Where Can Tucker Carlson and Don Lemon Go Now?

From a Washington Post story by Paul Farhi headlined “Where can Tucker Carlson and Don Lemon go now?”:

Within minutes on Monday, two of the leading figures in cable news suffered what may have been staggering blows to their TV careers. If history is any guide, Tucker Carlson of Fox News and Don Lemon of CNN will never regain the prominence they enjoyed until the moment their employers said farewell.

Getting to the top echelons of the TV news business is difficult; staying there can be even harder. And when the fall comes, it can be hard and swift.

Bill O’Reilly, once the most-watched man in cable news, has never fully recovered since being forced out of Fox amid multiple sexual harassment scandals in 2017. He took the reinvention route, with diminished returns; he now has a website and hosts a podcast.

Brian Williams, once America’s leading news anchor, got a second chance at MSNBC after being suspended for serial exaggeration at NBC in 2015. Working a little-watched, late-night shift, he lasted six years in his cable reincarnation, then left in 2021 after declining to sign a new, reportedly lesser contract.

“There are many things I want to do, and I’ll pop up again somewhere,” he said at the time. So far, he hasn’t.

It’s the flip side of achieving your wildest career dreams in any industry: There simply aren’t a lot of other seats near the top of the pyramid if you happen to lose yours.

That’s always been especially true in television news, where one’s fate rests on the whims of viewers and advertisers, and career-staining failures are magnified by the media glare.

“Those who giveth the camera can taketh the camera away,” said Frank Sesno, a former CNN anchor who is the director of strategic initiatives at George Washington University in Washington.

He added: “Big megaphones are big megaphones. It’s hard to replace the reach, clout and promotional support of a major platform,” such as a TV network, “once you’re no longer associated with it.”

In fact, those big platforms are few in number and getting smaller all the time, limiting the options of TV news superstars. There are the three legacy broadcasters (ABC, CBS and NBC), and effectively two independent cable networks, CNN and Fox (MSNBC is wholly owned by NBC’s parent, NBC Universal).

Chris Cuomo was at one point the most-watched figure on CNN. Then he wasn’t. Cuomo was fired by CNN in 2021 after his covert crisis-management efforts in his governor-brother’s sexual harassment scandal came to light, as well as an accusation of harassment against him. Cuomo now hosts a nightly program on the little-watched NewsNation network — also the current home of former MSNBC hosts Dan Abrams and Ashleigh Banfield and ex-ABC News anchor Elizabeth Vargas.

And then there’s Megyn Kelly, the former Fox News prime-time star who leaped to NBC’s “Today” show in 2017, only to lose that gig amid a flap about her comments about blackface. She collected a $69 million severance check — but now her media platforms are a program on satellite radio and a podcast.

The truth is that television news is a grueling job that frequently favors the young. Even the estimable Walter Cronkite opted to retire from the CBS News anchor chair before he turned 65. The ranks of those who stuck it out longer — Barbara Walters, Diane Sawyer, Mike Wallace, Morley Safer, Judy Woodruff, Lesley Stahl — are limited and elite.

And some who lose their perches prematurely manage to find others. Jane Pauley exited the “Today” show in 1989, at a time that it looked like she was about to be supplanted by a younger host. It was hardly the end of the road for her. She went on to host the evening magazine “Dateline” for a decade in its heyday. At 65, she took on a new anchor role, at “CBS Sunday Morning,” where she has spent the past six and a half years.

But for most, there’s no next big chair.

Katie Couric left the anchor job at CBS News in 2011 and never found another comparable network role. Dan Rather, the heir to Cronkite, eased into lower-profile positions after exiting CBS in 2006 amid controversy over a report on President George W. Bush. Paula Zahn, who anchored for ABC, CBS, Fox and CNN, now produces and hosts a true-crime program for the Investigation Discovery channel.

And after losing his prime-time spot on CNN, where he once reigned as the network’s highest-rated personality, the late Larry King ended up syndicating his own talk shows to, among others, RT America, the Kremlin-funded propaganda channel.

Carlson may want to take notes from Glenn Beck, a fellow conservative conspiracy monger who was also once Fox’s most popular, and most controversial, personality. Since leaving Fox in 2011, Beck has reinvented himself as an internet entrepreneur and hosts a widely syndicated radio program.

But in the small village that is network TV, a firing or high-profile flameout can create a “black cloud” over a familiar face, said Sesno. Hosts and anchors sell credibility to their audiences; being fired or leaving a job under pressure may create a damaging backstory. As a result, it’s rare for anyone who achieved great prominence in TV news to return to similar heights once the ax falls.

Veteran TV-news talent agent Mort Meisner predicted different outcomes for Carlson and Lemon.

“People will be scared to hire [Carlson],” he said. “He’s too venomous. He’ll never wind up in anything close to the mainstream. … He’s through with any of the major five” networks. Whereas Lemon, somewhat less radioactive, “could be a good reclamation project” for a network or broadcaster seeking a familiar face.

While both men have “damaged reputations” that makes their rehiring on national television problematic, neither actually needs TV to exert “influence,” said Carol Costello, a former CNN anchor who is now a journalism lecturer at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

“Ben Shapiro doesn’t need Fox to exert influence,” she said, referring to the conservative pundit. “He has created his own successful echo chamber,” via podcasts, books, columns and radio programs. “Could Tucker Carlson achieve that? I think so. Could Don Lemon? That’s tougher to predict. As controversial as some believe Don is, his core audience is different than Carlson’s. They’re not as passionately connected or extreme.”

One of the most legendary figures in TV news may offer a cautionary tale for television’s formative era. Edward R. Murrow was America’s most distinguished TV news host in the 1950s, a man whose dignity and Olympian clout helped bring down a bullying demagogue, Sen. Joseph McCarthy, and whose radio reports for CBS from the rooftops of London during the Blitz in World War II were among American journalism’s finest moments.

But after a long series of clashes with CBS boss William Paley, Murrow walked away from CBS in 1961. He was appointed by President John F. Kennedy to head of the U.S. Information Agency, the overseer of Voice of America. His career as a TV newsman effectively ended at the age of 52.

Despite the loss of prestige, influence and money that usually results from losing a network TV gig, at least one observer on Monday thought Tucker Carlson’s flameout at Fox would be “a great thing” for him.

“This is going to be great for Tucker,” said Megyn Kelly on her SiriusXM program after the news broke. She added, “I predict Tucker goes independent. Tucker launches a podcast or digital show and crushes it. Absolutely crushes it.”

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post’s media reporter. He started at The Post in 1988 and has been a financial reporter, a political reporter and a Style reporter.

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