Watchdogging the watchdogs won’t be ”as broad of a conversation“ in mainstream media, experts tell TheWrap
CNN has no plans to replace Brian Stelter’s just-canceled “Reliable Sources” with another media-focused show in the foreseeable future, TheWrap has learned.
“There are a number of programs in the concept and development phases, and it’s possible media coverage will be an element of a show,” a network insider told TheWrap, “but no indication that an exclusively media beat show is part of the plan.”
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A CNN spokesperson didn’t immediately respond to TheWrap’s request for comment.
Experts say that the cancellation of the show — launched after attacks on media coverage of the Gulf War in 1993 — exacerbates the dearth of mainstream media criticism given media critic Margaret Sullivan’s recent departure from The Washington Post and columnist Ben Smith’s exit from The New York Times
Without “Reliable Sources,” media criticism won’t be “as broad of a conversation,” said Christina Bellantoni, who teaches journalism at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. “It’s definitely a gap. For me, it felt like the show and general media criticism allowed those conversations to be had by more people.”
Angelo Carusone, president and CEO of Media Matters, a liberal media watchdog group, noted that the program’s place on the Sunday morning lineup gave it a “position of significance” that was leveraged “to influence or shape the broader trends in media coverage.”
The end of CNN’s series, part of the network’s pivot to less-partisan programming under new CEO Chris Licht, leaves Fox News’ “MediaBuzz” as the only media-focused show on cable or network TV. “MediaBuzz” is hosted by Howard Kurtz, who hosted “Reliable Sources” for 15 years before jumping to Fox News in 2013.
“MediaBuzz” may be the last show standing, but it’s also the healthiest, ratings-wise. According to Nielsen, the Fox morning show got 1.4 million viewers last Sunday — while Stelter’s final installment of “Reliable Sources” managed only 769,000 viewers.
Carusone is wary of “MediaBuzz,” with Kurtz’s more right-leaning approach to media criticism, becoming the last televised voice on the subject. “I’m not sure that it has influence beyond sort of a small circle directly, but it’s a lone voice, and that does itself have some significance,” he said. “It’s going to give it a position to define narratives without a counterbalance.”
Still, Kurtz has also won fans praising his balanced approach to media. “I’ve always found Howard to be an honest broker in his coverage,” said Democratic strategist Lis Smith, who has appeared on “MediaBuzz.” “He gives ample time to Democrats like me to get our points across and is equally tough on both sides, which is what you want in the host of a program critiquing the media.”
Kurtz recently analyzed how the conclusion of the Jan. 6 hearings split conservative outlets on their support for former President Donald Trump. The host has also faced backlash from Trump supporters for his critical eye on media coverage of the former president — most notably when he reported on the GOP election “audit” in 2021.
There are other prominent reporters covering the media beat, including The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple and NPR’s Eric Deggans. And S. Robert Lichter, director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University, also championed The Washington Post’s Fact Checker as a “good example of how it’s possible to stay in the media criticism business without lurching the wrong way or being pushed the wrong way.” He added, “We need a place that is respected as conforming to the highest ideals of journalism, in order to criticize journalists who fall short.”
Some of the gap may also be filled by more partisan watchdog groups like Media Matters on the left or Accuracy in Media on the right — as well as many individual influencers who gather followings on Twitter, TikTok and YouTube.
“Part of the problem is that if it’s not on a mainstream platform, like a CNN… [or] New York Times… you’re not going to get as wide a look,” Bellantoni said. “It’s not gonna be as broad of a conversation.”
Still, analysts underscored the need to hold media accountable in a public and journalistically responsible way. “The press plays a major — if somewhat diminished — role in politics, business and other key areas of daily life,” Columbia Journalism School Professor Bill Grueskin said. “As such, it should be subjected to thoughtful criticism much the way those other areas are.”
The press should be questioned for “everything from editorial decisions, to how coverage is being framed, to maybe some of the groupthink, to some of the business side of it and how that intersected with… economics,” Carusone said.
While everyday people can now call out news outlets for bad behavior or poor reporting on social media — and actually have an impact on coverage — Bellantoni said those instances are “rare” and “fleeting.” “If it’s going to work to hold these media power structures accountable, it’s gotta to be sustained,” she said. “It’s gotta be a reliable, if you will, a drumbeat of ‘We’re watching you, we are paying attention, we are listening and our emails are open to receive your tips inside these big news outlets for what’s going wrong.'”
Carusone also noted that Stelter’s firing came amid speculation that CNN’s centrist moves might have been influenced by John Malone, the billionaire media mogul who is also a major stakeholder in the network’s parent company, Warner Bros. Discovery. (Malone told The New York Times last week that he wants “the ‘news’ portion of CNN to be more centrist, but [he’s not] in control or directly involved.”)
“Ironically, this is the very type of thing that a ‘Reliable Sources’ type program would be identifying and critiquing and analyzing and calling out,” Carusone said.