The MRC's War on Brian Stelter
The Media Research Center was filled with joy when CNN fired the "Reliable Sources" host and canceled his show -- mainly because he was a leading critic of the right-wing media bubble the MRC resides in.
By Terry Krepel
Unsurprisingly, the MRC is extremely happy that CNN fired Stelter and canceled his show "Reliable Sources" -- in large part because he regularly criticized the right-wing media bubble the MRC resides in. That required the MRC to play a lot of whataboutism to distract from said criticism; so apparently personal was that criticism that it felt it needed to be more hostile to Stelter than to most of its declared enemies (and even Jim Acosta).
Let's review some of those anti-Stelter rantings over the years, shall we?
In an October 2016 post, Nicholas Fondacaro raged at Stelter for dismissing the idea of anti-Trump media collusion as "not just false, it's ludicrous and it's damaging." He was joined by the Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan, who pointed out that "Nobody is sitting in a room with each other and planning to, you know, do anything evil to a candidate. It's just not the case." Sullivan added: "I mean, there are media outlets, there are newspapers, there are cable TV stations, there are network news, but there is no, sort of, little group called 'the media' that gets together and decides to do terrible things to Donald Trump. How do you prove that? It's a reality check." Fondacaro responded by equating groupthink to collusion:
The strawman argument presented by Sullivan is just about as absurd as she believes Trump’s is about the media. The media doesn’t need to meet like a cabal to push an agenda. There are members of the media who admit that the industry is dominated by liberals. And the fact that most of them see the world through a similar prism means their coverage is colored how they perceive it.
So collusion doesn't require actual collusion, just people who think the same way? How ridiculous. Fondacaro's insistence that there is a monolithic "media" shows how little he knows about how the media works -- shocking since he's supposed to be a "media researcher."
In January 2017, when Stelter called out the lies spouted by Trump's first press secretary, Sean Spicer, about inauguration crowd sizes and pondered if this sort of "gaslighting" and denial of reality is what we should expect from the White House press office and the Trump administration as a whole (spoiler: it was), Fondacaro raged in response that Stelter "issued his arguably most dire/bonkers warning about the president yet," "showed nothing but contempt for the president," and "vigorously tried to sow the seeds of doubt" about Trump's veracity. Fondacaro dismissed concerns about the demonstrable falsehoods coming from Spicer as nothing but "talk of crowd sizes." The rest of Fondacaro's post was mostly whataboutism -- a hallmark of the MRC's overall response to Stelter.
An April 2019 post by Bill D'Agostino was zero parts "media research" and all parts pro-Trump defense operation, demanding context for words that Trump had left without context -- insisting that Trump's vague reference to getting rid of judges referred only to immigration judges, who aren't real judges anyway. D'Agostino made a political attack on Stelter for not telling a story in a way that benefited the MRC's favorite president.
In a June 2021 post, headlined "C-SPAN vs. Stelter: Enjoy the Verbal Beating the CNN Host Endured," Scott Whitlock cheered how "callers hammered the partisan hackery over at CNN" and posted "video of Stelter sitting through that call." While the show also appeared then-MRC research director Rich Noyes, Whitlock pointed out that they were not on at the same time -- not surprising, given that it's MRC policy to never share an media appearance with a critic of right-wing media.
Also that month, Fondacaro guest-hosted boss Tim Graham's podcast, where he complained that Stelter -- whom he hatefully called "Mr. Potato Head" -- accurately pointed out that right-wing critics like him were not "good-faith actors." But he only had whataboutism to offer in return: "But meanwhile, he’s the guy who, in 2017, was among the first to start pushing claims that President Trump was mentally compromised and a danger to himself and others. He also allowed a guest to claim Trump had killed more people than Hitler, Stalin, and Mao combined."
A November 2021 column by Graham complained that Stelter described how the right-wing media machine works; instead of correcting him, Graham served up only whataboutism:
To process Democrats losing the governor’s race in Virginia, Stelter quoted from leftist Washington Post blogger Greg Sargent that while Republican Glenn Youngkin campaigned on a softer rhetoric in opposing critical race theory in the schools, he capitalized on right-wing media driving a much more “visceral and hallucinogenic” version of this argument directly to the base. They apparently were hallucinating with “daily propaganda coming from the likes of Laura Ingraham.”
The whataboutism continued even after Graham noted that Stelter snarked about being criticized by Graham's employer:
Stelter sensed danger from conservatives: “Hold on. My friends at NewsBusters are going to listen to this and they’re going to say you’re saying that conservatives are dumb. This needs to be simple.”
Because Graham is so invested in his own whataboutism, he doesn't date point out that its arguments can be reflected back right on him: If CNN and MSNBC "are the obvious equivalent to Fox News," he should be criticizing Fox News' bias as much as he attacks those at the other channels.
In an April 7 post, Fondacaro cheered a right-wing student who repeated right-wing narratives attacking CNN and defending Fox News at Stelter during a University of Chicago panel:
That airing of the laundry was followed up with two hard-hitting questions. “With mainstream corporate journalists becoming little more than apologists and cheerleaders for the regime, is it time to finally declare that the canon of journalistic ethics is dead or no longer operative,” he asked in his first.
Of course, Fondacaro gets paid well to push that "popular right-wing narrative about CNN."
Fox News' Tucker Carlson had the Stelter-bashing student on TV a few days later, and Graham fawningly wrote about how the student had "no apology, no remorse whatsoever" over regurgitating those partisan talking points. Kevin Tober cheered that Fox News' Sean Hannity "mocked CNN’s Brian Stelter for his complete dodge to a freshman college student’s question about CNN’s bias," declaring that the student "was a thousand percent right on every issue fake news CNN got wrong" and going to mock Stelter's looks by calling him "Humpty Dumpty." And few days after that, Graham devoted his podcast to gushing that the student is "now the toast of all conservative media for throwing a rip-roaring hardball question at Brian Stelter at the recent so-called 'disinformation' conference at the University of Chicago."
When Stelter contradicted the MRC's pet narrative that conservatives and only conservatives are being "censored" by "big tech," Graham ranted in an April 18 post:
Brian Stelter played dumb again on his Sunday show Reliable Sources, asking if Twitter was biased against conservatives, which is like asking if CNN is biased against conservatives.
But a "respectable conspiracy theory" is still a conspiracy theory, is it not, Tim? Talk about playing dumb. And, of course, Graham leaves out the inconvenient fact that the right-wingers who first pushed the Hunter Biden laptop story made no effort to provide any independent verification of it that would have made it look less like Russian disinformation or a partisan hit job.
Graham then ranted that Stelter called out the right-wing victimhood narrative the MRC is so invested in: "Stelter then raised the idea that complaints of conservative censorship are 'core to the GOP's identity.' He doesn't seem to realize conservatives would rather NOT have this 'identity.' Would he suggest Black Lives Matter has a complaint "narrative" that's core to their identity?"
Fondacaro spent a May 2 post ranting that Stelter called out right-wing distortions of a proposed government Disinformation Governance Board, which he insisted on falsely calling a "Ministry of Truth" despite the fact that his employer bashed people who called a new Florida law the "don't say gay bill" instead of its actual name:
Over the weekend, the Biden administration rolled out his Ministry of Truth under the Department of Homeland Security called the Disinformation Governance Board. This clearly Orwellian (1984) machination has rightly been the subject of scrutiny, but on Sunday’s Reliable Sources, CNN host and chief media apologist Brian Stelter suggested the real problem was the “right-wing uproar” and how they’re getting angry at something that they don’t have a clue about.
Of course, Trump did (and does) have a "ministry of truth" -- it's called Fox News. And, yes, the MRC lashed out at Stelter for criticizing them too.
Gloating over Stelter's departure
The MRC has long and not-so-quietly begged for CNN to fire him for the offense of criticizing right-wing media. A February post by Kyle Drennen hyped a an anonymously sourced Fox News report calling for Stelter's firing over "not exposing CNN president Jeff Zucker’s romantic relationship with another high-ranking colleague." On June 7 -- a day after he whined that Stelter was telling Fox News what to cover (as if the MRC doesn't repeatedly tell the non-right-wing media what to cover?) Tim Graham hyped a report that CNN's new owners and bosses were planning to fire Stelter "if he can’t adopt CNN’s new tone of being more straight-ahead news and less partisan trash talk" (a complaint we don't recall Graham ever making about Fox News).
So when CNN did, in fact, fire Stelter and cancel his show "Reliable Sources," it was like Christmas at the MRC, except with more giddy gloating. Curtis Houck rejoiced in an Aug. 18 post:
CNN’s chief media correspondent and liberal media janitor Brian Stelter perhaps one of the most polarizing liberal journalists of all-time is being pushed out of the network and his show Reliable Sources being cancelled following a final episode this coming Sunday.
Yes, Houck is still using the anti-Semitic "puppetmaster" slur against the Jewish Zucker, with bonus points for the hateful "media janitor" smear of Stelter. And, yes, the right-wing media bubble would find a critic of said bubble to be "polarizing."
Graham quickly pounded out an Aug. 19 column taking some of his last shots, rehashing old complaints about CNN's promotion of Michael Avenatti (as if the MRC and Fox News didn't promote their own favored off-the-rails lawyer in L. Lin Wood) and didn't call out hyperbole on CNN -- then played whataboutism to avoid having to express offense to hyperbole on Fox News:
On June 27, 2021, after watching a pile of Sean Hannity shows, he disparaged Hannity for uncorking a montage of words like "socialist, stalker, weak, failure, shameless, psychotic, indoctrination, hell holes." But in the same segment, Stelter used "authoritarian, poisonous, abusive, propaganda, Big Lie, filth." He proclaimed Hannity wasn’t offering “opinion,” he was offering “poison.” Did Stelter ever reflect on his own harsh verbiage?
Graham has never demanded the same from Fox News, which delegitimizes his attacks on Stelter.
Geoffrey Dickens followed with a roundup post purporting to detail "Stelter's ludicrousness," further alleging that Stelter "ineptly attempted to play the role of objective media critic" and "exposed his leftist bias in his copious criticisms of Republicans and news outlets (like Fox News) that refused to carry water for Presidents Barack Obama and Joe Biden." Dickens didn't complain about right-wing media critics who issued copious criticisms of outlets that refused to carry water for Donald Trump -- perhaps because carrying water for Trump was (and remains) the MRC's main mission.
After Stelter's final show on Aug. 21, Kevin Tober served up a predictably malicious and hateful review:
We won’t have Brian Stelter to kick around anymore because Sunday’s Reliable Sources on CNN is officially no more. This last episode of Reliable Sources did have plenty of cringeworthy moments and leftist chest pounding over the media’s failure to go after “anti-democratic” Republicans enough.
Tober followed up with another post hyping attacks on Stelter from Fox News' Howard Kurtz:
The news of CNN canceling Brian Stelter’s Reliable Sources wasn’t just relegated to chatter on CNN, towards the end of the only other national media analysis show MediaBuzz on the Fox News Channel, host Howard Kurtz had his own thoughts to share. What many people may not remember is Kurtz hosted CNN’s Reliable Sources before Stelter took the reins and ruined the show’s reputation. So it’s fitting that he spoke out about the show’s inevitable demise.
Tober isn't going to complain about the right-wing, pro-Fox News bias of Kurtz and his show -- perhaps because that bias is one the MRC heartily approves.
Podcasts and the aftermath
Houck ran the show for the Aug. 22 podcast, where he took potshots at Stelter's final show. Houck ultimately made this about his employer by justifying the MRC's targeting of Stelter, asserting that "Stelter either never or understood or forgot" that "the First Amendment applies to all of us, not just journalists. And what he doesn't get -- the entire network is this way -- they refuse to accept the fact that we have a right as Americans to offer legitimate criticism of the press, and not doing so -- or it doing so is not violent, is not wishing you ill, it's not threatening you with death. Really, it's our First Amendment right to say CNN sucks." Houck didn't explain why the MRC is "legitimate criticism" and not just politically motivated attacks done for partisan gain and not out of any genuine interest in improving journalism.
Co-host Bill D'Agostino said that Stelter said in a clip compilation that Trump is leading a "hate movement against the press," adding, 'It's not a movement, Stelter -- a lot of people just hate you." Houck sycophantically chortled: "Yeah, it's just saying you're really bad at your job." Of course, the MRC's definition of someone being "really bad at your job" means they just didn't repeat right-wing talking points enough; they've never accused any Fox News employee of being "bad at their job" for forwarding too many right-wing narratives.
Houck went on to sneer that Stelter is "a little bit of a snake," then mocked the names of his children.
Even then, that wasn't enough podcast hate. Fondacaro weighed in on the show's demise on the MRC's Aug. 24 podcast, insisting that Stelter's show did nothing beyond "nipping at the ankles" and "didn't do much besides make himself and the network sort of look foolish in how they, like, covered the Biden administration and just Democrats in general." One might say that's just like how the MRC's odd obsession with Stelter makes these "media critics" look foolish.
Desperate to attack anyone who would dare to say nice things about Stelter, even days after his departure, Clay Waters devoted an Aug. 31 post to complaining that a writer at Slate lamented Stelter's firing:
After CNN’s new ownership cancelled its media news show Reliable Sources and fired its host, the reliably liberal Brian Stelter, Slate magazine’s Justin Peters came to Stelter’s defense, while bashing his many conservative critics as “bad-faith” actors, in “A Reliable Source of Concern -- Why Brian Stelter’s axing is a very bad omen for CNN.”
Waters didn't explain why Stelter's "conservative critics" -- you know, like him -- are not bad-faith actors.
Even when Stelter got a new job, the MRC couldn't stop the hate. Houck raged in a Sept. 12 post:
Serving as proof that, for some, money does grow on trees and that the liberal elite will always support its members, Harvard University announced Monday morning that its far-left Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at their Kennedy School of Government had inked former CNN host and failed liberal media apologist Brian Stelter as its Fall 2022 Walter Shorenstein Media and Democracy Fellow.
Houck sneered that "They added that Stelter’s events 'will help deepen public and scholarly understanding about the current state of the information ecosystem and its impacts on democratic governance,' which sounds just as painful as John Fetterman trying to offer a complete sentence." Yes, Houck viciously hates anyone who won't be a right-wing suck-up or who accurately points out the Fox News bias that the MRC turns a blind eye to -- or even commits the offense of being a Democrat with a health issue.