Carlson and Lemon firings signal end of ‘Trump era’ of cable TV in US

Fox News and CNN both sacked star presenters on Monday, on what one observer called ‘the craziest day in cable news history.’ The dramatic double dismissal has sparked a debate on partisanship in the media

Tucker Carlson
Tucker Carlson, during a golf tournament in New Jersey in July 2022.Seth Wenig (AP)
Iker Seisdedos

Both are rich and famous TV presenters. That aside, few parallels could – until this week – be drawn between Fox News’ Tucker Carlson and CNN’s Don Lemon. Carlson has carved out a career as the boisterous mouthpiece for the grievances of the white man in the United States – grievances that took Donald Trump to the White House. Lemon is a Black, progressive presenter with the type of concerns that conservatives love to ridicule by labelling “woke”.

In a delicious twist of fate, this polar-opposite pair of journalists found themselves in the same boat on Monday, when Carlson and Lemon were each fired by their respective networks, just minutes apart. “This is the craziest day in cable news history,” the prominent media analyst Brian Stelter tweeted in a stunned response to the morning’s events.

The double sacking sent out such shockwaves that many are now talking about the end of an era in the industry. An era which, like so many other things, was brought about by Trump; his four years as American president, experts agree, served to exacerbate partisanship in the media.

Fox News sought to present its split from its chief star, the host of the most-watched program on any U.S. cable network, as an amicable break-up. Steadily, however, the truth began to emerge. Owners Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch had finally run out of patience with Carlson when private messages sent by the presenter came to light during the lawsuit launched against the network by voting-tech firm Dominion.

In an 11th-hour settlement, the Murdochs paid $787.5 million to avoid a trial over the lies that Fox willfully broadcast about the 2020 U.S. presidential election. A lawsuit filed by Abby Grossberg, a former Tucker Carlson Tonight producer who alleges there was an atmosphere of “blatant” misogyny on the program, also persuaded the Murdochs that they needed to fire their greatest on-air asset – without even allowing him to say goodbye. Quite the betrayal of Carlson’s faithful congregation, who see him as a messiah in possession of the truth that the rest of the mainstream media has been hiding: a collection of ‘conspiranoias’, lies about the Capitol attack and theories borrowed from white supremacism.

Don Lemon
Don Lemon attends the Time gala in New York on Wednesday. Evan Agostini (Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

Lemon was also denied the opportunity to bid his viewers farewell. He was fired via his agent, shortly after presenting his final morning show alongside Poppy Harlow and Kaitlan Collins. The program has struggled for audience since it launched in October, but Lemon’s problem wasn’t the viewing figures; it was his new bosses’ plans.

A year ago, Warner Bros. Discovery took over as owner of CNN. The vision put forward by the new president, Alan Licht, focuses on smoothing out the ideological edges of a network which, he feels, allowed the Trump presidency to distract it from its priority: the news. Seen as one of the most visible faces of this trend, Lemon was demoted from primetime to mornings. Three months ago, he said of the Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley, 51, that she “isn’t in her prime”, adding that a woman is “considered to be in her prime in her 20s and 30s, and maybe 40s”. He was taken off air for a few days. The final straw then appears to have come this month, when an interview with another Republican candidate, Vivek Ramaswamy, descended into an argument about African-American history and the Second Amendment right to bear arms. Lemon’s belligerence during the exchange angered CNN executives.

“This week has shown who’s in charge at the networks,” the journalist Ricky Sánchez told EL PAÍS in a phone conversation. “However successful you are, they’re in control. They can get rid of a Tucker Carlson and replace him with another – I know that only too well.” Sánchez was one of CNN’s stars until he was abruptly sacked in 2010 over controversial comments he had made on the radio. He went on to work for Fox News and NBC (which is also in the midst of its own crisis, after Jeff Shell, the CEO of its parent company, was fired for “inappropriate conduct” towards a female employee). That makes Sánchez one of the few industry professionals who have inside experience of all three major news networks. “CNN has the least patience,” he says. “Fox gives you more rope.”

An important distinction

Sánchez, who has now thrown himself into podcasts, believes that Tucker “went too far when he criticized the Murdochs”. “He thought he was untouchable,” he says. “Rupert and Lachlan felt that those messages [whose full contents have not emerged] were going to cause them problems in the other lawsuits that they still have ahead of them.” And Lemon? “He wasn’t able to keep himself in check on air,” Sánchez says. “He stopped being a journalist and began behaving like an African-American leftist, rather than behaving like a journalist who also happens to be a leftist and African-American. It’s an important distinction.”

The two cases have had differing consequences. The departure of a struggling Lemon won’t have much of an effect on – and could even boost – his former employer’s audience. In February, CNN registered its worst monthly figures in a decade: it averaged 587,000 total primetime viewers, well behind Fox’s 2.26 million.

On the other hand, the dismissal of Carlson, whose last show was watched by 2.6 million, had an immediate effect. Fox’s share value dropped by $800 million after his departure. And, as replacements are tried out in the slot he occupied at 8pm ET, audience during that hour is in free fall. Meanwhile, Fox’s lesser rival Newsmax has trebled its figures this week by attracting viewers left orphaned by Carlson’s exit, and by painting his sacking as its rival capitulating to the left. And it’s not just Newsmax: there is a whole ecosystem of right-wing outlets desperate to step in and take Fox News’ place on center stage.

It isn’t the first time that Fox has dispensed with its flagship presenter, recalls Nicole Kraft, a professor of communication at Ohio State University. “Glenn Beck [who departed in 2011] was very popular,” Kraft says. “And Bill O’Reilly [who left in 2017] took that to a different level. And then Tucker Carlson took it completely into the stratosphere. He had the ‘benefit’ of a Trump presidency and the January 6 insurrection. Carlson showed his ability to really penetrate with an audience, to foster blatant lies that connected him to his audience in ways we had never seen before.”

Kathryn Brownell, a Purdue University historian who this summer is to release a book on cable TV’s influence on the country’s fragmentation, cautions that Fox has always survived the departure of its stars in the past.

She adds that the network and Carlson “both benefited from the personality cult created around the presenter” – and as an example of this strategy’s success, she points to the impact of the nebulous video message he posted in response to his sacking. In the video, which is pure Tucker, he talks a lot without saying much at all. He says TV media is becoming “completely irrelevant”, complains of a conspiracy by Democrats and Republicans to bury freedom of speech, and asks: “Where can you still find Americans saying true things? There aren’t many places left, but there are some. And that’s enough.” He closes out his two-minute message – which as of Sunday had accrued just over 23 million views - with a “see you soon”.

Where will we see him? That’s not clear. It also isn’t clear what the next step is for Fox News, which – unlike CNN – isn’t planning to be more even-handed. Amid talk of the dawn of a new, more impartial era in the media, the veteran journalist Marvin Kalb, an investigator at the Brookings Institution, doubted in an article published this week that the conservative network is going to abandon its niche in pursuit of moderation. To do that, he says, the Murdochs would have to “change their whole cast of characters” on the channel – not just Carlson – and ask their replacements to “stop choosing and supporting political personalities like Trump and to try covering the news, not making it”.

Kraft can’t see this happening, not least because of what occurred after Fox called Arizona for [Joe] Biden in the 2020 election. “They fired the people who made that declaration!” she recalls. In one of the Carlson messages made public in the Dominion lawsuit, he bemoans the decision to announce for Biden, writing: “We worked really hard to build what we have. Those fuckers are destroying our credibility. It enrages me.” This episode showed that “truth was not going to be a significant part of [Fox’s] business plan”, Kraft says. “CNN is trying to move more to the center – they do not want to be appearing as partisan as people have been interpreting them to be. But I don’t see any sign that Fox is shying away from that role.”

Stelter, another former CNN journalist, wrote on Tuesday in the New York Times that this week’s cataclysmic events have served to demonstrate the “power” of the two networks, which “may be more influential than ever before”. “The power of cable news is in its reach and repetition […],” he said. “When you count all the people who saw [Carlson] on a TV at a bar or in an airport and all the people who watched a clip on the internet or heard radio talk-show hosts quote him, he had a monthly audience of surely tens of millions.”

Such alternative ways of getting their message across also have a destabilizing effect on the networks, Brownell says. “We’re witnessing a major transformation in the news media, thanks to social media, TikTok and YouTube,” she explains. “Many people are canceling their cable subscriptions and spreading their money across different platforms. That’s why the networks have had to embrace streaming.”

It also remains unclear what the next chapter will be for Lemon, after 17 years at CNN. On Wednesday, he fixed a broad smile on his face and attended the Time gala. His dismissal, he said, would allow him to “enjoy my summer”. For now, it has also left him with another thing in common with Carlson. The presenters have hired the same attorney to negotiate their departures. His name is Bryan Freedman, and he has a track record for getting TV stars multi-million-dollar settlements.

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