Former CNN’s Reliable Sources host Brian Stelter made a rare return to a microphone Friday as he interviewed Megyn Kelly Show executive producer and Fourth Watch Podcast host Steve Krakauer about his new book, Uncovered: How the Media Got Cozy with Power, Abandoned Its Principles, and Lost the People. In just under an hour, the pair had a engaging and fascinating discussion about the media, CNN, Fox News, January 6, and his post-CNN life.
But for readers here, the newsiest topic came when Krakauer cited the New York Post reporting on Hunter Biden’s laptop as an answer to this question from Stelter: “What are the ones that stand out most to you? What — what — what did me and my colleagues at CNN screw up the most, in your view?”
"What did me and my colleagues at CNN screw up the most in your view?"— Steve Krakauer (@SteveKrak) February 24, 2023
On Hunter Biden, "disinformation," hypocrisy of the press, Russiagate and Mueller reporting, and more.
An #Uncovered conversation with @BrianStelter:https://t.co/KyDm6y6Coy
Krakauer first explained the reasoning, starting with the revelations from the Twitter Files that showed “a real suppression of that story, not just by tech platforms in conversation with — with government entities like intel agencies, like the FBI, but also from media organizations.”
As for why, Krakauer stated the obvious that “they did doubt the story was real,” which wasn’t necessarily bad, but became a problem when they took the word of “people like James Clapper, who...is still refusing to accept accountability for the fact that he put that letter out along with many other people and that was then spread by places like Politico, by CNN, and others”.
He argued they took that route in part because of “the scars of 2016 and the criticisms of how they treated Hillary’s e-mails,” but it had “a real chilling” effect.
Along with the Twitter suspensions and denunciations of even reporters like Maggie Haberman at The New York Times for sharing the article, the press behaved “as if it’s this toxic material that completely, you know, spins the public in a real wrong direction” versus chasing down the laptop’s accuracy.
Stelter began his defense by saying this was “Twitter’s problem” and “separate from the press,” so “[i]f Twitter screwed up, we should go after Twitter.”
In the case of news organizations, he argued they “looked around and said, we don’t have the laptop. We don’t have evidence. We don’t have evidence it’s real and we know that are reasons to wonder if it’s disinformation.”
He then bemoaned the criticisms, saying they can be boiled down to, “all these assholes...called it disinformation” when the (supposed) truth is “[a] lot of us just wondered” if it was from Russia.
Stelter continued, saying they referred to said “former U.S. officials” because they “think it might be,” so news outlets were “cushioned and cautious...because of Hillary e-mails, but because of the Russian attempt in 2016”.
After saying Trump-Russia was “overstated,” Krakauer countered with those infamous clips of media personalities saying the laptop had “all the hallmark[s]...of Russia disinformation, which is what the intel agencies said.”
“That is essentially telling people this — this is probably that and there wasn’t a lot of saying, well, here’s what’s being reported,” he added.
Krakauer went on to give an example of how the establishment press acted during the Mueller probe (click “expand”):
KRAKAUER: One outlet like The New York Times or The Washington Post would have an exclusive. Sometimes single, sometimes maybe doubled sourced —
KRAKAUER: — on some little element of what’s going on with Mueller and no one’s seen the Mueller report. But they had one story and then that gets spun. That’s an entire news cycle.
KRAKAUER: And, so, with this, though, because it’s the New York Post, because it’s Rudy Giuliani, and, admittedly, it’s the — it’s the semi-blind repair — you know, shop guy. Okay, it’s a little bit — a little bit hazier, maybe, than just having the New York Post or — just having The New York Times.
STELTER: A — a New York Post reporter that didn’t want to have their byline on the story. There’s — there’s a lot of problems with it, but I know you know that.
KRAKAUER: There’s red flags with it, 100 percent. But we saw that in the intervening four years that — that these sort of single stories where it’s — you don’t have to see the source material, but this is being reported by this outlet and that becomes a story. Sometimes that turned out to be true and sometimes it definitely did not. With this, we didn’t see that and — and I think that that, coupled with the lack of outrage by the press over the New York Post censorship by Twitter by the way they were locked out of their Twitter account for weeks, the way that — that linked to that article was — was censored, that — that was most concerning to me.
The pair also talked about the media too often being cozy with those in power. Stelter countered this plank of Krakauer’s book by claiming Trump was “the most powerful” person in the world and that one’s description of a journalist being cozy with those they’re covering could be seen by someone else as reporters being “well-sourced” and “know the right people.”
On the other side, Krakauer pointed to a quote for the book from New York Magazine’s Olivia Nuzzi that, in his words, there’s “no social penalty when you went after Trump or the Trump administration” and instead “a social incentive to do so,” but not with the Biden administration.
Stelter did, however, concede that journalists need to “be very careful” in addressing who’s an acquaintance and, in fact, there should be “much more disclosure of those sorts of relationships”.
They also discussed the (liberal) media’s behavior in the Trump era. Stelter held his ground, calling it a time that was “scary” “for many Americans...so, of course, it deserved 24/7 attention” (click “expand”):
STELTER: Wasn’t so much of the focus, though, so much of the D.C. focus in the Trump years a reflection of the unprecedented and dramatic and, for many Americans, scary, and, for other Americans, exhilarating moment that we were in as a country? I mean, cause — yeah, this gets to this idea that, you know, there’s too much attention around Trump, too much coverage, too much criticism. But I look back and I think that was history. Like, we lived through history and it was unlike anything any living American had ever seen before, so of course it deserved 24/7 attention. Nah?
KRAKUER: It’s one of the reasons I am not critical. In the book, I specifically make this point of the early coverage by CNN, by MSNBC, by other places, but CNN really got some — some grief from the left for the way they covered Trump in the primary, for example.
STELTER: Mmhmm. Right.
KRAKAUER: You know, the empty podium and playing the speeches and not doing the same for the other candidates. I disagree with that. I mean, he was a phenomenon, like we talk about. He was the news and, you know, Jeff Zucker, who I worked with in 2013, there was this real one–story mentality.
KRAKUER: I think the Trump phenomenon was very worth covering and I also think and I’m not super critical of the press for — for being tough on the Trump administration, just in theory, because I think that journalists should be tough on every administration and so, yeah, I think it’s a little hypocritical when it’s much tougher on one administration than, say, the one before it or the one after it. But I don’t fault them. I want tough press on administration across the board. The problem, though, is when it goes overboard and when I think the — the guardrails — the journalistic guardrails start being — being eased off and I wonder if you agree with this, but my — my thinking is that what happened is that there was some — some business decision-making going on. He was great for business and so — so, you know, it was great, you know, getting more clicks and getting more views. Great for business. There’s something personal about it. You know, he had personal relationships with a lot of journalists. I mean, I — I mention in the book people like Jeff Zucker, but also Gayle King and Katie Couric and Matt Lauer — they were at his wedding in 2005. He was — he was in that media scene then he became this turncoat. So, for business and personal, but I also think that there were a lot of people at newsroom across the — D.C. and New York, that believed that there was this real existential threat, that Trump was an existential threat and that they — there was a sense of we’re going to — we have to, you know, save democracy here and so, because of that, there was — yes, we have these standards, but they have to be loosened because this is a separate — this is a unique opportunity, this is a unique moment, we must meet that unique moment by doing this. Now, I would argue that —
STELTER: So, was he not a threat to democracy?
KRAKAUER: — I — no. So, I don’t think he was an existential threat to democracy. And we can debate whether he was or not, but I — I personally don’t think he was, but I would say, if we — let’s just say that he was, that I would say the much better way of going about it is to double down on the editorial standards. That’s when, if you really want to convince the public and convince the largest swath of the public that this is really an existential threat that we’re in, then that’s when you actually have to really adhere the principles even more so so everyone can trust you. And, instead, I think it went the opposite direction and actually sort of hurt the case. When — when — now all of sudden, everything gets — gets — called — oh, they’re just making it up. Well —
STELTER: Right, right.
KRAKAUER: — when they actually are legitimate stories.
STELTER: I think I put more responsibility on the press bashers. And you put more on the press. And that’s fair, you know, and that’s the tug of war. In my mind, when any world leader tries to destroy a news outlet, that’s — that’s a crisis. Not a crisis. That’s a big threat. And I think what you say is you’re putting more responsibility on the news outlet whereas I take more — I find more concern in the rhetoric and the behavior of the letter.
To his credit, Stelter made his case at the end for the necessity of journalists to do more of “show[ing] that we’ve walked all the way around the block before we’ve started to write about the block and, you know, that’s my way of saying let’s be fair to everybody...because if you’re only writing about the story from the back yard, then you’re missing a big part of the story.”
To see the relevant transcript from the February 24 podcast (including more of Krakauer and Stelter), click here.