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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES
Debating the Debt Ceiling; Interview with Thomas Drake
Aired October 20, 2013 - 11:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, HOST: At long last, the congressional standoff ends. The nation's news organizations took note of the political drama amid high stakes for the nation's finances.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS)
KATE BOLDUAN, CNN: Breaking overnight, the shutdown finally over. The debt ceiling raised.
MIKA BRZEZINSKI, MSNBC: In the end, lawmakers avoided defaulting on the federal debt.
BRET BAIER, FOX NEWS: The federal government is getting back to work today after a late-night end to the partial government shutdown and raising of the debt ceiling.
(END VIDEO CLIPS)
FOLKENFLIK: The political spectacle made for feverish copy, but we'll look at whether the media was distracted from underlying economic issues.
Plus, news organizations report the death of a member of Congress, only to discover he's still alive. Too late to head off retweets. Another case study in fast and furious world of contemporary reporting.
And former NSA executive Thomas Drake traveled to Moscow to visit Edward Snowden, the man he inspired to share secret documents with reporters. We'll talk to Drake about that meeting and about his own experiences in revealing secrets the NSA wanted to hold tight.
And arriving this weekend to a theater near you --
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is information the world needs to know.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We need to crush these guys.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
FOLKENFLIK: A cinematic take on WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. The enigmatic man who said there should be no secrets. I'm David Folkenflik and this is RELIABLE SOURCES.
FOLKENFLIK: Today, we'll consider how the news you consume gets to you and how that flow of information can get cutoff and what choices are made in coverage.
Take this month's political drama over the partial government shutdown and the debt ceiling debate. At times, it seemed as though the economic story affecting millions of Americans and international markets abroad was overshadowed.
Joining me here in Washington to tease out how well the media performed or didn't perform in explaining the economic issues at stake is David Gura, a senior reporter for APM's Marketplace, the public radio financial program.
And, Michael Tackett, managing editor for "Bloomberg News" in Washington.
Mike Tackett, how well did the press do in explaining these weighty economic issues at stake ?
MICHAEL TACKETT, BLOOMBERG NEWS: I wouldn't give them high marks but I wouldn't say it was all bad. The difference was the press is used to covering political polling. That's a psychological measure of what's going on. The real story here was what was going on in the bond market and that's where you didn't see a lot of really top notch coverage.
FOLKENFLIK: Tell me what you mean by that.
TACKETT: Well, the bond market was the real signal as to whether or not there was going to be a default, how serious the idea of a default was. And the bond market essentially never blinked during this whole process.
FOLKENFLIK: David Gura, one the great things marketplace is it translates complicate concepts like this one, into fairly accessible, at times condense accounts. Why is it so hard for the political press corps or broader press corps to do that, to translate this into ways the public can comprehend?
DAVID GURA, APM MARKETPLACE: As Mike says, these things aren't easy, I don't think.
And when you talk about the debt ceiling, when you talk about the bond market, these are things that most of us aren't thinking about on day to day basis. And, you know, it would be great if the economic story was as sexy or is great as the political story. I don't think that it is all the time.
You know, I think we had this condensed period of a couple weeks where the focus was on the deadline at the end of it. It seemed like political story was the one that was winning the day in the end. FOLKENFLIK: Well, and obviously there's real drama guys here in terms of you've got the two chambers of Congress at war with each other. Internal divisions within the Republican Party that really drove this seeming stalemate for a long time and, yet, there were enormous economic implications. As you know, the bond markets, also the question of the impact of the government shutdown itself -- the question of what would happen, I guess, abroad faith and full credit of the United States if this happened.
Those stories were written. Why didn't they get through if indeed they didn't get through?
TACKETT: It's always easier to cover the food fight and the loudest voice in the room. Harder when you have to say here are measurable things, here are things you really need to pay attention to. Breaking through in that clutter is a real challenge particularly now when everything is tweeted out around the world in two seconds.
FOLKENFLIK: You know, I noticed your own news organization, "Bloomberg News," had a poll that they found in a study found in late September that 59 percent of the people polled believed that the United States deficit had gotten larger. About 10 percent thought it had gotten smaller, 26 percent thought it was about the same.
Actually, the deficit was cut quite considerably. David Gura, is that the fault? Is that fault to the press?
GURA: I think when you have something like we've just been through, things become proxies for other thing and there's discontent in this country with fiscal issues. And as I said, issues like the debt ceiling are, if not incomprehensible things we don't have to think about all the time, things that we're not writing about or talking about all the time. That I think became a proxy for this issue of the deficit and for issues of the debt as well, and, you know, we're hoping to grab -- people are hoping to grab onto something that's clear and in this case, I think that's what happened.
FOLKENFLIK: So where do you turn, Mike Tackett, as a citizen as opposed to as a reporter, if you want things other than specialized reporting and intense reporting of Bloomberg, to say, you know, there's reporting that explains and makes clear to me what's going on behind the political clash of the moment?
TACKETT: Well, fortunately, there are a lot of different sources out there. So, you can go to specialized sources online and read things, but it's homework. It's not easy. It's not fun. But it's very important.
Interesting to note, so many people really don't understand this. We had Michael Bennett, senator from Colorado in for "Newsmaker", and he told us candidly --
FOLKENFLIK: The "Newsmaker" interview.
And he told us candidly before he came to Washington, he never heard the debt ceiling. He had been in the debt and equities market a lot of time in business. So, it's really -- it's a foreign language for a lot of people and we have to do a better job of explaining it.
FOLKENFLIK: At this point there was an early concern about false equivalence in politics, and what was interesting to me as an experiment, I interviewed James Fallow, is a liberal commentator for "The Atlantic," and Robert Costa, who's, you know, a prominent writer for the conservative "National Review" magazine. They both defined the problem politically as within essentially the Republican House Conference.
And I think you saw a lot of reporters going from this is simply a clash between parties to saying there's something happening here where Republicans party is figuring out where its future lies and this is driving this real political dilemma.
Are there challenges of so-called false equivalency equally in the world of economics or in covering the financial angle to this very story?
TACKETT: These ledgers don't balance always. It's always important to explore both sides. You have to do that. You shouldn't come down on one hand on the other hand just for the sake of saying it's an objective argument when it's not.
The fight here was within the Republican Party. The Democrats wanted to maintain status quo. That's what they were trying to do. The Republicans were trying to change the game.
FOLKENFLIK: And, David Gura, you know, one of the things that strikes me about the field of economics and study of finances is that it's not a hard sciences. We're not talking about geometric equations that standstill over time. How do you make sense of that when experts themselves often readily conflict?
GURA: Right, it's both dismal and imperfect and I think we could be misled by that. We have numbers in there. But there is this hunger for theories and we would be able to figure things out through them. I mean, if I could bring up the debt ceiling again, there was so much press conference of what might happen at the stroke of midnight on the 17th. Well, in fact, that deadline was quite squishy and it was a simple equation. The Treasury was dealing with what was coming in, in terms of revenues and what was going out.
GURA: We got hung up on theoretical side of things when it was basics that could have been easily conveyed to people.
FOLKENFLIK: Dismal and vital.
David Gura of Marketplace and Mike Tackett of "Bloomberg News" -- thank you so much for joining us.
When we come back, a whistle-blower story. Former NSA official Thomas Drake talks about his experience being prosecuted by the Obama administration's Justice Department and his visit with NSA leaker Edward Snowden in Russia. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)
FOLKENFLIK: When former NSA official Thomas Drake contacted "The Baltimore Sun" in 2006, he saw journalistic scrutiny for what he says were cases of abuse and waste within the intelligence agency that had repercussions for the privacy of U.S. citizens.
The U.S. government saw it differently. In 2010, Drake was charged for crimes under the Espionage Act, a law dating back to 1917, that the Obama administration has now used it eight times.
It's the same law that was used to indictment former Army Private Bradley Manning. Now known as Chelsea Manning, and also Edward Snowden.
In reports for the Committee to Protect Journalists, former "Washington Post" executive editor Lynn Downey called the Obama administration's obsession on leaks the most aggressive attempt to control information since President Nixon. He said Drake's disclosures, quote, "Should have resulted in greater government accountability at the time, rather than criminal prosecution."
All charges but one against Drake were dropped. He pleaded guilty to excessive use of government official computer.
Earlier, I spoke with Thomas Drake about his experience as a whistleblower, what the future holds for the information leaked to the press and his recent trip to Moscow to meet NSA leaker Thomas Snowden.
FOLKENFLIK: Thomas Drake, thank you so much for joining us to talk.
THOMAS DRAKE, FORMER NSA OFFICIAL: Thanks for having me.
FOLKENFLIK: Prime Minister David Cameron, intelligence chiefs here in the U.S., you know, they have said the Snowden revelations have been damaging to national security of the U.S. and U.K. Why shouldn't American authorities have an interest in protecting national security secrets?
DRAKE: Well, there is an interest in protecting national security secrets, but national security secrets don't include using secrecy to cover up government illegality and wrongdoing in violations of citizen rights and liberties.
The problem is, is that we do have rights in this country. And democracies, our citizen rights and citizen liberties, this idea that somehow we need to violate those in order to satisfy national security I think is a false straw man. It's a false argument. And that false dichotomy has created these conditions that I certainly lived in which the government believes that, hey, we need access to all of the data and if that data is individual, that data is of citizens, then so be it because the national security takes a higher priority. FOLKENFLIK: You referred a little bit to your experience. At a certain point after going through internal channels to try to call attention to what you thought was an incredibly wasteful boondoggle of a software program at the NSA, you decided to contact Siobhan Gorman of "The Baltimore Sun", a distinguished reporter on security matters.
What precautions did you take to avoid detection as you were talking to her about such sensitive matters?
DRAKE: Well, I knew it was a faithful choice. And I knew given, you know, what NSA was capable of doing, that any contact with a reporter by any normal means was going to be probably detected.
And so, I made unanimous contact with her in late February of 2006 via highly encrypted means. And even that was fraught with peril because even encryption on Internet can be detected in terms just the use of it. Look, if I had just come straight out and gone there, I would be fired immediately.
I mean, part of this was -- you know, how long can you go, especially when you decide to sort of cross the bridge as it were and here I'm contacting the press on what I believe are issues of vital public interest. And yet they consider it a criminal act, you know, a criminal conduct. Ultimately I was charged under Espionage Act of all things.
FOLKENFLIK: Well, you were charged and although you did that during the Bush years, you were charged by the Justice Department during President Obama's term. President Obama's administration, his Justice Department, also charged, obviously, Mr. Snowden.
What do you conclude about the Obama administration led by a president who promised transparency and who hailed whistleblowers while running for office about his feelings about the flow of information to the public through the press?
DRAKE: He's charged more people, more whistleblowers and truth tellers as criminals, up to and including charging them with an espionage than all other administrations combined for non-spy activities. And it's just an unprecedented.
I call it a war on whistleblowers. Some refer it to as a war on democracy. It is highly hypocritical. All of those words aside, his actions speak far louder. And you're right. It did take the Obama administration to actually charge me.
FOLKENFLIK: You still work in the computer field. But as a former whistle-blower, it's a very different one. What is life like now for you now?
DRAKE: Well, quite different from where I used to be. And I sacrificed a lot. You know, I faced 35 years in prison.
I was able to hold off the government. And that's a huge thing. I was able to keep my freedoms. You know, I work now in a very different arena. Yes, I sell computers to the public. It's quite a different life. I actually had to rebuild it. Not easy.
FOLKENFLIK: And so what did you learn from your trip to Moscow when you met with Edward Snowden, the newest person to disclose classified information from the NSA?
DRAKE: Well, I met a fellow whistle blower. I feel extraordinary kinship with him. He committed an extraordinary act of civil disobedience. He recognized that what he was exposing was significant wrongdoing on the part of NSA, on an extraordinary scale, and he had the documents to prove it.
FOLKENFLIK: Wouldn't he have been somebody that prior to your experience, you would have thought, my God, he's compromised national security?
DRAKE: Not at all. No.
FOLKENFLIK: Even when you were at the NSA itself?
DRAKE: No. See, this is where -- this is where this national security thing gets conflicted. So, somehow, this is some kind of a state religion that you're not supposed to question it. You don't use national security to violate the rights of citizens.
For the first time in 12 years, we're actually having the conversation and discussion about what that balance is supposed to be like. I would argue you can have both. It's not this idea that you have to choose liberty over security.
And in fact, I would argue that our fundamental national security is based on our liberties and freedoms. If we give those up, then we give up who we are as a people.
FOLKENFLIK: Well, Thomas Drake, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us.
DRAKE: You're welcome.
FOLKENFLIK: Up next, two perspectives on the Obama administration's crackdown on leaks and its attitudes toward journalists.
FOLKENFLIK: Leaker or whistleblower -- when it comes to the flow of information between journalists and government officials, but it's terms evoke a delicate dance and a violent clash between press freedoms and assertation of national security.
Here with we now in Washington to weigh this further, Lucy Dalglish, dean of the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism, a lawyer who's also the past executive director of the Reporters Committee of Freedom of the Press.
And Joel Brenner, former inspector general and senior counsel for the National Security Agency.
Joel Brenner, you saw that interview I just conducted with Thomas Drake, by now a well-known leaker but whistleblower for the NSA.
What did you make of what he had to say of his argument?
JOEL BRENNER, FORMER SENIOR COUNSEL FOR NATIONAL SECURITY AGENCY: Well, you know, drake was involved in -- he basically lost his point of view in a competition for certain symptoms at the agency.
FOLKENFLIK: You mean, a computer software system. And, you know, issues as to who was right about that, he may have been right, but there was nothing wrong with the way that was conducted.
After that, he decided to leak certain information to "The Baltimore Sun." It -- he was really leaking classified information. I thought it was a terrible thing -- I thought he was over-prosecuted under the Espionage Act. I thought that was ridiculous.
FOLKENFLIK: So, just to be clear, you thought prosecution of him for giving material to "Baltimore Sun" under 1970 espionage was itself a wrongful act.
BRENNER: You see, not a wrongful act. I thought it was a bad politics, bad law. And we create people like Mr. Drake, who have become a force to be adversaries when they see what it is like to be attacked by their own government.
I think what he did was wrong. I think he was over-prosecuted. And, you know, when you impose the question whistle-blower or leaker, very often people can be whistle blowers and leakers. They can be scoundrels and do something useful.
We listen to Snowden, for example, all of the public seems to hear is what I think is a useful debate about whether the government ought to be collecting all this data.
BRENNER: That debate should have happened a long time ago in my view. On the other hand, the public doesn't seem to understand that it's done us tremendous harm. Drake is wrong about this in terms of the ability to collect foreign intelligence.
We can do an example -- week one, he says we're collecting Russian diplomatic communications. Do you think that was news to the Russians? Certainly not. Everyone tries to collect communications but the Russians didn't know we had stolen or broken their codes.
FOLKENFLIK: Well, I mean, certainly, the arguments are made by a lot of journalists that the Russians and Chinese have sort of suspected this all along.
Lucy Dalglish, you know, the question that Jill Abramson, the executive editor of "New York Times" told me, she gets all the time is who are you to choose? Who are you to get to make that decision to publish? We're talking about the demand side of the leak equation.
Why do journalists get to make this decision and not the government?
LUCY DALGLISH, UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND: We depend on journalists to make decisions like that all the time, to decide what is news and what's not news? To gather as much truth as they possibly can in a very careful way, report it as carefully as they can, and quite honestly if not a journalist, who?
Because if they're not out there asking questions every day and reporting them to the public so that the public can make informed decisions, at the ballot box and elsewhere, there is going to be no ability in this country to hold anybody that we've elected to Congress or appointed to an agency accountable. This is all about accountability.
FOLKENFLIK: Joel, you know, one thing that strikes me is that you mentioned before that we're now having a debate that's useful debate. The president said this. Some of your former top colleagues at the NSA have said this. But these debates wouldn't have occurred in the absence of Edward Snowden's major leaking to "The Washington Post" and to Glenn Greenwald and his colleagues at "The Guardian". How do you expect that to occur in the absence of such information that the government would very much seek to prevent from getting out?
BRENNER: I think that we have a massive over-classification problem. And that classifying the rules under which the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court minimizes collection was terrible. Why shouldn't people know that? That would give people greater confidence in how things are.
So, I think there was a lot of decisions there. There were a lot of decisions about classifying things I thought you were unfortunate.
You know, when I was in the counterintelligence business, which I did between stints at NSA, (INAUDIBLE) to me once, you know --
FOLKENFLIK: You know, the famous reporter for "The New York Times" and FBI and elsewhere, "The New Yorker" now.
BRENNER: He said, you know, your job is keeping secrets and my job is finding them out. And that's how I think a pretty good description of how liberal democracies work. But now, we have the government actually taking steps to keep the secrets and we're having the journalists profession with its hair on fire saying our form of government -- liberal democracy is under attack.
I'm not buying it. I think we're in a time of unparalleled transparency and information flows. And we got unbelievable transparency. And we got, in spite of it, over-classification and we have some very serious leaks.
FOLKENFLIK: Well, transparency and yet unbelievable ability and reach of government prosecutors to find out what's going on.
Lucy, I see you shaking your head. Tell me why.
DALGLISH: Well, transparency to find out what the government wants you to know and give you access to the databases they want you to know. Yes, I agree.
And the White House is putting out far more stuff on their own Web site than ever before. What they have done is made it impossible for anyone who is a federal government employee to speak to a journalist without fearing for their jobs or maybe even fearing going to jail.
So I think we're almost dealing with anti-transparency. I understand that the Obama administration thinks that they're being incredibly transparent. They are being transparent about certain things they want to be transparent about. They are OK with waste, fraud and abuse but don't want anyone to get information that could lead to accountability over bad policies or bad laws or bad actions and even things that in some cases might be unconstitutional for the government to be doing.
FOLKENFLIK: Or things that in retrospect, one might want to debate about. It seems like we're at a time when the government has more perhaps powers than ever before and also less ability to prevent other people from distributing that information globally.
Lucy Dalglish of University of Maryland, Joel Brenner, formerly of the NSA, thank you so much for joining us to talk about this.
Coming up, a writer takes on FOX News and claims Sean Hannity misrepresented how Obama care affected some American families. We'll see what he found out, coming up next.
FOLKENFLIK: If you're in search of a consistent voice of doom about ObamaCare, one need not turn farther than FOX News' Sean Hannity. The conservative host turned the attention to the subject again and again on his primetime show this year, broadcasting an hour- long special on this subject earlier this month, which featured families who said they would suffer under the Affordable Care Act.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEAN HANNITY, FOX HOST: You're self-employed. Tell us your ObamaCare story, (inaudible) insurance story.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We don't even have insurance for our daughter, who has a pre-existing condition. So we're looking at probably $20,000 in premiums.
(END VIDEO CLIP) FOLKENFLIK: But the lawyer and Democratic pundit Eric Stern felt those complaints and others that Hannity gave credence to didn't ring true, so he called each of them and in a piece for "Salon" magazine, he argued that many of the families the FOX opinion host presented would have derived real benefit from ObamaCare.
The Democratic lawyer and writer Eric Stern joins me now from Bozeman, Montana.
Eric, welcome and thanks for joining us.
ERIC STERN, DEMOCRATIC LAWYER AND WRITER: Hi, David. How you doing?
FOLKENFLIK: I'm doing fine. You know, picking up the phone and calling people strikes me as doing actual reporting.
What inspired you to do this after seeing this piece?
STERN: Because I was watching it and it just didn't sound right. It didn't smell right with these folks, who were saying -- and what -- how Hannity was casting it.
And so afterwards, I just sat and thought about it a bit and I'm loosely familiar with the Affordable Care Act and the rules and the regs and what's coming down the road. So I just basically figured I would track them down. So I Googled them and I looked on the White Pages and LinkedIn and all sorts of things. And I found them and I talked to them.
FOLKENFLIK: To be clear, as is known, and you've disclosed, you're a former aide to the Democratic governor of Montana; you have an interest in this. Sean Hannity, well-known conservative, he is an opinion host.
Why would you expect him to be a guy who's going to go after precision in reflecting some concerns about an act that he opposes?
STERN: I didn't expect that. Everybody -- it's not news that he's full of it. I just thought that at least you can't make something up out of whole cloth. You have to have at least a modicum of fact to base even a biased story around, and this one didn't even have that.
FOLKENFLIK: Well, they might argue that this is true to the experiences of these people. You reach them, some of them and explain facts.
One of them, it struck me, was concerned about effects for small businesses. He had found that he had only four employees.
Tell me what was discrepancy was between what he talked about and what you actually found to be the case.
STERN: He said that he had to keep his employees on part-time status because if he let them be full time it would -- he would have run into cost problems and ObamaCare would negatively affect him. But that only really applies to businesses with 50 or more employees. So really just, it didn't -- he was talking about something that really wasn't relevant.
FOLKENFLIK: And yet for others who simply haven't looked online -- at least that is what they said in your exchanges with them -- to even determine what they could get under ObamaCare, for them, they may actually distrust the government to oversee this private health care insurance exchanges.
Why isn't that simply true to their experience?
Aren't they entitled to that?
STERN: They absolutely are entitled to it. But Hannity is not entitled to point to what they're saying as evidence of a train wreck and that ObamaCare is currently failing. He's reporting on something that hasn't even happened yet.
FOLKENFLIK: So why do you think it is that there are people out there, A, who are, in your view -- and from what you've demonstrated perhaps somewhat misinformed about their opportunities under this and that there are media outlets that are providing information that itself may be inherently misleading?
STERN: Well, FOX News, first of all, to call it a media outlet is a bit of a stretch. It's essentially a Republican television channel. Now they have a right to do what they do. And Hannity, I watch Hannity from time to time. I have no problem with what he does.
FOLKENFLIK: Hannity is a more distinctive Republican and fixed figure than perhaps some of their other hosts. And I'm sure their news anchors, you know, what you're going to see on Shep Smith might be somewhat different than what you are going to see on Hannity. At the same time, it seems as though what you found here is an opinion host who's presenting something as fact that you say strays far from it.
STERN: Correct. That's exactly what he was doing.
And you're right. There are some shows on FOX where that's not the case, where they make more of an effort to have an adversarial format, to interview people from the other side and do things like that, like Bill O'Reilly.
But there is a lot of misinformation out there. And I think that a guy like Hannity is essentially the director of the right wing information industry in this country. And that's just propaganda. It's pure propaganda.
FOLKENFLIK: Well, it led to a very interesting article on your part, and the interesting impulse to pick up the phone and figure out what the facts actually were. Eric Stern, thank you so much for joining us to talk about your story in "Salon". Coming up next, it's the journalistic black eye that reporters fear: getting the story wrong. A look at the news at the speed of light.
FOLKENFLIK: A couple of items played out this week in ways that again suggest the need that speed trumps sound news decisions. Republican Congressman Bill young died on Friday night but major news organizations reported his death a day early.
The Pointer Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, tracked the initial mistake back to a tweet by a Florida blogger. NBC's Luke Russert tweeted the news and so did others. And many nonjournalists retweeted the false report, while FOX News' Gretchen Carlson reported live on the air.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GRETCHEN CARLSON, FOX NEWS ANCHOR: FOX News, a look for you now, Congressman Bill Young has passed away. The Florida Republican was 82. He served a remarkable 22 terms.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
FOLKENFLIK: Yet Young was still at that point alive. Carlson and Russert apologized. In the scheme of things unfortunate and sloppy but perhaps not consequential.
In recent days, the Associated Press announced that veteran political reporter Bob Lewis would no longer be covering the Virginia governor's race. He had reported that Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe had been accused of lying to federal investigators. Only it turned out documents alluded to another (inaudible), someone else.
Again, that report was also corrected and withdrawn in under two hours, but not till untrue allegations against the politician had made the rounds online and on Twitter.
Joining us to talk about the accuracy of news at the speed of light are Maggie Haberman of "Politico," joins us from New York City, and from Atlanta, Andrew Lih, a professor at American University and author of the book, "The Wikipedia Revolution."
Andrew Lih, tell me a little bit.
What are we to make of news at the speed of light?
How are we to do this better?
ANDREW LIH, AUTHOR OF "THE WIKIPEDIA REVOLUTION": You know, we have a lot of demands on journalists these days. Almost every news organization and the industry is asking for journalists to be right up front and center and be part of the breaking news cycle.
So it used to be that news organizations had a handful of folks who were the gatekeepers to put out things on the wire, breaking news items. But now with Twitter and other platforms, we actually have pretty much anyone in the news organization being asked to perform that role. And it's increasingly complex.
We have more tools. We have more devices. We have more platforms to try to do this. And if you think about what journalists fundamentally do, you are trying to balance three main things. You are trying to balance speed, accuracy and depth.
And now more and more journalists have the ability to be participants in that speed portion, and a platform like Twitter makes it a little bit more challenging because Twitter is so open and allows for anyone to jack into their system and do interesting thing with tweets.
Sometimes deletions or things that come along later to correct those things are harder to try to sift through. So that's something that makes it much harder these days for journalists, while they're building their personal brand and trying to be leaders in the industry to actually master these tools at the same time.
FOLKENFLIK: Maggie Haberman, I saw that you tweeted the errant news about the late Congressman Young and that you very quickly retreated your regrets about it.
What lessons do you draw and what harm ultimately was done, although a sad mistake to make, nonetheless, one that was so quickly corrected?
MAGGIE HABERMAN, SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER FOR "POLITICO": I think it's always unfortunate to have mistakes and I would argue -- I think the professor was absolutely right, although I think there are four demands that need to be balanced and one is fairness.
Twitter is, you know, a sort of one-dimensional platform. Everything created equally when you look at Twitter. It's very hard for people sometimes to remember that our individual Twitter feeds are news platforms.
So when you see someone like Luke Russert or me or other people tweet that kind of news, people do think it's real and that is why it's regretful and that's why I apologized after I did it.
This is not the first time that has happened on Twitter. There was a false report about Lou Paterno dying -- I think it was last year.
FOLKENFLIK: Well, sure. And my news organization with Gabby Giffords and others as well.
FOLKENFLIK: I just want to turn for a moment to the story involving Bob Lewis, which I know you followed, which erupted on Twitter one night after the AP moved its story and was retracted and amended, corrected and apologized for within two hours. Nonetheless, it seemed as though the dynamics of the Virginia's governor's race almost changed in a moment and then seemed to change right back. What is an honest mistake owned up to, I must say, admirably by the AP and by Mr. Lewis.
But nonetheless, what is the harm done by that kind of story?
HABERMAN: Well, that kind of story, that would have real ramifications if it had actually gained legs and been broadcast out on TV, if it had made it into the papers. It was corrected, as you say, very quickly. I feel terrible for Bob Lewis. This is a real (inaudible) but for the grace of God, go I --
HABERMAN: -- a lot of us. And I would like to just say on that story, too, there's a lot we don't know about exactly how that happened. AP and Mr. Lewis have both declined to get into how that mistake was made in a lot of ways.
But Bob Lewis is a veteran and a very well respected veteran. People make mistakes but all mistakes, as you say, are not equal. That one could have had real impact and it's because the AP moved very quickly it did not.
FOLKENFLIK: So interestingly you have the ability to get things wrong more quickly than ever and the ability to remedy them more quickly than ever.
Andrew Lih, that said, I haven't heard yet a way to resolve this. I haven't heard yet any solutions to what gene we implant in our heads, how we stop exercising that hair trigger so quickly when we can get things wrong so broadly.
What do you say to that when you talk to students and what should the expectations be for people?
LIH: I see two solutions that we need to look into. One is certainly getting individuals to be more aware and be more skeptical even if you're seeing evidence that looks like stories that you've had before, you still need that skeptical gene in there.
The other thing is that I'm actually down here in Atlanta for the Online News Association Conference and there are now firms that are specializing in social media intelligence so that when you have tweets from folks you may not know that much about but seem like they are reputable blogger, what can you quickly find out about the truth value of that and there are now not just one or two firms, but many firms getting into that business, that they're trying to provide that extra metainformation around the accuracy of this information.
FOLKENFLIK: Maggie Haberman, briefly, what do you think is a fair expectation of the audience, of our citizens and consumers when they see tweets or Facebook postings or the like from reporters? Should they believe them in the first hour or two?
HABERMAN: I think it depends on what the story is and I think it depends on the track record. We've all made mistakes. I certainly have made my share of them. But I think that the expectation has to be for news consumers that certain platforms and certain people and certain brands and certain outlets are trustworthy.
And I don't think that that has to change. I do think that to take a minute to reflect on certain topics like the death of a former congressman, I think, is a specific issue or involving a potential corruption or allegations in a gubernatorial race.
FOLKENFLIK: Both serious topics.
Maggie Haberman of "Politico," Andrew Lih of American University, thank you so much for joining us this morning. We appreciate it.
Coming up next, the emergence of WikiLeaks set off a panic among bankers, diplomats, military chiefs and spies, pretty much anyone who's ever wanted to keep a secret.
With its promise of radical transparency, I'll talk with a screenwriter who sought to capture the movement and its mysterious leader.
FOLKENFLIK: The promise of WikiLeaks allowed ordinary citizens and whistleblowers anonymity to reveal the sordid inner workings of oppressive governments and private wrongdoers. The nebulous movement's leader, Julian Assange, became a hero in some quarters. Others called Assange an enemy of the state, endangering the lives of diplomats, soldiers and those who work in the shadows to keep their nation safe, despite little evidence of such harm.
Now, the DreamWorks studio has turned the saga of WikiLeaks and its enigmatic founder into a feature film, "The Fifth Estate," which hits theaters this weekend.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Inaudible). He said they're coming after us. We need to publish now.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's hundreds of thousands of pages of sensitive material. It's not like the video. (Inaudible) full of jargon. (Inaudible) impenetrable. We wouldn't know what the hell we were publishing.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Inaudible) the historians decide. I thought that the point of this organization was to publish in full. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I thought the point was (inaudible).
(END VIDEO CLIP)
FOLKENFLIK: Reviews of the film have been mixed with one particularly scathing critique coming from Assange himself, who called it, quote, "a work of political opportunism, influence, revenge and, above all, cowardice."
I spoke earlier with the film's screenwriter, Josh Singer.
FOLKENFLIK: Josh Singer, thank you so much for joining us.
JOSH SINGER, TELEVISION WRITER AND PRODUCER: My pleasure.
FOLKENFLIK: What is it that interested you about this story, about WikiLeaks and particularly about Julian Assange?
SINGER: Well, I've been fascinated with the idea for a while. I went to school at Harvard Law and to classical Internet and society back then about 12 years ago. And so I'd been fascinated with WikiLeaks just when I started reading about it in the news.
When DreamWorks came to me with these two books, I was intrigued; and the first thing I did was call up all my old law professors. I called up Jonathan Zittrain, Larry Lessig and I said give me a clue.
People were debating what should be public and what should be private. And then there was this other question of who should be making that decision.
And it was really about this context of journalism that in the last 10 years we really -- we really had a bit of a problem with, the Fourth Estate, in that, you know, newspapers have been going out of business. There are a lot fewer investigative reporters around because they've lost their jobs.
So who's going to provide that check on government and on powerful corporations?
And what was fascinating was that Julian and Daniel seemed to be that check. They were pioneers in terms of real Fifth Estate journalism and providing this dropbox for any whistleblower to safely give information and for that information to then be passed on to the public.
FOLKENFLIK: How did you ultimately land on this question of the role that Assange himself played in the desire for what seems to many to be an extreme form of transparency?
SINGER: Well, you know, I think Assange was a pioneer. I think he's a genius. I think he had a lot of very good ideas. I think where it gets muddy -- and they had some of these instances early on -- but it gets muddy when you're putting out larger quantities of data and when you're not -- when you're putting it out unedited. And that was the idea. You wanted to put out information unedited so it didn't reflect bias.
And Julian and Dan were doing their homework and making sure that the information was real, that it wasn't, you know, made-up information. But putting out information unedited, I think, has some -- there are some concerns to that. And I think where you fall in that spectrum helps define how you feel about Julian ultimately and how you feel about -- I guess about where WikiLeaks went.
FOLKENFLIK: It sounds like you're walking a fairly fine line yourself, you know, after all, there are those who have come down hard on them and indeed they seem to be most effective when they partnered with what we think of as the Fourth Estate, with big names such as "The New York Times," "The Guardian" and others, and other European countries, as a way of vetting and getting some of their information out.
Julian Assange himself, of course, was very concerned about this. This weekend he's put out a fairly negative review of his own about the movie, but he also tried to discourage Benedict Cumberbatch, your extraordinarily talented and versatile lead actor in this movie, from portraying him, saying, "Your skills play into the hands of people who are out to remove me and WikiLeaks from the world. I believe you should reconsider your involvement in this enterprise."
When you saw those words, when he posted them on his website, and shared them with your colleague, Benedict Cumberbatch, what did you conclude from that?
SINGER: Julian has always been critical of the two books that we based our narrative on because, while those books praised the ideals of WikiLeaks and praised the ideals of transparency, they take issue and criticize him, and Julian doesn't like criticism.
I think it's important to distinguish the ideals of WikiLeaks, right, what they set out to do, these ideals of transparency from Julian. I think this is a common conflation which is unfortunate because I think some of Julian's actions in the last year or year and a half have not been for the best, for the cause of transparency. Right?
I think you can be someone who's for what Edward Snowden's doing, right, and for the way in which he leaked that information, and still not be for Julian Assange. I think Edward Snowden, I think was -- as we saw in "The New York Times" on Friday, was very responsible in terms of how he handled this information, making sure he wasn't going to take any of it with him to Russia.
I think he was very responsible in terms of who he reached out to, Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald. And I think they and the -- and "The Washington Post" and "The Guardian" and "Der Spiegel," and, to a lesser extent, "The New York Times," have been very responsible with the information they've been given. And I think they've behaved quite admirably.
Now it's not well known that Edward Snowden has said that if Julian Assange still had a submission platform -- which he does not, there's no way to actively submit on his website new information -- Snowden has said that if Assange still had a submission platform, he would have submitted his information to WikiLeaks.
I think you can be a fan of what Snowden did -- and you can be a fan of that leak and you can still be glad that Julian Assange did not get that information.
FOLKENFLIK: OK. So in this -- in this new film, in "The Fifth Estate," you know, a slightly fictionalized by heavily researched treatment, trying to get at the truth of the movement and of the person who led it from the outset so visibly, Julian Assange, Josh Singer, congratulations on the opening of your movie, and thanks so much for joining us.
SINGER: Thank you.
FOLKENFLIK: For his part, Julian Assange is now something of a diminished figure. He took sanctuary in London in the Ecuadorian embassy from which he recently ran a failed bid to become a senator in his native Australia.
That's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm David Folkenflik of NPR News.
Next up "STATE OF THE UNION" with guest host Gloria Borger.