In June, Axios.com media reporter Sara Fischer implied CNN Reliable Sources host Brian Stelter could be on the chopping block as new CNN CEO Chris Licht promised to give the network a less partisan tone. From my distant perch, I dismissed that out of hand….and turned out to be wrong.
NPR’s David Folkenflik reported Licht summoned Stelter to his office on August 17 and informed him he was no longer needed and his show was being cancelled. The usual corporate boilerplate followed as CNN executive Amy Entelis insisted “Stelter came to CNN from the New York Times as the nation’s top media reporter. He departs CNN an impeccable broadcaster.” Nice words to go with the pink slip.
In its early days with host Bernard Kalb, Reliable Sources was a predictable part of the stodgy CNN Sunday lineup. It was cozy in its embrace of the liberal media. Kalb reported on his old CBS News colleague Dan Rather attending a Democratic fundraiser in Travis County, Texas, and proclaimed “Dan himself has said that it’s a serious mistake, that he regrets it. But I don’t believe for an instant it will affect Dan’s constant pursuit of objectivity.”
Stelter took over the show in 2013 at the tender age of 28, but developed into one of the juiciest NewsBusters targets once Donald Trump came down his golden escalator into the presidential race in 2015. Perhaps the most mocked segment of that era was Stelter fawning over Michael Avenatti, the attorney for Trump-attacking porn star Stormy Daniels, on September 16, 2018.
As Avenatti made hundreds of appearances on the liberal networks, Stelter considered him a plausible presidential candidate. “Looking ahead to 2020, one reason why I’m taking you seriously as a contender is because of your presence on cable news.” But Avenatti’s future was going to prison.
The summit of the Trump derangement came on August 25, 2019, as Stelter’s guest Allen Frances proclaimed “Trump is as destructive a person in this century as Hitler, Stalin, and Mao were in the last century. He may be responsible for many more million deaths than they were.” Even PolitiFact was nudged to proclaim this was “Pants On Fire.”
Stelter never objected, then later claimed “I wish I had heard him say it, but I was distracted by tech difficulties.” If you have a serious staff, you could have spoken up before the end of the show to apologize for this whopper.
About a month later, Stelter and I appeared together in a panel discussion at the Paley Center in New York. He made a vague reference about when he had been called in for a discipline session at CNN, and I said “ooh, about what?” He wouldn’t divulge, but I would have guessed it was failing to interject on that “Worse Than Stalin and Hitler” junk.
On June 27, 2021, after watching a pile of Sean Hannity shows, he disparaged Hannity for uncorking a montage of words like “socialist, stalker, weak, failure, shameless, psychotic, indoctrination, hell holes.” But in the same segment, Stelter used “authoritarian, poisonous, abusive, propaganda, Big Lie, filth.” He proclaimed Hannity wasn’t offering “opnion,” he was offering “poison.” Did Stelter ever reflect on his own harsh verbiage?
CNN launched a ridiculous “Facts First” advertising campaign as it veered ever more heavily into opinion. But Stelter underlined the arrogance: “We’re not anti-Trump. We’re pro-truth.” When Kellyanne Conway referred to his side of the aisle, Stelter acted offended: “I’m not on a side of the aisle.”
CNN has a long way to go to get out of its “side of the aisle.”