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“Is the potato baked?” a friend said to me about the Stelter rumors that are swirling.
Ten days ago Axios reported that CNN’s new boss, Chris Licht, had zeroed in on Stelter and Jim Acosta as particularly egregious partisans within a network line-up that reliably tilts liberal. Licht wants the new CNN to be less sensationalistic — no more “breaking news” banners unless there really is breaking news, for instance — and less overtly hostile to Republicans. Licht is “determined to tamp down spectacle and has discouraged the presentation of content in an alarmist fashion,” a source told Fox News. He’s been urging off-camera talent like producers and bookers to aim for interviews with “nuance,” not partisan shoutfests.
Evidently he wants CNN to be the just-the-facts alternative to partisan outlets like Fox and MSNBC, not a pale imitation of the latter, and as part of that effort he’s looking to prune some of the more crooked branches on the network tree in hopes of straightening it out. Jon Nicosia hears through the grapevine that Axios’s reporting was correct: Stelter is in Licht’s crosshairs.
They continue: “Management is confident Stelter is the one sharing the internal pushback to fellow media reporters while simultaneously stirring discontent within the ranks”
— Jon Nicosia (@NewsPolitics) June 15, 2022
Just a rumor. But Nicosia did anticipate the departure of CNN exec/Jeff Zucker girlfriend Allison Gollust several weeks before it happened.
Besides, Licht has other reasons to want Stelter gone besides partisan bias:
CNN’s media-centric show “Reliable Sources” hosted by Brian Stelter had its worst-rated episode since September 2019.
Stelter’s show logged just 580,000 last Sunday, and a mere 73,000 viewers in the all-important 25-to-54-year-old demographic, Fox News reported. The show lost 13% of the total audience and it marked Stelter’s smallest audience since Sept. 15, 2019.
What Nicosia says about Stelter being the face of Zucker-era CNN is true. His show, “Reliable Sources,” debuted less than a year after Zucker became president of CNN Worldwide. Acosta had already been at CNN for several years before Zucker arrived. Acosta is also known as a field correspondent, providing some value to the network by gathering hard news amid his opinionated bon mots about Trump and the GOP. Stelter is mainly a commentator whose news-gathering is restricted to the media industry — with a heavy emphasis on the goings-on at CNN rival Fox News. Non-essential coverage, in other words. Something that could easily be scaled back to sporadic appearances in a “contributor” role when something newsworthy is going on in the media industry.
I wonder if that’s what Licht has in mind for Stelter, canceling his show but keeping him around to do mostly off-camera media reporting. Probably not. For one thing, Stelter would presumably be asked to take a massive pay cut in his new role, which one would think he’d be unlikely to accept. For another, if Licht is serious about sending a message to the rest of the staff that the age of overt liberal bias is over, nothing would communicate that as starkly as a high-profile firing. Pour encourager les autres.
If all Licht wants is a media reporter on staff to comment occasionally on the industry, he can fill that niche for much less money than Stelter would want. Oliver Darcy, the other guy writing about media at CNN, could do it.
Forget firings, though: I’m curious to see how many staffers end up quitting CNN amid the new push from the top towards objectivity. Licht recently told employees that he dislikes the term “Big Lie” to describe Trump’s election conspiracy theories because it’s a phrase more commonly used by partisans and activists than news bureaus, something “more like a hashtag or bumper sticker” than a neutral description. It’s proper to note that Trump is lying about the election being rigged, he allowed, but he’d prefer that “Big Lie” be avoided. Some staff didn’t like that.
[Licht] He encouraged producers to instead use the terms “Trump election lie” or “election lies” in banners and graphics…
“It’s worrisome that we’re being told how to talk about one of the worst things that ever happened to American democracy,” a CNN insider told Mediaite. “We have to call lies, lies, whether they’re small lies or big lies. Is there any lie bigger than that lie?”
They speculated that the directive could be coming from Warner Bros. Discovery board member John Malone, who has criticized CNN’s approach to news under former boss Zucker.
“It seems to indicate where things are headed,” they added. “We didn’t have this problem until John Malone was sitting on the board of this company.”
Licht should probably just start firing people. It’ll be much easier to remake the Zucker culture with new blood.
In lieu of an exit question, read this Radar report of how Stelter’s CNN newsletter about the media covered — or didn’t cover, rather — the recent Axios story on Licht mulling his future at the network. In a case like that, said Radar’s source, one would think Stelter would turn the newsletter over to Darcy for the day and allow him to report on the Stelter news. Instead Stelter wrote the newsletter and buried the Axios item, saying of it only that “Sara Fischer reports that new CNN boss Chris Licht is evaluating network talent.” According to Radar’s source, “His days are numbered.”