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Fox’s Reckoning
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Fox’s Reckoning

A post-Tucker Carlson crisis.

A person walks past the Fox News headquarters in New York City on March 9, 2023. (Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images)

No one is above accountability, we at The Dispatch believe, and that includes us.

In that spirit, I hold myself accountable. I was wrong.

On the day Fox News parted ways with Tucker Carlson, I doubted that the network would suffer much, if at all, in the 8 p.m. hour. “For all the hype about Carlson’s ratings, the truth is that any dogmatic right-wing figure airing at 8 p.m. on Fox News will attract an enormous audience,” I wrote. “It’s conceivable that Carlson’s replacement will even improve on his numbers by luring back a few traditionally conservative viewers who may have been put off by Tucker’s New Right approach. Slide Ben Shapiro into that hour and Fox won’t miss a beat.”

That is … not what the ratings at 8 p.m. have shown in the two weeks since his departure.

I might be proved correct eventually. In the first two weeks, the fill-ins for Carlson were Brian Kilmeade and Lawrence Jones, neither of whom has any independent following among grassroots Republicans. Slot in someone who does, like Shapiro or Candace Owens, and the tide may turn.

But already Tucker’s departure feels different from the other times Fox has kissed off its biggest populist stars. The belief that right-wing viewers are loyal to the network rather than to its individual stars now requires revisiting.

Here’s another bit of accountability, though: I was right.

On March 3, as Dominion Voting Systems’ lawsuit against Fox barreled toward its conclusion, I speculated that the network would decline one way or another in the aftermath. If Fox won the suit, its sense of impunity from defamation claims would lead it further toward unabashed populist propaganda to keep pace with its leaner, hungrier competition online. If it lost the suit, its deep pockets might force it to maintain a degree of circumspection that its online rivals needn’t worry about, placing Fox at a competitive disadvantage with propaganda-hungry right-wing consumers.

Since then, Carlson’s surprise departure has made Fox’s decline that much more likely. In fact, there’s a scenario now in which the network sinks further into propaganda, declining in quality, while declining in market share anyway.

Let’s talk ratings.

According to the Washington Post, in Carlson’s final week on the air, Fox averaged more than 3 million viewers at 8 p.m. In the first week without him, with Kilmeade hosting, it averaged 1.65 million. On Wednesday of that week, the audience slipped to 1.3 million, a decline of 56 percent. CNN’s Oliver Darcy reported that the number of Fox viewers during that hour in the so-called key demo, aged 25-54, shrank to its smallest number since before 9/11.

Newsmax, Fox’s foremost cable news competitor, saw its own audience at 8 p.m. quintuple week over week on the day after Tucker was dumped. Fox’s great fear after the 2020 election was that a meaningful chunk of its audience would flee to more rabidly populist outlets if it failed to supply them with the “rigged election” conspiracy theories they craved. Ironically, Tucker Carlson’s firing seems to have proven their thesis.

Fox executives must have expected that ratings would tank in the first days after Carlson was axed. The real suspense had to do with what would happen in the second week without him. Would Tucker fans get over it and come home?

They would not, it turns out.

Those were the ratings for last Tuesday. If you follow the media industry even casually, you know that 8 p.m. has traditionally been the highest-rated hour for America’s highest-rated cable news network. For years, Bill O’Reilly dominated the medium; Carlson took the baton when O’Reilly was forced out and never looked back. For 8 p.m. to suddenly be the weak link in Fox’s line-up is unheard of, the world turned upside down.

A few nights later, on Friday, the pattern repeated itself. Fox drew 1.28 million viewers at 8 p.m., its second-smallest audience after 5 p.m. that day. It lost the time slot to Chris Hayes’ show on MSNBC and finished third in the key demo behind CNN.

Newsmax, meanwhile, continued to hold onto its ratings bump, drawing 426,000 viewers at 8 p.m. That was just 50,000 behind CNN, raising the possibility that Newsmax’s “Tucker dividend” will soon vault it into third place in the national ratings in that hour.

What we’re seeing here, obviously, is a deliberate boycott of Fox during Carlson’s time slot by a sizable number of Fox viewers. At 8 p.m. they’re changing the channel—mostly to Newsmax, it seems—and then some, but by no means all, are switching back to Fox at 9.

Seemingly desperate to appease disgruntled Tucker fans, Fox handed the 8 p.m. hour this week to Donald Trump’s former press secretary. Perhaps Kayleigh McEnany can succeed where Kilmeade and Jones failed, but the reception she’s gotten on social media thus far is inauspicious. “Can’t bring myself to betray @TuckerCarlson as much as I appreciate your commentary, sorry,” one fan tweeted at her.

Fox-watchers searching for an explanation for Carlson’s axing have begun to settle on the theory that he broke the company’s cardinal rule, believing himself to be bigger than the network. There are no “stars” at Fox, it’s said; Fox itself is the star, the reason viewers tune in, and any employee who forgets that is apt to find himself out of a job and deprived of that audience.

The shocking ratings decline at 8 p.m. suggests that, for the first time, a top-rated host who thought he was bigger than the network turned out to be correct.

Worse still for Fox, their separation from Carlson is turning acrimonious. And the more acrimony there is, the greater the risk that Tucker—and his fans—will hold a grudge.

Outtakes from his Fox show have begun to appear at Media Matters. Leaks of some of his texts after the 2020 election have started to trickle out to outlets like the Daily Beast. A few days ago Fox sent a letter to Dominion accusing it of leaking the embarrassing material, but at least one Fox alumna suspects the network’s own famously vicious PR shop is behind the leaks. As it happens, on the day after Carlson was fired, Rolling Stone published a scoop citing eight sources confirming that Fox’s communications department has assembled an “oppo file” on him. “Two sources add that Fox is prepared to disclose some of its contents if execs suspect that Carlson is coming after the network,” the story alleged.

Already furious at Fox for dumping their hero, Tucker fans are primed to believe that the company is rubbing salt in the wound by quietly trying to humiliate him. And if that weren’t enough, awareness is growing in populist circles that Carlson remains under contract at Fox through January 2025, raising the possibility that the network will keep him sidelined in right-wing media for the duration of the coming presidential campaign. On Sunday Axios reported that he won’t take that lying down: “The idea that anyone is going to silence Tucker and prevent him from speaking to his audience is beyond preposterous,” his lawyer said. A friend added that he’s prepared to go “from peacetime to Defcon 1” against Fox to reclaim his professional freedom.

It’s hard to see how this ends happily for Murdoch media.

Suddenly Fox faces three threats to its ratings dominance. The first is something it’s never before experienced after jettisoning a popular host: the abiding hostility of a segment of America’s populist right.

Bill O’Reilly was a television star, never really a political star. When Fox packed his bags in 2017, right-wing activists shrugged. Glenn Beck was a political star when Fox forced him to walk the plank in 2011, having delivered the keynote address at CPAC the previous year, but whatever unhappiness activists felt after his termination was futile. Rival conservative cable news networks like Newsmax and One America News hadn’t launched yet. There was nowhere else for right-wing viewers to go.

Tucker is different. He’s the biggest political star Fox has produced, the most influential nationalist propagandist of this era. There’s no one else like him on the network. Letting him go while GOP mouthpieces like Sean Hannity soldier on will be received by many nationalists as a show of contempt by Fox management for their politics, not just a business decision. And that will be taken personally.

Case in point: On Monday Kari Lake was asked about a new Fox News poll showing broad public support for various gun restrictions. True to form when confronted with numbers that challenge her view of reality, Lake dismissed them as a product of corruption. “Fox News is a globalist network run by globalists who want to bring down our Constitution and take away our Second Amendment,” she insisted. When reminded that Fox is the most popular right-wing network in America, she countered, “They fired Tucker Carlson.”

Populism is tribal. Once a member does something to be shunned by the tribe, it’s not easy to get back in. “Fox News is a globalist network” might be a common opinion in Republican circles sooner than we think. (Already some right-wingers are referring to it as “Foxweiser,” evidently.) Which means the lost audience at 8 p.m. might be harder to rebuild than I first believed.

The second threat is the pressure Fox will feel to atone to the viewers it alienated by turning more radical in its content.

On a conference call this morning with shareholders, Lachlan Murdoch suggested that won’t happen. “There’s no change to our programming strategy at Fox News,” he said. “It’s obviously a successful strategy, and as always, we are adjusting our programming and our lineup, and that’s what we continue to do.” But Carlson’s loss is more than just a hole in the lineup that needs filling. His perspective will be difficult to replace among the stable of available conservative media talent capable of hosting a professional TV show on a major network.

Fox will be tempted to follow the playbook it followed the last time it risked losing the loyalty of many of its viewers, offering them conspiracy theories to prove that it’s willing to give the people what they want every bit as much as Newsmax is. Executives now need to decide if they’re so desperate for a nationalist at 8 p.m. that they’re willing to scrape some loose cannon off of YouTube or a podcast somewhere to provide daily primetime chum in hopes of luring back disaffected viewers.

If they do, what’s left of their credibility as a “news” outlet might disintegrate. Their one neat trick as a network for most of their history was claiming mainstream legitimacy by manning a serious news outfit in the daytime while claiming partisan legitimacy by manning a propaganda shop in primetime. But in the Trump era, after Roger Ailes was ousted, that balance was lost. Between star reporters like Chris Wallace and Shepard Smith departing and the revelations in the Dominion filings about Fox executives plotting to mislead viewers about the election, all that’s left of Fox’s good name is what Bret Baier and Neil Cavuto can crank out on a given day.

If management concludes that the key to winning back viewers is more Patriot Purge at 8 p.m. rather than less, the remaining traditional Republicans in the audience may head for the exits, abandoning Fox entirely to the crazies. (The Republican Party has been experiencing a similar churn for going on eight years.) Perhaps enough crazies will come back to offset that loss. Perhaps not.

Finally, Fox will soon face the stiffest competitive challenge it’s ever faced in the person of Tucker Carlson himself, one that could disrupt the status quo that’s defined conservative media for 25 years.

It’s not clear what Carlson will do with himself once he’s fully freed from his Fox contract—more on that below—but he will surely be freed in time and what he does next will be consequential. Newsmax is so desperate to recruit him, according to the Washington Post, that it has essentially offered to “rebrand Newsmax under Tucker’s name.” My guess, though, is that Carlson is willing to sacrifice money for a gig that would maximize his political influence. The Post reports:

Carlson and his team have discussed the possibility of moderating a candidate forum outside of the traditional protocols surrounding the GOP primary debate system, according to two people familiar with the considerations. These people said the setup — as well as Carlson’s availability to take on that kind of role, given the noncompete constraints of his contract with Fox — remain unclear. But Carlson has personally expressed enthusiasm about the idea, according to people familiar with his comments. At least one major candidate — Trump — has told Carlson he’s interested, according to a person familiar with the exchange.

The former Fox host’s interest in a debate is said to stem in part from its potential to loosen the Republican National Committee’s grip on the process, as well as to challenge the role traditionally played by the major television networks. “He could go straight to the candidates, stream it live, invite the networks but maintain control over the process,” said one person familiar with the discussions, speaking on the condition of anonymity to preserve relationships.

Imagine that he decided to schedule “The Tucker Debate” on Rumble on the same night as the first Fox News debate this summer and convinced Trump to commit to his event instead of Fox’s. (Which shouldn’t be hard.) What would the other candidates do? Would Ron DeSantis dare snub the nationalist forum for Fox’s “globalist” production?

Now imagine that dynamic playing out every day if and when TuckerTV gets off the ground. Which network would grassroots voters watch? How would Republican politicians negotiate the inevitable rivalry between the two? How might ambitious young conservative content creators change their views if they were suddenly auditioning for appearances on Carlson’s network instead of Fox?

Newsmax remains small and kooky enough that it can be ignored by all but the thirstiest populists in politics and media. TuckerTV might not be.

In Tucker’s venture American nationalists will see an opportunity to wrench the center of ideological gravity in conservative media, and therefore in Republican politics, decidedly toward their own position. The financial success of the project will be secondary to everyone except Carlson himself, perhaps; the primary ambition of its supporters will be to break the Murdochs’ monopoly on gatekeeping which right-wing ideas are accessible by the American mainstream.

Breaking institutional monopolies on how the right should and shouldn’t define itself has been something of a trend among prominent nationalists lately, in fact. Populism is a countercultural movement and the culture they’re targeting is that of their own side. Now here comes Tucker, ready to apply that logic to Fox News.

In a few years, it may be that the last respectable anchors at Fox have thrown in the towel and the network has given itself over entirely to propaganda—only to see its influence collapsing anyway. Center-right viewers will have given up on it whereas right-wing viewers, long since conditioned to despise Fox as the establishment’s “controlled opposition” to the left, will turn to Tucker Carlson’s product for affirmation instead. Eventually all institutions that helped create the monster that the modern right has become will be consumed by it. Frankly, Fox is overdue.

Just as this newsletter was set to publish, Carlson posted the video below on what he says will be the new media platform for his show, Twitter. He’ll fit right in at Elon Musk’s redpilled safe space, where there’s no conspiracy theory the owner won’t entertain so long as it flatters his political prejudices. Note what Tucker says toward the end about gatekeepers and “thinly disguised propaganda outlets.” It won’t be long before the battle with Fox begins.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.