Outgoing CNN anchor Brian Stelter began the final episode of his Sunday show, Reliable Sources, by suggesting the gloves were off. “No one from CNN management has reviewed my script ahead of time. They have no idea what I’m gonna say,” he said at the top of the episode, a swan song that Stelter had hyped ever since the news broke last week that CNN had decided to cancel the 30-year-old media affairs show—its longest-running program—and that Stelter, the company man who’d hosted it for the past nine years, would be departing the network as a result. As Columbia Journalism Review‘s Jon Allsop noted, at points, it was unclear whether Stelter himself knew why his show was being axed—even, during a panel discussion, asking one of his guests, Insider media correspondent Claire Atkinson, if she had any intel on the matter. Ultimately, Stelter’s sign off was sentimental and thankful for the opportunities CNN (and its former leader, Jeff Zucker) afforded him. But he did close with what appeared to be somewhat veiled criticism of the company’s new corporate overlords, namely of CNN’s new leader Chris Licht‘s mandate to make the outlet more neutral: “It is not partisan to stand up for decency and democracy and dialogue. It’s not partisan to stand up to demagogues. It’s required. It’s patriotic,” he said, adding “I believe America needs CNN to be strong.”
For those who haven’t followed the reporting around Stelter’s departure and, more broadly, CNN’s new leadership, this may sounds like a general comment on the role of the press today. But Stelter’s comment takes on new meaning with speculation that John Malone—the billionaire media mogul and key shareholder in Warner Bros. Discovery (CNN’s parent company) who has suggested he wants CNN to be less liberal—played a role in Stelter’s ouster. In an email to the New York Times, Malone said he had “nothing to do with” the cancellation of Reliable Sources, though added that he wants “the ‘news’ portion of CNN to be more centrist, but I am not in control or directly involved.” Malone doubled down on that stance in an interview—published the same day as Stelter’s final show—with the Times’ Ben Mullin, in which the 81-year-old libertarian cable magnate talked about the need for news channels, including CNN, to better distinguish between news and opinion programming. He pointed to Fox News host Bret Baier as his ideal anchor. Puck on Monday framed Stelter’s departure as an apparent “blood sacrifice.”
It’s not the first time Malone has cited Baier, who has shown a slight willingness to push back against Donald Trump, and Fox News in his vision for CNN. As a CNN employee told Vox’s Peter Kafka last week, “John Malone doesn’t watch CNN. John Malone only watches CNN via Fox News. If I watched CNN via Fox News, I would hate CNN too.” Back in February, Stelter himself questioned what Malone criticizing CNN for “too much advocacy, too much commentary, too little reporting from the world” meant for the future of the network. According to Deadline, Licht only bolstered anxiety inside CNN on Friday when, at Friday’s editorial meeting, he said more changes are on the way. “There will be moves you may not agree with or understand,” CNN’s chairman and CEO said.
CNN pushed back against the idea that Malone factored into the decision, instead framing Stelter’s departure to the Times as part of a reimagining of the network’s Sunday lineup. Notably, that lineup will include an interview show helmed by veteran Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, who left a gaping hole in Fox’s news division as he departed for CNN+. (Wallace’s interview show was originally scheduled to air on Sundays, until the much-hyped streaming service became the first victim of the Discovery-WarnerMedia merger weeks after its launch.) Stelter, too, had a show on CNN+—Reliable Sources Daily, a weekday edition of the Sunday show. “We have been building upon the Reliable television brand with newsletters and podcasts in recent years, and now Reliable Sources Daily is the ultimate expansion,” Stelter said at the time.
That was in February. Six months later, appearing for the final time on his Sunday show, “at least a hint of bemusement cut through his typical sunny demeanor,” Allsop wrote.