Tucker Carlson was once seen as untouchable. Now the most popular TV host on American cable news is at the center of a firestorm threatening to engulf Fox News and also anger Donald Trump, whose conspiracy theory-laden political cause he has long championed and who his audience loves.
Court filings attached to the $1.6bn Dominion Voting Systems defamation suit accuse Fox News of allowing its stars to broadcast false accusations about rigged voting machines in the 2020 presidential election.
The documents contained numerous emails detailing the private views and concerns of senior Fox management and its stars, which often seemed at odds with what they were publicly broadcasting to their audience.
While anchors Lou Dobbs and Maria Bartiromo have been singled out for pushing false claims of a fraudulent election, the fallout has landed primarily on Carlson.
In group chats obtained by Dominion, the network’s biggest names – Carlson, Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity – appeared to doubt claims of election fraud that were featured prominently on the network. At the same time, Fox’s owner, Rupert Murdoch, said in a court deposition that anyone who knowingly allowed lies to be broadcast “should be reprimanded, maybe got rid of”.
So far, Fox is standing by its stars. On Thursday, Lachlan Murdoch, Murdoch’s eldest son, heir apparent and executive chairman and chief executive of Fox Corporation, voiced support for management, its roster of stars and backed Fox New’s editorial standards.
“A news organization has an obligation – and it is an obligation – to report news fulsomely, wholesomely and without fear or favor. That’s what Fox News has always done and that’s what Fox News will always do,” he said.
That might not wash with many observers and media critics. But probably of equal concern, especially for Carlson, are some of the private opinions voiced about Trump. The Dominion lawsuit revealed a text from Carlson declaring: “I hate him passionately.”
Nor is that the only political fight Carlson became mired in last week. Carlson was directly criticized by the White House deputy press secretary, Andrew Bates, for describing the January 6 rioters as “orderly and meek … sightseers” as he began broadcasting footage from the insurrection handed to him by Republican House speaker Kevin McCarthy.
Ironically, news of Carlson’s antipathy for Trump broke around the same time the ex-president was praising Carlson as doing a “great job” in his presentation of Capitol security video.
Many people – including some Republicans – reacted with outrage to Carlson’s broadcasts, which chimed with a broader far-right push in the US to recast the January 6 attack on the Capitol as an overly enthusiastic demonstration and the hundreds of people jailed for it as political prisoners.
The White House, Bates said, “agrees with the chief of the Capitol police and the wide range of bipartisan lawmakers who have condemned this false depiction of the unprecedented, violent attack on our constitution and the rule of law – which cost police officers their lives”.
The Guardian contacted Fox for comment but received no reply.
Carlson, for his part, has been unapologetic. He claimed the clips offered “conclusive” evidence that Democrats and the select committee that organized last year’s January 6 hearings misinformed the public about what had taken place.
Some experts see the current crises at the network as serious, as it seeks to keep a Trump-loving audience glued to its screens – no matter the cost, and no matter what its executives privately think.
“They feel that they have to appease a certain audience they’ve trained to expect a certain kind of information flow. And at the same they see that if you take it too far, you risk serious legal and financial liability – to say nothing of embarrassment that comes when internal communications are exposed,” said Bill Grueskin, a faculty professor at Columbia Journalism School.
The news-opinion formula worked for Fox News through the Trump presidency, but in the aftermath of Trump’s election fraud claims and the Capitol riot, it is starting to show signs of strain, Grueskin said.
If Fox managers and anchors doubted Trump’s election fraud claims and went along with them to maintain ratings dominance, particularly over other emerging rightwing outlets, their anxieties were confirmed when Fox News viewers fled after it declared Arizona for Joe Biden.
“The Murdochs think about this almost exclusively in terms of ratings, audience and money,” said Grueskin. “If they were concerned about Tucker Carlson’s truthfulness, they might have done something about this months or years ago.”
And they might be right. After Dominion filed internal Fox News communications last month viewership rose by 2.4%, compared with total viewership for the first full week of February.
More so, Carlson likes controversy. He remains hugely powerful, and may be beyond the reach or will of the organization to rein in. He has survived controversies over racist comments and his embracing of tenets of white nationalism.
Fox News primetime anchors, particularly Carlson and Hannity, exert so much power in that organization that even the Murdochs have to dance around it, Grueskin said.
“It goes beyond Tucker Carlson,” he says. “Rupert Murdoch may be the smartest media person in the world, but you can’t fix this problem they’ve created for themselves.”
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