For several years, Brian Stelter’s Sunday CNN show, “Reliable Sources,” has been a reliable source of intelligent criticism of Fox News, rightwing media in general, Trumpism, and the increasingly authoritarian lurch of the Republican Party.
Last week, CNN abruptly canceled the show and effectively fired Stelter and his staff.
Why? The show had good ratings and was commercially successful. (More people watched it than MSNBC.)
The show was cancelled by Chris Licht, CNN’s new chairman and CEO, who has said he wants less criticism of Trump and the Republican right. Licht has told staff they should stop referring to Trump’s “Big Lie” because the phrase sounds like a Democratic Party talking point. Licht also wants more conservative guests.
What’s motivating Licht? Follow the money.
CNN’s new corporate overseer is Warner Bros. Discovery, Inc., which now owns what used to be Time Warner, including CNN. The CEO of Warner Bros. Discovery is David Zaslav.
Zaslav has been prodding Licht to reposition CNN to have more “straight news reporting” and fewer “opinionated” views from hosts. Zaslav says he wants CNN to be for “everybody … Republicans, Democrats.”
But CNN is never going to be a network preferred by Republicans. Fox News has that sewn up. As Republicans move further rightward into the netherworld of authoritarianism, there’s even less possibility that CNN’s news coverage will be able to satisfy them, nor should CNN even try. If we’ve learned anything from Trump and his lapdogs at Fox News, it’s that facts, data, and logic are no longer relevant to the Republican base.
Even “straight news reporting” depends on what stories are featured, which facts are highlighted, and the context surrounding the news. How is it possible to report on Trump or Rudy Giuliani or any number of today’s Republican leaders and not speak of the Big Lie, or say they’ve broken norms if not laws?
The anti-democracy movement in America (as elsewhere) is among the biggest issues confronting us today. Is reporting on it considered “straight news” or “opinion?” Wouldn’t failing to report on it in a way that sounded alarms be a gross dereliction of duty?
So what’s motivating Zaslav? Keep following the money.
The leading shareholder in Warner Bros. Discovery is John Malone, a multi-billionaire cable magnate. (Malone was a chief architect in the merger of Discovery and CNN.) Malone describes himself as a “libertarian” although he travels in rightwing Republican circles. In 2005, he held 32 percent of the shares of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. He is on the board of directors of the Cato Institute. In 2017, he donated $250,000 to Trump’s inauguration.
Malone has said he wants CNN to be more like Fox News because, in his view, Fox News has “actual journalism.” Malone also wants the ‘news’ portion of CNN to be “more centrist.” Early last spring, Brian Stelter wrote in his newsletter that Malone’s comments “stoked fears that Discovery might stifle CNN journalists and steer away from calling out indecency and injustice.” (A source told Deadline’s Dominic Patten and Ted Johnson that even if Malone didn’t order Stelter’s ouster, “it sure represents his thinking.”)
When you follow the money behind deeply irresponsible decisions at the power centers of America today, the road often leads to rightwing billionaires.
On Sunday, his last show, Stelter said:
It’s not partisan to stand up for decency and democracy and dialogue. It’s not partisan to stand up to demagogues. It’s required. It’s patriotic. We must make sure we don’t give platforms to those who are lying to our faces.
Sadly, there are still many in America — and not just billionaires like Malone — who believe that holding Trump accountable for what he has done (and continues to do) to this country is a form of partisanship, and that such partisanship has no place in so-called “balanced journalism.” This view is itself dangerous.