By firing Brian Stelter, CNN is capitulating to disinformation rather than fighting it

Sean Hannity is happy Brian Stelter is gone.

CNN’s latest big move is a huge victory for Fox.

By firing their chief media correspondent, Brian Stelter, CNN’s new management has rid Fox – temporarily, I hope – of one of its chief scourges.

Stelter, who hosted CNN’s influential weekly media roundup, “Reliable Sources,” was one of the few “mainstream media” figures who had no patience for Fox and the rest of the right-wing propaganda machine.

In his book “Hoax”, on his show, and in his must-read daily newsletter, Stelter called Fox out for spreading malicious lies and poisoning our politics. He was absolutely right, of course. And they hated him for it. Fox anchors in particular were obsessed with him — often in a disgusting, personal way. They made fun of his looks. Sean Hannity called him a “fake news Humpty Dumpty.”

At a time when misinformation and disinformation have become weaponized against pluralism and even democracy, succumbing to Fox and its ilk is tremendously dangerous. At a time when media framing is so important, getting rid of Stelter and his show is a massive blow to our national discourse.

And CNN, far from offering any defensible reason for axing Stelter, has given every indication they fired him precisely because he was the right-wing propaganda machine’s number one target.

John Malone, the cable oligarch and a powerful investor in Warner Brothers Discovery Inc., which now owns CNN, telegraphed it all last fall when he said on CNBC that he wanted CNN to “evolve back to the kind of journalism that it started with and, you know, actually have journalists.”

By contrast, Fox, he said employed some “actual journalists.”

The media coverage of CNN’s new management plans didn’t help – it was more voyeuristic than concerned. Axios, for instance, helped put a target on Stelter’s back (and reporter Jim Acosta’s), by noting that “To conservative critics, some on-air personalities, like Jim Acosta and Brian Stelter, have become the face of the network’s liberal shift.”

I would argue that neither upsets “conservative critics” because they are “liberal”. What upsets them is that Stelter (and Acosta) have at times refused to grace outrageous lies with the credulity of many other members of the press corps. That’s not liberal or conservative –that’s caring about what’s true.

So Stelter’s firing 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.

And according to the Daily Beast, CNN’s new head, Chris Licht, warned staff on Friday: “There will be more changes and you might not understand it or like it all.”

The greater tragedy here is that this suggests CNN is moving in precisely the opposite direction than it should. There is a lot structurally wrong with CNN today – most notably its dependence on talking heads who never change their mind – but the answer is not to shy away from truth-telling.

It shouldn’t become more like Fox, it should proudly be the anti-Fox.

I’ve previously outlined my vision for CNN regaining the mantle of “the most trusted name in news.”

It’s for a network that champions the truth as boldly and enthusiastically as Fox spreads propaganda and disinformation. That means not just delivering the news, but also helping people understand the real-world context in which the news occurs. It means not just fact-checking disinformation spreaders like Fox, but unraveling their deceptions, examining their motives, and using vigorous reporting to contrast what they say with what is really happening on the ground.

It doesn’t mean becoming more “centrist” – with the center skewed by the conspiracy theories of right-wing extremists.

It means TV based on actual, gritty, complicated reality.

And there’s a business case for all this. A reality-based news network will never be able to satisfy Americans whose view of themselves depends on falsely demonizing others. But according to Nielsen, more Democrats aged 25 to 54 watch Fox than watch CNN or MSNBC.

Americans today suffer from not having a common frame of reference, and CNN could make it its mission to establish and champion that frame, telling viewers what they need to know, while expressing righteous indignation toward the spreaders of disinformation and intolerance.

Stelter had his blind spots, including a gigantic one for his own network. Then again, he wouldn’t have lasted as long as he did otherwise. And over the years, he impressed me time and again, particularly when he issued clarion calls for, in his words, “clear-eyed no nonsense news coverage.”

When Trump was constantly lying about Covid – and most journalists were simply doing stenography, even though it was killing people, Stelter said on his show:

What we need do in this moment is prioritize accurate information from experts over misinformation from politicians. You know, Trump and the news media both have a tendency to make, well, everything about Trump, right? But this virus story is only a little bit about Trump…

The press should point out when he is an obstacle and then move on. Don’t make it all about Trump. This story is too important for that.

He did a wonderful segment in May 2021 about why American newsrooms need a “democracy beat.”

Talking about his book in September 2020 on PBS, he nailed it: “Fox is like resentment news. It is like grievance news. It taps into white Christian Americans’ grievances about what is happening in the country, an increasingly multicultural America.”

We need more journalists, not fewer, to call out Fox as a pariah network – as not journalism.

Stelter is a unique figure, arguably one of the hardest-working people in the business, and a phenom who hustled his way onto the New York Times from a blog he wrote from his dorm room in college. Presumably he’ll find a new platform soon.

In the meantime, he has been silenced. And that says a lot more about the people now running CNN than it says about him.


Being a media critic within the corporate media is fraught, suspect, and impermanent. That’s why Press Watch is independent – surviving solely on individual and philanthropic contributions.



  1. I watch Reliable Sources religiously, have since before the Trump era dawned.

    The Free Beacon wrote on 8/1 that Licht had gone to D.C. and met privately with GOP leaders, asking how he could get CNN back in their good graces. If true, added to the platitudes from CNN about how they’re going back to the middle, it’s really hard not to conclude they’re tacking hard to the right if only by presenting the GOP as a normal, functional political party.

    The Free Beacon story also said they wanted to reinstate respectful dialogue and make sure both sides got to air “their side.”

    It’s so much worse than the already despair-inducing reminders that much of our political press shows no sign of having learned from these past seven years or from the history of the 20th century, for that matter.

    I bet their research shows they’ll gain more rw viewers than the liberals and progressives they lose.

    I will miss Reliable Sources. When I lowered my insane news consumption last year, this is one of the shows I kept. Really going to miss it, and will look forward to following Stelter wherever he lands. Going to miss the newsletter, too—Darcy will be running it but retooled, to Licht’s specs, no doubt.

    Thank you for this piece, it’s the first proper appraisal and post mortem of the show and Stelter’s CNN tenure I’ve seen.

  2. It was inevitable in a country that is as frightened of the truth as we are.

    All that matters is ratings, optics and both sides bullshit. Stelter didn’t fit into that narrow definition of what journalism is becoming.

    Watch for CNN’s long, slow decline as it self destruction because of its cowardice.

  3. I read the RS newsletter for years and, albeit not someone in the industry, found it pretty lacking in insight. Full disclosure: my first exposure to media criticism as a whelp, was Alex Cockburn’s Press Clips in the Village Voice. One of the key themes as I recollect was the effect corporate interests on distorting reporting, likewise the role of the mainstream as establishment propaganda outfits. What’s forgotten is that the Vietnam/ Watergate era of truth telling and criticizing the nation’s leaders and their leadership was a very brief anomalous period. We reverted to the norm over forty years ago, a norm that for the MSM includes holding back on criticism of the GOP as much as possible and then to criticize as gently as possible so that we now find the nation in decline, where the federal government cannot, as a matter of law, enact a full nationwide response to a global pandemic, that elected officials can enact literally murderous policies without facing proportionate criticism from the MSM.
    None of this was noted in the RS newsletter. Criticizing Fox’s opinion side is so unspeakably trivial in comparison to the actual harm the MSM has done and continues to do. To the contrary: Stelter has made something of a career in making Fox the bad guy when the problem is that they pretty much are all the bad guys. (Fox’s news side is insignificantly worse than many if not most MSM outlets. Hard to honestly criticize that part of Fox without criticizing the mainstream.)
    What we need is what Dan’s spoken of: a trustworthy source for reporting, with honest framing. Not only does the country need something like that but allegedly there’s an audience for it, an audience being ignored by every outlet focusing on serving a niche. The minuscule sizes of viewership — even Fox’s prime time audience — strongly suggests there’s a huge audience for news without the BS. CNN under current management maybe can and will be that.
    But Stelter’s cancellation is a big nothing burger.
    Now, if Froomkin stopped writing this blog, that would be a real loss.


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