Why Brian Stelter, CNN’s star media reporter and anchor Trusted sources shows, pushed out of work this week?
Inside and outside CNN there are two working theories.
But before we get to that, let’s talk about why we’re talking about Brian Stelter: Yes, people in the media care too much about other people in the media. And media reporters — like me — are even more guilty of this. But in this case, what happened to Stelter is important because it can tell us a lot about the future of CNN — one of the world’s most powerful news outlets — as well as Warner Brothers Discovery, the company that owns CNN along with some of the world’s most valuable cultural assets.
That’s the preamble. Here are the theories. Most importantly, they are not mutually exclusive.
That’s politics, dumbass
Here’s the juicy bit: In this version of events, Stelter is the victim of John Malone, the billionaire cable magnate and the most powerful investor in Warner Brothers Discovery Inc., which now owns CNN and the rest of what used to be Time Warner.
Malone’s politics are all right/libertarian, even though he was critical of Donald Trump during his administration. What’s more: Current and former CNN employees believe Malone’s view of CNN is completely colored by Fox News. “John Malone doesn’t watch CNN. John Malone only watches CNN through Fox News,” says a CNN employee. “If I watched CNN over Fox News, I would hate CNN too.”
And Stelter, who has spent much of the Trump era criticizing the American right’s embrace of disinformation, has already been targeted by Fox News anchors like Tucker Carlson, who delighted in mocking him. Then, after Stelter’s boss, Jeff Zucker, was fired in February, Stelter went after Malonewho said he wished CNN was more like Fox News because Fox News had “real journalism.”
When asked about this theory by the New York Times, Malone made one of the most candid admissions you’ll ever see a public figure speak under the guise of denial: “Mr. Malone said he wants the “news” part of CNN to be more centrist, but I have no control or direct involvement.
translation: Yes, I like this.
So in this theory, Malone believes that Stelter represents the excesses of CNN’s reporting. But it’s likely that Malone and his managers — Warner Brothers Discovery CEO David Zaslav and Chris Licht, the executive hired by Zaslav to replace Zucker — will find other CNN reporters they want off the air. Alternate theory: They won’t have to let anyone else go because they made an example of Stelter.
Then again, they might have to let a lot of people go because of theory no. 2:
It’s money, dumbass
As I wrote earlier this week, Warner Brothers Discovery has a heavy debt load, but Zaslav told investors that won’t matter, in part because it will find $3 billion in savings.
We’ve already seen signs of budget cuts in the company’s entertainment properties — like shelving Batgirl movie instead of releasing it and layoffs at HBOMax — but there will be a lot more cuts this fall. So Stelter, who reportedly earned close to a million dollars a yearwas an easy cut: his show, along with his daily media bulletin, was a big deal in media circles – check out this feature “Pet of the Day” by … David Zaslav – but not a big draw for normals.
Under Zaslav/Licht, CNN has already made one significant cut: We’re killing CNN+, its brand new streaming serviceweeks after it launched (disclosure: my editor and I are producers of a Vox Media made-for-CNN+ show).
But that may not be nearly enough to help the parent company hit its numbers. In that case, Stelter’s departure could be the first of many, and we’ll spend less time worrying about CNN’s politics and more time worrying about its ability to deliver first-rate news.
CNN says both of those theories are wrong: Licht is said to have gotten rid of Stelter and Trusted sources because he wants a different program on Sunday mornings. And CNN spokesman Matt Dornic told me the news outlet is under no pressure from its new owner to cut staff, noting that Licht has said he wants to hire more reporters.
Then again, there’s certainly a way to cut costs while adding people: you fire expensive people and replace them with cheaper ones.
I hate to say “wait and see” at the end of stories like this. But this is where we definitely have to see how it plays out. For starters, Stelter’s last show is on Sunday. The only thing I’m sure of is that he wants to use his swan song to talk about all of this.