Why was Brian Stelter, CNN’s star media reporter and host of its Reliable Sources show, pushed out of his job this week?
Inside and outside of CNN, there are two working theories.
But before we get there, let’s talk about why we’re talking about Brian Stelter: Yes, people in media care way too much about other people in media. And media reporters — like me — are even guiltier of this. But in this case, what happened to Stelter matters because it may 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. Crucially, they are not mutually exclusive.
It’s the politics, stupid
This is the juicy one: 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 called Time Warner.
Malone’s politics lean quite right/libertarian, though he was also critical of Donald Trump during his administration. More to the point: Current and former CNN employees believe Malone’s view of CNN is entirely colored by Fox News. “John Malone doesn’t watch CNN. John Malone only watches CNN via Fox News,” says a CNN employee. “If I watched CNN via Fox News, I would hate CNN too.”
And Stelter, who spent most of the Trump era criticizing the American right’s embrace of disinformation, was already a target of Fox News hosts like Tucker Carlson, who delighted in lampooning him. Then, after Stelter’s boss, Jeff Zucker, was pushed out in February, Stelter went after Malone, who had said he wished CNN was more like Fox News because Fox News had “actual journalism.”
Asked about this theory by the New York Times, Malone gave one of the most candid admissions you’ll ever see a public person make in the guise of a denial: “Mr. Malone said he wants “the ‘news’ portion of CNN to be more centrist, but I am not in control or directly involved.”
Translation: Yes, this pleases me.
So in this theory, Malone believes Stelter represents the excesses of CNN’s coverage. But presumably Malone and his managers — Warner Brothers Discovery CEO David Zaslav and Chris Licht, the executive Zaslav hired to replace Zucker — will find other CNN journalists they want off the air as well. Alternate theory: They won’t need to let go of anyone else because they’ve made an example of Stelter.
Then again, maybe they’ll need to let go of a lot of people because of theory No. 2:
It’s the money, stupid
As I wrote earlier this week, Warner Brothers Discovery has a heavy debt load, but Zaslav has told investors that won’t matter, in part because he’s going to find $3 billion in savings.
We’ve already seen signs of budget-cutting in the company’s entertainment properties — like shelving a Batgirl movie instead of releasing it and layoffs at HBOMax — but there will be many more cuts to come this fall. So Stelter, who reportedly made close to $1 million a year, was an easy cut: His show, along with his daily media newsletter, was a big deal in media circles — see this “Pet of the Day” submission from … David Zaslav — but not a huge draw for normals.
Under Zaslav/Licht, CNN has already made one significant cut: Killing off CNN+, its brand-new streaming service, weeks after it launched (disclosure: My editor and I are producers on a show Vox Media made for CNN+).
But that may not be anything close to enough to help the parent company hit its numbers. In which 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 provide first-class news coverage.
CNN says both of those theories are wrong: It says Licht got rid of Stelter and Reliable Sources because it wants different programming on Sunday mornings. And CNN spokesman Matt Dornic told me that the news service is under no pressure from its new owner to reduce headcount, noting that Licht has said he wants to hire more journalists.
Then again, there’s certainly a way to reduce costs while adding people: You let go of expensive people and replace them with cheaper ones.
I hate saying “wait and see” at the end of stories like this. But this is one where we definitely need to see how it plays out. For starters, Stelter’s last show is on Sunday. The only thing I’m sure about is that he wants to use his swan song to talk about all of this.