No Business Like Show Business
Trying to make sense of the shock Tucker Carlson firing, and more
May 2, 2023
Dateline: The week a massive Jeffrey Epstein story dropped and most of the press is ignoring it
Watching this week…
— Tucker’s seismic Fox exit
— Lemon’s CNN firing, Trump’s CNN return
— Media interest in Nashville vs. Louisville “note”
— Leaving CNN, keeping perspective - FW Pod with Mary Katharine Ham
— Great Moments in Expert Punditry Journalism
Tucker Carlson’s shock Fox News firing makes as little sense today as it did last week
It’s hard to imagine any strictly media story capturing the American cultural conversation in the same way as Tucker Carlson’s firing last week has — perhaps ever. It’s a testament to Tucker’s power in our current landscape, and of the height he was at when he was, as has been reported widely, informed Monday morning while preparing for his show for that night that he was being taken off the air, effective immediately. It also is surely having this lasting effect because of the lack of concrete details about the reason for his shock dismissal.
The broader corporate media has no idea how to handle it, like most things when it comes to Tucker. Here’s an amazing Vox headline: “The new controversy on the left: Is it okay to say Tucker Carlson had some good ideas?” (Click and find out!)
As I tried to make sense of the story over the past few days, I kept going back to the recent hour-long Full Send Podcast he did in March with the massive social media stars the Nelk Boys. It’s a perfect encapsulation of the Tucker experience. He talks extensively about masculinity — hilariously, while discussing Canada and Justin Trudeau, somewhat controversially, while delving into the Andrew Tate debate, introspectively and sweetly, while talking about his lengthy marriage and how smart his wife is and how differently she sees the world. There’s a 10-minute segment with perhaps the most clear-eyed explanation for why the war in Ukraine is disastrous for America. He is critical of Trump — castigating him for not building the wall he promised, and calling him “a little bit autistic” — while also praising him for instinctively getting the most important issue of today right: ensuring that Russia and China don’t team up. He spends a lengthy portion of the end of the interview talking about UFOs. (Check out the full video by clicking the screenshot.)
Buried in the middle of the interview, around minute 33, is one of the more interesting and self-critical moments you’ll see from a massively popular public figure. He’s asked by the inquisitive millennial influencers if he’s ever had a public confrontation. Uh yeah, Tucker said, “I’ve had quite a few.” Then he continued: “I’m a serious dick, and I try to keep it under control, because it’s unattractive, it doesn’t achieve anything, you just reveal your ugliest side… I’m very easily incited. It doesn’t take a lot to like whip me into a total ‘fuck you!’ and say something really nasty, which I shouldn’t do, I shouldn’t be that way. But I am that way, that’s just who I am.”
It’s a funny, self-deprecating moment. But it did get me thinking — in the wrong hands, particularly those who have a predisposition to abhor Tucker and everything he stands for, does this moment read differently? This doesn’t explain the firing, but it does begin to get at the intellectual Rorschach test about Tucker Carlson generally, and to a certain extent, you, as a person — whether you have a sense of humor, and a sense of perspective.
He told me at the time when I interviewed him almost exactly a year ago for my book Uncovered that “I found myself working for a family that was committed to free speech, totally committed to letting their anchors say what they want,” in reference to the Murdochs. Did that change?
There is not some easily understood reason for why the top cable news star was suddenly fired. If anything, the ongoing lack of clear answers points to something more petty. In the absence of a logical explanation, we’ve seen what feels like retroactively trying to graft a plausible storyline onto a tenuous situation.
What’s increasingly clear though is this is a bad break-up. Leaks from somewhere within Fox have landed at the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. We have now somehow reached the “someone at Fox is leaking to freaking Media Matters” phase of this messy divorce. These videos don’t make Tucker look bad, at least not to his audience — he’s cracking jokes, thinking of his audience above all, and taking a few jabs at his bosses. Pretty harmless stuff. Late tonight, there was a new post-1/6 text leaked to the New York Times attempting to attach a racial component to an introspective text about the amplified tenor of our political discourse.
Perhaps we can judge Tucker’s true power by who’s happy he’s gone. In a headline I’d imagine he would be letting out his trademark cackle to when he read it, Politico wrote of the “Pentagon officials” who “cheered” when he left the air:
“The military rank-and-file liked Tucker but their bosses at the highest levels of power despised him” is basically all you need to know about how effective a presence he was.
The fallout has been massive, at least so far. Fox News is seeing ratings it hasn’t seen in more than 20 years, since before 9/11. Lawrence Jones, who is super talented and a great guy, who I’ve known since we worked together at TheBlaze in 2015, steps into the unenviable 8pm slot this week, and saw a slight bump on day one. Some viewers will come back in the short-term, but the real test will be in August and September as the GOP primary heats up — can Fox sustain the brand damage of dropping their top star without an explanation?
This is show business — and there’s no business like show business. It’s a brutal and toxic industry. And truly anything can happen.
So what comes next? Who knows — he has to exit his contract first, which runs through next year — but I’d imagine it looks something like his Nelk Boys conversation. Serious, and funny. Deep, and light. Subversive, and wholesome. Maybe an R-rated version of his Fox show, but bigger than himself too — he was a co-founder of The Daily Caller between MSNBC firing and Fox hiring back in 2010.
But whatever it is, the media landscape will never be the same — the seismic shifts of legacy media are already seeing viewers flee to streaming platforms. In this new environment, Tucker Carlson may be the last big traditional media star. Whatever comes next will be uncharted territory.
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Don Lemon’s CNN firing and Donald Trump’s CNN return are related
Sticking with the toxic “show business” theme, Don Lemon was fired by CNN last week as well — although unlike Tucker, this wasn’t a shock. You could say from the minute Jeff Zucker was pushed out as president more than a year ago, this was the inevitable conclusion to Lemon’s time on the network. He was demoted from primetime to the morning show, but that only extended his CNN journey by a few months.
In the days since his firing, reports have pointed to this fiery and embarrassing exchange with Vivek Ramaswamy as the final straw. I have no inside knowledge of his exit, but I don’t see it, despite Lemon getting history wrong, and huffing to his producers and co-host. And while it was equally embarrassing, perhaps more so, I don’t see his “past her prime” Nikki Haley moment that caused a brief suspension as the actual reason behind Lemon’s exit either. Instead, I think the real moment that exposed how Lemon represented a problem for the network in its new iteration that could not be overcome was how he handled a February 7 interview between Kaitlan Collins and GOP Rep. James Comer.
After Collins gave Comer a tough but fair interview, Lemon was outraged. “Kaitlin that was a great interview, alright moving on,” said co-host Poppy Harlow.
“Um, anyway, well not moving on. Because that's, listen, that's a big issue, when it comes… hold on please with the music,” said Lemon, bigfooting both Harlow and his producer so he could go on a rant about how the GOP is full of unrepentant liars.
Watch the full exchange by clicking the screenshot below:
James Comer is a hugely important GOP representative, as Chair of the House Oversight Committee. He is notably not Marjorie Taylor Greene. He’s a serious politician. In the new CNN, these are the kinds of newsmakers CEO Chris Licht wants to appear on their network — not to be placated and tossed softballs, but to be treated fairly. Collins gets it. Lemon doesn’t. Harlow? Shortly after the show ended that day, she tweeted, “Watch this entire interview. It’s a masterclass in great journalism.”
Lemon wasn’t always this way. When I worked with him at CNN in 2012 and 2013, he was a real professional — someone who could eat up hours on TV in a breaking news story and do it proficiently. He was, dare I say, humble, too — at least to a point. But during the Trump Era, he became a “star,” and a star who bought his #Resistance hype.
As Lemon is scrubbed from the CNN roster, it does not feel coincidental that the network announced this week it would welcome former President Donald Trump for a town hall in New Hampshire next Wednesday. It will have been nearly seven years since Trump appeared on the network for an interview. The moderator of the town hall? Kaitlan Collins — who, it’s worth noting, was given her start in the media business at The Daily Caller… by then co-owner Tucker Carlson.
Leaving CNN, Keeping Perspective — Fourth Watch Podcast with Mary Katharine Ham
Cable news is not really a venue for meta commentary on the role of political pundits in our discourse today, or on the editorial choices cable news makes regarding what to cover and how. And yet that’s really one of the most impressive aspects of Mary Katharine Ham’s whole vibe — something that sets her apart from pretty much everyone else you would see on Fox News, and then CNN. And now, she’s a free agent.
I talked with Mary Katharine recently for the latest Fourth Watch Podcast — about her time at CNN during the Zucker Era and recent official exit from the network — and much more. You can download the full episode on Apple, on Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Check out a video clip of the interview here, on the circumstances that led to her "quiet suspension" during the Zucker Era and more. Or this video clip, about finding perspective through loss, talking with those we disagree with, and not letting politics become our lives.
We even got into college football and NIL, and the availability of sports gambling. Next up on the podcast later this week — Tablet senior editor Jacob Siegel.
No Notes: Media interest in Nashville vs. Louisville shooter “note” is perfect microcosm
It has been 36 days since the horrific shooting that took place at a Christian school in Nashville. The killer, a woman who had recently started identifying as a trans man, left behind a manifesto described as a “blueprint on total destruction,” according to a local politician familiar with what’s in it.
That’s from a New York Post story 12 days ago. We still don’t know what it actually said. Instead, the “manifesto” or ”notes” left behind have been reviewed by the FBI, and now are being reviewed by the Nashville police, rather than being shared publicly. At some point we’ll get to see it — what’s in it must truly be awful, and potentially damaging to a narrative the media simply doesn’t want to shine a light on.
Because there is absolutely zero urgency to tell this story by the corporate press. It’s close to an entire blackout. Instead, when it was covered at all, it was in the context of how the trans community would be harmed by it — and not how a trans killer harmed the religious community.
Contrast that with a bizarre story published recently by CNN about the killer in the Louisville bank shooting. The shooter “left notes revealing part of his goal was to show how easily a mentally ill person can buy a gun in the US” — according to the headline:
CNN quotes “two law enforcement sources” who say the killer left behind two “very extensive notes,” but that “part of the shooter’s goal was to show how easy it was in America for someone dealing with a serious mental illness to buy an assault-style weapon, the sources said.”
Let’s just break this down — so CNN has not seen these notes to examine its full context, but feels confident in running with a story that… furthers a popular Democratic talking point about gun violence… and attributes this to just one of apparently several “goals” that this psychopath had in killing his co-workers.
The hypocrisy couldn’t be more clear on these dueling “note” stories — no notes.
WATCH IT… Bill Maher’s recent segment about crime in cities like Chicago, and the way it doesn’t get covered as an issue affecting minority communities, has gone mega-viral — and with good reason. It’s another reason he’s one of the most important voices on the left — and in the media — in America today.
HEAR IT… I haven’t seen the new Joaquin Phoenix movie “Beau is Afraid,” which appears to be one of the most polarizing movies of the past few years. But after listening to The Big Picture host Sean Fennessey and his guest talk about it for an hour… I’m intrigued, for sure.
READ IT… An excellent, comprehensive interview of Dr. Fauci by David Wallace-Wells in the New York Times Magazine last week, which should be wallpaper on cable news, in a just world. He is pressed on spin regarding masks, vaccines, and particularly the possibility of a lab leak — inadvertently caused by research he funded.
Disturbing thread from The Daily Wire’s Jeremy Boreing showing the various ways the company and its employees are under attack, literally and figuratively.
Inspiring story about how two CNN employees came together to save one of their lives, despite not knowing each other before the kidney transplant process started.
Brian Stelter goes deep on James Corden’s Late Show exit for Los Angeles Magazine, which doubles as an obituary for the entire industry.
Speaking of James Corden, this is an absolutely insane story about the lengths one comedian had to go to get her set approved by Corden’s producers.
Before Tucker, but after the last Fourth Watch newsletter, Dan Bongino made an exit from Fox News after they couldn’t agree on a new contract.
Gayle King and Charles Barkley are teaming up for a new weekly CNN show called “King Charles” (get it? it took me a minute)… premiering soon.
Speaking of CNN, Chris Wallace’s show is still airing on the network, but has now been moved to Friday nights at 10pmET.
⏪ REWIND // FAST FORWARD: Ben Smith Edition ⏩
⏪ In a Vanity Fair excerpt of Ben Smith’s new book, Traffic, out today, he looks at how Disney’s attempt to buy BuzzFeed a decade ago fell apart (obviously relevant now that BuzzFeed News is no more).
⏩ He also writes for The Atlantic that “I Would Still Publish the Dossier,” referring to BuzzFeed’s decision at the time to publish the Steele dossier. I’ll ask him more about this when I interview him for the Fourth Watch Podcast next week.
Last Sunday, 60 Minutes gave former Oath Keepers leader Ray Epps a comfy and lengthy bit of reputation laundering, following up on the hard work the New York Times has been doing for the only person on camera encouraging protesters on January 5 night and January 6 morning to commit a crime by going into the Capitol. Why is this happening? We’ll look into this more in-depth in a newsletter later this month.
GREAT MOMENTS IN JOURNALISM
Someone at MSNBC thought this was such a brilliant bit of political commentary from Jen Psaki’s show they decided to put it out from the main network account. What is happening with the new MSNBC hires, other than simply converting former Biden flacks into hosts? More on this to come in future weeks…
Thanks for reading. Back in a couple days with a new “Rabbit Hole” deep dive column…