Stelter Skelter: Lionizing a Trump Basher (OPINION)

Stelter Skelter: Lionizing a Trump Basher (OPINION)

The Mediaverse by Dennis Kneale, TruthDAO Columnist

Mainstream media are fascinated with themselves. This is why they covered the cancellation of a low-rated Sunday morning news show as a blow to our democracy.

In mid-August, CNN killed “Reliable Sources,” anchored since 2013 by Brian Stelter, a vociferous critic of President Trump. Instantly, hordes of journalists spewed out hundreds of stories suggesting darker motives were at work. Some argued John Malone must be responsible.

Malone is a libertarian billionaire and the founder and chairman of Liberty Media, which, with a partner, holds a 40% stake in CNN's parent, Warner Bros. Discovery.

The New York Times -- Stelter's former employer – reported that Malone's stated interest in a more fair-and-balanced CNN “seemed to put Mr. Stelter… in possible “jeopardy.” This basically confirmed what critics of the show had been saying for a while: Stelter was biased.

The paper quoted an email from John Malone himself, saying he had “nothing to do with” the show’s cancellation. Malone is famously reclusive and rarely comments to reporters. At one time, a straight-up on-the-record denial like this one might have derailed a story. Now it is just more grist for the mill.

At the ultra-liberal New Yorker, the headline likewise suggested darker motives were in play: “A TV Face of the Trump Resistance Exits.” The story says Stelter “got the boot” because CNN’s new owners are “in thrall to the libertarian billionaire John Malone.”

Slate: “With Brian Stelter off the air, CNN seems determined to repeat the grotesque errors that led to President Trump.”  A question for Slate: Since when is "fair and balanced" grotesque?

Recode picked up the thread, declaring that “some people in and outside CNN believed there was a direct throughline between Malone’s perspective on CNN and Stelter’s departure.” Note the operative term: believed.

None of these supposed sleuths offered a single shred of evidence to confirm their hunches. No secret emails or recordings were found. No internal memos with Malone ordering CNN’s new chief, Chris Licht, to fire Stelter.

Nothing: just a bunch of surmise, rumor and speculation by unnamed wags wondering if he pulled the trigger.

NPR somberly reported that Licht's efforts to “return the cable channel to its news-driven roots” have “sparked concerns inside and outside the network.” In other words, "fair and balanced" offends CNN's openly liberal ranks – a remarkable turn, because for most of its 42 years of existence, fair and balanced was CNN's calling card.

Nowhere in all the coverage did anyone dare say it out loud: CNN went too far left and hurt its own business. This was also quite deliberate. Under the direction of the then-network chief, Jeffrey Zucker, CNN went all-in on demonizing President Trump, infecting straight news with politics and slanted reporting. Zucker’s not-so-hidden agenda also spilled over to Stelter’s show.

For a while, the gambit worked. With Zucker at the wheel, CNN in the 2Q 2020 drew its highest ratings ever. And as the presidential campaign heated up, so did “Reliable Sources” – viewership doubled to 1.4 million compared with 2Q 2019.

The network should have just called it "opinion" and reaped the ad revenue. But it didn’t, and by the time Stelter exited nothing was reliable about "Reliable Sources." It was also drawing its lowest ratings since 2015, pulling just 600,000 viewers, less than half the audience of Fox News in the same time slot. In the key ad target -- viewers ages 25 to 54 -- only 75,000 people were tuning in to listen to Stelter’s partisan rants, down 34% year-over-year.

The Wrap, a media and entertainment news site founded by former New York Times reporter Sharon Waxman, was one of the few news outlets to report these feeble numbers. The rest of the media ignored them, preferring, instead, to focus on the theory that Malone engineered his exit.

Chris Licht’s push to move CNN back to center, I am guessing, is more about business rather than ideology. Licht himself has impeccable liberal credentials. Before making the jump to CNN, he ran “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” which proudly leans way left.

Brian Stelter landed on his feet, taking a post as a fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School, where he will host chats on threats to democracy. Once any non-compete clause expires, media outlets may be clamoring to hire him – because Trump-bashing is still a hot commodity with seemingly limitless demand.

Dennis Kneale, @denniskneale on Twitter, is a media strategist and writer in New York. He spent more than 30 years at The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, CNBC, and Fox Business.