The other shoe finally dropped on Reliable Sources, NPR’s David Folkenflik reports. CNN’s beleaguered efforts in media criticism will come to an end this weekend. Host Brian Stelter has also been let go, but will have one last show to address his audience:
CNN is canceling its Sunday media affairs show Reliable Sources, and host Brian Stelter is departing the network, Stelter tells NPR.
In a statement to NPR, Stelter says he’s grateful for the show and his team’s examination of “the media, truth and the stories that shape our world.”
It was apparently not a mutual decision. Folkenflik suggests that it was the outcome of a personal conflict with Warner/Discovery investor John Malone, who had made it clear that he wants CNN to get back to its straight-news origins:
CNN chief Chris Licht informed Stelter of the decision yesterday. Licht has been making cuts throughout the network since taking the helm as part of Warner Bros. Discovery’s takeover of the old Time Warner company. Stelter, who often touted the show’s ratings on Twitter, was among those CNN hosts targeted for frequent criticism from conservatives for his coverage of the media in the Trump years.
Among those publicly joining in on the broader criticism of CNN as having become politicized was the investor John Malone, a major financial stakeholder of the new WarnerDiscovery conglomerate. In an episode on February, Stelter cited Malone more than a dozen times in coverage of the Discovery deal for CNN and its sister properties, expressing some concern about the investor’s influence.
Just how personal could this have been, though? Folkenflik’s correct that Stelter used to brag about the ratings on Reliable Sources, but those days are long gone. Back in June, Fox News — Stelter’s sole obsession in media criticism — reported that Stelter’s ratings had collapsed:
CNN’s “Reliable Sources” with left-wing host Brian Stelter had its lowest-rated episode since September 2019 on Sunday when only 580,000 viewers tuned into the struggling program.
“Reliable Sources” also struggled in the advertiser-coveted demographic of adults age 25-54, averaging only 73,000 viewers from the critical category. Stelter’s program shed 13% of the total audience who tuned into the show that precedes it, “Fareed Zakaria GPS,” and lost 25% of Zakaria’s viewers among the demo. It was Stelter’s smallest audience since Sept. 15, 2019.
With those numbers, it’s a miracle that Licht kept Stelter on the air at all this summer. He didn’t need Malone’s input to know what to do with a show that loses 13% of its carryover audience and 25% in the target demo.
The sudden push to get Stelter out might signal some other decisions for on-air personalities. Is Don Lemon next? Last week Lemon insisted that CNN wasn’t trying to achieve political neutrality, which is an interesting statement for a news organization:
Charlamagne referenced reports and public commentary indicating that Licht, the new president of CNN, and Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav want to drive the network toward non-partisan news coverage.
“[Licht] wants to shift CNN from an opinion-based partisanship news to the political center. Will you still be able to call it like it is?” Charlamagne asked.
“Let me just say, I don’t think that’s exactly what Chris is saying,” Lemon responded during the episode airing last Friday. “I think that’s a narrative that has been placed in the medium. I think what Chris wants to do is to be able to have Republicans and Democrats and whatever your political stance is on CNN so that you can be accountable and that you can answer for it.”
“Yes, I will be able to do what I do on CNN – which is to tell the truth, which is to inform the American public and also the world, because we’re an international news organization. So if I’m not allowed to do that, then I will go on and do it somewhere else,” Lemon added.
Is that what Licht and Malone are saying, though? They seem more interested in bringing back a hard-news personality to CNN rather than a hard-opinion vibe. On the other hand, Lemon is doing better in the demo than Stelter did. If this is just business, that might be enough, at least for a while. Licht gave Stelter a long time to right his ship, so maybe Lemon will get a little longer.
Update: Looks like CNN is out of the media criticism business altogether, at least as its own show:
The entire "Reliable Sources" staff have been laid-off @CNN
— Claire Atkinson 🏴 (@claireatki) August 18, 2022
It’s just business … not personal, it seems.