Don Lemon, Tucker Carlson departures roil cable news universe

Both Don Lemon of CNN and Tucker Carlson of Fox News parted ways with their employers on the same day. CNN/FOX NEWS



Both Don Lemon of CNN and Tucker Carlson of Fox News parted ways with their employers on the same day. CNN/FOX NEWS

The sudden departures of Don Lemon at CNN and Tucker Carlson at Fox News roils an already tumultuous cable news universe.

Fox News released a statement Monday without citing why Carlson was leaving and noted a rotating set of hosts will cover the 8 p.m. slot. “We thank him for his service to the network as a host and prior to that as a contributor,” the statement said.

This is Fox News’ first major move since the media company settled a blockbuster defamation case last week with Dominion Voting Systems to the tune of $787.5 million.

“There’s no doubt someone was going down,” said Roland Martin, a former CNN political contributor who now runs his own Black Star Network. “You don’t pay out $787.5 million and keep the status quo.”

Carlson has not yet released any reaction to this action.

Lemon, who had been a co-host on CNN’s morning show until Monday, released a statement about his departure less than hour later. “I was informed this morning by my agent that I have been terminated by CNN,” he wrote. “I am stunned. After 17 years at CNN I would have thought that someone at management would have had the decency to tell me directly.”

He added: “At no time was I ever given any indication that I would not be able to continue do the work I have loved at the network. It is clear that there are some larger issues at play. With that said, I want to thank my colleagues and the many teams I have worked with for an incredible run.”

Lemon ignited controversy earlier this year when he implied that Nikki Haley, a Republican former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and former South Carolina governor, was no longer in her prime at age 51. Women, he told his two female co-anchors, were really in their prime “in her 20s, 30s and maybe her 40s.” When co-host Poppy Harlow, who is 40, objected, he said: “Don’t shoot the messenger, I’m just saying what the facts are.”

He was given sensitivity training and returned to air.

“He was carrying a lot of public baggage,” said Frank Sesno, former CNN White House correspondent and bureau chief and currently director of strategic initiatives at George Washington University.

Martin said a recent Variety magazine investigation, which revealed stories of Lemon being misogynistic in the late 2000s while working at CNN in Atlanta, was a sign that people inside CNN were actively working against him.

Tony Harris, a former CNN anchor now doing work at the History Channel, said he thought Lemon’s future at CNN was doomed when he lost his prime-time spot last fall and was placed on mornings, a time slot CNN has struggled with for decades.

“They undermined him,” Harris said. “I get that Don can be a polarizing figure, but that was a direction CNN endorsed for a good period of time.” (In fact, former CNN chief Jeff Zucker was a huge Lemon cheerleader and specifically moved him from Atlanta to New York in 2013 to be a more prominent figure on the network.)

In a tweet, CNN called Lemon’s account “inaccurate.” The network said he was given an opportunity to meet with management but “instead released a statement on Twitter.”

The New York Times, citing an unnamed source inside CNN, said CNN discovered some guests didn’t want to appear with Lemon and his popularity had fallen with CNN viewers since the Haley brouhaha.

As for Carlson, he was a player in the Dominion case, his private correspondence not matching up with what he was saying on air. Emails and texts collected from Fox executives and anchors, including Carlson, showed they did not believe many of the election fraud allegations that were being presented on the network as well as conspiracies about Dominion’s voting machines that proved to be false.

He clearly didn’t anticipate what was going to happen on Friday. When he signed off on what would be his final show, he simply said, “We’ll be back Monday … see you then.”

Carlson, 53, has worked at all three major cable news networks. He was a commentator with CNN from 2000 to 2005. He was part of MSNBC from 2005 to 2008. He hosted “Tucker Carlson Tonight” on Fox News from 2016 until this past Friday.

“This is an earthquake at Fox News,” said Sesno, who was going to be an expert witness for Dominion before the case was settled. “But what it means and what damage it really creates, we don’t know yet.”

Fox News has survived previous high-profile prime-time departures including those by Bill O’Reilly and Megyn Kelly. Carlson actually took over O’Reilly’s time slot in 2017 after O’Reilly was accused of sexual harassment by multiple former Fox employees, allegations he denied at the time. He soon became Fox’s highest-rated host.

But Fox is facing shareholder lawsuits and another lawsuit from a Dominion Voting rival, Smartmatic, which is seeking $2.7 billion in damages.

CNN, in the meantime, over the past year has been adjusting to new management, weaker ratings and a primetime lineup in flux. The network fired Chris Cuomo a year ago for ethical issues related to his interaction with his brother and former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and new CNN boss Chris Licht last fall moved Lemon to mornings before letting him go Monday. MSNBC now only has its biggest star Rachel Maddow one evening a week.

“There’s a larger existential threat to cable news with so much cord cutting and polarization and a very demanding transient audience,” Sesno said.

Fox News primetime ratings during the first quarter were down 18% year over year. MSNBC’s ratings fell 8%. But CNN’s dropped a whopping 34% in primetime and its 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. slots remain open.

CNN’s morning show lasted six months and Lemon’s co-hosts Harlow and Kaitlan Collins will remain, CNN said. Ratings have been modest and lag far behind those at Fox and MSNBC.

For Warner Bros. Discovery, CNN remains a very profitable division, though profits will certainly be lower this year than last. For News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch, Fox News has also been a consistent financial cash machine and internally, management has fretted about “changing behavior and changing direction that could jeopardize its bottom line,” Sesno noted.

He recalls working with Carlson two decades ago. “He was always a very smart, talented person with a distinctive voice,” Sesno said. “Unfortunately, that voice has been directed in some very ugly, intolerant and uninformed ways in recent years.”