The most pernicious figure in American cable news is finally unemployed.
Good riddance, Don Lemon.
You know who I mean.
The news struck this morning like lightning, catching the media entirely by surprise. As of 4 p.m. ET there were still no behind-the-scenes accounts of what led Fox News to part ways with its highest-rated host, the anchor of the company’s world-beating primetime bloc.
It seems to have come as a shock even to Tucker Carlson. On Friday he signed off by assuring viewers, “We’ll be back on Monday.” Fox was promoting tonight’s episode as recently as this morning, touting a Carlson interview with Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy.
But there will be no Monday episode. His last show was Friday, the network announced, denying him a chance to say farewell to his audience on his own terms. Incredibly, ignominiously, Tucker Carlson got the Poochie treatment.
Even Brian Stelter didn’t get the Poochie treatment.
What could Tucker have done to deserve that?
He did a million things to deserve it.
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.
Case in point: As chance would have it, hours before Carlson would leave Fox, 60 Minutes aired an interview with Ray Epps. Epps is the subject of a far-right conspiracy theory alleging that January 6 was incited by federal agents; that theory was—or should have been—laid to rest last fall. Undeterred, Tucker covered Epps six times this year alone, raising the total number of segments he’s devoted to the subject to more than 20. Epps and his wife have had to sell their ranch and move into a 300-foot RV in an undisclosed location to avoid death threats.
I’m sure Carlson doesn’t care. For precisely that reason, the right’s activist base adores him.
Days after Fox News agreed to pay Dominion Voting Systems $787.5 million for defaming the company into corporate oblivion, Tucker turned up as the guest of honor at the Heritage Foundation’s 50th anniversary celebration. “The second you decide to tell the truth about something you are filled with this power from somewhere else. Try it!” he advised the crowd, oblivious to the news of the week. “Tell the truth about something. You’ll feel it every day. The more you tell the truth, the stronger you become.” He was warmly applauded.
And so Fox News’ million reasons to fire him were ultimately no reason at all. The audience was happy with him. And at Fox, the audience is always right even when they’re wrong. So why was he let go?
The answer, I suspect, is that they realized there was actually no reason to keep him.
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. The last guy before Tucker to hold that slot was also a ratings juggernaut; the next person to hold it will be too. 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.
He’ll probably come cheaper too. And he’s unlikely to embarrass the network as often as Carlson did.
According to the Washington Post, it wasn’t any of Tucker’s outre political sentiments that ultimately alienated his bosses. It was his “comments about Fox management, as revealed in the Dominion case, that played a role in his departure,” a source told the paper. In one text after Fox declared Joe Biden the winner of the 2020 election, he wondered, “Do the executives understand how much credibility and trust we’ve lost with our audience?” About the network’s infamous call of Arizona for Biden, he said, “We devote our lives to building an audience and they let Chris Wallace and Leland f***ing Vittert wreck it,” In a third message he complained about “a combination of incompetent liberals and top leadership with too much pride to back down.”
And those are only the messages we know about. According to the Wall Street Journal, “The company took issue with remarks Mr. Carlson made that were derogatory toward the network, people familiar with the matter said. Much of the communications were redacted in court documents but became known internally to senior Fox management, the people said.”
You can be as inflammatory and irresponsible as you like on Fox’s airwaves in promoting civic discord, but criticizing management in private emails that happen to get caught up in civil litigation is apparently a firing offense.
Carlson was costing Fox in other ways. His show had been a target of progressive boycotts for years, leaving one to wonder how much ad revenue the network was recouping during his hour to help pay his gigantic salary. Meanwhile, last month former Fox producer Abby Grossberg filed a lawsuit alleging “frank and open sexism from co-workers and superiors at the network,” as the New York Times put it, particularly among Tucker’s staff.
Last year, she began working as a senior booking producer at “Tucker Carlson Tonight.” On her first full day, according to the lawsuit, Ms. Grossberg discovered that the show’s Manhattan work space was decorated with large pictures of Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, then the House speaker, wearing a plunging swimsuit.
The next day, Justin Wells, Mr. Carlson’s top producer, called Ms. Grossberg into his office, she said, to ask whether Ms. Bartiromo was having a sexual relationship with the House Republican leader, Kevin McCarthy.
Later that fall, it said, before an appearance on the show by Tudor Dixon, the Republican candidate for Michigan governor, Mr. Carlson’s staff held a mock debate about whether they would prefer to have sex with Ms. Dixon or her Democratic opponent, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
The “C-word” was used liberally, according to Grossberg, who also alleges that Carlson’s staff “joked about Jews.”
Both the Los Angeles Times and Semafor reported this afternoon that Carlson’s dismissal is thought to be related to Grossberg’s lawsuit. (Wells has also been fired.) Perhaps Fox investigators sniffed around, concluded this weekend that there’s truth to the allegations, and management concluded that one major legal black eye is enough for 2023. If sordid revelations about TuckerWorld’s office behavior are destined to come out at trial, better that it happen with Carlson as a former employee.
If all that’s not enough, Ray Epps and his attorney have been seeking a “formal on-air apology” from Carlson for the endless smears Epps has had to endure. That apology was not forthcoming, needless to say, which means Fox might soon be facing yet another lawsuit stemming from Tucker’s behavior. The Epps matter might even have come to the attention of Rupert Murdoch, who’s reportedly “concerned over Carlson’s coverage of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.”
This may, in short, have been the last straw for an employee who was more trouble than he was worth. If you’re getting paid extravagantly, delivering replacement-level results, humiliating your boss on multiple fronts, and stirring up legal trouble for the business, you won’t last forever in your job.
Maybe the real news today is that Tucker hung on as long as he did.
What now for the various players in this story?
For the monsters at the Kremlin, it’s a tragic day.
Losing your chief propagandist in enemy media has to feel a bit like losing a prized spy.
For Fox and its audience, there will be agita. “I think it changes things permanently,” Donald Trump Jr. said today of Carlson’s departure. “That’s one of the few voices in the Republican party that would call out the nonsense from GOP senators, governors and otherwise. You know, an actual thought leader in conservatism.” There are destined to be a few half-hearted calls for boycotts among the dregs of nationalist influencers. Newsmax is already trying to capitalize, calling Tucker’s farewell further evidence that Fox is “moving to become establishment media.”
Fox viewers aren’t going anywhere, though. I find David Graham’s conclusion inescapable: “Tucker’s Successor Will Be Worse.”
Any rising conservative TV star would love to grab for the crown Carlson has doffed, or that’s been taken from him. The audience, influence, and money involved make it irresistible, but his career arc illustrates the hazards. To remain on top at Fox, hosts have to be ready to continually ratchet up their rhetoric, because the network’s business model depends on continual audience outrage. But audiences eventually become inured and require new and more extreme input. Providing that is a challenging and soul-leaching job—and someone will be delighted to have it.
The golden rule of populist media is that if you’re not willing to say the crazy thing the audience wants to hear, some ambitious rival will be. That’s why Fox went all-in on the “rigged election” nonsense after the 2020 election, it’s why Rush Limbaugh accommodated himself to Trumpism during the 2016 primary, and it’s why Carlson’s successor at Fox will face pressure to behave as least as demagogically as Carlson himself did. A step back toward normal politics during that hour risks being seen as a retreat, an unwillingness to “fight.” Newsmax is always just a few clicks away.
I’d guess Candace Owens is the frontrunner to replace him. She’s well-known and well-liked among the sort of Republican who watches Fox News avidly; Sarah Longwell at The Bulwark has remarked many times how common it is for Republican voters in focus groups to volunteer Owens’ name when asked whom they’d like to see run for president. Owens is also a crank in the same way Carlson is (or pretends to be) a crank—anti-vax, anti-Ukraine, pro-Kanye. And she’d add some racial diversity to a network line-up that isn’t brimming with it.
But if she’s not available, there’s always the governor of Arizona. Fox’s crank bases would be well-covered with her too.
For Republican politicians, particularly the party’s presidential field, the pressure to conform to a populist agenda just eased a bit.
It was Tucker who goaded Texas Gov. Greg Abbott into vowing to pardon the convicted murderer in the BLM protest case. It was Tucker who sought and received the notorious statement from Ron DeSantis expressing the Tucker-friendly position that the war in Ukraine is a mere “territorial dispute.” Whether they feared his influence in shaping right-wing orthodoxy or feared his fans’ penchant for issuing threats, Republican officeholders were quite fearful of Tucker Carlson. It’s so flagrant and pitiful that even foreign politicians have been moved to remark upon it.
That fear factor has now diminished. Whatever the culture-war litmus test du jour happens to be, with Carlson gone the heresies of GOP politicians will be policed less vigorously. Figures like DeSantis might feel more comfortable supporting Ukraine. Republicans generally might feel more comfortable advocating for vaccines.
Given Murdoch media’s preference for DeSantis over Trump, part of me wonders if ousting Tucker before the primary has a strategic angle to it. It’ll be easier for the governor to take positions that boost his electability at the risk of angering populists without Tucker Carlson holding his feet to the fire for “betraying” the right every night at 8 p.m.
As for Tucker himself: He’s now unemployable in major American television media. Conservative outlets apart from Fox can’t afford him. And insofar as CNN or MSNBC might consider hiring an anchor who leans right, it’s not going to be one who pushes nonsense about January 6 and vaccines.
Russian media could afford him, assuming that he’s not willing to work for free. But I imagine the sight of Carlson anchoring RT’s evening newscast would be a little on the nose even for Tucker himself.
He could start an online streaming platform like The Blaze and try to monetize the alt-right. That would be interesting if only because we might get to hear what Carlson sounds like once he’s freed from the political Overton window imposed by mainstream cable television.
He could also run for president.
He’s been asked many times whether he might run. No other anchor at Fox, including one as famous and tapped-in as Sean Hannity, is routinely touted as a future candidate for office. Carlson alone enjoys that honor because, in his persona and political program, he mirrors the post-Trump populist Republican base to a degree no other figure in major right-wing media does. He’s a post-liberal nationalist and he’s relentlessly demagogic about it. He’s the next best thing to Trump.
“I’m not running,” he said last year when asked about a 2024 candidacy. “I’m a talk show host! And I enjoy my job, by the way.” As of this morning, he no longer has that excuse.
Still, I don’t think he’ll run.
In a Trump-less field, he might find the prospect irresistible. In a debate between a seasoned performer like Tucker and this bobblehead goober, I know who I’d take. In a field where Trump is already sitting at 50 percent, though, Carlson is unlikely to win and risks making a long-term enemy of the MAGA base. Trump and his fans seem to have forgiven Tucker his many private admissions about hating the former president. They won’t be so forgiving if Carlson jumps in.
Unless, that is, Carlson gets in for the explicit purpose of serving as a stalking horse for Trump. If he declared his candidacy and focused exclusively on attacking DeSantis, driving down the governor’s numbers, Trump and his supporters would be grateful. That might land Carlson a position in his next administration. If Trump can be persuaded that his chances of winning in 2024 don’t depend on having a woman running mate, he might even look at Tucker for his number two.
And, in fairness, Carlson would be an attractive pick in some ways. He’s young, he’s very smart, he’s an expert communicator, and he’s a talented and tireless attack dog. That’s exactly what one wants from a vice presidential candidate.
Well, minus the many years of on-camera fever-swamp conspiracy theorizing, I mean.
If I were Carlson, having sold my soul to the worst elements of the American right long ago, I’d dial up Trump tonight and offer to put myself at his service in the coming campaign. If he needs a sharp, combative media surrogate who’s good on TV—and who doesn’t?—he’s got one. Being a player in Trump’s 2024 effort is Tucker’s easiest path to becoming a politician in his own right by introducing him to a broad national audience. Unless the campaign somehow ends in a DeSantis presidency, he’ll be positioned to run seriously for the nomination in 2028.
So celebrate his departure from Fox, by all means. It’s good news for the country in the near term.
But if, in five years, today’s news looks in hindsight like a wish on a monkey’s paw, don’t say you weren’t warned.