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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES

The Fall of the "Duck Dynasty"?; Credibility Crisis for "60 Minutes"?; Interview with Jim VandeHei

Aired December 22, 2013 - 11:00   ET

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


BRIAN STELTER, CNN HOST: Hey. Did you hear about the "Duck Dynasty" controversy yet? Oh, wait, how could you have missed it?

Here's a better question. Did Phil Robertson's comments about homosexuality deserve so much discussion?

Meanwhile, over at CBS, they're wondering why the news magazine "60 Minutes" is facing a third round of criticism. A panel of media critics is here to explain why.

And the clock is ticking for American correspondents in China. Will they be allowed to stay in the country?

We'll have that, plus a revealing interview with the CEO of "Politico". And we'll be talking about this tweet that started a social media witch-hunt this weekend.

I'm Brian Stelter, and it's time for RELIABLE SOURCES.

(MUSIC)

STELTER: Good morning. Welcome to a freakishly warm Washington.

There were a lot of big stories this week. Congress passed a budget. The stock market reached record highs, a roof collapse on a packed London theater, a federal judge said the NSA's bulk collection of our telephone records was likely unconstitutional.

Oh, and here's a big one -- the government continued to stone wall reporters who keep asking why the Pentagon launched a drone strike last week that killed innocent people in Yemen. But we're hearing nothing about that because for the last three years, those stories barely stood a chance against this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GAYLE KING, CBS NEWS: The star of "Duck Dynasty" yanked off TV.

LARA SPENCER, ABC NEWS: "Duck Dynasty" patriarch Phil Robertson suspended indefinitely.

NISCHELLE TURNER, CNN: Controversial anti-gay statements he made in an interview with "G.Q." magazine. (END VIDEO CLIP)

STELTER: So, here we are at the four way stop of sex, religion, television and celebrity. The home of "Duck Dynasty", A&E, has declined all of our interview requests this week.

And before I bring in our panel, I want to let you know, I have an unusual relationship with A&E. Its sister channel Lifetime happens to be developing a movie based on a book I wrote about morning TV. The two channels have the same CEO and they share programming.

So far I've had no contact with Lifetime about the movie but I will in the future. So, you should keep that in mind as we go forward and if you think I'm being unfair, let me know.

And let's get to it. Joining me in New York, Lola Ogunnaike, an anchor for Arise TV, and here in Washington, Matea Gold, political reporter for "The Washington Post", and Matt Lewis of "The Daily Caller".

Lola, let's go to you first. Was this the most important story of the week? I mean, was it important at all?

LOLA OGUNNAIKE, ARISE TV: Of course not. This is clearly not the most important story of the week. But guess what? It's a slow news week.

STELTER: It is.

OGUNNAIKE: We're in the holiday season and nothing is better than a faux scandal to generate faux headlines.

STELTER: You don't think we should cover NSA revelations or drone strike in Yemen instead?

OGUNNAIKE: Well, I cover something important like that when you can talk about Phil Robertson's anti-homophobic rants and his racist rants? Why -- who cares about national security?

STELTER: You're channeling news editors and producers so well right now.

Matt, is that pretty much how it works here in this town?

MATT LEWIS, THE DAILY CALLER: Well, look, it's not the most important story of the week. But I think it is legitimate. It taps into a nerve about the culture wars. And I think that, you know, people on both sides of the aisle felt very strongly about this.

And I can say, from a conservative standpoint, this taps into concerns about liberal media bias. There was a "Politico" breakfast where a lot of journalists, including CNN's Jake Tapper, sort of conceded that the media has a lot of liberals, every few evangelicals and I would argue, probably even fewer Louisiana duck hunters are members of the press corps.

So, I think that --

STELTER: I think they all like watching the show, though. The show cuts across those lines.

LEWIS: It does. But I think the way that this was, the narrative, where people portrayed Phil Robertson as being homophobic, antigay, those headlines were essentially written by GLAAD. But this sort of misses the point that a lot of average Americans share those viewpoints that homosexuality is a sin. I think that's part of what got him trouble, and, frankly, a lot of people of faith from around the world, the Dalai Lama would share those viewpoints.

But you wouldn't know it by the way the press covered it. And I think that exposes this yawning chasm between the elite mainstream media and a lot of red state Americans.

STELTER: Right.

Alex Seitz-Wald at "National Journal" wrote a column, I think last night or this morning said the story provided profound psychological satisfaction for both sides in the culture war. It sounds like you agree with that.

LEWIS: Absolutely. I mean, I think if you're a -- if you are sort of a progressive secular person and you view this as yet another example of some, you know, red neck bible thumper who is intolerant -- I think if you are a conservative, you see this as someone who is really being punished for expressing a pretty conventional orthodox Christian viewpoint and you see this part of the industrial outrage machine trying to take down someone else.

And, by the way, when Eminem or Tracy Morgan can get away with saying things that actually -- or Alec Baldwin, I think his homophobic slur, I can understand the outrage. But in this case, someone a political or theological viewpoint, I would draw a distinction.

STELTER: Well, here's the clip, I think you would probably say is part of the left leaning media. It's from "SNL". It's from Seth Meyers last night. They mentioned "Duck Dynasty." Let's take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SETH MEYERS, SNL: This week, we learn you can judge a book by its cover.

A large number of conservatives on Thursday criticizing A&E for suspending Phil Robertson for his anti-gay comments, including Senator Ted Cruz, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck and Governor Bobby Jindal, or as they are collectively known, "dork dynasty".

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STELTER: So, there we are.

Matea, you wrote a great story about intersection of politics and reality TV. Why did we hear from people like Bobby Jindal on this? MATEA GOLD, THE WASHINGTON POST: I think what we're seeing is politicians increasingly becoming even more savvy about pouncing on these cultural moments, to communicate to key voting blocs. We saw this with Chick-fil-A issue last year in which everyone tried to pile on on both sides, to try to take ownership of the issue. In this case, Bobby Jindal, as you mentioned, and also Ted Cruz, Sarah Palin, all wanted to get in early and make it clear to evangelical conservative Christian voters that they thought this was outrageous.

And I think what they recognize is for those voters, this isn't just a flack about reality TV star pushed aside on his show. This goes to something much deeper for those voters, which is the sense that if you hold kind of a biblically based point of view that homosexual behavior is wrong, you are being asked to keep your views silent.

And as particularly gay marriage has gained steam legislatively across the country, a lot of those viewers are -- or those voters, rather, are becoming increasingly anxious about where they stand in the culture.

STELTER: Who would have thought that "Duck Dynasty" would bring this to the surface?

GOLD: Right.

STELTER: You used to write about television before politics. What was your take on how A&E handled this? It seems like they had no choice but to suspend him but here's this outrage for suspending him.

GOLD: Right. Well, I heard some speculation that this was actually just a devious plot to A&E to drive up even more numbers.

But I do think some media critics have made the point there's a bit of cultural opportunism at play here. I mean, A&E has sought to really blow up this show about this very colorful family. But do they want to show them in all of their unvarnished opinions? I think that that's a serious question for the network, when you actually do a reality show and you are purporting to let people be who they are on television, are you truly letting them say all their opinions?

OGUNNAIKE: And A&E is in a precarious position right now. This is the biggest show on their network.

STELTER: By far.

OGUNNAIKE: Fourteen million viewers tune in every week to watch this family. They are essentially the hillbilly Cosbys. So, they cannot afford to lose this golden goose, or golden duck, if you will.

STELTER: Do you think they will? I mean, on screen, we say the fall of "Duck Dynasty" with question mark. Do you think they could mean the end of the show?

OGUNNAIKE: No, not at all in fact. I think maybe Phil Robertson will have to go to sensitivity training or meet with group leaders from various communities, the black community, the gay community.

I think this show will keep going as long as the "Duck Dynasty" continues to drive ratings, Phil Robertson and the clan are here to say.

LEWIS: A&E right now Christmas week are showing like a marathon featuring Phil Robertson. So, they are trying to cash in on this. Look, I would say the whole thing --

STELTER: Would you call it exploitation or normal television programming?

LEWIS: Well, I think it's capitalism at work. I mean, I think they know where their bread is buttered and I find it even more outrageous that they are going through this sort of hand wringing in the process of bowing to political correctness.

I mean, look, I think we should be encouraging diverse opinions and debate. I think this stifles it and notion that he would have to go to some sort of sensitivity training I think would -- I don't think you're going to get Phil Robertson to go to sensitivity training.

STELTER: And if he goes, maybe they should televise it.

(CROSSTALK)

OGUNNAIKE: That would be a hit reality show.

But here's the situation, Brian. No one wants to find themselves in a Paula Deen-like fiasco. No one wants to see sponsor drop off that quickly and that aggressively. So, of course, they're going to try to get in front of this.

GOLD: And to that point, I just want to mention. I do think it's very striking that there's been much more attention paid on his remarks about gays and less on his remarks about African-Americans. He made some pretty provocative comments about how great life was for African-Americans in Jim Crow South which I think --

OGUNNAIKE: I can assure you that life post-Jim Crow is absolutely better.

GOLD: Right, right. And so, you know, I do think that shows a specific political motivation at work on both sides as you mention. Everyone is kind of trying to make the most of that issue focusing on his offensive comments about African-Americans as, you know, it provides less of a margin for everyone in this story.

STELTER: Matea Gold, Matt Lewis, Lola Ogunnaike, thank you so much for joining us.

LEWIS: Thank you.

OGUNNAIKE: Thank you.

GOLD: Thank you. STELTER: Coming up, first, it was Benghazi, and then, Amazon. And now, it's a story about the NSA. Has "60 Minutes" derailed and can this venerable TV news magazine get back on track? That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STELTER: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES.

It's been another bad week for "60 Minutes." I love the news magazine and so do millions of other viewers but it's still struggling with bad publicity generated by Lara Logan's report on the Benghazi consulate attack which relied on pun (ph) testimony from a now discredited eyewitness. Logan's report was shamed again this week when the Poynter Institute give it a not at all coveted error of the year award.

Now, the show looked to bounce back this past Sunday, with a report by John Miller that took an unprecedented inside look at the NSA, including an interview with the agency's director, General Keith Alexander.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN MILLER, CBS NEWS: Full disclosure: I once worked in the office of the director of national intelligence where I saw firsthand how secretly the NSA operates.

General Alexander agreed to talk to us because he believes the NSA has not told its story well.

GEN. KEITH ALEXANDER, NSA DIRECTOR: We need to help the American people understand what we're doing and why we're doing it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STELTER: But Miller's report was derided in real time on Twitter as a puff piece, that left many important questions about the NSA's mass surveillance unasked. "The New Yorker's" Ryan Lizza wrote this on Twitter, quote, "Wow, the '60 Minutes' piece about NSA was just embarrassing. Kudos to the NSA communication staff. You guys should get a raise."

Joining us now is the aforementioned twitterer Ryan Lizza, CNN commentator and Washington correspondent for "The New Yorker", and Michael Calderone, the senior media reporter for "The Huffington Post", and Alicia Shepard, the former ombudsman for NPR.

Ryan, let's start with that tweet. Tell me --

RYAN LIZZA, THE NEW YORKER: Twitterer, I've never been introduced as a twitterer.

STELTER: A respected Twitterer, absolutely. And honestly, your tweets, I wasn't watching "60 Minutes", so it's your tweets that made me curious.

Why did you think it was such a win for the NSA and a loss for viewers?

LIZZA: Well, look, there are two big issues here. One was the reporter who did it, who's a former official at the director of national intelligence, OK? So, nothing wrong with someone with that experience who is now obviously a journalist doing the report, right? He's got access. He's got knowledge of the system. But you've got to judge it by final product and, frankly, if you're going to have someone who has a conflict of interest like that do the report, it has to be tough.

We're right now in the middle of a massive debate in this country about surveillance, privacy, balancing liberty and security and the entire piece was a one-sided show for the NSA to get their message out, with not a lot of pushback on some of the P.R. that came out of the mouth of the director of the NSA.

STELTER: Michael, were you surprised we heard from no outside voices in that piece?

MICHAEL CALDERONE, THE HUFFINGTON POST: It was very strange. And afterwards, in the CBS, overtime, John Miller says they went to outside critics and factored that into their questions.

Now, none of that criticism was evident in the kind of softball questions, the leading question that he was asking General Alexander and others.

So I didn't see it in there and viewers who have just watched the broadcast didn't see any critics at all.

STELTER: Let's play a piece of overtime video where they talk about how the segment was managed by NSA P.R. people in real time.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There were a few times where General Alexander would do a time-out.

ALEXANDER: Did the NSA find a foreign power that had identified this capability and discussed using it offensively.

I need time-out on that.

MILLER: You looked over like this to the whole crowd of people over there in the dark and said can I answer that?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STELTER: I just want to say there will be no time-outs during this segment. Were you surprised that wasn't on the actual television broadcast?

ALICIA SHEPARD, FORMER PBS OMBUDSMAN: Well, of course, it should have been on, and it should have been. We asked him this and this and he couldn't have answered. What I noticed recently, they've had a stream of exclusive interviews and not had challenging people on. (CROSSTALK)

SHEPARD: Yes, getting Jeff Bezos on was a big deal. Getting General Alexander was on. They also run a piece that probably will get more attention now back in October about Social Security disability payments. They didn't have one Social Security disability advocate on or one person. It was about being ripped off by the taxpayer.

So, you get access and nobody has heard from Jeff Bezos. This is one of the first times. That's what they've got. It's going to draw viewers.

I think we're all very critical but I don't think the public looks at it the same way we do.

STELTER: And as often the case in these stories, isn't it, Ryan?

LIZZA: There's nothing wrong -- not every story has to be a hard edged, you know, just attack the person you're sitting there interviewing. I don't think the Jeff Bezos story was that big of a deal. Sometimes you want to do a sort of profile of someone and what they're like. I think every news organization does that.

My issue with this one is we're in the middle of the one of the most important debates in recent history. And to just let the NSA go on there without any of the countervailing opinions was the big problem here.

CALDERONE: Right.

STELTER: And then and we see a headline next day in the "New York Post" let's put it up on screen, "CBS news man Miller to rejoin Bill Bratton at NYPD". He's in talks right now. Is that right, Michael, about going back from journalism once again into government?

CALDERONE: Yes. Now, John Miller has left journalism twice before. He went to work with Bill Bratton, the incoming commissioner of the NYPD, back in the '90s in New York, and then when Bratton lives in L.A., he's worked as director of national intelligence and FBI. He disclosed only one of those for law enforcement roles on TV.

Now, I spoke to Miller three days before this piece ran and I said, you know, are you going back to NYPD? I was hearing speculation he could be counterterrorism chief. Another writer who's written a book on NYPD was hearing intelligence chief.

So, you know, he said he had no formal offer and since then, he hasn't made any additional comment. But there's been story after story about saying that he's likely to get this job.

STELTER: No, my sense is we could have a deal by Christmas. I don't think he wants to go into the New York and not have this resolve.

Let's me put up CBS' statement, because when I asked CBS about this, they did defend John -- having John Miller do this report. Here's what they said, "Who better to report that story than John Miller who, besides being a terrific reporter, is a national security expert?"

So they are actually leaning into the idea that it's great for him to have this resolving door experience because it helps the story.

SHEPARD: Absolutely, but disclose it. Just let the viewer decide.

You know, what people hate in general are surprises and finding out later.

STELTER: But beyond disclosure, is it -- at some point, is it inappropriate to do the story at all?

SHEPARD: I don't think so because John Miller has this incredible background and access and experience and might not have gotten the story otherwise. But I think had he said, here's what's going on, I'm in talks, I've had this job. I've had that job. I think then, the public thinks, OK, and they can factor in how believable, how credible the report is.

STELTER: I think you bring up the crucial point. They may not have gotten the access otherwise. Maybe what we're seeing is the increasing power of sources to choose interviewers, to choose, you know --

(CROSSTALK)

SHEPARD: That's always been the case with "60 Minutes." I mean, Bob Woodward writes a book. He wants to go on "60 Minutes" first.

LIZZA: It's a great pleasure. I mean, I really --

STELTER: It's by far the highest rated news program on American television.

LIZZA: Which is the reason why it should be held at such a high standard. It's one of the greatest news shows in the history of television, that's why I personally hold it to such a high standard.

CALDERONE: Right. And I think there's a difference between giving a celebrity, somebody promoting a movie, 12-minute, 14-minute segments, I mean, these are long segments that "60 Minutes" is doing. They have plenty of time to really press these people. And when a really secretive person like Jeff Bezos -- you know, journalist would kill to get a minute with him, never mind, you know, how to sort of access that he did.

And he basically got to promote this drone story that was on everywhere on Cyber Monday right as people are going to turn to Amazon.

STELTER: I remember people were on Twitter, the kind of more cynical people who watch "60 Minutes" and kind of snark at it, were snarking at the Amazon piece until the drone thing happened and then they were wowed by it because it was a great reveal.

But, you know, maybe -- yes?

LIZZA: I think look at what happened this last week. We had three different reports about the NSA. We had "60 Minutes," we had a federal judge, and we had a White House panel, right?

So three of the four branches of government told you something about the NSA and, unfortunately, the one that was the most pro-NSA and least criticism was the one by "60 Minutes."

SHEPARD: Right, which is what we would expect would have the harshest criticism. It did seem like who deputized CBS to say, we've heard all the negative criticism. So, we're going to give you the other side of the story.

LIZZA: I think that -- I did not understand that justification for it, because it's a huge platform. It's 15 million to 20 million viewers.

A lot of those viewers probably are not familiar with the story. It's a big, confusing story that requires someone with resources of "60 Minutes" to step back and tell the whole thing. Not just assume that, oh, the viewers out there have been listening to critics bash the NSA. So let's give NSA a chance to respond. That's not good journalism.

CALDERONE: Yes. There was a presumption that the NSA has told its story. Well, General Alexander has been on TV before. The administration defended the NSA disclosures. You know, sources have come out from the government defending the NSA for six months now.

I mean, it's not like the government hasn't been getting its point across. The government has been getting its point across for a variety of different ways. So, I mean, to have no critics and just presume that we're finally giving the NSA their voice is just very strange.

SHEPARD: Gee whiz, we're going inside the NSA, and this is how they do their story and, gee whiz, look at this drone. And the public likes that. Again, we look at the news in such a different way than the general public. I mean, I talk to --

STELTER: We should keep that in mind. That's a good point.

SHEPARD: Yes.

STELTER: Alicia, Ryan, Michael, stay with us. Stay with me, because I want to talk next about the tweet heard around the world. How should we feel about the Internet's mob mentality next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

If you were plugged in to social media Friday, you would have witnessed a phenomenon -- I think we should call trial by social media.

Here's what happened: a public relations executive Justine Sacco who works at a media company IAC. It owns Web sites like College Humor, Daily Beast, Match.com, sent out an apparently racist tweet.

Here's what it said. "Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm white."

Then she got on a plane for a 12-hour flight to South Africa. Her tweet went viral in the meantime. Her following spiked.

IAC released a statement condemning the tweet even though she hadn't landed yet.

The whole Twitter sphere was buzzing for contempt while waiting for her to land. The hashtag you see on screen now #hasjustinelandedyet, it's still trending on Twitter 36 hours later.

Photographers headed to the airport to greet her and, of course, keep in mind, she had no idea any of this was going on until she landed. She promptly deleted her tweet and then her account and yesterday lost her job. This morning, she did apologize.

Let's put up the apology on screen and I read part of it for you. She said, "Words cannot express how sorry I am and how necessary it is for me to apologize to the people of South Africa, who I have offended due to a needless and careless tweet. There is an AIDS crisis taking place in this country that we read about in America but do not live with or face on a continuous basis. Unfortunately it's easy to be cavalier about an epidemic that one has never witnessed firsthand."

Now, I've been e-mailing with her today. I've asked her to come on. She hasn't agreed to call in.

But I do think it's notable that she did finally come out with an apology a day a half after all this happened.

I worked with Justine for years as a reporter. I would call her questions about her company and I never knew the side of her that appeared on Twitter. But I guess that's the point, until people start to notice, she was relatively safe in obscurity on the site.

We're back with our panel here. Michael Calderone of "The Huffington Post", Ryan Lizza of CNN and "The New Yorker", and Alicia Shepard, the former ombudsman for NPR.

You were watching this on Twitter like I was. Do you feel like this was trial by social media?

SHEPARD: The thing that bugged me is what if it had been a hacked account. I mean, there was no effort to say, is this real? This is what we have to do all the time. We have to request this question.

And it was hideous the way people went after her. "I hope her plane crashes." "She should die." I mean, what a world we live in. STELTER: And I guess it's not that Internet is good or bad, it's that the world is good or bad. At this point, the Internet is everything.

SHEPARD: Right.

STELTER: It's just a reflection of society.

CALDERONE: Right. I mean, what I was surprised about, I understand sites like BuzzFeed, they're so plugged into social conversation, doing a clip post.

I was surprised "The New York Times" while still in flight felt the need to do a story on this and they had something in there like she didn't respond to comment. Well, yes, she was on this flight to Cape Town. She wasn't going to comment.

So, you know, I think news organizations are caught between -- we don't want to ignore what's going on online but do we need to get in the mix and make it into a bigger story and amplify it by bringing in "The New York Times" which leads to nightly news, to lead to other bigger platform.

STELTER: Right. Let me read a couple of Twitter messages that were commenting on all of this. The first one says, "Trial by social media. Justine Sacco said some stupid and insensitive things, but a mob response isn't fair either."

Here's one more, "The Twitter mob will come for you somebody. If you don't think so, you're wrong."

Now, Ryan, tell me if I'm wrong. You know, you could the media did her in. I think it was really normal ordinary Twitter users who really got this thing lit up.

LIZZA: That's when people took notice is number of retweets and number of followers she suddenly had. I mean, I guess the question is what's the standard for giving pitch forks out and going after someone like this?

On one hand, I think most people had never heard of who this person was.

STELTER: Right.

LIZZA: In some sense, she's not a major public official. The other side of the argument, people would say, well, she represents and speaks for a major corporation and she's a public relations official, she should know better. And in that sense, she's fair game.

STELTER: That's why I was interested in it for today, is that she's a public relations person.

SHEPARD: Exactly. That's just crazy. This is just another reminder though we don't need it that the mike is always on.

STELTER: You do need it.

SHEPARD: You represent the company that you work for. No line between your private life and public life. She apparently tweeted that "I can't be responsible for what I say when I'm drunk." Well, yes, you can.

LIZZA: No, I think that's the thing. I mean, I remember five years ago when there was all this angst over teenagers posting to Facebook and suddenly a young people realize, oh, wait a second, what I put on Facebook is public. My employer might be listening. It was a sea change.

I think people in the older generation, if you're a little older, are realizing what you tweet is what you say. You can't just say, "Oh, that was on Twitter," or, "Oh, I had too much to drink."

CALDERONE: Even covering reporters who should know better, I mean, sometimes I'll -- a reporter will tweet something really pointed or with a point of view on Twitter. I'll call them up immediately and say, "Hey, can you elaborate on this," and they'll say, "I can't comment. I can't comment to you on the record."

(LAUGHTER)

It's like you're commenting all day every day on the record. This is a public forum.

STELTER: I do think this actually hurts Twitter. Because, as it tries to sign up more and more people, these bad news stories may scare nonusers away from the site. I don't know. But there was one good thing that came out of it. Let's put up on screen -- the domain name for Justine Sacco now goes...

SHEPARD: That was brilliant.

STELTER: ... to an Aid for Africa website. There it is. You know, at least that may be the silver lining.

SHEPARD: Well, kudos to that organization for reacting that quickly...

STELTER: For taking advantage of it, right.

SHEPARD: ... and, you know, doing something good out of something bad.

STELTER: Absolutely. Well, Alicia, Ryan, thank you for joining me.

Michael, stick with me for one more segment, if you can. Up next, it's major media outlets versus the Chinese government.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STELTER: Welcome back. The next story is really important because it affects what we do and what we do not know about China, a country long shrouded in secrecy and censorship. Last month, the New York Times reported that editors at Bloomberg News killed an investigative story on, quote, "hidden financial ties between one of the wealthiest men in China and the families of top Chinese leaders."

Bloomberg editor-in-chief Matthew Winkler called those accusations false. But some of his employees were the ones doing the leaking, talking to the Times about it. According to one Bloomberg employee, Winkler said, quote, "If we run the story, we'll be kicked out of China."

The story still hasn't run. Some say it's an example of the self- censorship that news organizations tolerate in order to stay in China. But lately even that has been put at risk for Bloomberg and the Times.

For a briefing on all of this, I turn to CNN's chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto, who served as chief of staff to former American ambassador to china Gary Locke.

Jim, thanks for joining me.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good to be here. Thank you.

STELTER: This is a tense time for any journalist who lives in China, isn't it?

SCIUTTO: It is. Traditionally, visas are issued for a year. So when you get to December time, people are renewing their visas, and it's, for a number of years, been a tense time because some journalists have been rejected. It's not a new issue this year although it's gotten a bit worse.

And, you know, there's this impression among journalists there that that's a pressure tactic, right, that if their coverage isn't to the pleasing of the government, that they may not get their visa. And that's proven true for some journalists who have been rejected and others who still get their visas but might get invited into the government offices for a little sit-down, a talk to say, well, you've done these stories and those stories, and perhaps in the future, these might not be the kinds of things you want to cover.

So this has been going on for a long time and it causes some real tension there.

STELTER: In what ways has it gotten worse this year?

SCIUTTO: Well, you have more journalists under the gun, in effect, these Times journalists and Bloomberg journalists, but in addition to that, you know, over the span of the last couple of years, it's not just been the visa issue. You know, the New York Times website is shut down in China; Bloomberg website; they've been interfering with The Wall Street Journal website, you know, in reaction to critical stories written about the leadership, particularly -- and the ones it's really gotten -- you know, really gotten under the skin of the Chinese are these stories that look at the financial holdings of the leadership. So, I mean, there's been a very -- you know, it's not, you know, inference that there's a connection here. When those stories pop up, those websites get shut down. When some of these journalists write these stories, they don't get their visas. You know, so there's a direct connection.

STELTER: Viewers at home probably wonder if there's anything the U.S. government can do to help U.S. journalists in China. Is there?

SCIUTTO: Well, it's the subject of debate now. Because we debated this when I was in Beijing, too. You know, I can tell you U.S. officials have been raising this with the Chinese side for more than a year at a number of levels, saying this is not fair.

But to have Vice President Biden do it at that level, that's the highest level it's been raised...

STELTER: And that was just a few weeks ago, right?

SCIUTTO: Exactly, on his visit to Beijing. And he didn't use soft language. He said we and China have, in his words. "profound disagreements about the treatment of U.S. journalists."

So the question is, beyond raising it, what can you do? And some officials have suggested visa reciprocity. Now, we've got more than 800 Chinese journalists in the U.S. with state -- you know, these are state broadcasters, remember, like CCTV and so on. So someone said, "Hey, wait a second. It's not fair to give all them visas and American journalists have a problem."

Of course there's a philosophical issue with that because, in the States, you know, the U.S. government doesn't want to be doing that. We want to have an open media environment.

STELTER: I wonder if this current tension says anything about the new Chinese government and if they are being more suppressive toward journalists.

SCIUTTO: You know, it's a fair question. And it's worrisome. I remember Xi Jinping gave his first press conference when he was appointed -- when he was announced as the new president last year, him saying -- he gave a press conference. There were loads of journalists there and he said, you know, having foreign journalists here is important because it helps us understand each other. You know, it helps mutual understanding between the countries. And a lot of journalists said, "Hey, this guy seems like a guy we can work with," you know, and, plus he's got this very friendly persona. He's traveled. He lived in the States, in Iowa, when he was a young man. He's kept those friends. He's got a good, sort of, public profile.

But this has been a very, very tough treatment of journalists, so it's been disappointing. And it's a sign, just in my experience in China, of a more confident Chinese government. If they want to do something; if they feel they have been wronged by foreign press coverage, which they do; they feel that they're under too much criticism, they're going to react. STELTER: Jim, thanks for bringing us up to speed on this.

SCIUTTO: Thank you.

STELTER: I misspoke during the intro for that. Gary Locke is still the ambassador. He's on the way out, but he is currently the ambassador to China.

Joining me now to discuss the escalating fight between China and the foreign press, Emily Parker, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of the upcoming book "Now I Know Who My Comrades Are: Voices From the Internet Underground." And returning to the table, Michael Calderone of the Huffington Post.

Michael, let's start with you, and bring us up to speed on what the status is of the reporters for Bloomberg and the New York Times who are in China and aren't sure if they can stay.

MICHAEL CALDERONE, HUFFINGTON POST: Right, so it's a two-step process. First you get a press card, a press accreditation, and then you use that with your passport, sort of, to apply for a one-year residency visa.

So last week, all the reporters for Bloomberg got their press card and now they're applying for visas. Some but not all of the Times reporters who were in China -- I believe there's nine Times reporters between Beijing and Shanghai -- got press cards and they are now applying for the visa. What I am told is that the Times should know probably by about a week into January whether or not they'll be approved.

STELTER: And Emily, this matters to viewers at home why? This used to be pretty routine and now it's not, right?

EMILY PARKER, NEW AMERICA FOUNDATION: It matters to viewers at home because if we want information about China, and we need information about China, this is the world's second largest economy, this is an increasingly important global power, and Western journalists are under a lot of pressure there. And I think even if these visas do end up coming through for the "New York Times" and Bloomberg, it will still have a chilling effect on foreign correspondents in China. Because that's the way that censorship generally works in China. It's not somebody calling up a journalist and telling them you can't write that, you can't do that. It's more that journalists are always aware of the threat of what could happen if they cross the line. And in that sense, by delaying the renewal of these credentials for these journalists, the Chinese government sent a very effective message of what could happen if you go too far.

STELTER: CNN's Beijing bureau chief just wrote about this yesterday. It's on the web now. I would like to read a bit from it, from the column. It said quote, "I feel little personal risk as a reporter, but our biggest concern remains the protections of sources who are usually more vulnerable to the government's control. None of us wish to land them in jail." And it sounds, Emily, that's a pretty real fear for journalists on the ground. PARKER: That's an absolutely real fear. And I think that brings up a very important point, that of course Chinese journalists and Chinese research assistants are under much greater pressure than foreign correspondents. The stakes are much higher for them. A foreign correspondent could lose -- it's his visa, while a Chinese research assistant could end in jail, so that's a very valid point. However, I would argue that there is a risk for foreign correspondents as well, even if it's not being behind bars.

For people who have devoted their lives to China, who have spent years studying the language and the culture, who have families there, the threat of being told to leave, of being expelled from the country and thinking that maybe you won't be able to go back, that is a real threat, and I think people are aware of it.

STELTER: The American government is involved, as you and Michael know. Let's play a clip of Joe Biden recently speaking on this issue.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BIDEN: Innovation thrives where people breathe freely, speak freely, are able to challenge orthodoxy, where newspapers can report the truth without fear of consequences. We should have many disagreements and some profound disagreements on some of those issues right now. The treatment of U.S. journalists. But I believe China will be stronger and more stable and more innovative if it respects universal human rights.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STELTER: That was from a couple weeks ago. Michael, do you think this is the new normal perhaps for relations between reporters between these two countries?

CALDERONE: What we're seeing is a pattern where Bloomberg or the New York Times reports on a specific type of story. It's very often the political and the ties between wealthy families and government tied families and --

STELTER: A kind of story that would never be published in China.

No, no. And these stories are important, because obviously other news organizations can follow up on them, and even if the New York Times is blocked in China, you know, some people have an end-run around that and may still be able to see these stories.

CALDERONE: But whenever one of these big stories breaks, that's when the Times website gets cut off. That's when Bloomberg's website gets cut off. Or you know, in this case, we see Bloomberg presumably self-censoring itself beforehand for business interests. They don't want to lose possible terminal sales in China. They don't want the Chinese government to pressure businesses and say don't do businesses with Bloomberg. That could be a lot of money to lose.

STELTER: Michael, thank you for being here. Emily Parker, thank you for joining me as well. PARKER: Thank you.

STELTER: A quick reminder. On Twitter we're live tweeting the show. My better half is posting links, including links to Michael and Emily's article about this. Check it out on twitter.com/Brianstelter.

Coming up, the ultimate Washington insider news outlet is stepping into a new territory. I ask the CEO of Politico where the website is going. That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STELTER: Welcome back to Reliable Sources. I'm Brian Stelter here in Washington.

Seven years ago, a startup called Politico revolutionized news in this town. Ever since, media reporters like me have wondered when and how Politico would expand, and in October we found out when Politico added a little known publication called Capital New York to its roster. Earlier in New York, I invited the CEO and co-founder Jim VandeHei to tell us all about it. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

STELTER: Jim, thank you for joining us.

JIM VANDEHEI, POLITICO CEO: Good to be here.

STELTER: You have been a journalist for decades. You co-founded Politico, and a couple of months ago, you moved over to the business side, now you are the CEO. It's an unusual thing for a journalist to do. So tell me about why you decided to make that move?

VANDEHEI: Yes, I think to outsiders it seems a little unusual. I think to us at Politico, it didn't seem all that exotic, given that it was John Harris and myself who have spent the bulk of time building Politico with Fred Ryan and Robert Allbritton and others, but in that, I spent a bunch of time on strategy, what are we going to invest in, how are we going to market our company, what do we want to be as a company? So making the shift from doing that into becoming a full- time CEO may seem radical, but it's not that radical. It certainly changes my day and changes my focus, but to me, like, we live in this awesome era of experimentation. You're an example of it. Most of our friends are examples of it. You can either experiment and go with it and try to figure out what works and what doesn't work, or you can sort of get in that defensive crouch and worry about what's going to happen next and oh my oh my, this whole industry is blowing up.

I think there's tons of opportunity, and to me, it's fun to try to figure out how do you connect awesome journalism with an awesome business model. The awesome journalism part is very executable. The business part is tough stuff. There aren't that many people who are getting it right. A lot of people who people say are getting it right probably aren't if you looked at their books. To actually finance good journalism is tough. And we've learned a lot over six or seven years at Politico. And what I'm trying to do now is take that and try to build Politico into something bigger and try to test it here in New York with Capital New York, because, like you, I'm a journalist by training. I love journalism. I want to be one of the people helping figure out how to make a go of it.

STELTER: With that in mind, what is the Politico model today? What have you learned works and doesn't work in these last seven years?

VANDEHEI: I mean, I've learned about a niche. I think if you specialize in an area where there is a robust demand for content, you can really make --

(CROSSTALK)

STELTER: That's the opposite of the Wall Street Journal or the Washington Post.

VANDEHEI: It's the opposite. I would hate to be a generalist. I think the era of the generalists -- it's not over, but it's a tough, tough, tough time to be a generalist. Whereas if you're a specialist, if you look at what ESPN was able to do, there's a reason ESPN is so much better than anybody else at doing sports. They're great at it because that's all they focus on. They wake up every day trying to figure out how do I win at covering the NFL? How do I win at covering soccer? How do I win at covering baseball? It's a lot harder when you have to figure out how do I win at sports, the world, local, weather-- all of those things. So for us we've always benefited from being a specialty product.

STELTER: The critique of Politico is always that it's hyperactive, that it cares more about personalities than policy. You're saying that's not true, that the policy is a big part of the whole coverage.

VANDEHEI: I would say guilty as charged that we're hyperactive. Yes, like we have a high metabolism. We definitely I think we have a different spirit at Politico than you might find in other newsrooms. I'm proud of that.

Do we obsess about personalities? Again, guilty as charged. We obsess about personalities, about politics, and about policy. The monks can sit back and say, oh, it's just -- I want a nice dry piece about the policy. No, you don't. Nobody is reading those pieces. But if you can combine the politics and the personalities, the people behind a specific issue, you can get people to read it, and to understand why that issue matters, who is behind it, why are they doing what they do. And to me, when you bring those three together, you do great journalism.

STELTER: Politico recently made its first acquisition here, Capital New York. It's interesting that for years, people have wondered if Politico was going to expand. And when you did to New York, it wasn't by adding (ph) an office here, it was by buying Capital New York. Tell me about the reason why you decided to acquire as opposed to just start something here? VANDEHEI: The reason we waited, and I think people did wonder, why you guys waited six years to make any expansion. When you're in business, you're always tempted to try to -- wow, we've done something right. We can do anything right. And you're tempted to overreach. When you overreach, the core of what you built becomes weak. And when it becomes weak, someone else is going to come in and disrupt you. So we wanted to make sure that the foundation of Politico, from top to bottom, was strong.

STELTER: And then you could start thinking about expanding?

VANDEHEI: And then you can start thinking about it. We were there last year, so we started thinking, OK, what do we want to do in terms of expansion? We were ready to expand. And then it's like everything in life, it's all about timing. Why -- people always ask, why did you guys buy Capital New York instead of just starting Politico New York, which, trust me, we thought about it for years. And when it turned out they wanted to either take on a buyer or take on a cash infusion, they came to us, and it was an easy call I think from our end, and I think ultimately an easy call from their end, because they want to do exactly what we want to do. They want to do great journalism, they want to focus the journalism, they want to break some china, make a difference in covering city hall, Albany and the media.

And so it wasn't a hard stretch at all for us. Could we have just done Politico New York? Probably. But, remember, the beauty of Politico is its focus, right? And the name is confining, like you really can't -- we couldn't go cover local schools with the name Politico in Washington. And when I look at New York, politics and policies no doubt central to this place, but there's so much opportunity. And so to us this is a great way to experiment, because when you think about, well, what worked at Politico and then how do you apply that elsewhere? You have got to have readers, you've got to have people who can afford to pay for subscriptions. You have got to have people who have a voracious appetite for really high-end content. And New York has more of that than Washington.

I think at the top of our list is going to be investigative journalism and then there's going to be coverage of state Capitols, which, let's face it, these places are dying. You walk into a state Capitol, there's nobody there.

STELTER: There's lots of stories but no people to cover them.

VANDEHEI: Lots of stories but nobody covering them. What happens when politicians don't have people covering them? The answer is not good. And you need that. And if we can be one of the forces figuring out how you can actually make a business model that can lead to a resurgence of coverage of state and local politics, like that would be a pretty cool thing.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STELTER: Vandehei didn't name any of the markets that might be next for Politico, but he does have a list, and sources tell me California is at the top of it.

Up next, what I thought was the funniest media moment of the week, thanks to Conan O'Brien.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STELTER: Before our time is up, here's the best thing I saw this week. Conan O'Brien has gotten really good at catching local news anchors reading from the same scripts. This holiday themed one was the best yet.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, it's okay. You can admit it if you have bought an item or two or maybe ten for yourself.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's okay, you can admit it. You've bought an item or two or ten for yourself.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's okay, you can admit it if you've bought an item or two or ten for yourself.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's okay, admit it if you bought an item or two or ten for yourself.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's okay, you can admit it if you bought yourself one or two or ten things for yourself because a lot of people do it.

CONAN O'BRIEN: Wow.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STELTER: It's okay. We can admit it. Sometimes we don't write every word we read on air, but we do try. Good thing Conan is here to keep local TV honest.

That's all for this televised edition of "Reliable Sources," but we continue online, where we cover the media every day. Right now on CNN.com, there's more of my interview with Jim VandeHei and the editors of Capital New York, and my look at why Katie Couric's daytime talk show is ending after only two years. Also, some details on an important acquisition this week. Rupert Murdoch's News Corp bought something called a social news agency. And there's the column I mentioned earlier by CNN's Beijing bureau chief that is definitely worth a read. You can find it all on the Reliable Sources blog on CNN.com. Thanks for watching this week. I'd love to hear what you thought of today's show on Facebook and Twitter. My username is BrianStelter. I hope you all have a merry Christmas and we'll see you right back here live next week Sunday at 11:00 a.m. "State of the Union" with Candy Crowley begins right now.