Tucker Carlson, Don Lemon and the 'stunning' shakeup in cable news, explained

Experts say the cable news landscape is "very volatile" following double dismissals on Monday. Here's a look at what happened and what could be next.

From left, Don Lemon, Whoopi Goldberg and Tucker Carlson were all part of a chaotic day in news media. (Photo: Getty Images)
From left, Don Lemon, Whoopi Goldberg and Tucker Carlson were all part of a chaotic day in news media. (Photo: Getty Images)

Cable news was rocked by a seismic shift Monday, as both Tucker Carlson and Don Lemon — top stars at, respectively, Fox News and CNN — were dismissed within an hour of each other, leaving fans, colleagues and media pundits attempting to figure out what led to, in the words of one industry observer, a "stunning" turn of events.

What exactly happened?

"Fox News Media and Tucker Carlson have agreed to part ways," network officials said in a statement at 11:30 a.m. ET. "We thank him for his service to the network as a host and prior to that as a contributor."

And with that blunt statement, Tucker Carlson Tonight, which first aired in 2016 and ranked as the highest-rated show on all of cable news, was no more.

While the official statement from Fox News did not elaborate on the controversial host's departure, the Los Angeles Times, citing sources familiar with the situation who were not authorized to speak publicly, reported that Fox Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch himself wanted the broadcaster off the air.

According to the newspaper, the firing was related to a discrimination lawsuit filed by Abby Grossberg, in which Grossberg alleged that she endured antisemitic comments and bullying at Carlson's show. The Wall Street Journal, which is owned by Murdoch, reported that Carlson found out he'd been let go just 10 minutes ahead of his company's announcement.

It couldn't have helped Carlson's case that, only a week before, the Fox Corp. had settled a defamation lawsuit brought against them by Dominion Voting Systems, in which Dominion accused Fox News and on-air talent, including Carlson, of claiming without evidence that there had been fraud in the 2020 election. This despite evidence showing that Carlson and others doubted former President Donald Trump's claims of vote manipulating; Carlson was also highly critical of Fox management in court documents. Per the settlement, Fox will pay $787.5 million to Dominion. The company faces a similar lawsuit from Smartmatic, another company that provides election support, which is seeking $2.7 billion.

Then, shortly before 12:30 p.m. ET, while the media world was trying to wrap its head around the Carlson bombshell, the Lemon news hit.

The former evening anchor, known for taking on-air shots at Carlson and Fox News, tweeted that he "had been terminated by CNN," ending a 17-year run at the network. Lemon, who had been co-anchor of CNN This Morning for the last six months, said he'd learned about his firing from his agent, and he was "stunned."

The network, however, had a different version of what went down.

"CNN and Don have parted ways," CNN Chairman Chris Licht said in a statement. "Don will forever be a part of the CNN family, and we thank him for his contributions over the past 17 years. We wish him well and will be cheering him on in his future endeavors."

They called Lemon's recollection "inaccurate."

Earlier this month, Lemon had been criticized for alleged sexist and misogynistic behavior on the set in a Variety exposé — accusations he called "patently false" — and in February he was sidelined from his morning show following on-air remarks that 51-year-old Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley wasn't "in her prime." CNN ordered him to sensitivity training while he was off the air.

As with Carlson, there was no official word from CNN about what led to Lemon's dismissal, but The New York Times reported that executives were "exasperated" following Lemon's testy exchange last Wednesday with another Republican presidential contender, Vivek Ramaswamy.

Both Carlson and Lemon have reportedly hired noted media lawyer Bryan Freedman, so don't expect either to go away without a legal battle.

So was this a coincidence?

While the timing was almost simultaneous, the firings were completely unrelated. Media reporter Brian Stelter, a former colleague of Lemon's at CNN, called it "a complete and crazy coincidence."

Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University, said viewers shouldn't read too much into the fact that the departures were so close together.

"News has been in flux for a long time," Thompson tells Yahoo Entertainment. "We had the retirement or the leaving of the three big, legacy anchors back many years ago — Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather — all within a short period of time. It wasn't, of course, all within the hour of one day. This is stunning, but I think flux in schedules and programming... whatever, is par for the course in this highly volatile, in flux, economically challenged environment of cable news."

Thompson notes that there are differences between what happened to Carlson and Lemon.

"The Tucker Carlson announcement was more surprising in that he delivers 3 million viewers to [Fox News] every night. Don Lemon does not deliver three million viewers to CNN. Tucker Carlson is really kind of one of the central [anchors], he starts the primetime lineup, one of the stars and highest rated of Fox's lineup."

He's not sure yet what it means going forward.

"I think it might indicate — I wouldn't bet on this, I'm not confident that it's true — but even though after Jan. 6, when people thought Fox might moderate some of its stuff, they didn't, even after the Dominion case was filed, they thought they might change and they didn't, even after the Dominion verdict they didn't," Thompson says. "And now, all of a sudden, they are getting rid of their biggest performer on the network. That sends a message. I'm not sure what message that is yet, but it's a message, one way or another."

On Monday, in the time slot usually occupied by Carlson, Fox & Friends anchor Brian Kilmeade hosted Fox News Tonight, and he wished his former colleague "the best" in a brief statement at the top of the show.

Tom Jones, a senior media writer at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, calls the double departures "stunning."

"What makes it stunning is they seemingly came out of nowhere. Not even Carlson and Lemon saw it coming, apparently," Jones says. "Carlson was expecting to do his show Monday night and Lemon actually did his show Monday morning. The fact that they both happened practically at the same time apparently is a coincidence. Now we wait to see the reasons behind these moves. Is Carlson leaving because of the Dominion suit? Is it because of this other lawsuit by a former producer? Is it something else? We don't know and until we do, it's hard to decipher exactly what to make of it. Same with Lemon. He seems to have been on shaky ground since his comments about Nikki Haley not being in her prime. But we just don’t know for sure."

What was the reaction?

Over on The View, co-host Whoopi Goldberg and her fellow panelists danced and sang to celebrate the news about Carlson, which broke during the live broadcast. Goldberg promised, though, that they would talk more about the topic on Tuesday's edition.

Former Fox News personality Megyn Kelly spent several minutes on her SiriusXM show slamming Carlson's firing as a "terrible move" by the network, and she asked why other Fox News personalities, who'd also privately questioned Trump and his unproven allegations of fraud while saying the opposite to their viewers, were still employed.

"This is going to be great for Tucker," she said. "I'm not worried about Tucker at all. I predict Tucker goes independent. Tucker launches a podcast or digital show and crushes it. Absolutely crushes it." She also acknowledged Lemon's termination, saying that while she rarely agreed with his commentary, she thought CNN handled the situation in a "classless" manner.

Meanwhile, Sean Hannity, arguably Fox News's biggest remaining star, addressed the events on his radio show. "It's very hard... My phone has been blowing up all day. The hard part for me is I don’t have a clue… I have no idea. Was it Tucker’s decision? Was it Fox’s? Was it a mutual agreement that they had? I don’t know."

On social media, "Bye Felicia" was still trending on Twitter, mostly in reference to Carlson, as viewers on both sides of the political spectrum sounded off.

The late-night hosts had a ball, especially roasting Carlson.

"Hi, I'm Jimmy Fallon. One of the few TV personalities who's still employed," the host said at the opening of Monday night's episode of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. He later mused that, with Carlson out, "Who's gonna tell me which M&M is most woke?"

Over on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, Kimmel quipped that Carlson and his network had "severed bowties" and that Carlson couldn't be reached for comment because he was "on a plane to Moscow to meet with his manager." He dubbed the news "an absolutely delightful shock."

Desi Lydic, the guest host of The Daily Show, cited reports that Carlson had been dismissed over the conspiracy theories about Jan. 6, 2021, that he spewed. "So let this be a lesson to everybody," Lydic deadpanned. "If you try to topple America's democracy you can stay on TV for two more years and that's it."

Lemon's co-hosts, Poppy Harlow and Kaitlan Collins opened Tuesday's show by addressing what was going on with him. "He was one of the first anchors on CNN to have me on his show, that's something I'll obviously never forget," Collins said.

Harlow called Lemon "one of my first friends here at CNN. I'm so thankful to have worked alongside him and for his support for nearly 15 years here," she said, "and I wish him all good things ahead."

What does this really mean for viewers? And for the future of cable news?

Thompson notes that Carlson's absence is a good thing for a public looking for the truth.

"He's not going to be back, and I think there are going to be a lot of Fox viewers who very much not going to be happy with his absence," Thompson says. "But I think overall it has become clear by all kinds of different sources that what he was reporting was not only contrary to what any sense of legitimate reporting would indicate but what [Tucker Carlson] was saying... was contrary to what Tucker Carlson himself thought. So I think, in that sense, Tucker Carlson not having that big platform that he had is a good thing for consumers."

Jones says he'll be watching closely to see how Fox News fills Carlson's time slot.

Although Lemon is a big name, he says, Lemon was just one of several people hosting a morning show, so his absence won't be felt as strongly. (CNN, which has seen its ratings fall since Licht took the helm, is in the process of bringing proven stars Gayle King and Charles Barkley to a weekend slot.)

"So that show will carry on. But Carlson was Fox News's biggest star with the biggest primetime audience. If they replace him with someone who pushes the same divisive talking points then it suggests that they parted ways with Carlson for reasons other than what he says, or has said, on his show," Jones explains. "If they replace him with someone who is more toned down, more responsible with what they say, less confrontational politically and racially then it suggests they no longer were on board with Carlson's program. How Fox News replaces Carlson will go a long way in showing what their plans are moving forward."

Whatever happens with that network, Thompson says we should continue to expect a rocky media landscape.

"I think, as more and more places are having to cut budgets, we're going to see the usual changes that come with it: layoffs and reorientation. In competitive news environments, we're always going to see jockeying to see which people can perform most competitively in the right places," he says. "So, yes, I think the cable news environment, as well as the newspaper and any other kind of... media environment are going to remain very volatile."

This story was originally published on April 24, 2023 at 9:20 p.m. ET and has been updated.