YoIt’s been a wild week for network news. Tucker Carlson, who hosted one of the most popular news shows on television, was suddenly ousted from Fox News, immediately after a hostile workplace complaint against him and the network’s settlement of a high-profile lawsuit that began exposing how blatantly and knowingly Fox News anchors lied on air. At CNN, longtime anchor Don Lemon was also fired in a move he said left him “stunned,” and it came after public backlash over Lemon’s on-air comments about women. NBC Universal fired CEO Jeff Shell after substantiating a sexual harassment claim against him.
Much remains to be known about the three endings, and in particular Carlson and Lemon. And Lemon, unlike the other two men, is not accused of sexual harassment. But the expulsion of the three suggests that something may have changed in television newsrooms. The question is whether it is about a heightened commitment to gender equality, or simply more self-serving decisions that take the veil of morality.
I’m going to spoil this column for you now: it’s almost certainly in the network’s self-interest.
The good news is that, if NBCUniversal is any example, big-name networks have far less tolerance than ever before for truly egregious behavior that has been investigated and substantiated. In a statement, Shell said: “I had an inappropriate relationship with a woman at the company, which I deeply regret.” The decision to remove him from office comes several years after the height of the #MeToo movement, which shed light on harassment and abuse at the hands of powerful men, often women who work for them. While #MeToo and the feminist movement that sustained it have suffered a backlash in recent years, it has certainly changed Americans’ understanding of power and our tolerance for everything from gross chauvinism to outright sexual assault. NBC’s removal seems to reflect this profound change.
So what about Carlson? He is also accused of sexual harassment and creating a hostile work environment, using vulgar and offensive language to talk about women, including his own colleagues. But he was also one of several Fox News anchors at the center of Dominion Voting Systems’ lawsuit against the network, which settled for $787.5 million. Although the case did not go as far as many observers had hoped, what came out was generally embarrassing for Fox: it was clear that Fox presenters, including Carlson, and Fox brass, including Rupert Murdoch, did not believe that the election of 2020 was stolen, but he made those claims on the air anyway; that Carlson and other presenters believed that many members of Trump’s team were dull and dishonest and disliked the former president (“I passionately hate him,” read one of Carlson’s texts); and that Carlson also despised Fox News management.
Was Carlson fired because Fox, a notorious bastion of sexual harassment and a network that allows blatant misogyny on the air, was concerned about the sexual harassment lawsuit against its lead anchor? Maybe: Former Fox lead anchor Bill O’Reilly was also fired after several sexual harassment allegations. Perhaps Carlson’s firing was related to the Dominion lawsuit, either because Dominion’s lawyers said they wanted his head or because what came out during the discovery was so damning that Murdoch wanted Carlson gone, or perhaps because Carlson , which was in contract negotiations, was simply too expensive considering the huge payout Fox now owes. Whatever the reason, Carlson is another of Fox’s best-known entities, who was accused of workplace bullying and subsequently lost his job. Feminists don’t generally cheer for Fox’s success, but we can at least hope other men on the network will take note.
Don Lemon’s shot is the murkiest of the three. In February, Lemon made a terribly ill-conceived comment about age in politics when, in response to former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley’s proposal for a competency test for older politicians, he said: “All this talk about age bothers me.” adding: “I think it’s the wrong way to go. She says that people, you know, politicians or something like that are not at their best. Nikki Haley is not in her prime, I’m sorry, when you consider a woman is in her prime in her 20s, 30s, and maybe 40s.” What Lemon apparently meant was that stereotypes about being in one’s “prime” are damaging and have been unfairly directed at middle-aged women; in other words, Nikki Haley really wants to go there. but that the saying is that women are at their best between 20 and 30 years old; unspoken was the claim that this is when women are most sexually attractive.
That comment was offensive and silly, even if Lemon didn’t mean exactly what he said. And the consequences were brutal: Lemon was widely condemned and other reports of bad behavior began to surface. Whether that was enough for CNN to fire him, however, remains an open question.
I wish the #MeToo movement had changed American society so much that sexual harassment, sexual assault, and sexist comments were enough for men to see the proportional consequences. Unfortunately, that is far from the case. And while these major network shakeups are happening in the same week, the bottom line seems to be less “the networks are taking misogyny seriously” and more “the networks are acting in their calculated self-interest.”
Sometimes the interests of women and big business align, and badly behaved men are left out. But even with these high-profile performances, I’m not sure feminists can pull off a victory lap just yet.