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.

Speaking of independent media criticism, please consider supporting this free source of news and commentary for just $5 a month.

We end our summer podcasts with a round-up of local news items. See you in September!

Rainbow Arch Bridge, Lake City, Iowa, the center of a bizarre newspaper war. Photo (cc) 2014 by David Wilson.

On this week’s “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I dive into our reporter’s notebooks after our scheduled guest had a last-minute medical emergency, catching up with NJ Spotlight News, the emergence of The Lexington Observer, the transition at The Texas Tribune, and the turmoil at The Graphic-Advocate (both of them!) of Lake City, Iowa.

Ellen also has a rave for Emily Rooney’s “Beat the Press” podcast and her recent interview with legendary WCVB-TV news anchor Natalie Jacobson, who’s written a memoir about her life and career.

Like Boston’s Orange Line and Green Line, the “What Works” podcast will be off the intertubes for a few weeks as Ellen and I race to meet the deadline for our book about the future of local news. You can listen to our conversation here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app.

Just up at ‘Beat the Press’: Elon Musk, CNN+ and more

Elon Musk. Photo (cc) 2019 by Daniel Oberhaus.

The brand spanking new “Beat the Press” podcast is up, with our smoking hot takes on Elon Musk and Twitter, @LibsOfTikTok, the ethics of journalists who save the good stuff for their books, and the demise of CNN+. Plus our Rants & Raves. Hosted, as always, by Emily Rooney, with Joanna Weiss, Jon Keller and me. Available wherever you get your podcasts.

The latest from ‘Beat the Press’: CNN, Joe Rogan and the return of Rants & Raves

Joe Rogan. Photo (cc) 2014 by Do512.

This week, on the second “Beat the Press” podcast, we talk about the latest mishegas at CNN, as number-two executive — make that former number-two executive — Allison Gollust walks the plank.

Other topics include a discussion of how much responsibility Spotify should take for Joe Rogan’s vaccine disinformation and n-word-spewing mouth; privacy concerns over the death of comedian Bob Saget; and a conversation with civil-liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate, the co-founder of FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

Plus: Rants & Raves are back!

Hosted, as always, by Emily Rooney, with Jon Keller, Lylah Alphonse and me. You can listen to “Beat the Press” on Apple and wherever fine podcasts are found.

The return of ‘Beat the Press’

“Beat the Press,” which was canceled last summer by GBH-TV after a 22-year run, is back — this time as a podcast.

Hosted, as always, by the incomparable Emily Rooney, our debut features a discussion of how the media should cover the crisis in democracy; the Cuomo-CNN meltdown (recorded before Jeff Zucker’s implosion); what to do about social media-driven hoaxes; and Dave Chappelle’s recent anti-transgender remarks.

Emily is joined by Lylah Alphonse of The Boston Globe, Jon Keller of WBZ-TV and me. You can find us on Apple Podcasts and, I imagine, just about anywhere else you get your podcasts.

In the beginning: Emily Rooney and the early days of the WGBH-WBUR rivalry

Photo (cc) 2019 by Dan Kennedy

Twenty-four years ago, Emily Rooney — whose long-running media-criticism program, “Beat the Press,” on which I was a panelist, was canceled last week by GBH News — was just beginning a new phase of her career, as host and executive editor of the news and public-affairs program “Greater Boston.” I wrote a piece for The Boston Phoenix about her debut as well as the state of the rivalry between WGBH and WBUR — a rivalry that, if anything, is more intense today than it was then. This story was published on Feb. 7, 1997. I’m republishing it here courtesy of the Northeastern University Archives.

Making waves

With commercial stations going lowbrow, Boston’s public broadcasters are fine-tuning their strategies. The question: are WGBH & WBUR doing their duty?

The Boston Phoenix • Feb. 7, 1997

Emily Rooney is taping the intro to a segment of WGBH-TV’s new local public-affairs show, Greater Boston. Or trying to, anyway. It’s been a long day. Her feet are killing her. And her first few attempts at hyping an interview with Charles Murray, the controversial academic who’s currently promoting his new book on libertarianism, haven’t gone particularly well.

After several tries, though, she nails it. “That was warmer,” says a voice in the control room. “That was very nice.”

She sighs, visibly relieved at getting a break from the unblinking eye of the lens.

Rooney, the former news director of WCVB-TV (Channel 5), may be a respected newswoman, but the debut of Greater Boston last week showed that her transition to an on-camera role is going to take some time. And if Rooney and Greater Boston are struggling to find their voice, so, too, is WGBH.

Continue reading “In the beginning: Emily Rooney and the early days of the WGBH-WBUR rivalry”

Best wishes to Emily Rooney as ‘Beat the Press’ comes to an end after 22 years

Our 20th anniversary show, Dec. 7, 2018

Major local media news today as GBH News has announced that it’s canceling “Beat the Press” after a 22-year run. I am proud to have been part of the show since its first year, 1998, and to have been a regular for many of those years. And I’m grateful to Emily Rooney, the host and creator of the show. We’ve been on hiatus since June 11; as it turns out, that was our finale.

I’ll continue writing my weekly column on media and politics for GBH News.

It’s hard to put into words what I’m feeling right now. For so many years, heading over to GBH to record “Beat the Press” was simply what I did on Friday afternoons. I hugely enjoyed getting to know Emily, Callie Crossley and everyone else. (I’ll stop at Emily and Callie because if I start naming names, I’ll leave too many out.)

Emily began hosting “Greater Boston” in the mid-’90s. From the beginning it was a Monday-through-Thursday show, with the Friday slot originally taken up by something called “The Long and the Short of It,” with Robert Reich and Alan Simpson. After that show had run its course, Emily pitched “Beat the Press” to WGBH executives (yes, the station still had a “W” back then), and we were off and running.

I haven’t had a chance to talk with Emily yet, but I wish her all the best. She is a legendary figure in Boston media, as news director of WCVB-TV (Channel 5), at the national level and, for the past quarter century, at GBH News. It will be interesting to see what she does next.

Finally, best wishes to Kara Miller, whose program on WGBH Radio (89.7 FM), “Innovation Hub,” will be coming to an end later this year as well.

What follows is the press release from GBH News:

GBH continues to build a multiplatform news organization that provides our community with the most distinctive, relevant and interesting stories of the day. GBH News is deepening its focus on audience-centered local stories, and concentrating its editorial efforts on the critical issues of education, social justice, Covid/public health and politics. As a result, GBH will discontinue production of two weekly programs, Beat the Press with Emily Rooney, which examines the local and national media, and the national radio series Innovation Hub with Kara Miller.

“This was a difficult decision. Beat the Press has been one of GBH’s longest running news shows and has provided viewers with informative and thought-provoking insight, commentary and perspective on the workings of the media. We are grateful to Emily Rooney for her award-winning work, her dedication to her craft, and her many contributions to GBH over 24 years.”

Innovation Hub has given us a deeper understanding of the inventive spirit of human ideas and technology over the course of a decade. We thank Kara Miller and the Innovation Hub production team for their exceptional work, creativity and contributions to public media.”

– Pam Johnston, General Manager GBH News

Beat the Press is currently on summer hiatus and will not return in September; Innovation Hub will continue to air through mid-November in national distribution with PRX.

Celebrating two decades of ‘Beat the Press’

For the past 20 years, I’ve had the privilege of being part of something that has grown into a Boston institution: “Beat the Press,” a weekly media-criticism show on WGBH-TV (Channel 2) launched by Emily Rooney in 1998.

On Friday night we celebrated with a half-hour retrospective followed by a Q&A on Facebook Live. It was an honor to be part of it. And it was great to see Emily get the credit she’s due both for conceiving of the show and for maintaining its excellence during the past two decades.

There are so many people who are part of the show, and I know that if I start listing them, I’ll leave out others who are just as deserving. You know who you are. I’m filled with appreciation and gratitude for all of you.

And I’m already looking forward to our 25th.

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Talking about ‘Moguls’ with Emily Rooney at the BPL

My WGBH News colleague (and “Beat the Press” host) Emily Rooney and I talked about “The Return of the Moguls” Tuesday in a Facebook Live event at WGBH’s Boston Public Library studio. You can watch by clicking here.

Linda Henry, wife of Globe owner, will oversee Boston.com

Linda Henry. Photo via Twitter.
Linda Henry. Photo via Twitter.

Well, that was fast. Just a day after Boston Globe editor Brian McGrory announced that chief digital guy David Skok would be leaving later this year, two people who will take over some of his duties have been named. One is a real eye-opener: Linda Pizzuti Henry, wife of Globe owner John Henry, who will oversee Boston.com.

The other is Anthony Bonfiglio, currently the executive director of engineering, who’ll be in charge of engineering, development, product, and design.

When I gave a “Rave” to Skok on Beat the Press Friday, host Emily Rooney asked me if Skok’s departure was related to Linda Henry’s elevation. My honest answer is that I have no idea. It’s something I would certainly like to find out.

It’s also not clear how hands-on Linda Henry intends to be. Eleanor Cleverly, the general manager of Boston.com, has gotten good reviews for stabilizing the site after a rocky transition from being the Globe‘s online home to its current incarnation as a free standalone service. And Cleverly will remain.

It’s way too early to assess what this will all mean, but I’ve heard from a number of insiders that Linda Henry is smart and generally a force for good. Still, it’s an unorthodox move.

The Globe still needs a journalist to replace Skok as managing editor for digital (he’s vice president for digital at Boston Globe Media Partners as well). But since Skok isn’t leaving right away, I suppose that can wait.

What follows is a memo from Mike Sheehan, chief executive of BGMP.

I want to let everyone know that Anthony Bonfiglio will now oversee digital operations, including engineering/development, product, and design across all of BGMP.

Anthony joined us two years ago from Visible Measures, where he was VP of Engineering. Since then, his impact has been immense. He oversaw the rollout of agile software development processes and best practices across the product and engineering teams. As a result, we’ve shortened time-to-market from weeks to multiple releases every week across all teams, creating a predictable and transparent development process. Anthony helped transition much of the business to WordPress and has overseen many of our digital redesigns. He was a key contributor in the launch of Stat.

On the business side, Anthony folded creative services developers into the overall engineering organization and greatly increased their productivity. He also successfully assumed management of our ad operations organization during a critical phase and has since transitioned it back to Advertising.

In short, Anthony has proven himself as a leader who can make a very complex organization faster, better, and more agile. He will continue to report to Wade Sendall.

Brian McGrory informed the newsroom yesterday that David Skok has decided to leave the Globe by the end of the year. Regarding David’s boston.com responsibilities, Eleanor Cleverly will continue day-to-day oversight and management of boston.com, but it will now report to Linda Henry in her current role as Managing Director.

I know I join everyone in wishing David Skok nothing but success and happiness in all his future endeavors and in expressing deep gratitude for all he’s done over the past three years. He has been a driving force in the success we’ve experienced on bostonglobe.com and, with Eleanor and her team, was key to stabilizing boston.com over the past six months. As he transitions out, the leadership of Anthony, Eleanor, and Linda will help us continue to be the region’s leading source of journalism that becomes more relevant and interesting by the hour.