How long can you host a cable TV show that reports on and criticizes the media while being the example par excellence of media bias yourself?
The answer, it turns out, is nine years.
On Thursday, it was revealed that Brian Stelter, the host of CNN’s Reliable Sources, has been sacked. It’s part of a shakeup at CNN under the new ownership of Warner Bros. Discovery. The network’s new CEO, Chris Licht, claims he is trying to move the network toward straight news and away from its reputation as a left-wing opinion outlet, under which it has suffered spiraling viewership. In July, CNN averaged 731,000 viewers in primetime, much lower than Fox News’ 2.1 million and MSNBC’s 1.3 million. Licht’s plans are part of a bid to win back the moderate viewers the network has lost.
Stelter’s show contributed to CNN’s low ratings. On Sunday, the day his show has been aired, he had 693,000 viewers. That made Reliable Sources the 28th-most-watched cable show that day and placed it behind all of Fox News’ daytime lineup.
The president of News Cycle Media, Jon Nicosia, reported in June that an anonymous source affiliated with Warner Bros. Discovery told him that Stelter is “everything that reminds the new owners of the Zucker era they desperately want to get past.” Jeff Zucker was the CEO of CNN from 2013 until February, when he left CNN ostensibly over his failure to disclose an affair with a married supervisee. Zucker’s legacy is a CNN that considers President Donald Trump and the Right to be public enemies No. 1 and 2, protects Democratic politicians from scrutiny, and promotes radical progressivism. Stelter was a strong ally and close friend of Zucker during his tenure.
The anonymous source told Nicosia that CNN’s new managers believed Stelter was leading CNN staffers in pushing back against the new management’s plans to try to moderate CNN’s far-leftism. “Management is confident,” the source said, “Stelter is the one sharing the internal pushback to fellow media reporters while simultaneously stirring discontent within the ranks.”
The entire staff of Reliable Sources has been fired along with Stelter. CNN’s new management perhaps believes Stelter’s staffers share his resistance to making CNN less biased and thus see them as an impairment to its efforts to repair the network’s dismal ratings.
What’s clear is that CNN’s leaders have determined that the public has rejected Stelter as a reliable source for media coverage. They’ve realized that Stelter is viewed as an activist defender of a left-leaning press and the symbol of CNN’s bias — and that prevents CNN from appealing to viewers of all political persuasions.
Stelter frequently acted as an apologist for his network. Following the ouster of Zucker, he acknowledged on his show that CNN is “not perfect.” But, he said:
[P]eople who say we’re lacking journalism, that we’ve become an all-talk channel, that we’ve run off, and we’re all opinions all the time, that Jeff Zucker led us astray, those people aren’t watching CNN…. They’re watching complaints about CNN on other channels that don’t know what they’re talking about. That’s the truth.
At the end of today’s program I attempted to channel my CNN colleagues as I said: We lost our leader this week, but we’re not going anywhere. pic.twitter.com/Ao3m60gCvd
— Brian Stelter (@brianstelter) February 7, 2022
After it broke that former CNN host Chris Cuomo had advised his brother, former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, on how to handle the sexual harassment allegations against him last year, Stelter defended the network’s handling of the situation. He said that although “there is no perfect solution … viewers want to see [Cuomo] on TV.” Stelter said he interviewed his colleagues about the situation and found “a more complicated story than you might think.”
Stelter also brushed over the June 2021 return of CNN’s now former chief legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin, less than a year after he exposed himself to his colleagues on a Zoom call. Stelter said in his weekly newsletter that the social media conversation had “moved on” from the Toobin scandal. He avoided mentioning Toobin’s return on his show.
Stelter has long ignored the misdeeds of other left-leaning news sources. After New York Times editorial board member Mara Gay said it was “disturbing” to see “dozens of American flags” on trucks on Long Island, Stelter avoided discussing the controversy on Reliable Sources. He also avoided covering the firing of an MSNBC staffer who had simultaneously worked as a speechwriter for the Biden campaign and Glenn Greenwald’s October 2020 exit from the Intercept over his claim that the outlet censored his story on the Hunter Biden laptop scandal.
Stelter’s show emphasized criticizing right-leaning news outlets as radical cesspools of disinformation. To mark Fox News’ 25th birthday, he described the network as one “full of rage, anger — it’s the ‘whitelash’ on TV, although often delivered with a smile.”
In 2020, he published a book, Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News, and the Dangerous Distortion of Truth, that argued Fox News profits “by promoting [Trump]’s propaganda” and that Trump “exploited” a leadership vacuum at Fox News “to effectively seize control of the network.”
Stelter has also frequently been accused of being a champion for the Democratic Party.
In one instance, he defended the Biden administration’s now-disbanded “Disinformation Governance Board” and dismissed the criticism against it, saying, “This has been mostly a Fox-world story.”
Stelter brought on National Democratic Institute director Moira Whelan to discuss the board, which was referred to by many Americans as the “Ministry of Truth.” Whelan told Stelter that the purpose of the board was to “counter disinformation efforts for a while to give us accurate information about human rights abuses but also about disasters and where people can get assistance.”
Stelter responded, “That sounds like common sense! But when I Google this, all I see is Joe Biden’s Ministry of Truth, and they’re gonna — there’s this incredible backlash to something that sounds like a basic government bureaucracy.”
“This has been mostly a Fox World story,” @BrianStelter ridicules “a lot of right wing uproar” over DHS “Disinformation Governance Board.” It “sounds like common sense, but when I Google this all I see is like ‘Joe Biden’s Ministry of Truth’…” pic.twitter.com/znNTqeZapK
— Brent Baker 🇺🇦 (@BrentHBaker) May 1, 2022
Moreover, Stelter dismissed the Hunter Biden laptop scandal for months, calling it “a classic example of the right-wing media machine.” In 2020, he said, “There’s a lot about this story that does not add up.… for all we know, these emails were made up, or maybe some are real and some are fakes, we don’t know.” He changed his tune earlier this month, however, saying the scandal is “not just a right-wing media story.”
While Stelter attempted to portray Reliable Sources as a nonpartisan show, it will long be remembered for serving as a guardian for the left-wing media and an attack dog against the right-wing media. CNN has yet to announce whether a new media-focused show will take its place. If the network’s leaders do create an alternative, it’s likely that they will use the show to try to convince Americans that the network is not the left-wing echo chamber it was when it lost millions and millions of viewers. If that’s the case, CNN has its work cut out for it.
Reliable Sources’ final episode will air this Sunday. Stelter told NPR that he was grateful for the show’s examination of “media, truth and the stories that shape our world.”