Major changes were expected at CNN when longtime TV executive Chris Licht took over and signaled efforts to restore a less opinionated reputation to the network and improve programming – and the sudden exits of Jeffrey Toobin and now Brian Stelter appear to be putting his vision in place.
Less than a week after Toobin’s exit, the network announced Thursday that Stelter, the “Reliable Sources” host derided by conservatives for years as a “janitor” for liberal and mainstream media, was out. He’ll air one more show on Sunday.
The writing had been on the wall since high-powered media executive John Malone, a Warner Bros. Discovery board member who mentored CEO David Zaslav, declared last year CNN should revert to nonpartisan journalism once the liberal network was under the Discovery umbrella. Months later, on the heels of Zucker’s being forced out ahead of the long-planned merger, Stelter accused Malone of “not watching CNN directly” and relying on talking heads and columnists who complain about the network.
Stelter’s fate had long been sealed.
The day Licht was announced as CNN’s new chief in February, everyone around him knew Stelter was toast, a media insider told Fox News Digital. Those in his orbit had been expecting Stelter to be fired because Licht had complained to peers about the show being bad television. In axing Stelter, Licht’s desires to tack the network back to the middle and purge unexceptional broadcasters overlapped.
Effectively miscast as a political pundit in the wild Donald Trump era – he went all in on Russiagate, fawned over Andrew Cuomo’s coronavirus response, and once memorably played clean-up for race hoaxer Jussie Smollett – Stelter was a Jeff Zucker-era figure who didn’t fit in Licht’s world.
Licht, who accepted the role in February but didn’t officially begin until weeks later, quickly put an emphasis on “news,” amid an indication he wanted to distance CNN from the liberal reputation it developed under previous boss Zucker as CNN and President Trump became sharp mutual antagonists.
For the next several months, CNN toned down the non-stop “Breaking News,” graphic that became commonplace at the network and announced long-struggling morning show “New Day” would be “re-imagined,” but much of CNN remained the same. On-air pundits still expressed partisan views, Zucker-era liberals continued to thrive, and low-rated programs were kept on the schedule despite Licht’s goal to “tamp down spectacle” at the network.
The status quo began to change last week when Toobin, CNN’s legal analyst, announced his split with the network only 14 months after he was welcomed back after a bizarre scandal in which he was caught masturbating on a Zoom meeting with his New Yorker magazine colleagues in 2020. While Toobin claimed he “decided” to leave, insiders told Fox News Digital he likely wasn’t given a choice considering Licht’s goal to restore the network’s credibility under newly formed parent company, Warner Bros. Discovery.
The polarizing Stelter emerged as one of the CNN personalities who conservatives loved to hate because of his constant criticism of non-liberal news organizations and unremitting disapproval of Republicans. NewsBusters managing editor Curtis Houck, who monitors liberal media, feels Stelter was doing more harm than good.
“Stelter departs CNN having done damage to both the network’s reputation and the wider media’s reputation like few others could do. Positing himself as a media reporter looking to help explain the journalism profession to the public and show how stories are made and shaped, Stelter actually exposed the national press for the knavish liberal partisans that they’ve become by inadvertently displaying their arrogance and childish refusal to accept even mild outside criticism,” Houck told Fox News Digital.
“His rancorous apologies, dismissals, and omissions of major media stories and failures only deepened his reputation as the liberal media’s janitor and a hate object on the right,” Houck continued. “With this move and Jeffrey Toobin’s departure last week, these last seven days could mark the beginning of a turning point for CNN under Chris Licht.”
However, Houck feels that “CNN’s tone and tenor remains indistinguishable” from the Zucker era when it comes to the on-air product.
“At the end of the day, that’s what will matter most to viewers in terms of giving them even a scintilla of trust,” Houck said.
Licht, who spent the summer assessing who should stick around through a thorough review of all talent and executives, still needs to clean house, according to an industry insider with ties to CNN.
“Brian Stelter is one of the most embarrassing legacies of Jeff Zucker, and it’s no surprise he’s one of the first people the new regime has fired. But canning Stelter is just CNN shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic,” the insider told Fox News Digital.
“The partisan liberal rot goes way deeper,” the insider continued. “Chris Licht will need to take a sledgehammer to the place to make any meaningful change and if past is prologue that will never happen.”
Stelter first rose in the industry as a TV blogger in college and earned a reputation as a tireless reporter at the New York Times. He penned a book on the morning news wars and was eventually hand-picked by Zucker to join CNN and take over the Sunday morning media program in 2013, the same year Zucker arrived.
Puck’s Dylan Byers, who previously worked alongside Stelter at CNN, wrote that his former colleague was largely known as “Zucker’s in-house media operative” and reported that “many began to wonder if Stelter was vulnerable” once Zucker was shown the door ahead of a long-planned merger that put CNN under the control of Warner Bros. Discovery.
“It was a curiosity that resurfaced after Licht was hired,” Byers wrote.
Licht had a front-row seat for one of Stelter’s most embarrassing moments, as he was executive producer of CBS’ “The Late Show” in 2021 when host Stephen Colbert held the CNN reporter’s feet to the fire over his network’s “odd conflict of rules” regarding then-anchor Chris Cuomo. The exchange was shocking, as Stelter was forced to defend his employer’s handling of Cuomo to Colbert, who was presumably expected to be friendly to the fellow liberal. It became even more embarrassing weeks later when Zucker was forced to fire Cuomo, largely over the scandals Stelter was forced to defend.
“In many ways, [Stelter’s] departure is perhaps the true end of the Zucker era,” Byers wrote.
Outkick media columnist Bobby Burack also feels Stelter didn’t stand a chance under CNN’s new ownership.
“He had become really a face of what I think Chris Licht wanted to get away from, which is, you know, a network that’s going to unfairly cover conservative news media, you know, whether the criticism is always valid or not. That became the perception and perception for a network like that is the reality,” Burack told Fox News Digital, noting Warner Bros. Discovery executives “were unable to meet the mission that they set out to conquer” with Stelter and Toobin on the roster.
“As far as Stelter, I think he’ll be fine. I know the cool move now is to bury him, and look, I don’t think he was a good fit for this new era of CNN with Jeff Zucker no longer there. But I think he will have a market because whether you like him or not, he does drum up a lot of reaction,” Burack continued. “Overall, it’s a good move for both sides. For CNN, you’re getting rid of someone who hurt your reputation that you wanted to change. And for Stelter, he’s probably going to go somewhere now more aligned with the way he wants to cover the news.”
Others mourned his exit and scolded CNN for canceling the show.
“The problem is that killing Reliable Sources doesn’t move CNN closer to the center as much as it confirms what the network’s worst critics have said, and hands those people the satisfaction of seeing Stelter dismissed. CNN in effect amplified those voices when it could easily have defended its longest-running show and made it a part of the network’s future,” Forbes contributor Mark Joyella wrote Thursday.
It’s unclear what other changes are in store at CNN, where it appears Licht is finally putting his stamp on the network. In June, Stelter and Jim Acosta were called out by an Axios media reporter as the faces of “the network’s liberal shift” in the eyes of conservatives. While Stelter is gone, Acosta remains despite a long history of sharp editorializing in his reporting. After a bombastic run as White House correspondent where he constantly clashed with the Trump White House, he began hosting an unabashedly left-wing weekend program.
The future of CNN’s “New Day” is also unclear, but Licht announced earlier this year that it would be “re-imagined.” Current co-host Brianna Keilar has developed a reputation for combative interviews with conservatives, and it’s not publicly known if she will be part of the revamped morning program which is expected to begin this fall.
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