In 2018, a flattering profile of the host of CNN’s Reliable Sources, Brian Stelter, appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review. In it, Stelter declared, “Trump is the biggest story in the world, and I’m never going to apologize for covering the biggest story in the world…. All roads lead back to Trump.”
They certainly did for Stelter. A former New York Times media reporter, Stelter took over the Sunday-morning media show in 2013 and quickly became a one-man whirlwind of Reliable Sources content, hosting the cable network’s Sunday-morning television show while also regularly appearing on other CNN programs and podcasts and churning out a popular newsletter.
Since 2016, the vast majority of this content focused on one subject: Donald Trump. No issue related to the former president was too small for Stelter’s unwavering gaze. The CJR profile described a typical day for Stelter, with him toggling “between windows on his laptop, making changes to chyrons and tweaking language attacking Donald Trump’s spelling errors, all while waving at his daughter Sunny, who watches him work via FaceTime.” The reporter also noticed “the new Apple Watch on his wrist [that] alerts him to the latest Trump tweets.”
Stelter’s brief against Trump wasn’t limited to grammatical oversight. He anointed himself one of the media’s spiritual leaders in the fight against Trumpism. “Stelter sees Reliable Sources, which airs every Sunday at 11am, as his pulpit,” the CJR noted. Stelter’s wife, an on-air traffic reporter in New York City, added that, since Trump’s election, Stelter saw his job not merely as media criticism but as leading a battle for truth.
As his profile rose, so did Stelter’s sense of his own importance as one of the nation’s foremost Trump antagonists. Speaking to the New York Times Book Review about his 2020 bestseller, Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News, and the Dangerous Distortion of Truth, Stelter claimed that it was not merely another anti-Trump screed but was actually a source of healing to a nation of fractured families: “I keep hearing from readers who say Hoax helps them understand their own family a little bit better. There are so many families that are divided by Fox and Trump. I think a lot of people have been surprised by just how deep and how corrupt the roots are—how there’s been collusion between Fox and Trump right in plain sight the whole time, and yet it’s not often recognized.”
Sadly, Stelter’s mission to heal our divided nation has recently been compromised. In August, CNN announced that it was shuttering Reliable Sources and firing its host.
Some observers believe that Stelter’s ousting was part of new CNN chairman Chris Licht’s efforts to rebrand the network as less partisan in the post-Trump era. Others have speculated that Stetler’s bona fides as a journalist covering the media suffered an unrecoverable injury when he failed to report on a large media scandal in his own backyard: the firing of CNN boss Jeff Zucker for having an affair with a staffer. (The affair was an open secret at CNN and throughout New York media circles.)
There is a simpler explanation: The show was bad, and its ratings were bad, and it was increasingly embarrassing itself with its combination of self-seriousness and inadvertent cluelessness. Despite Stelter’s repeated claims to be a media watchdog (and his previous experience as a decent newspaper reporter), during the Trump years he turned into one of the mainstream media’s most shameful—and shamefully partisan—apologists.
Consider the types of people he would book on his show to inform his viewers. He sought to help rehabilitate the ousted newscaster Dan Rather, the man who did more to discredit the mainstream media with his false 2004 story on George W. Bush than anyone else in this country’s history. He was also a key promoter of Michael Avenatti, the lawyer who sued Trump on behalf of the president’s former one-night stand, Stormy Daniels. Stelter literally urged Avenatti on-air to run for president. Avenatti is now serving time in federal prison for attempting to extort money from his clients. And when Stelter included “scholars” and “experts” on his show to bolster criticism of Trump, their tone mirrored Stelter’s own special brand of Trump hyperbole: A former Duke University psychiatry professor claimed in 2019 that “Trump is as destructive a person in this century as Hitler, Stalin, and Mao were in the last century. He may be responsible for many more million deaths than they were.”
Rather than engage in criticism of his own industry (at least, the nonconservative segment of it), he took to chiding CNN viewers for failing to appreciate the existential importance of his employer. “I don’t want to sound—tell me if this is too grandiose,” he said on a podcast. “The world and the country are better off when CNN is strong, and when brands like CNN are strong.”
Yet one of the reasons viewers were losing trust in outlets like CNN was that during the Trump years, those outlets abandoned any pretense of objectivity and instead embraced partisan bias as mission critical. By the end of his show’s run, with Trump out of the White House, Stelter was reduced to offering on-air recaps and manufactured outrage about the previous week’s offerings on CNN competitor Fox News, with special ire reserved for Tucker Carlson (whose show remains the most-watched on cable).
No wonder Stelter spent his final weeks at CNN indulging in a parade of platitudes and self-regard rather than critical reflection. “It was a rare privilege to lead a weekly show focused on the press at a time when it has never been more consequential,” he told NPR, noting how grateful he was for having the chance to cover “the media, truth, and the stories that shape our world.”
His final show was a murderer’s row of media sanctimony, with Carl Bernstein intoning, “The truth is not neutral” and reminding viewers, “The most important story in the world today” is “the pendulum swinging against democracy all over the world.”
Jeffrey Goldberg, editor of the Atlantic, chimed in as well. “Authoritarians, in order to stay in power, need to convince the people that the press is the enemy,” he said. And viewers who stayed with Stelter’s show until the bitter end no doubt knew exactly whom Goldberg was invoking. Likewise, National Public Radio TV critic Eric Deggans complained to Stelter, “I think the problem is that people put a political lens on top of something that is about preserving democracy, and about holding politicians accountable.”
Sympathetic postmortems about Reliable Sources were everywhere. Writing in the Columbia Journalism Review, Jon Allsop argued, “Reserving even one weekly hour of cable airtime—a finite commodity, unlike the internet—to let the media examine itself was, at the very least, a symbolic statement about the value of self-examination, and of placing it squarely in front of viewers who might not otherwise give much thought to the way the press works. Muddying that statement would have been sad at any moment. At this moment, it’s unjustifiable.”
Fellow media critic Dan Froomkin offered a more histrionic take: Stelter as MAGA martyr. By canceling a poorly rated show, CNN was not making a business decision but “capitulating to disinformation rather than fighting it,” Froomkin wrote. This was “essentially a peace offering from CNN to the know-nothing maga mob.” Stelter himself apparently agrees. As Dylan Byers of the online site Puck recently reported, “In private conversations with some former colleagues,… [Stelter] has floated the idea that he might be worthy of another moniker: ‘sacrificial lamb.’”
For several years, the relentless focus on Trump was hugely profitable for mainstream media, even as it was damaging to our nation’s civic conversation. It would be easy to dismiss Stelter as one of many who suffered from “Trump Derangement Syndrome.” But that was not his affliction. Journalists like Stelter were not deranged by Trump. Rather, they willingly allowed themselves to be enlisted in his monomania, and in doing so became accomplices in its growth and metastasis.
Photo: Ståle Grut / NRKbeta
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