After CNN canceled Reliable Sources, its long-running Sunday media-criticism show in August, it took the unusual step of allowing host Brian Stelter to deliver a final address to his audience without any oversight or pre-approval from the network.
Stelter, who also coauthored CNN’s popular Reliable Sources newsletter, thanked his family and staffers — and then turned to his own beliefs about the proper role of media. “Here’s what I do know,” he said during the final moments of his final show. “I know it’s 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. We must make sure we don’t give platforms to those who are lying to our faces. But we also must make sure we are representing the full spectrum of debate and representing what’s going on in this country and in this world.”
Reliable Sources is over because after a recent merger between Discovery and WarnerMedia, CNN’s new ownership is looking to steer the network in a different direction — or maybe back the way it came from before Donald Trump was elected. As Vanity Fair noted, Stelter’s closing words “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.” Sara Fischer wrote in Axios that according to a source, “Licht doesn’t want to necessarily shy away from personality programming, especially in primetime, but he wants to ensure that partisan voices don’t dominate in a way that harms CNN.”
All of which is a polite way of saying that during and immediately after the Trump years, some criticized CNN for shifting in a decidedly MSNBCish direction. Stelter, alongside Jim Acosta, was seen as one of the faces of this new, more partisan iteration of a network long synonymous with just-the-facts cable-news coverage. Whatever the merits of these claims, it’s hard to deny that left-of-center media outlets feasted off the spectacle and scandal of the Trump years. And it seems like the bigger the outlet, the bigger the Trump bump it enjoyed: “It is difficult to think of many businesses that have benefited more from Donald Trump’s presidency — aside from the Trump-family empire — than the [New York] Times,” wrote the journalist Reeves Wiedeman in a late 2020 New York magazine piece about internal tumult at the newspaper. “After Trump’s election, in 2016, subscriptions grew at ten times their usual rate and they have never looked back.”
It wasn’t just the incentives introduced by the Trump circus that changed how these outlets operated: George Floyd’s murder and the wave of protest and unrest that followed also had a major impact. Out was any remaining semblance of dispassionate coverage; in was “moral clarity,” or the imperative to unflinchingly describe good as good and evil as evil, bundled with the understanding that these delineations tend to be rather self-evident. Among other alterations or innovations to the traditional understanding of journalism, some within the industry argued that reporters at legacy outlets should be able to engage in non-work-hours activism — conduct which had been verboten in the past. And, as indicated by Stelter’s goodbye address, it became increasingly popular, within journalism, to claim that some people shouldn’t be given a platform at all, or should only be quoted for the purpose of debunking them.
Spurred by a reinvigorated sense of mission and righteousness, the Times, CNN and other outlets became more outspoken than usual, a bit more preacher than professor, a bit more eager to call out what they saw to be racism and other injustices in the sort of blunt terms not generally associated with straight news coverage. A seemingly growing — or at least increasingly vocal — cohort of journalists believed that their first job was to resist Trumpism and its nasty symptoms on all possible fronts.
The most memorable example of this was noted in Wiedeman’s story: he reported that during one particular internal blow-up, Liz Bruenig, the opinion writer who is now at the Atlantic, uploaded a John Rawls essay on public reason and described the controversy her colleagues were engaged in as, in part, “a philosophical conversation [that] concerns the unfinished business of liberalism.” “Philosophy schmosiphy,” responded “a researcher at the Times whose Slack avatar was the logo for the hamburger chain Jack in the Box,” Wiedeman recounted. “We’re at a barricades moment in our history. You decide: which side are you on?”
Until recently, “which side are you on?” would have been seen as a jarringly unusual question to ask even an opinion writer at a newspaper, the rough equivalent of asking a Catholic priest his favorite sex position. Journalists are, in theory, on the side of the truth. That’s always been the ideal, at least. But the Trump years intensified longstanding debates within journalism about what that means, exactly, and many outlets came to seem more like sources of activism than journalism in the traditional sense.
This journalistic backlash to Trump led to a backlash of its own — and something of a revolution. Around the same time journalism’s siege mentality solidified and the bounds of acceptable discourse within it narrowed, Substack became the first newsletter platform to enjoy serious success. It quickly became clear that even some writers who were by no means superstars could both make much more money and enjoy much more editorial freedom on Substack, selling their work directly to readers, than they could at a major outlet. Some bigger names, like Andrew Sullivan, fled to Substack after losing their establishment-media jobs (he was at New York magazine). Others chose to leave in part because the climate where they were became less welcoming of independent thinkers (Matt Yglesias, Vox). I myself have benefited greatly from all this: I have had a Substack newsletter of my own since 2019, and the company gave me and my podcasting partner Katie Herzog an advance to move our show, Blocked and Reported, there late last year.
But back in legacy-land, the departure of Trump appears to have brought with it major ratings and subscriptions challenges. If you have rejiggered your outlet’s tone and standards to make it part of the #Resistance, and there is no more Trump to #Resist, what then? That, of course, partially explains what’s going on in the cable news world, where there was a significant drop in ratings between 2020 and 2021 — interestingly, Fox News felt the pain too. CNN’s travails, in particular, have continued well into 2022. Things aren’t going much better for some print outlets: the New York Times just reported that after a boom period dating back to 2013, the Washington Post “is on track to lose money in 2022” and considering cutting positions (though it’s unclear whether this will be layoffs, leaving vacant positions open, or both).
So clearly the departure of Trump is causing problems for these outlets. But I think people are oversimplifying things when they say that what consumers want is “nonpartisan” or “neutral” news — what I’ve seen suggests something a bit more complicated.
Almost none of the Substack success stories revolve around truly old-school, down-the-middle news sources. To the extent such content exists on Substack, it’s usually in the form of trade publications: if your profession requires staying up to date on the latest from the world of China or crypto or some other specific area of expertise, you can sign up for a newsletter that will be more about conveying facts than opining, though it’s unlikely to be free of the latter.
But for the most part, the Substack newsletters that get the most attention and enjoy the most success are opinionated in one way or another. It’s less that people are seeking “neutrality” or “objectivity” in some absolute sense and more that they’re seeking what they can’t find elsewhere.
Some of my own successful work on the platform, for example, has involved the Jacob Blake and Kyle Rittenhouse cases. Crucial details about both cases were misreported by outlets that wanted to stay on the “right side” of hot-button social-justice issues by presenting Blake as an innocent victim and Rittenhouse as a violent aggressor. But the facts suggest that Blake’s shooting was justified (as later independent investigations revealed), and that Rittenhouse’s shootings were within the bounds of self-defense law in Wisconsin (a jury eventually agreed).
Outlets paralyzed by “moral clarity” had trouble reporting this in a straightforward manner. They spread misinformation or, at best, omitted key facts that made these stories less than ideal ammunition for racial justice advocates.
So yes, there is an appetite for coverage of controversial issues that is willing to take a more traditionally journalistic approach than what is currently in vogue. But that doesn’t necessarily mean media consumers are hungry for a return to view-from-30,000-feet, voice-of-God news reporting. Just look at the network NewsNation, which was supposed to fill that role. As IndieWire reported in July, it “is averaging a paltry 50,000 total viewers in primetime,” or about 7 percent of CNN’s own (disappointing) numbers.
Consumers want something more vibrant and freewheeling than the detached baritone of the past. Many of the most successful independent voices of the Substack era — Matt Taibbi and Bari Weiss, for example — are unmoved by appeals for “moral clarity,” but they’re also voicey, opinionated and interested in freewheeling conversation. The same is true of Joe Rogan, the most successful podcaster in the world. These figures couldn’t care less about the you-can’t-go-there diktats handed down by the likes of the Times and CNN.
It’s that freedom to follow a story where it might go that is fueling the energy in this sector of journalism — and it’s why CNN is now finding itself playing catch-up, in a sense, to a bunch of upstarts.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s October 2022 World edition.