During Sunday’s Reliable Sources, the panel engaged in some hyperbole when reacting to the latest developments in the Mueller investigation. Baltimore Sun media critic David Zurawik likened the Trump v. Mueller narrative to a “battle for our national souls” with “a man of rectitude who believes in the rule of law versus a man who will say anything, who scorns law.”
Never-Trumper and The Atlantic's David Frum went even further, pushing back on the idea that journalists cover President Trump too much, arguing that Trump “has the potential to end organized human life on this planet in seven minutes” and describing him as “one of three human beings on Earth who has the power to end life on this planet.” Frum added that “if there’s evidence that this person is mentally unstable or a criminal, that’s really newsworthy.”
With perhaps the most hyperbolic person in the press in Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein also alongside, host Brian Stelter went through all the similarities between the scandals plaguing President Richard Nixon and President Trump and immediately.
Even without the Trump-hating Bernstein on the air, the Trump-Nixon comparisons dragged on into another segment. CNN global affairs analyst Susan Glasser said that the code name will likely “go down in the history books along with some of those memorable Watergate phrases.”
Moments later, Stelter asked Zurawik to weigh in on some headlines predicting the “end of the Trump presidency.” Zurawik correctly criticized that approach, citing the media’s faulty predictions about the 2016 election and asserted that “being that hard and predictive is really dangerous and it hurts our credibility, I think, and it actually in a weird way feeds into the narrative he’s trying to spin to his base about us being irresponsible.”
Later, Stelter complained about a headline in The Associated Press saying something to the effect of “Trump says he’s cleared,” asking: “Why are we still publishing headlines that are just, quote, a liar?” Frum responded by fretting that “Nixon might lie but he did not completely deny reality.”
A transcript of the relevant portion of Sunday’s edition of Reliable Sources is below. Click “expand” to read more.
11:15 a.m. Eastern
BRIAN STELTER: Hey, welcome back to Reliable Sources. I found some space where Fox commentators and SNL actually agree on something. On Tucker Carlson’s show on Friday, on shows like The Five, guests like Alan Dershowitz said the new legal filings from Robert Mueller’s team and from the Southern District of New York were basically a teaser, a coming attraction, a trailer for Mueller’s future report. And SNL said the same thing.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This week, Robert Mueller released the teaser trailer for “Trump, Endgame.” Federal prosecutors said Friday that Michael Cohen committed two election related crimes at the direction of a person identified as individual one. Now, we don’t know for sure who individual one is. But let’s just say things are getting tense right now over at Individual One Tower.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
STELTER: So, if we’re only covering a teaser, a trailer for what’s coming, how do we do that responsibly and carefully? Let’s talk about it with David Frum, Staff Writer for The Atlantic, Susan Glasser, CNN Global Affairs Analyst and Staff Writer for The New Yorker, and David Zurawik, media critic for The Baltimore Sun. Susan, what is the…what are the challenges for journalists when we’re covering this ongoing story and we’re only looking at it through little soda straws, we can’t see the whole story?
SUSAN GLASSER: Well, first of all, Brian, thank you very much. I have to say one lesson is humility in pundits and those who listen to them. If you went back and did a highlights reel of a group of people talking about the Mueller investigation a full year ago, you would have heard a lot of speculation about whether it’s wrapping up soon or not and what does it mean and how are we connecting the dots. And, you know, I think…what I would say is stick to the facts, read these extraordinary court filings. You know, as you pointed out earlier, you have 47 pages in Southern District of New York and also from the Special Prosecutor’s Office telling us more than we knew before about Michael Cohen, about Paul Manafort. But, you know, we have learned some striking facts and information that we didn’t know a month or two ago. And to me, I think it’s very important to stick with the fact that first of all, there’s an entirely different alleged conspiracy now involving the President of the United States and an admitted felony violation by Michael Cohen in the payment of hush money in the immediate run up to the 2016 election. That’s not something that we knew about a year ago. And again, you have this memorable phrase of individual number one. You know, it’s going to go down, I think, in the history books along with some of those memorable Watergate phrases, right? You had unindicted co-conspirator, the President of the United States, Richard Nixon in the Watergate case.
GLASSER: I think you’re always going to remember individual number one and Donald Trump for starters.
STELTER: We have a graphic on the screen there with some headlines. One of them said, “Is this the end of the Trump presidency, the beginning of the end,” “is this the end of the Trump nightmare?” You know, these are opinion columns, but, David Zurawik, is there, is there a concern some folks might be getting ahead of themselves? You know, that some journalists might be going too far in this coverage, Zurawik?
DAVID ZURAWIK: Absolutely, Brian. That’s the thing that really struck me about the coverage this weekend, was it’s the end, it’s the beginning of the end. Also, I read…and it’s all been labeled as opinions. So, I’m not, I’m not criticizing them in that sense. But The Post had a piece, the latest filings show that nobody can save Trump now. I would just urge caution and every time you’re going to write…whenever I write anything predictive about Trump in the media now, I always think back to election night and how certain I was at 6:00 p.m. that night what was going to happen in 2016 and how blown my mind was at midnight. So, being that hard and predictive is really dangerous and it hurts our credibility, I think, and it actually in a weird way feeds into the narrative he’s trying to spin to his base about us being irresponsible.
ZURAWIK: So I think now more than ever, we have to really not get out in front of our skis with what we know to be true. You know, I was listening to Carl Bernstein and I thought he was just perfect. He emphasized the gravity of what we know for Trump. But you noticed at key points, he said well, we don’t know where this will go, we know what it was like when Nixon was fighting, we don’t know about him because he’s so transgressive and he’ll break every rule in the world essentially. So, he wasn’t predicting, you know, and I think the consensus now is there looks like there’s a case for obstruction but not necessarily collusion. So, to say that it’s the beginning of the end…look, this is huge story. There is no narrative in American life, fiction or nonfiction as big as Trump v. Mueller. It’s got everything in American life, a man of rectitude who believes in the rule of law versus a man who will say anything, who scorns law, who’s taught by Roy Cohn to do everything he can to avoid the law. This is huge. Even I think some people don’t even realize, in our unconscious, that this is battle for our national souls. So, we do want closure. On a more minor level, it’s the end of the year. It was a Friday, we wanted something that gave us… moved the story ahead and gave us closure.
ZURAWIK: And I think we erred a little bit about that. But on the other hand, I think we pulled back by Saturday and Sunday, and I think we’re in a better place now collectively.
STELTER: Interesting. You know, David Frum, what the other David is saying, it gets to something I get asked a lot when I, when I speak on college campuses, when I hear from viewers out on the street. They say, why do you all cover Trump so much? Why is there so much Trump coverage? Well, I think the answer is what Zurawik is saying. This is a massive story that’s about the future of the country. How did you think, David Frum, the coverage on Friday and into the weekend measured up, the coverage of these new filings?
DAVID FRUM: Well, let me say, when people say you cover Donald Trump too much, Donald Trump is…has the potential to end organized human life on this planet in seven minutes. So…
STELTER: You’re talking about nuclear weapons.
FRUM: Yeah. And he’s one of three human beings on Earth who have the power to end organized human life on this planet. So, he’s a pretty big story. And if you believe who this person is, if there’s evidence this person is mentally unstable or a criminal, that’s really newsworthy. Look, I think there’s an opposite danger for journalists.
STELTER: What’s that?
FRUM: On Friday, the A.P ran a headline that said, “Trump says he is cleared…”I’m not going to be able to quote this exactly verbatim. Trump says he’s cleared…
STELTER: It’s the worst. I don’t know why journalists are still doing that. Why are we still publishing headlines that are just, quote, a liar?
FRUM: Saturday morning, the President said two things. First, he said that in the streets of Paris, there were people chanting “we want Trump,” citing a tape taken at a rally of English neo-fascists in London, about three of them. And the President also said that the lesson of World War I and World War II is that a United European army does not work. And those…you have to be a real expert of history to know that there was…World War II was not fought and World War I by a United European Army against Mars or anybody like that. The point is that the President’s statements are not…are news objects, not news topics. And you have to treat them the way you would treat an allegation or potentially a defamatory statement. You have to treat them with tongs. And when the press doesn’t do that, it also seriously misleads. Obviously, journalists have to be, have different practices. There are different sections of the media business and there are people who do do comment and it’s valued, we’re doing it here, and people presumably find it of use, or else they would not watch. But the imperative of being responsible also means treating this President’s statements in a different way than you’d treat the statements even of a President Nixon. Nixon might lie but he did not completely deny reality.
STELTER: Susan, before we go to break, you’re thinking about the media environment, you know, this environment where someone can tweet out Trump’s comments, a news outlet can tweet out Trump’s lies and treat them as fact and that’s problematic. What we saw on Friday and into the weekend is, we’re in this media environment where people can assemble the news themselves, they can experience news in real time and that means you can reach your own conclusions about these legal filings. It’s just a different environment than, for example, in the ‘90s when you were covering Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton.
GLASSER: Well, that’s right. We all remember watching CNN back when the Starr report was delivered to Capitol Hill and Candy Crowley literally reading some of the more astonishing things out loud. There were later five volumes of the Starr report released, including all of the FBI interviews. I would say this, number one, it is all going to come out. And what we’re talking about right now are just little bread crumbs compared with the overall picture that we will ultimately get one way or the other. I remain quite confident of that. And I still say, to all of my fellow commentators and to myself, don’t pronounce judgment onto whether he has a case on collusion or not because we don’t know the answer. And I think it’s really dangerous and that is something that feeds directly into President Trump’s narrative, number one. Number two, we can’t all follow along in real time. I happened to be traveling when these filings were released on Friday afternoon and experienced it by watching this expert commentary on Twitter, immediately kind of read through and discern the significant parts from a legal point of view, from a journalistic narrative point of view, I had the opportunity to read the filings myself directly on the train, I would say that’s very significant. The prosecutors aren’t going to come onto your show and tell us what to make of these bits and pieces of information, however, we, A, have instant access to many reliable experts that we didn’t have in the past in real time and I think that’s a significant step forward. But importantly, unfortunately, it competes with built-in narratives that President Trump has spent the last year and half essentially trying to implant in the American public and among his followers in particular. He has pressed wherever possible to create a narrative about the Mueller investigation. And I see it frankly even among journalists who somehow accept the idea that well, we don’t really see, you know, Mueller doesn’t really have a case on collusion, but the obstruction is really important. That has become a conventional wisdom, in my view, it’s very spurious. It’s not based on any evidence because we haven’t heard the evidence yet. And I just…to me, that is the most irresponsible thing that I see people, even critics of President Trump saying over and over and over again. What we know about the Russian involvement in the 2016 campaign is much, much more than we knew when this investigation was originally started. And it suggests a pattern of Russian outreach to the Trump campaign and their willingness to entertain that outreach that is very significant. The timeline goes back farther than we thought.
GLASSER: And again, why are people still even, you know, on this network, you know, opining that there’s no evidence around conspiracy and collusion? I don’t think that’s the case but we don’t know yet.
STELTER: We need to take the time to explain all of those facts you’re talking about so people understand just how big this is.