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Marginal Man

Fox News and Tucker Carlson Are Both Losing

Tucker has a new show—on Twitter. Fox News is shedding its audience. Without one another, the struggle is real.

Janos Kummer/Getty Images
Tucker Carlson speaking in Victor Orbán’s Hungary in 2022

Tucker Carlson is back—sort of. On Tuesday, the former Fox host took to Twitter in a big way, publishing a video in which he announced a new program … launching on Twitter. The details of this new venture were scarce, though Carlson said he was working with members of his former Fox News staff. Outside of that, there’s been no word about what format the show would take or when it would launch.

But if Carlson’s announcement is any guide, some things will remain consistent—there will be some vague railing against elites, some made-up outrages, and a heavy dose of what’s long been Carlson’s central theme, which is that he is the only person able and willing to tell the truth about the American predicament. (The predicament is that you will be murdered by an undocumented immigrant in the near future.) He also launched a new website featuring a photograph of himself holding a shotgun with the caption “Tucker is back”—so you know that he really is back.

Except he might not be. This latest video missive, like all of Carlson’s post-Fox material, has the feel of a hostage video, albeit one made by someone who may have dropped out of NYU’s film school after a semester and a half. Carlson doesn’t really say anything that gives you confidence in the solidity of this plan. This isn’t particularly new: His whole schtick is built on rhetorical games that demand lots of sinister hand-waving but contain little of substance. The message, it seems, is not really for his viewers—his new audience of blue-check weirdos who flock to every Elon Musk post—but rather for his old bosses at Fox News.

Fox News has been hemorrhaging viewers since Carlson left the network. This was undoubtedly something that was anticipated when the surprise decision to let him go was made, but it’s possible that Fox’s executives underestimated the extent of the damage. Rupert Murdoch, along with his son and heir apparent, Lachlan, have long taken the view that the network is bigger than any of its talent and that everyone is fundamentally replaceable. Moreover, there have been signs of resilience: Fox News has, after all, weathered another tempestuous but ultimately short-lived mutiny from its audience that arose after it (correctly but prematurely) called Arizona for Joe Biden during the 2020 election. Its viewers left, and then they returned. But at the moment, ratings have collapsed to lows not seen since before the September 11 terrorist attacks. This gives Carlson some small amount of leverage. He’s using it with his Twitter show.

As Vanity Fair’s Brian Stelter writes in a typically perceptive piece published on Wednesday, Carlson is still under contract at Fox. That means that the network could, theoretically, try to muzzle him. This Twitter show, in this context, is a provocation. Carlson knows the network is bleeding viewers. He’s threatening to add to their pain by giving his audience what they want. (What they want is Tucker Carlson tilting his head and asking, “Is this really who we are? A country where the Pillsbury Dough Boy is woke?”) If Fox tries to enforce the contract and prevent this Twitter show from doing whatever the Twitter equivalent of “airing” is, it would be a coup for Carlson, only boosting his credibility on the right. If Fox does nothing, then it risks the possibility that Carlson juices its ongoing decline.

On Tuesday, moreover, Carlson’s attorney also delivered a letter to Fox News accusing the network of breach of contract and asking it to preserve documents. A lawsuit may well be in the offing. In any case, the letter and the show both exist for the same purpose: to remind Fox News that Tucker Carlson isn’t going anywhere and that he will happily be a thorn in its side until he gets what he wants. (It’s not clear what that is.)

It’s a clever gambit and, for Carlson, theoretically a win-win. But beneath the back-and-forth, the folderol exposes a larger weakness of his position. Carlson’s audience is still a Fox audience, even if they’re tuning out what’s happening in his old time slot—Fox has not yet shown any signs of finding a permanent replacement and has instead trotted out a series of dull guest hosts. Still, Carlson now has nowhere to go, which is how he ended up on Twitter. (To be fair, this is how most people end up on Twitter.) The other networks won’t have him. Going to Newsmax or some other Johnny-come-lately Fox News competitor is too risky—if he doesn’t bring his audience with him, something that is far from guaranteed, he would look like a failure and a flop. He should be above podcasts and YouTube (he’s not)—but those spaces are crowded and Tucker would be competing with a lot of people who have already entrenched their perches and who either already sound a lot like him or who are even more radical.

Why Twitter? Mostly because it’s there—the first available porthole in a storm. When the show was first announced, it was widely assumed that Elon Musk had greased the wheels in some way to land him. That may be the case, but Musk has strenuously denied that Carlson is being paid for his show. Nevertheless, the decision to launch on Twitter is its own kind of provocation. For one thing, it shows Tucker’s deep commitment to owning the libs. But it also gives him another potential sparring partner in Musk, should Carlson run afoul of whatever little remains of the platform’s tattered policies on hate speech and offensive content.

Twitter is not a good platform for hosting a television show, for obvious reasons—the biggest being that users don’t go to Twitter to watch long videos. They go there to aimlessly scroll from one distraction to the next. It’s not a long-term solution for Carlson. But it may not be intended as one—he’s just doing this to ratchet up the pressure on Fox News, after all. And yet it’s really not clear what the endgame is here. It’s possible that this really is just a big bet on Tucker Carlson: that he believes he can command a big audience on his own and that Elon Musk’s janky Twitter, which breaks every 40 minutes, is the place to do it. If that isn’t the case, however, Carlson doesn’t have very many good options outside of somehow returning to Fox News, which seems highly unlikely. Without his built-in audience, he remains diminished and in the wilderness. And he’ll miss Fox’s marketing might: The competition is just much tougher now that he’s outside the wire.

But Fox may emerge from this episode vastly diminished as well. Their best bet is to find a suitable replacement quickly who can win back a big chunk of Carlson’s audience—even if replicating his particular magic (turning stories like “I saw litter on my commute” into dystopian metaphors about America’s hellish descent into multiculturalism) may be impossible. It is very possible that both sides in this conflict lose in the end. They may end up losing no matter what happens. That, of course, is the best-case scenario: one in which neither Tucker Carlson nor Fox News gets what they want.