Tucker Carlson’s legacy at Fox News is that he was a giant phony

A recent lawsuit exposed Carlson as a performer who promoted opinions that he knew to be false. That is his legacy

Richard Hall
Monday 24 April 2023 23:26 BST
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Tucker Carlson’s final words on Fox News as host ‘parts ways’ with network

As Tucker Carlson’s time at Fox News comes to an end, so too does his reign as one of the most prolific propagandists in modern American history.

Carlson, who on Monday achieved the dubious honour of being fired from all three major US cable news networks, found success as a performer, an activist and a partisan who manipulated and moved his audience in a way few others could. That audience included presidents, former presidents, hate-watching liberals, rank-and-file conservatives and every Republican lawmaker under the sun.

He found success on Fox by going further than any of his predecessors beyond the bounds of acceptability. From his primetime perch, he spewed bigotry, parroted white nationalist talking points and promoted conspiracies and falsehoods from behind a facade of journalistic inquiry.

Most of that inquiry was, of course, skin deep. His output seemed designed to annoy liberals rather than to uncover any great truth, and it was important for him to annoy liberals because they annoyed him. Carlson is a man of such immense privilege and conceit that he built an entire personality around the refusal to be corrected or challenged in any way. He knowingly told lies and entertained conspiracies to prove that he could say whatever he wanted.

It was possible to watch Carlson’s fatigue at being challenged grow throughout his career. His breakout television role came in the early 2000s, when he played the voice of the right on CNN’s Crossfire, a show that pitched liberals against conservatives in gladiatorial nightly debates. That show was canned when the two hosts were humiliated by Jon Stewart during an infamous dressing down that was later described as Carlson’s “villain origin story”, perhaps in recognition of the transformation he undertook over the next few years. No more would he play to both sides. When he returned to television in 2016, he would answer to no one.

The first episode of Carlson’s nightly Fox News show aired in November 2016, just days after Donald Trump won the presidency. Both men demonstrated expertise in harnessing white anger in pursuit of power and profit.

But what made Carlson different from other broadcasters? Stripped of context and the pomp of primetime, there isn’t much to distinguish him from any other shock jock blowhard. He is no great intellect. Most of his arguments and soliloquies would collapse under the mildest scrutiny — which is why he rarely hosted opposing viewpoints. People like him — bigoted, but effective communicators — have always existed in some form.

What made him unique was the platform provided to him by one of the most-watched cable news network in the country. It was Rupert Murdoch who made the consequential decision to unleash Carlson on the country and reaped the financial rewards for doing so.

Murdoch appeared to realise that the same rising forces of resentment that gave rise to Trump could also make for good ratings, and he was right. That partnership gave Carlson massive influence over the Republican Party, and gave Fox News the ratings in return.

A good portion of Carlson’s audience will follow him wherever he goes next, but it will be difficult for him to maintain the same kind of influence when separated from the cable news behemoth. He will not be able to set the day’s agenda in the same way he did at Fox, or to target his opponents with the same venom. His influence will likely wane.

And so what will be Carlson’s legacy?

It is worth mentioning that it was not something that Carlson said on air that earned him the sack. According to the initial reporting on his ouster in the The Los Angeles Times, Carlson’s exit is related to the discrimination lawsuit filed by Abby Grossberg, who says she was subjected to a hostile and discriminatory work environment.

But it was another lawsuit, the one brought by the Dominion voting machines company, that delivered Carlson’s Fox News epitaph. It was through discovery in that trial that it was revealed that Carlson was delivering opinions and news to his viewers that he knew to be false — primarily relating to false claims that the election was stolen. The same lawsuit revealed that he had an intense dislike for Trump, despite frequently promoting him.

In short, Carlson leaves Fox News after being exposed as a phony. That is his legacy.

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