Writing beyond his years

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Over its first five months, a new Web site based in Maryland has won attention and kudos within the cable news world by tracking the industry's bombshells and minutiae. Hirings, firings, insights from news executives, differences in coverage - little escapes the notice of cablenewser.com.

The site's operator, Brian Stelter, loves cable news channels and disdains the old-fashioned news divisions of broadcast television. "They're irrelevant," he confides. Fans include on-air figures such as Fox News Channel's Greta Van Susteren. E-mails have poured forth from executives and journalists at all the major cable news networks - Fox, CNN and MSNBC.

It costs Stelter just $11 a month to maintain the site, which is probably a good thing, because he still lives with his mother, a nurse, in Damascus, Md., when he's not at school. Stelter is an 18-year-old sophomore at Towson University.

That revelation came as a shock to many of his competitors and readers.

"With the depth, professionalism and insider nature of his news posts, I had assumed that he was some thirtysomething (or older) former CNNer or Fox News employee," Dave Hughes, a freelance technical writer who runs the regional television and radio Web site DCRTV.net, writes during an e-mail interview. Hughes, who is 46, notes ruefully that he's old enough to be Stelter's father.

"It's a one-stop shop for all the news about cable television," says Dominic Bellone, a producer for MSNBC's Hardball, who says he visits the site two or three times daily. "I haven't seen a whole lot of other reporting that does exactly what Brian does."

I had tried to coax the writer behind "Cablenewser" into the open for weeks, but Stelter, it turns out, has media savviness beyond his years - he would not disclose his identity until a profile of him could be published a few days ago by The New York Times.

Stelter, who speaks with utter self-assurance in a very gentle voice, says he first started blogging at age 10 about children's books and video games, but got caught up in the joy of writing and observation. An interest in journalism - especially television news - followed.

With the advent of MSNBC in 1996, Brian Williams became 10-year-old Stelter's favorite anchor - in no small part because they shared the same first name. Older television newsies think back to when Walter Cronkite, blinking back tears, noted the precise time of the announcement of President John F. Kennedy's death. Stelter thinks back to Williams' coverage of Princess Diana's death in 1997.

The Web part came easily to Stelter, who designed his high school's Web page and then worked for the Montgomery County schools' site. Now, he's news editor of the Towerlight, Towson University's student newspaper. And he's working this summer as an intern for the Montgomery Gazette.

That's a far cry from his daily criticism about coverage of war and other issues by nationally known media outlets. It takes him less than a minute to plunk something he's found onto his site. Just before 9 a.m. yesterday, Stelter posted this blurb: "Peterson Media Circus: So Scott Peterson's trial begins today, as the cable news networks are reminding us constantly. Let's watch and see what channel decides to milk the story the most."

Stelter loves CNN anchor Aaron Brown for his heartfelt daily e-mails to viewers, but despises CNN's news program aimed at younger viewers: Anderson Cooper 360: "It's fun to watch, but you don't really come away feeling really informed. The more I watched cable, the more I realized the value of newspapers."

After Rick Kaplan was named the new president of MSNBC, Stelter ran a contest for the best suggestions to rescue the poorly rated cable channel. In recent days, Cablenewser.com included excerpts of comments of Richard Parsons, the CEO for CNN parent company Time Warner, who predicts that one of the broadcast networks will "outsource" its newsgathering operations. And he noted - with caveats - Fox News' claims that it has solved the mystery of Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa's disappearance.

"Basically, he shows good news judgment," says New York University professor Jay Rosen, who runs the media criticism Web site pressthink.org.

While he reads articles from many publications and watches a fair amount of television, Stelter's digging is done primarily through a relatively simple search through Google to trap any story with CNN, MSNBC or Fox in the headline. But it is his own touch - the story selection and well-crafted asides - that has won him fans. On a typical day, Cablenewser.com generates 3,500 hits, he says. On the day of the Times article, visits spiked above 8,000. Much of that traffic comes from people working for major media companies, he finds. And he's started to consistently receive tips from people inside the industry.

Stelter is widely credited as steering clear of the ideological slants that typify much Internet commentary - such as the liberalism of Mediamatters.org or the conservatism of the Media Research Center at mrc.org. But in late April, Stelter headed up Interstate 83 to protest at the Baltimore County headquarters of the Sinclair Broadcast Group.

Sinclair had decided to pull an installment of Nightline devoted to reading the names of U.S. troops killed in Iraq from its seven ABC stations because, the corporation's CEO announced, it represented a blatantly antiwar gesture.

He made placards denouncing the decision and left them in the Sinclair parking lot. "It was kind of silly," Stelter says now. "It was my way of venting at Sinclair for what I saw as clear censorship. It's really weird to know that evil operation is only 10 minutes away."

Stelter's great hope is to become a multimedia reporter - someone who can report online, on television, and then in print. "If I've proved anything over the past five months, it's, in the words of the clichM-i, that age is just a number," Stelter says.

His admirers wouldn't bet against him. "I predict big things for Brian," says Hughes of DCRTV.net. And apparently Hughes thinks my job's not safe, either: "He might even be the media columnist at The Baltimore Sun in the not-too-distant future!"

Questions? Comments? Story ideas? David Folkenflik can be reached by e-mail at david.folkenflik@baltsun.com or by phone at 410-332-6923.

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