TV reporter and book author Brian Stelter isn’t supposed to write about cable news, given his recent try-out as the new host of CNN’s Reliable Sources, where Howard Kurtz policed the media (well, tried to) before signing with Fox News. But on Monday the Times published Stelter’s report on the cable news upstart Al Jazeera America, citing its executives’ plan to usurp established channels (such as Stelter’s potential employer). And today Stelter reported on Al Jazeera’s litigation against AT&T for dropping the network. Has a would-be media cop lost track of his own conflicted interests?
In the run-up to Stelter’s Reliable Sources audition on August 11, Times editor Philip Corbett told the Washington Post that Stelter “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.”
“Related topics” would seem to include Al Jazeera America. Indeed, Stelter’s Monday piece included two references to CNN, which Stelter describes as a “would-be competitor” to the new channel. After the story appeared, Stelter was immediately accused of favoritism by an Al Jazeera executive:
@AlanFisher i hear ya — normally i'd hide behind some "protecting sources" veil, but in this case, i'll be explicit — it wasn't CNN.— Brian Stelter (@brianstelter) August 20, 2013
(Stelter isn’t yet drawing a paycheck from CNN—he and the other reporters competing in the bake-off for Kurtz’s empty seat weren’t paid for their guest-hosting duties.)
When asked about his current arrangement in light of his Al Jazeera coverage, Stelter told Gawker:
Fair question. Yes, I’m still abstaining from writing NYT stories about CNN for the time being, because it doesn’t feel right to me. The carve-out that I described to Erik Wemple here included CNN, Fox News and MSNBC, since those are the three big cable news channels in the U.S. (Unmentioned, but also included in my own thinking about this, is HLN, since it’s also owned by CNN. I also abstained from covering Time Warner’s quarterly earnings earlier this month.)
Stelter deferred questions about his Al Jazeera coverage to the Times' media editor Bruce Headlam, who explained that Al Jazeera is not yet competing with CNN:
You raise an interesting point. I didn’t consider Al Jazeera a competitor to CNN et al at this point — it’s taking over a channel with only about 25,000 viewers or so, it's not competing for talent or ad dollars yet. In five years, or even two, it might be in a very different position.
But this line — that Al Jazeera isn’t competing with CNN on talent or ad buys because of its smaller audience (which is technically Current’s old audience) — is contradicted by the Times’s own reporting. The very first person to appear on Al Jazeera America yesterday afternoon, Stelter reported today, was “former CNN anchor Tony Harris,” whom Al Jazeera lured away in 2010. Al Jazeera has been stealing staff from other networks for quite awhile. At the same time, the Times, and Stelter in particular, is positioned to influence the success or failure of Al Jazeera America. Look at what came of Current TV.
In a follow-up email, Headlam backtracked a bit:
We realize that there are lots of other cable channels competing for viewers’ attention, Al Jazeera included, and many of them feature news, like ESPN or E!. Perhaps we sliced this too narrowly and it’s worth another conversation. But that was our decision.
As far as conflicts of interests go, Stelter’s is far from the largest, and (as Headlam suggests) not exactly clear-cut. Yet even a whiff of ethical ambiguity could be compromising for the hopeful host of a show that collects and broadcasts judgment on other media outlets for falling short of journalistic standards. Sure, former Reliable Sources host Howard Kurtz had so many conflicts of interest that nobody took him that seriously (until he messed up). But nobody, least of all CNN, wants another Kurtz.
[Image via CNN]