Monday’s purge of Fox News’ Tucker Carlson and CNN’s Don Lemon confirmed a belief that has plagued me for years: We think about cable news in a totally wrong way.
Friday’s episode of “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” which turned out to be his last, drew only about 2.6 million viewers, a meager 1% of America’s adult population. But on Monday, the news of his dismissal was one of the most significant in the country. That’s because the power of cable news is in its reach and repetition, not its ratings.
I learned this during my nearly nine years at CNN, where I hosted a weekly media show and reported on Mr. Carlson’s radicalization. The people who tuned in to his show at 8 p.m. sharp were just a subset of his total audience. When you count all the people who saw him on TV in a bar or at an airport and all the people who watched a clip on the internet or heard radio talk show hosts quote him, he had a monthly audience of Probably tens of millions.
Now multiply that reach by the dozens of other hosts on Fox News, and you can begin to see the true influence of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire. Nielsen has a little-known metric for this called cumulative viewership, and according to that metric, Fox News had over 63 million viewers in the first three months of this year. Fox executives ridiculed the Cume data point, possibly because the figure is higher for CNN, closer to 68 million for the first quarter. But those metrics don’t fully account for the full numerical reach of stars like Carlson and Lemon, either.
That’s why I reject the predictions – fashionable even on some of these networks – that cable news is doomed to insignificance. Do the math: CNN has seen recent declines, but waits make $900 million in profits this year. Fox News doubles that. The endless sea of streaming content is fierce competition, but as long as there are 20 or 30 peak days a year that make people want to reach for the remote and watch a live news event, the news on cable will be there for them.
The networks may be more influential than ever, but they are definitely more polarized. CNN and Fox News make money alike, largely from subscription fees and ad sales, and they’re often lumped together in cable channel lineups. I sometimes lumped them together myself, looking at the ratings spreadsheets and comparing the two channels as if they were vying for the same audience bracket. But they don’t. And although Mr. Carlson and Mr. Lemon were both fired amid accusations that they fostered hostile work environments, the two hosts existed in entirely different media universes.
Fox News, though having a newsroom with reporters and editors, is primarily a conservative entertainment operation and an organ of the Republican Party. News doesn’t come first or even second at Fox, and the reporters there know that. (Correspondents there called me and complained about Mr. Carlson’s conspiratorial broadcasts and their own limited airtime and inability to correct his alternative “facts” with correspondents and bureaus in the entire world which he maintains at great expense.
This difference has huge implications. Mr. Lemon’s reach has made him a celebrity. Mr. Carlson’s reach made him an unelected leader of the Republican Party, someone that House Speaker Kevin McCarthy had to reconcile. An entire ecosystem of far-right and social media sites eagerly waited to promote Mr. Carlson episodes each night. This power cannot be measured, but it is the key to understanding the influence of cable information.
Mr. Carlson repeated a story of good versus evil, full of conspiratorial and xenophobic rhetoric, every weeknight. His repetition was his superpower, indoctrinating his fans and inoculating them against the truth. Bruce Bartlett, who served in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush, called Mr. Murdoch’s machine a “Fox brainwashing operation” rather than Fox News. Mr. Lemon called it the “Fox Propaganda Network” because he no longer thought it was accurate to call it news. Fox News’ forensic x-ray by Dominion Voting Systems provided plenty of evidence to back it up. In a dark and humorous way, the $787.5 million settlement also speaks to the power of cable news – the power to destroy any business it targets.
This week proved two things: the power of cable news and the fact that the networks, not the stars, ultimately control it.
Mr. Carlson, from my reports and others, thought his grades made him invincible. Millions of people were buying what he was selling. But gravity has reasserted itself. Monday’s layoffs show that there are limits even at the extremes of cable news, and for all that the new media environment may have changed around the world, one of those limits is the same. than the one you probably face in your job: if you manage to be a big enough pain to your bosses, you will end up getting fired.
But the cable show continues. The public insists on it. As news of Mr Carlson spread on Monday, ratings began to climb for a much smaller right-wing channel, Newsmax, which is desperate to become the next Fox News. Within hours, Newsmax at one point more than tripled the usual viewership for its endless pro-GOP talk show. The next battle in the cable information wars has just begun.
Brian Stelter, a former Times reporter and CNN anchor, is the author of the forthcoming book “Network of Lies.”
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