Abrupt firings of Tucker Carlson, Don Lemon, and Jeff Shell put an exclamation point on a period of TV turmoil

The three ousters are just the latest in a string of high-profile departures by major players in front of and behind the camera

Tucker Carlson speaks in Phoenix on Dec. 17, 2022.
Tucker Carlson speaks in Phoenix on Dec. 17, 2022.REBECCA NOBLE/NYT

In television, there is no such thing as too big to fail.

That ineluctable truth was forcefully driven home Monday by thenearly simultaneousnews that Tucker Carlson was ousted from Fox News and Don Lemon had been fired by CNN.

No false equivalence should be drawn between the two about how they used their high-profile platforms. Carlson rode racism, cultural warfare, and conspiracy theoriesto cable news ratings dominance and outsized influence within the Republican Party. Lemon was an outspoken critic of former president Donald Trump who switched from a solo show in primetime to a morning show with two cohosts, and who recently drew fire for a sexist comment he made on the air.

About all Carlson and Lemon had in common was that they were both household names, at least within the cable-news universe; both had run afoul of their employers; and both paid the price.

Lemon landed in hot water in February on “CNN This Morning’’ while discussing presidential candidate Nikki Haley’s call for competency tests for politicians over age 75. “Nikki Haley isn’t in her prime, sorry — when a woman is considered to be in her prime in her 20s and 30s and maybe 40s,’’ he said.

He subsequently apologized for his “inartful and irrelevant” remarks.

Lemon tweeted Monday that he was “stunned” by his dismissal. “After 17 years at CNN I would have thought that someone in management would have had the decency to tell me directly. At no time was I ever given any indication that I would not be able to continue to do the work I have loved at the network. It is clear that there are some larger issues at work.”

CNN disputed Lemon’s statement that he was fired without warning, saying he was “offered an opportunity to meet with management but instead released a statement on Twitter.’’

As for Carlson, the the Los Angeles Times reports the decision to oust him came from Fox Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch, and was related to a discrimination lawsuit filed by producer Abby Grossberg that alleged “she was bullied and subjected to antisemitic comments.” Meanwhile, The Washington Post has reported that Fox Corp. CEO Lachlan Murdoch and Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott made the decision to remove Carlson and that his “comments about Fox colleagues,” revealed during the $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit against Fox News by Dominion Voting Systems, “also played a role in his departure.”

And then there’s NBCUniversal chief executive Jeff Shell, who was fired Sunday by the company’s owner, Comcast, after a sexual harassment complaint was made against him by Hadley Gamble, a senior international correspondent at CNBC, according to The New York Times.

The three are the latest high-profile TV figures to be toppled from lofty perches in front of the camera and in the executive suite in today’s unsettled media environment.

The string includes Chris Cuomo, with whom Lemon often bantered on-air during the crossover between their respective programs. CNN terminated Cuomo in December 2021, after emails and text messages indicated he gave strategic advice to his brother, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, as he was mired in sexual harassment charges.

Then the man who fired Chris Cuomo, CNN president Jeff Zucker, resigned in February 2022 after admitting he didn’t disclose a romantic relationship with another senior executive, Allison Gollust (who later also resigned).

Carlson became Fox’s most popular host while offering a toxic mix of nativism (he once suggested that immigrants made the United States “dirtier’’) and elements of the racist “replacement” theory. In 2021, the Anti-Defamation League called on him to resign, accusing Carlson of giving “an impassioned defense of the white supremacist ‘great replacement theory.’” An investigation last year by The New York Times detailed how Carlson “weaponized his viewers’ fears and grievances to create what may be the most racist show in the history of cable news.” He also sought to rewrite the history of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection.

Carlson made Fox News a lot of dough, but he cost the network money as well, in the form of advertiser boycotts. As part of the lawsuit against Fox News by Dominion Voting Systems, texts were released that made clear Carlson did not believe the lies by former president Donald Trump and his enablers that the 2020 presidential election was stolen, even as the host devoted airtime to that misinformation. Fox chose to settle the case last week by paying Dominion $787.5 million.

The texts also revealed Carlson’s contempt for Trump. At various times, he wrote: “We are very, very close to being able to ignore Trump most nights. I truly can’t wait”; “I hate him passionately”; and “He’s a demonic force, a destroyer.”

Is Fox News now trying to curry favor with Trump and his supporters as he makes another run for the Oval Office, especially since chief Trump rival Florida Governor Ron Desantis has faltered in the national spotlight?

In Sunday night’s episode of “Succession,” the HBO series inspired by the Murdoch family and its media empire, a dismayed Shiv Roy (Sarah Snook) tells her brothers she has heard that a right-wing extremist running for president has a direct line to the family’s conservative news network, with his campaign staffers even “dialed in” on the network’s morning editorial conference.

Far-fetched? Not in these stranger-than-fiction times. TV scriptwriters are just trying to keep up.