CNN’s Stelter Denies He’s ‘Freaked Out’ or ‘Crusading’ Against Trump, Rules His Rallies Were ‘Poison’

Appearing on BuzzFeed News editor-in-chief Ben Smith’s podcast released Wednesday, CNN’s Reliable Sources host Brian Stelter covered a number of topics, including the touting of his gooey Washington Post profile, knocking Trump rallies as “poison,” denying that he’s been “freaked out” over this Trump era, and the admirable joy he has for becoming a father.

Smith began with Stelter’s roots and how he rose to his current spot at CNN, which was covered extensively in The Post piece that my colleague Tim Graham summarized. Smith ruled that Stelter’s “one of the hardest working people in this business” and “always admired” him for that.

Turning to his newfound pattern of offering commentaries on Reliable Sources (which Stelter dubbed “essays”), Smith admitted that he “was a little surprised to see you emerge over the last year as a kind of — a voice trying to kind of assert a little moral clarity and turn directly to the camera and talk about these kind highfalutin values of journalism.”

Stelter replied with a lengthy explanation of why he’s made this change, noting the obvious benefits of having soundbites or graphics to prove your point that’s not available in other mediums. 

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Thanking liberal comedians Jon Stewart and John Oliver for having “kind of pioneered this,” Stelter noted how it’s been useful to give his definition of “real news” and knock Sean Hannity:

So, I was trying to do a little bit of that and, honestly, trying to figure out how to describe to viewers what real news is and real journalism as opposed to what is a lot of the news-like substances that are out there and I’m not just talking about what we now call fake news or try to avoid calling fake news. Craig Silverman had not really — he had started to write about this phenomenon last spring, but the term “fake news” was not yet in the culture, but there was always — there’s always a sense that what Sean Hannity’s doing on Fox, for example, looks like news. He sits at a news anchor desk and he has newsy graphics, but we all know it’s not news and I think I was trying to talk about that, observe how conspiracy theories, for example, were taking root on a show like Hannity’s. Again, it’s not news but it smells like news and that’s a problem.

What’s intriguing about this was Stelter gave zero credit to viewers to know the difference between news and opinion shows. This goes back to the theory of agenda setting and how the liberal media have lost their gripe on the ability to tell people what to think about (see Hannity vs. Ted Koppel on CBS News: Sunday Morning)

The two podcasters invoked Alex Jones in the same breath as Hannity and this allowed Stelter to make a broader point that “the essays are an effective way to tell that story and I also think, you know, Trump’s attacks on the media and some of his claims about the media — they require a persistent kind of fact-checking or beyond fact-checking or correction.”

Smith then suggested Stelter is “crusading” in the same vein that some reporters carry themselves as having a holier-than-thou attitude and Stelter shot back that “I don’t feel like I’m crusading now.”

Stelter continued moments later, observing that “the moment is different” and “the time is unique” in that the media are grappling with how to “express to the viewer that what [Trump’s] saying may be clearly misleading, damaging to the public discourse.”

For as much as he may fashion himself as strictly a media reporter, he also strays into being a liberal commentator. Here’s just a few NewsBusters has compiled since the election: 

- December 4: Stelter suggested that the media should start referring to Trump as an “authoritarian” “strongman”
- December 11: Complains that Trump’s election has morphed into a “national emergency” when taking into account the Russia ties
- February 24: Fretted that Trump’s CPAC speech knocking the news media sent a “chill up” his spine
- February 27: Wondered to New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet if Trump is exhibiting “authoritarian tendencies”
- March 26: Attacking Fox News for covering an alleged rape in Maryland by an illegal immigrant

As far as the podcast goes, behold this other example about Trump’s tweeting:

So, I’m trying to remain aware kind of — you know, when I went on vacation for a week, turned off Twitter, came back, his tweets really are shocking. Like, they are shocking in a way that sometimes we can get numb to it if we’re on Twitter all day long seeing what the President’s tweeting. It’s important sometimes, maybe to delete Twitter once in awhile, come back to it with fresh eyes and recognize how unusual this still is.

Smith noted that he views him “as a fairly kind of sunny, optimistic person and it feels, to me, like you’re pretty freaked out right now.”

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Once again, Stelter disagreed with the charge, but subsequently proved Smith’s point by lashing out at Trump’s rhetoric, rallies, and tweets as “poison”:

I don’t think I would say I’m freaked out. I would say that I am — paying a lot of attention to how people are consuming and reacting to these anti-media attacks. What I mean is you think about some of these words, some of these tweets, some of these campaign rallies back last year as — as poison, as a form of poison that has entered into the bloodstream. What I’m really interested in now is how is that poison affecting the body politic, how is that poison affecting the consumers because it’s not something any of us were seeing or covering five years ago, for example. 

He later conceded that the media dialogue can’t be boiled down to all Trump commentators lie on television while all anti-Trump ones tell the truth and his biggest regret of the campaign was that he “didn’t take Bernie seriously enough in the summer and the fall of 2015 and that was an important kind of note in the back of my head.”

“There’s been so much soul-searching about how Trump was covered. There hasn’t been as much thought about how Clinton and Sanders were covered,” Stelter added.

The final few minutes of the podcast discussed his relationship with wife and NY1 anchor Jamie Stelter as the two prepare to embark on a new adventure of parenting and the numerous unknowns that will entail. 

Overall, it was refreshing to see Stelter talk about this aspect of his life and other random facts like staying up late to play the old versions of Sim City. For all journalists talk about their professions on TV, it’s arguable that talking about random tidbits like this help humanize them even if we vehemently disagree with them (as I just did with Stelter’s numerous comments).

Relevant portions of the podcast NewsFeed with Ben Smith from April 26 are transcribed below:

Newsfeed with Ben Smith
April 26, 2017

BEN SMITH: As somebody who’s really a news junkie and cares a lot about scoops and followed you through The Times, you know, read your book for what were the scoops — was the new information, you broke news all the time and I really thought of you and when you started at CNN as somebody who was a great reporter, worked his ass off, broke news all the time and I think I was a little surprised to see you emerge over the last year as a kind of — a voice trying to kind of assert a little moral clarity and turn directly to the camera and talk about these kind highfalutin values of journalism — 

BRIAN STELTER: You mean Trump’s attacks on journalism.

SMITH: — were you — were you — where does that come from? [PAUSE]

STELTER: I think it was probably this time last year I started doing essays on Reliable Sources and it was partly to take advantage of the medium — meaning on television. You can throw to the soundbite, laugh at it or point out the mistake or point out the problem or point out the beauty of it. You know, you can be tossing to those elements, you can tell a story through the combination of those soundbites and then responses. Jon Stewart and John Oliver kind of pioneered this in a different way in comedy, but there are a lot of ways to do it in news. So, I was trying to do a little bit of that and, honestly, trying to figure out how to describe to viewers what real news is and real journalism as opposed to what is a lot of the news-like substances that are out there and I’m not just talking about what we now call fake news or try to avoid calling fake news. Craig Silverman had not really — he had started to write about this phenomenon last spring, but the term “fake news” was not yet in the culture, but there was always — there’s always a sense that what Sean Hannity’s doing on Fox, for example, looks like news. He sits at a news anchor desk and he has newsy graphics, but we all know it’s not news and I think I was trying to talk about that, observe how conspiracy theories, for example, were taking root on a show like Hannity’s. Again, it’s not news but it smells like news and that’s a problem.

SMITH: Yeah. There’s a kind of form of news. I mean, Alex Jones also carries that. 

STELTER: Yeah. Alex Jones, absolutely. So, I was trying to tell that story and the essays are an effective way to tell that story and I also think, you know, Trump’s attacks on the media and some of his claims about the media — they require a persistent kind of fact-checking or beyond fact-checking or correction.

SMITH: But for you personally, it feels like, to me, there are some reporters who, for their whole careers, have had a kind of moral tone to their work or sort of — I don’t know — felt like they were crusading and you were never that at all. 

STELTER: But I don’t feel like I’m crusading now. 

SMITH: But it feels like a bigger step for you into that than what it would be for other reporters. I say that as somebody who kinda comes from the same tradition you do and I feel a level of discomfort doing that, although maybe I try it sometimes. 

STELTER: I think the moment is different right now. I think the time is unique right now. Last year, all of us were trying to grapple with this once-in-a-lifetime candidate. How do we express to the viewer that what he’s saying may be clearly misleading, damaging to the public discourse. You know, we saw journalists in lots of different ways try to get through and communicate about that. I found that, in these essays, that was a way for me to do it.

SMITH: Yeah, I do think the challenge to the forms of journalism by somebody who lies to your face is a huge challenge and we all — there is a tradition that you try to get access to people and the sort of deal in access journalism is that once you get the access, they’ll tell you the truth and he’s not doing that, I do think is posing these big challenges.

(....)

STELTER: So, I’m trying to remain aware kind of — you know, when I went on vacation for a week, turned off Twitter, came back, his tweets really are shocking. Like, they are shocking in a way that sometimes we can get numb to it if we’re on Twitter all day long seeing what the President’s tweeting. It’s important sometimes, maybe to delete Twitter once in awhile, come back to it with fresh eyes and recognize how unusual this still is.

SMITH: I also think I see you as a fairly kind of sunny, optimistic person and it feels, to me, like you’re pretty freaked out right now. 

STELTER: I don’t think I would say I’m freaked out. I would say that I am — paying a lot of attention to how people are consuming and reacting to these anti-media attacks. What I mean is you think about some of these words, some of these tweets, some of these campaign rallies back last year as — as poison, as a form of poison that has entered into the bloodstream. What I’m really interested in now is how is that poison affecting the body politic, how is that poison affecting the consumers because it’s not something any of us were seeing or covering five years ago, for example. 

SMITH: Are you worried about the consequences of that, you know, beyond the media conversation?

STELTER: I’m — ah, short answer, yes. Why beat around the bush? Yes. Aren’t we all concerned? Aren’t you concerned about BuzzFeed’s brand and identity and reputation when the President calls it garbage?

(....)

STELTER: My biggest regret wasn’t about Trump. It was about Bernie Sanders. I didn’t take Bernie seriously enough in the summer and the fall of 2015 and that was an important kind of note in the back of my head. There’s been so much soul-searching about how Trump was covered. There hasn’t been as much thought about how Clinton and Sanders were covered.

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