What Tucker Carlson and Don Lemon's firings say about the impact of episodically dominant figures

History says Lemon has better odds at finding another TV news job than Carlson. But the Fox host may not fade away

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published April 27, 2023 2:59PM (EDT)

Tucker Carlson and Don Lemon (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Tucker Carlson and Don Lemon (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

When the news cycle spins up as wildly as it did on Monday, when the firings of Tucker Carlson and Don Lemon were announced in tandem, it's natural for the audience to seek to make sense of it all through nonsense.

Carlson's firing was a special gift to late-night comedy, with all of the usual suspects weighing in except for Stephen Colbert, the host from which we would have most wanted to hear. Alas, "The Late Show" had the week off.

Colbert's previous Comedy Central colleagues at "The Daily Show" stepped up to the plate, though, with correspondent Desi Lydic taking shots from the anchor chair. Her grave dance extended into Tuesday as more details and speculation related to Carlson's firing emerged. "He was Fox's most popular anchor — and they still fired him!" she marveled. "That'd be like if MSNBC fired . . . Um . . . Well, imagine if there was a show people watched on MSNBC. It would be like firing them!"

The name Lydic feigned an inability to recall is Rachel Maddow.

Granted, "The Rachel Maddow Show" has downsized to a weekly affair. Luckily for viewers jonesing for more context than punchlines, albeit with a liberal slant, her primetime hour airs Mondays. Since the news about both anchors broke that morning, Maddow had all day to prepare her sermon on the subject.

Clocking in at 20 minutes, Maddow began with a look at a 1936 political rally that drew more than 100,000 to see the most popular radio host of the time: Father Charles Coughlin. Coughlin was a rabid racist and antisemite who commanded a weekly audience estimated to include a quarter of the nation's population. The Catholic Church gave him a wide berth, Maddow said, until it didn't.

Rush LimbaughRush Limbaugh poses for a Portrait on July 6th, 2005 in Los Angeles, California. (Harry Langdon/Getty Images)

Next, Maddow pointed to Rush Limbaugh, crediting him with changing the role of the American media form known as AM radio. "At his height, it really seemed that . . . his influence would just keep growing and growing and growing, until it didn't." Then came Glenn Beck, who did well on Fox News, and the network was very happy with him, "until they weren't." Beck left before his employee pass stopped working in 2011.

"Whoever is dominant for their time gets smaller and smaller and smaller over time," MSNBC's Rachel Maddow says.

Fox legend Bill O'Reilly was once "the most dominant voice in right-wing television, ever, until he wasn't." In 2017, Fox also fired him.

What, exactly, is Maddow's point? Carlson is simply the latest in a line of "episodically dominant figures."

"If you can see them as a sequence rather than just as standalone individuals . . . I think it's easier when you look at them as a group to get to what matters about them for the country," she said. "Because what you realize if you look at this over a 90-year spread of time . . . whoever is dominant for their time gets smaller and smaller and smaller over time."

Maddow likely kept Lemon's name out of her mouth during her April 24 opener as the impetus for the CNN anchor's firing, though also unclear, isn't in any way close to the reported reasons Fox knifed its highest-rated anchor.

Returning to the subject of episodically dominant conservative media figures, Maddow's purpose was less about offering true context than blunt honesty with a thimble of comfort. "Success in conservative media is a thing. There's always someone," she said, echoing commonly accepted wisdom that Carlson won't be the last of his ilk.

It was when Maddow added, "It does not tend to translate success anywhere other than the conservative media," that her argument veered into the territory of numbing balm.

Tucker CarlsonTucker Carlson (Roy Rochlin/Getty Images)

That is part of Maddow's job. MSNBC positions itself as the liberal response to Fox News, and like Fox, its hosts tend to validate the audience's viewpoint. Hence MSNBC is the more successful of Fox's competitors in the 24-hour news cycle. It certainly was on Monday, when MSNBC narrowly bested Fox News during primetime in the 25-54 demographic, according to Nielsen data. "Maddow" drew an estimated 2,734,000 total viewers to the 2,531,000 audience for Fox's "Hannity." (CNN regularly comes in third place in the ratings, one of the many quandaries its new boss Chris Licht is tasked with solving.)

In viewing conservative media's decades-long track record, Maddow is right.

Referring to Limbaugh's short-lived foray into TV, Maddow said that "you don't get to call football games on TV for the NFL." Speaking to Beck's shrunken media stature, she observed that "you don't lead 100-year-long messianic religious revivals." Her last example didn't require context: "You don't persuade Americans to start tanning their testicles en masse."

True, but if you're a wealthy man with massive currency on the right — especially among its younger members — your profile may not necessarily diminish after being evicted by a media giant. Instead, the relative lack of daily visibility could work to Carlson's advantage.

If you're a wealthy man with massive currency on the right, your profile may not necessarily diminish after being evicted by a media giant.

This is where Carlson and Lemon's paths forward diverge even more sharply than they already did.

Both men have worked in the news industry for decades, as the resurfaced 2004 clip of "Daily Show"-era Jon Stewart excoriating Carlson shortly before he was tossed from CNN's "Crossfire" reminded us.  Unlike Carlson, Lemon was a broadcast journalist before becoming a pundit. He was a co-anchor at NBC's Chicago affiliate station before joining CNN in 2006 as a correspondent. He was named host of "CNN Tonight" in 2014. "Don Lemon Tonight" would debut a year later, in 2015, and he held onto it until 2022.

That show was also a joke until Lemon found his niche in confronting Donald Trump's bigotry. To echo what Maddow said of conservative media's episodically dominant men, CNN's management under Jeff Zucker loved him. Under the recently installed Licht, not so much.

Lemon's termination has been attributed to "a business decision" and linked to accusations of sexist behavior, some of which spilled out in front of the camera and some of which played out behind the scenes. Lemon never gelled with his "CNN This Morning" co-hosts Poppy Harlow and Kaitlan Collins, which was evident mere days after their launch six months ago.

But to Maddow's point, Lemon's odds of continuing his career with a larger mainstream media platform are far greater than Carlson's, not to mention that he has allies such as his former colleague Sunny Hostin defending him on "The View," one of the most influential shows in broadcasting.

"I can say that my experience with Don was not an experience with a misogynist," Hostin said in a recent Salon Talks interview, adding: "I know that he made some comments that were ageist for sure and were sexist, but he apologized. I've never heard Tucker Carlson apologize for anything."

Hostin's ABC co-worker Whoopi Goldberg seconded that notion on air: "If you're concerned that somebody is a misogynist, why would you put them with two women to do a show?" Especially since the morning TV audience skews female, we should add.

Wherever Lemon lands next, his new bosses would be smart to take into account that he's not a morning person. 

Carlson has already been fired from CNN and MSNBC, though considering his toxicity with advertisers, it's not as if either would have him. He's probably too expensive for Newsmax and OAN, both of which are also facing Dominion's legal wrath. He's also already tripped over his two left feet on "Dancing with the Stars."

Television anchor Don Lemon arrives at the 2022 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Ripple of Hope Award Gala at the Hilton Midtown in New York City on December 6, 2022. (ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images)Streaming may be his next chapter, but contrary to Maddow's assessment, it may not necessarily reduce him to irrelevance. Think of all the damage Alex Jones incurred, and then imagine Carlson, a man who spent years polishing his conservative prepster image for TV cameras and fine-tuning the level of his bigotry, sexism and hatefulness to suit whichever master he served, staking out territory in a similar venue.

Since Carlson's abrupt firing on Monday, there have been several theories as to why. His prominence in Dominion Voting Systems' case against the network, which cost Fox Corp. $787.5 million, could have been enough of a reason, especially with Smartmatic's lawsuit still to come. A lawsuit brought by former Carlson producer Abby Grossberg accusing the host of fostering a sexist workplace where the C-word was casually thrown around might have played into Fox's decision, as well.

On Wednesday evening, The New York Times reported that the day before the Dominion trial was set to kick off, leadership at Fox learned of the content of texts previously redacted in legal filings that showed Carlson "making highly offensive and crude remarks that went beyond the inflammatory, often racist comments of his prime-time show and anything disclosed in the lead-up to the trial."

In short, Carlson thought he could get away with all of this as Fox's top-rated anchor, but he forgot he was working for Rupert Murdoch, a man who doesn't take kindly to people who think they're bigger than him.

Tucker CarlsonTucker Carlson speaks during 2022 FOX Nation Patriot Awards on November 17, 2022 in Hollywood, Florida. (Jason Koerner/Getty Images)"Carlson is not a team player, and in fact is uncontrollable," CNN media analyst Oliver Darcy said in a recent newsletter. "He carries legal baggage, and the Murdochs are trying to put an end to the legal disputes they find themselves in. He regularly births negative news cycles about the network that tarnish the brand, and Fox News is desperate to emerge from the cloud of negative press it has been the subject of."

Carlson also speaks to a younger segment of the Fox News audience and MAGA right-wingers than his former colleagues Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham do.

Cable and broadcast news are still the most broadly consumed media forums, as evidenced by the shockwaves these firings produced. Over the last eight Mondays, Carlson averaged 3.3 million live viewers, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Wherever he goes won't offer that level of concentrated exposure. Editorially unfettered, however, he will continue to wield sizable political heft behind the scenes and get paid millions to do it.

After all, Beck didn't disappear. He founded TheBlaze, a news and video website that averaged around 11.5 million users in March. O'Reilly, Maddow dismissively said, "does YouTube videos, I think, from his home." Both men have podcasts, and Beck's is relatively popular, according to Chartable. He's currently ranked seventh on Apple's podcast charts for U.S. news, a few slots behind another former Fox personality, Megyn Kelly, whose podcast is Apple's second most popular in the category.

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Maddow understands this. In Monday's monologue, she said conservative media and the conservative movement "tend to drag the actual Republican Party around like a rag doll that's missing a limb or two. I mean, the Republican Party is comparatively very weak, very disorganized and has no idea how to talk to people."

She then landed on the question of whether the conservative media is at any risk of losing "its power, its capacity, importantly, to drag the Republican Party around in its wake, no matter how hapless that party is and remains."

That is worth asking as we head into the 2024 presidential campaign cycle.

What Carlson does next is central to answering this question — and now that he's out of the spotlight, we may not know for some time. As NBC "Late Night" host Seth Meyers sums it up, that is great but also unsettling. "At least when he had a show we knew where he was," Meyers said. "It's creepy trying to fall asleep with a ventriloquist dummy in your room, but it's way creepier when you wake up and it's not there anymore."

Sometimes the nonsense makes the most sense.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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