being produced. COREY LEWANDOWSKI, FORMER TRUMP CAMPAIGN MANAGER: All the pieces of

legislation he has signed, all the good he's done to help steelworkers and coal miners and aluminum workers.

ERIC TRUMP, EXECUTIVE VICE PRESIDENT, TRUMP ORGANIZATION: There's no better negotiator in the world than my father.

NEWT GINGRICH (R), FORMER SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: I thought the speech was historic yesterday. I think, in fact, that the administration ought to bring it up again and again.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STELTER: Trump's family, aides and friends praising him, showering him with praise, emphasizing the positive news right now.

So, you're saying the network downplays negative news about Trump so much that it doesn't get through to folks in your community.

LEONARD: Well, let me give you an example.

Just this morning -- the first thing I do every morning is I look through a bunch of news sites, read papers, look at what the different channels have to offer.

And there was a general trend that everybody was talking about the G20 summit, and a lot of it about Trump failures and gaffes, et cetera. FOX News had nothing. It's like the G20 summit didn't exist. It just wrapped up. There was one little small thing on Putin, saying he had had a good conversation with Trump.

But it was like the G20 didn't exist to people that were at least looking at the Web site. Now, I didn't watch any of the programming this morning. I presume they had something on it. But it's not on...

(CROSSTALK)

STELTER: Yes. I'm searching the Web site right now, looking for G20. I think see something about the protests, the violent protests at the G20. I see a positive headline about Trump and Putin.

And I noticed on air this morning on "FOX & Friends," it was all about the president showing strength at the G20. A lot of the rest of coverage on other outlets has been about the president retreating from the world and how this was more like a G19.

LEONARD: Right.

And it's all positive. And you know what? We're all in our different news bubbles. We tune to what we want to tune to. And then it reinforces how we feel about the world.

And the FOX News viewers, I'm as guilty as they are. I try to look at a lot of different news sources. But there's confirmation bias. And I just think the point is that we need a lot of different news organizations working out there putting out diverse opinions. STELTER: Robert Leonard, thanks so much for being here.

LEONARD: Thank you, sir.

STELTER: Up next, my essay about the threats we were describing against journalists, media critics who aren't trying to make journalism better. They're trying to eliminate it.

We will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[11:49:18]

STELTER: The solution to poor journalism is more journalism.

But some people want less of it or none of it. They want to stamp out journalism altogether.

Now, do you think I'm exaggerating? I don't think I am. We need to see this for what it is, and describe it clearly.

There's a big difference between well-meaning people who are skeptical of the press -- I count myself among them -- and then those people who want to tear down the press, who don't want it to exist.

Those anti-journalism voices are getting louder these days, partly because they are being amplified by some pretty powerful politicians. Amid so many shouts of fake news, media companies producing real news need to speak loudly.

[11:50:00]

Here's how I see it. Skepticism is healthy. Constructive criticism makes newsrooms better. We need it. This is the pro-journalism point of view.

When I make a mistake, or I don't challenge a guest enough, or I cut somebody off, your e-mails, I get them, and they help me improve.

But it's not constructive, it's not pro-journalism to promote resentment and hatred of journalists.

It's not pro-journalism to say what the Republican governor of Maine said the other day.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

GOV. PAUL LEPAGE (R), MAINE: I just love to sit in my office and make up ways to -- so they will write these stupid stories. I mean, they are just so stupid. It's awful.

(LAUGHTER)

LEPAGE: I'm sorry, but I will tell you, the sooner the print press goes away, the better society will be. (END AUDIO CLIP)

STELTER: That is an anti-journalism mentality. It's not new, but it's getting worse now.

Remember when President Trump called the media the enemy of the people?

When politicians disparage real news as fake, or when they root for the death of newspapers, or when they call reporters names, or when they claim we make up stories and sources, they're not trying to improve journalism. They're trying to get rid of it.

And they're giving cover to extremists who go even further, smears, lies, death threats against journalists, equating reporters to ISIS terrorists.

You have probably seen this stuff on your Facebook feed.

These anti-journalism tactics are not aimed at eradicating bias or improving news coverage or even creating alternative sources. These attacks are about eliminating news coverage.

I'm sorry to say, these people, these trolls, they're media- illiterate. They don't really know how newsrooms work. And that's all the more reason why newsrooms and media companies need to take media literacy seriously.

Constructive criticism, holding us accountable when we screw up, we need that. But, at the same time, newsroom bosses and media company owners need to mount a defense of the work the journalists do day in, day out, because, right now, these anti-journalism voices are insidious. They're wrong. But they're getting louder.

Now, that's my personal view. Others may disagree.

This week, several prominent media critics said the press needs to stop obsessing over President Trump's anti-media attacks.

Kyle Pope, the editor and publisher of "The Columbia Journalism Review," said the media's response -- quote -- "has become counterproductive."

And Kyle is here with me here now.

Kyle, I think these anti-media attacks then give cover to these extremists who promote hate online. I think they're a big deal, a really big story.

But you think we're probably spending too much time covering them?

KYLE POPE, EDITOR AND PUBLISHER, "COLUMBIA JOURNALISM REVIEW": I think they're a big story, too.

But I think we need to think about we're -- what are we, six months in now in this administration. STELTER: Yes.

POPE: The president has probably tweeted 100 times that CNN is fake, "The New York Times" is failing, "The Washington Post" makes up things.

None of that is true. But he keeps saying it.

So, if he says it the 101st time, do we keep giving it the same amount of airplay? I think that it's time for us to think about recalibrating how we think about this.

And the goal for all of us is to think about, how can we reach people with this critical message that there is a real threat to journalism being waged here? This is a real thing. You had Ben Jacobs on, who -- that was a real thing that happened to him.

And these threats are real. But I'm not sure that the response is getting that message across effectively. I mean, the one thing I have learned in journalism is that it's not about us. It's very rarely about us. It's about something else.

In this case, I think it's about President Trump, and what is his mind-set, what is his mentality, what is the mentality of the people around him when it becomes -- when it comes to the First Amendment and protecting the freedom of the press?

And we have to ask ourselves, as -- as you point out, there needs to be some skepticism applied to this. I mean, we need to think about, are we doing what is most effective in terms of conveying this very important message?

STELTER: When...

POPE: And there have been cases, I think, when we haven't.

STELTER: When journalists try to calculate like this, though -- you wrote at "CJR," "The president is fully aware that this war against the press is one of the few things that is working for him."

But if journalists take that to be true, and then avoid it, isn't this a "darned if we do, darned if we don't" situation, that you shouldn't be making coverage decisions based on what benefits the president or not?

POPE: I think that's -- that's true.

But I do think that we have to question, what is the value -- I mean, he's saying the same things over and over again, right?

STELTER: Hmm.

POPE: There's not a lot of new messages. There's new approaches, there's new videos, there's new outrages, but the message itself isn't the same -- is the same.

STELTER: OK.

POPE: So, I think it's time for us to just sort of take a step back and think, how do we cover this is an effective way? How do we cover the big issues here, which are, what is the value of a press in a democracy? What are we telling people that they need to know?

And what I fear and what I think is happening is that the way we are covering it and the volume in which we cover it is turning people off and they're not hearing that message. That is something that we all need to be worried about.

STELTER: Biggest story you think has been undercovered as a result of this?

POPE: Sorry?

STELTER: What is the biggest story you think has been undercovered when we focus a lot on the president's tweets about the media?

POPE: Everything is being undercovered. I mean...

STELTER: Well, come on.

(LAUGHTER)

[11:55:00]

POPE: I mean, the -- the EPA is being dismantled. The federal bureaucracy is being entirely remade.

There's a lot of threats against the media at the state and local level. I was fascinated by the conversation you had with the guy from Iowa.

I mean, this is happening in a real way all across the country. I just think -- I'm not -- what I'm not saying is that the attacks on the press aren't a story. I'm saying that every presidential tweet need not be a story with the volume that we're giving it.

STELTER: Not the lead story, not the...

(CROSSTALK)

POPE: Not the lead story, not the story over and over and over again.

STELTER: Kyle, thanks for being here.

POPE: Thank you.

STELTER: Great to see you.

POPE: Thank you.

STELTER: You can read the full column on CHR.org.

And while you're online -- oh, sorry, wait, what was it? POPE: CJR.

STELTER: What did I say?

POPE: CHR.

STELTER: CJR -- CJR.org.

And while you're online, sign up for our nightly newsletter at RELIABLESOURCES.com, all the day's media news in your inbox every night, RELIABLESOURCES.com.

Thanks for tuning in. And we will see you right back here this time next week.