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Why Tucker Carlson was a problem for Fox News

We don’t yet know why he and Fox abruptly parted ways, but his fast--and-loose style and huge stature were a toxic mix in our new post-Dominion era

Now-former Fox News personality Tucker Carlson speaks at a 2017 Business Insider conference. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)
6 min

We don’t yet know precisely why Tucker Carlson and Fox News abruptly parted ways on Monday. But both the terseness of the network’s announcement and the timing of it — so shortly after Fox News reached a $787.5 million settlement with Dominion Voting Systems in its defamation lawsuit — are difficult to ignore.

Fox in 2021 canceled the highest-rated Fox Business Network show — that of perhaps its most far-flung election truther, Lou Dobbs — just a day after another voting technology company filed suit. Now it’s cutting ties with its highest-rated Fox News host less than a week after it had to fork over a huge amount of money over its shoddy journalism.

A few days after the Dominion settlement, Washington Post contributing columnist Jim Geraghty ventured this “hard lesson” over at the National Review: “It is unlikely that networks like Fox News can afford to keep loose-cannon hosts anymore.”

Regardless of the reasons for his departure, it’s very clear that Carlson fits that description.

Carlson was clearly the most powerful Fox host and likely the most powerful TV journalist in the country. And he used that power to flout journalistic standards and operate in ways that created demonstrable problems for Fox — and could create problems in a future environment created by the Dominion v. Fox suit.

Five years ago, it was what Carlson said about two women who’d said they had affairs with Donald Trump: Karen McDougal and Stormy Daniels. “Two women approach Donald Trump and threaten to ruin his career and humiliate his family if he doesn’t give them money,” Carlson summarized. “Now, that sounds like a classic case of extortion.” Except, despite Carlson’s calling these facts “undisputed,” McDougal had never approached Trump or his lawyer.

McDougal filed a defamation suit, which ultimately was dismissed — but not before Fox was forced to defend itself by effectively admitting that you can’t take Carlson’s factual claims at face value. Going on national TV and floating the idea that someone had committed a crime would seem to demand a more careful approach, but it wasn’t present.

Around the time of those 2018 comments, Carlson spooked advertisers by saying immigrants from poorer countries would make our country “dirtier” — and then declining to back off that. A similar controversy came again around the time the McDougal case was dismissed.

The problems and potential problems have come more into focus since then.

Unlike Dobbs, for example, Carlson wasn’t among the most prominent hosts pushing widespread-voter-fraud claims after the 2020 election. On the contrary, Carlson very publicly cast doubt on the voting-machine claims. But that last part actually wound up being an issue for Fox. In allowing a case brought by another voting technology company, Smartmatic, to move forward last year, the judge cited Carlson’s public skepticism of the claims to suggest that others at Fox might have known better or should have known better. The judge said it was actually the most important factor.

Morally and journalistically speaking, it was completely justified and correct for Carlson to point out that Trump-aligned lawyer Sidney Powell didn’t actually have the goods to back up her claims. But it was also discordant next to the rest of Fox’s coverage. Indeed, documents released in the Dominion case showed Fox bosses repeatedly trying to check presenters who cast doubt on the voter-fraud claims, which they viewed as harming the company’s business model. But Carlson stepped outside of that, casting a spotlight on how poorly others covered the issue.

More recently, this has taken the form of Carlson’s seemingly thumbing his nose at Fox’s growing legal jeopardy.

The stolen-election fever died down at Fox and in much of the Republican Party both before and after the 2022 election. But it lived on in one Fox show in particular: Carlson’s (despite Carlson’s past skepticism of Powell’s claims).

Even on the night of Feb. 16, mere hours after the first major revelations about Fox’s internal conduct in the Dominion case, Carlson gestured toward the idea that President Biden’s vote total in the 2020 election was unthinkable. Months earlier, he had described Biden as “a guy who was supremely confident in the effectiveness of voter fraud.”

None of these claims were as direct or specific as the ones at issue in the Dominion case — meaning we’re not talking about defamation lawsuit fodder — but again it seemed like Carlson was operating on an island.

Carlson has also, since 2021, been the most prominent proponent of a potentially more legally problematic effort: The one in which he strongly suggests that Jan. 6 figure Ray Epps was a government agent.

The fact that this conspiracy theory was featured on “60 Minutes” on Sunday, less than 24 hours before Carlson’s exit, is perhaps a coincidence. But Carlson’s handling of the theory dating back to mid-2021 has been wild. His initial, broader theory about government agent-provocateurs was based on a complete misreading of government documents. Most recently, Carlson accused Epps of lying to investigators and even seemed to have fun with the situation. Before he invoked Epps personally, he said that he still assumed agent-provocateurs were present on Jan. 6 but that he wouldn’t show their faces. “That would be irresponsible,” Carlson said.

Epps last month signaled possible legal action against Carlson and Fox, requesting a retraction and apology for what his lawyers called “false and defamatory statements.” Carlson has yet to retract or apologize. Epps now tells “60 Minutes” he has been forced into hiding and has faced death threats.

Last, an actual lawsuit in which Carlson appears set to figure prominently is on the horizon. Abby Grossberg, a now-former Fox producer who worked on his show as well as Maria Bartiromo’s, sued Fox, alleging gender discrimination. In the suit, she also alleges that Fox’s lawyers coached her to give misleading testimony. She said this resulted in her saying she hadn’t witnessed Carlson using misogynistic language. “In truth, Ms. Grossberg knew full well that Mr. Carlson was very capable of using such disgusting language about women,” her lawsuit alleges.

These claims remain unproven, and Fox denies them. It has said Grossberg’s lawsuit is “riddled with false allegations against the network and our employees.”

But the texts unearthed in the Dominion case show Carlson privately using derogatory and vulgar gender-specific terms about Powell. And Grossberg’s lawsuit alleges a series of things involving Carlson’s staff that would seem unthinkable at a network that in recent years has shelled out large sums in the face of sexual misconduct and gender discrimination lawsuits and has seen prominent figures depart in those scandals.

We’ll surely learn more about what predated Carlson’s departure. What’s clear is that if there is a premium on deactivating loose cannons now, you could do worse than taking him off the air.