“Disinformation can come at a cost”: What Fox News learned from Tucker Carlson

On Monday, Tucker Carlson was suddenly and quite unceremoniously fired by Fox “News”. To say that Carlson was not “fired well” is an understatement: he was dumped without having the customary opportunity to even say a proper goodbye to his many millions of loyal fans and devotees.

There continue to be rumors and much speculation about why Fox “News” removed Tucker Carlson. These include that the Dominion lawsuit and settlement for defamation in connection to the Big Lie about the 2020 Election and the Jan. 6 coup attempt (including a pending lawsuit from the voting technology company Smartmatic) made Tucker Carlson an expensive liability.

Carlson may have also been fired because he was named in a harassment lawsuit by a former Fox “News” producer, which alleges that he created a hostile work environment marked by sexism, misogyny, racism, antisemitism, and other foul behavior. To that point, the New York Times is now reporting that the Dominion lawsuit revealed that “private messages sent by Tucker Carlson that had been redacted in legal filings showed him making highly offensive remarks that went beyond the comments of his prime-time show”.

Alternatively, Carlson may have been fired because of personality conflicts with the Murdochs and other senior management. Fox News is a very sophisticated type of political technology and propaganda machine that is much bigger than any one person. As they say in professional wrestling, Fox “News” made Tucker Carlson and gave him “the big push.” Tucker Carlson (who was the most popular host on the network) likely convinced himself that he was more powerful and influential than Fox “News” and the Murdochs. And as often happens in professional wrestling, the Murdochs and their agents showed Tucker Carlson that they are ultimately in charge and the talent is disposable.  

Whatever the reason(s), the following remains true: Tucker Carlson and Fox “News” were and remain great threats to America’s multiracial democracy and the rule of law and public safety.

In an attempt to make better sense of the Tucker Carlson saga, I asked a range of experts for their insights about what this means for American democracy, how Carlson still matters (or not), and what they believe happens next as we try to navigate our way of this fascist fever dream nightmare and the “Trumpocene.” 

These interviews have been lightly edited for clarity

Matthew Sheffield is the founder of the progressive media platform Flux and host of the Theory of Change podcast

At this juncture, the complete rationale behind Tucker Carlson’s sudden departure from Fox Corporation remains unknown. But given the reporting thus far and the fact that Carlson himself promised to be back on Monday, it is a virtual certitude that he was fired.

Carlson’s exit from Fox’s most-coveted 8pm ET time slot is unquestionably a good thing for America. His nightly program was the number-one media vector in the radicalization of the Republican Party that has taken place in recent years. Many racist activists and conspiracy theorists have admitted this, including former KKK leader David [Duke] who has hailed Carlson for proclaiming malicious and debunked claims that unspecified “elites” are trying to replace native-born Americans with “more obedient voters.” Carlson’s program also was known for airing numerous interviews with extremist activists who no one else at Fox was willing to promote.

Given that Carlson has been openly promoting and hiring racists for a number of years at Fox and his website the Daily Caller, Fox founder and chairman Rupert Murdoch should have fired Carlson long ago. That he did not suggest that Carlson’s extremism was not the cause for his presumptive firing, or that Fox will choose to dial back its totally biased propaganda. Instead, the indications are that Carlson was forced out because he had become a legal liability for the network.

“Carlson’s program also was known for airing numerous interviews with extremist activists who no one else at Fox was willing to promote.”

Nonetheless, there is hope that the ongoing lawsuits filed by a former Carlson producer alleging a hostile work environment and a $2.2 billion lawsuit from the Smartmatic voting machine company against Fox for its lies about the 2020 election can create enough of a legal or financial deterrent for Fox that Murdoch and his underlings might have to choose out of necessity to stop trying to inspire violent revolution if they wish to remain in business.

Rachel Bitecofer is a political analyst and election forecaster.   

Tucker has done more than anyone, convincing millions of Americans that they should root for Putin. Even after the defamation revelations, he told his audience the night of Trump’s indictment that if they really love America they’ll stand up and fight. He continually used his platform to juice up political violence and mainstream white nationalism so [his ouster] is a major win for democracy. Also, he didn’t “leave” Fox. When a long-time anchor leaves a network they let him have a sendoff. He was fired, absolutely. The only question to me is did he take a non-compete on the way out? If not, bad for Fox, bad for democracy.

Steven Beschloss is a journalist and author of several books, including “The Gunman and His Mother.” 

Tucker Carlson may have said privately that he hates Trump “passionately,” but that never stopped him from regularly pushing Trumpist lies of election fraud and minimizing the violent reality of Jan. 6. Nor did he hesitate to serve as a pro-Putin apologist feeding his audience Kremlin talking points to doubt the legitimacy of Ukraine and its democracy. But what especially distinguished Carlson as a dangerously ugly and racist force in the Fox universe was his white supremacist message of a “great replacement” by immigrants and other people of color who make the country “poorer and dirtier” and endanger the power of the shrinking white population.

In a sane world, where a news organization embraces its duty to tell the truth, Fox and its owner Rupert Murdoch would have reined in Carlson for any of these lies and conspiratorial ideas that enhanced his demagogic appeal to nightly viewers and expanded his utility to the far right. But we may soon learn that none of this was the reason Murdoch fired him—that it was his offensive and possibly illegal off-camera behavior that bothered his bosses—which bodes poorly for the possibility that Fox “News” will change its tune and act more responsibly. Sadly, I have little confidence that whoever comes next will help put an end to the malevolent, divisive role Fox plays in American life.

Reece Peck is an associate professor at the Department of Media Culture at the College of Staten Island and author of the book “Fox Populism: Branding Conservatism as Working Class.”

I’m actually stunned because Carlson is the greatest ratings generator at Fox News. Like Bill O’Reilly before him, Carlson’s show “Tucker Carlson Tonight” served as the tentpole for Fox’s entire primetime lineup, meaning it helped attract viewers to the programs right before and after his own. And Tucker’s value to Fox didn’t end there. He was the most important star on Fox Nation, Fox News’ OTP streaming venture that was designed to set up Fox for the post-cable TV future. As more reporting comes in, it looks like Tucker’s ousting was the result of both his damning comments that were revealed in the Dominion lawsuit and a sexual discrimination lawsuit that is being waged against him by a former producer.

“Tucker pushed Fox News further to the left on economic issues and war, while simultaneously pushing the network further to the right on issues of race and immigration.”

No American media figure has embraced Trump’s “white-replacement-through-immigration” rhetoric more than Tucker Carlson. Filling the void after longtime number one host Bill O’Reilly was forced out in disgrace, Carlson picked up the mantle and became the face of the Fox News organization in short order. Instead of the basement-dwelling “Anons” of right-wing chat forums, Carlson could speak to the living-room-watching-“normie” audience of cable TV. And unlike the online conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and the digital news site Breitbart, Carlson’s position at Fox means that he enjoyed the “authoritative” imprimatur of a “legacy” news organization.

In many ways, this made his Fox program “Tucker Carlson Tonight” a far more effective vehicle for conveying white-nationalist discourse than the edgiest alt-right YouTuber and 4Chan meme makers could carry out. But to make clear from the outset, it s not that Carlson’s trick was to simply put a more respectable cover on white nationalism’s ugly racist underbelly. The true genius of his strategy rested in the way he associated racial grievances with a broad array of non-racial, class-based discontents. This was his essential move: to constantly reframe white nationalist grievances as economic grievances and draw a linkage between anti-immigrant attitudes with working-class identity, blaming everything on immigration, from rising housing costs (August 18, 2021) to decreased wages (January 8, 2019). This will be his main legacy.

Tucker pushed Fox News further to the left on economic issues and war, while simultaneously pushing the network further to the right on issues of race and immigration.

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In an ideal world, the post-Tucker Fox would follow his lead and parrot his economic populist message (e.g., fighting for workers, railing against corporate greed) and then discontinue peddling the white nationalist themes of Tucker’s programming formula.

Arguably, it was Tucker’s appropriation of left critiques against corporate power and war that helped him expand “Tucker Carlson Tonight’s” audience to include more independents and even more young Democrats. In fact, in 2021, “Tucker Carlson Tonight” attracted more Democratic viewers in the 25–54 age demographic than MSNBC and CNN had. But this is probably wishful thinking. Anti-immigration is simply too central to right-wing populism. We see this with the new crop of Republican politicians like JD Vance.

“The indications are that Carlson was forced out because he had become a legal liability for the network.”

Fox News has survived losing its major stars before. When O’Reilly was fired in 2017, some speculated whether Fox News could flourish after losing a host that was the face of the network for two decades. Not only did Fox survive, it thrived with Tucker at the helm. In fact, Tucker broke all of O’Reilly’s previous ratings records. As far as Tucker’s future, I doubt he will achieve the kind of national visibility he enjoyed as a Fox News opinion host. The case of Glenn Beck is instructive here. While at Fox, Beck was making Time Magazine’s covers and stood at the center of American public life. In 2009 and 2010, no one would have ever thought that just a few years later Beck would retreat back into the margins and become an obscure figure in the U.S. media. But that’s precisely what happened after he was let go in 2011.

Beck’s online media network The Blaze is not insignificant, but I wouldn’t call it a success either. With this said, the U.S. media environment has transformed a great deal since the Obama era with the rise of independent media in streaming and podcasting. Who could have predicted that Joe Rogan, a comedian, and MMA commentator, would accrue one of the largest audiences in the world basically without any major corporate support behind him? Like Alex Jones before them, right-wing commentators like Steven Crowder and Ben Shapiro have amassed huge audiences on YouTube. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that Tucker could follow suit and remain relevant in alternative media.

Jean Guerrero is an investigative reporter and author of the books “Crux: A Cross-Border Memoir.” and “Hatemonger: Stephen Miller, Donald Trump, and the White Nationalist Agenda.” She is currently an opinion columnist at the Los Angeles Times.

The death of Tucker Carlson’s political career at Fox News is a victory for U.S. democracy and the diverse Americans whose lives were endangered by his disinformation. It’s even a victory for Fox News viewers who were the most psychologically damaged and made delusional by Carlson’s lies. Regardless of the reasoning behind the dismissal, it’s a clear sign that Fox News executives are beginning to grasp that disinformation can come at a cost. Although those executives didn’t seem to care about the polarization or domestic terrorism that Carlson’s falsehoods fueled, they do care about corporate profits, and this was a rare situation in which the Murdoch family’s financial well-being aligned with the well-being of average Americans. It’s not a coincidence that the decision came after Fox settled for three-quarters of a billion dollars with Dominion Voting Systems for spreading lies about its voting machines.

It’s unlikely that Tucker Carlson will ever be as significant again. He and Fox News together were a special force for destruction. But it’s not clear that Fox will abandon its business model of feeding on division and extremism. Now that Fox News is in a moment of turmoil and weakness, it’s the ideal time for opponents of its propaganda to strike. Call your cable company and tell them you refuse to pay Fox’s fees. Carlson’s ouster isn’t enough; Fox, too, must be held accountable for its role in pitting Americans against one another.

Matt Gertz is a senior fellow at Media Matters, where he focuses on the relationship between Fox News and the Trump administration, politics and elections and media ethics.

Tucker Carlson’s firing is great news for America and terrible news for Fox News.

There are a lot of different theories going around as to why it happened – from private comments he made about Fox executives that came to light in the Dominion lawsuit, to another lawsuit that alleged he oversaw a misogynistic and antisemitic workplace, to an effort by the Murdochs to strengthen control. One thing’s for sure – it wasn’t about the bigoted and incendiary content of his show. The Murdochs had no problem with the blood-soaked conspiracy theories he mainstreamed to their viewers.

Fox News will certainly survive, though its competitors are using Carlson’s firing to attack the network and try to snag some of its market share. But what made Carlson uniquely dangerous was his willingness to present the most extreme talking points of the fringe right to his massive audience, which helped to radicalize the Republican Party. With his removal, that pipeline has been severed.

Fox News is currently trying to renegotiate several crucial contracts with cable carriers to boost its profits. The network is vulnerable after the one-two punch of the Dominion settlement and Carlson’s dismissal – there’s no better time to try to throw it an anvil by encouraging cable providers not to give Fox those increases.

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