Polarization’s Ground Zero

With Brian Stelter - Author of 'Network of Lies'


Episode description:

According to a Pew Research survey in 2021, almost three quarters of Americans consider Fox News to be part of the mainstream media, along with familiar brands like ABC News and the Wall Street Journal. That’s interesting because Fox is different in many ways. It’s not only easily the most profitable cable news network and the only one trusted by most conservatives; it is also the only one whose leaders admitted, under oath, that the newsroom deliberately promoted a theory they knew to be false, namely that the 2020 Presidential election was stolen.

Brian Stelter has chronicled Fox News and its impact on political discourse for years. A media reporter for the New York Times and then CNN, his unrelenting criticism of the network on his own program, Reliable Sources, may have cost him his role at CNN, but it has not shut him up. In his latest book about Fox, Network of Lies, he goes deep into the revelations about Fox that showed up in the Dominion Voting Systems libel suit and in Congress’s January 6th Committee hearings. Brian and I talk about journalists’ role in today’s polarized politics; about Fox’s promotion of election lies; about Tucker Carlson’s ouster; and about the challenge we all face in finding trustworthy news in a world of disinformation.

 

Transcript

 

Eric Schurenberg (00:01.162)

Brian, welcome to In Reality.

 

Brian Stelter (00:03.626)

It’s good to be in reality. Thank you.

 

Eric Schurenberg (00:06.974)

Nice to live in reality. Now listeners know you as CNN’s disinformation crusader, the author of two books about Fox News, hoax from 2020 and the just published network of lies, the epic saga of Fox News, Donald Trump and the battle for American democracy. Now we’ll get to Fox in a minute, if you don’t mind, but I want to start with the Brian Selter origin story. Out of college,

You went to work for the New York Times as a media reporter. That’s a pretty good introductory job. How did that lead you to reliable sources, your show on CNN, and then to your focus on Fox?

 

Brian Stelter (00:47.562)

Yeah, I think the through line is a real curiosity about media and how it affects our lives, affects our society, affects our elections and all the rest. You know, growing up, I was really interested in television news. I guess I would say I was obsessed with television news. I launched a blog about cable news. I was blogging about Fox News and CNN and MSNBC almost 20 years ago. And that’s what led me to the New York Times. That’s why the Times hired me to write about TV, to keep doing that. Also to… broaden out beyond cable news and write about streaming and the rest of the TV world. But the call from CNN came.

After five or six years of The Times writing about this business, The Times was willing to let me try out for this job at CNN Reliable Sources because they had an opening on the air so a bunch of people guest hosted. And that’s what led me full time to CNN covering the media during the week and then hosting the show on Sundays.

And of course, this was all pre for your purposes, and your point about disinformation. This was before we talked about disinformation. I started at CNN before Trump upended politics.

 

Eric Schurenberg (02:00.09)

And upended he did. Now, there are some people who will view an interview with you as simply more lefty, crazy, Fox News derangement syndrome. To millions of Americans, Fox is the authentic voice of people who have been ignored and disparaged by an elite and irredeemably liberal news media. What would you say to that audience, the Fox’s audience?

 

Brian Stelter (02:29.43)

First, I would say, email me. I’m bestelter at gmail.com. I wanna talk to you. I will perhaps surprise you, you know, in our dialogue. And then, more broadly, here’s what I would say. Fox did fill an important void when it launched in the 1990s. There was an opening, there was a market, there was a hunger for conservative takes on the news, for conservative news coverage, for… talk shows from a conservative point of view. That’s great. There should be more of that. Here’s where Fox has gone off the rails though. Fox is doing a disservice to its viewers by misinforming them, by cradling them in this comfortable but unrealistic presentation of the country and the world, by stoking fear and stoking hate of others, by really just giving them a… complete sense of misinformation and disinformation about the world around them. So, you know, by all means, you know, we need places like Fox. You know, we should have more of them. But when Donald Trump loses an election and then pretends he won and Fox falls in line and says, you, the viewers, you’re the victims. It’s been stolen. Trump’s the winner. This is the evil Democrats out to destroy America. That’s a disservice. That’s an unethical and an immoral thing to do, and it’s a disservice to the viewers. And so I guess my argument would be, let’s hold Fox to a higher standard and hold them up to a reality-based standard.

 

Eric Schurenberg (04:13.618)

All right, great. Thank you, that’s actually quite articulate. And I support your, you know, surprisingly so. No, not really. But I support your idea that there need to be responsible civil voices on the right in media, that is still a gap that where the field is not… totally unoccupied, but largely still fairly green.

 

Brian Stelter (04:45.194)

Yeah, and that’s what’s more, that gets to what’s broken more broadly in our political system, which is, you know, and let’s just take Donald Trump as an example, because he’s, it makes it very vivid, even though this was going on for decades before Donald Trump knew Gingrich was, you know, against the media, Speer-Ragnew was famously against the media, but Donald Trump crystallized it in a very, very dramatic way and said, the media, which is trying to cover my administration is the enemy of the people do not believe a word they say only believe me and the news sources that I tell you to believe. In doing so, he punched us as a country right in the gut, right in our softest spot, in that sense of a shared reality, where we could have debates, we could disagree on issues, we could fight it out, but at least we had a shared reality. Donald Trump came along and said, “‘No, I’m gonna create a MAGA universe, a MAGA reality where I am the hero or I am the God, and where my opponents are perverts and enemies.'” And in doing so, you know, he’s really distorted our media system as well, because…

It’s, you know, as you said, there’s lots of folks who will say, well, Brian, you have Trump derangement syndrome. No, I think what I have is a desire for us to have more of a shared common reality again, more common ground in this country, more of an ability to have civic conversations. And that’s been really chipped away at and beaten up by this distortion field that Trump presents, this machinery to support.

Where he will tell a lie and then there’s a machinery that it will support the lie and some sometimes there’s really funny examples right Eric when there’s a hurricane heading toward the East coast and Donald Trump pretends that it might hit Alabama and of course that was never gonna happen No one ever believed that was gonna happen But Donald Trump had to pretend like it was gonna happen and then he had to defend his lie And unfortunately National Weather Service government officials got caught up in all this nonsense And then people like me go on TV and spend all this time unpacking the crazy

And it makes us sound a little crazy, but it’s all because of Donald Trump’s initial narcissism initial lie. And so, you know, gosh, I look back with a lot of like, it’s like, I can’t believe all this has happened. I guess is the way I sometimes feel.

 

Eric Schurenberg (06:55.754)

Your book, Network of Lies, relies heavily, not just on interviews, but also on discovery evidence produced by the Dominion Voting Systems, defamation lawsuit against Fox, and transcripts of testimony in the January 6th Congressional Investigation. So far from being Fox News or Trump News or Trump Derangement Syndrome, this is testimony that happened under oath. Now, looking at that,

 

Brian Stelter (07:05.26)

Yeah.

 

Eric Schurenberg (07:25.122)

all of that body of evidence, what were your key discoveries about the unique way that Fox operates?

 

Brian Stelter (07:34.346)

Yeah, I felt that’s why I had to write this book. It’s because there was so much in the Dominion document, Treasure Trove, that needed to see the light of day, it needed to be put in a comprehensive form. The way these court battles go down.

Dominion sues Fox and says, hey, you defamed us on the air 20 times and we’re gonna we’re gonna prove it We’re gonna get in front of a jury Fox, of course tries to stall But Fox had to open up its emails and text messages had to open up its computer servers to Dominion for the discovery process The pretrial process known as discovery. So Dominion gets access to all of Fox’s inner workings

By the way, Fox also gets access to Dominion’s interworkings. So if the election had been rigged and stolen against Donald Trump, Fox would have found it. Okay, by the way. But so Dominion, you know, is able to read all these emails and texts. And then through the pretrial legal process, they very skillfully release many of these emails and texts into the public domain. They do it through legal filings. They do it through a pretrial motions. They do it through by presenting the all the documents they might bring out in court.

And, you know, the thing about it was this stuff was in public view, but it wasn’t it wasn’t in context. It wasn’t easy to access just because there’s some database in Wilmington, Delaware with a bunch of court filings. Doesn’t mean that the average Fox viewer or the average Fox critic can easily access it and dig into it. So that’s why I wanted to put it all in a book and tell this story from start to finish. And, you know, what stands out? What stands out is that the big lie didn’t just happen. It was made to happen. It happened for a reason.

It happened because on the weekend that Biden was projected to be president-elect, some people just couldn’t take it, just couldn’t stand it. Couldn’t, couldn’t, couldn’t bear it. When Trump lost, they lost too. And so they started telling a different story. They started telling a story about how Trump was the victim of this evil villain who stole the election, who rigged the machines. And of course that’s why Dominion had a really strong case. They had a really, really strong case, so strong that Fox had to settle out of court.

 

Brian Stelter (09:32.246)

But as you said, there’s testimony under oath from Rupert Murdoch, from Lachlan Murdoch, from Tucker Carlson, from others, and that testimony is really revealing. Because, you know, this gets to the heart of the story, I think, Eric. The heart of the story is Rupert Murdoch knew that the election wasn’t rigged. He thinks people who believe that are crazy. That’s his word, crazy. He, but he let it happen. He let the lies spread on his air and we can talk about the reasons why. You know, there were a lot of hosts at Fox who knew better and they were saying one thing in private, and saying something else in public. And it’s not just unique to Fox. I mean, my gosh, of course, this is something that’s a, it speaks to a broader hypocrisy in the culture, but it’s important that we have the documentation, I think.

 

Eric Schurenberg (10:13.562)

Let’s talk about Rupert Murdoch and what drove him to allow his network to spread a lie that by his own admission, it was particularly damaging to democracy and that he argued was crazy. What drives the guy? What allowed him to do that?

 

Brian Stelter (10:32.066)

Hmm. You know, he presented some excuses during his deposition. His deposition with the Dominion lawyers is really interesting because it’s the only time he’s really been interviewed in depth in a long time. Someone like Ruben Murdoch, 92 year old media mogul. He doesn’t sit down and get questioned by people like me or you. He doesn’t go on podcasts. He doesn’t do interviews. He doesn’t submit himself for questioning, but he had to in the Dominion case because the discovery process, because it was steaming toward trials. So he had to be deposed for two days.

And he offered some excuses for why he didn’t intervene. He said his television sets weren’t working in his mansion in the UK, where he was, you know, hunkered away during COVID in 2020. He said, you know, he said that not all the hosts were doing this, so only some of the hosts. He he tried to talk about the difference between news and opinion, that like it wasn’t our newscast that were doing this. It was the opinion shows. Well, here’s the problem with that. If for two decades you broadcast a network, full of right-wing talk shows. And those right-wing talk shows, like Sean Hannity’s, purport to be the real news. And they use the language of journalism. And they talk about reports and sources and breaking news. And if for 20 years you put those shows on, the viewers are gonna have much more of a relationship with the opinion stars who pretend to be news than they are with the newscasts. And so that’s what happened to Fox News. The ratings are lower for the news and much, much higher for the right-wing propaganda. So when I hear these executives being like,

 

‘Well, that didn’t happen on the news. That happened on the opinion side.’ Like it makes me, it makes me so frustrated because they know better. They know that what Fox viewers trust are the opinion talking heads. For decades now, the Republican Party and many right-wing talk show hosts have told people not to believe the news, but to only believe the views. And so, you know, Rupert had excuses. At the end of the day, he didn’t have many good answers about why this happened.

 

Eric Schurenberg (12:26.966)

Um, there are many colorful personalities at, at Fox that you write about. Um, you point out that, that Fox’s embrace of the false claims about the Dominion voting machines, altering votes in favor of Biden began with Maria Bartiromo, the Fox business news anchor. Now I knew Maria from her days at CNBC when I was at Money and her, her transition to a Trump.

 

Brian Stelter (12:51.777)

Yeah.

 

Eric Schurenberg (13:00.461)

And I think that’s the most important thing.

 

Brian Stelter (13:14.574)

Hmm.

Her devolution confuses a lot of people, by the way. And I’m one of them. A number of years ago, I was like, I remember being at a party in the Hamptons, dancing with Maria on the dance floor. We were both Sunday morning hosts on cable news. We talked about getting up early the next morning. There was a relationship there. There was a sense of being peers, even though we were on rival channels. And now there’s no ability to have any kind of conversation because she exists on a different planet. She exists on a different world. She exists in a world where it’s normal to go on the air and say, I’m told by an intel source that actually Trump won the election. She exists in a world where she said the other day, who’s really running the White House? Is it Obama, not Biden? Like these are just conspiracy theories that she wants to believe and her viewers want to believe. And so she…

Gosh, this gets to one of the most interesting emails in the book where you have a Fox business executive, Gary Schrier, saying, Maria gets used by right-wing conspiracy theorists. I want to pull up the email because it’s such an interesting email. Quote, Maria has GOP conspiracy theorists in her ear, and they use her for their message sometimes. I wish she had that awareness. Well…

 

Eric Schurenberg (14:35.286)

Mm-hmm.

 

Brian Stelter (14:36.114)

Okay, if that’s what you think, tell her, like, come on, like be a boss, be a manager. But anyway, I digress. How did it happen in November of 2020 with Maria? Here’s how it happened. She had booked Sidney Powell, the Trump-aligned lawyer to come on the air on a Sunday morning, one day after Biden was projected to be president-elect. Sidney Powell was going to come on and say that the election is not really over and Trump still has a chance and there’s all these voter fraud claims and we’re going to get to the bottom of it. And of course she’s doing that to raise money and become more famous and try to help Trump. So.

Sidney Powell gets an email from a random woman in Minnesota with a long rambling message, a conspiracy theory about Dominion voting systems, basically blaming Dominion for rigging the election. It presents Trump as the victim of a rigged election, of a stolen election. Now this is catnip to Sidney Powell. This is exciting. This is a great story to tell. So she forwards it to Maria Bartiromo. Maria Bartiromo forwards it to Donald Trump’s son, Eric. All of a sudden, this BS is inside the Trump family, inside the White House. So…

Maria goes on the air Sunday, November 8th, one day after Biden treachery to be president-elect and she says to Sidney Powell, tell me about Dominion. And then at one point she looks down and she appears to read the conspiracy crazy email word for word, almost word for word. She appears to read it out loud on the air, which I just want to tell you, say Eric, if I did that at CNN, I would get called straight into management. I would get, I would get, you know, I don’t know, not suspended, but like sanction, that there would be penalties, there would be consequences for like reading some random crazy email on the air and acting like it’s a fact. But that’s how it started. That’s how the Dominion lie started and then it spread all the way to Trump within a few days.

 

Eric Schurenberg (16:16.238)

That claim that Maria made on that Sunday morning ended up costing Fox three quarters of a billion dollars. Did Maria face any of those sanctions or criticism internal? Wow.

 

Brian Stelter (16:28.118)

Not that we know of no not that we know of it’s one of the mysteries of this story and it’s honestly one of the only Elements I couldn’t figure out for this book, you know, I’m very proud of the reporting in the book I think I’ve got a lot of new information But one thing I just could not figure out is why Fox has stuck with Maria Bartiromo After all they booted Lou Dobbs who was another Fox business host who was pushing these lies They booted him one day after getting sued by Smartmatic in 2020. They minimized, not minimized, they moved Jenny Impiro off of her own show, moved her onto a talk show, which felt internally like a demotion after she spread the big lie. But with Maria, she’s still doing exactly what she was doing years ago, and I don’t know why. Maybe Rupert Murdoch just really, really likes her. Maybe they fear what she would say if she wasn’t inside the tent. I don’t know, but it gets to that broader issue of accountability through the legal process, Dominion was able to win accountability. Through these indictments, you know, there are cases now that may or may not hold Trump accountable for his role. But accountability is the key. I think it’s the watchword here.

 

Eric Schurenberg (17:39.562)

Huh, interesting. Speaking of accountability, one other luminary at Fox, larger than life, Tucker Carlson, did end up losing his job. It’s a whole section of your book. To me though, Carlson’s Fall from Grace is still kind of murky. Have you had what was the most popular primetime cable news show? He was an idol to so many Americans?

So what happened here? Was he just too powerful for the powers that be at Fox? Or was there kind of too much dirt coming out of the demedian depositions?

 

Brian Stelter (18:21.89)

I think the answer is all of the above. I think the answer is all of the above. It wasn’t just one thing. It was everything. You know, yes, he was, you know, under scrutiny for his text messages where he was using the C-word and other insults against executives and staffers. Yes, some of his text messages also had an ugly racial connotation saying that’s not how white men fight. And yes, the Fox Board of Directors got involved looking at his messages, seeing what else is out there.

 

Eric Schurenberg (18:37.952)

Mm-hmm.

 

Brian Stelter (18:51.504)

producer of the show described a hostile workplace and yes, you know, yes, yes. Actually, in the book, I have a list of bullet points of all these different reasons why Fox could think about cutting Carlson loose. You know, he repulsed so many people. He created internal strife. He exposed Fox to defamation suits. He offended executives. He caused constant headaches and he repelled advertisers. Like, those are just some of them. And what I think is so interesting about Tucker is that he was portrayed, he was viewed up until the day he was ousted, he was viewed as invincible. He was viewed as irreplaceable. And that was partly an image of his own creation. He fostered this image of untouchability, that he was tight with the boss, he was friends with Lachlan Murdoch, and there was no way they’d ever cut him loose. And I think he did that because he was vulnerable.

I think he did that because he had been fired from CNN and from MSNBC. His shows there had ended. I think he went out there in a very savvy way and created this image of invincibility in order to cover up his vulnerability, if that makes sense.

 

Eric Schurenberg (19:56.234)

Hmm. Looking ahead to the future of Fox, Rupert has stepped down to a seemingly ceremonial role. How will things change? And then looking a little bit farther out, well, let’s talk about the first thing first. Rupert is now in a different role. He’s 90 plus. Will things change?

 

Brian Stelter (20:25.93)

You know, maybe around the edges, but I don’t think in any material way. Rupert is still vowing to be involved, even though he’s stepped off the board and he’s become chairman emeritus. What he’s really doing is really trying to signal that he really truly wants his son Lachlan to be in charge. He wants his son Lachlan to be in charge even after he dies. He doesn’t want a power struggle for control of Fox News. But that is what will happen in the event of Rupert’s death. But in the short term, for as long as Rupert is with us…

I don’t think we’re going to see dramatic changes on Fox News. After all, Rupert Murdoch, he vowed in 2021 to make Donald Trump a non-person. He said, we are pivoting away from Trump. He, he, he was even assured that Sean Hannity was on board to move Trump voters away from Trump. There was a very real effort to deplatform Trump. This was not a conspiracy theory. This was an actual conspiracy on the part of the Murdochs and others to move away from Donald Trump. And yet.

It didn’t work, it didn’t last. There are reasons why, but Rupert is now kind of sitting back, no longer a driver in the car, more of a passenger thinking, wow, we’re stuck with Trump. Like he’s going to be the nominee again. And in that way, I think Rupert is a diminished figure. He’s not the slayer of dragons, the maker of kings or the maker of presidents that he once was.

 

Eric Schurenberg (21:50.074)

Mm hmm. Perhaps the but the monster that they helped create has become too powerful.

 

Brian Stelter (21:55.086)

I think there’s a, I think there’s a widespread view that is the case, you know? Um, yeah.

 

Eric Schurenberg (22:01.194)

Um, stepping back from Fox, um, let’s talk about the media environment in general. The, in my conversations about people, uh, concerning trust in professional journalism, people often complain that they’re exhausted by partisan media. Just, I want to, uh, I want to network an organization that will just give me the news, um, in buried in that, I think is the assumption that

Yes, Fox News is conservative, but CNN or the New York Times are drastically progressive and you can’t trust them either. Now, you’ve worked at CNN, you’ve studied Fox. What would you say to that accusation of equivalency?

 

Brian Stelter (22:51.646)

I would say that we have to see and know and recognize and defend the difference between news coverage and advocacy, between news coverage and a commentary, between news coverage and everything else that exists, including entertainment and clickbait and talk shows and opinion and all the rest. And I say this with the acknowledgement that there were times on CNN where I was reporting the news one minute.

 

and then I was expressing the point of view another minute. That’s true, I acknowledge that. But I know the difference. And I think viewers know the difference. I think most viewers know the difference. By the way, viewers might prefer the point of view, but they know the difference. But we need to defend the difference, know the difference, and not let the two get, you know, become interchangeable and not let folks get fooled by people who are presenting propaganda, but claiming it’s news. So.

You know, to the equivalency point, here’s why Fox and CNN are completely different animals. They frankly should not exist together next to each other on cable. They should be in different parts of cable. Like Fox should be over with like HGTV or country music television, two great channels. It doesn’t belong as a CNN for the following reason. CNN has a global news infrastructure. Thousands of journalists around the world in dozens of bureaus gathering information.

Now you might say, well, they spend too much time talking about Trump. Okay, fine. But maybe they do, maybe they don’t. But they have this incredible infrastructure to gather information. Same for NBC, to some extent ABC and CBS, although they’ve cut back over the years. Think about the AP, think about Reuters, the Washington Post, the New York Times. These are brands that go out every day and try to gather raw materials, gather raw information. And they have a lot of people out there doing it.

The difference with Fox is that it has a very small news operation. It’s actually gathering information. And then it has a really big talk show operation that talks about the news. And I would suggest that it kind of works more like this. Instead of gathering, instead of reporting the news, they’re complaining about other people reporting the news and they’re talking about their preferred version of the news. Like that it’s, it’s kind of like, um, consuming something that’s already been chewed for you. Like it’s regurgitated and spit back up. So that’s, that’s the difference. Now.

 

Brian Stelter (25:11.654)

I acknowledge that maybe the difference isn’t so obvious when you flip between the channels, right? They might look kind of similar. They might be covering the same story at any given time. But the recent episode in Niagara Falls, you know, proves this point perfectly, sadly, but really. A freak accident, a tragedy, a husband and wife killed, car goes out of control, crashes, blows up. Fox News immediately reported that it was a terrorist attack.

A young reporter cited her sources who said attempted terrorist attack, a car full of explosives. This was a terrifying breaking news story on the day before Thanksgiving. This was an emergency for the country. Someone at the northern border trying to attack the United States with a car full of explosives. That’s what Fox News said over and over and over again for hours. And then when they started to backtrack, they blamed their sources, kind of blamed the reporter. And they said, you know, whoops, oops, sorry. We got it.

They didn’t even actually didn’t even say sorry. They just backtracked quietly and moved on. That would not happen at CNN. Well, gosh, if it did happen, it would be a failure of a whole entire system because there’s a system in place to go through those sources, to vet the sources, to have a conversation with senior editors ahead of time before going on the air and saying, a terrorist attack just occurred at the border. Same for ABC, same for the AP, same for NBC.

The difference with Fox is there isn’t that system. There isn’t that checks and balances operation. And the thing about a system, Eric, is like it can still fall apart, right? It can still fail, but at least there’s a system in place to check a system that tries to get it right, has accountability when you get it wrong. I always call back to when I worked for the New York Times and I was a 22 year old reporter. And if I wrote a story, let’s say I wrote a front page story and super proud of it. My editor worked hard on it. We sold it, we got it on the front page.

And then I go in the next morning, I realize it’s a mistake in that story. Not only are we gonna run a correction and we’re gonna email the bosses about it so everyone is aware that I screwed up. We’re also gonna sit down in his office with my editor, we’re gonna have an awkward conversation about how did I screw that up? Like, what did I get wrong? How did I get that wrong? And I remember so vividly those meetings. Thankfully, it only happened a few times, you know? But it’s like getting your wrist slapped, you know, without any physical slapping, like.

 

Brian Stelter (27:32.798)

You feel it. When you screw up, when a journalist screws up, they feel it, they feel the consequence of it. And, you know, same for me at CNN. I think the difference with Fox is it’s just built in. Oh yeah, they’re gonna screw up, they’re gonna lie, they’re gonna claim it’s an attack, they’re gonna scare the bejesus out of their viewers. Sorry for the long answer, but I think that’s the difference.

 

Eric Schurenberg (27:53.802)

I think one of the worries about the information environment right now is that those systems that you and I grew up with at the beginning of our career have been weakened by the kind of hollowing out of the business model for mainstream media. So the internet has stolen advertising dollars and sent it to platforms like Google and Facebook.

 

Brian Stelter (28:13.054)

Right.

 

Eric Schurenberg (28:20.186)

and newsrooms have shrunk. I presided over the decline of at least half of my news staff at Money Magazine and the Bureau of Labor Statistics counts 55% fewer reporters at newspapers compared to 2005. That must mean, I would think, less fact checking, less coverage of stories and a kind of attenuation of the system.

Do you, did you see that at CNN and is that a concern of yours?

 

Brian Stelter (28:52.498)

I didn’t see it at CNN. I think CNN has been protected in large part from those cuts and that decline. But it is very real and it is happening and it’s happening especially at the local level. And it’s something that we have to both be aware of and fight back against. And how do we fight back? We fight back by paying, by being part of the solution, by subscribing, by paying for local news, by putting our money where our mouths are.

 

Eric Schurenberg (29:04.493)

Mm.

 

Brian Stelter (29:19.811)

But it is a very real dynamic. And, but you know, here’s the thing. I’m thinking about my local paper. You were kind enough to take me up flying over rural New Jersey, where I live earlier this year. You know, when you’re up 2000 feet in the sky, you get a different perspective on things. I think you know that better than I. You’re able to see connections and commonalities and you’re able to kind of maybe shrug off some of the craziness and the noise on the ground. Here’s what I think about when I think about my local paper in that rural New Jersey locale. They wrote a story that mentioned me one day and it said, CNN anchor Brian Stelter, as if I was still at CNN and was missing the word former, right, or fired. I love the word. I love that. And I was thinking to myself, you know,

 

Eric Schurenberg (30:06.422)

Mm-hmm.

 

Brian Stelter (30:10.098)

I could look at this, this mistake, I could ask for a correction. I could look at this and it could make me distrust the media. I could look at this and say, ah, they can’t even get my title right. You know, I could look at this with disdain and I could cancel my subscription. Or I could do what I did and say, kind of funny, journalists are human. We’re all flawed, we all make mistakes. But they try and they covered the event. I was glad they were there and we’re better off for having that writer there.

And, you know, it’s almost a matter of like how you approach it. If you are out there looking for evidence that the media is, you know, is a destructive force, the enemy of the people, you know, just hurting everyone, you can find it. You can, every day, you can find it a hundred times, a hundred more examples of the evil media. Or you could look at it the way I do and say, we’re all human, we’re all flawed, we’re all, most of us, trying to do right.

 

Eric Schurenberg (30:43.722)

Hmm

 

Brian Stelter (31:08.398)

And then what you should do, and in my view, is reward the good faith actors. Reward the folks that are trying. And if you don’t think they’re trying very well, not doing very well, go do it yourself. Right? Go freelance. Go write a piece. Go report. Go create a startup. Go be a part of the solution. Now you’re going to say that’s way too Pollyanna-ish, but that’s how I really feel.

 

Eric Schurenberg (31:32.138)

How do you advise people to get at the truth? The information environment is kind of a hairball. So there are, in this world, this world we live in, the professional journalists are only one source of information. There are all the, there are, I mean, not to put too fine a point on it, but there are, you know, troll farms in St. Petersburg, Russia, and in Tehran. There are… crazy uncles spreading things on Facebook and the origin of those things are not always clear. How would you advise people to curate a trustworthy newsfeed?

 

Brian Stelter (32:13.302)

Yeah, look, as we’re talking, we’re taping this on a morning where Elon Musk, the most powerful figure out there, the controller, the owner of X, the site that he renamed from Twitter, this morning he woke up and he posted a absolutely crazy meme that imagined this conspiracy theory called Pizzagate might actually be real and that maybe there was someone that was trying to blow the whistle.

 

Brian Stelter (32:43.43)

It makes a sane person feel crazy. It’s true with a lot of these stories. You have the richest person in the world imagining that this conspiracy theory about child trafficking and pedophiles is actually real. And where did he get it from? He got it from some liar in his social feed.

People like Elon Musk believe that they don’t need real media, real news coverage, real newsrooms. They believe they can just wing it, do it themselves, and follow people on their social feeds, and that’s going to get them to the truth. And what it really ends up doing is it really just ends up distorting and deceiving the end user. They end up deceiving themselves. It goes back to the sense of Fox disrespecting its audience. When you go out every day and say the other side’s not just wrong but evil, perverted, you know, demonic. That does a disservice to the audience. Makes it harder to talk to each other. Makes it harder to have relationships. Makes it harder to connect with family. Makes it harder to have a real life outside your virtual bubble. Which is why the answer to your question is, don’t rely on those feeds. Don’t rely on the algorithm that’s gonna tell you the thing that’s gonna make you angry and resentful and bitter.

Instead, in this environment full of dis and misinformation, even being spread by some of the richest and most powerful people in the world, we actually have to, I think, go back to the basics, go back to the old line, old school news outlets that have been around for decades, that are at least trying. Because I think the big line we should draw, Eric, is the line between places that are trying to get it right versus those that don’t give a damn. And that goes back to the Niagara Falls story about Fox. It goes to a lot of the stories in this environment.

Places that are flawed but trying, they’re not perfect. And again, it goes to my local paper. It’s like my local paper getting my own title wrong. Like I’m a proud subscriber. That’s okay, they’re flawed, but they’re trying. Versus the fake news website that said that when I was fired by CNN, I was arrested by the military and sent to Guantanamo Bay and executed. That website is, which is to me hilarious, but also kind of scary that someone might believe it. That website is not, you know, no one…

 

Brian Stelter (34:56.89)

you know, I hope no one ever falls for it, but I think some people did. That’s not a that’s not a, you know, a site that’s trying to get to the truth. And so I think that’s the big bright line we have to draw between places that are trying versus those that aren’t trying at all. And once you do that, once you’re able to know, once you’re able to like, you know, it’s almost like a kind of say walled garden. Is that the right phrase? If you if you if you have a castle and you kind of got a wall around it.

 

Eric Schurenberg (35:17.718)

Hmm.

 

Brian Stelter (35:22.926)

There’s still gonna be bad stuff that happens on the inside. You know, there’s still gonna be thieves and stuff on the inside of those walls. But at least there’s people trying, there’s a police force, I don’t know. I’m butchering the analogy. The whole thing about that castle with the wall, the walled garden is you can go out, you can go out into the wild, wild west. You can go out into the, you know, into the rest of the internet where you don’t know what’s gonna be believable. But at least inside the walls, people are trying. And that’s, I guess, my defense, my attempt at a defense of old school newsrooms and old school journalism values not gonna always get it right, not gonna always get it complete. Stories are gonna be biased, they’re gonna be incomplete, they’re gonna be flawed, but at least the APs and the Reuters and the New York Times and the Washington Post and the Boston Globes are trying. And that’s, I think, all we can seek out in this environment. To me, that’s a hopeful take. I hope it doesn’t sound like a pessimistic take.

 

Eric Schurenberg (36:13.266)

All right, well, I love it as a recovering journo myself who was schooled the same way you were. And I know how hard we tried at Ink and Fast Company and every place I’ve worked and I’ve observed my colleagues at other places. I know what you mean. But for someone who is looking from the outside and someone who is not immune to claims that… media are the enemy of the people or that the system is corrupt. How do you identify, how do you pick out the organizations that are trying from those that aren’t?

 

Brian Stelter (36:49.27)

Right.

 

Brian Stelter (36:52.598)

You know, I think it’s, I think the answer begins with the brands that we’ve grown up with. Because if a brand has been around 50 or 100 years, it has a track record, it has credibility, it has, and you know, again, it’s not always 100% the case, obviously, Sports Illustrated, a famous, prestigious brand is in hot water right now using AI and the stories that are inaccurate. Like, there’s, again, always gonna be flaws, but, we can at least start with brands that have been around a long time that have staying power. And then on top of that, newer ones like Politico and Axios that have not been around for 50 years, but which have proven themselves by showing up every day, by attending press conferences, by breaking stories, by dominating their industries. I think that’s where it starts. I think that’s where it starts is places that have proven, proven themselves have staying power.

And frankly, I think it’s the names that most people know. At least news junkies know the big brand names.

 

Eric Schurenberg (37:58.23)

Mm-hmm. Just looking out over the environment now, the, to me, mysterious hold that, say, Fox has over the minds of millions of Americans, are you optimistic or pessimistic about our future and the odds of getting back to that shared reality that we once had?

 

Brian Stelter (38:27.294)

Well, I guess I’m hesitating because I think that there’s a segment of the population that is mostly older, white, Christian conservative, that is mostly peeled off from the American media. And what I mean by that is, you know, they’re not, they’ve opted out. They’ve gone with the Trump view, the cult-like view that…

You can only trust what Trump and his approved sources say. And I’m not sure they’re winnable. I’m not sure they’re gettable. I don’t think if you’re CNN or you’re ABC, you’re gonna necessarily win those viewers or voters back. But that’s not a majority. In fact, it’s not even a majority of the Republican Party. The average Republican voter, the average conservative, the average moderate in this country, I believe…

And you know, y’all can email me. I mentioned my address, Beastelter or Gmail. Tell me if I’m naive. I’m the average voter still wants to know what is true in the world. Wants to know what is real in the world. And you know, that doesn’t mean they’re gonna necessarily trust CNN to tell them. Not gonna necessarily trust the New York Times to tell them. I think they should, but that’s okay. But they wanna know what is going on. They don’t wanna just be fed garbage. They wanna know the actual winner of an election.

They don’t want to be fed some fantasy about what might have happened, what could have happened in some dream state. So, you know, with that in mind, I’m optimistic that, uh, there are more, you know, good, decent people out there who want to know what is good and, and push the country forward. But I say that with the asterisk or with the caveat that there are some very loud voices on the fringe, on the far right that have opted out that are not, that are not existing in this, uh, in this, you know…

There are, if you, if you like Tucker Carlson, you know, believe the greatest issues, you know, afflicting humanity are a relatively small number of people who are engaged in a conversation about gender identity and, you know, and transgender rights. If you believe that, you know, that like, if there are certain, you know, the Tucker Carlson wing is not gonna come back to, subscribe to the New York Times. I get that, I get that. But I-

 

Brian Stelter (40:43.754)

I guess I’m trying to say that’s not the average voter. It’s not the average consumer. Most people just want to know what is true. And by the way, Eric, and one more positive or optimistic thought, like, there are so many casual news consumers who aren’t even really engaging at all most of the time. And that’s where I see opportunity. It’s not necessarily to super serve news junkies who are already getting a steady diet of all this coverage. I’m really interested now in what’s the average 35 year old who doesn’t really care about politics, who’s turned off to it all. I think there’s gotta be ways to reach those folks. And that’s not really a conversation about bias or extremism, that’s a conversation about, let’s start the story at the beginning. Let’s not start the story in the middle, assuming that everybody already knows who Mike Johnson is, Speaker of the House. Let’s start the story with, what does the Speaker of the House do? You know, and I think there’s a big opportunity for news coverage that is more, meets people where they are, as opposed to assuming that they’ve been living in this muck for years like you and I have. But I don’t know, that’s just my startup. You know, in the back of my head, I wonder, hmm, what would that look like?

 

Eric Schurenberg (41:52.466)

Interesting, interesting. Well, when that startup gets traction, we’ll have to have you back on Brian.

 

Brian Stelter (41:59.25)

If it does.

 

Eric Schurenberg (42:00.91)

I love the sound of it. And I also totally subscribe to what you just said, the thrust that one of the most powerful human drivers in all of this information environment is people’s desire not to be somebody’s fool. And so you, yep.

 

Brian Stelter (42:17.63)

Yeah, people don’t want to be bamboozled. They don’t want to be deceived. They don’t want to be tricked. Like they, yeah, 100%.

 

Eric Schurenberg (42:24.914)

Yeah, I think that’s a great place to leave it. Brian Selter, thank you for this conversation. It was wonderful, amusing, and wise as just as I expected. Thanks for being on the show.

 

Brian Stelter (42:36.034)

Thank you. Thanks so much.


Created & produced by: Podcast Partners / Published: Dec 5 2023


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