‘Standing up for facts’ can seem anti-Trump, says ‘Reliable Sources’ host Brian Stetler

Brian Stetler
Brian Stetler

When CNN’s Brian Stelter visited Yale on March 28, his Sunday morning show, “Reliable Sources,” had just played host to the viral version of an age-old debate: Is journalism a form of activism? That day, the question had to do with journalists’ coverage of the American gun control debate after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. But it’s also a question Stelter and journalists from all publications and networks confront daily during the Trump presidency, he said.

At a talk sponsored by the Poynter Fellowship in Journalism, Stelter helped attendees understand the challenges that the past few years have represented for journalists. There’s fake news, Stelter said, although “it’s not as simple as real and fake news.” He defined the terms he uses: Misinformation is “false but not necessarily intended to cause harm,” although it’s still dangerous. Disinformation, meanwhile, is “designed to cause harm.” Finally, there’s mal-information, which is “not wrong, it’s just misused” — accurate information that “gets twisted and contorted.”

Some fake news is propaganda; some is just used by Internet trolls to rile people up, said Stelter, noting that the job of journalists is to parse through all of this and find the truth. “It’s such a great opportunity for journalists,” he said, “if we’re up for it.”

During the talk, Stelter, who reports on the media for CNN, picked up his phone often and scrolled through Twitter, keeping tabs on his over half a million followers. Stelter’s job is to report on how other reporters cover the news of the day. In the Trump era, he said, the challenge for journalists is to keep the conversation centered on the facts, even when the president describes any critical coverage as fake news. Trump has made America have a serious conversation about journalism, Stelter said, and that’s “an opportunity for us to explain how we do it.” But one difficulty is that “journalists are standing up for facts and basic American values,” Stelter explained, and “that can be perceived as anti-Trump.”

The debate about journalism came to this stage in New Haven with an unexpected participant: Rebecca Schneid, a junior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and one of the editors of the school’s newspaper. On Stelter’s Sunday show, Schneid had set off a firestorm by equating journalism with activism. At the Poynter event — which she attended while on a campus visit to Yale — Stelter let Schneid speak for herself.

Journalism elevates the voices of different people,” Schneid said, and journalists choose whose voices they think are important to elevate. “It’s like a live edition of ‘Reliable Sources,’” Stelter said.

Jenifer Fenton, Yale’s 2017-2018 Poynter Fellow in Residence, asked Stelter why he thinks the two stories with the most staying power in the Trump administration have been Harvey Weinstein and the #MeToo movement, and the Parkland shooting. The reason, he explained, is that the victims are speaking. But also, Stelter added, “Weinstein broke through because journalists were advocating for something.” Ronan Farrow, who reported a story about Weinstein for the New Yorker, wanted “a more fair society for victims of sexual assault,” Stelter said.

Fenton asked Stelter: How do you show both sides, “if the other side is crazy lies?”

We’ve got to have the backbone not to turn it into a ‘both sides’ argument,” Stelter said. One right-wing critique of mainstream media has been the decision not to give airtime to people who tell lies and conspiracy theories. Journalists can’t let left-wing conspiracy theorist off the hook, Stelter said, but the difference with Trump is that he’s in power. “It does put us in more of an advocacy position — more of an assertive position than the CNNs of the world are used to,” he admitted.

Inevitably, the conversation turned to the 2016 election. Stelter noted with a laugh that he used the term “fake news” before Trump, who didn’t use it until December, after the election. But Stelter’s biggest regret of the campaign had nothing to do with Trump, he said. “My regret is not taking Bernie Sanders seriously enough. We just ignored the Democrats — that was the mistake.” But, he contended, there was no conspiracy on the part of the mainstream media to elect Clinton. He urged journalists to go back to those hectic months and re-read and re-assess their work.

His outlook for America in the age of fake news is not totally upbeat, he admitted: “It will get worse at least for a while.” But, he said, “I think there’s more of us” — referring to people who care about the truth. He said we might see some changes — for instance, Stelter expects future successful candidates to adopt the entertainment antics of Trump — but he thinks the truth will triumph. In the meantime, he’ll be on Twitter.

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