The unstoppable rise and sudden downfall of Tucker Carlson

No scandal seemed to be able to stop Tucker Carlson, so why is he suddenly on the outs at Fox News? Josh Marcus reports

Tuesday 25 April 2023 07:57 BST
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Tucker Carlson’s invincibility spell may have finally worn off.

On Monday, Fox News announced it was abruptly cutting ties with the hugely popular host, the most widely viewed cable news figure in the country. The decision seemed to be a last-minute one: Carlson, who started at the network as a contributor in 2009, didn’t say goodbye to his audience on air and told viewers he would see them on Monday.

The conservative broadcasting juggernaut has endured advertiser boycotts, calls for his resignation from civil rights leaders, and a view, as The New York Times put it, that his programme “may be the most racist show in the history of cable news,” yet continued to grow his mammoth audience to an average of nearly 3.5 million viewers a night in 2022. For a time, Republican gossip suggested Carlson should be the party’s presidential candidate in 2024.

Tucker Carlson’s final words on Fox News as host ‘parts ways’ with network - rNNRsflA

But it wasn’t something Carlson said that may have spelled his end at Fox News — or at least, no one thing in particular. Instead, a pair of lawsuits challenged the institution as a whole on how it treated its own employees and how it treated the truth itself.

The network hasn’t done much in explaining why its partnership with Carlson is over.

“FOX News Media and Tucker Carlson have agreed to part ways,” the network said in a statement shared with The Independent. “We thank him for his service as a host and prior to that as a contributor.”

The host was only informed of his departure on Monday morningThe New York Times reported, acting on what The Los Angeles Times said was a direct order from Fox News owner Rupert Murdoch.

It’s impossible to ignore, however, the network’s recent legal troubles, and Carlson’s central role within them.

Less than a week ago, Fox News agreed to pay $787.5m to settle a defamation lawsuit from Dominion Voting Systems, which alleged the conservative network aired false claims about the election technology company playing a role in the conservative conpiracy that holds the 2020 election was rigged.

The trial was set to be the media spectacle of the decade, a long-awaited reckoning in which top Fox talent like Carlson and Sean Hannity were expected to testify and face questions about the often baseless election conspiracies that got air time on their shows.

In the lead-up to the trial, messages between key figures at Fox News about their election coverage came to light, painting parts of the network’s upper echelon as willingly spreading false information about the 2020 election, despite private misgivings.

Reporters surround attorneys for Dominion Voting Systems during a news conference outside the New Castle County Courthouse in Wilmington, Delaware, after the defamation lawsuit against Fox News was settled on Tuesday, April 18, 2023

In one set of messages, Carlson told a fellow Fox News employee how he “passionately” hated Donald Trump, a figure he compared to a “demonic force.”

In another, he seemed to cast doubt on the wider conservative world’s embrace of Trump, something of a veiled shot at those who thought like the top brass at Fox News.

“We’re all pretending we’ve got a lot to show for it, because admitting what a disaster it’s been is too tough to digest. But come on. There isn’t really an upside to Trump.”

The intimate conservations captured Carlson calling election conspiracists “demagogues” and “offensive” liars, willing to deceive the “good people” who watch Fox News, only for the host to often turn around and echo many of their same claims on air.

As recently as 6 March, Carlson’s show featured a segment where the host called the 2020 election a “a grave betrayal of American democracy.”

Tucker Carlson, left, and former President Donald Trump at the Bedminster Invitational LIV Golf tournament in Bedminster, New Jersey, on July 31, 2022

The Dominion suit was just the beginning though.

On 20 March, a former producer for Tucker Carlson Tonight named Abby Grossberg filed a federal lawsuit against Fox, alleging a “toxic workplace” where “truth remains a fugitive” and the overriding culture is one of “poisonous and entrenched patriarchy.”

Ms Grossberg, who has since been fired, described a litany of alleged sexist and misogynist comments made behind closed doors about both women at Fox News like Maria Bartiromo, as well as the subjects of the network’s coverage.

On her first day of work with Carlson, Ms Grossberg said she was horrified to find her work station decorated with pictures of former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in a revealing swimsuit.

Efforts to raise these workplace issues allegedly resulted in furious responses from her bosses, who “berated and attacked Ms Grossberg,” according to the complaint.

Eventually, she alleges, she sought medical leave on the recommendation of a therapist.

In addition to her treatment within Fox, the producer alleges she was  “coerced, intimidated, and misinformed” about how to testify in the Dominion suit, an effort “subtly shifting all responsibility for the alleged defamation against Dominion onto her shoulders.”

People gather for ‘Truth Tuesday’ as they participate in a ‘Fox can't handle the truth’ protest outside Fox News headquarters on June 14, 2022 in New York City

A statement from Fox News to The Independent said the company “engaged an independent outside counsel to immediately investigate the concerns raised by Ms Grossberg, which were made following a critical performance review.”

“Her allegations in connection with the Dominion case are baseless and we will vigorously defend Fox against all of her claims,” according to the statement.

Were these twin suits what did Carlson in? It’s hard to say.

Neither he nor the network have spoken about the reasons behind the split.

Within the media rumour mill, some speculate that it was some combination of the Dominion suit and the way it embarrassed Fox leadership that led to Carlson’s demise at the network.

“This is major,” an on-air personality at Fox, speaking anonymously, told The Washington Post. “It sends a message that even the guy with the highest ratings of all, by a long shot, doesn’t get to survive this disaster.”

What’s all the more shocking about Carlson’s sudden exit is that, in a way, he’s been here before. He’s been consistently dogged by scandals about what he says on air and what happens in his newsrooms when the cameras are off.

Trump’s false allegations of voter fraud were amplified by Fox despite private misgivings

In 2018, numerous high-profile advertisers like Land Rover and Samsung left the show, after Carlson said immigration makes the US “poorer, dirtier, and more divided.”

In 2020, Carlson’s top writer resigned, after it was revealed he had been using a pseudonym and posting highly racist, sexist materials in an online forum.

That same year, Tucker Carlson Tonight conducted the first interview of teen vigilante Kyle Rittenhouse after he was acquitted for murder for fatally shooting two people at a 2020 racial justice protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, calling him a “sweet kid.” At the time, Carlson often used his show to dismiss Black Lives Matter protesters as “criminal mobs,” describing them as seeking to “destroy what the rest of us have built.” Still more advertisers jumped ship.

There has always been a barely disguised cruelty in Carlson’s public life — his college yearbook listed membership in a fictional society named for the man who murdered Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to office in California — but nothing seemed to stop his rise.

In 2021, he inked a deal to further his footprint in the Fox ecosystem with podcasts and documentaries.

In recent years, as his audience reached unprecedented proportions, Carlson’s coverage grew increasingly controversial, racist, and conspiratorial, mirroring a political discourse haunted by the spectres of QAnon, election hacking, and white backlash to the Black Lives Matter movement.

In 2021, Carlson defended QAnon, calling critics of the movement “dictators” who sought to mentally enslave Americans. Meanwhile, he interviewed actual strongman leaders like Hungary’s Viktor Orban, praising him as a model for America for his far-right stance on immigration.

In 2022, Carlson joined the bandwagon of Republicans fomenting paranoia about LGTBQ teachers and education about sex and gender, warning, “This is an attack on your children, and you should fight back,” and aired a bizarre documentary about the fate of modern masculinity that featured a man advocating blasting one’s testicles with red lights to increase testosterone.

Despite his apparent revulsion at Trump and his election conspiracies, Carlson aired a highly edited version of security footage from the January 6 riots, claiming falsely that the Capitol insurrection was a mostly peaceful protest that had been distorted in the media — when he was the one twisting the record about the riot, where five people died and over a thousand people were charged with criminal offences.

Most controversially, Carlson became perhaps the leading national voice of the so-called “great replacement” theory, a white supremacist idea that political elites are trying to dillute white power through immigration.

“I know that the left and all the little gatekeepers on Twitter become literally hysterical if you use the term ‘replacement,’ if you suggest that the Democratic Party is trying to replace the current electorate, the voters now casting ballots, with new people, more obedient voters from the third world. But they become hysterical because that’s what’s happening actually. Let’s just say it: That’s true,” he said on one show.

“Everyone wants to make a racial issue out of it,” Carlson added. “Oh, you know, the ‘white replacement theory’? No, no, no ... I have less political power because they are importing a brand new electorate. Why should I sit back and take that?”

A New York Times analysis of Tucker Carlson Tonight in recent years found that the host mentioned some version of this theory in more than 400 episodes.

Scott Greer, a former editor at the Daily Caller, a conservative news site founded by Carlson, argued the Fox News giant was able to launder numerous far-right, racist talking points from the dark corners of the internet into the mainstream on his show. (Greer left the Caller in 2018, when his past writings for a white nationalist site came to life.)

“Tucker is ultimately on our side,” Mr Greer said on his podcast in 2022. “He can get millions and millions of boomers to nod along with talking points that would have only been seen on VDare or American Renaissance a few years ago.”

Where those points will find a home after Carlson’s exit from Fox News remains undetermined.

Thanks to new digital media tools, a mainstream institution like Fox News is no longer necessary to cultivate a large audience or a handsome salary, whether it’s Joe Rogan netting a deal with Spotify worth reportedly over $200m, or Bari Weiss spinning an acrimonious exit from The New York Times opinion pages into a booming publication on Substack with over 330,000 subscribers and millions in annual earnings.

One thing is for certain though: Carlson has a rare ability to fail upward.

He went from, as he put it, spending most of his college years drunk and with poor grades, to being one of the most in-demand magazine writers in the country, penning profiles for for Esquire, The New York Times Magazine, and, The New Republic.

He went from being a bowtie-wearing featured conservative panelist on the CNN debate show Crossfire, to a punching bag, excoriated on air so thoroughly by Jon Stewart in 2005 some speculate it led to the show’s cancellation months later.

After that, he rebounded from a middling stint on MSNBC to become a fixture in the conservative media landscape.

Where he — or Fox News for that matter — lands next after this season of upheaval is unclear, but no doubt, controversy will follow.

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