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News-About-the-News News: CNN Hires Brian Stelter As Reliable Sources Host

The media reporter will leave the New York Times, which will free him to cover that newspaper's controversies. Will he be as free to critique CNN?

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Brian Stelter
Rob Kim / FilmMagic / Getty Images

Brian Stelter attends the premiere of "Blackthorn" on Sept. 29, 2011, in New York City

Big news in the news-about-the-news business this morning: CNN has hired New York Times media reporter Brian Stelter as permanent host of Reliable Sources, its Sunday morning media-news show. Reports of the imminent hire came out in the LA Times last night, and CNN and Stelter both confirmed the news this morning.

Stelter had been guest-hosting Reliable on and off since longtime host Howard Kurtz left earlier this year. (Kurtz now hosts the competing show on Fox News.) Now he’ll be a full-time CNN reporter, not just hosting the show but appearing elsewhere on CNN and all its associated properties. And it caps off a big year for Stelter–all of 28 years old–whose book Top of the Morning about the network morning shows (in particular, the operatic trouble at Today) came out earlier this year.

Stelter will leave the Times, where his career had rocketed upward since he was hired there after having founded the TVNewser blog when still just a student. (Stelter, an early and avid user of social media, might help broaden Reliable beyond its old-school media focus.) It’s a loss for the Times (outsiders had anointed Stelter as a future leader of the Times, if not its top editor someday), but it’s probably for the best. The leading newspaper is deeply bound up in the issues Reliable Sources covered, and working for both outlets would create immense potential conflicts both ways. Kurtz kept his day job at the Washington Post the entire time he hosted Reliable and never shook the appearance that he was pulling punches on one outlet while covering it for the other.

The remaining question is whether and how Stelter will cover CNN on its own air. I wouldn’t blame him if he preferred not to, or to outsource that work. As media critic at Time, I’ve always had a hands-off policy, mostly for practical reasons. I think that kind of job is better done by an independent ombudsman not directly working for the outlet and its editors (like the Public Editor position at the New York Times). If I ever praised or supported Time on a controversy, my opinion would be immediately dismissed because Time pays my salary; and the way I see it, I can’t really cover a news outlet if I can’t both criticize and praise it with equal credibility.

But my job’s different, since I’m both a TV critic and media critic–and most times of the year, the TV part of my job takes up much more of my time. (And covering print media takes up even less.) Stelter will be covering all news media, all of the time (more or less) and CNN is by nature implicated in just about any major media issue or news story you can think of. Reliable couldn’t fairly critique Fox and MSNBC without grilling CNN too. And a media-criticism show that doesn’t cover cable news would be… well, not really a media-criticism show at all. It’s tough to fairly critique big TV news within big TV news, which is why the best and toughest media criticism on TV has lately come from outsiders like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.

Stelter set a good precedent in September, however, when CNN “clarified” its policy about disclosing hosts’ political contributions, in a way that seemed to obscure the conflicts of its new Crossfire hosts including Newt Gingrich. Stelter aired a commentary on Reliable that called out CNN plainly and harshly: “CNN can do better,” he said. Here’s hoping that, with his hire, CNN is doing just that.

(Disclosure: I’ve been on Reliable Sources several times in the past, once while Stelter was guest-hosting; CNN is a sister company of Time’s, though that relationship will end when Time Inc. is spun off from Time Warner next year.)