Final Edition of “Reliable Sources” Raises Questions About CNN’s Future

From The Poynter Report with Tom Jones:

The media world is still buzzing over the news that CNN has canceled its show about the media, “Reliable Sources,” and parted ways with the show’s host and the network’s top media reporter, Brian Stelter.

What does this say, if anything, about CNN’s philosophies under new ownership? What led to this? What’s next for Stelter?

We’ll get into all that in a moment, but first, “Reliable Sources” aired Sunday for the final time, ending its 30-year run on the network.

First a comment: Sunday was a sad day for CNN, and a sad day for those who closely watch the media. “Reliable Sources” was an important and informative show, holding the media to account and highlighting the very best of journalism. It also shined a light on obstacles that journalists face and their importance in our democracy.

The show and Stelter also exposed, when necessary, the flaws with the media. And that — calling out, for example, Fox News — might have partly done Stelter in. CNN, it is believed, is trying to move away from ramming heads with the conservative network. Those who run the network and its new parent company, Warner Bros. Discovery, seem to think that means being more in the middle and avoiding pointed criticism, particularly of the right.

Former CNN president Tom Johnson put it well when he wrote that “Reliable Sources” was created 30 years ago by network leaders who “felt very deeply that media organizations have a responsibility to report and evaluate the journalism profession itself.” He added, “Media are very powerful institutions that should be held accountable. Reliable Sources sought to do that for almost 30 years. I will miss it enormously.”

In his closing remarks after nine years hosting the “Reliable Sources,” Stelter acknowledged on Sunday that it was unusual for a news network to allow a show to air one final time after announcing the show had been canceled. He called it a “super strange situation” and said no one from CNN management reviewed his script ahead of time.

He thanked his family, former CNN boss Jeff Zucker, the “Reliable Sources” team and even new CNN chairman Chris Licht, the man who fired him, for allowing the show to air one last time. He then talked about the show and the importance of the media and media criticism.

“The hard part was sorting out the treasure from the trash,” Stelter said. “These are thorny, complicated things. I know I never had all the answers. I didn’t always even have all the questions. But it was the gift of a lifetime to get to confront these issues on international television with the backing of CNN.”

As expected, Stelter was classy, but appeared to send a message to his now former network and address his ousting by saying, “I know it’s not partisan to stand up for decency and democracy and dialogue. It’s not partisan to stand up to demagogues. It’s required. It’s patriotic. We must make sure we don’t give platforms to those who are lying to our faces. But we also must make sure we are representing the full spectrum of debate and representing what’s going on in this country and the world.”

He went to implore CNN to “be strong” and said it was up to “you” (the audience) to hold CNN and other media accountable.

Stelter’s closing comments came after an hour of highlighting the media industry, including threats against journalists and an attempt by some to paint the media as the enemy of the people. Guests included famed Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein, Committee to Protect Journalists president Jodie Ginsberg, The Atlantic editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg, NPR TV critic Eric Deggans, Insider media reporter Claire Atkinson and CNN media analyst and longtime Baltimore Sun media critic David Zurawik.

Zurawik talked about the belief that CNN wants to become more “centrist” and the idea that some viewers just want “the facts.”

“Facts are not enough,” Zurawik said, “Yes, facts first. Context. Explanatory journalism, which this show does. You have to explain the situation. … You can give the facts, but sometimes the facts don’t tell you anything if you don’t give a context.”

Deggans added that there is a problem when people put a “political lens on top of something that is about preserving democracy and about holding politicians accountable.”

For example, Deggans continued, when you have someone calling the press the “enemy of the people,” saying he won an election that he did not, and blaming immigrants for America’s problems, you must have responsible journalism in place to call out those lies without being seen as biased.

“I hope that what we’re not going to see CNN do is institute some sort of false equivalence where the extremism of one party is balanced with the regular dysfunction of another party,” Deggans said. “We need to be free to call out when someone breaks the law, when someone breaks norms, when someone introduces prejudices and stereotypes to the public debate.”

Deggans added, “Will CNN have the courage to do that? I hope so.”

That’s the question people who care about journalism  are asking today.

On Friday, a day after the Stelter news became public, Licht told editorial staff on a call that more changes at the network are coming. According to multiple reports, Licht said, “I want to acknowledge that this is a time of significant change, and I know that many of you are unsettled. There will be more changes, and you might not understand it or like it.”

There is plenty of speculation that CNN is going to tamp down on punditry and try to present more of a down-the-middle-approach. But The Hollywood Reporter’s Alex Weprin wrote, “On Friday’s call, Licht praised Stelter and his work, and criticized media reporters speculating about CNN’s programming plans, adding that no one outside the company knows them.”

According to Weprin, Licht told staff, “Give it a minute, see how things develop, and then have feedback.”

Weprin also wrote, “The subtle changes at the executive level, combined with the limited tweaks to on-air programming, had led some staff to think that CNN’s future would bear a close resemblance to its status quo. But the move to cancel Reliable underscored that change is coming.”

Meanwhile, Deadline’s Dominic Patten and Ted Johnson wrote that a source told them that CNN has wanted to retool its Sunday morning lineup and that a show specifically about the media industry wasn’t as appealing as a more widespread news show. That explains moving “Reliable Sources” out of Sunday morning, but getting rid of the show and Stelter entirely seems to be about more than just reprogramming Sunday mornings.

Could CNN target other on-air personalities who are outspoken about their views? The Wrap’s Sharon Waxman reports that a source told them that Don Lemon and Jim Acosta — two CNN names immediately hopping around the rumor mill in the wake of Stelter’s dismissal — are safe. Waxman wrote, “The individual with knowledge said that despite the speculation, there has been no plan set by CNN’s new CEO and chairman, Chris Licht, beyond the decision of Stelter and the exiting of legal analyst Jeff Toobin last week. A CNN insider said that ‘no decisions are being made’ yet and said only that Licht is ‘weeks away’ from announcing major programming changes.”

I thought this was a smart passage in a piece about Stelter from The New Yorker’s Clare Malone: “Figures like Stelter, CNN bosses seem to have determined, endanger their ability to appeal to a wider audience. It’s unclear, though, whether the mealy-mouthed center will hold any allure, either.”

First and last guest

Stelter’s final guest was the first guest ever on “Reliable Sources”: Brian Karem, who appeared on the debut show March 7, 1992. Karem then was talking about the line between aggressive journalism and rudeness after he made news by shouting a question at George H.W. Bush during a press briefing when Bush was president. Karem had been a reporter at KMOL-TV in San Antonio and had been fired over the incident.

Final words

Stelter’s final words on CNN: “The free world needs a reliable source.”

Meanwhile, what’s the competition saying?

Howie Kurtz, who was once a host of “Reliable Sources,” now hosts a media show at Fox News called “MediaBuzz.” It airs in the same time slot that “Reliable Sources” did. Kurtz weighed in on the demise of “Reliable Sources” and Stelter on his show Sunday.

Kurtz said, “When you have two media shows going head-to-head and the one with less than half the ratings gets taken off the air, that might be considered part of the story. (‘Reliable Sources’) had been my show. I helped build that franchise, and I was very proud of being fair to conservatives, liberals, independents and everyone else. It was a different era at CNN.”

He added, “Fairness is the brand I brought here. Not everyone wants balance, they just want you to be on their team. But I believe we’ve shown there’s a loyal audience that grades fairness over partisanship. So now, there’s only one media analysis program on national television, and you’re watching it.”

As a media observer, I also tune in regularly to “MediaBuzz.” I rarely quote it in my newsletter. There’s a reason for that.

What’s Next?

Stelter did not reveal what’s next — not that he would already know. As far as the “Reliable Sources” media newsletter that he headed up, that will now be turned over to Oliver Darcy, who has helped co-write the newsletter for the past couple of years. As I wrote last week, Darcy said he will take a few weeks off from the newsletter and then return with a “reimagined” newsletter. Licht used that exact same word — reimagined — when talking to staff on Friday.

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