What Tucker Carlson leaves behind as he is shown the door

The host’s abrupt dismissal upends Fox News’s prime-time lineup — and the carefully honed impression that the ratings star was all but untouchable

By Nicholas Confessore

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Tucker Carlson speaks in Phoenix on December 17, 2022. Fox News said on Monday that it is parting ways with Carlson, its most popular prime time host. (Rebecca Noble/The New York Times)
Tucker Carlson speaks in Phoenix on December 17, 2022. Fox News said on Monday that it is parting ways with Carlson, its most popular prime time host. (Rebecca Noble/The New York Times)

Published: Tue 25 Apr 2023, 6:59 PM

In the days after the 2020 presidential election, Fox host Tucker Carlson sent an anxious text message to one of his producers. Fox viewers were furious about the network’s decision to call Arizona for Joe Biden.

The defeated president, Donald Trump, was eagerly stoking their anger. As Carlson and his producer batted around ideas for a new Carlson podcast — one that might help win back the audience most angry about Trump’s defeat — they saw both opportunity and peril in the moment.

“He could easily destroy us if we play it wrong,” Carlson warned in a text released during Fox’s now-settled litigation with the voting software company Dominion.

Carlson proved prophetic, if not entirely in the way he had predicted. His nearly six-year reign in prime-time cable came to a sudden end on Monday, as Fox abruptly cut ties with the host, thanking him in a terse news release “for his service to the network.”

And while the exact circumstances of his departure remained hazy on Monday evening, the dismissal comes amid a series of high-stakes — and already high-priced — legal battles emanating from Fox’s postelection campaign to placate Trump’s base and win back viewers who believed that his defeat was a sham.

The former Fox News producer Abby Grossberg, who said in a lawsuit that she faced sexual harassment from Tucker Carlson’s staff members, in New York, April 20, 2023. (Desiree Rios/The New York Times)
The former Fox News producer Abby Grossberg, who said in a lawsuit that she faced sexual harassment from Tucker Carlson’s staff members, in New York, April 20, 2023. (Desiree Rios/The New York Times)

Carlson’s departure upended Fox’s lucrative prime-time lineup and shocked a media world far more accustomed to his remarkable staying power. Over his years at Fox, the host had proved capable of withstanding controversy after controversy.

The network stuck by him — as did Fox Corp. CEO Lachlan Murdoch, after Carlson claimed that immigration had made America “poor and dirtier.” He seemed to shrug off his on-air popularisation of a racist conspiracy theory known as the “great replacement,” along with revelations that he was a prodigious airer of the company’s own dirty laundry. When Russia invaded Ukraine, Carlson’s show frequently promoted the Kremlin’s point of view, attacking US sanctions and blaming the conflict on American designs for expanding Nato.

The drought of premium advertisers on “Tucker Carlson Tonight” — driven away by boycotts targeting his more racist and inflammatory segments — did not seem to dent his standing within the network, so long as the audience stuck around. Disdainful of the cable network’s top executives, Carlson cultivated the impression that he was close to the Murdoch family and, perhaps, untouchable.

Carlson’s rise as a populist pundit and media figure prefigured Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party: His own conversion from bow-tied libertarian to vengeful populist traced the nativist insurgency that fractured and remade the party during the Obama years. But he prospered in tandem with Trump’s presidency, as the New York real estate tycoon made frank nativism and seething cultural resentment the primary touchstones of conservative politics.

Despite his private disparagement of Trump — “I hate him,” Carlson texted a colleague in January 2021 — Carlson electrified the president’s white, older base with vivid monologues about elite corruption, American decay and a grand plan by “the ruling class” to replace “legacy” Americans with a flood of migrants from other countries and cultures. With deliberate, hypnotic repetition, he warned viewers that “they” wanted to control and destroy “you.”

Crucially, he worked to help Fox woo Trump supporters back to the network in the wake of Trump’s defeat.

In broadcast after broadcast, he unspooled a counternarrative claiming falsely that the election had been “seized from the hands of voters” and suggesting that the voting had been rife with fraud and corruption. After Trump supporters — whipped into a frenzy in part by Trump and Fox — stormed the Capitol on January 6, he recast the assault as a largely peaceful protest against legitimate wrongdoing, its violence the product of a false-flag operation orchestrated by the FBI.

As a programming strategy, it worked: Last year, “Tucker Carlson Tonight” averaged more than 3 million total viewers a night. At his height, and perhaps still, Carlson counted among the most influential figures on the right.

But if Fox and its star host once prospered because of Trump, their efforts to deny or overturn the election results have also thrust both the network and the former president into legal peril.

Trump faces one investigation by a federal special counsel over his efforts to retain power after losing and another by a local prosecutor in Georgia that began after the defeated president, determined to prevail, asked Georgia’s secretary of state to “find” enough votes to overturn the election results there.

Fox agreed last week to pay three-quarters of a billion dollars to settle a defamation claim brought by Dominion, which had sued Fox for spreading false accusations that the voting software company was at the center of a vast conspiracy to cheat Trump of victory in 2020.

Carlson and his show featured prominently in the Dominion case. And thousands of pages of internal texts and emails released as part of the suit revealed that the network’s embrace of election-fraud theories — and their promotion by guests and personalities at Fox News and Fox Business — were part of a broader campaign to assuage viewers angry about Trump’s loss.

They also revealed that neither Carlson nor his fellow hosts truly believed that the election was rigged, despite their on-air commentary. And texts showed that Carlson held Fox’s titular executives in low regard, slamming them for “destroying our credibility” — for allowing Fox to accurately report Biden’s win — and belittling them as a “combination of incompetent liberals and top leadership with too much pride to back down.”

The company is also facing a lawsuit from a former Carlson producer, Abby Grossberg, who said that she faced sexual harassment from other Carlson staff members and was coached by Fox lawyers to downplay the role of news executives in allowing unproven allegations of voting fraud onto the air.

Yet another election technology company that featured in Fox’s coverage of supposed election fraud, Smartmatic, is still suing the network. In its complaint, Smartmatic said that Fox knowingly aired more than 100 false statements about its products. A day after the suit was filed in 2021, Fox Business canceled the show hosted by Lou Dobbs, who had been among the foremost spreaders of baseless theories involving election fraud.

In the wake of Carlson’s abrupt dismissal, current and former Fox employees buzzed with speculation about the true reasons for his firing, and what it said about the company plans moving forward.

Few seemed to believe that Carlson was being punished for his lengthy history of inflammatory remarks on-air — if so, why now? — or for his formerly private criticisms of Fox executives. (Some pointed out that his fellow prime-time hosts Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham were similarly scathing in their own text messages.)

A more interesting question, perhaps, is what Carlson will do next.

Like his clearest intellectual predecessor, commentator and politician Pat Buchanan, Carlson is one of the few people to find success as not only a television entertainer, but also an institution-builder — he co-founded the pioneering right-wing tabloid The Daily Caller — and a movement leader. More than any other figure with a mainstream platform, he succeeded in bringing far-right ideas about immigration and culture to a broad audience.

He is also among the very few television talents to have been canceled by all three major cable news networks. Before Fox, he had a long run as a co-host of CNN’s “Crossfire,” and later headlined a show at MSNBC. In recent years, he served as both a pillar of Fox News’s prime-time lineup and the biggest-name draw on the company’s paid streaming network, Fox Nation, where he aired a thrice-weekly talk show and occasional documentaries.

Within hours of his firing on Monday, at least one putative job offer was forthcoming.

“Hey @TuckerCarlson,” tweeted RT, the Russian state-backed media channel. “You can always question more with @RT_com.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times

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