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Tucker Fallout

Rupert Murdoch May Have Blown His Tucker Succession Plan

The mogul may regret waiting this long to cut Carlson loose.

Jason Reed/Getty Images
Fox News head Rupert Murdoch

It is possible—and there are many corners of the internet where it is believed to be very likely—that Tucker Carlson was sent packing from Fox News on Monday for reasons that are so heinous that, when they are ultimately revealed, his career may never recover. It is certainly true that few of the explanations being proffered for his dismissal are particularly compelling. And none come close to answering the central mystery of Carlson’s departure: Why was he so abruptly and unceremoniously let go?

Maybe I’m being naïve—or, God forbid, sympathetic to Tucker Carlson! But if I’ve learned (or perhaps overlearned) one lesson of the Trump era, it’s that not everything that comes crashing into the news cycle is necessarily as bombastic or conspiratorial as it at first appears. Rather, it is the result of fallible and often foolish people making snap decisions whose potential consequences they can hardly comprehend. In any case, where Carlson is concerned, I’m skeptical that a dead girl or a live boy will show up anytime soon.

The most likely explanation for Carlson’s firing is the simplest: that Fox News honcho Rupert Murdoch saw his opportunity to strike down the one host he felt he couldn’t control—and the one who most clearly represented an ongoing liability to the network—and he took that opportunity. There are some fairly obvious reasons why Murdoch would want to take Carlson down now, not least of which was the public disclosure of the prime-time host’s pointed criticisms of the network’s management.

What isn’t clear, however, is if Murdoch has any plans for how the network will respond when Donald Trump once again takes control of the narrative on the right as the Republican presidential front-runner and likely nominee. Murdoch’s position could soon get more complicated, not less. For all of Carlson’s celebrated antipathy toward Trump—a secret loathing that the Dominion lawsuit dragged into public view—the host was the primary force dragging the network’s audience into Trumpism. If Murdoch wanted a clean break from all of this and to pivot the cable channel’s focus in the direction of a successor, such as Ron DeSantis, he may regret not cutting Carlson loose before Trump began his big swing back to prominence.

Based upon what we know now, Carlson was struck down by a kind of legal pincer movement—or at least he found himself in the blast zone of two lawsuits against Fox News. In one of those suits, brought by vote machine–maker Dominion Voting Systems, Carlson is not exactly a central player: He was hardly the network’s most boisterous promoter of the absurd idea that Donald Trump was the victim of a massive conspiracy to rob him of a second term as U.S. president. He was, nevertheless, a major source of embarrassment. Texts found in pretrial discovery revealed that Carlson was a fraud and a hypocrite who secretly loathed Trump. He was also disloyal: In countless texts he ranted about Fox’s leaders, describing them as feckless and incompetent. In the lead-up to the trial—which was averted by a nearly $800 million settlement—there were reports that Dominion had even more Carlson texts. It’s not hard to believe that many of those also were about his disgust with his bosses.

Another lawsuit is said to have played a part in Carlson’s exit too, per multiple reports. In that complaint, brought by Abby Grossberg—who alleges she was fired from the network after refusing to give false testimony in the Dominion suit—the former Fox producer argues that Carlson’s workplace was antisemitic and deeply misogynistic. Moved to Carlson’s program from one hosted by Maria Bartiromo, Grossberg discovered that “she had merely traded in one overtly misogynistic work environment for an even crueler one—this time, one where unprofessionalism reigned supreme, and the staff’s distaste and disdain for women infiltrated almost every workday decision.” None of this, if you know anything about Carlson’s history—or indeed have simply watched his show—is particularly surprising.

Since his emergence as Fox’s star commentator (he hosted the show’s second-highest-rated program, behind the inane panel show The Five, which he also sometimes guests on), Carlson has been the host most prone to controversy, typically over his overt use of white nationalist tropes. Carlson may have largely toed the line on the 2020 election—though he has repeatedly questioned its legitimacy—but it was clear that Fox leadership had little control over him, particularly compared to other broadcasters like Sean Hannity.

Given the outstanding lawsuits still out there—aside from Grossberg’s, there is another multibillion-dollar suit pending from Smartmatic, another voting technology company, focused on Fox’s coverage of the 2020 election—it’s not so outrageous to suggest that Carlson was rightly deemed an ongoing risk factor. The Dominion and Grossberg suits served as a pretext to cut him loose, with the full knowledge that he could be replaced by someone just as bombastic but slightly more controllable. “One minute he’s swimming along with a smile, and then snap! There’s blood in the water. Your head’s gone,” said one Murdoch journalist who was quoted by Harold Evans—who himself was canned by the Australian mogul—in a 1981 memoir. This is simply how Murdoch operates.

Carlson was, moreover, an impediment to Murdoch’s larger goal, which is to use Fox News to influence the Republican Party. As Semafor’s Ben Smith wrote in a compelling piece, “He wasn’t interested in helping the Republican Party decide, much less helping it win. He was feeding the anger and alienation of viewers who wanted to burn the whole thing down. He directed their anger at Republican politicians who crossed him, and elected Republicans set their policy by his broadcasts to avoid his wrath.” As Smith goes on to note, Carlson had no interest whatsoever in using that power “constructively” or “for the good of the party”; nor was he particularly interested in many of its long-standing ideological projects. Again, he was a liability.

But all of this leads to another question: What exactly is Murdoch’s plan? What will Fox News do when Donald Trump begins pressuring the network to adopt any number of insane and obviously false claims? This is not a possibility—it’s an inevitability, and it’s one that will once again put the network under strain.

One of the ironies of the decision to defenestrate Carlson now is that Murdoch’s intervention in the network’s operations is coming too late for Ron DeSantis, whom the Australian’s media empire had been attempting to crown as Trump’s successor. DeSantis has been hobbled, thanks in part to Donald Trump’s arrest returning him to the spotlight and the Florida governor’s own world-historical lack of charisma. Murdoch has taken away Carlson, who has done a great deal to make the GOP beholden to racists and weirdos. But the simple truth remains that Carlson’s power nevertheless largely came from two places: his perch at Fox News and his eagerness to feed voters activated by Donald Trump a raw diet of racism and cultural grievance.

While diminished, Trump has made some steady work over the past few weeks to reassume the mantle that had largely been snatched from him after he lost the presidency: He is the Republican Party’s primary source of energy, its most important thought leader. He will, moreover, act against anyone he even perceives as challenging his power. He’s been back on the come-up even as DeSantis has ebbed—it’s as if Trump is draining his life force. It’s not clear that there’s anything Murdoch can do about that. But the larger problem remains: Tucker Carlson may be gone, but the pressures to make the network Trumpier are back and building exponentially. Rupert Murdoch waited too long to make his reset. Now he’s stuck.