Last week saw a major shakeup at not one but two cable news networks. On Monday, Fox News announced the sudden departure of conservative star Tucker Carlson, around the same time CNN cut ties with primetime anchor Don Lemon. In terse statements, the two TV conglomerates announced the news, to the apparent surprise of their departing employees. Which, of course, led to ongoing coverage, speculation and some uncomfortable comments.
So, what can we gather, and perhaps learn, from this news?
First, firing someone with their own platform means an organization should be prepared for the departing employee to publicly comment, and likely in a way that is not favorable to the company they are leaving and/or conjecture that leads to more media buzz.
Lemon took to Twitter hours after the news broke with a statement that accused CNN management of not having “the decency to tell me directly”. Carlson released a cryptic 2-minute video on Wednesday that hinted he had been prevented from covering the meaningful topics and debates he valued.
Why so vague? Both men certainly had non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) baked into their contracts, as every smart organization should. While everyone has the best intentions when you begin a work arrangement, it is naïve to assume things could never sour. And your company doesn’t have to be a top cable news station to find themselves in a similar situation: anyone can go to the local press or air grievances on social media. NDAs protect organizations from disparaging comments — including from a disgruntled employee — and should be both considered and handled with care at every level.
Blurred Lines and Legal Recourse
Cable news has long been blurring the line between journalism and opinion, fact and fiction. While networks like Fox and CNN have designated “Opinion Shows” and “News Shows,” — the limits of coverage have been pushed, and more often we see anchors interjecting speculation and subjective comments into reporting.
While rampant speculation can generate big rating returns, it has also proven to be a liability for the networks. In 2021, Fox News was slapped with a defamation lawsuit by Dominion Voting Systems for its coverage during the 2020 election, in which many anchors contributed to a misleading idea that the voting machines were corrupt. The lawsuit cost Fox a record $787.5 million settlement.
So, while it is not likely that we’ll see an immediate departure from partisan news coverage, it is clear there is still accountability through the last resort: legal action.
The words you use can have real consequences.
With a settlement as large as Fox v. Dominion, every news organization will take note. One hopes this will strengthen newsroom standards for reporting verified facts and that networks will examine their ethical duty to not mislead the public.
Risk vs. Reward
In the end, both CNN and Fox decided Lemon and Carlson were bigger risks than the reward. Just like many before them: Bill O’Reilly, Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer — you can be on top, but ultimately, you are still replaceable.
No doubt, Carlson and Lemon replacements are waiting in the wings.