Tucker Carlson and Don Lemon: A Tale of Two Sudden Cable News Exits

6 minute read

In a matter of minutes on Monday, the face of cable news changed dramatically. First, Fox News reported that it had “parted ways” with Tucker Carlson, the host of the conservative cable news network’s hit 8 p.m. show Tucker Carlson Tonight. Then, just as the Succession memes started flowing, longtime CNN host Don Lemon posted a note on Twitter informing followers that he’d just heard, via his agent, that the network was firing him. (CNN has since disputed that characterization, tweeting that Lemon “was offered an opportunity to meet with management but instead released a statement on Twitter.”)

It’s tempting to lump together these two departures, considering that they were announced almost simultaneously. (Lemon was open about his termination, whereas Carlson’s exit was publicly framed as a mutual decision. A source at Fox confirmed to TIME that the decision was not a financial one and suggested that Carlson was likely surprised by the decision, given his signoff on Friday’s show, but would not provide further comment.) Carlson and Lemon have something else in common, too: both men are controversial, and have faced backlash from the media and the public as well as their co-workers. The Fox News star leans into his role as a provocateur, promoting a right-wing agenda that barely bothers to conceal its grounding in racism, sexism, xenophobia, conspiracy thinking, religious intolerance, and hatred of the LGBTQ community. His less inflammatory CNN counterpart, meanwhile, has been mired in accusations of misogyny and bad behavior on set. But it would be a mistake to read their tandem dismissals as some righteous act on the part of cable news media writ large to purge itself of toxic men. The cases have important differences, though both will surely impact how TV covers the 2024 presidential election.

Of the two, Lemon was the much more obvious candidate for replacement. As he put it on Twitter on Monday morning: “It is clear that there are some larger issues in play.” As anyone who’s been following his career recently will remember, one salient issue is Lemon himself. This past February, the CNN This Morning co-anchor came under fire for calling 51-year-old Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley over the hill. “Nikki Haley isn’t in her prime, sorry,” Lemon told his female co-hosts. “When a woman is considered to be in her prime—in her 20s, 30s, and maybe her 40s.” Further reporting turned up allegations that Lemon had a long history of behavior that Variety characterized as painting “a picture of a journalist who flouted rules and cozied up to power all while displaying open hostility to many female co-workers.”

Financial concerns might also have played a role in Lemon’s firing. As Forbes reported in March, cable news viewership is way down in 2023. CNN, which has a smaller audience than either Fox News or MSNBC, has seen a 34% decrease in year-over-year viewership—a much larger drop than MSNBC experienced in a year that saw the latter network’s flagship host, Rachel Maddow, transition away from nightly broadcasts. The same article notes that “CNN’s biggest programming change to date has been moving Don Lemon, the anchor of the 10 p.m. ET program Don Lemon Tonight, to co-anchor a morning show CNN This Morning.” Regardless of whether Lemon’s Haley comments and the subsequent revelations had a material effect on the morning show’s audience, it’s difficult to justify a big salary when times are tough and ratings low.

Carlson’s story is different. Consistently the most popular solo host (Tucker Carlson Tonight doesn’t always beat Fox News panel show The Five in the ratings) on what is consistently the most popular cable news network, he seemed pretty untouchable. In a 2021 profile, TIME’s Charlotte Alter ventured that “Carlson may be the most powerful conservative in America.” Then came the court filings—and Fox’s widely publicized legal woes. Even after Dominion Voting Systems’ lawsuit against the network revealed disparaging comments the host had made against both Donald Trump and the network’s own higher-ups, it’s possible Carlson would’ve survived to issue red-faced primetime rants and print money for Murdoch world.

The thing is, he’s also named in a lawsuit from Abby Grossberg, his former head of booking, that includes allegations that male producers on his show created a toxic work environment, replete with antisemitic jokes and demeaning behavior towards women. The New York Times reported that one of Grossberg’s lawyers, Tanvir Rahman, released a statement Monday framing Carlson’s departure as, “in part, an admission of the systemic lying, bullying and conspiracy mongering claimed by our client.” If the accusations against both men are true, then they have much more in common than CNN loyalists and Fox News fans might want to admit. In Lemon’s case, the writing was on the wall. For Carlson, it was buried in legal documents.

Both stories are still developing; the headlines keep changing as reporters scramble to uncover what really happened behind the scenes at Fox News and CNN. It could take days, weeks, or months for all the details to come out. In the meantime, there’s one major takeaway for not just cable news viewers, but also the American electorate at large: While Carlson’s political influence dwarfs that of Lemon, a less prominent host on a less popular network, both of these high-profile personnel shifts are sure to impact how we understand a 2024 presidential election that is already beginning to take shape.

On CNN, we’ll have one less voice applying sexist double standards to female candidates who’ve been fighting them for generations, from Shirley Chisholm and Geraldine Ferraro to Hillary Clinton and Kamala Harris. It’s hard to imagine Fox News turning away from its reactionary stances with Carlson gone, but the network has its work cut out for it in replacing a (covertly anti-Trump) host popular enough to help set the national conservative agenda. And, of course, much of Carlson’s devoted audience is likely to follow him to wherever he lands, whether it’s TV or a podcast or a Substack or a best-selling book. Presidential election cycles are always moments of change on cable news; Maddow made her career as MSNBC’s big 2008 hire. With Carlson and Lemon both out in April 2023, it looks like next year’s inevitable upheavals have arrived a few months early. —with reporting by Charlotte Alter

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