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Tucker Carlson Was Fox News' Bounty and the Nation's Shame

For the now former Fox News anchor, the cruelty was always the point.
  • Tucker Carlson (Photo: Fox News)
    Tucker Carlson (Photo: Fox News)

    Tucker Carlson is gone. We know it’s not forever. He’s bound to resurface eventually, spreading his hateful bile on some other platform, but he’ll no longer do it at 8:00 p.m. ET on Fox News. This is the third cable news channel, after CNN and MSNBC, to fire Carlson, and it did so quickly and with all the mercy and compassion he deserved.

    The news came not long after Fox agreed to dig through Rupert Murdoch’s couch cushions for $787 million to settle a defamation lawsuit with Dominion Voting Systems. Fox News hosts had what the media charitably describes as “spread misinformation” about the 2020 election that falsely disparaged the company. Carlson himself wasn’t the worst offender, but while others zipped their lips during the 2022 election and once the suit was in progress, he wouldn’t shut up. As recently as February, he suggested Biden’s vote total was unthinkable. He’d also claimed that January 6 insurrection suspect Ray Epps was a government plant. This was on top of his grotesque perversion of January 6 footage he’d received from Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

    Carlson insisted there was no true “insurrection” and the people arrested and convicted for their actions that day — including beating cops — were just an “orderly” gathering of sightseers.” This reportedly displeased Rupert Murdoch, although Carlson had minimized the Capitol attack pretty much since January 7. Texts released during the Dominion suit’s discovery revealed that Carlson openly dragged Fox management and its dear leader, Donald Trump. That probably didn’t endear him to Murdoch.

    Closer to home, former Tucker Carlson Tonight producer Abby Grossberg had sued Carlson and Fox News, alleging a hostile work environment. Audio clips were uncovered of Carlson saying (among other despicable things) that women were “extremely primitive. They’re basic. They’re not that hard to understand”. NPR reporter David Folkenflik tweeted on April 24, “I have spoken with three people with knowledge of Fox's ouster of Tucker Carlson. They say Carlson's digital exchanges captured by the Dominion legal team echo the suite of concerns alleged by his ex producer - that his show's workplace was defined by sexism and bigotry.”

    Did Fox seriously believe Carlson was just play-acting as a racist, misogynist monster on national TV but otherwise ran his show like Mr. Rogers? Nonetheless, the New York Times reports that Lachlan Murdoch and Suzanne Scott, chief executive of Fox News Media, decided on Friday to fire Carlson, and Fox announced early Monday that he wouldn’t return, not even for an official final episode. His last words on the air were literally “We’ll be back on Monday,” but at least that wasn’t a willful lie like all his others.

    Carlson himself was reportedly stunned and arguably with good reason. He was the network’s top-rated primetime host. Tucker Carlson Tonight, which has aired since 2017, delivered Fox $77.5 million in advertising revenue last year. That’s significantly more than his primetime colleagues and any of his competitors on legitimate cable news channels. His white power hour averaged 3.3 million viewers in 2022, and they weren’t all angry white retirees. According to AdWeek, Carlson’s show was consistently number one in the highly sought 25 to 54 demographic, and easily doubled the ratings of his time-slot competitors at CNN and MSNBC. The Fox News hosts who followed him, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham, never came close to his sinister appeal, and God knows they tried.

    Fox News didn’t respond to Carlson’s departure with the same zeal apparently reserved for lady M&Ms. Anchor Harris Faulkner dispassionately read from the press release we’d already seen: “Fox News Media and Tucker Carlson have agreed to part ways. We thank him for his service to the network as a host and prior to that as a contributor.”

    This was a stark contrast from how Matt Lauer’s Today Show colleagues reacted when announcing his (well-deserved) termination over sexual misconduct accusations. Savannah Guthrie said they were “devastated” and still “processing” the circumstances surrounding Lauer’s exit. The Today Show was also more transparent about why Lauer was (rightly) fired, while Fox News simply said the network and Carlson had “mutually agreed” to part ways. There was hardly time for much “mutual agreement” when Carlson was told with 10 minutes notice to go away and never come back.

    It’s revealing of Fox News’ core nature that while its hosts struggled with expressing genuine empathy for a now former colleague, they openly savored reporting Don Lemon’s termination from CNN the same day. Fox & Friends’ Brian Kilmeade was the first temporary host in Carlson’s vacated spot. His comments were also terse: “I wish Tucker the best. I’m great friends with Tucker and always will be.”

    Shares of Fox dropped almost five percent when the news broke that Carlson was history. There were no rumblings in Wall Street, however, when Fox News settled its Dominion lawsuit, all but conceding that it had knowingly lied to its viewers for years. Carlson was the network’s bounty and the nation’s shame.

    Carlson replaced Bill O’Reilly, who was fired by the network after multiple sexual harassment allegations. O’Reilly was both easier to ignore and less a stain on our national discourse. The guy who lectured Michelle Obama about how “well fed” slaves were was hardly a saint, but he was the sort of obnoxious blowhard that Stephen Colbert could spoof without feeling sick. Carlson was far more insidious and less suited for parody.

    The once and (let’s face it) future anchor spread outright lies, pro-Russian propaganda, and repulsive bigotry. His white supremacist rants defied established boundaries of decency that would’ve previously ended a career. He never once apologized or was otherwise suspended or punished, even when advertisers dumped him. (Fox News makes most of its blood money through cable subscription packages so it’s hard to make them hurt unless people are willing to sacrifice ESPN.)

    Rush Limbaugh, loathsome as he was, generally targeted major public figures. It was considered newsworthy when Limbaugh called private citizen Sandra Fluke a “slut.” Carlson didn’t limit himself to attacking Democratic and non-MAGA elected officials. He stirred up rhetorical mobs against journalists of color and marginalized groups in general. As The Nation’s Elie Mystal remarked on Twitter:

    Nothing was as bad for me as being clipped on Tucker's show. He engendered a kind of hate and level of *threat* that was distinct from other shows. Anybody can get on TV and tell white supremacists what they want to hear for an hour. That show told them who to attack. Most other shows merely ride the wave of bigotry endemic to white conservative culture. That show was a wave machine. I'm glad it's gone.

    Carlson had a unique talent for invoking hatred and fanning fear among a specific demographic. It often felt as if his primary objective was stamping out any potential shred of sympathy his viewers might feel for people the host himself considered beneath contempt. He openly mocked the brutal police killing of Tyre Nichols in Memphis, Tennessee. He cheered Kyle Rittenhouse's acquittal for fatally shooting two people and permanently injuring a third, and frequently gave the right-wing "hero" fawning interviews. He repeatedly suggested that George Floyd deserved to die and falsely claimed drugs killed him instead of Derek Chauvin’s knee. When Chauvin was convicted, Carlson said the jury delivered a guilty verdict solely to avoid a race riot.

    After the gun massacre at The Covenant School in Nashville earlier this month, Carlson promoted the unproven narrative that the shooter, who identified as trans, deliberately targeted the victims because they were Christians. Worse, he claimed that trans people were “natural enemies” of Christianity.

    Carlson’s impact was greater than simply making holiday dinners uncomfortable for families with different political views. He encouraged people to embrace their inner cruelty and cultural resentment. He made bullies feel like victims. He even sold out his own country. Let’s hope the $20 million a year he earned for his troubles is sufficient for him to retire, to let us recover from the damage he inflicted, but the cruelty might’ve been the point for Carlson more than the paycheck. Unfortunately, we’ve not seen the last of him.

    Stephen Robinson is a political columnist, arts writer, and theatre maker.

    TOPICS: Tucker Carlson, Fox News Channel, Tucker Carlson Tonight, Rupert Murdoch, Sean Hannity