Joseph Russomanno

Cronkite professor discusses shakeups at major TV networks

Monday, April 24, 2023


The landscape of television news changed abruptly after three of the most prominent figures in the industry were either fired or separated from their positions within a 24-hour span.

Fox News host Tucker Carlson, CNN anchor Don Lemon and NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell face a number of accusations connected to their behavior on-air and behind the scenes.

Carlson parted ways with Fox News days after the network reached a $787 million settlement with Dominion Voting Systems, which filed a defamation lawsuit over false claims regarding the 2020 presidential election. 

Carlson has also been named in a lawsuit by his former senior booking producer that includes allegations of sexism and misogyny.

Lemon, whose dismissal was announced shortly after Carlson’s departure, has faced similar accusations of misogyny, and inappropriate behavior and comments in the workplace.

Neither Fox nor CNN offered official reasons for Carlson’s and Lemon’s departures, which were both announced on Monday. 

In Shell’s statement addressing his departure from NBCUniversal, he admitted he had an inappropriate relationship with a woman in the company after a complaint was filed that led to an investigation. His separation was first announced Sunday.

So what will these departures mean for the television news industry? 

Cronkite School Professor and media law expert Joseph Russomanno discussed the implications of these changes and how they may affect the industry.

What was your reaction to the firings and separations?

Like many people, I was stunned by Tucker Carlson leaving Fox News. There was certainly no warning that this was on the horizon, even with last week’s settlement of the libel claim by Dominion Voting Systems.

Frankly, the other two are barely blips on the radar compared to Tucker.

These three figures all faced different accusations prior to them separating from their companies. Do you see any similarities with the way these dismissals were handled?

There was no warning publicly. Whatever turmoil was brewing inside the corporate walls was kept inside. This is especially true with Carlson. With Lemon, there was some evidence that his star was in decline.

Here’s another common thread: If anything threatens the “house” – either externally or from within – those threats will be dealt with. If someone or something is more of a liability than an asset, it will be changed or eliminated. It is likely that all three of these people were viewed as internal threats in one way or another.

What kind of message is this sending to journalists who are accused of making inappropriate or untruthful comments on air? 

These moves, especially with Tucker Carlson, are meant to send a signal – actually, several signals. It tells those outside the organization, especially advertisers with deep pockets, that the brand is stable. There may be a rough patch initially, but the move is meant to steady the ship. And it tells those inside the organization to get right with the program.

Are there any First Amendment issues that journalists and the public should consider when examining these dismissals?

If there’s any thought that these dismissals, especially of on-air personalities, somehow violate their First Amendment rights, that thought should be dismissed. It’s vital to remember that the First Amendment prevents only GOVERNMENT interference of speech and press. Private, non-government companies are within their rights to hire and fire who they choose. 

How could these incidents change the cable television industry and journalism as a whole?

In all honesty, very little. While the Carlson dismissal is significant, life will go on, even for Fox News and its viewers. I think we need to guard against over-reacting.

Personalities come and go all the time. And while their movement sometimes seems significant in the moment, in the big picture, they don’t matter as much as it seemed at the time. It’s the institutions that endure, for good or bad.

Do you have additional thoughts you would like to share about these changes all happening today?

We should note that we know very little surrounding the circumstances of Carlson’s dismissal. That is, why did it happen? Until we know more, answers are in short supply.

A major element may be the lawsuit that a former Fox News producer filed over a misogynistic and discriminatory workplace culture that Carlson allegedly presided over. That same person alleges that she was set up for blame in the Dominion case – that she was pressured and intimidated into protecting Fox executives and on-air personalities. 

Fox News may be a bit unsteady now, and in many ways. After all, it agreed last week to pay Dominion Voting Systems $787 million. Fox admitted it aired inaccurate information. Carlson was responsible for some of it.