July 23, 2013

Brian Stelter, a New York Times reporter covering television and digital media, will guest-host an edition of CNN’s Sunday program “Reliable Sources,” the media-watchdog show that longtime host Howard Kurtz recently left for a job with Fox News. In doing so, Stelter will join the likes of NPR’s David Folkenflik, CNN contributor John Avlon and others in CNN’s “Reliable Sources” bake-off.*

Stelter is a compelling candidate. He’s been on the media beat for nearly a decade, first as the founder of the site TVNewser and then, starting in 2007, as a media reporter at the New York Times. He breaks his share of TV-related stories, with a sub-specialty in morning programs, the topic of his 2013 book “Top of the Morning: Inside the Cutthroat World of Morning TV.” Perhaps equally important, Stelter is 27 and thus represents the demographic sweet spot for cable-TV news advertisers. Of Twitter followers, he has plenty — nearly 190,000, all of whom come in handy when promoting a niche cable show.

Paces in the “Reliable Sources” competition include a screen test in which candidates have to interview “pretend guests,” says Stelter. The purpose of the exercise, he says, is this: “They get to see if they like you and you get to see if you like them.”

Though Stelter has covered television throughout his young career, he says he’s never been gripped by notions that he could do it better than the people he writes about. “I hadn’t thought about hosting a show in part because there’s not shows to host,” he says, noting the paucity of media-related programming on television. During his “Reliable Sources” candidacy, conflict-of-interest considerations will keep him from covering CNN as well as other properties. “I don’t think I should write about Fox or MSNBC because they’re direct competitors,” he says.

Whatever the outcome of Stelter’s tryout, it’s unlikely to advance the story of the New York Times’s brain drain to television outlets. Earlier this year, the paper lost reporters Jeff Zeleny and Susan Saulny to ABC News and just last week lost statistician Nate Silver to ESPN-cum-ABC News. That’s not a trajectory for Stelter. “I would not leave the Times for a television job,” says Stelter. Perhaps that wouldn’t be an issue: Over his time hosting “Reliable Sources,” Kurtz held down full-time work covering the media and Washington, first at The Post and later at the Daily Beast/Newsweek, and contributed to the Daily Download. Over the years, he occasionally drew fire from critics for conflicts of interest stemming from his various loyalties.

On that question, New York Times’ associate managing editor for standards Philip Corbett writes via e-mail, “we’re dealing with it simply as a one-time thing, and Brian is avoiding covering CNN or related topics in the meantime. Anything beyond that is just hypothetical. But in general, I would not envision having a reporter take a paycheck from an outside company while also covering that company or its competitors for The Times.”

This coming Sunday’s guest host will be Frank Sesno, a former CNN journalist and current director of the school of media and public affairs at The George Washington University. Stelter will do Aug. 11.

*Upon Kurtz’s exit, The Erik Wemple Blog had a couple of pre-pre-preliminary interactions with CNN officials about this position, but they have not progressed.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.