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CLARENCE PAGE: Carlson and Lemon should have known better

Updated May 2, 2023 - 5:35 pm

With the departures of cable TV stars Tucker Carlson and Don Lemon, surprisingly announced on the same day, we can see how birds of a feather can get clobbered together.

Outside of their job descriptions, there’s not a lot that Fox News’ Carlson and CNN’s Lemon share in common. Yet they both demonstrate how the power of being able to speak freely over the airwaves can melt your wings when you soar too close to the sunlight of fame.

Lemon’s case is an easier call, yet no less puzzling.

Last week, CNN announced Lemon was fired after 17 years at the network. CNN pushed back on the anchor’s claims that he had not been given a chance to respond. He was offered an opportunity to meet with management, the network said, but instead he released a statement on Twitter.

Neither statement gave an explanation for the sudden breakup, although it came after Lemon had been mired in a string of controversies in recent months, including accusations of making offensive on-air comments about women and of mistreating female co-workers off-camera.

Most memorably, Lemon came under fire for comments he had made on-air about presidential candidate Nikki Haley not being “in her prime” at the age of 51. As gaffes go, in my humble view, this was not only stunningly inaccurate but also stupid to the point of dangling on the edge of career suicide.

Yet, if CNN had any hopes that a competing news channel might steal attention away with an even bigger bombshell, those hopes were answered by Fox News’ decision to cut ties with Carlson later that day, after six years of hosting one of the most successful shows in prime-time cable TV news.

Why? Fox didn’t explain, but it appeared to be more than coincidental that a few days earlier Fox News and Dominion Voting Systems reached a $787.5 million settlement, acknowledging that the network ran false claims about election fraud during the 2020 election and its aftermath.

If any award for unintended humor came out of that episode, it was Fox’s statement: “This settlement reflects Fox’s continued commitment to the highest journalistic standards.”

Oh, yeah? What about the long list of emails, text messages and other evidence that shows Carlson and others at the network knew they were peddling — and amplifying — lies to their audience?

This scandal could yet be as damaging as the phone-hacking scandal that resulted in the closing of another Murdoch property, the British tabloid News of the World, one of the world’s bestselling English-language newspapers.

If there are any similarities to the cases of Lemon and Carlson, it is how they should have known better than to fall into behavior that led to their self-inflicted career wounds.

But what comes next? Fox still faces another lawsuit from Smartmatic, another voting technology company, this time for $2.7 billion. Carlson and Lemon may well wind up at another news or broadcasting outlet. They each have the quality everybody seems to crave these days: a marketable brand.

But I suspect the success of Fox will be imitated and possibly duplicated by other networks yet to come. Fox is a modern version of the age-old right-wing radio that served as a megaphone for populist outrage in America during the early days of broadcasting.

In the 1930s, the firebrand Father Charles Coughlin drew enormous Depression-era audiences blaming their troubles on communism, Wall Street bankers, Jewish conspiracies and other targets that helped make him the “Father of Hate Radio” for many.

In more recent decades we had Rush Limbaugh, Joe Pyne, Morton Downey Jr. and, currently, Alex Jones, among others on TV and the internet.

The targets haven’t changed all that much. They include cultural and economic elites, of course, and the promotion of backlash against immigrants, baseless claims of election fraud and conspiracies involving masks and vaccinations.

Lemon is still a talented individual with a future, whether it is in TV or not. Carlson has built his brand around marketable fears and resentments. The market appears almost limitless, as long as we, the public, keep falling for it.

Contact Clarence Page at cpage@chicagotribune.com.

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