How is that the biggest media story of the decade — the settlement of Dominion Voting Systems’ defamation suit against Fox News for what appears to be an unprecedented sum of $787.5 million — has been displaced by reporting on the wicked things Tucker Carlson expressed off-camera?
The April 24 firing of Carlson, Fox News’ prime-time ratings king almost immediately crowded the April 18 settlement out of the news as reporters competed to determine why he’d gotten the ax. The stories, which consumed a weeklong media flurry, picked up again on Tuesday evening as the New York Times published its story about a text message by Carlson, harvested in the lawsuit’s discovery process but redacted, that allegedly unnerved the Fox board of directors and “contributed to a chain of events that ultimately led to Mr. Carlson’s firing.”
It could be the case that Carlson’s comments, which included the observation that a 3-on-1 beatdown is “not how white men fight,” was instrumental in the host’s sacking. But on inspection, the Times piece and a similar Washington Post story that followed suggest that the Carlson pile-on (which he deserves) is less about breaking news and more about crisis management by Fox. If that’s the case, the strategy is working magic. Almost nobody is talking about the shoddy journalism Fox produced to help advance the “stolen election” lie and its lack of public contrition for the role it played in helping foment the Jan. 6 insurrection. They’re talking about Carlson’s off-camera trash talk, much of which only echoes in more profane and pungent terms what he’s said on his show or in interviews.
The point of this inquiry isn’t to provide Carlson any relief — he deserves all the scrutiny his firing has brought him — but to examine the motives of the unnamed sources who have risen against him in recent days. Why have so many powerful actors chosen this moment to slag Carlson, when none of the behaviors described clash with the way he’s carried on for years? One possibility is that people who are working for Fox have assembled a PR campaign to discredit the network’s former star that will throw the press pack off doing additional coverage on the Dominion case. It’s like a fighter jet releasing a flare to fool an enemy’s heat-seeking missile. Why theorize in this direction? Because the story that’s currently being put out there just doesn’t add up.
According to the Times and the Post, the Fox board got spooked when it saw the unredacted message (Exhibit 276 from the case) in which Carlson texted about his reaction to the beating of a purported Antifa member. Writes the Times, “The text alarmed the Fox board, which saw the message a day before Fox was set to defend itself against Dominion Voting Systems before a jury. The board grew concerned that the message could become public at trial when Mr. Carlson was on the stand, creating a sensational and damaging moment that would raise broader questions about the company.”
Why should this text message “alarm” the Fox board, which includes Rupert Murdoch, Lachlan Murdoch, William A. Burck, Chase Carey, Anne Dias, Roland A. Hernandez, Jacques Nasser and Paul Ryan, when Carlson routinely said much more inflammatory things on his program? Perhaps the board has never tuned in to hear Carlson’s gems about the “great replacement theory” or about immigrants making the country “poorer, and dirtier and more divided” or know about his blatant white nationalist sentiments or viewed the episode in which he argued the January 6 Capitol riot was a largely peaceful demonstration. Perhaps board members missed these salient facts about Carlson because they don’t even own televisions. This might explain why their hair turned white when they read what was, by Carlson standards, a fairly anodyne text. But who wants to give the board this sort of slack?
You can believe the board was troubled by the Carlson text, and you can believe that Fox might have fretted about the board-ordered investigation of Carlson that the Times reports, without taking the leap that the board was intervening at this late date to limit Fox’s exposure in the Dominion case. As the Times piece itself reported, “It was not guaranteed that the text would have been revealed in open court.” That sounds right. As juicy as Exhibit 276 might be, it doesn’t have any immediate relevance to the Dominion case, so why would Dominion lawyers, who assembled a wealth of damning stuff pertinent to their case, wander off the fairway into the rough with the Carlson comment?
Additionally, even though Carlson permitted stolen-election claims to be aired on his show, he was not the worst offender at Fox. Lou Dobbs, Maria Bartiromo and Jeanine Pirro broadcast more of the claims, something Fox mogul Rupert Murdoch admitted. It’s not apparent at all that Carlson was the prime focus of Fox’s legal worries in the Dominion case. (Though he faced specific exposure in a separate workplace harassment case filed by a woman who had formerly worked on his show.) So can we really believe that his firing was connected to the Dominion case when Fox hosts like Pirro and Bartiromo still work for the network?
No evidence exists that proves the extended coverage of Carlson is designed to move the discussion off of Fox and onto its erstwhile anchor. But the steady flow of leaked material — including the Times and Post stories as well as a series of embarrassing off-air recordings uncovered by the activist site Media Matters for America — point to the possibility of an after-the-firing campaign to make Carlson the personification of the network’s rot when the infection goes much deeper.
People connected to the Fox case might be leaking information on Carlson to burn him before he burns them. If that’s true, they should beware. As Ben Smith wrote in his Times column in June 2021, Carlson has been a good source for political reporters in the past. “It’s so unknown in the general public how much he plays both sides,” one unnamed reporter for a prominent publication told Smith.
Dominion vs. Fox may have been settled, but Fox vs. Carlson will rage on.
Name your anonymous sources in an email to [email protected] No new email alert subscriptions are being honored at this time. My Twitter feed wants to leak. I haven’t visited my Mastodon and Post accounts in weeks. My Substack Notes account is not worth following. My RSS feed wants to be sued.