Monday’s purge of Fox News’ Tucker Carlson and CNN’s Don Lemmon confirmed a belief that has haunted me for years: We’re all wrong about cable news.
The final episode of “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” which aired on Friday, drew only about 2.6 million viewers — just 1% of the U.S. adult population. But on Monday, news of his firing was one of the top stories in the country. That’s because the power of cable news lies in its reach and repetition, not its ratings.
I learned this during my nearly 9 years at CNN, where I hosted a weekly show on the media and covered the radicalization of Mr. Carlson. Those who tune in to his show on time at 8 o’clock are only a fraction of his total audience. When you count everyone who saw him on TV in a bar or an airport, and everyone who watched a clip on the Internet or heard a radio talk show host quote him, his monthly audience must have been in the tens of millions.
Now multiply that reach by dozens of other hosts at Fox News, and you can start to see the true reach of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire. Nielsen has a little-known metric for this called cumulative ratings, according to which Fox News attracted more than 63 million viewers in the first three months of the year. Fox executives pooh-poohed that data point, perhaps because CNN’s numbers were even bigger, approaching 68 million in the first quarter. But those metrics also don’t quite capture the full digital clout of stars like Carlson and Lemmon.
That’s why I dismiss the prediction that cable news is destined to be irrelevant — popular, even on some of these networks. Do the math: CNN has slipped recently, but still expects to post a $900 million profit this year. Fox News doubles that. The endless sea of streaming content is fierce competition, but as long as there are 20 or 30 high-octane days of the year that make people want to reach for a remote to watch a live news event, cable news will serve them.
These networks may be more influential than ever, but they are certainly more polarized. CNN and Fox News make money the same way, mostly through subscriber fees and ad sales, and they’re often lumped together in cable channel lineups. Sometimes I conflate them myself, staring at ratings spreadsheets and comparing the two channels as if they are competing for the same segment of the audience. But they don’t. Although Mr. Carlson and Mr. Lemon were both fired for allegedly fostering a hostile work environment, the two presenters exist in entirely different media worlds.
Fox News, despite having a newsroom staffed by reporters and editors, is primarily a conservative entertainment organization and a Republican organ. News isn’t number one or even number two at Fox, and the reporters there know that. (Reporters there called me to complain about Mr. Carlson’s conspiracy-filled broadcasts and their own limited airtime, and their inability to correct his alternative “facts.”) CNN, while it made some attempts at entertainment, mostly is a news-gathering engine that maintains a huge outlay with correspondents and bureaus around the world.
This difference has huge implications. Mr. Lemon’s influence has made him a celebrity. Mr. Carlson’s clout has made him the unelected leader of the Republican Party, and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy has had to appease him. An entire ecosystem of far-right websites and social networks waits eagerly every night to promote Mr. Carlson’s episodes. This power cannot be measured, but it is key to understanding the power of cable news.
Mr Carlson repeated a tale of good and evil every weeknight, full of conspiracy theories and xenophobic rhetoric. His repetition is his superpower, instilling and instilling truth into his fans. Bruce Bartlett, who served under Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush, called Mr Murdoch’s machine the “Fox brainwashing operation”, not Fox News . Mr. Lemon called it the “Fox Propaganda Network” because he didn’t think calling it news was accurate. Dominion Voting Systems’ legal X-ray of Fox News backs him up with ample evidence. In a darkly humorous way, the $787.5 million settlement also demonstrates the power of cable news — the power to destroy the companies it targets.
This week proved two things: the power of cable news and the fact that it is the networks, not the stars, who ultimately control it.
According to reports from me and others, Mr. Carlson believes his ratings make him invincible. Millions of people are buying what he sells. But gravity has reappeared. Monday’s firing showed that even in the extremes of cable news, there are limitations, and despite all the changes the world’s new media environment may have made, one of those limitations is the same one you might face at work: if you To be a big enough pain to your boss, you’ll end up being canned.
But the cable show goes on. The audience insisted. As news of Mr. Carlson spread on Monday, ratings for Newsmax, a much smaller right-wing channel desperate to become the next Fox News, began to soar. Within a few hours, Newsmax’s endless pro-Republican talk show at one point attracted more than three times the general audience. The next battle in the cable news wars is just beginning.
Brian Stelter, a former Times reporter and CNN anchor, is the author of a forthcoming book, “Network of Lies.”
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