Inside Brian Stelter’s Ouster and CNN’s New Direction | Analysis

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Getty, illustration by Chris Smith

Brian Stelter had planned to announce his exit from CNN and the cancellation of his show, “Reliable Sources,” which he’s hosted for nine years, on the air on Sunday, according to an individual with knowledge of the show.

It was not to be. The news leaked on Thursday and once again the CNN newsroom is aflutter with anxiety and rumor: What is new chairman and CEO Chris Licht’s plan for the future of the news network? Why would Stelter, a respected media journalist, get the boot along with his show? Who else is at risk to get the ax after Stelter and, last week, legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin? Will the outspoken primetime host Don Lemon or Jim Acosta, the sometimes combative chief domestic correspondent, be next?

To many observers and network insiders, Licht aims to tone down any politically-pointed coverage in a pivot from the strategy pursued by his flashier predecessor, Jeff Zucker, who was ousted earlier this year over a workplace affair but who nonetheless drove the network to improved ratings during the Trump years.

“It’s not a good brand position to be the opposite of Fox News,” said a network insider familiar with Licht’s thinking. “He wants to be tough and no bulls—, but not affiliated with a side. It’s fair to say he doesn’t like the CNN vs. Fox thing.”

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And that made Stelter a prime target. The media correspondent frequently took strong positions against the misinformation of the Trump administration and got into on-air scuffles with Fox News, which he frequently called out for inaccurate and misleading reporting. Fox News often returned the favor, with primetime host Sean Hannity mocking Stelter as a “fake-news Humpty Dumpty” and other similar attacks.

Those exchanges got the attention of John Malone, a Warner Bros. Discovery board member who owned in 2021 more than 93% of Discovery’s Class B shares and remains a major stakeholder in the company post-merger. In late 2021, Malone made waves with a CNBC interview when he said CNN should return to nonpartisan journalism once under Discovery’s control. “I would like to see CNN evolve back to the kind of journalism that it started with, and actually have journalists, which would be unique and refreshing,” Malone sniped at the time.

Stelter called out Malone in February, accusing the billionaire of criticizing CNN without actually watching it and creating an atmosphere of anxiety in the newsroom. “Malone’s comments stoked fears that Discovery might stifle CNN journalists and steer away from calling out indecency and injustice,” Stelter wrote in his widely read media newsletter at the time.

Two senior Warner Bros Discovery executives denied that Stelter’s ouster was influenced in any way by Malone, calling the decision to cancel “Reliable Sources” entirely Licht’s. “Chris doesn’t want to do the ‘who’s in, who’s out, who’s up, who’s down’ navel-gazey reporting,” the network insider said.

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The two WBD executives said that the company had prioritized shaking up the network’s Sunday morning lineup — where “Reliable Sources” has aired for over 30 years, well before Stelter took over as host — and that a totally different show was necessary. However, the two execs said that there are no immediate plans to remove either Lemon or Acosta.

According to the network insider, CNN’s new leadership is seeking a broader lens for its future media coverage. Licht “wants to reimagine our media beat to be the intersection of the platforms and technology, also the content and disinformation, with much greater scope,” this insider said.

CNN has been struggling in ratings compared to Fox News and MSNBC, but “Reliable Sources” fared relatively well for the network. Despite posting record lows in June, averaging a meager 79,000 viewers in the key 25-to-54 news demo (the lowest since 2001), the show bounced back to about 108,000 average demo viewers in July, according to Nielsen.

Compared to CNN’s total day average of 110,000 demo viewers for July, that isn’t half bad.

But 10 Fox News Channel programs tracked ahead of “Reliable Sources” on Sundays. “MediaBuzz,” which airs at the same time and is hosted by former “Reliable Sources” host Howard Kurtz, pulled an average of 140,000 demo viewers in July. And total viewership for “MediaBuzz” was double that of Stelter’s last month, with an average of 1.2 million compared to just 663,000 for “Reliable Sources.”

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Despite the network’s denials, several outside observers suspect that Malone’s opinion was important in the removal of Stelter. “If you’re trying to go down the middle, and you have someone getting in scuffles with Fox News, that probably seems partisan, whether or not it is,” said Paul Hardart, NYU professor of entertainment, media and technology, and former Turner entertainment director of strategic planning.

“John Malone was probably one of the more important constituents that (Warner Bros. Discovery CEO) David Zaslav and Chris Licht might have to keep happy,” he said. “They’re trying to tack CNN back to more of a central news organization. Brian Stelter did get in the mix of calling out Fox News. So I think, whether valid or not, it did play into the polarization of what CNN had become, a representation of more of a left perspective, and I think that’s what they’re trying to get away from.”

Hardart also sees a potential financial gain from the network steering itself out of partisan political discourse. “In the future, they can go to advertisers and distribution partners and say, ‘Look, we are not political. We don’t have an agenda. We’re down the middle of the news.’ Their hope is ultimately that will lead to higher ratings, higher CPMs,” he said, referring to the monetary valuation for online ad impressions. “So I think that’s the game that they’re playing is that on a bigger, ultimately broader strategic standpoint — and maybe on a global standpoint — that it may ultimately be better strategically and financially.”

But another CNN insider voiced concerns about what Stelter’s ouster signals. “Maybe Warner Discovery just wants plain vanilla CNN, so that in time it just becomes a tab on a streaming service that doesn’t offend anyone,” this individual said. “Is that where the brand is heading — an inoffensive, boring, bland brand? I’d say that not possible.”

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