Where are jelly donuts when you need them?
As I walked into the ornate lounge at the National Press Club, my eyes immediately settled on a shiny bald head with dark glasses attached to it. There was no mistaking him: It was CNN’s Chief Media Correspondent Brian Stelter in the flesh. Dressed in a dark suit, white button-down shirt and a red, white and blue tie, the human dome gleamed in the dim lighting of the packed room. He sat in the back row, laptop on lap, and listened, along with the rest of us, to a panel on social media.
The University of Missouri J-School put on a symposium Thursday. Stelter was the keynote speaker. Some notable names in the room: CBS News White House correspondent Major Garrett, Gannett’s Manuel Garcia, PolitiFact’s Angie Holan, NYT‘s Cecelia Kang, Politico‘s Nancy Scola, NewsGuard‘s James Warren, and Dallas Morning News‘ Hannah Wise. There were a variety of bigwigs from the University of Missouri J-School, the dean, the associate dean, an executive director and chair of something or other that you’ll never need to know. There were also a smattering of V.I.P’s from Georgetown, Northeastern and George Washington Universities.
Before we get to Stelter’s speech, there was lunch, which consisted of literal rubber chicken covered in about three glops of onion-y red sauce, an unappetizing rice that may have actually been quinoa or cous-cous and a miniature lemon tart with whipped cream garnished with a single half strawberry and a swirl of raspberry sauce circling the plate. The latter may have involved lemon curd but I tried not to think about it. I sawed through the chicken a few times and took a few dreadful spoonfuls of the flavorless dry grains. Honestly, a free lemon tart and coffee lunch is not a bad deal.
The wait staff took no offense, nor did they care that nearly everyone at my table left a gigantic chicken breast nearly fully intact on the plate. They zipped along, cleared the table at 90 miles per hour and left us with the remnants of a short battle: lemon curd and coffee.
I asked the guy sitting next to me if he was excited to hear Brian Stelter speak. He said he wasn’t “passionate” about him one way or another. At one point he left to use the restroom. He returned and told me that the National Press Club has directions on how to get out of the men’s room. He showed me a picture of the door with a sign that read “Push to Operate.” I told him he should tweet it. Which he did, immediately. He obviously got a lot out of the morning panel.
Topics at my table included the following: Twitter, Twitter fights, the lack of editing in today’s newsrooms, Joe Biden getting into the race and whether his candidacy has teeth, and the blurring of reporters and pundits.
One guy showed up late to lunch and got the vegetarian option, which looked to be some sort of striped gourd carved out for rice, peas and other crap I couldn’t decipher. “It’s vegetarian rubber,” my restroom troublemaker seat mate remarked.
Barbara Cochran, the Curtis B, Hurley Chair in Public Affairs Journalism and Director of the Washington Program of Missouri’s J-School, introduced Stelter with too much fanfare. “When I first encountered Brian Stelter years ago, it’s because he wrote the hottest blog about TV news,” she said. “Then I learned that this reporter was a freshman at Towson State University At that time, he showed characteristics that have made him such a star. No wonder the New York Times hired him. No wonder CNN came calling.”
Until this point, I didn’t realize nausea was on the menu.
She said Stelter’s must-read newsletter often comes out after midnight. “When you see him the next morning at 6 a.m., you have to wonder, when does he sleep?” She called him a “staunch defender of journalistic values” and seriously, factcheck please!
Calling a guy who relentlessly bitches about President Trump‘s state of mind and lectures viewers on the mental health of other news networks a defender of journalistic values was a few lemon tarts too many.
As a keynote speaker, Stelter generally performed well. He kept the speech moving at a fast clip, he didn’t drone on too much about dumb, boring topics and he was less of a lecture-y ass than he is on CNN. He didn’t badmouth Trump once or lecture the audience on what they need to care about. He didn’t partake in those long bizarre pauses he does on his show. I noticed only one real long, loud sigh. He had a self-deprecating sense of humor, which is not something you see often from this anti-Trump journo who has often tried to patronize and school younger reporters on how to do their jobs, especially when they cover him.
One thing he lacked was internal volume control. His voice is usually soft as a feather. But here, in this small room stuffed with round tables covered in white cloth, he had two settings: loud and LOUDER. He turned the volume down slightly when he was trying to be funny, which actually worked. But I could’ve done without the LOUDER moments.
“So much news. So little time,” he began. “When you are covering the Trump administration these days, you are getting people who are coming up to you on the street thanking you. You get a lot of positive feedback.”
Devolumizzing his voice, he smiled and added, “You get a lot of negative feedback also.”
Stelter said that the real and virtual worlds have merged. “We all have a chance to contribute to this BATTLE that is raging,” he said. “One of the reasons I love my job, just the term, ‘reliable sources,’ everyone is a source now, just the word ‘reliable’ is a question.”
The CNN host couldn’t help but occasionally reverting to preachiness, because that is his default. The general theme of his speech was: “Look up!” At times I thought he was going to suggest hugs or back rubs like a Tony Robbins seminar. “If our country can stop tearing itself apart on Facebook, we have a lot in common,” he said. “I want us to all look up. We are so tempted to look down. This device contains everything. It’s easy to look down. The addiction is real. We’ve got to look up and see it. So we recognize how technology is affecting our brains. All of us, in big ways and small, can encourage more of that.”
And by that, he means, actually talking to other human beings.
Some of his speech was inevitably new speech, same old shit. “It’s arguably the best time to be a journalist,” he said. “Let’s be honest, it’s also the most disturbing time. It’s also a time that makes us grateful for our colleagues who are defending our rights.”
(At this juncture, it’s really hard not to re-imagine Stelter’s words in the high-pitched voice of Mark Dice, a YouTuber who constantly mocks Stelter’s dramatic monologues by dubbing a really high-pitched voice over all of Stelter’s words.)
“Ya member the first day of the president’s inauguration…the next day Sean Spicer came out and lied about bunch of stuff,” he continued. “Jim Acosta is over on the front lawn reporting about all the lies. There was a light on in the White House. I thought Trump was going to come down and tell Acosta to get off his lawn.”
Stelter explained Trump’s press office later pulled Acosta’s credentials and a CNN lawyer had to fight to get Acosta reinstated at the White House. “The system worked, but it’s obviously being tested,” he said.
Stelter’s wrestles with his hatred of Twitter.
“Look, I met my wife on Twitter,” he said, sounding defensive about it. “There is only so much I can hate Twitter, even though I do. I’ll never be able to know who retweeted her into my stream. He mentions that his wife is on social media deleting trolls who are writing terrible things about their toddler, Sunny.
“I humbly believe our news ecosystem is stronger than it was 20 years ago,” he said.
Funny that he mentions the news ecosystem. On a recent show, he said Fox News would be a healthy part of the news ecosystem if they could just be honest. As if CNN is a network of angels with no biases. (RELATED: Brian Stelter Wonders About Fox News’s Mental Health)
There were food metaphors.
“It’s also getting fractious and confusing and confusing for the public on what to believe,” he said. “I’m constantly thinking about looking up…at where people are getting their news, things that smell like news but aren’t really news…things that are like McDonald’s, but you feel bad a few hours later after eating it.”
Stelter said he would like a “slow news movement.” (Is this a metaphor for going number 2?)
For all the benefits of technology, he gets the growing sense that “newsrooms are under attack.”
And then he said this: “There is a cost to telling the truth. …Misinformation, disinformation are on the rise. They tell you how awful I am.” He added quietly, “I’m not that bad. Alex Jones has accused me of drinking children’s blood.”
Stelter recalled visiting Kent State University and being confronted by cameras from Jones’ InfoWars. Someone said to him, “You’re not my cup of tea, but you’re not the devil.”
Like a balloon that inflates and gets bigger and bigger and bigger, this was the boom of Stelter’s voice. He held his hands in a sort of prayer mudra and directed them around the room like a pointer.
“We can try to tip these platforms in a more positive direction,” he said. “We would all like to reduce the costs of this technology. I’m not the only person who will meet their wife on Twitter. …It starts on an individual basis…what we each choose to share. The choice about whether to reply, be nasty, be snarky … those are choices we make all the time. It’s probably not the right choice to get down into the gutter.”
Stelter deflates with a gigantic sigh.
“All of this, if you put it together, there is an information war waging,” he said. “That’s the one thing Alex Jones got right. Bots. Coordinated information spread. Links that are used like weapons. The hateful fake news. The bogus fake news. Stuff that smells like news but isn’t.”
He preached, “Newsrooms have to be in this arena. ..So how can we reduce the costs and tip the platforms in a more positive direction and how can we enjoy the benefits of social media? It’s an opportunity for students here, like television anchors like myself. So let’s look up and get to it!”
During the Q & A portion of the event, Stelter admitted that when he works on a story and then glances at the comments in his Twitter feed he gets “down.” So he uses his filters. “Sometimes I turn them off to turn off the noise,” he said.
Stelter may have a future in Joel Osteen-esque theatrics and math: “Every day in a tiny way, in a thousand ways, we can make [sic] an inch forward,” he says.
He then trashed a few newsy names.
First up on the chopping block was Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway. “I think what I would say every time I interviewed her there were diminishing returns,” he said, adding, “We are among friends here. I know we’re on the record.”
Stelter said he hopes a “deceptive White House” is “not the new normal.”
Next up: Fox News’s Sean Hannity, who has sparred with Stelter for years.
“He’s a media hater,” Stelter said. “He says journalism is dead and that’s obviously insane.”
When a question came up on freedom of speech on social media, Stelter paused. “Hmmm,” he began. “I’m going to say something I will probably regret.”
The room sits still for just a moment.
Tucker Carlson on Fox has called me ‘oily’ and other names I won’t use,” he said. “Names [that] if I used I’d have to wash them out with soap if I used them at home. But he has taken a strong stance on free speech and I’m glad he’s doing it. I’m glad he’s taking the position. I’m glad he’s not afraid to articulate it.”
Carlson recently gifted Stelter with a dozen jelly donuts that apparently upset him because he used to have a thing for jelly donuts. Carlson has repeatedly called him a “house eunuch.” (RELATED: Tucker Carlson Sends Brian Stelter A Dozen Jelly Donuts To Cure His Hunger Pangs)
Laced into Stelter’s compliment about Carlson were insults: He works on a network that “misinforms” people. Fox News is “resentment talk. It’s about hating Democrats. Hating others. It’s their business mode. They know it’s their business business model.”
Stelter says nothing about CNN’s obviously contempt for Trump.
Later he told a story about CNN receiving a bomb scare. Stelter’s boss, CNN President Jeff Zucker, showed up to CNN at 11 p.m. and told him and anchor Don Lemon and others to not make the story about themselves. So what did they do? They made the story about themselves. They filmed themselves on Skype in the street and once they got back in, continued to talk about what happened to them.
Stelter fucking loves Shepard Smith. “I do think what Shep is doing is really valuable,” he said. “We all know in this room that people value a balanced news diet. Try to eat your vegetables. Recognize that fast food is not good for you. He probably wouldn’t appreciate being called a vegetable. Maybe he is in just the right place I think what he serves is delicious.”
I’m not even sure where we are in the metaphor here.
But thankfully the CNN host is winding down.
“Even though I hate Twitter, please follow me on Twitter,” he says, finally walking away from the mic.
Two young women in the room really lapped up Stelter’s speech.
“I really liked it a lot,” said Sidney Johnson, a second year law student at the University of Missouri. “I just really liked the part about looking up. I really liked his personality. Whether you fall on the right or left, I found he could give a neutral perspective.”
I reminded her that this does not happen on his show. She agreed and said, “I was really pleasantly surprised.”
Jordan Jackson, who works for the Washington program of Missouri’s J-School, had, perhaps, the most shocking reaction of the afternoon.
“I’m not going to lie,” she says. “I met him outside and fan-girled for a moment.”
WHAT?! I asked her if she cried and she assured me she did not.
Like Stelter, she said she’s dating someone she met through social media. “I think he did an excellent job,” she says.
I ask her to name someone who would really blow her mind if she met them in person.
“Oprah,” she said, explaining that she fell in love with reporting and interviewing by watching her show.
If she saw Oprah in real life, she responded appropriately, saying, “I’d freak out!”