MEDIA JANUARY 22, 2014
On a recent episode of CNN’s media show, “Reliable Sources,” there was a brief moment when the whole enterprise threatened to collapse in on itself. The show’s new host, former New York Times wunderkind Brian Stelter, asked Walt Mossberg, a former Wall Street Journal writer, about the experience of soliciting tech-world venture capital for his own tech publication. “It was a little bit surreal, living the thing you’ve covered,” Mossberg replied. Stelter replied, “I … kind of think I know what you’re talking about, being on television now.”
Before CNN hired him last fall, the 28-year-old Stelter had for years covered television (among other media) for the Times, where he was a star. But his relationship to his subject always appeared more borne of love than the skepticism that can often seem to animate other beat reporters. Stelter has been writing about television since he was an undergrad at Towson University. There, he had a blog called TVNewser, which attracted the attention of (and tips from) top television executives, was eventually bought out by MediaBistro, and earned Stelter a big profile in the Times. Last year, he wrote a book on the morning shows, Top of the Morning, which received a pan in the Times for its “silly” and “overblown” prose. (The book will be turned into a Lifetime movie about the Ann Curry brouhaha). Then, CNN came knocking when it needed a replacement for Howard Kurtz, who left “Reliable Sources” to start a competing show on Fox. Stelter, who has three televisions in his living room, has done the improbable: He has alchemized TV fanboyism into an actual career on television.
“This is a guy who's been trying to go through the screen of the TV set since he was ten-years-old,” says Stelter’s Times mentor David Carr. And he did it. Andy Warhol would have loved Brian Stelter.
Before he was a TV obsessive, Stelter was obsessed with Goosebumps. In 1996, at age 11, he started a fan site dedicated to “reporting” on the young adult scary-story series. He explained his process in a blog post at the time: “I usually update as soon as I get home from school (3:00 P.M. EDT). I then try to upload by 5:00 P.M. EDT if possible. Sorry about the late update today, we got snow and I had to go and play! The content comes from dozens of sources many of which I do not disclose.”
Next, he started “The Nintendo Project,” which baldly copied the look and feel of the then-new Drudge Report. “The goal of The Nintendo Project is to present the future, as it happens. It makes sense, doesn't it? It's the news, as it unfolds. All Nintendo, all the time,” he promised.
Stelter was also a very precocious networker. As a teen in the late 1990s, he happened to be watching MSNBC when Lisa Napoli, the network’s Internet correspondent who had been recently hired from the Times, did a segment on instant messenger and—in a stunning act of trust—gave out her own handle. Stelter IMed her, full of questions about what it was like to have her job. They corresponded, and when he came to New York with his Maryland high school to hold balloons in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, the pair met up. Napoli, who remains a friend, describes him as an earnest guy, not a climber, “just genuinely that kid who memorizes the baseball scores because he loves baseball so much.” Except not baseball, but screens. “He's so intrigued by that video world,” says Napoli.
When Stelter arrived at the Times just after his college graduation, the paper was in a protracted moment of transition. A memo to staff about his hiring touted Stelter’s blogging background, and declared him to be a symbol before he’d even started there: “His hiring underscores the expansion of our efforts to integrate what we do online and in the print edition.” Stelter’s web-native digital facility did indeed make him stand out inside a rapidly evolving newsroom. He had scads of Twitter followers, and though he’d brag on the social network when he got an A-1 placement for one of his stories, he appeared just as happy to write online posts. One of the memorable moments of the 2011 documentary Page One is when Carr referred to Stelter as “a robot created by The New York Times to destroy me.” But Stelter made a few missteps in the early going, including tweeting out the content of an internal meeting, and putting on Twitter his best reportorial nuggets from a tornado he was covering in the Midwest.
That youthful approach to news also helped him get sources. Television executives were impressed when Stelter embraced Twitter and spoke confidently way back in 2008 of how he was using the web to “timeshift” his own TV viewing instead of watching it live—now, a banal commonality, but then still a relatively new problem for executives. In the early days, says Carr, Stelter was a “goofy, chubby kid” who was overly concerned with figuring out the internal politics of the newsroom. (Carr has nothing but the highest praise for him now, as both a journalist and colleague.) Stelter wrote frequently (Reuters’ Jack Shafer has praised him as “one of America’s great news donkeys”) and occasionally angered colleagues in other departments for aggressively going after any story that landed at the intersection of media and other subjects. Knives were out for him elsewhere, too.
Most young reporters follow a probationary program called 8i, which cycles them through a progression of beats and seasons them quickly for a full union job. Stelter was hired under that program but allowed to remain on the media beat. “Every year or so Jill would check in and ask if I was happy, “ says Stelter. “I’d always say ‘I can’t think of a better beat right now.’”
Stelter was treated as a pet by the newspaper’s top brass, but it wasn’t for any reason other than that they saw value in him, and the stable of sources he’d cultivated while a college student. “Is he a demonstration of the meritocracy or what?,” says Shafer. “He has no special friends or breeding. He was birthed after two televisions had sexual congress, the offspring of a rather old Philco TV and a rather new Sony TV.” Critics of his writing style call him a transcriber for his powerful subjects; the review of Stelter’s book in the Times, for instance, contained the criticism that the story is full of puffy details about “Good Morning America’s hosts, who gave him far more on-the-record access than their embattled equivalents at the “Today Show.” “I was able to put a lot of new information in the world, which to me is the point of a book,” Stelter says in response.
Stelter’s digital ubiquity also extends to his private life, which he makes quite public. He underwent a remarkable physical makeover while at the paper. When Page One was filmed, he was quite heavy; by the time of its premiere, he’d slimmed down dramatically, which he’d done while chronicling everything he ate and his weight on a public Twitter account. (He also wrote a piece for the Times on the subject, and was rumored to be interested in writing a book on it.) He brought CNBC’s Nicole Lapin as his date to the movie’s premiere; the pair posed delightedly for pictures and Page Six wrote up their romance.
After Lapin, Stelter began pursuing NY1 traffic reporter Jamie Shupak, whom he first flirted with via Twitter direct message (according to a talk on finding love via non-dating social networks that the couple gave at last year’s SXSW, Twitter, where his professional success was front and center for any interested women to see, was a place where he regularly attempted pickups). The couple is now engaged, and has tirelessly chronicled their relationship on Twitter, Instagram, her now-defunct dating column for Complex, her cooking blog, his Tumblr, and most recently, Shupak’s lightly fictionalized e-book account of the year she spent being single during which she met “Bantering Ben,” the balding reporter whom she at first found cheesy, and then fell for. Stelter boasts that they waited three whole days before putting the news of their engagement on Twitter.
“My openness evolved with the web,” he says of his highly mediated public persona. Facility with social media is part of Stelter’s job, of course, but at this volume it occasionally seems like a highly choreographed exercise in personal branding (and mutually reinforcing power-couple branding). There is a classic Internet gambit of getting people interested in the mundane details of your life by operating under the principle that people would be interested in those details. Warhol, again, would be proud.
Stelter has rejuvenated “Reliable Sources” by focusing more on primary sources than Kurtz, whose show was a sea of talking heads (and eventually, a sea of problems). Stelter has worked to book reporters. That CNN continued the show in the Zucker era is a bit of a surprise, but it has a surprisingly robust viewership of 350,000 to 500,000—thanks in no small part to its post-Fareed Zakaria time slot. Stelter says there’s no network imperative to bring in a different viewership, but proudly cites his own tender age as possible evidence they might want a slightly different direction and a show that includes coverage of Gawker, Buzzfeed, and Hulu alongside the Times. “Listen, they hired a 28-year-old,” he told me. “That may say something. I’m glad they were interested in having a younger host. I think I look at media differently than anyone older would.”
Stelter says he was “the last to realize” that he wanted to be on TV. (His Times colleagues regard the switch as an inevitability helped along by visible-beneath-the-skin desire.) “I’m sure there was a television itch that I’m now scratching,” he says, but “to tell you the truth I wouldn’t have come if it was just a TV job.” He posts scooplets on his CNN blog, and the site is hiring two additional media reporters to work with him. “Writing is my favorite part of the job,” he insists.
On television, Stelter still looks like someone trying to look like someone on television. He is a clearly excellent student of the body language and patter of the famous broadcasters. His intonations are correct but overeager; his hand motions a bit too choreographed. His laughter can be too quick and his pursed lips during a guest’s answer suggest anxiety about when to jump in with the next question. He is concentrating on being inside the screen.
One week in early January, Stelter decided to do a segment on what he’d learned by covering a winter storm for CNN. He stood in front of a TV set filled with images of him kitted out in CNN-labeled winter gear, holding a mike, and explained what he’d learned about weather stories. “This is good television,” Stelter declared, gesturing at his own images cycling through. “These stories have an obvious beginning, middle, and end,” he said. “It’s entertainment and drama.” A shot of himself going down a hill on a sled crossed the screen. Stelter laughed, pleased to see it. “I mean, that’s kind of entertaining, I think.”