The Cable Gamer wonders about Brian Stelter. CNN’s “not a media critic” reporter has a propensity to go after people who displease him or his bosses. You’ll recall how eagerly he promoted the boycott that eventually drove Bill O’Reilly from the airwaves, having his team call more than 20 advertisers demanding to know if they had withdrawn their ads yet. A legitimate story of course, and yet when the boycotters targeted leftist Stephen Colbert, unbiased Stelter suddenly volunteered how opposed he is to boycotts that threaten free speech–a cavil that somehow never got mentioned in connection with O’Reilly or Hannity.
Stelter has of late joined the “never Trump” bandwagon to declare Fox News “state-run” television. Talking to Kellyanne Conway he huffed:
STELTER: I guess you just want everybody to be like Fox News, state-run media.
Just by coincidence, Stelter’s boss Jeff Zucker used the same phrase before Stelter did. It’s almost like it’s part of a campaign to indict an opposing channel, one that regularly trounces CNN in the Nielsens. Needless to say it’s a mindless, ignorant, easily-disproved slur. Just today, for example, this happened to “state run media” Fox News:
The National Press Foundation has selected Fox News anchor Bret Baier as the 2017 honoree of the Sol Taishoff Award for Excellence in Broadcast Journalism…Previous recipients of the Taishoff award, which is the NPF’s highest honor for a broadcast journalist, include Martha Raddatz, Tim Russert, Gwen Ifill, George Stephanopolous, and Andrea Mitchell.
Isn’t this media news? TV Newser, the site Brian Stelter founded years ago, considered it such. And yet nine hours after the story broke there was no mention on CNN’s website. CNN’s media reporter, who by 9:00 pm had issued over 70 tweets and retweets, studiously ignored Baier’s award, sounding off instead about Van Jones, the Pocahontas “slur,” and how “shocking” it is that Trump criticizes the press.
You read that right: Brian Stelter is shocked that Trump criticizes the press, after he himself smeared Fox News as “state run media.” Your Cable Gamer couldn’t make this up if she tried. It shouldn’t be a surprise that Stelter would protect his spin by not telling his followers that the chief political anchor of “state run media” has been honored by the National Press Foundation. Stories too favorable to Fox News just don’t get reported. (Meanwhile, stories that serve CNN’s purpose, like the NPF awards to Wolf Blitzer, Dana Bash, and others, get the full treatment. That’s called “journalism” in Zuckertown.)
Will Brian Stelter bury Bret Baier’s award with a one-sentence mention in his nighty newsletter, seen by a tiny fraction of the half-million-plus who follow him on twitter? That way he can claim “I covered it” while giving it as little visibility as possible. The Cable Gamer is not staying up to find out–it really doesn’t matter if Brian grudgingly slips in a newsletter fig leaf or continues to spike the story. Stelter’s cards are on the table, and the game he’s playing is more obvious than ever. Which is just how Jeff, the man behind the curtain, likes it.
CNN’s Brian Stelter always welcomes an anti-Fox spin, and in writing about last night’s Trump coverage he quoted a writer who worked for Breitbart (previously not a respected outlet in Zuckertown):
Emailing with former Breitbart News spokesman Kurt Bardella early this morning, I asked for his thoughts about the coverage:
Bardella gave him just what he was looking for:
Fox’s treatment of the story tonight was media malpractice. We’re talking about the top story in the country involving the highest office in the land and they became The Weather Channel…
The Cable Gamer has a feeling Brian didn’t have to ask Bardella for his thoughts. He knew what he would be getting beforehand, because the guy had earlier RT’d Stelter’s own tweet (which itself RT’d this anti-Fox tweet):
Now CNN has been aping The Weather Channel for much of the week and that was just fine, but they promptly abandoned what may be the most devastating hurricane of the decade when word of an upcoming Trump apology broke. Instead of covering the ongoing devastation inflicted by the hurricane, CNN, like many other outlets, spent segment after segment analyzing a Trump apology that didn’t exist:
Note the “awaiting.” CNN and others, who just hours earlier were covering the storm wall-to-wall, now tossed it in the trash so they could sit, argue, and speculate for hours at a time about an apology video nobody had seen. Because they’re “awaiting.” And “awaiting” is labeled “breaking news.”
From what The Cable Gamer remembers of her journalism classes, the fact that Don Lemon and a screaming panel are “awaiting” something—anything—is not news. Neither is it “breaking.” It’s empty calories: the cable equivalent of click-bait, something to keep the rubes tuned in. Never mind stranded people, flooded cities—that all becomes instantly irrelevant when one can sit and spent hours on political speculation about an apology that no one has seen or heard.
Back to Edward R. Stelter:
It is true that Fox focused intensely on Hurricane Matthew after Sean Hannity‘s 10pm show. Meantime, CNN and MSNBC stayed on the Trump story throughout the night. Brian Williams even popped up on MSNBC at 1 in the morning. Just wait til you see the ratings…
Yes, wait till you see the ratings. The whole point of click-bait programming, right Mr. Media Critic? Of course Fox focused on the hurricane, just as CNN had been doing, because it was news. Stelter somehow forgot to note that Fox did break from hurricane coverage to cover the apology and followed up with multiple discussions and analyses of its ramifications. But again, that was after it was released and the participants knew what they were talking about.
Bottom line: CNN’s media expert cheap-shotted Fox News as he spun the company line in defense of their empty-calories programming. That’s considered journalism in Zuckertown.
Hang on. It’s not your Cable Gamer saying that. It’s Brian Flood, long-time Cable Gamer at TV Newser, now an ace reporter for The Wrap. You may have seen his incisive piece taking a closer look at Gretchen Carlson’s ratings woes:
“The Real Story” was the network’s lowest-rated program in both June and in the second quarter among the key demo. Carlson’s show has now lost to CNN more than any other FNC program since the network’s new lineup changes took effect back in October 2013.
What spurred Mr. Flood to make the headlined statement was the first half of today’s Reliable Sources, entirely devoted not to coverage of the Dallas ambush or police shootings or Hillary Clinton’s emails. Only one topic was discussed in the first 30 minutes: Gretchen Carlson’s lawsuit against Roger Ailes. Needless to say there was no one to represent the defense though there were multiple prosecutors, including a women’s activist, a gentleman from NPR, and the man of a thousand “sources,” Gabe Sherman. (The Cable Gamer cringed to hear David Zurawik say of Sherman “he does good work, he’s a good reporter”—readers of this site know better.) So Sherman was free to cite the allegations from his “incredibly credible” anonymous sources without challenge.
We have to wonder how heavily the hand of Jeff Zucker plays into this program. Some industry watchers have suggested host Brian Stelter carries water for his boss, and that might explain why, after a week of tumultuous, worldwide-headline news in America, Reliable Sources put all that on the back burner to spend time taking shots at a competitor.
Things weren’t much better when they did get around to more important stories. In discussing several high-profile police shootings with a black activist from Netroots Nation (no representative of an opposing point of view was present), Brian Stelter tossed in this gratuitous gem:
STELTER: I don’t know if FOX News viewers even knew about these police shootings in detail.
What a preposterous, utterly baseless thing for a “media reporter” to say…unless he still hadn’t made his quota of cheap shots against Fox News.
There was also a segment picking apart an interview Don Lemon did with Joe Walsh. Through the entire discussion Brian Stelter managed to make no mention whatsoever that both Lemon and CNN’s Charles Blow erroneously accused Walsh (after he had left) of something he clearly didn’t do. Reliable Sources would have been a good place to correct the record, but CNN doesn’t like to turn a critical lens on the media when it involves one of their own.
How much better to convert the first half of the show into a jeremiad against FNC so untiringly one-sided that one of the top media reporters in the country calls it “declaring war on Fox News.” If, as the saying goes, “all war is based on deception,” then Jeff Zucker has his general in Brian Stelter.
You know Sherman: nice kid, but kind of clueless without Mr. Peabody to explain stuff to him. So when Sherman says something, it helps to look behind the curtain to see who’s playing Mr. Peabody these days. Case in point, Gabriel Sherman’s latest, highly touted opus about the Trump campaign:
OPERATION TRUMP: Inside the most unorthodox campaign in political history.
A lengthy article goes into excruciating detail about the Trump effort, and it’s clear that Sherman’s new-found status as chief engineer on the Trump Train may have given him actual, non-fictional sources, mainly The Man himself. The article is peppered with quotes from The Donald: “Trump told me,” “he told me,” “he said of Rubio,” “Trump said,” “he said,” “Trump shouted,” “he said,”—no way is anyone going to critique Sherman for fuzzy anonymous sources this time.
Slog through this War and Peace of campaign puffery far enough and you’ll find a nugget relating to The Cable Game. It involved Brian Lewis, a Fox News PR executive, and his attorney:
Lewis hired Judd Burstein, a powerhouse litigator, and claimed he had “bombs” that would destroy Ailes and Fox News. That’s when Trump got involved. “When Roger was having problems, he didn’t call 97 people, he called me,” Trump said. Burstein, it turned out, had worked for Trump briefly in the ’90s, and Ailes asked Trump to mediate. Trump ran the negotiations out of his office at Trump Tower. “Roger had lawyers, very expensive lawyers, and they couldn’t do anything. I solved the problem.” Fox paid Lewis millions to go away quietly, and Trump, I’m told, learned everything Lewis had planned to leak. If Ailes ever truly went to war against Trump, Trump would have the arsenal to launch a retaliatory strike.
This allegation made headlines at places like Slate, Talking Points Memo, Media Matters, Huffington Post, National Review, Salon, Gawker and others too humorous to mention. Needless to say it made Brian Stelter’s Reliable Sources newsletter. In fact it was the top story:
Is this Trump’s “Trump card” against Fox?
What dirt does Donald Trump have on Roger Ailes?
Mr. Stelter notes:
Crucially, this info is not anonymously sourced: Trump is on the record saying Ailes “called me” to mediate…Why was Trump involved in the first place? Maybe because Burstein had briefly worked for Trump many years earlier. “Fox paid Lewis millions to go away quietly, and Trump, I’m told, learned everything Lewis had planned to leak,” Sherman writes, describing it as the “arsenal” for a “retaliatory strike” against Fox…
With so much of Sherman’s story not anonymously sourced, why does Mr. Stelter single out one statement as crucial? And why does he completely overlook the elephant in the journalistic room? Throughout Sherman’s interminable account “Trump said” is cited way more than any other source. And yet there’s a unique phrase that, in over 7,000 words, only appears once:
Fox paid Lewis millions to go away quietly, and Trump, I’m told, learned everything Lewis had planned to leak.
“I’m told.” Passive voice: one of the greatest fact-avoidance tools in the English language. “Rocks were thrown.” “Mistakes were made.” “I was told.” Funny that should turn up in the one paragraph that got so many media headlines. This matter-of-fact reversion to an unknown source, without even a description (e.g. “a high-level source in the Trump campaign”) to give it a fig leaf of verisimilitude, has been pretty much ignored by all the people promoting Sherman’s claim.
STELTER: Well, these are clearly sources that were in the room with Roger Ailes. You know, authors like Gabriel Sherman don’t make up this stuff.
STELTER: We’ve seen a lot of anonymous sources and I wonder if there’s any way around that. Because when readers and viewers hear anonymous sources, they’re very skeptical. They wonder if they should trust the information.
Would that Brian Stelter settle for “I’m told” as all the sourcing necessary for a headline story? Especially when the premise is inconsistent with known facts? Ailes and Fox refused to remove Megyn Kelly, issued many statements defending Ms. Kelly and ripping Trump (one of which Sherman even suggested was too harsh!), and ultimately gave up a scheduled debate that was cancelled because Trump was displeased and refused to appear. None of this is consistent with a Roger Ailes trembling in acquiescence because Trump has “bombs” that could destroy him. In fact, it suggests just the opposite. Brian Stelter’s only comment on this enters the Lame Explanations Hall of Fame: “Maybe the candidate is showing uncharacteristic restraint.”
Another writer noticed the disconnect between Sherman’s claims and reality:
OK, this might explain why Fox News talent such as Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Greta Van Susteren and all of Fox and Friends appear to big Trump supporters. But, Fox News is one of the few networks to call Trump out. The network did release a public statement against Trump and his attacks on Megyn Kelly.
So, the bigger question……
What dirt does Donald Trump have on Jeff Zucker? That’s what we want to know.
Placing an incendiary charge into an overlong, little-read treatise is standard self-promotional procedure, but the way it was done here is considered journalistically unacceptable:
Be as specific as possible. Negotiate hard with your source to agree a description that is sufficiently precise to enable readers to trust the reliability of our anonymous sourcing. “A source” or “sources”, “observers” or “quarters” with no further description is vague and unacceptable.
Thanks to the passive voice, Sherman didn’t even give us “a source” or “observers.” No descriptors necessary!
Trump has been playing Mr. Peabody to Gabriel Sherman for months now. And if that’s where the story about “bombs” came from it’s obvious why Sherman wouldn’t want readers to know: Donald Trump’s rep for honesty and truthfulness is pitiful at best. Who’d believe him?
Sherman desperately needs a better, more trustworthy Peabody. Too bad the original is unavailable, being a dog—and a cartoon dog at that. Mr. Sherman could use a man like Mr. Peabody again.
GREAT MINDS UPDATE: Moments after publishing, The Cable Gamer learned that Erik Wemple of the post had just written an article tackling this same subject. Recommended reading.
Washington Post Cable Gamer Erik Wemple asks: Dear CNN, are you biased? That title has already been updated to reflect the two-week suspension handed out to reporter Elise Labott, who tweeted criticism of a House bill on refugees:
Mr. Wemple explained why even a single tweet can be damaging to CNN’s brand:
Evenhandedness, mind you, isn’t just a matter of journalistic principle for CNN. It’s a business imperative. Competitors Fox News and MSNBC are “two partisan networks, that are looking out for their viewers,” CNN Worldwide President Jeff Zucker has said. That split, he has argued, makes CNN ever more “essential” to viewers.
Sure, fine, whatever. But CNN viewers know that the network’s dedication to impartial news gathering and spin-free reporting is not always consistent. Sometimes it depends on who you are:
Sometimes if you’re a big name anchor the powers that be will look the other way. When Chris Cuomo was on his high horse about refugees he chewed out his Republican guest, telling him “There’s a lot of vetting, you know that!” and wagging a rhetorical finger about “compassion.” He famously disputed the notion that sanctuary cities are cities that provide sanctuary (to illegal immigrants). On twitter his history is even more colorful but you can just look at today’s haul for some really loaded terminology:
Compared to Elise Labott’s pictorial rhetoric, Chris Cuomo’s language is far more pointed and partisan. “Your ideas are the problem…Reason over fear and hate…” Cuomo’s viewpoint is not implied via sentimental imagery but stated unambiguously, complete with personal comments about those who disagree with him.
In record time Elise Labott gets suspended for two weeks, but somehow that never happens to Chris Cuomo. Zero-tolerance enforcement is applied sparingly when it comes to the marquee names, the people favored by the higher-ups. Sorry Elise. It’s not fair. It’s Zuckertown.
CNN Commentary reports on the players for CNN’s upcoming Democratic debate:
CNN is repeating its format from its previous GOP debate. Anderson Cooper, who was reportedly the debate moderator, will be joined by a panel of questioners made up of chief political correspondent Dana Bash and CNN en Espanol political anchor Juan Carlos Lopez. CNN Tonight anchor Don Lemon will also ask questions of the Democratic candidates submitted via Facebook.
CNN is repeating its format, but not the participants. Gone are moderator Jake Tapper and questioner Hugh Hewitt (the latter a concession to Salem broadcasting, the conservative partner who apparently didn’t 100% trust CNN to treat the GOP fairly). As it turned out neither Hewitt nor Dana Bash had much to do in that talkathon. Tapper set the contentious tone that pervaded the three-hour-plus event.
Nobody seems to be questioning the reason for jettisoning most of the team from the GOP debate, but maybe it was more about who they wanted to replace them with. Both Cooper and Don Lemon are openly gay, and not shy about offering “analysis” on issues relevant to that constituency—which just happens to be a key Democratic voting block. Mr. Lopez is an unexpected addition (there wasn’t any fourth questioner with the Repubs). Lopez is particularly attuned to matters involving immigrants—which just happens to be another interest group important to Democrats. But The Cable Gamer is probably overthinking this. This could all be simple coincidence. After all, why not fire the team that delivered CNN its highest ratings in history?
Meanwhile, what could Jake Tapper be thinking? After succeeding wildly with the game plan to provoke fights among the GOP participants and provide CNN producers with a plethora of two-shots, Tapper will find himself watching the sequel from the sidelines. Will Cooper be a provocateur like Jake was, needling and prodding the participants to go at each other? The Cable Gamer has to think if CNN wanted Tapper-type questioning they would get Tapper, not yank him off the stage. Now it’s silver-haired Anderson Cooper’s show, and however it turns out, it won’t be the same without Jake.
Friday night Don Lemon invited Donald Trump on CNN’s air, and the fallout from Trump’s volley of personal attacks on Megyn Kelly (and others) is still reverberating tonight. What was going on with the invite, the interview, and the fallout? And how did half of a quote vanish?
Friday morning it was already known that Trump was embarking on a jihad against Fox News and Megyn Kelly in particular.
Trump was booked with Don Lemon at 9:00 pm (opposite The Kelly File). Naturally the Fox News angle is on the table—a dig at the competition is always welcome in Zuckertown. And in case you think zinging Fox wasn’t behind this booking, look how quickly that topic came up. After a preliminary “how did it go?” opening, Don Lemon’s very next question was:
LEMON: Do you think, because you mentioned Fox, do you think there was an agenda on the part of Fox News to target you? And if you do, why is that?
There it is, at the very top of Don Lemon’s to-do list. And in The Cable Game that order is never random. Trump delivered the expected insults of Megyn Kelly:
TRUMP: I don’t have a lot of respect for Megyn Kelly, she’s a lightweight and, you know, she came out there reading her little script and trying to, you know, be tough and be sharp. And when you meet her, you realize she is not very tough and she is not very sharp. She is zippo. But she came out and, you know, I’m sitting there. I’m standing there. I knew there it was going to be a big crowd because I always have.
TRUMP: I mean NBC renewed The Apprentice but I wasn’t able to do it because I’m running for President. But as you know, they renewed it. I’m one of the few people in the history of television to turn down a renewal. Mark Burnett said…
Yada yada yada, and Trump was wandering off-topic. So Don Lemon swooped in:
LEMON: Well, let’s talk about Megyn Kelly because you brought her up. She did push you, pushed a lot of people, but what is it with you and Megyn Kelly?
Back on track. Trump came through. After how he doesn’t respect her as a journalist (“highly overrated”) came the money quote:
TRUMP: …she starts asking me all sorts of ridiculous questions, and you know, you can see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her—wherever, but she was, in my opinion, she was off base.
We’ll come back to this. After more Trump insights about Ms. Kelly, Lemon decided this would be a good time to quote the slurs Trump had tweeted earlier, because this stuff “might drive some women voters away.” That Don Lemon: he’s a latter-day Sun Tzu. And then, an especially brilliant follow-up:
LEMON: I have to ask you and I’m wondering if you think that Fox stacked the deck against you?
Fox again! And there was even more:
LEMON: Would you do another Fox debate again?
LEMON: So then would you do another Fox debate or would you drop out if there is another Fox debate?
Yes, CNN would love to see that happen. Do we have to explain why? The conversation got into the debate itself and some of the issues raised, but Lemon couldn’t wait forever, so eventually we’re back at Fox News again:
LEMON: You say the media treats you unfairly you had some very angry words for Frank Luntz who with oppose for being focus group asking a lot of questions…
Like Domino’s, Trump delivered. A little further down Mr. Lemon decided to ask Trump if he’s thin-skinned, phrasing it as if he’s almost sorry he has to be so impertinent as to even ask such a thing:
LEMON: Do you worry that it undermines you’re a tough guy and there’s a I’m going to stand up to Putin, to China, to Mexico et cetera yet your demeanor might suggest, it might suggest, to people that you are thin-skinned?
There was another detour to Fox News and Megyn Kelly before Lemon closed the interview:
LEMON: Donald Trump, you’re welcome to come co-host with me any time and we thank you for joining us.
The question The Cable Game asks is: faced with the misogynist and ugly “blood from whatever” comment made on CNN’s air concerning a female journalist, what was the appropriate reaction from Don Lemon? Just let it hang there and leave it to social media? Or should he have done more, at minimum a disclaimer that CNN does not approve of such smears? One writer on journalism thinks so:
Trump went deep into the gutter attacking Kelly when he talked to CNN… Journalism organizations should condemn such a personal attack on a journalist who is doing her job… It is not political correctness that should push us to demand an apology, it is decency.
Don Lemon certainly did none of that. He instigated Trump, but didn’t push back. (Lemon’s weak reference to Megyn Kelly as “respected” late in the interview was ineffectual and was without reference to Trump’s ugly slur.) He made no statement of support for Megyn Kelly either for himself or on behalf of CNN.
Then, in a lengthy post-interview chat with several guests, the “blood from whatever” comment was utterly avoided. Twice reference was made to “blood coming out of her eyes,” and twice nobody mentioned the inflammatory second half of the quote: “blood coming out of her—whatever.” That too is something that doesn’t happen by accident in The Cable Game. And if you doubt that, look at the headline for CNN’s story by media guy Brian Stelter
Heaven forbid CNN gets on Trump’s bad side; he might not phone in his Sunday show appearance. Maybe if we’re lucky by tomorrow morning Brian Stelter will restore the rest of Trump’s quote.