Commentary: Cable news remains powerful. The reaction to Tucker Carlson and Don Lemon proves it

Two of the most recognizable faces in U.S. television news fell within minutes of each other, both unceremoniously dropped Monday by the cable networks that once championed them.

Before news of their unrelated dismissals rocked the mediasphere, Tucker Carlson and Don Lemon had little in common save for their positions as high-profile hosts in rival newsrooms. Now, they share the fact that their misogynistic behavior cost them those jobs.

Otherwise, it’s hard to imagine two men more diametrically opposed in their beliefs than the former Fox News star and the former CNN personality. There’s simply not enough room here to unpack the myriad differences — it’d be like trying to explain the Mideast conflict in three easy sentences. But in short, Carlson promoted racist ideology, bogus election-fraud conspiracy and anti-vax propaganda, and he sided with Vladimir Putin regarding Russia’s attack on Ukraine. Lemon did the opposite.

Regardless of their differences, the media’s dramatic and ongoing reaction to the news of both firings points in the same direction. It’s a signal of just how powerful TV news and its anchors remain, even in a world that’s supposedly all about streaming and social media.

No matter how much social media has outflanked cable news as the 24/7 news source of choice, cable still has the potency to create and promote the personalities that become the “face” of the news. The sackings exposed the extent of cable television’s influence, as well as the limits of its instability.

Millions of Americans still rely on “trusted” voices to deliver their nightly news, and in today’s bifurcated views on politics, culture and even basic facts, that often means whomever best reinforces what we already believe. Whether it’s the Big Lie or Black Lives Matter, cable TV has it covered with hosts who can interpret the news through any given lens. It’s a far cry from the comparatively objective broadcasts of Walter Cronkite or Judy Woodruff, or the dispatches from an early CNN pioneer, anchor Bernard Shaw.

Much of today’s cable news is front-loaded with opinion, various levels of bombast and, if you’re Fox News, intentional misinformation. (Read about the Dominion lawsuit.) It’s a programming model designed to help it survive and thrive in a highly competitive field, where deeply partisan “news” sites, TikTok, Facebook and everything else that pops up in our feeds and notifications vie for our attention and cut into time that could be spent watching Fox, CNN or MSNBC.

But the erasure of the line between reportage and commentary, between host and journalist, means cable stars are much more prone to flaming out in controversy, and that’s partly what we saw Monday. And, let’s be clear, the cases are very different.

Carlson’s bully tactics were his on-air superpower. The more he targeted Nancy Pelosi, immigrants or Dominion voting machines — thus touting ideas like the “great replacement” theory and election fraud — the higher the ratings. But behind the scenes, his bluster and hubris were not a financial boon. In fact, they turned out to be a liability.

Sources told the Los Angeles Times that Carlson was forced out by Fox Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch over a discrimination lawsuit filed by Abby Grossberg. A producer, Grossman was fired by the network last month after she alleged she was bullied by the host and subjected to sexist and antisemitic comments.

Lemon’s firing appears to have been connected with an ongoing pattern of misogynistic comments and actions. His downfall began last February, when, on “CNN This Morning,” he commented on a speech made by Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina and United Nations ambassador. Haley, 51, a Republican presidential hopeful, called for mandatory mental competency tests for politicians over the age of 75.

“This whole talk about age makes me uncomfortable,” said Lemon. “I think it’s the wrong road to go down. … Nikki Haley isn’t in her prime, sorry. A woman is considered to be in their prime in their 20s and 30s and maybe 40s.”

“Prime for what?” asked co-host Poppy Harlow. “Are you talking about prime for, like, childbearing? Or prime for being president?”

It’s unclear what transpired at CNN in the months leading to Monday’s announcement, but no doubt that will emerge somewhere in the deluge of coverage.

The shock waves from both firings are likely to reverberate for some time. After long tenures on the air, Carlson and Lemon were dropped at the snap of a finger, during a particularly rocky time for TV news outlets that aren’t taking advantage of the relative lack of competition among those that cater to the right and far right. After Chris Licht took over as CEO, CNN has been trying in recent months to pick up more red-state viewers, and it has been an awkward, uncomfortable dance at best.

However, prophecies about cable news taking its last breath have not come true — yet. Last week’s story about the demise of BuzzFeed News, a digital outlet that promised to modernize the way we gather, disseminate and consume information — arguably a more consequential event in the industry — garnered far less media coverage than the tumble of Carlson and Lemon.

They are (or were) among the most recognizable faces of national television news, a medium that has been declared dead countless times yet still holds more sway than everything that has arrived to replace it. At least for now.

Comments are closed, but trackbacks and pingbacks are open.