The unavoidable Brian Stelter: CNN’s media wonk doesn’t want to waste a moment

Screenshot via CNN.

On a recent Sunday morning, 20 minutes before his show goes live, Brian Stelter is multitasking. The script for Reliable Sources, CNN’s weekly look at the media landscape, still needs work, but his eleven-month-old daughter is demanding his attention. Stelter toggles between windows on his laptop, making changes to chyrons and tweaking language attacking Donald Trump’s spelling errors, all while waving at his daughter Sunny, who watches him work via FaceTime.

It’s a juggling act that has become a professional signature for Stelter, host of Reliable Sources, CNN senior media correspondent, frequent commentator on other CNN shows, and author of a daily newsletter that counts many of the industry’s biggest names among its readers. Then there is his still-new parenthood, which he indulges in on Twitter and elsewhere with new-dad gusto. Though Stelter lives within a few blocks of the CNN studio, he keeps a pillow under his desk for occasional naps on the floor. “I should probably get a couch,” he says.

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By the time he goes to sleep this evening, sometime after midnight, Stelter will have hosted Reliable, appeared twice on other CNN shows, sent out his newsletter, and fired off more than 70 tweets and retweets to his 580,000 followers. “I don’t want to waste the moment,” Stelter says sitting in his office a couple of days later. “I don’t want to waste a show, I don’t want to waste a newsletter edition, I don’t want to waste a day.”

Stelter’s sense of urgency stems from his belief that the nation’s media-bashing president is only one part of a bigger problem: The world of journalism he loves is in peril. “The coordinated campaign against journalism—what I would call anti-journalism—is a theme that I’ve been trying to track and cover and write about,” he says. “It obviously didn’t start with President Trump; it dates back decades. He just poured a huge amount of gasoline on the already burning fire.”

 

I don’t want to waste the moment. I don’t want to waste a show, I don’t want to waste a newsletter edition, I don’t want to waste a day.

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Stelter sees Reliable Sources, which airs every Sunday at 11am, as his pulpit. “His job has changed in the Trump era,” Stelter’s wife Jamie, a traffic reporter for local station NY1 (they met on Twitter), says. “For so many years, it was: ‘I report the facts; you decide.’ Now that there are attacks on the free press and attacks on the truth, he’s had to come around to the idea of taking a stand for something and giving his reported analysis when the time calls for it. [That’s] something he just wasn’t comfortable with when all of this started.”

Keeping all of his plates spinning means that Stelter rarely, if ever, stops. Plenty of journalists are asleep before the Reliable Sources newsletter hits their inbox between 11pm and midnight, and still in bed as Stelter makes an appearance on CNN’s New Day during the 6am hour. “On a day-to-day basis he is rolling from the minute his eyes open to the minute his eyes close,” Jamie says.

On a typical Sunday last month, he walks to the Time Warner building from his apartment, picking up a venti cold brew at Starbucks on the way (“They say they open at 6, but sometimes the doors are still locked when I get there”), and is in the studio by 6:30. After discussing an airport thriller author’s far-fetched plan to challenge Trump in the 2020 primary on New Day, Stelter begins prepping for his show. A new Apple Watch on his wrist alerts him to the latest Trump tweets as he huddles with his small Reliable Sources team on a sixth-floor balcony overlooking the newsroom. Though final touches are ongoing as he walks downstairs to the set a few minutes before 11, the entire endeavour feels routine. After the show and a quick debrief, Stelter leaves the office to pick up the tuxedo he’s rented for the Time 100 Gala later in the week. He spends the afternoon at home with Jamie and Sunny, heading back into the office around 9pm, after they go to sleep. There, he begins working on the night’s newsletter, continues tweeting, and makes a final television appearance (and his third and final trip of the day to makeup), before heading home to finish the newsletter, which he files at 11:38pm.

 

 

BY THE TIME STELTER got to CNN in December of 2013, he had already been a player in media circles for nearly a decade. As an undergrad at Towson University, he started the blog CableNewser, renamed TVNewser after he sold to MediaBistro in 2004, which brought him to the attention of television executives and earned him a profile in The New York Times. After college, he went straight to working for the Times as a media reporter, where he apprenticed under media critic David Carr, and starred in a supporting role in the 2011 documentary, Page One.

Carr, who collapsed and died in the Times newsroom in 2015, left behind a legacy that looms large in Stelter’s mind. “David mentored and nurtured countless journalists, and I was so lucky to be one of them,” Stelter told CNN after Carr’s death. “I loved him like a father and he treated me like a son.” In one memorable line from Page One, Carr describes Stelter as “a robot assembled in the basement of The New York Times to come and destroy me.”

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Stelter’s own father died in 2001, when Stelter was 15. “I see a straight line from Dad to getting all these jobs,” he says. “I was already a total dork about this stuff. I would wait for him to come home—he was an appliance repairman in DC. I would wait for him by the door and tell him what happened in the news that day. He already knew because he listened to the radio, but he would pretend. Everything since goes back to that.” After his father’s death, adults at Stelter’s high school took a special interest in him. He got involved with the school newspaper and student government, pursuits that helped get him into Towson, the only school to which he was accepted. “Towson was perfect because it was big, but not too big,” Stelter says. “I could take over the school paper. I could launch my blog. I could do that all from school, which got me to The New York Times.”

Carr’s death left a void in the media reporting landscape, one that, in his own way, Stelter is serving to fill.

Alex Koppelman, CNN’s senior editor for media and tech, tells a story about one of his first interactions with Stelter that touches on Carr’s influence. Before taking the job at CNN in the summer of 2016, Koppelman and Stelter had lunch to discuss the media section and Stelter’s role in it. “I was talking to him about how his voice was there in some columns he was writing, and how I thought he was ready for a next step,” Koppelman remembers. “I said how there was no voice like David Carr anymore, and how it felt like he could be that.” Stelter agreed, expressing his belief that Carr had died before the next generation of media reporters was ready to fill his shoes. “I don’t think Brian would ever suggest to anybody that he is Carr, or has replaced him, or anything like that,” Koppelman says. “But he was saying that to me in May of 2016, and within six or eight months, he took that next step from being just a reporter who knew a lot about the media and had a show about it to being the guy with the authoritative voice who really could break it down for everyone. It was a big step. I wouldn’t call it sudden, but he just grew into it pretty quickly.”

Koppelman says Trump’s nascent general election campaign was part of what pushed Stelter to take on an expanded role. “It was his recognition that it was important for him to speak plainly about what was going on in terms of the threat to journalism. I think that may have pushed him in that it helped him realize he was capable of what he is doing now.”

 

 

WHAT HE DOES NOW, at least on television, is stake out a position: The media is under threat by forces who want to destroy it. This means he’s on the receiving end of a disproportionate amount of vitriol, most of it from critics on the right. Any tour through Stelter’s Twitter mentions will reveal the reason some journalists use the platform’s quality filter. Sean Hannity has lobbed personal insults along with professional attacks and Alex Jones unleashed a truly deranged tirade accusing Stelter of being “literal demon spawn.”

Stelter reads the online criticism, but says he doesn’t believe it represents the opinions of a broad population. As for his critics in the pro-Trump media, Stelter is happy to have them as opponents. “If I have to be defined by my enemies, Alex Jones is a good enemy to have,” he says. “If he was saying I was a great guy then I would be worried.” Stelter says he has always had a cordial personal relationship with Hannity, so he’s not sure how much of the Fox host’s attacks are schtick. “I don’t know whether to believe him when he calls me names,” Stelter says. “He says journalism is dead, which is insulting to his own colleagues.”

Brian Stelter on the set of CNN’s Reliable Sources, April 22, 2018

Aside from the bad faith attacks, Stelter knows there are valid criticisms of his television work. Earnest wonkiness doesn’t always play well in a field dominated by smooth-talking anchors. “There were probably weeks early on when I tried to play a TV anchor, and those were terrible weeks,” he says. “I was never going to get very far trying to play someone else. It’s much better to be a media reporter who loves writing, who loves reporting, who cares too much about the impact of media on society, and just do that. That works.”

While Michael Wolff’s on-air critique of Stelter’s impassioned essays as “pious sermons” in February of 2017 may have been a bit of theater meant to ingratiate the author with the Trump camp, Stelter admits that he worries about the way he comes across. “Television is about tone,” he says. “I’m always trying to get my tone right. I appreciate people’s feedback about my essays. I’m constantly thinking about what my tone is especially when talking about the president. You don’t want to turn people off.” As to whether he’s too alarmist about Trump’s threat to journalism, Stelter believes he’ll be able to look back in 20 years and feel good about his coverage. He doubts some of his critics will feel the same.

 

 

If I have to be defined by my enemies, Alex Jones is a good enemy to have

 

“Stelter’s beat is thankless,” says Reason Editor in Chief Katherine Mangu-Ward, who has served as a panelist on Reliable Sources. “But he’s doing it as well as anyone could given the highly polarized, endlessly omphaloskeptic media hellscape we all inhabit.”

Finding a mainstream critic to diss Stelter’s work is difficult. The best Jack Shafer, Politico’s resident curmudgeon, can come up with is that too much of Reliable Sources “repeats the talking head opinionating that we get every weeknight already on CNN.” (Reliable Sources has steadily increased its ratings and finished first in its time slot among adults 25–54 for the past two months. Howard Kurtz’s Media Buzz on Fox News remains the hour’s most-watched cable news show overall).

But Shafer also credits Stelter for being hard working, accurate, and very ambitious. “He’s also a mensch, willing to acknowledge error with a sheepish grin, and that’s not automatically true of all of us,” Shafer says. “David Carr was very high on Stelter from the first moment he arrived at the Times, and I think his judgment has been borne out.”

 

 

GROWING UP IN DAMASCUS, MARYLAND, Stelter never expected his obsession with television news to land him in front of the camera. Already balding in college, he figured he didn’t have the hair for it. “Look at Berman,” he exclaims in his office, referencing the well-coiffed CNN morning anchor, John Berman. “Great hair.” He’s serious about the hurdle posed by being follically challenged, but it’s also a cover for deeper obstacles that he thought stood in his way. “Look,” he says sitting back in his chair, “I went to a state school. I grew up in a small town being encroached by the city; there was literally a kid who rode a tractor to school. I grew up in a lower middle-class family that I thought was middle-class. I think there is a cliché television news anchor that is ‘voice of God,’ Ivy League, Upper East Side penthouses. There’s that thing that is still a perception of a television star that I’m far from and will always be far from.”

The success wrought by Stelter’s prolific output ensures that his daughter won’t grow up with the same financial challenges. But his obsession with the news does mean that Stelter is rarely off his phone, even when he is out of the office with his family. Jamie says that their daughter, influenced by two journalist parents who share a fondness for social media, often has an iphone in her diminutive hands. “That’s her favorite toy, but why wouldn’t it be?” Jamie asks. “It’s a shiny thing that makes noises and she sees her mom and dad playing with it.”

Even family vacations aren’t immune from the demands of the news cycle. Last summer, a trip to Arizona coincided with the appointment of Anthony Scaramucci as White House Communications Director. Plans to air a taped version of Reliable Sources went out the window, and CNN sent a satellite truck to the dude ranch outside of Tucson where the Stelters were staying. Perched in a chair in the ranch’s parking lot, he wore a suit jacket and tie with shorts and flip-flops while interviewing Kellyanne Conway about the administration’s “crisis of credibility.

A post shared by Jamie Stelter (@jamiestelter) on

The rise of Trump has driven his coverage towards the intersection of politics and media, an approach that some have criticized as an obsession with the president. “Trump is the biggest story in the world, and I’m never going to apologize for covering the biggest story in the world,” Stelter says. “All roads lead back to Trump.”

He sees Trump’s bashing of the press as a chance to draw attention to how journalism actually works, whether that means explaining how editorial decisions are made, or what an anonymous source actually means. “Every time the president attacks a journalist or a news organization it’s an educational opportunity, it’s a chance to explain why we do what we do. It’s a chance to take a negative and turn it into a positive.”

Beyond Trump’s attacks, Stelter cites the growing influence of social networks and the ability of anyone with a smartphone to be both consumer and producer of content with helping to drive attention to the media beat. “There’s a lot more interest in our beat and curiosity about what we do,” he says. “There’s something bigger than Trump that is about our place in the world. Media plus technology, I don’t know where they end.”

Stelter has been a presence in the media world for so long that it’s occasionally jarring to remember that he’s just 32 years old. His meteoric rise from college blogger to Times reporter to CNN news host makes it natural to question what’s next for someone who’s fascinated by all aspects of cable news. He’s clearly satisfied in his job, but during two days of conversation at CNN’s New York headquarters, he mentions how he loves being in the control room and shares thoughts on the future of the industry.

Asked if he could see himself running a network one day, Stelter pauses, wrestling with the question in silence for a full eight seconds. Finally, he asks, “Can you just put me down for smiling at your question?”

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Pete Vernon is a CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.