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Don Lemon, Tucker Carlson still had time left on contracts

Both cable news stars were fired before the expiration of their talent agreements with the networks.

Both cable news stars were fired before the expiration of their talent agreements with the networks.

Former CNN host Don Lemon (left) and ex-Fox News personality Tucker Carlson (right). (Photos by Ted Eytan and Gage Skidmore, Composite image by The Desk)
Former CNN host Don Lemon (left) and ex-Fox News personality Tucker Carlson (right). (Photos by Ted Eytan and Gage Skidmore, Composite image by The Desk)

The world of television was shaken up on Monday following the stunning announcements from the Fox News Channel and cross-town rival CNN of the departure of two high-profile talent.

The media earthquake struck around 11:30 a.m. Eastern Time, with a short announcement from Fox News Media that said its star prime-time host Tucker Carlson had agreed to part ways with the company. About an hour later, an aftershock came in the form of a tweet from CNN morning show host Don Lemon that confirmed he, too, had been shown the door.

The news came as a shock to just about everyone who covers media for a living. But it perhaps came as the biggest shock to the two men who were abruptly dismissed on Monday, with both having good reason to believe their time was not yet up at each network.

Carlson fully believed he would show up to work on Monday, take his usual meetings, then prepare for his show, according to a source familiar with his work. Instead, Carlson — who has been working out of remote studios in Maine and Florida for the better part of two years — was asked to join a meeting with executives at Fox Corporation, the parent company of Fox News Media, where he learned of his firing about 10 minutes before a spokesperson issued a statement.

Two sources with knowledge of Carlson’s agreement with the network said the Fox News commentator still had about a year left to go on his contract, and was expecting to negotiate a new deal that would keep him at the network for several more years. Carlson’s program airs in the 8 p.m. Eastern Time block, and is often the top-rated prime-time show on all cable news.

As is typical in the media and entertainment business, Carlson’s contract contained a non-disparagement clause that forbade him from speaking ill about the company in public, the two sources affirmed. The company’s decision to terminate their working agreement with him came after an internal investigation found he had disparaged Fox Corporation and some of its key executives and managements in a series of e-mails and text messages, many of which were made public during the now-settled defamation lawsuit brought by Dominion Voting Systems two years ago.

Carlson has not spoken publicly on the matter, and a spokesperson for Fox News Media has not returned an e-mail seeking comment. His time slot will be filled with “Fox News Tonight,” a news recap program, while Fox seeks his replacement.

Across town, Don Lemon did show up for work on Monday: For three hours, he hosted “CNN This Morning” with co-anchors Poppy Harlow and Kaitlan Collins. If he had any indication that the show would be his last, he didn’t make it obvious — he signed off from the program with a “bye,” and that was that.

A few hours later, Lemon was summoned to meet with senior executives at CNN in New York, according to someone with direct knowledge of the meeting. Before the meeting could take place, Lemon received a phone call from his agent, who informed him that his time at CNN was up. Lemon took to Twitter, fired off a hastily-written statement typed into the Notes application on his phone, and hit “send.”

“I am stunned,” Lemon said. “After 17 years at CNN, I would have thought someone in management would have had the decency to tell me directly.”

A spokesperson for CNN later said Lemon’s statement was misleading, and that the network had tried to meet with him before he confirmed the news of his own firing. CNN Chairman and CEO Chris Licht confirmed the news separately and wished Lemon well.

A source who spoke with The Desk said Lemon still had “several years left” on his talent agreement with the network, and was due to start negotiating a new agreement as soon as 2025. It wasn’t clear if Lemon’s separation from the company included any form of severance.

Lemon’s dismissal came several weeks after the trade publication Variety published a scathing exposé that accused him of repeat misogyny and harassment toward female colleagues. According to the article, Lemon targeted former CNN anchor Kyra Philips and correspondent Soledad O’Brien at different times of his career, and for different reasons.

Lemon was already on thin ice at CNN after he made comments disparaging Republican presidential contender Nikki Haley, claiming she was not “in her prime” because of her age. After being questioned by his female co-anchors, Lemon asserted that a woman was “considered to be in her prime in her 20s and 30s, and maybe 40s.” A colleague later said on-air that Lemon appeared to be confusing a woman’s prime child birthing years with her ability to run for office later in life. (Haley is 55.)

Licht initially defended Lemon, but not his comments, saying the morning show host had agreed to undergo sensitivity training. Lemon eventually apologized for his remarks.

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About the Author:

Matthew Keys

Matthew Keys is the publisher of The Desk and reports on the business and policy matters involving the broadcast television, streaming video and radio industries. He previously worked for Thomson Reuters, Disney-ABC, Tribune Broadcasting and McNaughton Newspapers. Matthew is based in Northern California, has won numerous awards in the field of journalism, and is a member of IRE (Investigative Reporters and Editors).