The horribly timed defenestration of Brian Stelter

In the spring of 2018, CJR’s Pete Vernon profiled Brian Stelter, CNN’s chief media correspondent. It was the height of the Trump era, so the media—and Trump’s relentlessness in attacking it—was a major story, and Stelter was ubiquitous in covering and analyzing it. On the day Vernon spent with him, Stelter hosted his weekly TV show, Reliable Sources; sent out his influential daily newsletter of the same name; and appeared on other CNN shows, not to mention tweeting hyperactively. “I don’t want to waste the moment,” Stelter told Vernon. “I don’t want to waste a show, I don’t want to waste a newsletter edition, I don’t want to waste a day.”

Fast-forward four years and Stelter, suddenly, is out of time at CNN. Last week, the network abruptly canceled his show—the forthcoming episode, we were told, would be its last—and just like that, an omnivorous presence on the media beat was gone, at least for now. “It was a rare privilege to lead a weekly show focused on the press at a time when it has never been more consequential,” Stelter told NPR’s David Folkenflik, who broke the news of Stelter’s departure. He then promised that he would have more to say on air over the weekend.

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In the meantime, news reports and commentary pieces quickly swelled with speculation as to the reasons for Stelter’s ouster. Perhaps inevitably, a leading theory centrally involved Trump: strident criticism of the former president, of the type that Stelter often channeled on his show, was in vogue on CNN under its former leader, Jeff Zucker, but Zucker is gone now, and his successor, Chris Licht, seemingly wants less of it—as, reportedly, do CNN’s new corporate overlords at Warner Bros. Discovery, which finalized a merger earlier this year. (As I wrote recently, Licht’s plans for CNN remain somewhat unclear, though they have already included hosting more Republican guests and steering clear of framing that he thinks reads like Democratic Party talking points.) One name, aside from Trump’s, loomed especially large in reporting on Stelter’s exit: that of John Malone, a libertarian and key Warner Bros. Discovery shareholder who has argued very publicly that CNN has strayed too far from “actual journalism,” like they have at Fox. (“John Malone only watches CNN via Fox News,” a CNN staffer told Recode’s Peter Kafka last week. “If I watched CNN via Fox News, I would hate CNN, too.”) Malone denied any direct involvement in Stelter’s ouster—though he also volunteered, to the New York Times’ Benjamin Mullin, that he wants “the ‘news’ portion of CNN to be more centrist.” A source told Deadline’s Dominic Patten and Ted Johnson that even if Malone didn’t order Stelter’s ouster, “it sure represents his thinking.”

As Kafka noted, a different theory more centrally involves Batgirl and Scoob! Holiday Haunt than Trump: Stelter was on big bucks and Warner Bros. Discovery has been looking to cut costs (including by shelving the aforementioned films). CNN, for its part, has pushed back on both theories, both publicly—the network denied any pressure from management to cut staff and attributed the cancellation of Stelter’s show to a “refresh” of its Sunday lineup, which will soon boast new shows including a version of an interview program that Chris Wallace was hired to anchor on the CNN+ streaming service, prior to its rapid demise—and behind closed doors. Per Deadline, during a staff meeting on Friday, Licht “expressed some irritation over some media reports about CNN’s plans, characterizing them as incorrect assumptions.” Licht reportedly added that the scope of those plans is known only to a few top bosses, but that more changes are definitely coming soon, including some moves that staff “may not agree with or understand.”

It’s not clear that even Stelter knows exactly what happened to his show. Appearing on air for his final episode yesterday, Stelter let at least a hint of bemusement cut through his typical sunny demeanor as he noted that Reliable Sources was CNN’s longest-running show—it recently celebrated thirty years on air, nine of them with Stelter as host—and that its ratings were good. Later, during a panel discussion, he asked Claire Atkinson, a media correspondent at Insider, whether she had any reporting to share on the show’s cancellation; Atkinson, who had already raised Malone’s name, said she didn’t know if he was responsible for the decision but that his “centrist” quote to the Times was “interesting.” Stelter agreed. Several times, Stelter pledged to share more thoughts at the end of the show. When the time came, he did not unload (he even thanked Licht for “letting us say goodbye”), though he did deliver one notable remark. “It’s not partisan to stand up for decency and democracy and dialogue. It’s not partisan to stand up to demagogues. It’s required. It’s patriotic,” he said. “We must make sure we don’t give platforms to those who are lying to our faces. But we also must make sure we are representing the full spectrum of debate and representing what’s going on in this country and in this world. That’s why CNN needs to be strong. That’s why I believe CNN will always be strong.”

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Licht, of course, could publicly clear up his plans for CNN—and why exactly Stelter didn’t fit into them—any time he likes. For now, speculation about Trump, Malone, and Stelter’s perceived partisanship remains just that: speculation. But it’s fair to make a few observations here. First, as Kafka noted, the political and financial theories of Stelter’s exit are not mutually exclusive, and CNN’s stated explanation of a simple programming overhaul precludes neither. (I’d argue that the plan to shuffle in Wallace—who previously carved out a reputation as a straight-down-the-middle newsman at Fox—makes its own statement about CNN’s current priorities, but we’ll have to wait and see how the new lineup shakes out in full.) And, even if CNN is undergoing broader change, it’s fair to ask what message axing Stelter’s show sends, both in general and as the first high-profile programming decision of the Licht era.

For one, the cancellation of Reliable Sources would seem to send a troubling message about how CNN’s new bosses view the worth of media criticism and reporting, exercises that are often dismissed as niche and insular but are actually—as Stelter has often noted, including in his valedictory appearance yesterday—vital in holding a highly powerful industry to account. Stelter is not perfect in this regard—critics (myself included) were not always enamored of how he covered stories about his own network, for instance—but he has notable strengths, not least his unsparing scrutiny of poison on Fox News, about which he wrote a book. And, both on his show and in his newsletter, he engaged with other voices’ critiques of the mainstream media that don’t always get a hearing in the mainstream media (even as some on the left dismissed him as a Republican stooge). David Sirota, a left-wing journalist and former top Bernie Sanders adviser, noted that an appearance on Stelter’s show last year was “one of the few times I’ve ever been on TV and been allowed to talk about corporate media outlets omitting coverage of their sponsors buying lawmakers.” (For my part, I was grateful and surprised when, last year, Stelter invited me to tape a half-hour podcast discussion about the iniquitous representation of global media at the COP26 climate summit.)

Media reporting and criticism will continue under CNN’s banner in some form: the network’s journalists will continue to cover the press online and, presumably, as guests on other hosts’ shows as news allows; the Reliable Sources newsletter, meanwhile, will relaunch, after a brief hiatus, under Oliver Darcy, a CNN media reporter with a similar sensibility to Stelter’s, especially where Fox is concerned. (The newsletter will be “unflinching in its coverage,” Darcy has pledged. “You have my word on that.”) Still, Stelter’s exit and the cancellation of Reliable Sources, the TV show, undoubtedly add up to a significant retrenchment. Reserving even one weekly hour of cable airtime—a finite commodity, unlike the internet—to let the media examine itself was, at the very least, a symbolic statement about the value of self-examination, and of placing it squarely in front of viewers who might not otherwise give much thought to the way the press works. Muddying that statement would have been sad at any moment. At this moment, it’s unjustifiable.

And, whatever the true reasons behind Stelter’s exit, the context and manner in which it has rolled out have at least allowed for the impression that it’s a sop to those who view holding Trump strongly accountable as too close to a form of partisanship that has no place in balanced journalism. (Right-wingers—not least Trump himself—certainly view Stelter’s exit as a victory.) When I wrote recently about Licht’s early days at CNN, I noted that the few public clues we had as to his intentions offered room for both optimism (that he would dial down reflexive bombast and elevate reporting over punditry) and pessimism (that, in doing so, he would retreat to both-sidesy, centrist triangulation); it remains too early to judge his tenure, but Stelter’s ouster is a big new clue, and it does not fall on the “optimism” side of the ledger. During the panel discussion on his show yesterday, Stelter asked his guests to weigh in on whether CNN being centrist and just stating the facts would really be so bad, and two of them—David Zurawik and Eric Deggans—took the opportunity to note that facts, especially these days, aren’t enough without context. If this wasn’t an explicit rebuke of CNN’s possible direction, you could sense one not too far beneath the surface. The public needs “free and fearless exploration, even when you have to look hard at a political party or look hard at a political candidate and say this person is breaking the law or breaking norms,” Deggans said. “Will CNN have the courage to do that? I hope so.”

The irony in Stelter’s portrayal, on the right and among some in the center, as a partisan bomb-thrower is that he is, first and foremost, a reporter; sure, he could be bombastic—he was a cable news host, after all—but his analysis, whether you found it useful or not, was typically rooted in facts and what sources were telling him, not his take du jour. Vernon’s 2018 profile of Stelter reveals not a pundit who couldn’t wait to scorn Trump, but a journalist who grappled with the appropriateness of doing so, with colleagues and relatives saying that it took time and the sharp threat of Trump’s attacks on the press to encourage Stelter to draw out a punchier analytical voice. “As to whether he’s too alarmist about Trump’s threat to journalism,” Vernon wrote, “Stelter believes he’ll be able to look back in 20 years and feel good about his coverage. He doubts some of his critics will feel the same.” It won’t take that long.

Below, more on Brian Stelter, CNN, and the media beat:

  • More reaction: The media critic Dan Froomkin accused CNN of “capitulating to disinformation rather than fighting it” by ending Stelter’s show. The move, Froomkin argued, “was essentially a peace offering from CNN to the know-nothing maga mob. But it’s not going to work. They’ll never be satisfied.” Elsewhere, the media academic Jeff Jarvis cast Stelter’s exit as another big blow to an essential media function: scrutinizing itself. “Now more than ever,” Jarvis wrote, “media are a story media should cover. But media—so eager to criticize everyone else—are frightened of criticism themselves.”
  • Bugging Malone: Recently, Malone granted a rare in-depth interview to Mullin, of the Times. While distancing himself from the Stelter decision, Malone said that CNN “should do a better job of distinguishing between news and opinion programming,” Mullin writes. Citing “the Fox News host Bret Baier as a reliably centrist newscaster,” Malone said he “was open to cable networks having ‘wacko’ programming,” but that it “should be clearly labeled.” He “told a joke about a cowboy who writes a letter to his grocer complaining about a mixed-up delivery. The coffee is good, the cowboy said. And the rat droppings in it might be OK, too, he added, ‘but please send them in separate containers.’”
  • Another goodbye: Recently, Margaret Sullivan, the widely read media critic at the Washington Post, announced that she is retiring her long-running column to take up a post at Duke University. Yesterday, she published her final column and issued a warning to the press as it prepares to cover the 2024 election. “The media has come a long, long way in figuring out how to cover the democracy-threatening ways of Donald Trump and his allies, including his stalwart helpers in right-wing media,” she wrote. “And yet, I worry that it’s not nearly enough. I don’t mean to suggest that journalists can address the threats to democracy all by themselves—but they must do more.”


Other notable stories:

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

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