Today on CNN’s Reliable Sources, The Baltimore Sun’s TV Critic, David Zurawik, and NPR media correspondent, David Folkenflik, joined host Brian Stelter todiscuss Brian Williams return to news and this week’s CNN Reagan Library Debate.
Reliable Sources airs Sundays, 11 a.m. to noon (ET).
A video, text highlights, and a full transcript from the show are available below.
MANDATORY CREDIT for reference and usage: “CNN’s RELIABLE SOURCES”
Brian Williams returning to the airwaves
Biggest hit of fall TV season: GOP debates
The Baltimore Sun’s TV critic, David Zurawik, on how much Donald Trump contributed to debate ratings: “The audience for ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ dropped from 11 million to 7 million last year. Those are huge audience losses .. So, when he says, look, 23 million, 24 million it’s because of me. No. You’ve got a show and you’re not doing it. You’re doing 4 million. You’re doing 7 million … I agree, he makes a big difference, he really amps up the showbiz component of this. Something else deeper is happening when you get this kind of an audience for this kind of telecast.”
NPR media correspondent, David Folkenflik, on how much Donald Trump contributed to debate ratings: “I think Trump changes the equation on all of it. I think it hyper charges us. As much as he’s turned this into something of a show, of entertainment, of circus in some ways, he’s also energized people into thinking about the political process, which isn’t all bad. So, I think he’s going to change the electricity in the water, if you will.”
NPR media correspondent, David Folkenflik, on how the network’s decision to bring back Brian Williams to MSNBC: “they’re making a non-journalistic decision on one of their best-known names, even if one of their more tarnished ones at the moment.”
The Baltimore Sun’s TV critic, David Zurawik, on how he believes viewers will react to Brian Williams returning to the news: “I don’t know – I have seen stuff on social media already mocking him in this last week about the return with the Pope, people saying, oh, I thought he was the Pope or I thought he was the secretary to the Pope… With millennials, I think that’s going to be — continue to be a problem. And it’s the nature of social media that I think he’s going to continue to get beat up in that realm … I mean, he lied about war. And people die in war.”
FULL TRANSCRIPT ON DEBATE SEGMENT:
THIS IS A RUSH FDCH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
BRIAN STELTER, CNN HOST: The GOP debates now even bigger than football. A Thursday night Denver/Kansas game has 21 million viewers. Wednesday’s Trump/Fiorina matchup had 23 million. That is a record for CNN, this channel’s biggest audience in history.
The previous record was set back in 1993. That’s when Al Gore and Ross Perot debated NAFTA on this very special edition of “LARRY KING LIVE”, in front with 16.8 million viewers. A NAFTA debate, 16.8 million viewers. Go figure.
But now, this debate even bigger. Why do the ratings matter? All those candidates on stage had a huge opportunity to sway tens of millions of potential voters.
Now, the average I just mentioned, 23 million viewers it actually underestimates the opportunity for the candidates, because 23 million viewers is the average of the viewership for every single minute of those 180 minutes. When you consider how many people turned just at some point during the prime time debate reached 37.9 million people. Those are amazing numbers in television. Fox’s debate averaged 24 million and reached 36 million.
So, we can now say, this was not just an aberration. This is the biggest show of the fall. So, what is causing all this? Is it all Trump and what does it mean for the candidates and the networks?
Let’s ask David Zurawik, the TV critic at the “Baltimore Sun”, and David Folkenflik, the media correspondent for NPR.
David, David, welcome to all of you. Thank for being here.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, NPR: Thank you.
STELTER: Is it all Trump? Are these ratings entirely thanks to Donald Trump?
FOLKENFLIK: I think it’s — you know, look, you’ve had for eight years or almost eight years Democratic in the White House, one who’s been polarizing, particularly for a lot of conservatives and Republicans. They’re looking for this our opportunity to reclaim the White House.
But I absolutely think this is Donald Trump. You look at the monster numbers you had at the debate at night here on CNN, also on FOX, you look at the undercard. You have candidates who are scoring within the margin of error on that stage for the lesser debate. They’re about 6.3 million, 6.2 million viewers for that. That’s a huge audience as well.
This is a significant amount of the electorate tuning in to figure out more. But I think Trump changes the equation on all of it. I think it hyper charges us.
As much as he’s turned this into something of a show, of entertainment, of circus in some ways, he’s also energized people into thinking about the political process, which isn’t all bad. So, I think he’s going to change the electricity in the water, if you will.
STELTER: Wow, David Zurawik in Baltimore, I wonder if this is built in structural advantage for the Republicans and a disadvantage for the Democrats. I don’t see any way a Democratic debate is going to get 23 million viewers unless CNN persuades Donald Trump to show up.
DAVID ZURAWIK, BALTIMORE SUN: Well, you know, Brian, part of this, though, and I don’t disagree that Trump has made a huge difference. But, you know, if you look at his ratings for “The Apprentice”, he started with 20 million in 2004. And by 2010, he was down for 4 million.
STELTER: That’s good point.
ZURAWIK: The audience for “Celebrity Apprentice” dropped from 11 million to 7 million last year. Those are huge audience losses.
So, when he says, look, 23 million, 24 million it’s because of me. No. You’ve got a show and you’re not doing it. You’re doing 4 million. You’re doing 7 million.
This is not to disagree with David. I agree, he makes a big difference, he really amps up the showbiz component of this. Something else deeper is happening when you get this kind of an audience for this kind of telecast.
STELTER: It’s noteworthy the viewership, they’re pretty steady throughout all three hours. This is a long debate. There was some criticism of that. But they ended up staying pretty steady, almost 20 million viewers even at 11:15 in the evening.
Let me play a bit of what we heard during the debate. These are series of questions from Jake Tapper that shows that strategy in how he was pursuing the candidates.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS)
JAKE TAPPER, CNN MODERATOR: Ms. Fiorina, you were CEO of Hewlett-Packard. Donald Trump says you quote, “ran HP into the ground”, you laid tens of thousands of people, you got viciously fired.
For voters looking for somebody with private sector experience to create American jobs, why should they pick you and not Donald Trump?
Mr. Trump has repeatedly said that the $100 million you raised makes you a puppet for your donors. Are you?
You as well have raised concerns about Mr. Trump’s temperament. You’ve dismissed as an entertainer. Would you feel comfortable with Donald Trump’s finger on the nuclear codes?
(END VIDEO CLIPS)
STELTER: These were questions designed to have that two shot and have candidates talk with each other. Do you think we learned about the candidates and the relationships with each other?
FOLKENFLIK: I think we learned some things. I think we learned a bit about whether Trump might where fin if other people were given equal standing, even though the break down of the time showed he got the lion’s share of the time.
STELTER: Partly because he was attacked the most, he’s got to respond the most.
FOLKENFLIK: He was attacked the most, got the chance to respond the most, in a sense. That’s just basic fairness and sense of decency that Tapper and other folks here at CNN were trying to instill. At the same time, it made it a very tit for tit debate. In some ways, it’s a minimizing debate. It makes the candidates a little small to always be responding to something somebody else has said at a campaign event.
People are always going to be criticizing each other on the stump. They’re just going to do it. It’s a way that allowed CNN and I think the emergence of Tapper’s anchor in this channel is one of the better things to happen on cable TV in a long time.
But nonetheless, that particular format meant that people were I think diminished from the opportunity to present themselves in more affirmative and more at times substantive way. It seems like a lot of internecine sniping that was going on.
STELTER: I sensed a lot of substance, though. You didn’t?
FOLKENFLIK: There was fair amount here or there. But, you know, if you went through that transcript, if you went and looked at the first hour of the debate, so much was on the question we heard Jake there and it’s a legitimate one. Do you trust Donald Trump on the button of that nuclear device? A lot of those things ended up being kind of small board. There was substance offered, but not substance addressed by the candidates themselves. I really feel as though they ally to a lot of things that Tapper I think was hoping to get out.
STELTER: David Zurawik, what I didn’t understand is the criticism that said the debate was too long? I’m thinking, as a journalist, I want to hear as much as I possibly can from the candidates. But perhaps from a television or entertainment perspective, maybe some people thought it went too long for that reason.
What was your take on that line of criticism?
ZURAWIK: I really did think it was long. When it moved past 11:00, I was like will this thing ever end? But, you know, in fairness, 11 candidates, they brought Fiorina in. That’s a big, big number to deal with. And the debate did try to deal with substance.
You know, I kind of agree with part of what David said. I thought with the two shots and the questions where you ask someone about something they said about you that CNN was pushing the conflict angle which makes for good prime time television but maybe too much.
But when I went back and thought about it, I have to say this, not everybody was diminished. Carly Fiorina definitely was not diminished by what happened in that debate. But I did feel that Donald Trump was diminished. I thought Donald Trump looked smaller in TV terms than I had ever seen him.
Now, part of that might have been that there was a very intense conversation going about policy matters like ISIS, Syria and Trump seemed to hang back. Maybe it was his age. Maybe he couldn’t do three hours. I don’t know. Ben Carson didn’t do three hours.
But Carly Fiorina was in her 60s, did three hours, and she was as strong at the end as she was at the beginning. I don’t think the format diminished it.
You know, I wasn’t crazy about one Jake Tapper by himself who I thought did a good job overall and two people off to the side, but CNN has done that before. So, it’s nothing new.
I like the three people from FOX in that sense. But there’s a sense of you get a choppier product with that. People don’t follow up on discussion. But I thought it was substantive and I don’t think they were all diminished in my way by it.
STELTER: You know, the next GOP debate is October 28th on CNBC, and CNBC has said nothing about who will moderate or what the criteria will be. By then, we may only have one debate, not two.
FOLKENFLIK: Well, that’s right. I mean, there should be an incredible winnowing that goes on and I’m sure that the networks would like that very much. I think it’s very awkward for them to do it. In some ways, if there are going to be two debates, you almost wish that it were top 11 that were broken into two, so you could really drill down and do some things.
I think one of the real differences to the CNN debate and FOX debate was that Fox was willing to take on its own authority to challenge the candidates directly. In this, I thought it was an interesting gambit, an interesting choice by CNN to put it in the words of other candidates.
FOLKENFLIK: It wasn’t personalized. It wasn’t the journalist doing it. But ultimately, the journalist pressing the candidates is what they’re supposed, respectfully, but nonetheless firmly.
In this case, I though that Jake did a decent job of trying to address some of the elements including, look, medical authorities do say the vaccines have no link to autism. And yet, there’s a number of statements that went by the way side and weren’t able to be fact checked.
STELTER: Yes, I think it’s probably impossible to real time fact check, but we’re seeing a lot of coverage in the last couple of days following up at least, trying to dissect what was —
FOLKENFLIK: And yet not in front of that enormous audience.
STELTER: Well, right. Right.
FOLKENFLIK: There’s no way to win on that, but nonetheless, at least they’d been making that effort.
STELTER: David Folkenflik, David Zurawik, please stick around. We want to preview Brian Williams return to the airwaves with you both later this hour.
FULL TRANSCRIPT ON BRIAN WILLIAMS SEGMENT:
THIS IS A RUSH FDCH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
BRIAN STELTER, CNN HOST: After seven months off the air, Brian Williams’ redemption tour is about to begin. He’s reporting to work Tuesday morning in his first role as breaking news anchor for MSNBC. He will be on the air Tuesday afternoon. As you probably remember, Williams lost his “NBC Nightly News” anchor job after a series of exaggerations and fabrications were found in his reporting. Williams’ path to redeem his reputation and career will begin with the coverage of the Pope’s first visit to the U.S., again, Thursday afternoon. The Pope lands around 4:00 p.m. I’m guessing that’s when Williams will also come on. But can Williams really shake his credibility problem? He was even accused of embellishing stories about how he met Pope John Paul II. That was back in 1979 at Catholic University of America. Here’s how Williams described meeting the Pope in an NBC blog post in 2005. He wrote that: “I chatted up a Secret Service agent who spilled like a cup of coffee and told me that the Pope would be coming our way.” But he gave a different version to Esquire magazine that same year. And here’s what he said then: “I met Pope John Paul II on his visit to the campus simply by positioning myself at the top of the stairs of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. I just figured that’s where he would be stopping.”
There was no mention in that version of the story about the Secret Service agent. That’s obviously a small detail, but it hits at a very big question of his credibility. Those pope stories were covered quite a bit back in February. And now that Williams is coming back, let me bring back David Zurawik, TV critic for The Baltimore Sun, and David Folkenflik, media correspondent for NPR. Gentlemen, all three of us, I’m sure, will be tuning in and be very curious to see how viewers react on Tuesday afternoon.
David Zurawik, to you first. You didn’t think he should be returned at all to NBC or MSNBC. What do you expect the audience’s reaction to be?
DAVID ZURAWIK, TV CRITIC, THE BALTIMORE SUN: You know, I don’t know. I — you know, I have seen stuff on social media already mocking him in this last week about the return with the Pope, people saying, oh, I thought he was the Pope or I thought he was the secretary to the Pope…
STELTER: Oh, geez.
ZURAWIK: …making fun of his exaggeration. I don’t know. With millennials, I think that’s going to be — continue to be a problem. And it’s the nature of social media that I think he’s going to continue to get beat up in that realm. Look, Brian, you know I do not believe he should be coming back. I think he — he violated the fundamental sin of this business, which is to tell the truth. He did not tell the truth. He lied on multiple occasions. How do you bring him back?
STELTER: They do say, though, these were minor league offenses, not major league offenses. And to give the other side, what I have heard from NBC executives is, we think we have one of the biggest stars in television. Now we get him on MSNBC, a channel that’s been struggling in the ratings.
To David Folkenflik. My prediction here — and I’m sort of nervous to say this on TV — is that a lot of audience members are going to be thrilled to see him back.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, NPR: Oh, I mean, America is the home of the second act. I think that, you know, this is not a decision taken on journalistic grounds. This is a decision taken because Brian Williams is actually an excellent studio performer, and he can present the news very well. And they can argue, look, most of what’s been found that he did wrong was sort of chiseling minor stuff, embellishment and were in ways, largely, although not in the case of being attacked in Iraq, happened off the air, weren’t part of his newscast, part of his main broadcast.
In that case, it can work. I think that — and this also plays into MSNBC being re-branded in the daytime as more of a hard news entity, kind of more competing with CNN, than trying to mimic from the left what FOX has done well from the right. And I think, in this case, that they’re making a non-journalistic decision on one of their best-known names, even if one of their more tarnished ones at the moment.
STELTER: A source said to me this week…
STELTER: Sorry, go ahead, David, real quick.
ZURAWIK: No, no, I was just going to say, in saying it’s minor, how do you base that? I mean, he lied about war. And people die in war.
STELTER: Yes. I know that.
ZURAWIK: But, Brian, you’re appropriating — you’re appropriating the honor from those people who fought honorably.
STELTER: I’m saying, over a 20-year or 30-year career, some people would say it’s minor. But, listen, the viewers and their remotes will ultimately — will decide this. Both Davids, Zurawik, Folkenflik, thank you both for being here this morning.
ZURAWIK: OK. Thanks, Brian.
FOLKENFLIK: You bet.