August 18, 2022

Editor’s note: Today’s Poynter Report expands on an earlier Poynter story about Stelter’s leaving CNN.   

Thursday’s big media news was a stunner. Well, kind of.

Brian Stelter is leaving CNN and the Sunday morning show he hosted for the past nine years about the media, “Reliable Sources,” is being canceled. The final show will be Sunday.

Puck’s Dylan Byers put it smartly when he wrote, “Stelter’s departure is both totally unsurprising and yet completely and utterly stunning.”

Stunning because Stelter is one of CNN’s more recognizable faces. He has hosted “Reliable Sources” for nearly a decade. He writes a daily media newsletter — also called “Reliable Sources.” And he’s a frequent on-air commentator whenever major media news breaks.

But his departure is unsurprising for a few reasons.

For starters, under new ownership and (relatively) new boss Chris Licht, CNN is looking to trim the budget. “Reliable Sources”’ ratings were decent. Over the past year, the show averaged just under 750,000 viewers. That was tops among CNN Sunday shows, but fewer than Howie Kurtz’s “MediaBuzz” show on Fox News that is on at the same time.

But this appears to be more than just saving a few bucks and TV ratings. Stelter’s style might not have fit in with how CNN wants to do things moving forward. And it could be the first of more shake ups in CNN’s lineup.

The Daily Beast’s Lachlan Cartwright, Corbin Bolies, Zachary Petrizzo and Justin Baragona wrote, “As a close ally and friend to former CNN boss Jeff Zucker, Stelter has occasionally appeared to be at odds with the new era of CNN.”

NPR’s David Folkenflik added, “Stelter, who often touted the show’s ratings on Twitter, was among those CNN hosts targeted for frequent criticism from conservatives for his coverage of the media in the Trump years.”

When Licht took over in May, there were reports that CNN wanted to back away from polarizing punditry and lean into more straight news. Stelter’s Sunday show often reported stories in a straightforward manner, but there was definitely opinion, too. Stelter is often critical of Donald Trump and conservative media, especially Fox News. (Stelter released a book about Fox News in 2020 called, “Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News, and the Dangerous Distortion of Truth.”)

The Associated Press’ David Bauder wrote, “Licht has made it known internally that he’s not interested in conflict between CNN and Fox News on the network. … CNN has seen its reputation tumble dramatically among Republican and conservative viewers, some of it because of former President Donald Trump’s relentless attacks, but also because of pointed political viewpoints expressed by its personalities. New management has been seeking to turn down the temperature.”

As you might recall, Discovery merged with WarnerMedia and took control of CNN back in May. And many figured that new ownership could lead to reset for the network.

The Daily Beast wrote, “In February, (Stelter) called out key Discovery board member John Malone, who told CNBC last year that after a Discovery-Warner merger, he’d ‘like to see CNN evolve back to the kind of journalism that it started with, and actually have journalists, which would be unique and refreshing.’”

The Daily Beast also noted that earlier this year, in his nightly “Reliable Sources” newsletter, Stelter wrote, “The people who say the Zucker-era CNN was lacking in real journalism clearly were not watching CNN directly. My best guess is that they were watching talking heads and reading columnists complain about CNN. And yes, I’m including John Malone in this.”

And Folkenflik noted, “During an episode in February, Stelter cited Malone more than a dozen times in coverage of the Discovery deal for CNN and its sister properties, expressing some concern about the investor’s influence.”

Malone told The New York Times’ Benjamin Mullin in an email Thursday that he had “nothing to do with” the cancellation of “Reliable Sources.” Malone also told Mullin he wants “the ‘news’ portion of CNN to be more centrist, but I am not in control or directly involved.”

But a source told The Daily Beast, “Everything about this rollout points to John Malone and (Discovery CEO) David Zaslav. Chris Licht did not want to do this.”

Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo writes, “What I can tell you, based on my own recent reporting, is that Licht isn’t making any of these changes in a vacuum. Zaslav has been closely involved in driving Warner Bros. Discovery’s vision for CNN, doubling down on its traditional global news-gathering function and moving away from the partisan reputation it garnered — fairly or not — during the Trump years. Hence all the talk of diversifying CNN’s contributor ranks, and the olive branches to Republicans, which Licht handed out recently on a romp through Capitol Hill.”

So, you have to ask …

Was Stelter used as an example?

By all accounts, new management at CNN wants the network to be more straightforward, and more toward the center politically. This is Licht’s first big programming move since taking over.

It could be that Stelter is being used as a warning to the rest of CNN.

You have a journalist who is making pretty good money (close to seven figures) with several years left on his contract, who hosts a Sunday morning show that gets decent (but not great) numbers and is among the more outspoken on-air personalities when it comes to politics. And he covers a topic — the media — that doesn’t have a favorable reputation among many U.S. citizens, who might not have the appetite to listen to the media talking about the media.

By canceling Stelter’s show and forcing him out, CNN might think it’s sending a message to conservatives: “See, we’re not anti-Trump, we’re not anti-conservative, we can be fair.” And at the same time, it’s letting the rest of its own network know that it’s serious about a desire to be a more down-the-middle news network.

As someone who covers the media and watches his show regularly, however, I found Stelter’s criticisms of the media (particularly right-wing media), Trump and many of his followers to not only be fair and accurate, but completely necessary.

Media observer Dan Froomkin, editor of Media Watch, tweeted, “This is a terrible move by CNN. @brianstelter was the symbol of a media establishment willing to question itself. He was a flawed but essential voice in the national media. His firing is a win for all the wrong people.”

Horror writer Steven King also weighed in, tweeting, “The one show on CNN I never missed was Reliable Sources, with Brian Stelter. It has been an invaluable window into how the media covers … itself. Today CNN canceled it.”

What’s next for Stelter?

Stelter’s rise in the journalism world is actually quite impressive. As a college student at Towson University, he started a blog about the media and was so good at it that he got hired by The New York Times. He was there six years before moving on to CNN in 2013. He has hosted “Reliable Sources” for the past nine years. It’s hard to believe he is only 36 years old because it feels like he’s been around forever. Perhaps that speaks to his impact on TV and in covering the media. His “Reliable Sources” newsletter is a must-read among those who follow the media.

His work ethic was remarkable, leaving many observers to wonder, “Does the guy ever sleep?”

Alex Koppelman, managing editor of CNN Business, tweeted, “Brian is a MACHINE. On more than one occasion, when big news was breaking, he was on TV talking about it and at literally the exact same time writing a story about it on his phone — and he’d file, while on TV, a story better and cleaner than almost anyone else could write. To be clear: This is NOT NORMAL. And it happens because Brian is also not normal, in the best possible way. And, torment me though he may have, I’m really going to miss working with him.”

There’s no question that he has allowed his political leanings to infiltrate his show, commentary and writing at times. But Stelter’ show also highlighted important media topics that are otherwise under-covered on TV and many mainstream media outlets — such as journalists under attack domestically and internationally, journalists held captive or muted in other countries, and how major stories are covered.

In short, “Reliable Sources” will be missed. The show celebrated its 30th anniversary on the air earlier this year and it will be disturbing if CNN doesn’t continue media coverage on TV.

Amy Entelis, executive vice president of talent and content development at CNN, said in a statement, “(Stelter) departs CNN as an impeccable broadcaster. We are proud of what Brian and his team accomplished over the years, and we’re confident their impact and influence will long outlive the show.

Stelter told NPR’s David Folkenflik, “It was a rare privilege to lead a weekly show focused on the press at a time when it has never been more consequential.”

And in an additional statement, Stelter said, “I’m grateful for my nine years with CNN, proud of what we accomplished on Reliable Sources and so thankful for the viewers who tuned in every week for our examination of the media, truth and the stories that shape our world. It was a rare privilege to lead a weekly show focused on the press at a time when it has never been more consequential. I’ll have more to say on Sunday.”

As you might expect, conservatives and right-wing media rejoiced in the news that Stelter was leaving CNN. But Matt Gertz, who writes for the Media Matters for America, tweeted, “.@brianstelter chronicled, with bracing honesty and directness, Fox News’ descent from GOP mouthpiece to toxic hellscape. His program will be missed, and I’m looking forward to whatever he does next.”

Not out of the media game

Not only is Stelter leaving CNN, but the entire “Reliable Sources” staff is being laid off. There are reports that the TV show’s staff is not nearly as big as other programs on CNN, and some of those staffers could be absorbed into other CNN programming.

However, CNN won’t stop covering the media. Oliver Darcy, who has been co-writing the “Reliable Sources” newsletter for a while now, will carry on as the newsletter’s main writer. Darcy said the newsletter will take a brief hiatus before returning in a few weeks.

Darcy tweeted Thursday, “End of an era. It has been a hell of a ride working with @BrianStelter and the @ReliableSources team over the last five years. Brian has been a first-class colleague, mentor, and friend. I cannot wait to see what he does next.”

He added, “As for me, I’m looking forward to continuing to cover the media and hold powerful people and institutions accountable. It’s important work and I’m grateful to do it at CNN.”

Notable tidbits and stories for your weekend review

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
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