Tucker Carlson, Fox News’ most influential prime-time star, announced on Monday that he would be taking on a bigger role at the network. Carlson claimed that he was discussing with Fox executives what he described as plans to “expand the amount of reporting and analysis we do in this hour across other parts of the company.” He told his viewers that “the people who run Fox News want more of it, not less.”
They are already getting it -- at the expense of the network’s putative “straight news” programs. In the two days following Carlson’s announcement, those shows aired clips from his nightly “opinion” show at least 14 times. Fox “news” anchors and correspondents have incorporated clips from Carlson or his guests into packaged reports; used them as the jumping off point for panel discussions; and featured them in news briefs.
This drastic change in Fox’s typical programming habits suggests that the wall between the “news” and “opinion” side -- often touted by the network’s executives and defenders -- has become increasingly permeable. Carlson effectively served as Fox’s assignment editor over the last two days, with the network’s purportedly independent “news” side adopting his story selection and framing.
Fox executives know that Carlson is not a credible source for “news” content. The network lawyers won a court case by convincing a judge that no “reasonable viewer” should take him seriously. He’s also a notorious demagogue, particularly on issues related to diversity and the coronavirus pandemic, and his “anti-Black rhetoric” has reportedly led to confrontations between the network brass and its Black employees.
But Carlson’s heightened profile during Fox’s “news” hours comes as the network tries to stave off far-right competitors by promoting its right-wing prime-time hosts. Over the last week, Fox “news” shows have featured on-screen promos, advertisements, and the equivalent of live ad reads for Carlson and his prime-time colleagues, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, Fox’s “news” programs aired clips from those three “opinion” shows at least 17 times. Wednesday’s edition of the morning show America’s Newsroom was effectively a show about the previous night’s prime-time lineup, accounting for a whopping 10 of the segments over its three hours. Of those, seven came from Tucker Carlson Tonight, two from The Ingraham Angle, and one from Hannity.
Tucker Carlson Tonight clips were also featured twice on the Tuesday edition of America’s Newsroom, once each that night on the flagship evening broadcast Special Report with Bret Baier and late-night show Fox News @ Night, and three times on Wednesday’s Outnumbered Overtime.
Fox is deploying its “opinion” shows during its “news” hours in two ways, airing both comments from the monologues of their prime-time “opinion” hosts and remarks from their guests.
Clips from the monologues of the prime-time “opinion” hosts accounted for five of the “news” side segments, four of which came on Wednesday’s America’s Newsroom, which separately highlighted all three of the hosts. These segments show Fox treating its employees as de facto newsmakers whose opinions are inherently worth providing the network’s audience during its “news” hours. It’s also a way of giving those viewers more access to their favorite pro-Trump personalities -- lest they change the channel to one of Fox’s competitors.
Chief breaking news correspondent Trace Gallagher, for example, anchored a news brief on Wednesday’s America’s Newsroom that seemed to have little purpose other than to tell viewers what Carlson thinks about coronavirus restrictions.
Gallagher highlighted new limitations on private indoor gatherings that some Democratic governors have rolled out to slow the spread of the coronavirus during the Thanksgiving holiday and commented, “Tucker Carlson blasting the new measures.” He then aired a clip of Carlson saying on Tuesday night’s show, “Politicians have now decided they have total power over you. They can literally decide who comes to Thanksgiving dinner at your house and where they can stand. Well that's lunatic; it’s never happened in American history before." After pointing to some sheriffs who say they won’t enforce the measures, Gallagher concluded the segment.
Twelve of the “news” segments, by contrast, featured clips of guests on Carlson’s show. Conservative guests could already expect softball treatment from Carlson when talking about the prime-time host’s particular grievances, like trans youth or the perfidy of social media companies. Now, their talking points are also driving and framing additional coverage on the network's “news” programs.
On Wednesday’s America’s Newsroom, for example, anchor Sandra Smith repeatedly aired comments that Tootie Smith, the incoming Republican chair of the board of commissioners of Clackamas County, Oregon, made on Carlson’s show the previous night attacking Gov. Kate Brown for tightening restrictions due to the coronavirus’s nationwide surge, including by limiting private gatherings.
“You look at what’s happening in Oregon, with this incoming Republican chair slamming these new COVID rules,” the Fox anchor said during one of the segments. She then aired a video of the Republican telling Carlson that Brown’s actions were “a travesty” and “hypocrisy” because the governor was going to “send the police into people's homes and arrest them and fine them for having a Thanksgiving meal with their family.”
That’s an overtly partisan and deeply questionable claim -- while violators of Brown’s order could technically face jail time, the same set of penalties applied to violators of her stay-at-home order in March, and “authorities said at the time that they intended to inform people about the laws rather [than] issue punishments, and it’s not clear those penalties were ever applied.”
Carlson didn’t push back of course, because he’s deeply invested in poisoning the well for any efforts to prevent mass death from coronavirus -- which is the same reason he decided to give airtime to a county official who had a viral social media post in the first place. And Fox’s “news” side decided to prioritize her comments from Carlson’s “opinion” show and air them unchallenged, rather than highlighting an expert voice who could have provided insight into how to stay safe during the holiday.
Despite Fox's best efforts, the United States will soon be transitioning to a Democratic administration -- and the network is sending every signal that it intends to respond by allowing its craziest elements to run the show, influencing the network’s programming well beyond their own timeslots.