Tucker Carlson’s Departure is a Chance to Re-Orient Fox News towards an Actual News Service – Tucker Carlson, the prominent and controversial talk show host at Fox News, has been fired. Or, as the press release explained, “mutually parted ways.” The nice way of saying the same thing.
So what happened? The debate over the cause of his release is extensive. Carlson is a counterpuncher, like his friend, former President Donald Trump. Carlson will likely release an aggressive statement soon.
Carlson was extremely controversial, but he was also Fox’s top-rated host. He pulled in far more viewers than Fox’s other hosts, much less competing hosts on CNN and MSNBC. It is remarkable for Fox to release him at the peak of his drawing power and on the cusp of an American presidential election which will once again include Trump. Carlson must have done something extraordinary.
Carlson’s Divisive Legacy
But it is Carlson’s inflammatory rhetoric for which he will be most remembered.
Carlson routinely trafficked in conspiracy theories, particularly about the Trumpist insurrection on Capitol Hill on January 6, 2021, and about covid vaccines. The former fit Carlson’s ideology, so it was perhaps understandable (albeit still unforgiveable: Carlson called the rioters ‘sight-seekers’).
But anti-vaxxism was the province of the new age left before covid. There is no obvious reason why vaccine-rejection fit American conservative ideology. Indeed, the greatest achievement of Trump’s presidency was Operation Warp-speed – the accelerated government effort to develop, approve, and distribute an anti-covid vaccine. Yet Carlson promoted vaccine skepticism relentlessly. He, perhaps more than any other figure, is responsible for mainstreaming vaccine skepticism in Republican politics.
Tucker Carlson was also notorious for his racial trolling. Carlson’s programs were drenched in racial imagery and relentlessly hyped notions like the ‘great replacement’ – that non-white immigration into the United States was a ‘globalist’ plot to replace American whites with foreigners. He also name-checked George Soros – a Jewish financier – on a regular basis in what likely an anti-semitic dog-whistle. And his presentation of crime in US was similarly racially loaded. Indeed, Carlson never noted that US crime rates have been in secular decline since peaking in 1993, or that gun violence is much worse in red states with their permissive gun ownership laws.
Can Fox Turn a Corner?
Fox has long been a deeply toxic voice in American politics. Indeed, there is a reasonable argument that it is heavily responsible for the radicalization of American conservatism – culminating in the January 6, 2021 semi-coup – over the last three decades. Frequently that is pinned on Trump, but Trump is more a product of Fox than a driver of it. Trump’s politics were long ill-defined. He donated to Democrats in the past and seems driven mainly by his narcissism. What Trump realized in 2015 when he first declared for the presidency is that Fox had groomed, for two decades, a vast, culturally resentful electorate waiting for its tribune.
Fortunately, Carlson’s departure, on top of the recent Fox lawsuit settlement with the voting machine company Dominion, opens a window to change the network’s culture. Fox could be more like a traditional news service. It could, for example, separate its talent from direct participation in US party politics. It could also dramatically improve the quality of the analysts the network employs. Pundits from right-wing websites and services often provide topical analysis with no particular subject-matter credentials. This is acute for foreign policy, where Fox frequently deploys ex-military or former Republican administration officials with no actual country expertise. And most obviously, the network could balance its extremely partisan presentation with competing voices. If nothing else, normalization would begin with pulling back from the racial signaling which has come to characterize the network in the Trump era.
But this turn is unlikely. Fox has carved out a distinct, profitable niche of propaganda-cum-news for hard-right conservatives looking for their views and anxieties to be ratified. The discovery process in the Dominion lawsuit revealed Fox executives openly fearful of the network telling the truth about the 2020 election, because its viewers would defect to even more extreme alternatives.
At Least Choose Someone Less Nasty than Tucker Carlson
Instead, Fox will likely fill Carlson’s prime, 8 pm slot with someone similar. Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity, Fox’s other two major nighttime hosts, are obvious choices. Or perhaps one of the networks lesser-known voices like Jesse Waters. But Fox does have hosts who are a bit less toxic, such as Bret Baier. We can only hope the network will choose a less destructive voice.