As Carlson and Lemon Exit, a Chapter Closes on Cable’s Trump War
They were on very different networks and did very different things to draw very different ratings.
But the synchronous exits of Tucker Carlson and Don Lemon from the cable news landscape on Monday represented the end of an era for their industry — the most combative and partisan since Ted Turner introduced the concept of 24-hour news to television more than 40 years ago.
No equivalence can be drawn between the two hosts. Mr. Carlson often led in the ratings by running wild at Fox News with white nationalist and false conspiracy stories that put him in a class by himself. Mr. Lemon became known for his anti-Trump broadsides that were tame in comparison — and drew much smaller ratings — yet could come off as plenty hot by the standards of CNN.
But in their most recent incarnations, Mr. Carlson and Mr. Lemon were both products of the Trump years — set-top-box combatants who often made headlines themselves by giving their audiences generous helpings of indignation and outrage.
Now, in different ways, their ousters represent at least a temporary pulling back from the excesses of the media coverage that the Trump election, presidency and post-presidency spawned.
“On a lot of the mainstream channels, there was a race to be first to condemn Trump to celebrate his problems,” said Stephen F. Hayes, a founder of the conservative site The Dispatch. “And on Fox, in prime time especially, there was this over-the-top effort to defend him and amplify his lies.’’
Mr. Hayes, who left his job as a Fox analyst over Mr. Carlson’s promotion of conspiracy theories about the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, said optimistically, “We can hope that this signals some kind of broader institutional change.”
Questions remain about the particulars of both exits, and both situations involved factors other than their general editorial approaches.
Mr. Carlson had become an embarrassing figure through the ample material that was produced in the defamation lawsuit Dominion Voting Systems brought against Fox, which settled last week at the eleventh hour for $787.5 million.
Emails and text messages produced ahead of trial showed Mr. Carlson mocking Mr. Trump even while hailing him on his program, and using crude and misogynistic language about a lawyer pushing the election conspiracies about Dominion’s voting machines, Sidney Powell. In another lawsuit pending in Delaware, the former head of booking for Carlson’s show, Abby Grossberg, accuses Mr. Carlson and his staff of using similarly coarse language about women. That behavior — which Ms. Grossberg alleges created a toxic work environment — appears to have been a factor in his ouster as much as anything else.
Mr. Lemon’s ouster came after he made a sexist and ageist remark on a CNN morning program that the Republican presidential aspirant Nikki Haley wasn’t “in her prime” because, as he put it, “a woman is considered to be in prime in her 20s and 30s and maybe 40s.” The statement was deeply offensive by any measure. But in television terms, it also strayed into cardinal sin territory — it threatened to alienate an important ratings demographic. Though Mr. Lemon apologized, the network finally concluded that his future had become untenable.
But neither situation can be viewed outside of where the men stood on the shifting plates of the cable news terra firma.
Mr. Lemon was operating in a new environment at CNN, where a new network president, Chris Licht, made it clear he wanted to shave down what he views as the more partisan edges that emerged in the Trump years. As Mr. Licht told advertisers last June, “At a time where extremes are dominating cable news, we will seek to go a different way.” Sending CNN down that middle way also happens to be the priority of David Zaslav, the chief executive of CNN’s parent company, Warner Bros. Discovery, even though it means lower ratings and therefore less revenue. “Ratings be damned,” he has said.
It was in no small part because of this shift that Mr. Licht moved Mr. Lemon from his 10 p.m. show last year and assigned him as a co-host of a new CNN breakfast program. “CNN This Morning” was positioned as a lighter, more conversational — and less edgy — program than the one from which Mr. Lemon was being vacated.
Yet it didn’t quite take. “Don Lemon is a lightning rod because he really came to prominence during an era where that was celebrated and encouraged in prime time,” Mr. Licht conceded at a media conference held by Semafor earlier this month. “CNN has moved on from that and Don has moved on from that.” Now, CNN has moved on from Don.
The signal is a little less clear from Fox News. The network and its leaders Lachlan and Rupert Murdoch had stood by Mr. Carlson for years as he drew wide condemnation for airing false and racist conspiracies that won him such cachet with so many of the Trump faithful.
They seemed to do so for a basic reason — the large ratings and considerable revenues he gained as he did so. Even as the Dominion lawsuit appeared to be heading full steam to trial, Mr. Carlson doubled down by running reports falsely portraying the Jan. 6 attack as a mostly peaceful event. It sent a signal that even under the threat of a huge lawsuit, ratings trumped all at Fox.
Following its settlement with Dominion last week, Fox was met with the unanswered question of whether the experience of the case was singeing enough to make Fox News pull back from airing the sort of unbridled, false conspiracy content that gave Dominion such a strong hand at court.
The abrupt end of Mr. Carlson’s run at Fox News may not telegraph some broader pullback in the offing — indeed, there are various indications to the contrary. But his removal from Fox’s prime time is a pullback all on its own, and a pretty major one at that.
Then again, over the course of the past 40 years, cable news, in its perpetual hunt for ratings and relevance, has inexorably moved toward ever more strident programming and personalities. Mr. Carlson’s and Mr. Lemon’s exits may be the end of one era in cable news. But if Fox and CNN are unable to resist the siren call of Mr. Trump’s attention-grabbing bag of tricks in the pursuit of ratings, who is to say what the next one will truly look like?