NEW YORK — On March 3, the day Brian Stelter was scheduled to take part in a Columbia Journalism School panel discussion on Trump and the media, he sent his first tweet at 6:04 a.m.
By the time he sat down for the 10:30 a.m. talk, the CNN senior media correspondent had published 20 tweets. He tweeted while waiting for the conversation to begin. He tweeted when it was over. He tweeted as it was happening.
Stelter, who at 31 is in his third year of hosting a Sunday morning show on CNN after a 6½ -year stint at the New York Times, which followed the sale of a remarkably successful blog he started in college, is capable of a great deal. But there is one thing, it seems, that he struggles to do: turn it off.
Especially now, when he has become a ubiquitous presence on the cable network, when more viewers than ever are tuning in to his show, “Reliable Sources,” and when 477,000 followers stand ready to receive his daily onslaught of tweets. Now, when the topics at hand are fake news, freedom of the press and the role of journalism in a democracy.
At Columbia, Stelter told the audience that his whole career was preparation for this moment.
“I feel like everything up until Election Day was rehearsal,” he said. “I was just practicing. It was just warm-up for this act.”
But that was an understatement. His whole life has been a warm-up for this act.
As a kid in Damascus, Md., Stelter waited at the door every afternoon for his dad to get home. Then he would breathlessly relay the day’s news. Sometimes, he’d set up an anchor desk in the basement and read Associated Press wire copy into a camcorder.
When a blizzard hit, he’d take a measuring stick out into the yard and call in to WUSA 9 with his snow totals. “I’d get the biggest thrill when they would say ‘Brian in Damascus reports a foot on the ground,’ ” he says. “And I always felt like I was getting away with something, because they didn’t know I was 8 years old.”
In the mid-1990s, he taught himself how to code and set up a fan page for the children’s author R.L. Stine, of “Goosebumps” fame. Soon the website had tens of thousands of visitors a month, and Stelter was spending so many hours posting about the books that he no longer had time to enjoy them.
In middle school, he moved on to Nintendo games, often staying up late and racking up huge phone bills trying to call game developers in Tokyo about their latest releases. “My parents were very forgiving,” he says .
But Stelter’s life hit a breaking point during his sophomore year at Damascus High School. His dad, an appliance repairman, suffered a massive heart attack in the fall of 2000. He recovered enough to fulfill Stelter’s wish to go to the inauguration of George W. Bush but seven days later had a second heart attack that proved fatal.
Stelter knows that it sounds strange, but in many ways, he thinks of his career success as a result of his father’s death. “I feel like the [high] school collectively took a little more care of me after he died,” he says.
He threw himself into the school newspaper and TV club. Even then his appetite and ambition were outpaced only by his productivity. “He was just on fire,” says his school newspaper adviser, Cynthia Reilly. The summer before his senior year, she recalls, he independently wrote an exhaustive guidebook laying out the paper’s standards and style rules. “I said, ‘It’s fabulous, but you realize this is overwhelming for the other kids.’ ” They edited it down to a few key points.
After receiving a rejection from New York University, Stelter enrolled as a mass communications major at Towson University. He loved TV but thought it a safer bet to focus on print journalism. There were more jobs — and they didn’t require a full head of hair.
“This is exactly what I thought — that I didn’t have enough hair,” says Stelter, who was balding by the time he got to college. “Peter Jennings. Tom Brokaw. Dan Rather. Beautiful locks, beautiful heads of hair.”
In his freshman year, Stelter channeled his cable news obsession into a blog that tracked the industry’s ratings wars and personnel changes. Without revealing his name — or age — he made TVNewser into a must-read site for television professionals. Six months after it launched, he had an acquisition offer: Mediabistro bought the site in 2004 for $500. And, he says, paid him “beer money” to keep writing it.
After graduating in 2007, Stelter landed at the New York Times, which had written about his site. He floundered for a few months before finding his footing — and a mentor. In the 2011 documentary “Page One: Inside the New York Times,” veteran media correspondent David Carr refers to Stelter as “a robot created by the New York Times to destroy me.”
They were great friends and collaborators. “It was so important that David brought me under his wing and took me seriously as a reporter,” Stelter says of Carr, who died in 2015.
And when Stelter got the call for a CNN tryout, Carr knew that his protege would go if he got an offer. A kid who calls in snow totals doesn’t pass up a chance to be on the national news.
T he panel discussion at Columbia left Stelter running late for a staff meeting. The subway would be faster than a cab, he calculated, so he headed underground and walked to a specific spot in the middle of the platform that would maximize the efficiency of his exit. “I’m a nerd about these things,” he said.
After being approached by a middle-aged woman who asked if he was Michael Smerconish — “Close. Close. That’s a compliment,” he said of CNN’s other bald weekend host — Stelter started scrolling through Twitter.
The app, he says, is “the second most important relationship of my life.” And it led to the first. He met his wife, NY1 Traffic reporter Jamie (Shupak) Stelter, on the site. After following Jamie’s tweets during a blizzard in December 2010, he wrote a private message to Pat Kiernan, anchor of her morning show: “two innocent and unrelated questions: does jamie shupak have a boyfriend? and how often is she asked out by viewers?”
Stelter started using Twitter in 2008, and it quickly became integral to both his personal and his professional life. When he wanted to lose weight in 2010, he turned to Twitter to keep himself accountable — and shed 75 pounds.
It was also a fount of story ideas, leads and sources. That constant input is key when producing an output as large as Stelter’s. To his mind, he gets to be the host of “Reliable Sources” because he is CNN’s senior media correspondent. “I walked through a side door, as opposed to the front door — through reporting,” he explains. Which means that he needs to earn his job each week with original reporting.
Last year, he wrote 439 articles for CNN.com — a number he had at his fingertips because he compiles a list at the end of each year.
But writing stories, tweeting incessantly and hosting a weekly show didn’t feel like enough, so in November 2015, he started a nightly newsletter. Six days a week, after his wife goes to bed, he spends two to three hours drafting an exhaustive roundup of that day’s media news.
“He’s kind of a force of nature,” says Rich Barbieri, Stelter’s editor at CNNMoney.com. “There are reporters out there who just cannot turn their curiosity off. That’s Brian.”
During his first years at CNN, Stelter’s big stories were the Sony hack and network news coverage of a missing plane. Then came the 2016 presidential election and Donald Trump, a largely media creation who is now framing the media as the enemy.
“The stakes feel very high,” Stelter says.
He sees it as his job to explain to viewers how journalism works — why, for instance, a reporter might quote an anonymous source and how that source’s information is vetted. In granting “Reliable Sources” a Cronkite award this year, judges at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism referred to Stelter as a “one-man media literacy course.”
And apparently there is appetite for that course: The show’s February viewership grew by 50 percent compared with last year.
Barbieri thinks that’s because Stelter brings “so much knowledge and context and sophistication to the beat.” Stelter phrases it differently. Yes, he’s a journalist covering journalism. But at heart, he’s a fanboy, geeking out on his greatest obsession — and wanting to protect it from shoddy work or unwarranted attacks. “I think people can tell that I love this stuff,” he says.
But a disruption to Stelter’s focus is at hand. After a fertility struggle that included multiple miscarriages, he and his wife are expecting their first child in May.
“There is definitely something to his pace that will have to give,” says Jamie Stelter, chatting on the couch in their Manhattan condo, conveniently located within a five-minute walk of the CNN newsroom.
Sitting at the dining room table with his laptop, Stelter chimes in: “I think that having a baby is going to change my mind in so many ways. I have no idea how, but I’m looking forward to finding out.”
He looks up from the screen to add that after the baby arrives, “I know I’ll take a break.”
And then, as if pulled by a force as strong as gravity, his gaze returns to the computer.