It was not immediately apparent that host Tucker Carlson would prove triumphant at the start of his on-air feud with then-colleague Shepard Smith in September 2019. Smith had been present for the launch of Fox News and rose to chief news anchor and managing editor of the breaking news desk over his more than 20 years at the network. An award-winning journalist with a facts-first approach, Smith gave Fox executives a much-needed example to point to while making the case that the network was more than Donald Trump’s propaganda arm.
But just a few weeks later, Smith abruptly resigned. Having found no support from the network’s brass following Carlson’s sarcastic mockery, Smith stunned his colleagues by announcing his immediate departure at the end of his daily broadcast.
It was a sign of things to come.
Eighteen months later, no one doubts Tucker Carlson’s preeminent position at Fox.
Carlson hosts the network’s highest-rated show in its premiere time slot. But his role at Fox is much greater than that of his predecessor Bill O’Reilly, long described as the King of Cable News. As Carlson’s bigotry triggered a series of scandals, his patrons, Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch, effectively responded by not only defending but further raising his profile.
Carlson’s face became a ubiquitous presence on the network following the 2020 election. Fox began frequently injecting Carlson’s commentary into programs up and down the network lineup; since November, the network has aired clips from his shows in at least 134 weekday segments on other programs, and he’s made a dozen guest appearances. And earlier this year, he became the linchpin of Fox Nation, Fox’s streaming service. His new show airs three times a week, and the week it premiered, Fox gave him more than nine and a half hours of promotion on other programs.
Carlson's incendiary rhetoric triggered an advertiser exodus from his program years ago; blue-chip companies had largely abandoned Tucker Carlson Tonight by late 2018. But he is now so thoroughly integrated into Fox’s programming and strategy that advertisers on the network’s other programs can’t hope to fully separate their brands from his.
And that’s very dangerous for them. As he rose to the top of Fox, Carlson became a frequent mainstreamer of blood-soaked white supremacist conspiracy theories; the nation’s most prominent skeptic of the coronavirus vaccine; a shaper of Republican politics who aimed to maximize the party’s cruelty toward immigrants, Black people, and the trans community; and a prominent voice fanning the flames of violent right-wing extremism.
Carlson is now the face of Fox, inseparable from the rest of the network by its design.
Unrestrained extremism with a huge national audience
At the height of his fame as a co-host of CNN’s Crossfire in 2003, Carlson proclaimed that it was “hard to imagine” him ever taking a job at Fox, calling its commentators “a mean, sick group of people.” But Jon Stewart’s decimation of Carlson and his show the following year sent the program into a tailspin from which it never recovered, and Carlson’s subsequent turns as host at PBS and MSNBC were short-lived. By 2009, reduced to a national punchline, Carlson signed on as a Fox contributor.
At the time, Carlson said that he would do “whatever they want me to do” at the network. And over the next seven years, he did just that, embodying the network’s typical mix of bigotry and propaganda while serving as a political talking head, guest-hosting for the network’s A-listers, and warming the seats of the Curvy Couch as a co-host of Fox & Friends’ weekend broadcasts.
When Carlson wasn’t at the network’s studios, he kept busy doing conspiracy-minded guest spots on Alex Jones’ InfoWars, engaging in casually racist and misogynistic commentary in regular appearances on the shock-jock Bubba the Love Sponge Show radio show, and building up The Daily Caller, a right-wing digital outlet he co-founded in 2010 that developed a thorny habit of employing and publishing white nationalists.
But in September 2016, Carlson got his big break when a rare slot in what had been the most consistent evening lineup in cable news opened up. The Murdochs had forced out Fox founder Roger Ailes over the summer as his long history as a sexual predator became public. When longtime Fox host Greta Van Susteren tried to leverage the situation to get a raise, she enraged Rupert Murdoch, who promptly fired her, CNN’s Brian Stelter reported in his book, Hoax. “Within hours,” Stelter added, “Rupert reached out to weekend host Tucker Carlson about taking over her time slot after the election.”
Carlson had been pulled from the C-list to take a prominent role in a network that was retooling for Donald Trump’s presidency. His show launched in Van Susteren’s 7 p.m. time slot that November, but he benefited from continued and unprecedented churn at Fox in the early months of the Trump administration. In January 2017, after Megyn Kelly jumped to NBC, he took over her superior 9 p.m. time slot. When O’Reilly’s history of sexual harassment settlements became public and Fox defenestrated him that April, Carlson slid into the premier hour in cable news.
A white supremacist favorite
Carlson regularly promotes white supremacist themes, talking points, and figures. It’s not just Media Matters saying that: White supremacists themselves regularly champion his program. They say outright that he is mainstreaming their ideas -- against racial diversity and immigration and in favor of white anxiety -- to his massive audience.
You used to have to go to the likes of the neo-Nazi website Stormfront to hear that global elites are directing an immigrant “invasion” from underdeveloped countries that is making the U.S. “poorer and dirtier” because they want to “replace the current electorate” and enact “demographic change.” Now you can turn on your television and get all of that from watching the most popular program on cable news.
An unhinged Covid-19 conspiracy theorist
In March 2020, as the coronavirus spread across the U.S., Carlson drew praise for successfully convincing Trump to take the virus seriously, however briefly. But the Fox host soon pivoted to dangerously reckless coverage of the virus.
Since then, Carlson has promoted untested anti-malarial drugs; prematurely declared the worst of the pandemic was over; championed protests against coronavirus mitigation efforts; baselessly suggested the U.S. death toll may have been exaggerated; mocked warnings of future casualties; denounced public health measures and the scientists who supported them; and helped turn face masks into a culture war flashpoint. He’s turned over his platform to a series of coronavirus charlatans and crackpots, including notorious COVID-19 crank Alex Berenson, whom he’s hosted 33 times since March 2020.
In recent days, Carlson has become the nation’s most prominent skeptic of the coronavirus vaccines. He has spent months denouncing the effort to get the public vaccinated and insinuating that the drugs may not be safe or effective and that scientists who say otherwise are “lying” (he now falsely claims that he “never for a minute doubted” that the vaccines work and “never questioned” them). At a time when Republicans are disproportionately likely to say they won’t get vaccinated, Carlson’s rhetoric can have a deadly impact.
A GOP radicalizer
When Carlson speaks, Republican politicians listen. And that means that his demagoguery can spill over into federal policy. Carlson’s influence was particularly apparent under Trump’s administration, as the Fox-obsessed president responded to his program by changing U.S. foreign and domestic objectives and making bigoted campaign appeals to white suburbanites.
But Carlson’s influence extends beyond Trump, as he uses his program as a cudgel to push the GOP to adopt his cruel worldview. When some Republican politicians responded to police killings of Black Americans by expressing support for Black Lives Matter and calling for legislative efforts against police brutality, Carlson lashed out at them as capitulators who were betraying their voters, helping to end the party’s push and usher in a wave of GOP bills that would punish protesters. He has savaged GOP governors who refuse to sign maximally cruel bills denying trans youth access to gender-affirming medical care and sports. And his increased support for the white nationalist “replacement” conspiracy theory has Republican officeholders increasingly dipping their toes into those vile waters as well.
A champion for violent right-wing extremism
In the months leading up to the 2020 election, Carlson told his audience that “Joe Biden's voters really are a threat to you and your family,” while celebrating Kyle Rittenhouse’s lethal pro-Trump vigilantism as a natural effort to “maintain order when no one else would.” At the same time, he prepped his audience to treat a Trump defeat as a left-wing coup, in which Democrats had “manipulate[d] the results,” and warned that if they succeeded, “the people who've taken over the Democratic Party” would ban the First Amendment, smear their political opponents as white supremacists, and imprison them for hate speech. When Trump lost, Carlson claimed that the election was “not fair,” aiding the president’s effort to overturn the results based on baseless claims of massive voter fraud.
This stew of apocalyptic rhetoric, echoed by Trump and throughout the right-wing media, came to a head on January 6, when pro-Trump forces overwhelmed law enforcement and invaded the Capitol to try to prevent the transition of power. Since then, Carlson has relentlessly lied to his viewers to minimize those events, mocking the notion that the sacking of the Capitol constituted an “insurrection” and denying the involvement of QAnon conspiracy theorists, Proud Boys, and white nationalists. He’s used that alternate reality to tell his viewers that their lives and freedoms are endangered by the Democratic response that he claims constitutes a “new war against our own population.” In the days since, he’s presented an apocalyptic portrait of the future, in which the “abrupt change” the Democrats are supposedly pushing forces the right to support fascism.
Carlson’s toxic rhetoric triggered an advertiser exodus from his program as blue-chip companies desperately sought to avoid tarnishing their brands by association. At present, his commercial blocks are primarily composed of spots for a right-wing conspiracy theorist’s pillow company and Fox house ads.
And Fox’s lawyers are similarly wary of Carlson’s unhinged commentary. Last year, they successfully got a court to dismiss a case accusing Carlson of slander by arguing that no “reasonable viewer” would assume that what the Fox host says on his program is true.
But none of this has seriously impeded Carlson’s rise, because the Murdochs have backed him at every turn. They plucked him from the network’s ash heap, repeatedly promoted him, and -- as he repeatedly embroiled the network in controversy with his bigoted, xenophobic conspiracy theories -- stood behind him both publicly and privately. It’s no wonder that Carlson once said he was “100%” Rupert Murdoch’s “bitch.”
The closest Carlson has come to facing consequences was in July 2020, when his head writer was forced out following the revelation that he regularly posted crudely bigoted comments on internet message boards. But Carlson himself went unscathed; he issued a furious attack on his critics, took a brief vacation, then returned to promoting rhetoric just as noxious as his former employee’s posts.
In April, Carlson again ignited controversy when he promoted the white supremacist conspiracy theory that “the Democratic Party is trying to replace the current electorate, the voters now casting ballots, with new people, more obedient voters from the Third World.” White supremacists were thrilled, while the Anti-Defamation League called for his firing.
But Lachlan Murdoch ensured that the Jews would not replace him. Murdoch swiftly issued a statement dismissing the ADL’s complaint, claiming that Carlson had actually “decried and rejected replacement theory.” This was manifestly false, and hours after Murdoch’s statement Carlson devoted a lengthy monologue to reiterating that Democrats are promoting “demographic change” to further their political ambitions.
With Carlson’s billionaire bosses behind him, these controversies will continue unabated. And they are all the more damaging to Fox’s advertisers because they are no longer limited to Carlson’s own program.
The broken compact with advertisers
Fox was in trouble in the wake of the 2020 election. Trump’s call for supporters to switch to cable news competitors like NewsMax and One America News, which he considered more supportive of his plot to remain in office following his defeat, jeopardized its decades-long stranglehold on its audience.
Soon after, Carlson announced the network’s strategy for fending off these rivals: more Tucker Carlson. “This show's not going anywhere,” he told his viewers on November 17. “It's getting bigger. The people who run Fox News want more of it, not less, and we’re grateful for that.”
Indeed, as the network’s executives were negotiating an expanded role for Carlson at Fox, the network started incorporating his commentary into programs up and down the Fox lineup. Purported “straight news” anchors, supposedly independent from the right-wing “opinion” side, began regularly running clips from Carlson and his prime-time colleagues during their own shows.
Fox has aired clips from Carlson’s shows in at least 134 weekday segments on other network programs since November 1, a roughly daily rate, according to a Media Matters review; 93 of those segments came during Fox’s purported “news” shows.
Carlson is now effectively Fox’s assignment editor. His monologues have become the jumping-off point for debate, as network hosts ask their guests to respond to his nightly rants. Clips from his show are cited as news events in their own right.
Meanwhile, Fox’s dayside programs have become littered with ads for Carlson’s show, frequently promoting him and his prime-time colleagues with on-screen graphics.
Carlson himself has begun showing up on other programs as well. He’s made 12 guest appearances on other Fox shows since November, after not making a single one in the previous year.
This is a crucial shift in Fox operations. For years, the network’s executives assuaged nervous advertisers by saying that they could advertise on Fox’s “straight news” shows and avoid the potential branding calamities caused by the right-wing commentators on the “opinion side.”
But to preserve their viewership after the election debacle, the Fox brass sold out their advertisers. No matter what shows advertisers support, they are now associating their brands with the network’s worst excesses.
Carlson’s commentary is now so central to Fox programming that it is impossible to avoid him. And in the early days of the Biden administration, he has become even more important to its business strategy.
Streaming strategy linchpin
The 2018 launch of Fox Nation, Fox’s streaming service, was inauspicious. It was as if Fox’s executives had not figured out what they wanted from its content before they activated the service. The lineup was a fractured collection of monologues and panel shows hosted by network B-listers, bizarre passion projects from Fox stars, specials with a seemingly marginal audience, and infomercials for Trump properties.
But the network executives had a key and as-yet-unused asset: Tucker Carlson. And in February they exercised it, signing him to a multiyear streaming deal. He now hosts Tucker Carlson Today, a thrice-weekly “video podcast” in which he conducts longer interviews, as well as one-off Tucker Carlson Presents specials.
Carlson is now the linchpin of Fox Nation. To get a sense of how central he is, consider that the website offers a series of verticals for different topics -- and one labeled “Tucker Carlson.” His program is the first one the website highlights.
The strategy is very obvious: Fox’s brass knows that Carlson is popular with its audience, and they are using his exclusive content on the website to get viewers to shell out $5.99 a month for access.
Notably, the direct payment structure of streaming gives Fox a way to monetize Carlson when advertisers won’t. But the show provides more risk for the network’s other properties.
Fox heavily promoted Carlson the week that Tucker Carlson Today launched. The network featured him in promotional efforts for a total of nine and a half hours, between clips of the host, commercials for his new show, promo bugs that appeared in the corner of the screen featuring him, and a series of promotional appearances Carlson made on other Fox programs. Nearly four and a half hours of that time came on the network’s supposed “news” shows.
Carlson’s guest appearances, in particular, created the same problems for advertisers that Carlson’s program did -- it was on Fox News Primetime, for instance, that he made his comments about the replacement conspiracy theory. Blue-chip advertisers who had already abandoned his show over similar comments were paying for him to make them on a different program where they had likely been assured they wouldn’t face the same problems.
Meanwhile, Tucker Carlson Today is every bit as unhinged as Tucker Carlson Tonight. Carlson has used the program to claim that feminists are “one hundred percent miserable” and “on the brink of suicide”; describe trans people as “a challenge to the perpetuation of the species”; promote ludicrous defenses of anti-vaxxers; and zero in on Amanda Gorman, the 23-year-old poet who recited at Biden’s inauguration.
He is only going to get worse -- and now he has more time and a bigger platform to do so.
Time to choose
Fox has engaged in a deliberate strategy to make its brand inseparable from Carlson’s. The network should pay a price for that.
Advertisers who support the network are now indirectly -- and at times directly -- supporting Carlson’s vile rhetoric.
Media buyers should remember that when Fox tries to pitch them on ads at the upfronts later this month.
If they continue to support Carlson, they own the results.