People who remember Fox News host Tucker Carlson as a bow-tied creature of establishment Washington often wonder what happened to him. Twenty years ago, he was a preppy Beltway habitué and impishly libertarian magazine writer; a wryly affectionate account of Al Sharpton in Liberia that he wrote for Esquire was nominated for a National Magazine Award. Now he’s the sneering, conspiracy-obsessed host of what The New York Times called possibly “the most racist show in the history of cable news.”
As The Times wrote, there’s a long-running debate about “whether Mr. Carlson’s show is merely lucrative theater or an expression of his true values.” By most accounts, Carlson shares Donald Trump’s deep cultural resentments. But as an explosive new court filing in Dominion Voting Systems’ defamation lawsuit against Fox News demonstrates, in trying to explain why Carlson and many of his colleagues do what they do, we shouldn’t underestimate simple greed.
The brief, a motion for summary judgment in a case stemming from Fox’s egregiously false claims of Dominion-abetted election fraud, offers a portrait of extravagant cynicism. It reveals how obsessed Carlson and other leading Fox News figures were with audience share, and their fear of being outflanked by even further-right outlets like Newsmax.
“It’s remarkable how weak ratings make good journalists do bad things,” Bill Sammon, a Fox senior vice president until 2021, is quoted as saying. It’s a line that would fall flat on “Succession” because it’s too absurdly on the nose.
As the Dominion filing lays out, there was panic at Fox News over viewer backlash to the network correctly calling Arizona for Joe Biden on election night. Despite its accuracy, the call was viewed, internally, as a catastrophe.
“Do the executives understand how much credibility and trust we’ve lost with our audience?” Carlson texted his producer. He added, “An alternative like Newsmax could be devastating to us.” Sean Hannity, in an exchange with fellow hosts Carlson and Laura Ingraham, fretted about the “incalculable” damage the Arizona projection did to the Fox News brand and worried about a competitor emerging: “Serious $$ with serious distribution could be a real problem.”
Hyping false claims about election fraud was a way for Fox to win its audience back. While the Arizona call was “damaging,” Fox News C.E.O. Suzanne Scott wrote in a text to Fox executive Lachlan Murdoch, Rupert Murdoch’s son, “We will highlight our stars and plant flags letting the viewers know we hear them and respect them.”
When Fox News reporter Jacqui Heinrich fact-checked Trump’s wild claims about Dominion on Twitter, Carlson was enraged and tried to get her fired. “It needs to stop immediately, like tonight,” he texted Hannity. “It’s measurably hurting the company. The stock price is down. Not a joke.” (Heinrich kept her job but deleted the tweet.)
The network knew, of course, that Trump’s lawyer Sidney Powell, a chief promoter of Dominion conspiracy theories, was a delusional fantasist. The legal brief reveals that some of her claims about Dominion were based on an email Powell had received from someone who claimed to be capable of “time travel in a semiconscious state.” On Nov. 18, 2020, Carlson told Ingraham: “Sidney Powell is lying by the way. Caught her. It’s insane.” Ingraham wrote back that Powell was a “complete nut.”
But according to the Dominion brief, an analysis by Ron Mitchell, the senior vice president for prime-time programming and analytics, found that “Fox viewers were switching the channel specifically to watch Sidney Powell as a guest” on Newsmax. A few days after this analysis, Powell was a guest on Hannity’s show.
At one point, Carlson did express skepticism of Powell on-air, noting on Nov. 19 that she had never produced evidence for her claims. “Maybe Sidney Powell will come forward soon with details on exactly how this happened, and precisely who did it,” he said, adding, “We are certainly hopeful that she will.”
Even this gentle note of doubt produced viewer pushback, though most of a message about it from Fox executive Raj Shah is redacted. Afterward, Carlson seems to have given up trying to steer his audience away from total credulity about Trump’s stolen election claims, even though he privately called Trump a “demonic force.” On Jan. 26, Carlson hosted MyPillow founder Mike Lindell on his show and let him sound off about Dominion without resistance. In fairness, Carlson may have had a motive for indulging Lindell besides grubbing for ratings. As Media Matters for America pointed out, MyPillow at the time was Carlson’s single biggest advertiser.
It’s certainly true that all cable news shows program with ratings in mind. MSNBC — where, full disclosure, I’m a contributor — pays much closer attention to various Trump scandals than to climate change or the war in Ukraine because it’s catering to its audience. But there is no analogue for the way Fox treats its viewers.
In addition to MSNBC, in the past I’ve appeared a number of times on CNN. Sometimes hosts are a little saltier when the cameras aren’t rolling, but I don’t recall ever hearing any daylight between the views they express on-air and off. Fox News is unique in its bad faith.
“Respecting this audience whether we agree or not is critical,” Hannity texted on Nov. 24. It’s a version of respect indistinguishable from contempt.
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