How Brian Stelter Turned Reliable Sources into the Smartest Sunday Show


“The guest,” Brian Stelter told Mediaite, “is everything.”

Stelter was leaning against the wall of a West Village brewpub, having just finished booking Slate’s Hanna Rosin to talk Rolling Stone’s UVA rape story on his Sunday morning show. It was a good get; the next day Rolling Stone would retract its bombshell article, and Rosin would write one of the most exacting takes on how the magazine failed so spectacularly.

“That’s one of the things I thought I knew but didn’t know until I’d done it,” he told me after he’d hung up. “Once you have a few segments when the guests fall flat, you become really picky. You push yourself really hard to come up with the best possible guests.”

It’s been one year since the precocious 29-year-old ascended from his media reporting beat at the New York Times to host CNN’s long-running media show Reliable Sources. Coming of age in the blogging generation — “I’m glad I was born when I was,” he said — Stelter started the media website TVNewser at 18 and soon was penning insider accounts of the morning show wars.

Now he’s producing media of his own. Helming Reliable Sources, he competes directly against the former host of his own show, Howard Kurtz, who decamped to Fox News and now hosts MediaBuzz, which routinely out-rates Reliable Sources. Stelter also comes to CNN as the network casts about for a rebrand, running documentary programming with Mike Rowe and Anthony Bourdain while slowly undergoing the forced migration to digital news — and laying off a boatload of people in the process.

But in his rookie year, Stelter has turned Reliable Sources into one of the smartest cable news shows, and arguably the best Sunday morning show. Without the noxious panels that have overrun This Week and Meet the Press, in which the same teams play partisan tug-of-war over the issue du jour, Stelter has sought out unexpected voices, generating more incisive, nuanced commentary than you find on the sclerotic network shows.

I sat in on a taping, and watched Stelter maneuver from a voluble Jonathan Gentry denouncing Al Sharpton to Carl Bernstein on the value of airing the Eric Garner video. To Stelter, it’s important to get the players, not the commentators. So he hosted ESPN’s Jemele Hill on working within the constraints of her exclusive with Janay Rice; found and grilled the Ferguson protestor who heckled a CNN reporter; asked PandoDaily’s Sarah Lacy what it felt like to be threatened by UBER; and when Donald Trump melted down over a BuzzFeed profile, Stelter got the bizarre details from its author McKay Coppins. Dan Rather appears frequently as a sort of media critic emeritus. The guests give the show an insider perspective without feeling inside-baseball, the prohibitive flaw of so many Beltway productions.

Stelter still breaks stories. Three weeks ago he revealed that multiple news anchors had approached Ferguson officer Darren Wilson for interviews, a scoop that appeared to catch fellow CNNers Anderson Cooper and Don Lemon off-guard.

“Sometimes I’m going to make some of my colleagues uncomfortable,” Stelter told me. “That comes with the territory of reporting on the media. There were times when I had to write about my colleagues at the Times. I broke the news that Nate Silver was going to ESPN. The Times colleague in me felt really bad, but the media reporter in me felt really good.”

“At the Times, the bosses never wanted to be surprised,” he explained. “But they also didn’t go rewriting my stories. The same has been true at CNN.”

This can also mean criticizing his colleagues. Stelter has been mindful to include CNN in his pieces scolding cable news for amplified coverage on Ebola and ISIS; he addressed the plagiarism charges surrounding Fareed Zakaria, his show’s lead-in; and he criticized Carol Costello‘s line-crossing comments on Bristol Palin.

Despite this, he doesn’t see himself as CNN’s ombudsman. “I think the reporter hat is the most useful hat,” Stelter said, adding that he was adamant that his CNN title be media correspondent rather than media critic. “When the missing plane story was top, we talked a lot about it, but from a critical point of view of all the media coverage.” (For instance.)

Yes, the missing plane. You may remember last spring when CNN lost the plot searching for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. (They ended by trying to find the Santa Maria.) The accordion-like surge and contraction of ratings based on breaking news means cable outlets lust after the day’s most frantic story. MH370 became a CNN punch line, but issues such as Ebola, in which preventing panic is a public safety concern, or ISIS, in which saturation coverage can inflate support for military action, are different matters.

I asked whether the breaking-ness with which networks like CNN treated Ebola and ISIS inherently distorted the proportionality of the coverage.

“You’re describing a lot of our editorial meetings,” Stelter said. “Part of me believes this is about how we watch cable news versus how a regular viewer does. The adage: people only watch ten minutes a time. If you watch twenty-four hours of Ebola outbreak, you may conclude that Ebola is more a serious risk than it actually is, as it’s possible to gorge on food at a buffet. Sometimes I do gorge on cable news, but I do it critically, and I think most viewers do too.”

“I’m not sure that hysteria over Ebola was ever that much,” he added. “Sometimes journalists think the country is overreacting more than it is actually is.”

Our conversation also occurred at the tail end of the Elizabeth Lauten hysteria, a case of the news media at its hypertrophic worst. But Stelter didn’t have too much patience with the “media covered x but not y” logic, arguing that news broadcasts were meant to be a selection of stories, and that the breadth of online news sites freed shows to focus on a few big stories rather than striving to be comprehensive.

I countered that if, say, the Federalist’s Mollie Hemingway were sitting at our table, she’d point out that the problem was Lauten wasn’t a big story.

“I don’t actually think it got as much coverage as people think it did,” Stelter replied. “Maybe I missed the wall-to-wall coverage, but I’m pretty sure it never happened.”

This is usually the point of the article when readers floor it to the comments section to allege bias — BIAS! — that ineffable crime with which every member of media is eventually if not constantly charged. Stelter considers ideological preconceptions in a recurring Red News/Blue News segment, examining, for instance, how the annual number of African American deaths at the hands of police officers differed by several hundred depending on whether you were watching Bill O’Reilly or Chris Hayes.

But: “There are media biases that have little to do with ideology,” Stelter said. “The bias toward sensationalism or bias toward buzzy trendy stories are more interesting biases to examine.”

To this purpose he’s optimistic about the function of news media as clearinghouse of information.

“I think the public learned a lot about Ebola and other infectious diseases” as a result of all the Ebola coverage, Stelter said. “How many fewer people will die this year of the flu because the media told them to get flu shots, because the flu was a bigger threat than Ebola?”

It’s that functional aspect of the media that seemed to most energize the host, and to propel his plans for the second year of his show. Here Stelter returned to the value of the guest, his primary lesson in his first year on television.

“I have a list in my head of a lot of CEOs and journalists and media thinkers,” he said. “I want to keep explaining. Why do journalists do the things they do? Why do media outlets do the things they do? Why are politicians so uncomfortable and hostile to the press sometimes?”

“Everybody’s a source,” Stelter concluded. “So, who’s reliable?”

[Image via CNN]

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