Tucker Carlson was the engine that made the modern incarnation of Fox News run. And on Monday, suddenly and without warning, that engine was switched off.
“FOX News Media and Tucker Carlson have agreed to part ways,” the network announced in a press release that stunned media observers. Notably, Carlson will not appear again on Fox to say goodbye to his viewers and go out on his own terms. According to the network, his last show was Friday; it concluded without indication that it was his Fox finale.
Carlson’s departure is great news for America.
He was the country's foremost purveyor of white supremacist talking points, pushing the conspiracy theories that inspired massacres from El Paso, Texas, to Buffalo, New York. He was the nation’s most prominent anti-vaxxer, running a brutally effective campaign against public efforts to vaccinate Americans against COVID-19. And his lies and deceptions following the January 6 insurrection helped foil the potential for a consensus against the violent storming of the U.S. Capitol. He worked to radicalize the Republican Party in the direction of its most dangerous, authoritarian elements.
The country is vastly better off without his demagogic voice reaching through the television screens to millions of Americans every weeknight.
But his unexpected departure leaves his former employer in a difficult position. The move comes just days after Fox received another blow through its massive Dominion settlement, a payout the company hoped to defray by jacking up its cable carrier fees and attracting new advertisers. Now the network goes into those carrier negotiations and advertiser upfronts with a vacancy in what is traditionally its most prominent time slot.
Carlson has been the face of the network since at least the 2020 election, with executives counting on his personal connection to viewers to keep them coming back as former President Donald Trump receded from the national stage. He used that opportunity to focus the network (and through it, the GOP) on his own particular obsessions, like the “great replacement” conspiracy theory, anti-trans invective, and support for authoritarian regimes in Russia and Hungary.
As of this morning, he may have become the most powerful host in Fox’s history: He not only got his own heavily promoted streaming shows and carte blanche to radicalize his viewers, but he also succeeded in driving away network employees who dissented from his dark vision for the network.
Fox has announced that Carlson’s 8 p.m. program will become “an interim show helmed by rotating FOX News personalities until a new host is named.” The content maw must be fed, and there is surely no shortage of right-wing bomb-throwers who will leap at the opportunity to occupy the time slot. But at this particular moment, Fox needs to send two opposing signals at the same time. The network needs viewers to think that it remains committed to the same style of irresponsible bigotry and conspiracy theories that had them tuning in for Carlson’s show. But they also must convince cable carriers and advertisers that Fox is a responsible partner.
With the loss of its top star and still reeling from the blow of the largest known media settlement in history, Fox is weakened and in chaos, vulnerable both to threats to its business model from cable news carriers and to competitors seeking to carve off some of its market share. Time to throw them an anvil.