CNN’s Brian Stelter reflects on “The View” venom and leaving Trump out of “The Morning Show”

Salon talks to the CNN anchor about his work with the Apple TV+ drama and the challenge morning TV faces

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published November 9, 2019 3:30PM (EST)

Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston in “The Morning Show,” on Apple TV+. (Apple TV+)
Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston in “The Morning Show,” on Apple TV+. (Apple TV+)

During the week that followed the debut of "The Morning Show," Reese Witherspoon's and Jennifer Aniston's Apple TV+ series loosely informed by Brian Stelter's 2013 book "Top of the Morning," another morning TV series seized the headlines.

As you may have heard, "The View" degenerated into a situation slightly north of a mixed martial arts bout when Donald Trump, Jr. and his girlfriend Kimberly Guilfoyle dropped by. Ostensibly their appearance was to discuss Trump Jr.'s new book "Triggered." In reality, they'd brought along an audience of MAGA hat wearers keen on interrupting the production and needling its hosts, drowned out by the booing and heckling from other guests.

Stelter, CNN's  chief media correspondent and host of CNN's "Reliable Sources" who serves as a consulting producer on "The Morning Show," observed that this is evocative of "a country that's divided into two almost entirely different media universes . . . and the two almost never meet.

"Once in a while they do meet, as they did on 'The View,'" he continued, "And the result is this hostility and venom and disappointment, really. I don't know if viewers came away from that day on 'The View' feeling any better. Maybe there's some tribal points scoring that happens, but what I took away was a lot of yelling and disappointment."

On the fictional world of "The Morning Show," most of the antagonism takes place off camera.

Like Stelter's book, the series takes its cues from the real-life travails at NBC's "Today" show, specifically leaning into the stories surrounding Matt Lauer's firing.

Aniston's Alex Levy suddenly finds herself without her on-air partner Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell) who, like Lauer, is fired immediately due to multiple accusations of sexual misconduct. To avoid being pushed out by the network, she maneuvers Witherspoon's Bradley Jackson into the co-anchor chair. The two could not be more mismatched, at least initially.

"The Morning Show" narrative draws its catalyzing heat from the thorny #MeToo themes of office politics and gender disparity, making it very relevant to the current climate. However, a recurring flashpoint in this series is the question of how to find a balance between reporting hard facts about the world, especially stories involving economic disparity and corruption, with the fluffier stories that sell.

Alex, who represents the classic morning television school of hosting, stresses the need to maintain a soft approach. Bradley, a hard-nosed reporter from a conservative network, bristles at being asked to focus on stories about puppies being rescued while entire California neighborhoods are going up in flames.

Stelter sees this reality playing out every day in the actual newscasts. "The broadcast network morning shows – ABC, CBS and NBC – I would say there are times I feel they do not step up and meet the moment that covering Trump demands," he said in a phone interview with Salon.

"The term broadcast implies the attempt to appeal to everyone. And I think that is kind of breaking down, as we all know, in the digital age. But these shows are sometimes still trying to hold on to that sense of appealing to everyone. And I fear that trying to appeal to everyone causes journalists to sugarcoat or just completely ignore what's going on."

Continue reading for the full interview with Stelter about the state of morning television, both as its reflected in "The Morning Show" and elsewhere.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

 I'm wondering whether the classic idea of the morning show and morning television can really effectively exist today in the form that it did when you first wrote "Top of the Morning." We've talked about how [morning TV] has to straddle this tension between appearing to be beyond partisanship and being in a world where the news needs to be reported, and it's not always going to be happy. . . But at the same time, as you pointed out, "Fox & Friends" is a morning show that's very cheerful, but also very much in the business of spreading inaccurate information.

 It's propagandist. There's little bit of this in the first episode when Bradley screams at the coal protests and says, "I'm exhausted." There is an argument for morning TV to give you a break from the exhaustion. There's always an argument for morning TV to bring you positivity and hope and companionship.

On the other hand, the 9/11 terror attacks began with the morning TV anchors in their chairs. And those shows had to pivot to look at the worst of humanity in that moment. That conflict between light and dark is always there on these shows, but I think it's a lot more apparent or obvious or in our face or impossible to ignore at a time when the president's being accused of bribery and other crimes. It's harder and harder to ignore.

And, you know, maybe there's a lot of room on television for shows that cover the alleged crimes for two minutes and then move on. Maybe that is how broadcast TV should work.

On the first days of "The Morning Show" – totally fictional, of course – you never hear the word "Trump." And I think viewers are better off for that. Because you feel like you're more in a fictional world that way. But that tension of Bradley wanting to come in and speak hard truth to power is very evident even in the first three episodes, and becomes more evident over the course of the season.

It's obvious that this is much more oriented towards depicting #MeToo and what happened at NBC with Matt Lauer, while drawing character references from the book. But let's get to back to what you said, that "The Morning Show" doesn't mention Trump. Why is that?

I would rather not speak for the writers . . . My role as consulting producer was to come in and try to make this fictional world look as believable as possible. Just as a viewer, I prefer it because I'm able to enter their world as opposed to enter a version of ours. To enter their world is more compelling and allows for more freedom with the character and the cast members. I think this issue of morning TV in the Trump age is actually a real problem for actual morning TV. It's a real problem that is existing daily, so better for this drama to exist in a slightly different world — although the #MeToo dynamic is clearly evident.

The other connection . . . is Bradley coming from a conservative-skewing cable channel. Right? And we've never quite seen that happening in real life, in morning TV. Megyn Kelly's name comes to mind, but she didn't make that exact same kind of leap. And she's no longer there. But I think that attempt to move from one reality to another is really interesting.

I used to think that Ainsley Earhardt would try to jump to the "Today" show. And certainly her agents used to think so, too. Now she's very happy at Fox and does not imagine leaving Fox. And I think that speaks to just how split off into two our media universes are, that you don't see crossover from Fox to other places very often. Megyn was the only recent example. It speaks to how damaged or broken our environment is, that there isn't that crossover.

But, you know, Bradley tries. She's coming from a smaller, you know, imagined cable news environment that is described as conservative. So we see a little bit of that in the first couple episodes.

What would be the main problems that morning TV faces now in this age? If you were to make a specific list?

In real life, morning TV, top of the list is what's articulated in Episode 1 by Billy Crudup's character, the head of the network. He was talking about the future of television and this sense that it could all fall off the cliff one day. So that I think that would be No. 1. There's an allusion there to streaming and digital . . .  I think a related but slightly different issue is just the sense that we're more addicted to our phones than our televisions. So as a result, you wake up in the morning and look at your phone for information about the world before you look at your TV. And that's another threat to the show's relevance and importance.

But it's incredible how strong morning television remains . . . I think it's remarkable that the shows are as highly rated as they are even though there's like now 12 versions on cable to compete with and all of that. And I think that that raises, like, a third challenge, which is keeping and maintaining and growing your talent . . . Matt Lauer's removal, so that the "Today" show is much bigger than any single star. But you've got to keep developing an ensemble of talent to keep these shows going. And I think that's something that is a constant conversation among the executives and agents.

Going back to the politics thing, did you notice when ABC had a debate, and Robin Roberts did not moderate?

I did.

I thought that was so interesting. George Stephanopoulos obviously did, that's to be expected. But Robin, I understand, made a conscious choice that her brand is not going to be about democratic primary politics. I think that's really interesting. Even taking Trump out of it for a second: maybe she's right. Maybe that was the right call for Robin Roberts, that her brand is not going to be about this, you know, Medicare-For-All conversation.

Savannah Guthrie made a very different choice that makes more sense for her. She grew up over there at MSNBC with Chuck Todd, and she was a fantastic debate moderator for NBC, one of the best, I think, of all the debates so far. But you know, there's these choices that these individuals make about what their brands are, what their identities are, whether to lean into politics or not.

It does look like an interesting reality of this world. Gayle King's a little different, little unique given the relationship with the Obamas and Oprah, you know – clear connections to Democratic politics there . . . And George Stephanopoulos, probably the most of any, breaks two scoops about Michael Cohen and others, gets the presidential interview despite being a Clinton White House veteran. He's been able to chart a path that fascinating to me.

And some of that plays out on morning TV, but a lot of it doesn't. "GMA" next week, when there are public impeachment hearings, will look pretty similar to "GMA" last week, even in the midst of this ordeal for the country.

That leads me to my next question. There's been a lot of conversation about how, in a very real way, this era has changed journalism – not necessarily for the better. There's been a significant altering of what is acceptable in terms of follow-up questions, and how much people are willing to press subjects. Even what's expected in terms of asking a question and almost expecting that the person, particularly a politician, is not going to answer it. They're just going to provide their own answers.


I wonder what your sense is as to how this era may irrevocably change morning television. Already, I think, morning television is perceived as a softer arena for authors and politicians to show themselves as more human, although differently from late night shows in that they don't have to, you know, make everybody laugh. They can actually get into the substance of what they'd like to discuss.

I think there's a kind of a gut-level sense that some of the political authors that you would expect to see booked on morning TV for their first splashy interview are not getting booked on "Today" or "[Good Morning America]" anymore. Bill O'Reilly — being a complicated example, given his scandals — but Bill O'Reilly did not launch his Trump book on the morning shows. He relied pretty much solely on right wing media instead.

It may be that morning TV producers don't want that kind of polarizing conversation, especially after the 7:15 mark, when they're doing lighter stuff . . .  Maybe they've decided, "Why have those fractious conversations with these new authors?" That probably is one kind of one indication of it: Who's getting booked and why?

More generally, we don't see Kellyanne Conway going on the morning shows almost ever. We don't see other Trump aides on network TV much at all. If we measure network television by amount of information that's accurate, that's on the air, that's probably a good thing. Because booking a Trump aide increases the amount of misinformation that's on television.

But those are choices, right? Those are choices both by the White House not to put people out, and they're choices by the networks not to seek or schedule those bookings. . . . I think [Vice President Mike] Pence is probably the last White House official who did the morning show rounds, like did all three shows, and it was months ago. But you know, they have a morning show, right? They have a morning show. So maybe in their minds, why would they go anywhere else?

Do you think that part of it is that they now no longer look at morning shows as friendly territory outside of "Fox & Friends"?

For White House officials, yes. That's certainly the case. I also think that they're not in a campaign of persuasion across the country in the way that we normally associated White House to be. I think they're in a campaign for their base. Also we should mention they have at least two morning shows. They have "Mornings with Maria" [Bartiromo] on Fox Business as well.

And nothing can compete with the President's Twitter feed in the morning.

Post-"Top of the Morning," post-"The Morning Show," if you were to write a follow-up book or a sequel for lack of another way of putting it, what would you want to dive into more deeply in terms of morning television?

I am working on another book that's unrelated. It's about Fox and includes the Fox morning show. It's about Fox in the Trump age. That'll come out next year.

But in a hypothetical? You know . . . "Bottom of the Morning." There are a lot of stories that could be told in a book like "Bottom of the Morning." There's been a lot of great reporting around the #MeToo movement. But what's happened at the "Today" show post-Lauer, I don't think that's been fully explored. Yeah, I guess that would be the answer.

Wait, what do you mean, "what's happened post-Lauer?" What do you mean by that?

I mean, the "Today" show fired him in 24 hours and recast the show in a span of hours, right? Then putting Hoda [Kotb] with Savannah, and promoting it as a show hosted by two women, which is not quite a first in morning TV, but it's been very, very rare.

Women have gained a lot more power in morning television within the past few years. This is still something that, you know, we would not have been saying 30 years ago, and unfortunately it seems only true now that these shows that are made primarily for women are starting to be produced primarily by women. So the "Today" show has a female EP for all four hours for the first time. There have been those kinds of changes and I don't have the reporting, so I don't know. But I would love to know what's changed and what hasn't at these shows.

There's an old, misogynistic stereotype that says that, "Viewers want a husband and wife in the morning." And that was probably never true. . . but maybe it was kind of true? I just think there's a lot of sorts of questions of gender and power to explore.

You know better than I about the kinds of the cliches and the tropes about morning TV that have been upended lately. You know, CBS having a show with Gayle at center as opposed to Charlie [Rose] at the center. It's been a tremendous amount of change, actually, in the casting of the shows. And for the most part networks are on board.

But the trends in broadcast, the trends in digital, are doing some damage around the edges in terms of broadcast ratings. There must be some folks not sleeping very well at night as a result.

"The Morning Show" is currently streaming on Apple TV+ with new episodes released weekly.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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