By Nolan Hidgon
Television host Sara Haines of ABC’s “The View” spoke for many viewers when she celebrated the departure of right-wing television host Tucker Carlson from the Fox News Network.
“I am happy to know someone like him no longer has the platform he had built,” she exclaimed.
Similarly, CNN anchor Don Lemon’s ouster on April 23, 2023 – the same day as Carlson’s – generated an equal amount of celebration from conservatives.
One of them was Nikki Haley, the presidential candidate and former governor of South Carolina, whom Lemon had previously described as a woman past her prime when she launched her 2024 campaign.
Lemon’s dismissal is “a great day for women everywhere,” Haley exclaimed.
In this age of hyperpartisan news programming, both Carlson and Lemon proved talented at providing perspectives that confirmed their audience’s view of the world.
It is not clear why Lemon and Carlson were fired, but in my view as a media scholar, they were removed because they no longer provided the benefits their employers expected.
Instead, I believe they had become potential threats to the networks’ audience shares and advertising revenue. Rather than a victory for women or truth, I view these firings as an effort to sustain and grow corporate profits.
Hyperpartisan news media
The advent of cable news in the 1980s created more channels for audiences to watch, and thus fractured the audience long dominated by networks NBC, ABC and CBS.
The internet, smartphones and social media further fragmented audiences. As journalists and media scholars have noted, the solution for many media companies in the 1990s was to target their programming to a single demographic instead of trying to attract a larger, general audience.
Scholars and journalists note that in order to attract a targeted demographic, cable news media relied on hyperpartisan reporting that framed news stories as liberal versus conservative. This approach proved viable, as subsequent studies found that television audiences preferred news outlets that confirmed their political views and attacked their political rivals.
Liberal outlets focused on confirming liberals’ views by introducing caricatures of conservatives who could be easily villainized. The inverse was true at conservative outlets.
By 2021, in my view, the unintended result of such partisan programming was that audiences perceived that the No. 1 threat to their lives was other Americans.
In this cable news environment, Carlson started working at CNN in 2000, moved to MSNBC in 2005 and arrived at Fox News Channel in 2009, where he became a megastar with his own program, “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” in 2016.
Whether it was accurate or not, “Tucker Carlson Tonight” provided far-right ideological content that drew an average of 3 million nightly viewers, and Carlson became the highest-rated personality in cable news media.
Among Carlson’s falsehoods were that immigrants were mostly responsible for polluting a U.S. river; that the U.S. ended slavery around the world; and that more children died from drowning in their bathtub than accidentally from guns.
Whether he actually believed any of those falsehoods remains unknown.
What is known is that Carlson did not personally believe Donald Trump’s claims that he won the 2020 presidential election – and yet he publicly echoed rather than challenged Trump’s baseless assertions.
In a text message to Sidney Powell, one of Trump’s most ardent lawyers, Carlson wrote:
“You keep telling our viewers that millions of votes were changed by the software. I hope you will prove that very soon. You’ve convinced them that Trump will win. If you don’t have conclusive evidence of fraud at that scale, it’s a cruel and reckless thing to keep saying.”
But in a text message to his Fox News colleagues, Carlson was less hopeful:
“Sidney Powell is lying,” he wrote.
At the time, nearly 70% of Tucker’s target audience believed that the election was stolen.
As a result, despite knowing the 2020 election was not stolen, Carlson continued to report the exact opposite of what he knew to be false.
A boorish Lemon
In stark contrast to Carlson, Lemon positioned himself as CNN’s chief liberal scolder of the Trump era.
Much like Carlson, Lemon manipulated evidence to create stories that confirmed liberal biases against conservative media personalities, such as falsely reporting that Hurricane Ian’s size was a result of climate change; that President Joe Biden “misspoke” rather than lied (which other news outlets claimed was the case) about Georgia’s voting procedures; that it is plausible that Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 disappeared into black hole; and that CNN’s reporting on ivermectin and popular podcaster Joe Rogan was accurate.
CNN’s support for Lemon began to wane after a CNN broadcast on Feb. 16, 2023, when he declared that Haley was “past her prime.”
Feeling the disdain from his two female co-hosts, whom he had a long history of berating on and off camera, Lemon clarified: “That’s not according to me. … If you Google ‘when is a woman in her prime,’ it’ll say ‘20s, 30s and 40s.’”
Lemon was removed from the air so he could attend sensitivity trainings to address his sexist attitudes.
An April 2023 report from Variety appeared to spell the end for Lemon on CNN. The report detailed other incidents of Lemon’s misogyny that included malicious texts, sexist mocking and vicious tirades aimed at female co-workers.
According to the report, Lemon was accused of threatening several female co-workers because they were hired for positions he felt he deserved.
In another incident, Lemon claimed during a 2008 editorial call with roughly 30 staffers that Soledad O’Brien should not host “Black in America” because she is not Black. O’Brien identifies as Afro-Cuban.
In this age of hyperpartisanship, the revelations about Carlson and Lemon made it difficult for their networks to sell them as authentic ideological voices.
Furthermore, both of these individuals were a hassle for management.
At CNN, audience size for the show on which Lemon was co-host was shrinking for quite some time -– much like that for the network in general.
At Fox News, Carlson’s texts revealed his disdain for the network’s leadership and streaming platform. Furthermore, since 2021, major companies such as Disney, Papa John’s, Poshmark and T-Mobile had refused to advertise on Carlson’s program.
Although a YouGov poll found that viewers who cite Fox News as the cable news network they watch most often are more likely to disapprove – 50% – than approve – 29% – of Carlson being fired, Fox News Channel had good reason to believe it could replace Tucker and still find success with conservative audiences.
For one, an Ipsos poll found that non-Fox News Channel viewers are more likely to consider the channel as a news source now that Carlson has been fired. This means that the absence of Carlson may attract more audiences.
Furthermore, Fox News Channel has developed a formula for creating and replacing conservative personalities for decades, such as Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly and Megyn Kelly.
Rather than celebrate the removal of Lemon and Carlson, audiences should be questioning what truths have some of the current on-air personalities had to sacrifice in order to stay employed.
For cable news personalities, partisanship – not journalism – can be a job requirement.
Nolan Higdon is Lecturer of History and Media Studies at California State University, East Bay.
The Conversation arose out of deep-seated concerns for the fading quality of our public discourse and recognition of the vital role that academic experts could play in the public arena. Information has always been essential to democracy. It’s a societal good, like clean water. But many now find it difficult to put their trust in the media and experts who have spent years researching a topic. Instead, they listen to those who have the loudest voices. Those uninformed views are amplified by social media networks that reward those who spark outrage instead of insight or thoughtful discussion. The Conversation seeks to be part of the solution to this problem, to raise up the voices of true experts and to make their knowledge available to everyone. The Conversation publishes nightly at 9 p.m. on FlaglerLive.
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