Over 17 years as a media journalist, Brian Stelter has firmly established himself as an adversary of Fox News, its anchors and many of its viewers.
“Last night, around 8.15, I started getting hate mail in my Gmail inbox,” CNN’s chief media correspondent tells Press Gazette in a phone interview. “I tried to figure out why, and five minutes later I realised Tucker Carlson had just played a clip of me. That’s a common occurrence.”
If you have any doubt about just how much online abuse Stelter suffers, search his name on Twitter. I did so after our interview and found that in a one-hour period on 7 June, he was bombarded with dozens of offensive tweets that attacked his appearance, his politics, his intellect and his professional capabilities.
This does not appear to have been an atypical day at the office for Stelter.
“I don’t usually look at the raw Twitter replies to my name,” he says. “It’s ugly. I know I’m the target of many, many trolls, but I also know that other journalists experience far worse. I tune out the online noise as much as I can.”
Stelter, 35, also regularly endures insults from higher-profile figures, including Donald Trump Jr (who compared him to Mr Potato Head), InfoWars boss Alex Jones (“literal demon spawn”), and Fox News presenters like Sean Hannity (“little pipsqueak”) and Tucker Carlson (“eunuch”).
“The thing about CNN or MSNBC or any other television network is you don’t have hosts on those networks calling people eunuchs or likening them to Humpty Dumpty,” says Stelter.
“And I don’t mind, by the way. I think it’s usually funny. I usually laugh when they call me those names. But it just doesn’t happen on other channels.
“I’m just trying to say that Fox is different. Fox is fundamentally different in lots of ways. One of the ways is how personal they are. Anywho…”
Last year, Stelter published a book – Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News and the Dangerous Distortion of Truth – that sought to lift the lid on the inner workings of the rival broadcaster. A new edition of the book (details below) is out today.
Trump slump? Viewers no longer ‘on the edge of their seat’
Stelter, a TV enthusiast from a young age, started writing about Fox News and other broadcasters in 2004 when, as a student at Towson University in Baltimore, he set up a blog called TV Newser.
In 2007, after graduating – and having sold his blog to Media Bistro – he joined the New York Times as a media reporter.
Six years after that, Stelter – who says he once believed “a bald guy couldn’t get an anchor spot on TV” – joined CNN. Today, he is the host of Sunday morning’s Reliable Sources media show. He is also the author of a daily industry newsletter that goes by the same name.
Reliable Sources’ ratings are closely watched by Fox News, which keenly highlights any perceived poor performance (last week it reported that Stelter had suffered a “miserable May” because his show averaged 836,000 viewers, below previous months this year).
Stelter is not worried about Reliable Sources’ recent performance. The US media industry as a whole is having to adapt to a new, less frantic period in the news cycle and many outlets have experienced a dip in viewers or readers since early 2021.
“The difference is that people might not feel like they’re on the edge of their seat – stressed or worried or fearful or outraged about daily news developments,” says Stelter, reflecting on the challenges journalists currently face.
“I think what we’re seeing is this reset. Maybe that’s what it is? It’s a great reset for the news industry. Not to a new place – it’s actually back to an old place, a pre-Trump place….
“We’re in a news cycle now where a news website’s not going to crash because of overuse. But people still really want to know what is true in the world.
“I think there’s an enormous amount of confusion about what to believe and who to trust and whether to believe anything at all. News consumers are desperate to know what to trust.”
Why the ‘pulpit’ is here to stay
Stelter has essentially just made a pitch for why news consumers should watch Reliable Sources, which promises viewers “the story behind the story of how the news gets made”.
As well as relaying information to viewers, and interviewing high-profile figures from the media world, Stelter is often prepared to share his own opinions on Reliable Sources.
In a 2018 profile on Stelter, the Columbia Journalism Review described Reliable Sources as his “pulpit”. Today, Stelter seems slightly uncomfortable with the use of this word.
“I have too much respect for the pastors to ever think that I could hold my own in a pulpit,” he says. “When I hear ‘pulpit’ I think about growing up at my United Methodist Church and learning from my pastor. So I would never use the word pulpit.”
But he understands the sentiment. “The Trump years thrust folks like me into an unusual position of explaining how we do what we do. Because in the face of so many lies, we had to explain the truth – and also how we were getting to the truth.
“The way I view it is every day he’s lying about the media, calling real news fake. So we had this added responsibility to explain how we know the news is real and how we’re trying to get to the best obtainable version of the truth, as Carl Bernstein says.
“So I think the pulpit, the monologues on the air that I was delivering – that others at CNN were delivering – they were a response to this gross abuse of the presidential platform to denigrate the American news media.”
Stelter points to a February 2017 edition of Reliable Sources as a turning point. Coming days after the newly-elected Trump had described the media as “the enemy of the American people”, Stelter started Reliable Sources with a “comment” in which he described the president as a “demagogue” and his words as “poison”.
Trump is no longer in the White House, but Stelter says the “format of speaking to viewers directly, confronting lies directly… that’s here to stay, and that’s a good thing”.
He adds: “It’s almost the antithesis of ‘book two guests who disagree and let them fight’. There’s certainly value in showing different opinions. But there’s also value in looking the viewer straight in the eye in front of the camera and telling them what you know. I think that builds a bond of trust in an age where trust is threatened in many ways.”
Fox News: ‘I am one of their hate objects’
For Stelter, the publication of Hoax last summer marked the culmination of a 16-year (now 17-year) “odyssey of reporting” on Fox News.
Stelter and Fox got off on the wrong foot – he alleges that the broadcaster instructed a staffer to go on dates with him to gather “intel” on his TV Newser work.
How have relations between Stelter and Fox changed in recent years?
“Approaching this just as a reporter, I have the same relationship with Fox News that I had 17 years ago,” he says. “I ask for comment. I stay in touch with PR people. I appreciate when they respond. And I point out if they don’t. It’s the same basic job.
“I think what is different now is Fox News shows like to use members of the media as hate objects. And I am one of their hate objects. One of many. Nothing special about me – I’m one of many. But that’s when the hate mail comes.”
He adds: “Sometimes I’ll joke and say they’re trying to help my ratings… sometimes I’ll point out how nasty and personal they are behaving.”
Stelter does have some allies within Fox, though. “I had so many sources at Fox leaking to me,” he says.
“I sat at a coffee shop, 57th and 7th Avenue in New York City, I sat at the coffee shop in the corner and gossiped with a staffer for two hours. And this person just – they were pouring their heart out to me about all the problems of the network.
“And I thought to myself, this is not getting reported in the day-to-day. There’s a lot of coverage of what Tucker says, there’s a lot of coverage of what Fox & Friends does, there’s a lot of coverage of what happens on the air.
“But there’s not a lot of coverage of what it’s like on the inside – the lack of leadership within that work, how embarrassed some staffers are about the content of the network. So that’s what compelled me to try to do the book.”
‘It’s kind of like watching a monster movie’
In his (generally positive) review of Stelter’s book, David Enrich of the New York Times said his “biggest disappointment” with Hoax was that he felt it did not “unpack the greatest mystery of Fox’s success: Why is the channel’s unbridled demagogy so enticing? Do viewers realize they’re getting played? Do they care?”
He added: “I would be curious to hear from and better understand those viewers. There is no sign that Stelter spoke to any. Readers are left to look down on Fox’s millions of loyalists as gullible members of an extremist cult. It is just the sort of easy-to-digest but unnuanced conclusion that would play well on cable news.”
Does Stelter know many Fox News viewers personally? “Absolutely,” he says. “I think that’s the most important part of the story. That’s why this subject matters. That’s why I think media reporting writ large matters.”
What kind of relationship do you have with them? “With the Fox News viewers in my family, I try to listen more than I talk. I want to learn about the network and what they perceive it to be saying. I want to learn. I want to listen.”
Stelter has just updated the contents of Hoax for a new edition. It contains new insights into Fox’s election coverage, Trump’s interaction with the network, and some intriguing details about the former president’s relationship with Fox chairman Rupert Murdoch.
Stelter writes in the book that Murdoch was disappointed by Trump’s handling of Covid-19. “I confirmed with sources on both sides of the relationship that Rupert’s telephone relationship with Trump fizzled out in 2020.”
If Stelter could ask Rupert Murdoch one question, what would it be?
“Holy shit. Um. The first thing that comes to mind – I have to be careful about whether I have asked these questions or not, so I’m not admitting that I haven’t…
“Err, Rupert was reportedly frustrated at President Trump for not taking the pandemic more seriously, for not becoming a wartime president. But Fox News coddled Trump and minimised the threat of the pandemic early on. So, Rupert, why didn’t you exert more control over your own network and put Fox on a wartime footing and ensure that its coverage of the pandemic was… strong?’”
One of the eye-catching claims in Hoax is that Fox pays one of its hosts, Sean Hannity, $30m a year.
How much would Fox have to pay Stelter to prize him away from CNN?
“Ha! The only things I can say to that question are I am happily under contract at CNN. What else can I say? Yeah. I would make a joke about Fox not being in a hiring mood, but that’s neither here nor there.”
Final question. Does Stelter have anything nice to say about Fox News?
“Uhhh… I think one of the things I mention in the book is if you strip the word ‘news’ out of Fox News – think of Fox solely as a television product – it is a very well-produced television product,” he says.
“If you view strictly through a television production lens, there is a lot to appreciate there.”
Stelter pauses before reframing his answer somewhat to make it a bit less complimentary.
“It’s kind of like watching a monster movie as they’re destroying a city. But you’re impressed by the special effects.”