Margaret Sullivan and Brian Stelter Move On
Two insightful media reporters leave their positions at The Washington Post and CNN.
Margaret Sullivan and Brian Stelter: Two Journalists Who Covered Journalism and the Media
Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan announced on August 21 that she was retiring her column and leaving the paper for a teaching position at Duke University. On August 18, CNN canceled host Brian Stelter’s long-running Sunday morning show, Reliable Sources, one the few television shows focusing on journalism and the work of journalists. Like Sullivan, Stelter was dedicated to analyzing the media’s failures and successes and particularly how the media covered former President Donald Trump.
Sullivan’s 42 years in journalism saw her rise from an intern to be the first woman to become the chief editor of her hometown paper, The Buffalo News. From 2012 to 2016 she served as the Public Editor, or “reader’s representative” of The New York Times before joining the Post. Her book, Newsroom Confidential: Lessons (and Worries) from an Ink-Stained Life will be published by St. Martin’s Press in October.
Stelter graduated from Towson University in 2007. At 18, he created a blog, TVNewser, about television and cable news that became a must-read. At 22, he was hired as a media reporter by The New York Times. In 2014, he became the host of Reliable Sources and CNN’s chief media correspondent. With the show’s cancellation, Stelter will leave the network. In 2020, he published Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News and the Dangerous Distortion of Truth.
Sullivan and Stelter are not the only journalists to dedicate themselves to reporting on how well the media does it job, but they were among the best and they will be missed.
Does Journalism Criticism Even Matter?
For Americans who assert not just their own opinions, but also their own facts  intelligent criticism of how well journalists do in conveying the best available version of objective truth may be irrelevant. After all, what is the point of assessing the media’s performance if you can select media sources that support your personal (and sometimes detached from reality) worldview?
Trying to understand how journalists succeed or fail at conveying the best available version of the truth is an act of citizenship. In contrast, the most damning indictment of the media attaches to those outlets that enable, or continue to enable, the election denial lie. There are repeated reports that prospective Republican candidates in some areas of the country are told they need not believe the 2020 presidential election was stolen, they only need to say that it was. Moral issues sometimes seem to be out of fashion. Even so, when a candidate must sacrifice the truth for party membership or endorsement we are at a degraded level of cynicism. Journalists who enable or support this deserve equal blame.
Sullivan and Stelter contributed valuable critiques of journalism and it is worth considering their work.
The End of Ombudsmen and Public Editors
Journalism has a long tradition of self-criticism and self-reflection that arises out of what seems to be an antiquated idea: journalism is a public trust. Until a few years ago that tradition included the presence of a paid staff critic of standards and practices at two leading newspapers.
The Washington Post discontinued its Ombudsman position in 2013 and The New York Times discontinued its Public Editor position in 2017. The rationale for ending these positions (besides reducing personnel costs) was that the Internet empowered readers to communicate (and complain, if necessary) to media outlets instantly. Many Post and Times reporters were not sorry to be free of the inward-looking examination of the Ombudsman or the Public Editor.
Where to Find Media Coverage and Criticism
While the Ombudsman and Public Editor positions were discontinued, the Post and the Times still assigned reporters to cover journalism and the media. The Times publishes its Media Equation column on an intermittent basis and it is not identified with a particular reporter or columnist.
The Post ran Sullivan’s column, and runs stories on the media by Paul Farhi, Elaine Izadi and others, in its increasingly thin and irrelevant Style section. The implication is that opinion journalism about the media is not as weighty or significant as the issues addressed on the editorial pages. Another possibility is that someone on the Post just thinks media analyses should be located near the television listings.
Many of the reporters on the media beat are among the most independent-minded practitioners of the profession and some of its most talented writers. The late David Carr was an exceptionally talented media reporter for The New York Times. Carr seemed to be everywhere at once and his column, the Media Equation, became must-reading until his untimely death at 58.
Carr overcame drug addiction and his journey from an alternative newspaper in Minneapolis to the Times was remarkable. His life and work were gracefully and affectionately memorialized in his Times obituary which can be read
Carr and Stelter figure prominently in an entertaining 2010 documentary, Page One: Inside the New York Times. Carr, while an iconoclast, represents traditional journalistic values and a very young Stelter shows a profound understanding of the significance of social media for journalists. More about the movie is available
Former Post reporter Howard Kurtz, the host of Fox News’ MediaBuzz, is another consistent chronicler of journalists and what they do. Unlike other Fox programming, MediaBuzz offers a diversity of views.
More about MediaBuzz is available
What Margaret Sullivan Did and Why It Matters
Sullivan combined extensive journalism experience with succinct expression, an ability to respond rapidly to events, and a willingness to credit the insights of others. Her convictions included the belief that, “News outlets can’t continue to do speech, rally and debate coverage—the heart of campaign reporting—in the same old way. They will need to lean less on knee-jerk live coverage and more on reporting that relentlessly provides meaningful context.”
Here is Sullivan’s final column describing the importance of “framing,” or providing context as part of reporting:
As Kate Pickert, director of Loyola Marymount’s journalism program noted last week, AP’s Twitter news alert took De Santis’ hyperventilating news conference at face value, providing the kind of treatment the governor might have written himself: “Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced criminal charges against 20 people for illegally voting in 2020, the first major public move from the Republican’s controversial new election police unit.” Whereas the New York Times tweet cut through the noise (I’ve added the italics): “Gov. Ron De Santis said 17 people have been charged with casting illegal ballots in the 2020 election, in which 11.1 million Floridians voted. There is no evidence that election crimes are a serious problem in Florida or anywhere else in the U.S.”
Sullivan did not hesitate to call out the media for its fixation on conflict, for reporting on elections as horse races, and the practice of false balance or “both sidesism”—the tendency to report both sides of a controversy “objectively,” or as equally credible, when one position clearly contradicts the vast weight of evidence, for example, the existence of climate change or whether major historical events actually took place.
The titles of some of Sullivan’s 2022 columns for The Washington Post reveal the range of her perspectives on the practice of journalism:
Book Bans are threatening American democracy. Here’s how to fight back.;
The cautious calculation behind whether Fox will dump Trump;
Four reasons the Jan. 6 hearings have conquered the news cycle;
Newspapers are dying? This digital media veteran launched one anyway.;
Please, pundits, stop trying to predict the future. You’re bad at it.;
Every week, two more newspapers close and ‘news deserts” grow larger;
How journalists can spot the signs of autocracy—and help ward it off; and,
Chris Stirewalt lost his job at Fox News. But he knows he was right.
Sullivan was among the earliest observers of the media to recognize the importance of Facebook as a news source. She was highly critical of the company’s reluctance to police extreme content on its platform. Where appropriate she has criticized established media institutions such as the Times and the Post and she accurately perceived and described the co-dependent relationships that Donald Trump had with Fox News and CNN.
Much of what Sullivan advocates involves old school journalistic values—fairness, accuracy, completeness, the use of identified, not anonymous, sources and dogged effort to get at the truth. She believes that real-time fact checking has its uses, but, “Better to wait until these live events have occurred and then present them packaged with plenty of truthful reporting around them.”
Sullivan’s farewell column can be read
What Brian Stelter Did and Why It Matters
Reliable Sources ran for 30 years on CNN. Prior to Stelter, the show was hosted by Marvin Kalb and Howard Kurtz. Stelter, though limited by the high concept/sound bite nature of television, consistently explored the news and the government’s (particularly the Trump Administration’s) relation to the media and where journalists fell short.
With this year’s sale of AT&T’s media properties to what is now Warner Bros. Discovery, CNN went through an ownership change. CNN’s new direction seems to involve less commentary by opinionated hosts.
Here is Claire Malone of The New Yorker on August 19 on the cancelation of Reliable Sources and Stelter’s departure from the network:
In retrospect, it seems clear that it was only a matter of time before Stelter got the boot. Under new ownership, CNN’s parent company was in thrall to the libertarian billionaire John Malone, who said he wanted to see “CNN evolve back to the journalism it started with, and actually have journalists which would be unique and refreshing.”
Stelter, who became a target for Fox News “personalities” and like-minded others, was perceived as anti-Trump because he consistently and effectively pointed out Trump’s lies.
On the final episode of Reliable Sources, Stelter said, wonderingly, that his farewell message had not been reviewed in advance by CNN’s management. Stelter said:
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.
Stelter’s message to the Reliable Sources audience during the show’s finale contains the disarming admission that he did not think he had enough hair to be on television. His five-minute summary of his time on the show is heartfelt and worth watching. It can be seen
Stelter said in his farewell message that, “We are all members of the media now.” The expansion of social media platforms suggests that this is true. It is also true that critical analysis of how the media works, or should work, by knowledgeable journalists such as Margaret Sullivan and Brian Stelter is a public service.
1. “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts” is attributed to the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D). Moynihan was a social critic and widely-published Harvard professor who served in the Kennedy and Nixon Administrations. He represented New York in the Senate for 25 years. More about Moynihan is available
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