Fox News Dumps Tucker Carlson; Now What?
Will the network use this moment as a first step toward recovery, or continue to suffer from the same disease?
Monday morning, the media world reacted in shock to the announcement that Fox News had “parted ways” with its top-rated prime-time host, Tucker Carlson. As it turned out, the chosen phrasing was a charitable way of describing the separation. Carlson was fired, the decision having been reached by Fox executives just days after the network settled a lawsuit with Dominion Voting Systems for nearly $800 million. The lawsuit relied, in part, on Carlson’s airing of 2020 election claims he knew to be lies.
Carlson’s critics in the media rejoiced over the news. Frequent guests on his show, along with several of his right-wing-media emulators, blamed everyone from the “deep state” to “Big Pharma” — you know, because their guy was getting too close to “exposing the truth” about something or another. Some Republican politicians even tried (probably successfully) to raise money off of it.
As for regular folks, who don’t watch much cable news? I suspect many of them breathed a sigh of relief over the hope of not having to walk down their elderly family members from the often irrational fears and paranoia stoked nightly by their favorite “news anchor.”
As you can probably guess, I’m glad Fox gave Carlson the boot. While some reporting has suggested he was let go (and his contract bought out) over unreported internal comments exposed by Dominion, any such distinction makes little difference to me. By any reasonable journalistic standard, his termination was long overdue.
For far too long, Fox allowed Carlson to regularly spew dishonest garbage and profoundly reckless conspiracy theories. The network allowed him to assign often baseless, worst-faith motivations to whomever he felt like putting in his crosshairs on any given night. Carlson epitomized the “lying, pomposity, smugness and group think” he claimed to combat, and it’s a shame his fans never realized he was insulting them all along with that mantra.
The Dispatch’s Nick Catoggio summarized Carlson’s tenure at the network well:
He encouraged vaccine skepticism. He spread conspiracy theories about January 6. He propagandized remorselessly for Russia, so much so that the Kremlin instructed its own house organs to highlight his clips. Even on niche issues, like the recent conviction of a man in Texas for shooting a Black Lives Matter protester, Carlson could be trusted to find his way to the most morally perverse conclusion in the name of inflaming his tribe’s prejudices.
By promoting populism’s most paranoid impulses, by embracing the most obnoxious figures of international authoritarianism, he radiated malice in a way that even other culture-war chum-tossers on the network, like Sean Hannity, did not. I’ve always thought of him as the Joker of major conservative media, a demagogue who enjoyed making social mischief for its own sake whether or not he actually believed the stuff he said.
In the pre-Trump era, the shtick Carlson presented at Fox wouldn’t have lasted a fraction as long as Glenn Beck’s far more restrained one a decade earlier. But with the Trump era came the degradation of all kinds of institutional standards, including in the news-media, where Fox exhibited particular disregard.
From 2016, up until the Dominion lawsuit was settled, Fox employees were far more likely to be terminated — or otherwise disciplined — for telling viewers an unpopular truth than they were a popular lie. Recent No BS Zone guest Chris Stirewalt is a prime example of this, and Dominion exposed other examples we previously didn’t know about… including White House correspondent Jacqui Heinrich, who Carlson (now ironically) wanted fired.
But while Carlson was perhaps the highest-profile offender in Dominion’s Fox News findings, the broader problem was the culture Fox executives allowed to thrive, and even encouraged… all in the name of ratings. The “respect the audience” philosophy, instilled and nurtured by the likes of network CEO Suzanne Scott, granted a permission structure for seemingly limitless acts of media-malpractice. By removing journalistic guardrails from their ever-expanding opinion wing, Fox emboldened its commentators to grow increasingly dismissive of, and even hostile toward, its steadily shrinking news side.
You can’t have that level of disfunction, and maintain any semblance of being a credible news organization.
And though I’m writing about these problems in the past tense — as one might be tempted to in the wake of the network dismissing its most consequential demagogue — there’s not a lot of evidence thus far suggesting that this house-cleaning measure will lead to others. I certainly hope it will, but without any executives so far paying a price for what Fox has become, the best we can do is take a wait-and-see approach.
I mean, for all we know, Carlson could be replaced with someone arguably just as bad, like Candace Owens or even Kari Lake.
I hope that doesn’t end up being the case, because unlike a lot of Fox’s detractors, I want the network to learn from its mistakes, heal, and improve… not die a painful death. I want center-right views, that often aren’t fairly represented in the mainstream media, to be heard on a large, credible platform. I want people of good faith and integrity to once again feel comfortable defending Fox without having to rely on blind partisanship and reflexive whataboutism.
Getting rid of Carlson can be a first step toward achieving that, or it can end up serving as merely a speed-bump on the same road Fox has traveled down for seven years.
I guess time will tell.
I agree with your tentatively hopeful take, although I am not quite holding my breath, either.
I think that there's a definite difference between the reaction of people who think (1) FNC used to be actually be a responsible news network, went off the rails, and can hopefully improve and (2) FNC was always nothing more than a fever swamp of misinformation, can't ever be salvaged, and should be shut down by the FCC, and the Murdochs locked up for fraud.
Tucker's departure isn't going to change the minds of people who see FNC as nothing more than a Republican propaganda tool. (Of note, it's interesting how some of the most vociferous online critics of FNC also state, quite righteously that they never actually watch it. So I assume their takes are based on Media Matters and Twitter "journos" like Aaron Rupar that highlight the worst moments and claim all 24/7 hours of programming are like that. )
It also occurs to me that the widespread "his replacement is obviously going to be even worse" cynical responses, shows how used the decent, responsible people are used to losing, and enough of that will turn some of them into cynics who may not join in the evil doing, but don't bother doing anything to fight it, either.
It seems that since 2016 any public figure who has aligned with Trump has personally ruined his or her own reputation. Each of those individuals freely chose that path and have received what they deserved.