CNN Media Cop Brian Stelter: ‘Cable News War Seems So Petty’ Now
The Reliable Sources host on defending the press now that a ‘big part of the country has opted out of journalism and opted in to an alternate reality.’
Practicing journalism in the Age of Trump can be a risky business.
For instance, Brian Stelter, CNN’s lead media correspondent and the host of the cable outlet’s Reliable Sources program, opened his inbox Monday night and discovered the following email (rendered here in all its illiterate glory):
you are one nutty jerk. Still bitching that your favor candidate loose? Good. I am sick of you and your ilk who pretend to be a journalists. Your background says it all including your job at the Times. You are a worthless, sneaky and dangerous jew with an agenda. Go and f—k yourself !!!!!!!!!!
“We’re in an incredibly hostile period toward the press, there’s no way around it,” said Stelter, who covered the media business for The New York Times before joining CNN three years ago. “I’m not the only target; other journalists are getting worse messages. One of my roles—and I don’t want to sound arrogant about this—is that media reporters right now need to cover threats against journalism.”
Showcasing emails like the example above—which Stelter posted on Twitter shortly after receiving it—“is one way I can do that,” he told The Daily Beast.
But the concern over ominous nastygrams from enraged Trumpkins is of more than just professional interest for Stelter and NY1 traffic reporter Jamie Shupak Stelter, his wife of two and a half years, who recently announced that they’re expecting a child.
“To be completely honest, CNN will tell me that security is something I can’t talk about,” Brian Stelter said. “I’m not in a Megyn Kelly situation”—a reference to the Fox News anchor’s harrowing year of death threats, stalkers, and armed bodyguards, stoked by Donald Trump’s angry tweets after she crossed swords with the Republican candidate-turned-president-elect during the first primary debate in August 2015—“but my wife and I have had conversations about the hate mail. And I also can’t reply to these people, ‘By the way, I’m not Jewish.’” Stelter was raised Methodist. “That’s not a sufficient response.”
He added: “This is just one of a dozen ways that journalism is under threat right now. I think there are consequences to Trump’s words, and to words spoken by other politicians. I don’t think we should avoid talking about that. A big part of the country has opted out of journalism and opted in to an alternate reality.”
Stelter has spent months on the air and in print calling out the now president-elect for his attempts to delegitimize journalism, an institution that holds public officials accountable and plays a central role in a healthy democracy, and just plain “lies.”
He has repeatedly noted that Trump, in historic contrast to his modern predecessors, hasn’t held a press conference since July 27.
Although President Obama’s White House has obstinately blocked journalists from obtaining information, surveilled reporters, and aggressively prosecuted whistleblowers—while claiming erroneously to be “the most transparent administration in history”—at least the president doesn’t call journalists “disgusting human beings,” “the lowest form of life,” and “scum.”
“Obama has said the right things about the Fourth Estate and signaled respect for the purpose of the Fourth Estate,” Stelter said. “Donald Trump doesn’t say he respects the Fourth Estate. He very much says the opposite.”
Indeed, Stetler added, “Donald Trump ran an extreme anti-media campaign based on falsehoods, and if we don’t explain that, and if we don’t show that, then it goes unacknowledged and uncorrected.”
Yet he defends the disproportionate coverage Trump received not only on CNN (for which CNN President Jeff Zucker was roundly criticized by rival campaign operatives during a panel discussion two weeks ago at Harvard) but on television news outlets everywhere.
“Trump was the best story, and the biggest journalism bias is toward a good story,” Stelter said. “Don Hewitt [the late founding producer of 60 Minutes] said, ‘Tell me a story.’ I don’t think there’s a way around that.”
Stelter—who boasts 416,000 followers on Twitter (having posted a flabbergasting 123,000 tweets since April 2008) and a massive online footprint—typically toils from early morning to late at night, appearing more than 20 times during the week on CNN and its sister outlets, CNN International and HLN, to discuss developments in the media world. Six nights a week—frequently after midnight—Stelter and his team mass-email a widely read newsletter rounding up a dozen or more significant media stories of the day.
No wonder Stelter’s mentor and father figure, the late media columnist David Carr, joked in the documentary Page One that his young protégé was “a robot assembled in the basement of The New York Times to come and destroy me.”
At the tender age of 31, Stelter is a frighteningly precocious workaholic who, as a teenage undergrad at Towson University in suburban Baltimore, launched TVNewser, an influential blog about the television news biz, and was hired by the Times straight out of college (mere months after the paper published an admiring profile of the tyro phenom).
More than a decade ago, before Brian Williams became the subject of Stelter’s relentless scandal coverage, the then-NBC Nightly News anchor pronounced TVNewser “the closest thing to the Bible of what’s going on in our industry”—adding, however, that “it’s a little disconcerting knowing that the main pulse of your industry is being taken by someone who cannot legally take a drink.”
As Stelter revealed on the air last August, it was during his TVNewser phase that Fox News, then run by disgraced former chairman Roger Ailes, dispatched a low-level female staffer to conduct a “datespionage” operation on the college kid, teasing out Stelter’s views on Fox and its cable competitors over supposedly romantic dinners, and then reporting back to headquarters in New York.
“Who cares? That was so long ago,” Stelter said about the episode. “I appreciated that Fox News PR [which was under different leadership at the time of the incident] acknowledged what happened.”
Stelter, who in the past has referred to Fox News as “a political operation,” continues to describe it as “a pro-Trump network.”
“I’m not complaining about that. I’m just stating it,” Stelter said, adding that the No. 1 cable news network “is a lot of things. They’re on a ratings roll, and they’re going to be on a ratings roll for a long time… Fox is going to be a great story. How Fox hosts support Trump is going to be a great story. They clearly have not missed a beat in the post-election period,” especially since Ailes was forced out in July by Rupert Murdoch and his sons, Lachlan and James.
Stelter has also tangled repeatedly—on his Sunday show and on Twitter—with Fox News’s 10 p.m. anchor, Sean Hannity, Trump’s favorite interviewer who appeared in a Trump campaign video in September and regularly referred to the CNN host as a “little pipsqueak” and an “idiot pipsqueak” after Stelter roasted him for spreading baseless conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton’s health and allowing Trump to claim without challenge that Democrats were planning to rig the election.
“Look, I’m covering Hannity in a reportorial way,” Stelter said. “He’s a great broadcaster. But he’s peddled misinformation, and media reporters should point that out.”
A Fox News spokesperson declined to comment.
Stelter also rejected the critique, advanced by MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough among others, that CNN’s team of five media reporters—of which Stelter is by far the most prominent—tend to pull no punches in their coverage of competitors, especially MSNBC, but soft-pedal criticisms of CNN and its boss, Jeff Zucker.
“I’m thinking back to the best example from this year—the day Corey Lewandowski was hired,” Stelter said, referring to the sacked Trump campaign manager, a frequent adversary and occasional manhandler of reporters who Zucker recruited in June to be an on-air pro-Trump pundit. “When he was hired, there was no moment when we asked ourselves, ‘Should we write about this? What are we going to write?’ I just started writing.”
While the Lewandowski hire was greeted dubiously by some CNN staffers and severely criticized by numerous media outlets at the time—a fact mentioned in Stelter’s story, which also cited questions about whether the ex-manager’s nondisclosure agreement with and loyalty to Trump would prevent him from being forthcoming—the story also described the hire as “coup” for CNN executives and concluded hopefully: “Adding Lewandowski is another way to ensure ideological diversity on the air. His perspective might be uniquely valuable given that he was Trump’s right-hand man up until this week.”
Stelter said that as he was joining CNN, he considered whether it would be awkward to cover his own network, a central player in the media ecosystem. “And it hasn’t been awkward,” he said. “Viewers can tell when you’ve got autonomy in a story.”
Stelter added that he recently conducted “an autopsy on myself,” reading back through transcripts of his Sunday show. “I came away with a few regrets, but overall a lot of satisfaction and a lot of pride about how we covered candidates. I did not spend enough time covering Bernie Sanders. There were a couple of guests I wish I had on.”
Yet some of Stelter’s and the CNN media team’s coverage, in written stories and on the air, have clearly struck a nerve with competitors. A rival network even conducted what purported to be a statistical internal “audit” of 1,279 articles posted online by Stelter and his CNN colleagues in the period from Jan. 8, 2015, through Sept. 11, 2016—designating each article as “positive,” “negative,” or “neutral,” although the criteria for such categories are not immediately clear.
The CNN competitor shared the audit with The Daily Beast on condition of not being specifically identified. During the period from June 2015 through September of this year—after headlines about defrocked Nightly News anchor Brian Williams had receded—553 stories were categorized, and the CNN media team’s articles about the broadcast news operations of ABC, CBS, and NBC were deemed overwhelmingly “positive” or “neutral” (88 percent for ABC, 87 percent for CBS, and 80 percent for NBC).
But it was an entirely different result for the cable news networks. Stories about Fox News were categorized as 59 percent “negative” (with 29 percent “neutral” and 12 percent “positive”), while stories about MSNBC were deemed 72 percent “negative” (with 21 percent “neutral” and 7 percent “positive”).
On the other hand, writing about their own network, according to the audit, the CNN team produced articles deemed 45 percent “positive” (with 52 percent “neutral” and only 3 percent “negative”).
Stelter declined to comment on the audit, but a source at CNN emailed The Daily Beast: “Sentiment is clearly subjective so an anonymous audit by a competitor doesn’t mean much. However, in the spirit of this silly exercise, I’ll rate the source of your ‘report’ as having 100 percent too much time on their hands.”
“They do a decent job on general media stories, but when it comes to covering absolutely anything related to CNN or the competition, they’re like state-owned media,” said a person who provided a quote on condition of being described only as a source at a rival network. “You can hear Comrade Zucker in every breath. ‘Kill Fox News.’ ‘Kill NBC. ‘Be the bugle-boy for CNN ratings.’ It destroys credibility and is really embarrassing for a news organization.”
On being read the quote, Stelter chuckled and said, “You should have them call me.”
While the viewership for Reliable Sources has never been better since former host Howard Kurtz, a former staffer at The Daily Beast, left to start a rival 11 a.m. Sunday program on Fox News, it still trails Kurtz’s Media Buzz in both raw ratings and the all-important 25-54 demographic that advertisers covet.
But Stelter insists that the ratings competition doesn’t drive his coverage choices.
“The cable news war seems so petty to me right now,” Stelter said. “We’re living through one of the most interesting times of our lifetime.”