“I was immensely frustrated by the end of 2015 that other candidates weren’t learning more from Trump.”
On a recent episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka, CNN’s Brian Stelter, the host of “Reliable Sources,” explained why his employer is not biased for Donald Trump.
You can read some of the highlights from Peter’s interview with Brian at that link, or listen to it in the audio player above. Below, we’ve posted a lightly edited complete transcript of the conversation.
If you like this, be sure to subscribe to Recode Media on iTunes, Google Play Music, TuneIn and Stitcher.
Transcript by Celia Fogel.
Peter Kafka: I’m here with Brian Stelter of CNN and many other outlets, right? The New York Times, you’re a publisher, you’re a fervent Twitter …
Brian Stelter: Yes, I would say CNN anchor and Twitter. Those are my big titles.
CNN anchor and Twitter. I was very excited we got you, I’m particularly excited we got you this week, because this week is Hillary’s overheating pneumonia Twitter video, YouTube video conflagration.
I was telling Hillary Health.
We’re taping this on a Monday, this will come out on a Thursday. Let’s move the timeline around and talk about what happened yesterday. You have a live TV show that goes up at 11 o’clock?
Yes, 11 Eastern.
So it’s a live show, with taped segments. And the idea is you’re talking about the state of the media, is the media biased. We’ll talk about all that. What happens when your show goes live? Are you aware of the Hillary story already? You must be, right?
All too aware, because this news broke on Twitter sometime right after 9:30 am. Within minutes of her near-collapse, a Fox reporter, Rick Leventhal, had a tip from a law enforcement source saying that she had had a medical episode. This source described it pretty spot-on, as it turns out.
Right. And at the time everyone reflexively says, “Well, it’s Fox, it’s probably wrong, they’re probably overstating it.”
It was. A lot of skepticism. Partly for good reasons and partly for bad reasons. I think there was appropriate skepticism because he was relying on a single law-enforcement source, and he didn’t witness it himself, and he hadn’t heard back from the campaign yet. Fox made an interesting choice to go with the information without hearing from the campaign first. Other news outlets were trying to wait until the campaign either confirmed or denied the news before reporting it.
And this is also Hillary’s health as a story Fox has leaned on for a long time. We can talk about that, as well.
Right, the context, of course: Months and years and lies about her health. I would put this into two baskets, since baskets are popular right now. There’s one basket of lies, and these are stories you see in the National Enquirer about how she has six months to live. There’s a second basket where there’s legitimate questions, some of them brought up by conservative media, about whether she has been forthcoming enough. I think we can say she has not been forthcoming enough. So it’s kind of these two baskets, and as a result there’s been so much curiosity about her health. All of this plays into this tweet around 9:30 from a Fox reporter. So what happens? Well, the poor reporters who are stuck inside the ceremony, not able to leave, not able to go with Clinton, they’re in the dark. They have no idea where she is. And it actually gets to be a little bit worrisome, doesn’t it? 10 o’clock, 10:15, 10:30, and of course we’re preparing for our 11 o’clock show.
An eon in internet time, an eon in TV time.
It really is actually, right? It really is. It took her only a few minutes to get up to where we knew she went, which is where her daughter’s house is in the Flatiron neighborhood. And in the meantime, news outlets are sending reporters to hospitals, local hospitals, just in case the motorcade can be spotted outside one of the hospitals.
And you’re doing what? You’ve got a TV show coming up in less than an hour.
You know, we were doing something interesting. This has only happened a few times for reliable sources because normally on Sunday mornings we’re not affected by breaking news. We usually stick to our rundown. In this case we had a whole plan, kept it going, acted like it was all going to happen, and then on the second track, planned for coverage of Clinton’s health and what was going on. So what that means is booking extra guests and making sure they’re ready to go when the news is actually confirmed.
Now are you — you don’t have a lot of hair — are you pulling your remaining hair out? [BS laughs] Or are you like, “This is my dream, it’s breaking news, it’s about my beat, it’s happening right now, all eyes are on me.” Or is it going to get taken away from you?
Breaking news is … how would I describe it? You know, to the limited number of times that I’ve been on the air during real breaking news, it’s the closest thing I’ve experienced to being on a tightrope without a net below you. I did it in July when there was that shooting, that ambush in Baton Rouge where three police officers were killed. And all that news happened during the 11 am hour. And we happened to be at the Republican National Convention, which wasn’t the best setting or best backdrop for that news to be, to be anchoring news coverage of that attack. It’s definitely a tightrope walk because you’re trying to never get ahead of what the story actually is and you know new viewers are tuning in all that time, so you want to explain to them what’s going on.
And also exciting, right? You’re how old?
You’ve been watching TV and writing about TV for most of your life.
I didn’t come away excited on the day of the Baton Rouge attack coverage. I did come away excited, one day I covered a relatively minor earthquake that we didn’t know at the time was minor. I look back now and I think, “Oh, well it was in Napa Valley, there weren’t deaths.” But there were good pictures, it was breaking news, it was sort of a curious early-morning story. That was exciting. Because that was an opportunity that showed I could do something that I’d seen others do before. I’d always wondered in the back of my mind if I had that in me to be able to sit there and talk and ad lib and ask the right questions and narrate and anchor for the viewers. The word anchor is a kind of a perfect word for breaking news. You are being an anchor. I cannot imagine what it’s like for an anchor in a true emergency situation. And that’s why those anchors are who they are, that’s why they’re special. And I think even as our world’s change and as you write about every day, as digital media takes over, I think TV anchors and news emergencies are always going to have an important valued role. Because there’s something really important about being able to hold the viewer’s hand.
But back to Clinton, back to 11am, we went on the air at 11, I knew the news was about to be confirmed, we were waiting for the Clinton campaign to make a statement.
Is there a thought that your show is going to get scrapped because we’re just going to go to full-time Hillary?
You never know for sure, but I was expecting to be able to report the news because it was starting to be the kind of story that was so loud on Twitter, and loud on Facebook, and not yet loud on TV. And that’s always a really tricky situation for a news organization, isn’t it? When a story is unconfirmed and yet it’s very very prominent online. Should a television network acknowledge it or not? I think that’s an ongoing conversation.
The boundaries of that conversation change daily, right?
Absolutely. I think they do. So we ended up being able to at 11:05, hand off to Jeff Zeleny our campaign correspondent who had the news, who had a statement, who had it confirmed, and then able to discuss it after that. So I would say about half the show ended up being scrapped as a result. And my gut tells me, and I think the bosses at CNN probably say this all the time, that CNN is a breaking news channel. That’s what it should be and that’s what it is. So you can’t be too wedded to your scripts.
Oh yeah, I’m sure that’s a pain because you put a lot of work into building this thing. But I’m sure you’re much more, and you don’t want to say excited because you have to have gravitas, but it’s an exciting thing, right? All eyes are on you, this is the story of the day, it’s probably the story of the week, it may be the story of several news cycles, and you got to sort of be out there first, or amongst the first people.
And then around noon after I’m off the air, the video comes out. One of the several different angles of Clinton seeming to almost collapse, needing help getting into the van. And that changed the story again. There were several times during the day on Sunday as this story changed where it seemed to get worse.
Right, because you could imagine, “Oh she’s stumbling,” or “she’s warm,” or whatever the story may be. Until you saw it, you didn’t really understand what had happened. And once you saw it, it’s visceral.
I think that’s true. This was a pictures-or-it-didn’t-happen sort of situation. I wouldn’t call it citizen journalism necessarily, I think the phrase citizen journalism is kind of complicated.
It’s a guy holding a phone and publishing a video on Twitter, and calling it citizen journalism.
Yeah. I don’t want to apply the word journalism to that but it is eyewitness video. And that eyewitness video changed the story.
So that went up and so you then are spending the rest of your day going on and off air. This is now your story. Normally on a Sunday you’re doing a show then you’re probably watching the Eagles, I’m imagining, because I follow you on Twitter.
[laughs] That’s right. I even slip in a nap sometimes on Sundays. I find live TV to be grueling. I’m sure it’s not for the anchors who have been doing it for decades.
I was checking late last night, you were …
But I went back to work. I went back to work. I thought that there were a number of important media angles to the story. And there still are. The Clinton campaign has now acknowledged it should have been more forthcoming earlier in the day. It would have helped a lot if Clinton was willing to travel at all times with a protective press pool. The same way a president does. Where there are a number of journalists, a small number, with this person at all times accounting for their whereabouts. Specifically because of instances like what happened on Sunday.
So it seems like you have two roles. One is, “I’m reporting facts about the news as it happens, I’m asking people questions about the news as it happens.” And you’re also a media critic, maybe you don’t like that word, but like you were just saying, one of the reasons the Clinton story was a story is because of the context, and you’re able to sort of split up, there’s the bullshit and there’s the dubious stuff and we can put them in different baskets. How difficult is it for you, whether you’re reporting stuff live or whether you’re just doing your show day to day, to sort of figure it out? Do you want to balance that or do you want to go one way or another?
I think of myself as a media reporter through and through. And everything about this campaign is a media story. Partly because of Trump’s dominance of the airwaves and partly because of Clinton’s use of the media and relationship with the media over the course of decades. So to me there’s always a media story within what’s going on. And you know, I do distinguish between critic and reporter. There definitely are times where I sound like a media critic and write like a media critic. But I think the more valuable approach, I wonder what you think of this, is to try and be a reporter first and foremost. Try to be a person who puts new information into the world, new facts. And then sometimes forms conclusions because of it.
I think this campaign sort of underlines the limits in some ways of being a traditional media reporter, or any traditional reporter because — and this is the false equivalence discussion and you’ve had it on your show — Trump blows up a lot of the traditional barriers and boundaries and limits of what is journalism, what is politics, what is truthfulness. He’s crossed so many boundaries that if you spend your time saying, “Should the media have performed this fact-checking discussion?” And there’s lots of interesting versions of that discussion, right? You get bogged down in craziness. And there is not equivalence, right?
The audience wants us to stand up for them. And speak for them. I think we can usually go back to that premise of, “What’s best for the audience?” I’ll use a Donald Trump example. It was one of the ones that stands out to me from the entire campaign, when he said there were thousands of muslims in New Jersey cheering on 9/11.
It’s an early one for him.
An early one, and to me that’s one of the most provably false statements that I can point out. No photo proof, no video proof, and we all know that if there was, it would have been the biggest story of 9/12 if that had been happening over in New Jersey. There’s so much proof that that statement isn’t true, and yet he stuck with it repeatedly. I don’t think it serves the audience well to say what he said and then say others disagree and leave it at that. That is not good for the viewers and for the readers. It’s much better, I think, much more of a service, to say, “We have reached a conclusion and we can say it as fact that what he said didn’t happen, that what he said he saw, he didn’t see.” It’s better for the audience.
Right, and I guess one of the problems of reporting on Trump now is he’s sort if inundated the airwaves and every other metaphor, with so much of these, it’s not a debate, right? Just so many things that are not true, that it seems like there’s a diminishing return in even trying to fact check or point this out to the audience, if you’re a Trump supporter.
Why do you say diminishing return?
If you’re a Trump supporter you never cared about this, and if you’re someone who dislikes Trump and thinks he’s a liar and a fraud, at least for me personally, because I’m in that category, each new story and each new fact check means less to me. I know there’s a counter argument that says, “No, the accumulated weight of this does matter, all the weight of this does matter over time.” The more he proves out this track record of being a not truthful person, the more compelling it is. But every time I read a story of oh, it turns out his nonprofit is a fraud, turns out this thing’s not true, turns out his wife may or may not have entered the country legally, for one they all stack up and they seem to have equal weight, sort of diminished weight. And I get that part of your job is to not figure out where those chips are supposed to lie, but you do want to present an overall truthful story to your readers. And saying, “Well, on the one hand Trump has these issues, on the other hand Hillary’s staff could have been more forthright about the medical history,” it seems like that’s a tricky line to walk for you guys.
And what you’re expressing is one of the most interesting stories of the fall to me, which is feelings of either Clinton supporters or anti-Trump Americans. We spend a lot of time, I think rightfully, thinking about liberal media bias. And the views of Trump supporters about the media. Views of Republicans traditionally about the media. There’s been interest in that for decades because there’s been a real sense of liberal media bias that too many editors and reporters lean left in various ways, in ways that taint their coverage. That has been a theme for decades, and I think what we’re seeing …
And it’s true.
And there is a lot of truth to that. I think the fact that a lot of reporters live in New York and DC and LA. Even those sorts of basic points affect coverage. However, what I think is happening now is this increased conversation about maybe conservative media bias or about a bias that Clinton supporters feel is hurting their candidate, is impeding their candidate. And I’m really interested to see how this evolves this fall.
It this had been Jeb Bush versus Hillary Clinton, all this kind of conversation would make sense to me. Because both sides would have arguments and …
We’re used to it.
We’re used to it and frankly it’s a little boring. And Trump seems to have blown it up.
Nothing wrong with boring. Right? Elections, it’s okay if elections are boring.
In a lot of ways good, yeah. And Trump seems to have in a lot of ways taken these discussions and said, “We’re moving these off the table,” dramatically with the table cloth. This is pointless. This is a ridiculous discussion to have because we’re no longer playing the same game anymore.
In some ways he’s a hijacker. And I think the phrase has been used all year long. Both in positive and negative ways, that he hijacked the GOP, that he established a whole set of new rules and new standards. The question is what kind of new standard journalists then have to apply, if at all.
I mean, you got a ton of credit for an incident where you repeatedly asked one of Trump’s proxies, I think it was a spokesman, right?
To defend an untrue statement. And everyone’s like, “This is very exciting!” And it was because it’s so unusual. But usually in a normal campaign you don’t see that because you don’t have someone out there with a boldface lie. And normally I think probably you wouldn’t have seen — I’m imagining that after months of this on your part, you said, “Well, I’m actually just going to call you out on a boldface lie.” Instead of letting this one slide as well.
You know, I don’t think that was in my head but I think we have to confront the reality that all lies and all misstatements are not created equally. And there’s this impulse in our politics, in our tribes, to immediately say the other side did something just as heinous or even more heinous. And that just isn’t true. There are times when, I mean even in a marriage, one person might lie worse than the other. Even in a friendship, even in a family. In this campaign there are different kinds of lies. Birtherism is in some way Trump’s original sin, from many years ago. You could say that’s the worst lie of all for him to have encouraged that viewpoint for a number of years. It is simply not equivalent to put birtherism on one side and to put Hillary Clinton’s conversations and misstatements and missteps about email practices on the other side. We should cover them both. The birtherism is different.
So what kind of burden do you have as someone talking about this stuff?
Well, this is where it gets hard.
You said, “Hillary’s had trouble in terms of disclosure and she should have been more forthright.” How worried are you about saying that and then making it an equivalence with a birtherism lie?
I think television in particular has a hard time with equivalence because it’s a linear flat medium. You are obviously only covering one story at a time. And this applies to radio as well. But let’s pick on television.
You can’t weight something. When you say it’s flat.
That’s right. Even if you were to make the graphics bolder and bigger font when covering a more dramatic lie, there are not necessarily effective ways to weight different stories. All stories seem equal on television. Now there’s inherent advantages on the web to this regard, I’m not sure they’re always taken advantage of. When I look at my Facebook feed every story still has the same size. When I look at the New York Times every story still has the same size. But we might have to think more about how do we signal to the audience, to the audience that still hopefully trusts us to some degree to do this, how to signal to them what matters most and what matters a little less.
We were having kind of a J school discussion there for a second. We can get out of it in a second.
Oh, I’m sorry.
It’s alright, I started it. But I do want to ask you one more — well, I want to ask you a bunch — journalism school type questions. Critique the performance of CNN in particular. There was a perception for a while that you guys were particularly funny to Trump, that Jeff Zucker seemed to have a good relationship with him, and if you’re into conspiracies you can go back and look at the relationship between Trump and NBC which Zucker was running at the time. How do you feel your organization has done? Take out yourself from the coverage. If you were critiquing and reporting about CNN’s coverage of this campaign, do you think they’ve done a good job?
I think cable news saw in June of 2015 a historic story unfolding. And that was this billionaire businessman who had kind of talked and warned and flirted with running for office but never had done it before, actually stepping into the ring. And the moment he stepped in, everything changed about the election. And to some degree cable news knew that and saw that and felt that and acted upon that by covering Trump intensively early on.
It seemed like at the time you were covering it because it was a fun novelty and much more fun than covering Jeb Bush and Rubio.
To the degree that Trump was more entertaining, that was a part of the news event. I think many of us said, “We’re going to have more Trumps in the future because of what happened in 2015 and early 2016.” I was immensely frustrated by the end of 2015 that other candidates weren’t learning more from Trump. And when I say learning more from Trump I don’t just mean be entertaining and say provocative and offensive things. I also mean, if you’re a candidate and you’d like to reach the highest number of viewers, come speak in primetime. And it was interesting to watch CNN that summer and fall and other channels as well, we would take Trump rallies live in primetime. And they would obviously rate very well. They were also legitimate news events, and other candidates weren’t doing it. Now you could say Sanders was sometimes, and it’s true, there were times.
Yeah, my Twitter feed would be, “Oh CNN (or whomever) cuts away from this but they go to Trump live.”
I do think there’s an argument to be made that Trump was inherently more newsworthy, more unpredictable. I would often think to myself, “Why wouldn’t Sanders come out and surprise us with a new comment, a new twist? Doesn’t have to be offensive, you don’t have to engage in name calling.” There were times Sanders was having rallies and they weren’t getting live coverage the way Trump’s rallies were getting coverage. Part of me thinks why wasn’t he trying to get more news, surprise people, be more provocative, and that may not be an entirely fair critique. I understand that.
Might be because he’s a politician, not an entertainer, if you want to be flip about it.
Oh absolutely. There definitely was something about Trump and his entertainment value that appealed to CNN and appealed to cable news. Trump knew media like nobody else. He still does, in terms of politicians. He feels it viscerally. He’s running a media campaign, and an anti-media campaign simultaneously, and pretty effectively. I don’t think there’s anything to the idea that the cable news channels intentionally weighted the scale for business reasons. I’ve never see any evidence that these outlets look that way. Things that look intentional are almost always accidental. Both good and bad in media.
Right, but they’re all very excited and they’re forthright about that, right? From Les Moonves on down. Les at CBS saying, “I don’t know if it’s good for the country but it’s great for CBS.”
Talking about advertising revenue of course, taken out of context.
No, but he’s talking about ratings, he’s talking about what Trump has done for this election cycle for ratings. Your bosses are quite clear that this has been a tremendous year for you guys. I’ve interviewed your boss’ boss who said it’s the best year ever for CNN.
Yup, I listened to that. And I feel it just in my one hour. You know, our numbers are twice as high as they were this time last year. Well, that’s actually not true because the election was … well, yeah, it still is pretty true. You know, I try to pay attention to what our audience is interested in and right now they are interested in this election. Part out of disgust and revulsion, partly out of curiosity and excitement. There is so much interest around this election. Which you know, which gets to the historic nature of both candidates. Trump is historic and Clinton is historic. And they’re both being covered that way.
Last CNN introspection question for you: Seems like less of a story now maybe just because we’ve moved onto other stuff, but Corey Lewandowski being hired by CNN. At the time lots of anguish and real flagellation. I can make the argument that this is no different than hiring any other former politician to come work on a newscast. The fact that there was zero gap between him leaving the campaign and coming on to you guys is different and you can argue that he was still getting paid and that’s another thing.
Right. There’s debate about that. Is that something that if he were not working at CNN you would have covered more critically or do you think you did the job that you would normally do?
I’ll acknowledge that it was probably the toughest CNN, Inside CNN story of the year. And I knew that at the time. Which is why I was glad we were able to devote so much time to it on the air. The experience I’ve had at CNN is one of autonomy. Meaning when we hire Lewandowski, I wrote a story up and we put it up right away, same way I would have done at the New York Times. And then on the air having a ten minute conversation about it where I said, “Listen, this is controversial and there’s people inside this newsroom that don’t like this idea.” Thinking about that a few months later, I’m just kind of thinking to myself now, “Is there still discomfort?” And I don’t think I’ve sensed that anymore, discomfort.
It’s the new normal.
Maybe that’s what it is. You know, I’ve seen him in the greenroom, seen him in the makeup room, there were good reasons for that discomfort early on. And I think CNN on the air has said when he’s getting severance payments and things like that, there’s definitely no confusion on the air about where he stands and about what his past is. So it does seem to me that controversy has died down. But I was, you know, I don’t want to show off here, but I was proud that we covered it so extensively on the air that summer. Any time a media outlet is covering itself, there are perceptions of difficulty. And certainly this summer, Fox News has not covered the Roger Ailes scandal the way that it would have if it had happened elsewhere.
Right. I don’t think a media company ever is going to be the company that covers itself well. The Times has tried with some degree of success at various times. I’m comfortable with the idea that it’s always going to be an outside organization that covers that company better.
What do you mean by better?
Better, they’re going to be more thorough, they’re going to be less sparing, they won’t have to worry no matter whether it’s conscious or unconscious about upsetting their boss or someone next to them or someone on the floor above them.
I would put this test on it though. The test I sometimes apply is, if this was happening at MSNBC or Fox instead of CNN, what would I do about it? And if Corey Lewandowski had been hired by MSNBC, I think I would have done maybe eight minute on it, maybe not quite 10, but I would have given it almost the same amount of time. And I think that’s a decent standard in terms of television time for me to apply.
Fair enough. You think you did a fair job. I accept that.
I look back and I think, “At the time, this was highly controversial.” It was one of the most controversial things that had happened at CNN in years. But reflecting on it now, it does feel like the internal discomfort has died down.
Do you ever wish, “Hey, I wish I was at the New York Times so I could write this story about what’s going on at CNN based on what I know? Not because I want to out and discomfort my co-workers but holy cow, there’s some amazing stuff that you can see once you’re on the inside.” You did a great job as a reporter at the Times but now you know so much more.
There are times when I wish I could restart my blog TVNewser. Because I think I have a much better understand of how television news operates than I did ten years ago when I was running my blog.
So let’s talk about that. You started a blog in college. Prototypical blog. Were you in a basement or were you in your dorm room?
I was in a dorm room and in a basement during the summer.
You were a guy that wrote about the business of TV news. Because you loved it. Why did you love it? Why did you get into it?
TV news and cable news in particular has such an influence over the country. For better and for worse.
But as a teenager, how do you get into this idea?
Well, I was picking up on that because I felt like the New York Times and the other news outlets that covered media at the time weren’t respecting cable news enough. And what I mean by that is, in 2003 when the Iraq invasion started, cable news drove the coverage. There was, for the first time in history, live coverage of an invasion as it happened with reporters on the back of tanks. Sometimes at night the nightly news anchors would only be covering stories because they’d happened on cable news during the day, and yet I felt like media reporters were still too focused on the nightly news.
But you sound like a 30-year-old discussing the history of news.
I’m an old soul.
No, but as a teenager, what drove a teenage boy …
I started a version of my blog right then. I started a version of my blog.
What drives a teenage boy to start writing in defense of cable news? It’s just not a normal thing for a kid to be interested in cable news.
That is true. But I also had started a blog about Goosebumps books and Nintendo games before then.
There you go.
I always was trying to create the websites that I wanted to read. And that’s probably what I continue to feel today. Just write the story that I want to have someone write.
You’re writing TVNewser, grownups are paying attention your work.
Right, so the wonderful thing about TVNewser was because there was no other blog like it, there was no other obsessive home for cable news, stories in 2004 and 2005, the tips were rolling in. You know, Greta Van Susteren who just left Fox was the first anchor to acknowledge the blog, she linked to it. I was about to say promoting it, she didn’t promote it, but she linked to it which helped gain traffic. Jeff Jarvis linked to it early on, helping me gain traffic.
Media people love reading about themselves.
Well of course. Of course. And this site needed to exist. It’s the same way Recode needs to exist. There need to be these hubs for industries, for these sorts of areas, and I guess I thought I understood television back then, and I learned a lot by writing the blog.
And to be clear, did you have any family history, any connection, with someone …
You were in Maryland, right?
No, my dad, before he passed away, my dad repaired Gloria Borger’s appliances. He was an appliance repairman, and so I knew Gloria Borger over email. I think that was my only connection to a television news person.
So you’re just a guy watching TV and writing about it.
Yeah. Writing about it and wanting to learn and wanting to understand it. Wanting to know why it does the things it does. Even today, you know. The cable news pick certain stories, focuses on those stories, makes those stories bigger, makes those stories matter. And it’s a power that I don’t think is necessarily always written about and understood.
So you’re this novelty kid reporter working out of your college newspaper office and your parents’ home, and then you go pretty much straight from there to the Times? Do I have that right?
That’s right. Well, the Times hired me to keep blogging. I think the idea in 2007 was bring in a digital expert at a time when the newsroom needed more people that had digital backgrounds.
A digital expert was a guy who could type on the internet, right?
[laughs] Sort of.
Right? In 2007.
And I had no expectation that I would be writing a lot for the print paper. Once I got there I realized, “Wow, this paper needs to be filled every day. There’s a lot of empty holes in it, and there’s a lot to write about.” So I was able to become more of a traditional reporter at the Times, just by virtue of that.
And did you think, “Holy cow, I’m at the Times, this is what I want to do, I can’t believe I lucked into this.” Or were you thinking, “Eventually I want to get on CNN where I can cover Hillary Clinton.”
I have to admit, I never thought about getting into TV. And I look back now and I wonder why. Because it feels like a much more natural fit for me. But no, I liked appearing as a guest once in awhile. It’s good to know what it’s like to be down the barrel of the camera lens. It’s also good to know what it’s like to be covered and be written about and be misquoted. So it was a good experience once in awhile to be on TV. But the CNN job happened because Howie Kurtz went from CNN to Fox, CNN needed to fill the Reliable Sources time slot, they had auditions on the air. And eventually they came to me with this job description that I describe as a three-legged seat. Write stories all week long, go on TV and talk about those stories, and then the show on Sunday both captures what happened that week and the next week. And to me, what I love about that is that all three of those reinforce each other. They make all the others better.
So we’re telescoping the entire time you go from kid blogger to New York Times reporter, and you weren’t on the sideline there, you were in the mix, you reported important stories. That’s the job that even today most people aspire to. Right? A version of that. Some sort of New York Times beat reporting job where you were well read and have enormous influence.
Yeah, the Times is perceived to be like Harvard, right? You go there and you get tenure and you never leave.
Yeah. That’s one of the ways to describe it. Our mutual friend David Carr talked about the influence of the Times. So when CNN comes to you, and you probably went to CNN and started talking about that, were you thinking, “Man, I don’t think I can leave the Times,” or were you thinking, “No of course I’m going to get a TV job if it’s possible.”
It was a no-brainer because of the chance to learn TV. It’s like being invited to go to graduate school and they’re going to pay for it. And that’s how I viewed the Times also. You get to learn how to be a newspaper reporter. I look back now and, you know, Carr was invaluable to me, giving me guidance about what to do, and now that I’m there, and especially after he died, I came around to the idea that the best thing I can do is be a reporter who happens to be on TV. And not try to be the blowhard anchor, I don’t have the hair for that anyway, but just to be a real reporter and not to ever let that part of the job go. Because that’s the most interesting part of the job.
At the Times and still here at CNN you are putting out a ton of content, right? So there’s the stuff you do on air, your actual job, you’re Tweeting prolifically, I think a little less than you used to, I think you’re on Instagram, you’ve got an entire website you’re running right, multiple reporters …
Yeah, but I would say that on air is not … I say that the foundation of my job is writing stories for the web.
So beat reporter is sort of the core of it and then occasionally you go on TV.
Here’s the way I think about it, and the way I hope and I think more and more TV reporters approach their jobs. I go on TV because I wrote a story. So I go on TV because I have something to report. To the extent that TV reporters are just reading scripts others have handed to them, I think, and I’m betting, that that model’s slowly going away.
You think you’re going to have to be someone who sort of creates your own job?
Someone who actually gathers the facts that you’re sharing. And it doesn’t work in every case. There are times, especially in breaking news, where I’m reading a script someone else has handed to me.
That’s the print guy’s description of a news reader.
Is you’re just a news reader. And that description still applies to some degree and even to me on some days. But the more interesting kind of television reporting is from real reporters. And you look at who Vice has hired lately, you look at who CNN has hired lately, television networks continue to hire the best from print, the best from digital. And learning TV is the easier part.
So are you in a fight with Sean Hannity or Sean Hannity’s fighting you?
[laughs] I think Sean Hannity is in a fight with me, I guess? I mean he’s called me a little pipsqueak and he said I should be fired.
So that seems exciting, right? You’ve got the two or at most three people at Fox News have singled you out, he’s raising your profile.
I don’t think so. I mean Bill O’Reilly attacked me years ago and what these guys never do is confront the substance of the critique. If Hannity were to talk about the substance of my critique, that would be a fight to have.
You think he means it or do you think it’s show business?
I think it’s … hmm, I’m trying to choose my words. Hannity is an excellent broadcaster and he’s an entertainer and some of what he’s doing is for entertainment value. I don’t know if that’s why he’s attacking me, but the point I was trying to make about Hannity was he brings Donald Trump on. Trump says things that are dangerous and Hannity doesn’t challenge him at all or correct him at all or push back at all. Hannity is just handing Trump the mic. And that, even if you want Trump to win the way Hannity does, is not responsible. I would argue that when Donald Trump is on television saying the election is going to be rigged, which has implications for the integrity of our elections and has implications for November 9th, the day after the election, you’ve got to push back. And Hannity doesn’t push back. Hannity has a lot of things, but pushback is not in him.
Under, if this is normal, you’re the Fall of Fox News. The Fall Roger Ailes would be the biggest story of the year. There’s going to be some kind of story after the election, I guess Trump could theoretically win so that’s a different story. If Trump doesn’t win, there’s talk that he’s going to create a media business. Do you think he creates another Fox News or do you think it’s a Donald Trump website with occasional video cast? Or a Glenn Beck?
[laughs] I have not thought through enough what it looks like. I don’t think it looks like Fox News, but I don’t have an answer for what it looks like instead. I assume that he can make a lot of money and gain a lot of subscribers with a Netflix style streaming service. But to what end? How does that benefit him two or four years from now?
Seems like a lot of work, for one thing. And I can’t imagine he’s going to risk his own capital. I think he can definitely get the Glenn Beck model right? Although I think the Glenn Beck model has problems now too. You talked about being in the barrel of the gun of the camera, I just screwed up that metaphor, but taking criticism generally. Prior to this job you tweeted a lot, you shared a lot, I knew that your father had died when you were young because you’ve written about it. I know a lot about you, I know about your dating life because you tweeted. You had an entire Twitter account dedicated to your weight loss. Now that you’re on TV, now that you’re in the middle of this angry, ugly election, does it make you reconsider your public profile?
No, I don’t think it has consciously, but maybe it has subconsciously. I don’t think I pull back on how much I share. I actually find myself embracing Twitter more. The more I feel Twitter may be having a hard time or seeming weak or failing, the more I try to hold onto it and tweet more and love Twitter more. Just from the perspective of a user who doesn’t want it to go away.
You’re a white straight male with money and influence and it’s different who complains about getting beat up on Twitter, but that said, I can’t remember if I was trying to DM you or Gmail you and you said, “I don’t check this stuff out because I get so many nasty comments.”
In the past couple of months I do think I’ve had to reassess how I look at mentions, look at the notifications tab, whether it’s using the quality filter more or just not looking. Yeah, even though I know what I see is not nearly as ugly as what women on the site see and what full-on political reporters see and other groups, it is nasty. However, I want to know what the viewers are thinking. And I have no better way to see it than Twitter and viewer email, but Twitter.
You think Twitter is a reasonable proxy for what people are thinking?
Not a proxy, but it’s the best thing I have. Until I get a hundred representative audience members who are all forced to respond after I speak, there’s no other way to really get that instant interaction, that instant reaction. And I got to say, the thing about Twitter and TV, there are times when you’re on TV and you’re talking. You look at Twitter and you feel like no one is listening. There are other times you feel like the whole world’s listening. And Twitter can keep capturing that magic. It is magic.
What happens next year? What do you do next year? No matter what, this story will not be as compelling.
A) I don’t know if that’s true, B) assuming it is true, there were wild stories last year, there were wild stories two years ago, the news cycle in general isn’t slowing down.
Is this beat enough to keep you occupied? Or at some point do you move on to something else?
Oh, media? I’m addicted. Aren’t you?
Yeah, it’s limiting in some ways.
Well, because I think there’s a natural expectation that after some point you’ll move onto this beat, and maybe that’s an older way to look at journalism. You sort of do the four stations of the cross and eventually …
No, I think some people still think of it that way, some people do. Personally though, I love this speciality. I think specializing is still the way to go and I feel like I’m only just beginning to figure out how to cover media the best way I can. I know that sounds kind of like, maybe it sounds pollyanna-ish or something.
I was going to say fake humble.
[laughs] That’s even worse. I look back at stories I wrote five years ago and I’m embarrassed by them. And I’m sure there’s stories that I write today that I’ll be embarrassed by in five years. I still feel like I’m getting better at it.
Yeah, it is nice to get better.
As long as I still have that feeling, then I wouldn’t want to get off the beat.
The worry is that you either get jaded or you start ignoring interesting news stories, and/or you age out of some stories.
I haven’t sensed any of that yet.
You’re still a pup.
Well, it goes back to what I said about TVNewser. The reason I’d like to, not right now and probably not never, but I could do such a better job covering television news today than I did 10 years ago. And I think I do. And that’s partly why I started a newsletter, so that I could put all of my nightly thoughts and feelings and reactions and tips into a newsletter. I’m continuing to try and find ways to … let me put it this way. And this really did come out of Carr’s death for me. What’s the highest value I can have as a journalist? What’s the best thing I can do? Well, the reason why I always stayed up late on Sunday nights refreshing the Times website for Carr’s column was because he was putting some new information into the world. Most of his columns had a point of view and a conclusion, but they almost always put some new facts and new information into the world. I feel like, for me, it’s kind of inside the CNN orbit. I can be a lot of things if I wanted to be. I can be a talking head who just opines or I can be just a host who asks questions. The highest value I think I can have is to put new facts into the world. And I don’t succeed on that every day and I end up rewriting other people’s stories and regurgitating press releases and all that stuff that we feel like we should spend less time doing. And I’m guilty of all of it. But to the extent that I can spend more time putting new facts out and then reaching conclusions, that’s the fun part of the job.
See, I was going to be a button on it right there but then I forgot, there’s your newsletter! At the end of your day you then create that newsletter.
Do you think I sound too optimistic and sunny about journalism?
No, I’m glad you love your job, it’s great. It’s awesome that you love your job. People who love their job are great, and it’s a bummer that more people can’t do it.
And don’t you feel like there’s fewer media reporters right now than there used to be?
I think there are more than ever.
There are so many more critics and there are so few reporters.
No I think there’s a ton of really good, really strong media reporting.
I’m acutely aware of it because I’m like, “Oh I lost that story to so and so. Oh and that one, and that one, and that one.” There’s a lot of really good stuff out there right now. I think it’s great.
You don’t think there’s a ton of stories that aren’t being written?
I’m sure there are. And different publications go through different strengths, but look, as someone who’s trying to keep up and trying to figure out what I want to write about and can I get a scoop here, can I write something new here, there’s a ton of stuff out there. And when I read your newsletter or other people’s newsletters, I’m like, “I shouldn’t bother writing about that, that’s already happened.”
You’re right that every day there’s a story that I wish I had written, that some other media reporter has beaten me to. But I just have this sense that so many people are spending so much time writing criticism that there’s not as much time calling the companies for comment, that there’s not as much time interviewing the people that are actually doing the work. There’s not as much time actually reporting. And there’s a lot of criticism going on.
There’s a ton of criticism but it’s more evident because there’s many more places to read and see that criticism. And criticism’s great.
When I hear from PR people who go through a day of hell, a day of 25 stories written about their company, and only two reporters call them, that’s a huge problem in our media environment. Huge. And that’s what I mean by lack of reporting.
Look, in the old days, which are not very long ago, there were two places you were going to read serious media reporting. It was the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and now there are many more.
There are many more. But I’m not sure … well. We’ll agree to disagree.
Yeah, I’m not going to be the cranky old man complaining about all the Twitterers and bloggers.
[laughs] A few minutes ago you were telling me how young I am, so I’m glad we’ve flipped.
I’m glad we flipped it. I’m glad you came. I really appreciate your time on a day like this. I hope you get time off in November. Thanks for your time, Brian.
Okay. In December.
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