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Following Monday's announcement by Fox News that it had cut ties with Tucker Carlson, abruptly ending the primetime host’s tenure as the highest-rated star at the nation's most-watched news network — political experts are debating what the change will mean for Fox News’ role in the conservative movement.
Theories abound as to why Carlson, who was apparently unaware of Fox’s plans while hosting his final show last Friday, had such a hasty exit from the network. News reports suggest he may have been let go for fostering a toxic work environment, vulgar criticisms of Fox management, the way he talked about religion or yet-to-be-seen allegations included in a discrimination lawsuit filed by a former producer on his show. In a video posted to Twitter on Wednesday, Carlson lamented the “inherently ridiculous” nature of today’s political debate, but did not discuss his departure from Fox.
Whatever the reasons behind it, Carlson’s exit marks a dramatic change for Fox less than a week after the company agreed to pay $787 million to settle a lawsuit filed stemming from the many false claims made on the network about Dominion Voting Systems in the wake of the 2020 election.
Carlson joined Fox News in 2009 after stints as a commentator at CNN and MSNBC. He took over the network’s coveted 8 p.m. time slot in 2017 after the previous host Bill O’Reilly was forced out amid a series of sexual harassment allegations. While he wasn’t unique in his staunch support for former President Donald Trump, Carlson was frequently considered to be much more adept than his colleagues at tapping into the anger and racial grievance that motivates the Republican Party’s right-wing base.
Carlson’s massive ratings and ability to both follow and shape the GOP’s ideological direction made him one of the most influential conservatives in the country, as well as the target of intense criticism. The New York Times described him as promoting an “apocalyptic worldview” centered around “white panic” and “catastrophic views of immigration and the country’s shifting demographics.” He was also viewed, by both critics and far-right supporters, as serving as a kind of pipeline for extremist conspiracies — like the “great replacement” theory that white Americans are being systematically replaced by people of color for political purposes — to move from fringe online forums into the mainstream political discourse.
Emails released as part of the Dominion suit revealed that Carlson, along with several of his colleagues, knew the 2020 presidential election was not stolen, but promoted claims that it was. He also helmed a recent documentary about the Jan. 6 insurrection filled with flimsy or patently false assertions about the riot and who was responsible.
Why there’s debate
Many media experts say Carlson’s popularity was largely a result of the platform he was provided by Fox, one that his eventual replacement will likely be able to utilize to reach similar levels of influence. They point to once-popular former Fox News stars like O’Reilly, Glenn Beck and Megyn Kelly, who all exited without leaving much of a dent in the network’s viewership.
But others say Carlson may not be so easy to replace. They make the case that he possesses a unique ability to appeal to the grievances that rile up the GOP’s MAGA base — one that the next person to hold his time slot may try to mimic, but likely far less successfully. Some add that Carlson is leaving at a vulnerable time for Fox as it faces ongoing legal challenges, new far-right competitors Newsmax and the One America News Network, and the steady decline of cable television as a whole.
There is also disagreement over how Carlson’s absence will affect the content of Fox’s highly influential primetime lineup. A number of experts believe the network’s 8 p.m. hour, though still quintessentially Fox, will be less inflammatory than it was under Carlson. But some left-leaning commentators argue that Fox will have no choice but to ensure that Carlson’s replacement is even more extreme in order to satisfy its audience’s expectations.
For the time being, Fox News will use a rotating roster of hosts in Carlson’s old time slot. It’s unclear who might fill his position permanently. There’s also no indication of what Carlson himself might do next, whether it’s joining another conservative news organization, starting his own or even running for president.
Fox News will be just fine without him
“There is no doubt that Tucker Carlson represented a valuable contributor to the network, and likely he was the Fox News Channel MVP. But the drop-off with a substitute host is likely to be manageable in the coming weeks and months. … Fox News viewers like the particular hosts, but they love the overall tone, style, slant, and attitude of the network.” — Jim Geraghty, National Review
Carlson had a unique hold on the GOP base that will be hard to replicate
“Fox will be without the most dynamic host on its network. Some of the potential options to replace Carlson, such as Sean Hannity, are avatars of a stale, tired pre-Trump conservatism out of step with the movement's energy. Fox commands a huge audience for all of its primetime programming, but it's possible a substantial portion of Tucker's audience will sooner flee the network than watch his replacement.” — John Hirschauer, American Conservative
Fox has strong incentives to put a less inflammatory voice in Carlson’s place
“Given the price tag of getting out of the Dominion lawsuit and the defamation actions pending, it is hard to imagine Fox going for someone even more transgressive than Carlson in his time slot. … Here’s hoping Carlson’s departure will come to mark a pivot point toward less divisive, outrageous and polarizing primetime programming on Fox in this coming election year.” — David Zurawik, CNN
Carlson’s replacement could be even more dangerous
“When prior bogeymen for the left — people such as Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck — have been pushed out of Fox, the network has always found a new figure to replace them, while the hosts themselves have struggled to match their past success. There will be a new Tucker Carlson, and it’s a good bet he or she will be even worse.” — David A. Graham, The Atlantic
History has shown that even Fox’s biggest stars are replaceable
“The nighttime hosts, as talented as they are — and Beck, O’Reilly, Kelly and Carlson are among some of the most talented broadcasters to slop the makeup on and speak into the camera — are as replaceable as the members of the bubblegum group the Archies, as interchangeable as the actors who’ve played James Bond, as expendable as the gifted musicians who played lead guitar for the Yardbirds.” — Jack Shafer, Politico
Fox is weaker today than it was when previous big-name starts exited
“Whatever the reason, the move leaves Fox in an unusually vulnerable position. By cutting ties with its most prominent figure, Fox has exposed the weakness in its business model: The network’s viewers demand increasingly extreme and irresponsible content that its advertisers and other partners are loath to support. And Fox has revealed this flaw at the worst possible time for the channel.” — Matt Gertz, MSNBC
Carlson’s talent made him uniquely dangerous
“While the other Fox News hosts are hardly ornaments of American journalism, Tucker was a uniquely malign and toxic figure. He was worse because he was smarter. He was more dangerous because he knew what he was doing. He had an extraordinary aptitude for lying with malicious glee, for his chop-logic and bigotry, all delivered with a smirk.” — Charlie Sykes, The Bulwark
The pathway for fringe conspiracies to reach the mainstream has been broken
“Tucker was singularly skilled at mainstreaming white nationalist talking points and acting incredulous when anyone called him on it. But he mastered the steady drip. … No other show on TV behaves like this. There’s one less incentive to push these racist lies. They won’t reflect on TV anymore.” — Ben Collins, NBC reporter
Despite his ratings, Carlson was actually hurting Fox’s reputation and bottom line
“If you’re getting paid extravagantly, delivering replacement-level results, humiliating your boss on multiple fronts, and stirring up legal trouble for the business, you won’t last forever in your job. Maybe the real news today is that Tucker hung on as long as he did.” — Nick Catoggio, The Dispatch
Without Carlson, the network’s grip on the future of Republican politics will slip even further
“Carlson, more than other cable news hosts, found a younger audience to supplement the baby boomer foundation that (for now) keeps the Fox News enterprise in business, putting the very old in touch with the very online. … It’s unlikely that Carlson’s successor will embody the cultural realignment as fully, or reveal as much about the alienated future of American conservatism, as the man who just disappeared from Fox.” — Ross Douthat, New York Times
The network’s audience will force it to keep moving right
“Fox will get worse because Fox is the unchained id of the American right, and there exists no superego (the self-critical conscience) on the right to check it. This is very important for non-righties to understand. … Fox doesn’t have to care about mainstream credibility. It despises mainstream credibility. All it has to care about is its viewers, and to its viewers, mainstream credibility is right up there on the desirability meter with syphilis.” — Michael Tomasky, The New Republic
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