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Tucker Carlson’s News of the World moment

If yesterday—“The craziest day in cable news history,” as Brian Stelter put it—had a Zelig, it was Vivek Ramaswamy, the longshot Republican presidential candidate campaigning on an anti-woke agenda, particularly where corporate governance is concerned. Yesterday morning, Fox News aired teasers for a planned discussion that night between Ramaswamy and Tucker Carlson; hours later, Carlson had been ousted from Fox. Not long after that, we learned that another titan of the cable landscape, CNN’s Don Lemon, was out, too. In his case, a series of recent controversies—not least allegations of misogynistic behavior—would seem to be at issue, though the New York Times also reported that a combative interview he conducted with Ramaswamy last week “exasperated” his bosses. (Another Zelig candidate? The entertainment lawyer Bryan Freedman, whom Carlson and Lemon have reportedly both now retained.)

Throw in the exit of Jeff Shell—who was fired as CEO of NBCUniversal on Sunday following a sexual-harassment complaint against him (Ramaswamy doesn’t feature anywhere in Shell’s story that I can find; please write to me if you know differently)—and it was a seismic forty-eight hours for the TV business that affected every major cable-news network, with the treatment of women as an apparent common thread. (More on how that applies in Carlson’s case in a moment.) The three departures were all significant and dramatic; Lemon and CNN sparred publicly over the circumstances of his termination. But the ouster of Carlson was clearly seen as the most consequential development given his huge influence over right-wing media and politics, and the takes they quickly did floweth. (“Tucker Carlson, a terrible individual, leaves Fox News”; “Tucker Carlson Just Got Canceled. As in, his show actually got canceled.”)

Carlson’s exit instantly became one of those stories that was too big for the media not to talk about, even as what had actually happened was unclear. That remains the case, though some details have dripped out since the news broke. Fox’s statement announcing Carlson’s departure cast it as mutual, but it’s now clear that he was fired: according to various reports, Suzanne Scott, the CEO of Fox News, and Lachlan Murdoch, the CEO of Fox Corporation, came to the decision on Friday night—according to the LA Times, Rupert Murdoch was directly involved, too—and Carlson was reportedly as shocked by it as everyone else, having expected an imminent, long-term renewal of his contract. It’s not clear that even Carlson knows why he was fired, though various media reporters have suggested that the decision was linked to the recent Dominion defamation case against Fox—Carlson was not legally central to the case, but his private messages disparaging everyone from Donald Trump to his own colleagues came to light during discovery, with Fox executives having seen other messages that were publicly redacted—and/or legal action brought against Fox by Abby Grossberg, a former producer who, in addition to allegations about Fox’s handling of the Dominion case, has claimed that Carlson’s show fostered a sexist and otherwise toxic workplace environment. (Fox denies these claims.)

For now, the circumstances of Carlson’s exit invite more questions than answers. Uncertainty also surrounds two important, future-facing questions: as a Washington Post headline put it, “Now what for Tucker Carlson? Now what for Fox News?” To take these in reverse order, we know that a rotating cast of hosts, starting with Brian Kilmeade, will fill Carlson’s slot for now, though its permanent occupant is not yet known. In theory, Carlson’s exit could herald a change of tone at Fox, though this seems, erm, unlikely. There’s also the question as to whether Carlson’s high ratings will hold up, though as various commentators noted yesterday, Fox has successfully replaced popular hosts before, with the network itself proving bigger than any one individual. Fox hosts, Politico’s Jack Shafer argued, 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.” The Atlantic’s David A. Graham predicted that Fox will simply replace Carlson with someone even worse.

This vein of commentary—with which I generally agree—sometimes gestured at the ancillary assumption that Carlson, like other ousted hosts before him, will struggle for oxygen without the outsize platform afforded by Fox. Maybe so, but if anyone seems well-equipped to defy these odds, it’s Carlson, not because he’s likely to land somewhere comparably bigtime—the offers that have already publicly come in for him from One America News Network and the Russian state-TV network RT say more about what Carlson is willing to say on air than the likelihood of him joining either—but because, in today’s media landscape, big names have more opportunities than ever to thrive independently. Either way, he will assuredly be just fine. (The fact that, per the Journal, Fox will pay off his twenty-million-dollar-a-year contract will help.)

While we’ll have to wait and see what happens next, some takeaways from Carlson’s exit have already swum into view. His ouster reminded me, above all, of Rupert Murdoch’s decision to shutter the News of the World in the aftermath of the phone-hacking scandal that shook his media empire in the UK in 2011. As with Carlson, the News of the World had a huge audience; as with Carlson’s exit, its shuttering was a huge surprise that reverberated across the media landscape. But—as I wrote recently in a newsletter comparing the broader hacking scandal to the Fox-Dominion case—the aftershocks were less seismic; Murdoch launched a Sunday edition of The Sun to fill the gap, and retained his power within the British media and political firmament. In a certain light, both the News of the World and Carlson decisions start to look a little like “dead cats”—a political strategy, honed in Murdoch’s native Australia and adoptive UK, whereby a scandal-plagued actor does something intentionally shocking to move the news cycle forward from a story (in the present case, the Dominion lawsuit) that is going horribly for them.

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Of course, there are caveats to this observation, not least that Carlson’s ouster is about the Dominion case and associated issues; beyond that, the Dominion and hacking scandals are not perfectly alike, and Murdoch himself may have changed in the intervening decade (as Semafor’s Max Tani reported yesterday). Still, Carlson’s ouster, like the shuttering of the News of the World, can at least be seen as a possible lightning rod for widespread fury about a broader moral rot—or a sacrifice that Murdoch can withstand without losing his deeper power. Again, we don’t yet, and may never, know the exact circumstances of Carlson’s exit; in their absence, any analysis carries an asterisk. Still, there is a much bigger picture here than any one newspaper or cable host, and at that level, some similarities seem clear. Fox, too, will assuredly be just fine.

None of this is to say that Carlson’s ouster is insignificant, or won’t change anything. Even by Fox’s standards, his show was extreme—maybe “the most racist show in the history of cable news,” as the Times put it last year—and it contributed to shaping the emerging ideology of the American right in ways that were at least slightly more distinctive than the boilerplate pro-Trump hagiography of some of his colleagues, while at the same time emerging as an influential platform for ambitious right-wing pretenders. Whoever succeeds Carlson might also, through sheer force of ratings, fulfill this latter function. Who knows, they may also steer the American right in some frightening new direction. But they will, if so, build on a xenophobic, authoritarian, and isolationist edifice of cultural grievance that Carlson personally has done much to build.

Last night, Ramaswamy—who became a regular guest on Carlson’s show in recent months, and even announced his presidential bid there—kept his appointment to appear in Carlson’s old timeslot, instead selling his campaign talking points to Kilmeade. At the same time, there’s something particularly Carlsonian about Ramaswamy’s specific, anti-woke pitch. In an interview with Politico yesterday, Ramaswamy lavished praise on Carlson, calling him “one of the great political thinkers and commentators of our time” amid “a thought leadership vacuum in political media.” Ramaswamy was also asked whether he thought Carlson should himself get into the presidential race. “I think it’d be good for the country,” he replied.

ICYMI: The Hacker

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

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