On Wednesday afternoon, I got a text from a reliable source that Brian Stelter, the host of CNN’s Reliable Sources and the lead author of its late-night newsletter of the same name, had been summoned to C.E.O. Chris Licht’s office. Apparently, Stelter emerged from the meeting looking ashen and refused to talk about the conversation with anyone. His co-author, Oliver Darcy, wrote Wednesday evening’s newsletter by himself. This morning, I confirmed that Stelter will be leaving CNN. His last episode of Reliable Sources will be this Sunday.
Stelter’s departure is both totally unsurprising and yet completely and utterly stunning. Eleven years ago, he emerged onto the scene as David Carr’s younger sidekick in Page One, the documentary about The New York Times’ critical struggles during the financial crisis. At the time, he was a lowly junior media reporter whom the Times, long blinded by the transformations in its own industry, had hired to cover news at a more new-media pace. And unlike most Timesmen, who hail from Harvard or Yale and traditionally climbed the greasy pole of journalism through its exalted regional players, Brian had gone to Towson University and started his own obsessive blog about the TV news industry, TVNewser.
In the film, Stelter evidenced many of the charms that would make him a media player: he was obsessed with the industry, and loved getting his views and opinions out on Twitter, and yet despite this new media prowess he undeniably respected the talents of his old media elders. He revered the late Carr and Bill Carter, a Times reporter and author of The Late Shift, the classic tale of the Leno–Letterman imbroglio. Stelter’s star rose further when his reporting penetrated 30 Rock’s indelicate defenestration of Ann Curry. His byline frequented A1, and his source base in TV news was legendary. His book, Top of the Morning, was excerpted for a New York Times Magazine cover and would go on to be partly adapted into Apple’s Morning Show.
While at the Times, Stelter was subsequently assigned a magazine story on Jeff Zucker, the new president of CNN, whom he had covered during his years running NBCU. Eventually, Stelter had to turn down the piece because, in fact, he would be going to work at CNN to take over Reliable Sources, the poorly-rated and occasionally pedantic Sunday daytime show, from Howard Kurtz. “He grew up in the digital space, and has covered the media industry for his entire career,” Zucker said at the time. “Brian has a keen understanding of this field—as both a journalist covering the industry and as an innovator—first, by creating his own digital platform, and second, by also leveraging the countless ways information is disseminated to enhance his storytelling. I’m thrilled to welcome him to CNN to this newly broadened role.”
In the intervening years, Stelter would increasingly be viewed as Zucker’s in-house media operative. Reliable Sources remained a reliably poorly rated show, but Stelter threw his ambition behind growing CNN digital’s media reporting ranks (he eventually hired me), and dipping his toe in the burgeoning newsletter game. Reliable Sources, the show, may have been a tree falling in the woods, but Reliable Sources, the newsletter, quickly proved invaluable as a messaging platform, effectively becoming the town crier of the political-media-TV set.
During these years, and especially during the Trump era, Stelter also notably pivoted his personal mandate and interests beyond media to political media, and perhaps simply politics, itself. He began to brand himself as a chest-beating proponent of press freedoms (of course, who in their right mind would disagree), but he often articulated his case on his own show and on his colleagues’ platforms with a sanctimony that allowed some to question his motives. Was he standing up for journalism, or monetizing Trump’s distortions? As the Tucker Carlson right began to view CNN as the bugle of the entrenched liberal elite, Brian became pilloried as Zucker’s own Baghdad Bob—an unfair caricature that was unfortunately exacerbated by daily fulminations in his newsletter and his mega-bestselling book on Trumpism’s impact on right wing media, Hoax.
During the Zucker era, Brian was untouchable—a star at CNN that, while not on the level of Anderson Cooper, populated a tier that included Chris Cuomo, perhaps Don Lemon, and maybe even Jake Tapper. Indeed, Stelter was close enough to Zucker that in the days after his sudden departure from the network, earlier this year, Brian often looked gut-punched on air, as if he’d lost a relative. After all, that layer of protection was perhaps vital; as David Zaslav’s Discovery prepared to merge with the spun-out WarnerMedia assets, the all-powerful Zaz mentor John Malone had preached openly about returning CNN to its roots as a bipartisan news network that covered nothing but the facts. In media circles, many began to wonder if Stelter was vulnerable. It was a curiosity that resurfaced after Licht was hired to lead the network and immediately decamped to an executive floor, far from Zucker’s newsroom office, which suggested that he was going to evaluate talent and programming in a safe space at a different altitude.
During the early months of Licht’s tenure, I’d heard from sources that Licht and Stelter had not evidenced much interpersonal chemistry. And certainly, in the eyes of Warner Bros. Discovery C.F.O. Gunnar Wiedenfels, Stelter may have looked like a generous salary on a poorly rated show. But in many ways, his departure is perhaps the true end of the Zucker era, as Licht continues to refashion the network according to Zaz’s do-more-with-less (and-cut-the-liberal-B.S.) mandate.
What Stelter does next will be a fascinating litmus test for where media is going. In retrospect, he was a new-media media guy who was enchanted by the perks of the old time game, and has been spit out during the prime of his career amid the epic transformation, as linear rolls across the long bridge to nowhere. Something makes me think he’s not simply content with a life spent writing books or filling out a Substack. What he does, in fact, could become a harbinger for the next wave of TV talent who receive the tap on the shoulder from Gunnar, or anyone else. In the old days, a guy like Stelter would have walked out of Hudson Yards with his banker’s box and taken a cab to 30 Rock to meet with the competition. But those days are over.