This week, CNN’s leading media reporter and anchor of the show “Reliable Sources,” Brian Stelter, was terminated from his position without explanation. Why?
There are two competing hypotheses being discussed both inside and outside of CNN.
But before we get there, let’s discuss why we’re talking about Brian Stelter in the first place: Indeed, those who work in the media place an inordinate amount of importance on the careers of their colleagues. And media reporters, such as me, are even more complicit in this practice. But in this specific instance, what took place with Stelter is significant because it may have a lot to tell us about the future of CNN, which is one of the most influential news outlets in the world, as well as Warner Brothers Discovery, the company that owns CNN in addition to some of the most valuable cultural assets in the world.
This is the prelude if you will. These are the various hypotheses. Importantly, they are not incompatible with one another.
It’s all about the politics, dude.
This is the juicy one: According to this account of the events, Stelter is the victim of John Malone, the wealthy cable magnate who is also the most prominent investor in Warner Brothers Discovery Inc., which now owns CNN and the rest of what was formerly known as Time Warner.
Malone’s politics tend to lean very rightward and toward libertarianism, but he has also been critical of Donald Trump and his government. To get more specific, current and former CNN employees are under the impression that Malone’s perspective of CNN is wholly influenced by Fox News. John Malone does not regularly tune in to CNN. The only way John Malone watches CNN is through Fox News, according to a worker at CNN. If I got my news from Fox News instead of CNN, I would dislike CNN just as much.
And Stelter, who spent the majority of the Trump era criticizing the American right’s embrace of disinformation, was already a target of Fox News hosts like Tucker Carlson, who delighted in lampooning him. Stelter has spent the majority of the Trump era criticizing the American right’s embrace of disinformation. Then, after Stelter’s boss, Jeff Zucker was fired in February, Stelter went after Malone, who had said he hoped CNN was more like Fox News because Fox News had “real journalism.” Stelter went after Malone after Zucker was fired. Malone had said he wished CNN was more like Fox News.
Malone delivered one of the most honest confessions you’ll ever see a public person make in the form of denial when the New York Times asked him about this theory: “Mr. Malone said he wants “the ‘news’ portion of CNN to be more centrist, but I am not in control or directly involved.”
Therefore, according to this hypothesis, Malone thinks Stelter exemplifies the excessive nature of CNN’s coverage. However, it is reasonable to assume that Malone and his administrators, who include Warner Brothers Discovery CEO David Zaslav and Chris Licht, the executive Zaslav hired to replace Zucker, will discover further CNN journalists that they wish to have removed from the air. Alternate theory: Because they’ve set the precedent of punishing Stelter, they won’t have to release any other prisoners.
On the other hand, it’s possible that theory No. 2 will require them to fire a significant number of employees:
It’s all about the money, dude.
As I mentioned earlier in the week, Warner Brothers Discovery carries a significant amount of debt; but, Zaslav has assured investors that this would not be an issue in the future, in part because he is going to discover savings of $3 billion.
We have already seen evidence of budget-cutting in the company’s entertainment businesses, such as shelving a Batgirl movie instead of releasing it and laying off employees at HBOMax, but this fall will bring about many more cuts than we have previously seen so far. Therefore, cutting Stelter, who apparently made close to one million dollars annually, was a simple matter: His show, in addition to his daily media newsletter, was a big thing in media circles — for evidence, consider this “Pet of the Day” entry from… David Zaslav — but it did not attract in a significant number of average people.
CNN has already made one huge cut under the leadership of Zaslav and Licht. Just a few weeks after its launch, CNN+, the network’s brand-new streaming service, was discontinued (full disclosure: My editor and I are producers on a show that Vox Media developed for CNN+).
However, it’s possible that this won’t even come close to being enough to assist the parent firm in reaching its goals. In that case, Stelter’s exit may be the first of many, and we’ll spend less time worrying about CNN’s politics and more time worrying about its ability to offer first-rate news coverage. Alternatively, Stelter’s departure could be the first of many.
According to CNN, neither of those hypotheses is correct: It is said that Licht has discontinued broadcasting Stelter and Reliable Sources in order to replace them with a different show on Sunday mornings. And a CNN spokesman named Matt Dornic informed me that the news organization is not under any pressure from its new owner to reduce employment. He pointed out that Licht has stated that he wants to hire more journalists.
On the other hand, there is most certainly a way to cut costs while simultaneously increasing the number of people: you can let go of people who are expensive and replace them with people who are less expensive.
It drives me crazy when we have to say “stay tuned” at the end of stories like this one. On the other hand, this is one situation in which we absolutely need to watch how things develop. To begin, Stelter’s final program will air this coming Sunday. The only thing about which I can be absolutely certain is that he intends to use his farewell performance to discuss all of this.