It is a truism of the US news industry that no one is bigger than the network itself, an insight that Donald Trump – binned by Rupert Murdoch last year – may still be painfully processing, and which this week became suddenly clear to Tucker Carlson.
The former cable news host, who, it was announced on Monday, had “agreed to part ways” with the network, has hired an aggressive Hollywood lawyer – and in line with the preferred volume of the man generally, seems unlikely to go quietly. Even as the share price at Fox dropped in response to the news, wiping $500m (£400m) off its value in apparent flattery of Carlson, the question remains pertinent as to how much he, and those like him, matter as individuals.
If you are looking to fill a spare five minutes, it is an enjoyable thought experiment to rank in order of sheer flesh-crawling hideousness some of Fox News’s fallen stars. Where does Carlson place, for example, compared with Glenn Beck, the former Fox personality who, prior to his dismissal in 2011, had a shot at the title of America’s most awful man? Or Bill O’Reilly, a man who was given the boot in 2017 after news surfaced that the company had paid up to $13m in settlements to women accusing him of sexual harassment?
For a while, a sense has prevailed that these former giants – add to the list the former Fox News head Roger Ailes, ousted in 2016 in the wake of sexual harassment allegations – have been banished from frontline positions, and the hope prospers that Carlson might be among the last. The fact he has lasted this long, and the likely reasons for his departure, however, point in another direction.
For my money, Carlson – who is presently the subject of his own lawsuit, brought by Abby Grossberg, a senior producer who alleges he was responsible for creating a misogynist and hostile work environment – edges out even O’Reilly for pure anti-charisma. If O’Reilly was gross in a standard Fox News style, in Carlson’s case it was his very blandness, the Tintin hair and look of perpetual confusion, that made him more objectionable than all of his predecessors.
It is always fascinating to consider the tipping point at which behaviour previously tolerated by Fox becomes suddenly intolerable to the company – and for Carlson, it seems unlikely it’s the Grossberg lawsuit. It might not even be his role in fanning the flames of the January 6 riot that has just cost the company $787.5m in settlement money to shut down the lawsuit brought by Dominion Voting Systems.
Had it gone to trial, Carlson would surely have been a liability, given the way he encouraged viewers to regard the presidential election as rigged. At the same time, behind the scenes, he was lambasting Trump’s lawyers for selling a line to the public that Carlson himself seems not to have believed. “You’ve convinced them that Trump will win,” he wrote to an attorney for Trump in November 2020. “If you don’t have conclusive evidence of fraud at that scale, it’s a cruel and reckless thing to keep saying.”
More irksome to his employers, however, might have been his off-the-cuff comments about Trump at a time when Fox officially still backed the former president. In early January 2021, in an exchange with members of his staff, Carlson wrote: “We are very, very close to being able to ignore Trump most nights. I truly can’t wait,” and: “I hate him passionately.”
I dare say Murdoch hated Trump, too, at that point, but for a network like Fox, it is dangerous to show the workings of the sausage machine too closely. There comes a point where the gap between the true feelings of network bosses and the line they are selling to viewers becomes so large that even those at the back who aren’t paying attention may catch a whiff of the true venality of the operation.
The most surprising thing to have come out since Carlson’s departure, however, is the breakdown in viewing figures. At the time of his ousting, Carlson was the highest rated cable news host in the US, pulling in more than 3 million viewers nightly. By contrast, Chris Hayes over on MSNBC attracts around 1.3 million viewers and Anderson Cooper, the most boring man on television, scores around 700,000 on CNN in that time slot.
These are decent figures. But dig down into the details, and among viewers aged between 25 and 54 – the most attractive demographic – Carlson hovered around the 330,000 mark. This is more than his rivals, for sure, but is still a tiny number of people relative to the sheer amount of oxygen this man has taken up over the last five years.
He will write a book. He’ll launch a podcast. He may accept a flippantly offered $25m job opportunity from the far-right news channel OAN. As with his predecessors, the memory of Carlson will fade quickly to irrelevance as we’re reminded it’s the platform that pulls the strings, not the person. Someone equally odious will replace him.
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