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April 24, 2023, 2:51 p.m.

Tucker Carlson is out at Fox News, and what matters is why

Is this Fox News cleaning up its act after that $787.5 million Dominion settlement? Dealing with the latest in a long line of workplace lawsuits? Or betting they can make someone else a star in the same time slot?

It was only 48 hours ago that The New York Times was saying we shouldn’t expect much change in how Fox News operates to come out of its $787.5 million settlement with Dominion Voting Systems. The model — conservative grievance, stoked by targeted misinformation — was just too successful to change.

Anyone expecting that Fox’s $787.5 million settlement with Dominion this week would make the network any humbler or gentler is likely to be disappointed. And there probably won’t be much of a shift in the way the network favorably covers Mr. Trump and the issues that resonate with his followers.

In Mr. Trump’s recent interview with the Fox host Tucker Carlson, he implied that there was good reason to doubt the legitimacy of President Biden’s victory, saying, “People could say he won an election.” Mr. Carlson, for his part, has also dipped back into election denialism recently. “Jan. 6, I think, is probably second only to the 2020 election as the biggest scam of my lifetime,” he said on the air on March 14. (His private text messages, revealed as part of Dominion’s suit, show him discussing with his producers how there was no proof the results of the 2020 election were materially affected by fraud.)

Only time will tell if Fox News writ large will change. But one hour of its weeknight prime-time programming sure will.

Tucker Carlson is out at Fox News. The network’s biggest star — creator of what the Times once called “what may be the most racist show in the history of cable news — and also, by some measures, the most successful” — was ousted via terse press release late Monday morning. “We thank him for his service to the network as a host and prior to that as a contributor,” the network wrote. The Los Angeles Times is reporting the decision was made by Rupert Murdoch himself.

The suddenness here is remarkable. Carlson’s final show aired Friday, with no indication of an impending end. His final interview was his second of the week with a Pennsylvania pizza delivery guy who had tripped a suspect fleeing police after a chase in a stolen car. (The two suspects arrested, 17 and 19, appears to be Hispanic; Carlson’s chyron called one a “bad hombre.”)

Fox News reportedly didn’t even announce the departure of its biggest star internally: “Everyone outside of top executives, including Tucker’s staff, found out about his exit on Twitter.” The network’s own announcement of the move had, as Aaron Rupar put it, the “vibes of Stalin’s death being announced on Soviet radio.” Only minutes before, Fox News had been promoting an interview set for Carlson’s show tonight.

(Carlson’s ouster seems to have inspired CNN to match moves, dropping Don Lemon only hours (minutes?) after his morning show ended. Carlson and Lemon will now apparently share a lawyer; odd bedfellows.)

The timing of Fox’s move certainly suggests a connection to the Dominion settlement — but Carlson was far from the worst offender on the network, and no host had better ratings. (Why would you fire Tucker over Dominion when Maria Bartiromo is still around?) After all, producer Abby Grossberg’s two lawsuits argue Fox News tried to make Bartiromo a scapegoat for the entire network in order to protect hosts like Carlson.

Then again, Grossberg’s suits (which also names Carlson as a defendant) also describe his show as “a work environment that subjugates women based on vile sexist stereotypes” and says Carlson himself is known for his “derogatory comments towards women, and his disdain for those who dare to object to such misogyny.” It’s worth remembering that it was their treatment of women that finally forced out past Fox News goliaths Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly.

(The L.A. Times suggests the Grossberg suits were a driving factor in Carlson’s departure. The New York Times also reports that Carlson senior executive producer Justin Wells is also out at Fox. Wells is also a named defendant in Grossberg’s suits; at one point, she accuses Wells of asking her: “Is Maria Bartiromo fucking Kevin McCarthy?”)

Perhaps it was all the Dominion discovery revelations that did Carlson in — the ones that made it clear he didn’t believe the lies Fox was putting on air, or that he “hates” Donald Trump. Maybe — but Trump seemed to be happy to sit with him for an interview a couple weeks ago, and there’s been no sign of Fox viewers abandoning the show out of a sudden burst of self-respect. Carlson’s texts also included his low opinions of Fox management, which likely didn’t help his cause.

Of note: Fox Corporation stock lost 5.2% of its value in the 22 minutes after Carlson’s ouster was announced. That’s about $870 million in lost value — more than the $787.5 million Fox is paying Dominion, to which the market had a more muted reaction.

There seem to be two big questions now — one about Fox, one about Carlson.

For Fox: Is this about Carlson specifically or a shift more broadly? If indeed this is mostly about dealing with another in a long series of workplace issues, Fox News may not think its fundamental DNA needs updating. Will tossing Tucker lead Fox to move further to the right in order to keep its audience from straying — the scenario that got the network in trouble with Dominion in the first place? Will all of the bile Carlson was known for just move to new hosts and new timeslots? Or is this a sign that the market for it is shrinking? (I wouldn’t hold my breath.) This is still the network of Bartiromo, Pirro, Hannity, Ingraham, and Watters; a rebrand this ain’t.

And for Carlson: Where next? Carlson now has the rare honor of having been fired by CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News. (RT is already sniffing around. Perhaps Viktor Orbán has an opening?) Would he settle for a right-wing also-ran like Newsmax? Set up shop on Rumble? Go back to his Daily Caller? Fly solo?

Like Bill O’Reilly before him, he seemed bigger than the network he was on. But when O’Reilly was bounced, Carlson was able to take his old timeslot and push ratings even higher. How much of his prominence was about him versus how much was about the grievance machine he worked for? Think about all the people who’ve left Fox News in recent years: O’Reilly, Megyn Kelly, Glenn Beck, Shepard Smith, Chris Wallace, Greta Van Susteren. None have been able to match their fame or reach on the outside. How diminished will he be? Will his audience follow him? And will we ever find out how much he believed and how much was an act?

Photo of Tucker Carlson by Gage Skidmore used under a Creative Commons license.

Joshua Benton is the senior writer and former director of Nieman Lab. You can reach him via email (joshua_benton@harvard.edu) or Twitter DM (@jbenton).
POSTED     April 24, 2023, 2:51 p.m.
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