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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
Posted 11/4/2022

Brian Stelter

Among CNN personalities, the Media Research Center's abject and irrational hatred of media reporter Brian Stelter is surpassed only by that for Jim Acosta. It bizarrely and dismissively likes to refer to Stelter as a "media janitor" for purportedly defending the media too hard and -- more importantly -- being a critic of Fox News and right-wing media.

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 argument here is that Republican candidates can sound more reasonable because they have a media "machine" that provides all the hardcore base-stoking rhetoric. Stelter said it “makes a lot of sense” to think of Fox and Newsmax as “base turnout operations.” As usual, Stelter pretends that CNN’s hardcore base-stoking rhetoric from Jim Acosta & Co. doesn’t allow the Democrats to run milder campaigns.

Stelter complained about all the “propaganda and grifting” from the right about local school-board issues in Loudoun County, Virginia. He claimed there were more than 400 references to the county on Fox News in 2021. But he never mentioned the sexual assaults in high schools there as an issue. Was that “grifting” to mention? This misses the fact that the left makes national news out of local crimes and controversies all the time. See George Floyd in Minneapolis, or Michael Brown in Ferguson.

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.”

[Author Brian] Rosenwald claimed he wasn’t saying they were dumb, but they need radio to be “kind of like a soap opera,” because “nuance is boring.” He claimed he’s talked to Republicans who said “when we talk about the debt ceiling, or the filibuster makes us compromise, that’s boring, that’s nuance, that’s process. People don’t want to hear about that. They want to hear something big, bold, exciting, dramatic.”

Then these two Brians turned to the arrogant theory that liberals have nothing like Fox News or conservative talk radio on their side. They talked about how liberals listen to NPR’s Morning Edition instead of Sean Hannity or Mark Levin, as if that show isn’t one-sided propaganda. Oh, but that taxpayer-funded bubble sounds so calm and urbane!

This again completely misses that CNN and MSNBC are the obvious equivalent to Fox News, that they are talk television more than “news channels.” Rosenwald actually discussed how liberals could really use a billionaire like Rupert Murdoch to found something like Fox, because there’s a “huge imbalance in politics and in political media.”

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.

And in his second question, [Christopher] Phillips made the astute observation that “[a]ll of the mistakes of the mainstream media, and CNN in particular, seem to magically all go in one direction.” And that brought him to wonder: “Are we expected to believe that this is all just some sort of random coincidence or is there something else behind it?”

Stelter was clearly uncomfortable and quipped that it’s “too bad” he couldn’t answer the questions because “it’s time for lunch.” And he didn’t want to get into a discussion about CNN’s lies on camera, telling Phillips, “I’ll come over and talk in more detail after this.”

Of course, in his bloviating that followed, Stelter didn’t actually answer any of Phillips’ questions. He initially scoffed, suggesting the student was “describing a different channel than the one that I watch.” And he dismissed the facts of CNN’s flamboyant bias as just “a popular right-wing narrative about CNN.”


And taking issue with Phillips referring to the Biden administration as “the regime,” Stelter tried to suggest he wasn’t out to help the White House or the left because “The last time I spoke with a Biden aide, we yelled at each other.”

Sometimes allies argue.

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.

There was zero mention of Twitter’s complete shutdown of the New York Post bombshells on Hunter Biden’s laptop contents in the closing weeks of the 2020 campaign, which has now been verified by the liberal media elite. There was zero mention of the Wuhan lab-leak theory going from cuckoo conspiracy theory to respectable conspiracy theory.

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.


Now, imagine if former President Trump created a Ministry of Truth and installed a sycophant to run it. Stelter wouldn’t be downplaying it as a “basic government bureaucracy.” He’d be pulling out what’s left of his hair and calling it a threat to reality.

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.

Stelter confirmed the news Thursday to NPR media reporter and fellow lefty David Folkenflik, saying he was proud of his work that showcased “the media, truth and the stories that shape our world.”

According to Folkenflik, the decision to move on from Stelter came down late Wednesday from new CNN boss Chris Licht, who’s promised to make changes to the network (see here, here, here, and here) following years of sagging ratings and exponential levels of partisanship under former puppetmaster Jeff Zucker.

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?

CNN launched a ridiculous “Facts First” advertising campaign as it veered ever more heavily into opinion. But Stelter underlined the arrogance: “We’re not anti-Trump. We’re pro-truth.” When Kellyanne Conway referred to his side of the aisle, Stelter acted offended: “I’m not on a side of the aisle.”

CNN has a long way to go to get out of its “side of the aisle.”

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.


Stelter sent shockwaves throughout the nation with the horrifying admission that his show is “a part of journalism school curriculum” and that “teachers use segments from this show all the time in classrooms, in lessons, guiding and teaching the next generation.”

Unless teachers use Stelter’s show as an example of what not to do as a journalist, the journalism profession is in more trouble than originally thought.

Perhaps proving why the show was canceled in the first place, Stelter brought on disgraced Watergate-era journalist Carl Bernstein who wailed that the media needs to cover how “the pendulum [is] swinging against democracy all over the world.”


If there was any doubt that Stelter believes his show is more important than it is, he showed it in his closing remarks where he claimed “I believe America needs CNN to be strong. I believe the free world needs CNN to be strong. And it will continue to be. Because all of us are going to help make that happen. The free world needs a reliable source.”

Apparently, CNN doesn’t think the free world needs a reliable source because they canceled his show. Or perhaps CNN knows there was nothing reliable about Stelter’s “Reliable Sources.”

Goodbye Stelter! You won’t be missed.

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.

Kurtz started by informing viewers why he’s kept quiet about CNN’s Reliable Sources since coming to Fox: “When I came to Fox nine years ago to launch MediaBuzz, I made it a personal policy not to talk about the rival show on CNN. Well, that program has now been canceled.”

Quick not to look like he’s gloating, Kurtz quickly followed up by noting “TV is a tough business. Ratings bounce around, talents get let go, including hard working staffers, so I'm not going to get personal, not going to knock anybody, just wish them well.”


Kurtz ended by gloating that his show is the last media analysis show standing: “We've shown there's a loyal audience that grades fairness over partisanship. So now there's only one media analysis program on national television, and you're watching it.”

Well deserved! Congratulations to Howard Kurtz and the entire Fox News team! This shows viewers want serious media analysis and criticism, not someone who will defend the media and apologize for them even if they’re wrong.

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
The MRC devoted not one but two podcasts to Stelter's departure. On his Aug. 19 podcast, Graham confirmed his employer's targeting of Stelter, noting that "Mr. Stelter, for us, defined the CNN approach to the media bias wars in the Trump era," mockingly adding that he feels "a little sad for Brian" and that "it's almost better that they dismissed him and canceled his show."Graham also recalled being "friendly enough" with Stelter when he was writing the TV Newser blog as a college student asking him "news junkie questions," then whined that he joined the New York Times after that and then CNN, then peddled the MRC narrative that the show was "reliably liberal" under Stelter. He then went on to complain about a 2016 appearance he made on the show where John Avlon wiped the floor with him and forwarded his usual complaint about anonymous sources (which, of course, the MRC routinely ignores when it has a juicy narrative it wants to advance). He then laughably claimed that "I've never been vicious toward Brian."

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.”

New CNN chief Chris Licht is moving away from liberal opinion toward a more balanced news product, which spelled doom for Stelter, who took over Reliable Sources in 2013 but came into his fiery own when Donald Trump entered presidential politics, giving him a villain to focus on along with Fox News.

Meanwhile, Stelter made no efforts to hold his own network accountable, skipping former chief executive Jeff Zucker’s personal and professional controversies, but remaining fixated on Fox -- as is Peters himself, judging by his oeuvre.

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.

The move came roughly three weeks after Stelter’s final day at CNN and series finale of Reliable Sources, the show that had bore his name since 2013 and was cancelled after a 30-year run. Harvard’s announcement insisted the position “brings high-profile figures at the forefront of media, politics, and public policy to Harvard’s Kennedy School to work with students, faculty, scholars and the public on important issues of the moment.”

Harvard explained that Stelter’s role will consist of “conven[ing] a series of discussions about threats to democracy and the range of potential responses from the news media.” In other words, it’ll consist of discussing why Fox News, conservative media, and conservative Americans are a threat to both the country and national security.

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.

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