Wait. Why did Fox News fire Tucker Carlson, exactly?
I’m asking because:
- It’s odd that more than 24 hours since the news broke, we’re still looking for the real story behind the surprise departure of the most popular anchor on America’s most powerful cable news network. Or, at least, a believable story.
And also because:
- The reason(s) Fox booted Carlson might tell us something about what happens next on Fox.
To recap: On Monday morning, Fox announced that it had “agreed to part ways” with Carlson, and then made it clear to the press that Fox owner Rupert Murdoch, his son Lachlan, and Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott had decided to push Carlson out.
Since then, reporters and analysts have floated competing explanations for the Murdochs’ move.
One theory holds that Carlson’s emails and text messages to his coworkers, some of which surfaced in advance of the Dominion libel trial that Fox paid $787.5 million to settle last week, embarrassed or angered Fox’s managers or owners.
We’ve already seen notes from Carlson explaining his disdain for Donald Trump as well as some of his Fox coworkers. While the notes the public has seen have been heavily redacted, the Murdochs and others would have certainly seen the unedited bits, suggesting that there is … something in there that prompted the push.
A second theory argues that Carlson left because of a lawsuit filed by former Fox News producer Abby Grossberg, who started working on Carlson’s show in 2022 and describes the production as a pre-Me Too frat house — the kind of place where “the office was decorated with large pictures of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wearing a plunging swimsuit.”
Under that theory, Fox, which has paid out tens of millions of dollars to settle harassment claims filed against the likes of Bill O’Reilly (the face of the network prior to Carlson’s ascent) and Roger Ailes (who built and ran Fox News as his own fiefdom before he was replaced by Scott) didn’t want a rerun with Carlson.
Those premises aren’t mutually exclusive. And it’s possible that both of them are true. But they also don’t seem nearly enough to fully explain the decision — one that, unlike Fox’s call to pay Dominion nearly $800 million — actually moved Fox’s stock down when it broke.
Those Carlson texts, for instance. People outside of Fox were thrilled to see them — especially the ones badmouthing Trump — because they formally exposed the cynicism and bald-faced lying the news channel produces daily.
But who cares? Certainly not the Fox News audience, since the Fox News bubble they live in means they’ll never learn about the texts — or, if they do, they’ll be explained away as fake news. And while it’s possible that there’s a message from Carlson that’s truly upsetting to Murdochland, I struggle to imagine what it would be.
Similarly, the idea that Carlson, who loved playing a cruel, sexist frat guy on TV, would behave like a cruel, sexist frat guy offscreen as well can’t have shocked his employers, who would certainly give a $20 million-a-year star a long leash.
A media company that tossed out a high performer because he said uncouth things and put up offensive posters is the kind of story Carlson would delight in savaging, not the kind of thing you imagine would happen to Carlson. And if Grossberg’s suit had much more serious things to say about Carlson’s behavior, you would expect to see it laid out upfront.
Two days after Carlson’s departure, we’re starting to see an initial narrative consensus coming out of Foxland: The Murdochs fired Carlson because he’d gone from being a pain in the ass to a huge pain in the ass. The Wall Street Journal, for instance, argues that “private messages in which Mr. Carlson showed disregard for management and colleagues were a major factor in that decision,” while Rolling Stone asserts that Fox has a “dossier of alleged dirt” on Carlson that it will use if Carlson goes after his former employer. The Financial Times has a similar take, though it also argues that Fox was offended by the way Carlson described voting fraud fantasist Sidney Powell, which seems like ... a stretch.
And even if all of the above is 100 percent true, it still feels incomplete. Carlson was very much a known quantity in and outside of Fox, and Fox’s owners seemed okay with it up until very recently. The Journal, for instance, reports that “just a few weeks ago, Rupert Murdoch invited Mr. Carlson to his Bel Air, Calif., home to dine with his then-fiancée, Ann Lesley Smith.”
Then again, that anecdote also underlines Murdoch’s ability to move on very quickly once he wants to. He’s no longer engaged to get married for the fifth time, and he’s no longer employing his biggest star.
So we’re left with a shrug. Or, as former media columnist and current Semafor co-founder Ben Smith put it this morning, a request: Anyone got any better ideas?
The reason any of this matters, by the way, is what the answer could tell us about the future of Fox News. If the reasons for Carlson’s departure are truly about what happened behind the camera, then you shouldn’t expect a post-Carlson Fox News to be different in any way. Just like they did when they booted O’Reilly, they’ll find another face to fill Carlson’s seat, and that host will give the Fox News audience the red-meat fear-mongering they expect to see.
Meanwhile, Carlson, like other former Fox stars like O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, or Megyn Kelly, can see if he’s able to get any of his existing fan base to follow him onto the internet. He could do better than all three of them — in part because he seems to understand digital better than any earlier Fox folks, even though he got his start in magazines. But the odds are he’ll still be very disappointed at how hard it is to cajole Fox News watchers to become Tucker Carlson subscribers.
But if — and this is not at all likely — it turns out the Murdochs actually had a problem with Carlson’s content, then it’s a different story. As Charlie Warzel notes in the Atlantic, while Carlson followed a long line of Fox News personalities catering to a scared, aging demographic, the particulars of his programming were more extreme than his predecessors — they place him much closer to conspiracist Alex Jones than your traditional Fox News personality. In Warzel’s words, Carlson was the “man who sat at the very top of a toxic information ecosystem, one that cycles fever-swamp, message-board garbage upward and outward.”
Is it possible that the Murdochs looked out at the media landscape and concluded that their company was better off with a slightly less awful face leading them? Not that they’d want to change the Fox News diet in a meaningful way, but maybe around the edges. I don’t think so — it seems too much like the wishcasting I saw on Twitter when Carlson’s departure broke. But until I find a more compelling explanation, I won’t totally foreclose on this.
Update, April 26, 12:50 pm ET: This story was originally published on April 25 and has been updated to include additional reported details about the reasons for Carlson’s dismissal.