Tucker’s Successor Will Be Worse
The history of Fox News shows that the network and its issues are larger than any one anchor.
Tucker Carlson’s rise to become the defining conservative-media personality of the Donald Trump period was a surprise. His abrupt departure from Fox News, announced this morning, is even more shocking.
“FOX News Media and Tucker Carlson have agreed to part ways,” the company said in a terse statement. “We thank him for his service to the network as a host and prior to that as a contributor.”
Carlson transformed himself from a bow-tie-clad smart aleck playing the role of liberals’ favorite conservative into a MAGA hero, able to channel the grievances of the Trump coalition despite his patrician upbringing and reputation—or perhaps, like Trump, because of it. In the process he became Fox’s biggest star, talked about as a potential presidential candidate. Carlson was a font of dangerous rhetoric and preposterous lies, and Fox’s viewers absolutely loved it.
The reasons for Carlson’s departure are still emerging, and the steps he might take next are still unclear. But Fox will probably be fine without Carlson, and anyone who hopes that his disappearance from the air will improve the political discourse in this country is too optimistic. When prior bogeymen for the left—people such as Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck—have been pushed out of Fox, the network has always found a new figure to replace them, while the hosts themselves have struggled to match their past success. There will be a new Tucker Carlson, and it’s a good bet he or she will be even worse.
The exit comes at a time of flux for Fox. Its founder, Rupert Murdoch, is 92 and has faced recent health struggles. Fox just settled a lawsuit with Dominion Voting Systems over election-related lies for almost $800 million, and faces several more. The discovery process that led up to the settlement was embarrassing for Fox and for Carlson. Internal messages showed that Carlson and his colleagues knew that many of the claims they made about election fraud after the 2020 election were nonsense. They also showed Carlson furious over Fox journalists accurately reporting facts, which he worried would hurt ratings, and saying that he hated Trump. (This revelation didn’t prevent him from conducting an obsequious interview with the former president earlier this month.)
When the settlement was announced last week, I argued that no matter the hefty bill, it was just the cost of doing business for Fox. The network settled the suit, but airing the lies achieved its goal of vanquishing smaller, upstart conservative rivals. Fox is and remains larger than even its most important figures.
Carlson will not go away, but recent history suggests that he’ll have a hard time maintaining his current profile. Before Carlson, there was Bill O’Reilly, who was the leading conservative figure of his era and equally reviled by progressives. When O’Reilly was finally forced out of Fox in 2017 over sexual-misconduct claims, many critics hoped it would improve the state of the country and the press. Instead, it cleared the way for Carlson. O’Reilly has kept writing best-selling books but has become a more marginal figure in politics.
This pattern has repeated itself over the years. After O’Reilly, the longtime star Sean Hannity became Fox’s marquee name. His influence was such that he was sometimes referred to as Trump’s real chief of staff. But Hannity was unable to sustain his success, and though he remains at Fox, he was eventually eclipsed by Carlson.
A second-tier Fox star of the Obama years was Glenn Beck, a shouty and excitable host whose rise seemed to threaten O’Reilly’s seat on the throne. He was pushed out in 2011, and though Beck’s career has continued since, his plan to challenge Fox’s supremacy with The Blaze came up short, and he’s never matched the relevance he had on Fox.
The original mastermind of Fox News was Roger Ailes, the veteran TV executive and former Richard Nixon aide who recognized the market for an avowedly right-wing channel. When Ailes was forced out in 2016 (also related to sexual misconduct), many liberals hoped that it would doom the channel. But Fox is still Fox—the leader in ratings and the center of conservatism.
More details about why Carlson is leaving will surely emerge soon. Though he was connected to the Dominion lawsuit, as well as to other defamation cases against the company, a more serious offender was Maria Bartiromo, who remains at Fox (at least for now). Carlson is also implicated in a lawsuit by Abby Grossberg, a former Fox producer who has claimed that she experienced an appalling work environment while working on Carlson’s show. The Washington Post reported that Carlson’s messages criticizing Fox’s top leadership “played a role in his departure,” and his political ambitions and his penchant for dishing to reporters could easily have created tensions with bosses.
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.