Save articles for later
Add articles to your saved list and come back to them any time.
Washington: Tucker Carlson’s final words as a Fox News host were uttered between mouthfuls of pineapple pizza after an hour-long show reprising some of his favourite themes: white nationalism, gender identity, election interference.
Unaware that the broadcast would be his last, the primetime presenter looked typically at ease as he sat at his desk chatting to his final studio guest for the night: a pizza delivery driver who went viral after a video showed him tripping a car thief fleeing police.
Sacked Fox News presenter Tucker Carlson, host of Tucker Carlson Tonight, seemed unaware Friday’s show would be his last.Credit: AP
“What a great way to end the week,” Carson said cheerfully as he signed off last Friday. “We’ll be back on Monday.”
He never returned. In a seismic shift that has reverberated for days, the 53-year-old was dismissed on Monday, after getting a call from Fox chief executive Suzanne Scott to tell him he would be “parting ways” with the network.
When Carlson repeatedly asked why, Scott would only tell him that the decision came “from above” – a reference to Rupert Murdoch and his son Lachlan, the chief of parent company Fox Corp. Ten minutes later, a public statement – three paragraphs long and devoid of any explanation for the momentous decision – was released by the company.
The abrupt dismissal stunned America, drawing celebrations from the left and condemnation from conservatives. But it also raised lingering questions about the future of a media giant that had built an empire giving its audience what it wanted – even if it meant amplifying extreme views and damaging lies.
The decision to sack Tucker Carlson is said to have come from Rupert Murdoch and son Lachlan. Credit: Bloomberg
Was Fox finally changing tack, or just in damage control after this month’s historic Dominion defamation settlement? And with an election looming, will the departure of its biggest star affect the political landscape?
After all, Carlson wasn’t just a highly popular host, drawing about 3.3 million daily viewers to his 8pm show, Tucker Carlson Tonight. He was also an influencer of Republican politics who had shaped the parameters of political debate for years; both a vehicle of Donald Trump’s brand of populist conservatism and a bullhorn for right-wing conspiracy theories. And until now, just about everyone – including Carlson himself – thought he was untouchable.
As media reporter Brian Stelter, author of the book Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News and the Dangerous Distortion of Truth, put it this week: “This is a guy who thought he could say and do anything, and suddenly that has been disproven.
“What an incredible reminder of who really has the power here: the network, not the star.”
Yet days after Carlson’s abrupt departure, the reasons still remain unclear.
Was it the fallout from the $US787.5 million ($1.17 billion) Dominion settlement, which revealed how Carlson and others at Fox peddled Donald Trump’s lies about the election, despite knowing they were not true?
Was it punishment for some of the vulgar messages he sent, including one that described a senior executive using the c-word?
Or was it damage control over another set of lawsuits filed by his former producer, Abby Grossberg, who claims he oversaw a sexist and hostile work environment that included pictures of former speaker Nancy Pelosi in a bathing suit being plastered across her workspace?
One bizarre theory, reported by well-connected Vanity Fair contributor Gabrielle Sherman, even suggested the last straw for Murdoch may have been an overtly religious speech Carlson made at the Heritage Foundation’s 50th Anniversary gala last Friday night.
During a 36-minute keynote address, the soon-to-be-sacked Fox host warned that national politics had become a Manichean battle between “good” and “evil”. He then urged people to pray more, rather than engage in “fraudulent debates” with those who opposed them.
“That stuff freaks Rupert out,” an unnamed source was quoted as saying. “He doesn’t like all the spiritual talk.”
Whatever the case, Carlson’s dismissal represents a reversal for the billionaire Murdoch family, who have championed him for years, and stood by him even as advertisers boycotted the show because of his inflammatory views.
But whether it’s emblematic of a broader shift in the company’s values, or an acknowledgment the network had become too extreme, is open to debate.
Angelo Carusone, president of the non-profit watchdog group Media Matters, is not convinced that Carlson’s departure will mark a long-term shift for Fox, noting that it was the network that empowered him to grow in the first place by giving him the invaluable 8pm prime-time slot in 2016 and paying for him “to throw red meat to his audience” ever since. There’s also the chance that whoever replaces him could find an audience just as loyal and loud.
“Tucker served as the bridge between Fox News and the most extreme parts of the right-wing base – laundering anti-trans paranoia, Infowars nonsense, election lies and venomous rhetoric, including the great replacement conspiracy theory,” Carusone said. “But even without Tucker Carlson, Fox News is still Fox News.”
Stelter, on the other hand, who was also fired last year from his role as the anchor of CNN’s Reliable Sources media show, is more optimistic.
“I would like to believe that maybe Rupert Murdoch wants to drag his network back to a more reality-based place,” he said, speaking on The Bulwark Podcast this week.
“We’re going to look back and say that firing Tucker was about Rupert reasserting control. After being humiliated by the Dominion lawsuit, and revealed to be this passive guy who just sat on the sidelines and let the democracy burn, maybe, in his final act, he’s trying to drag it back to reality.”
The fact the shake-up took place only a week after the company agreed to a settlement with Dominion Voting Systems over charges that Fox baselessly accused the company of rigging its voting machines is significant.
After all, the lawsuit posed the biggest crisis the Murdochs faced since its News of the World scandal, whereby employees of the UK tabloid illegally tapped into voicemail messages of crime victims, politicians and celebrities – including Princes William and Harry – searching for salacious stories.
The phone-hacking controversy forced the Murdochs to shut down the newspaper and abandon a bid for control of a popular satellite TV service, Sky. It also resulted in a string of high-profile resignations, with Murdoch and his son James called before a parliamentary committee in 2011 as the fallout continued.
“This is the most humble day of my life,” Rupert Murdoch told the committee at the time.
The Dominion lawsuit was also humbling for Fox, with a trove of damning emails and text messages filed in court exposing how the network relegated truth for fiction regarding the 2020 election, amid fears of losing its audience and profits to competitors.
Murdoch’s own deposition also provided a telling insight into the 92-year-old’s attempt to “straddle the issue” of election fraud without angering the former president or his supporters.
“Nobody wants Trump as an enemy,” he testified. “We all know that Trump has a big following. If he says, ‘Don’t watch Fox News’, maybe some don’t.”
AJ Bauer, a professor at the University of Alabama who researches and analyses trends in conservative media, says that while there’s no doubt the Dominion case was damaging for Fox, he doesn’t think it was the main reason for Carlson’s departure, or that it’s emblematic of “a fundamental realignment” at the network.
“Some of the worst defenders of lies around the 2020 election are still there,” Bauer says, citing presenters such as Maria Bartiromo and Jeanine Pirro, “so they’re not turning over the applecart or doing a whole programming redo – they’re just getting rid of Tucker.”
“A more realistic reason, given that Fox is a corporation with human resources and procedures, might be just that Tucker has created a hostile work environment for quite some time and was becoming a liability on that front.”
According to The New York Times, a key breaking point took place the night before Dominion’s defamation trial was set to begin in Delaware earlier this month.
It was then that the board learnt about private redacted messages that had been sent by Carlson in which he described at least one senior executive in highly crude and derogatory terms. Had the case gone to trial, Dominion lawyers planned to press the presiding judge, Eric Davis, to allow them to use the contents of the redacted messages to question Carlson.
Some insiders fear the texts could still factor in a separate defamation lawsuit that software company Smartmatic has brought against Fox, as well as the two lawsuits lodged by Carlson’s former producer, Abby Grossberg.
Such disclosures would give weight to Grossberg’s claim that Carlson created an environment where “unprofessionalism reigned supreme, and the staff’s distaste and disdain for women infiltrated almost every workday decision”. Her lawsuit also alleges that when she complained to her superior, she was told that “this is Tucker’s tone and just the pace of the show”.
“Misogynistic fish rots from the head down,” she said.
Fox and Carlson have denied Grossberg’s allegations, but it wouldn’t be the first time the company has severed ties with the top brass who have become liabilities.
Roger Ailes, for instance, the larger-than-life founder who helped build the Fox empire, was forced out in 2016 after former anchor Gretchen Carlson sued him for sexual harassment and more than two dozen other women accused him of inappropriate sexual behaviour.
Bill O’Reilly, Carlson’s predecessor in the 8pm primetime slot was also dismissed in 2017 after multiple sexual harassment allegations against him.
And at Fox rival, CNN, veteran host Don Lemon was also sacked this week, following sexist comments he’d made about women in their “prime” and allegations about his past treatment of female colleagues.
Carlson, meanwhile, has already faced advertising boycotts, but the Dominion court filings added to his woes by exposing his behind-the-scenes hubris, hypocrisy and denigration of colleagues.
One text, for instance, revealed that he hated Trump “passionately”, even though he was elevating the former president’s claims of a rigged election. Another revealed how he sought to get Fox White House correspondent Jacqui Heinrich fired for tweeting that there was no evidence of voter fraud, even though he privately agreed.
“If I was a massive media conglomerate and I was doing a cost-benefit analysis, I would look at him and say: is he a net asset or a net liability?” Bauer said. “And I think that something in the course of the last few months has shifted that calculus from asset to liability.”
Other reports suggest Murdoch had not just grown weary of Carlson’s behind-the-scenes attitude, but also some of his extreme commentary. Citing people familiar with Murdoch’s thinking, The Washington Post reported on Wednesday that one of his recent concerns was Carlson’s stance on Ukraine, which has variously included referring to president Volodymyr Zelensky as a “Ukrainian pimp”, lashing out at the US government for providing military aid to the besieged country, and boosting pro-Vladimir Putin narratives.
Indeed, no sooner had the news broke of Carlson’s departure than Russian state media outlets were mourning his loss, offering jobs to the primetime presenter, and suggesting that he ought to run for the White House.
“The United States media has lost its last remaining voice of reason,” read a Telegram message from Vladimir Solovyov, a prominent Kremlin propagandist and host on Russian state TV.
“You have our admiration and support in any endeavour you choose for yourself next, be it running for president of the United States (which you should totally do, by the way) or making an independent media project. We’ll happily offer you a job if you wish to carry on as a presenter and host!”
Back at Fox, executives may have reason to be slightly jittery, at least in the short term. According to Neilson figures released last week, Fox News Tonight, the program temporarily filling the 8pm slot previously occupied by Carlson, pulled in just under 2.6 million viewers on Monday – about 21 per cent below the average viewers for Tucker Carlson Tonight over the past eight Mondays.
Thirty minutes after the announcement of Carlson’s departure, Fox Corporation shares fell as much as 5 per cent, whipping $US590 million ($880 million) off the value of the company.
On the other hand, the nascent right-wing cable network Newsmax, which was openly making a play for Fox viewers following Carlson’s exit, saw its audience more than triple in the 8pm slot on Monday to 531,000. Time will tell if the trend continues in the long term.
As for the notorious Tucker Carlson? In a brief and cryptic video message posted on Wednesday, the former primetime presenter spoke out for the first time since his sacking but didn’t directly address his firing or his future.
He did, however, hint that he is far from done.
“When honest people say what’s true, calmly and without embarrassment, they become powerful,” he said, dressed in a suit and tie as he delivered a two-minute monologue, just as he would on Tucker Carlson Tonight. “At the same time, the liars who try to silence them shrink and become weaker. True things prevail … See you soon.”
Get a note direct from our foreign correspondents on what’s making headlines around the world. Sign up for the weekly What in the World newsletter here.
Most Viewed in World
From our partners
Source: Read Full Article