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25 April 2023

What’s next for Fox News – and Tucker Carlson?

Fox News won’t become a bastion of journalistic integrity just because it’s lost its leading host.

By James Ball

When Tucker Carlson ended his nightly news show on Fox News last Friday, he did so with a mouthful of pizza, a promotion for his online documentary Let Them Eat Bugs and a promise to the viewers that he’d see them on Monday. It was not a moment any broadcaster would choose for their final one on a network – let alone the network’s leading host, a man with three million viewers an evening, making him Fox News’s single most important asset.

And yet Tucker Carlson’s Fox News career is over. The decision is reported to have come from Rupert Murdoch, the owner of Fox News, himself, with almost no one at the network even in the loop. Carlson was being shown the door even as the channel ran promotions for his show for Monday evening.

Carlson’s sacking prompted a rare moment of jubilation for liberals in the US – and internationally. Even by the standards of Fox News anchors, Carlson flirted regularly with racism and conspiracy theories – often combining the two. His show would frequently promote the “Great Replacement” to his millions of viewers. This is a shockingly racist conspiracy theory born in France, suggesting that Muslim countries are deliberately sending people to Europe and America to become the majority population of Western countries.

He had also been one of the more enthusiastic anchors on the network in throwing doubt on the authenticity of the January 6 riot attacks on the US Capitol. He obtained thousands of hours of security footage from Kevin McCarthy, the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, and used misleading excerpts of it to suggest the riot was nothing other than a peaceful protest.

Carlson was an immensely valuable asset to Fox News. He hosted its prime-time 8pm show, brought in its largest audience, had the highest name recognition, and had a direct line to Donald Trump. His firing shows no one is indispensable to the Murdochs – but the reason for his departure is contested.

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Last week Fox News paid Dominion Voting Systems $787m to settle a lawsuit related to the network’s coverage of the 2020 election, in which it broadcast baseless claims that voting machines had been intentionally manipulated to help steal the election from Trump. But Carlson was not the main promoter of these falsehoods. The reason for his departure is instead said to relate either to disparaging comments about senior management by Carlson that emerged during the lawsuit, or to a pending lawsuit by Abby Grossberg, a former producer on his show, alleging sex discrimination and anti-Semitism.

Few people expect Fox News to suddenly become a bastion of journalistic integrity following Carlson’s departure, but it may signal a high point for the channel’s influence. The temporary replacement of Carlson’s news hour with rotating hosts is unlikely to attract as many viewers or to be able to push messages as vitriolic as his. The huge cost of the Dominion Voting Systems settlement will probably also encourage caution. Fox News makes much of its money through “carriage fees” – revenue from cable subscription providers, which it gets whether subscribers watch or not – and it has just lost leverage in renewing them. There is a chance that this moment sucks some of the toxicity out of the US’s most dangerous news network.

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The bigger question is perhaps what happens next for Tucker Carlson. Bill O’Reilly, Fox News’s former star anchor, all but disappeared after being forced out amid sexual harassment allegations. He tried to start an independent channel but struggled to find an audience. Carlson has a bigger draw and better timing – he could and probably will start something from the studio in his home in Maine, and it will probably be even more toxic than what he put out on Fox News. The question everyone, including him, will be asking is whether or not it will find his old audience.

[See also: The unexpected folly of prosecuting Donald Trump]

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