At Fox News' annual upfronts presentation on Monday afternoon, executives will try to book the bulk of their ads for the next year. Their implicit argument will surely be that major brands are safe to advertise with the network after it got rid of former star host Tucker Carlson, an incendiary demagogue, even as Fox’s ratings sag in the wake of his departure.
This talking point is a lie: Carlson is gone, but Fox remains committed to the toxic propaganda that made him its biggest star. And over the next year, the network will surely double down on Carlson-style invective in hopes of rebuilding its audience.
Just one month ago, Fox agreed to pay the largest known media defamation settlement in U.S. history to Dominion Voting Systems, which had sued the network for $1.6 billion. The settlement allowed Fox to avoid the trial — but the filings in the case revealed internal Fox communications that would destroy the reputation of any normal news outlet.
The Dominion lawsuit irrevocably proved that Fox operated as a propaganda outlet for the GOP and its head, former President Donald Trump. It showed how Fox, out of desperation to maintain ratings, became a conduit for Trumpian lies about election fraud — even though the network’s top executives (and in some cases the hosts themselves) acknowledged that no substantial fraud had occurred. And the internal emails produced in the suit further revealed that Fox Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch repeatedly instructed Fox News president Suzanne Scott to use the network’s resources to bolster Republican political candidates.
Carlson was among the Fox hosts named in the Dominion lawsuit for promoting lies about the company, but other key figures like Maria Bartiromo and Jeanine Pirro remain in place or have even been promoted in the interceding years. And Fox’s leadership team is intact, headed by Murdoch, who will surely take a heavy hand in using the network for partisan political gain as the 2024 elections near.
The Dominion filings also reveal how Fox’s brass and its most influential hosts tried to crack down on “news side” staff whose coverage was insufficiently supportive of Trump. A new report from The Daily Beast adds detail to that story based on previously redacted text messages from the suit. The November 19, 2020, texts show Carlson and his executive producer fuming over a Fox Instagram post based on a FoxNews.com story they saw as critical of the then-president.
“We’re not going to succeed if this continues,” Carlson texted. “The brand will be too damaged. We should jump on a couple of examples just to send a clear message. Let’s start with this one. Can we find out who did this?” He later added, “Fox needs to hire someone to make sure our ‘news’ coverage is right down the middle and fair. Like today.”
Fox reshaped its “news side” to the liking of its biggest star — and those changes remain intact. Two months after Carlson sent that text, the network laid off 16 digital staffers in what Fox insiders called a “purge” of its “real journalists.” Over the following year, Fox hired at least nine editors who previously worked for the Trump administration, Republican campaign offices, or Republican politicians. Fox also replaced “news” hours with “opinion” ones and saw longtime stalwarts leave the network and publicly denounce it.
Carlson’s departure won’t clean up the network’s “opinion side” either. His firing removed from the network’s airwaves a bigoted demagogue with a passion for promoting white nationalist conspiracy theories and mainstreaming far-right extremists. But it has also triggered a collapse of Fox’s ratings, as longtime viewers turn away from the network in light of his removal and rivals turn on it. And that ratings slump comes at a terrible time for Fox, while it is trying to renegotiate contracts with major cable carriers and make the case for even higher fees.
To win back those viewers, Fox will need to feed them Carlson-style bigotry and lies — and there are plenty of people left on the payroll with long records of delivering just that. Make no mistake: That’s what Fox’s advertisers will be paying to support.