Brian Stelter’s departure is just the latest blow against media commentary

Brian Stelter. Photo (cc) 2019 by Ståle Grut.

The cancellation of CNN’s “Reliable Sources” and the departure of its host, Brian Stelter, is a development that resonates beyond one outlet and one journalist, because it takes place within the context of an ongoing decline in media commentary.

The news that Stelter was departing came Thursday evening. David Folkenflik’s account at NPR raises the possibility that Stelter was the victim of conservatives now ascendant at CNN, although the most prominent of those conservatives, John Malone, a major investor in CNN’s new owner, Warner Bros. Discovery, told Benjamin Mullin of The New York Times that he had “nothing to do with” the move.

Chris Licht, who succeeded the scandal-plagued Jeff Zucker as the head of CNN, has said on several occasions that he wants to move away from opinionated talk shows and get back to CNN’s reporting roots. That’s fine, but we’re talking about Sunday morning, which isn’t exactly prime time. Stelter will host one final edition of “Reliable Sources” this coming Sunday, but I’d be surprised if he says much. In a statement to Folkenflik, he said, “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 came to CNN from the Times nearly a decade ago. During the Trump presidency, in particular, he used his perch at CNN to emerge as an important and outspoken advocate of an independent press. He’ll be missed, although I have little doubt that he’ll land on his feet. Maybe he’ll even return to the Times. Frankly, I never quite understood why he left in the first place.

As for what this move represents, well, it’s just the latest in a series of blows to media commentary. CNN isn’t just showing Stelter the door — it’s getting rid of a  program that had been in rotation for some 30 years, having been previously helmed by Howard Kurtz (now the host of “Media Buzz” on Fox News) and Bernard Kalb. The media are one of our most influential institutions, and journalism is under assault. This is not the time to dial back. Yet consider these other developments.

  • Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan is leaving to take a job at Duke University. Sullivan has been one of the true giants in holding journalism accountable. Before coming to the Post, she was a fearless public editor (the ombudsman) at The New York Times — someone unafraid of standing up to powerful people in her own newsroom. The position was later eliminated, removing a vital tool for accountability. At the Post, she’s used her platform to call for courage and truth-telling amid the Trump-driven onslaught against journalism.
  • The public radio program “On the Media,” as I’ve written before, is less and less about the media and more about the whims of its host, Brooke Gladstone, and the people around her. Cohost Bob Garfield was fired last year and accused of bullying the staff — charges he mostly denied in a recent essay at Substack. But the move toward non-media topics was well under way even before Garfield’s departure. The latest, believe it or not: a three-part series on erectile dysfunction. OK, they’re showcasing another podcast while they take a few weeks off. I hope they get back to real media reporting and commentary once they resume.
  • One of the most prominent media critics on the left, Eric Boehlert, was killed earlier this year when he was struck by a train while riding his bike. Before launching his own platform on Substack, Boehlert had worked for Media Matters and Salon. His Twitter feed was a running commentary on the sins of omission and commission by the so-called liberal media.
  • As many of you know, “Beat the Press,” the media program I was part of since its inception, was canceled last summer by GBH-TV (Channel 2) after 23 years on the air. Nothing lasts forever, and I was honored to be associated with the show. But we took on important national and local topics every week, and my own biased view is that its demise was a loss. Host Emily Rooney relaunched the program as an independent podcast earlier this year; I hope you’ll check it out.

I don’t mean to suggest that there’s nothing left in terms of media coverage and commentary. The Post, which is losing Sullivan, is still home to Erik Wemple, who writes incisive media criticism for the opinion section, Paul Farhi, an outstanding journalist who covers media stories for the news section, and others. One of the greats of media criticism, Jack Shafer, continues to write for Politico. And there are plenty of independent voices out there, from New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen to liberal watchdog Dan Froomkin to, well, me. (An aside: We need people of color and more women, especially with Sullivan moving on.)

Still, there’s less than there used to be, and “Reliable Sources” was a well-regarded outlet for many years. Best wishes to Brian Stelter. And I’ll be casting a wary eye toward Licht. Zucker left him with a real mess to clean up, but this was the wrong move.

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4 thoughts on “Brian Stelter’s departure is just the latest blow against media commentary

  1. Bill Peregoy

    I was really sad to see this. I enjoy all of the Sunday morning CNN shows but reliable sources was my favorite. The only thing that made me sign up for those glorious 3 weeks of CNN+ was a daily dose of Brian Stelter!

  2. Pingback: Lower Ratings for People of Color at N.Y. Times – journal-isms.com

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