In the span of 24 hours, three prominent men in television news were let go from their jobs.
NBCUniversal fired CEO Jeff Shell on Sunday after a woman anchor at CNBC filed a sexual harassment complaint against him. Monday morning brought the announcement that Tucker Carlson had been ousted at Fox News, allegedly over the misogynistic work environment exposed by the cable news network’s recently settled defamation lawsuit with Dominion Voting Systems. That afternoon, news broke that CNN had decided to terminate Don Lemon, who also has a history of making degrading comments about women on- and off-air.
Though the men at the center of these recent firings all have very different backgrounds, identities, and professional histories, one common theme of the broadcast news clean-up is misogyny. Experts who study gender, race and media say these headlines speak to the reality of sexism in the news industry and how these attitudes can shape journalism.
Carlson and Lemon, who have much more visible roles than Shell, have played vastly different roles in the existing cable news landscape, said Nicole Hemmer, a political historian at Vanderbilt University. But both, she said, “exist in a media landscape that rewards outrageousness.”
Misogyny was a familiar element of the white nationalist agenda Carlson regularly espoused during his time at Fox News, during which he called women’s service in the armed forces “a mockery of the U.S. military,” blamed women for being responsible for the climate that has led to mass shootings by calling attention to male privilege; and mocked, belittled and denied transgender women’s existence. He now faces a lawsuit from Abby Grossburg, a former producer who said he also created a hostile work environment toward women.
Two months ago, Lemon kicked up dust when he commented that Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley was “past her prime.” But that wasn’t his first brush with sexism; as reported in Variety last month, he has a history of routinely harassing women colleagues at work, both on- and off-air.
Radhika Parameswaran, associate dean of The Media School at the University of Indiana-Bloomington, said the history of misogynistic behavior that surrounds Shell, Carlson and Lemon speaks to the “everyday normative sexism” that she sees as rampant in journalism. It’s why she says that though the firings themselves are significant, even more important is the way they underscore the way that this behavior has long been tolerated in journalism.
It’s critical to interrogate how misogyny can exist at both a conservative outlet like Fox, where “there is an appetite for a sort of normative, aggressive, hegemonic masculinity” and a comparatively more liberal outlet like CNN, Parameswaran said.
Parameswaran said that while it’s good that CNN had Lemon, a Black gay man, in such a visible and notable position, his identity doesn’t preclude him from problematic behavior. She said she hopes that journalism as an industry will work harder to “look at human beings as complex wholes and don’t reduce them in a tokenistic way to a set of identities that we think are sort of badges of progress.”
It’s also why Meg Heckman, an assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern University, said she hopes that CNN is considering how it’s applying these standards to all employees.
“If his firing is an indicator of some new, more sensitive culture at CNN, I hope that it is equally applied,” Heckman said. “Lemon is an out, Black man and those two pieces of his identity have been historically marginalized in newsrooms — so I would hope that if CNN is using this as an example of how seriously it’s taking bad behavior and how it’s no longer acceptable in modern newsrooms, I hope that that new approach is applied equally.”
Heckman said that it is important to continually underscore the longstanding legacy of newsrooms as “macho spaces where it can be really hard for women, particularly young women, to advance. If this is a sign of major media companies holding powerful, famous men accountable for misogynistic conduct in the workplace, that’s a good thing.”
That said, she also wonders today “how many young women walked into those newsrooms or newsrooms like them, witnessed bad behavior emanating from powerful men, and walked away from journalism altogether. What talent have we lost because of that?”
Although it is currently unclear if Lemon was fired related to accusations of sexism, Heckman said it is notable to compare his ouster to Carlson’s.
“Tucker Carlson wasn’t just misogynistic — he was racist, xenophobic, and promoted dangerous conspiracy theories that lead to real threats of harm and actual harm against people and continued to do so despite a tremendous amount of criticism,” she said.
She said that Lemon’s firing, compared to Carlson’s, shines a light on “how slow a lot of this change is and how frustrating it is and how many risks journalists from historically marginalized backgrounds have to take to advance their careers.”
Regina Lawrence, the associate dean of the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon, said that Fox News has profited for years off misogynistic content on cable news and that “the incentives are just too strong” for that to change anytime soon. After all, it was allegations of sexual harassment that led to Bill O’Reilly’s exit from Fox News in 2017 — which led to Carlson taking over his coveted 8 p.m. ET time slot.
“What goes along with that content? Not a mild-mannered guy who really respects women and treats them really well,” she said. “If you’re looking for an anchor or news personality in the mold of a Tucker Carlson or Bill O’Reilly or Glenn Beck, the respectful workplace stuff is probably not going to go along with that.”
Carlson’s firing speaks to a reality that highlights the contrast between the brand of news being centered by Fox — and eagerly devoured by its viewers — and the reality of the modern era when it comes to workplace protections, said Stephanie Edgerly, a professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. Though on-air misogyny may be a profitable angle for Fox, the situation speaks to “where commercial and professional lines are drawn. You can have a brand and project messages which are successful with an audience and net you millions of viewers and through research you can find are really engaging with a certain segment of the population — but also you’re a publicly traded company and there are laws that prevent discrimination and harassment in the workplace.”
Edgerly said this is why she would be wary of casting Carlson’s firing as a sign of a gentler work environment at Fox News. Rather, this news says more about how representation can flow in both directions — and the content of the news being produced having the potential to have a real impact on the people producing it.
“When you project messages of masculinity and are critiquing women in power constantly, I think you need to be really careful about what type of work environment that creates,” she said.
The exits of three high-profile men in media as a result of allegations of workplace sexual harassment also speaks to how these kinds of allegations are now tolerated, more than five years after #MeToo went viral.
Sarah Banet-Weiser, a professor at both the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Southern California-Annenberg, said that she hopes people realize that these dismissals could speak to a “widespread phenomenon” of workplace harassment for women.
“What I’m hoping people will recognize is that this isn’t just about Tucker Carlson per se,” Banet-Weiser said. “It is about a way in which powerful men exploit particular conditions at the workplace in order to get normalized misogyny.”
And it’s why Banet-Weiser said it is essential to call attention to this kind of misogyny whenever it happens — including the fact that Carlson and Lemon will likely easily go on to find new professional opportunities. “The comeback economy is great for men.”
Hemmer said in the wake of #MeToo, the past few years have brought on a “sea change” when it comes to what is and is not publicly tolerated when it comes to workplace harassment — some of which comes down to operating costs. Today, when many media companies are facing declining revenue, tolerating workplace harassment to the point where it becomes potentially litigious — and thus expensive — is no longer a norm.
“There is a broad shakeup happening in cable news — it’s happening across the media industry where there are financial calculations that have to happen, and there are reputational calculations that have to happen,” Hemmer said.
She sees a long road ahead, even with the greater willingness among women to push back against not just harassment but misogynistic statements. Media, she said — and cable news in particular — “is an industry soaked in misogyny and it is not going to give it up lightly.”