Fox News dropped Tucker Carlson, its controversial yet top-rated prime-time host, on Monday — a sudden and surprise parting with one of the most influential voices in Republican politics, who had helped define the network’s bombastic tone in the Trump era.
Though Carlson largely avoided trafficking in those specific conspiracy theories, his private messages were among thousands of internal communications made public during its progress through the courts that caused angst and embarrassment for Fox and heightened the company’s legal jeopardy.
More recently, Carlson’s staff culture had come under scrutiny, after a former booker for his show sued Fox News for discrimination, claiming that she endured sexist treatment while working for him, and messages revealed in the lawsuit showed Carlson referring to Sidney Powell, a female attorney affiliated with Donald Trump, as a “c---.”
But Carlson’s comments about Fox colleagues, as partly revealed in the Dominion case, also played a role in his departure, a person familiar with the company’s thinking told The Washington Post.
Dozens of communications from Carlson and other Fox personnel remain out of public view, redacted at the request of Fox attorneys, but they have been seen by top Fox executives. Others generated headlines when they were released this year with Dominion’s legal filings.
“Do the executives understand how much credibility and trust we’ve lost with our audience?” Carlson wrote to a colleague in a message a day after Fox, like other media outlets, called the election for Joe Biden. It was a sentiment echoed by others at Fox in the fall of 2020, when even network officials who rejected Trump’s election fraud conspiracy theories fretted that countering them strongly would alienate their conservative viewers.
In another message, Carlson referred to management with an expletive: “Those f-----s are destroying our credibility.” He later wrote: “A combination of incompetent liberals and top leadership with too much pride to back down is what’s happening.”
Carlson, who works from a remote studio in Maine, did not respond to repeated messages asking for comment on his departure — which came an hour before rival cable network CNN ousted longtime host Don Lemon.
The decision to drop Carlson was made Friday evening by Fox Corp. CEO Lachlan Murdoch and Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott, according to a person familiar with the decision who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive personnel matters.
The host himself, whose last appearance was Friday on his nightly show, only learned of his firing in a phone call Monday morning. He and his team had spent the weekend working on their plans for summer shows, according to a person familiar with the conversation who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid about internal matters. The network was still running promos for Carlson’s show Monday morning.
Notably, Carlson was not given a chance to say goodbye to the audience he had amassed in his years as a prime-time host. His executive producer, Justin Wells, is also leaving the network, according to a person familiar with the changes.
Fox said the 8 p.m. time slot, which Carlson has held since April 2017, will be filled on an interim basis by “rotating Fox News personalities until a new host is named.”
The news generated shock waves across the media. On ABC’s “The View,” whose mostly liberal hosts regard Carlson as something of a supervillain, Whoopi Goldberg’s announcement drew cheers from the studio audience. On Real America’s Voice, a right-wing streaming and cable channel, Donald Trump Jr. expressed shock over Fox’s decision but speculated about Carlson emerging as an even more powerful voice in GOP politics. “I’d love to see Tucker speak his mind — not that he doesn’t — with even fewer restraints on a platform where he’s not answering to the Paul Ryans and the Karl Roves,” the former president’s son said in a knowing reference to two more moderate Republicans: the former House speaker who now sits on Fox’s board and the veteran George W. Bush consultant who is a Fox contributor.
“I predict Tucker goes independent,” said Megyn Kelly, a former Fox host who now has a podcast and radio program. “Tucker launches a podcast or digital show and crushes it. Absolutely crushes it.”
Carlson, 53, first made his name in the 1990s as a writer for the right-of-center Weekly Standard, also contributing to magazines such as Esquire and Talk, before finding television fame as the conservative host of CNN’s left-vs.-right public affairs show “Crossfire.” He later hosted a prime-time show on liberal-leaning MSNBC and co-founded the conservative Daily Caller site.
But his rise to power as a broadcasting heavyweight began shortly after the 2016 election, when Fox gave him a prime-time role. Within a couple of years, he eclipsed 9 p.m. host Sean Hannity as the network’s most-watched personality — and like Hannity, became an occasional confidant of Trump. In March 2020, he visited Trump at Mar-a-Lago to warn him that the coronavirus needed to be taken seriously. Later, though, he sided with a growing chorus on the right when he seemed to dismiss the pandemic and derided efforts to promote vaccination.
In 2022, “Tucker Carlson Tonight” averaged 3.32 million total viewers and received the largest audience in all of cable news with the coveted 25-to-54 age demographic.
His success was particularly gratifying to the network’s billionaire co-founder Rupert Murdoch, seen as proof of Fox’s resilience even after the loss of marquee stars like Bill O’Reilly, whose time slot Carlson inherited after the longtime host was fired amid a sexual harassment scandal. But some top executives chafed at how much Carlson seemed to tout his relationship with Murdoch’s son Lachlan and his ability to make his own rules, according to people familiar with the company’s thinking.
Carlson became a dominating force not only in media but also in Republican politics. He delivered a fiery keynote address on Friday at the Heritage Foundation’s 50th anniversary celebration, in which he likened gender-affirming surgery for youths to “sexual castration” of children, and abortion to “child sacrifice,” drawing rousing applause.
Once known for rhetorically body-slamming his liberal guests, Carlson hadn’t booked many lately — and in January he deployed his debating skills on an ideological ally. After Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) referred to the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot as a “violent terrorist attack,” he ended up backtracking and apologizing under Carlson’s withering questioning in an appearance on the show.
Yet Carlson drew an unexpected backlash from Republican lawmakers last month after he used Jan. 6 security footage given exclusively to him by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) in an attempt to present the Capitol riot as mostly peaceful. The U.S. Capitol Police accused him of “cherry-picking” footage in service of “offensive and misleading conclusions.”
Meanwhile, his show had sparked frequent controversy for Fox. In December 2018, Carlson lost at least 26 of his advertisers after he said immigration makes the United States “dirtier.” And in 2019, the liberal watchdog group Media Matters for America unearthed more than a dozen instances of Carlson making incendiary comments during guest spots on the “Bubba the Love Sponge” radio show — making light of child marriage, calling rape shield laws “totally unfair,” describing women as “extremely primitive” and using sexist vulgarities.
Carlson also faced heavy criticism in the fall of 2021 when Fox Nation, the company’s streaming arm, aired a special he hosted, “Patriot Purge,” which carried suggestions that the Jan. 6 attack was a “false flag” operation perpetrated by the U.S. government. Two longtime Fox News commentators, Jonah Goldberg and Stephen Hayes, quit the network in protest. But Fox repeatedly stood by Carlson.
This spring, as revelations from Dominion’s trove of internal communications piled up, Carlson also came under scrutiny when a former top booker for his show, Abby Grossberg, sued Fox for sexual harassment and other alleged wrongs. In her suit she said that when she started working for Carlson, she found the office plastered with large images of then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) “in a plunging bathing suit revealing her cleavage.” She also alleged that male colleagues on Carlson’s staff openly critiqued the looks and sex appeal of prominent female politicians as well as their own female co-workers, and that a boss asked her “uncomfortable” questions about the sex life of her former boss, Maria Bartiromo.
Grossberg and her attorneys took a measure of vindication in Carlson’s departure. “This is a step towards accountability for the election lies and baseless conspiracy theories spread by Fox News,” Grossberg said in a statement, “as well as for the abuse and harassment I endured.”
Carlson was also facing legal threats over his comments about Ray Epps, a former Marine who attended the Jan. 6 insurrection. A lawyer representing Epps sent a letter to Carlson and Fox last month demanding that the host apologize for insinuations that Epps was a government agent planted at the scene to incite violence.
During an appearance on “60 Minutes” on Sunday night, Epps said that Carlson is “obsessed” with him and is “going to any means possible to destroy my life and our lives.” In a statement, Epps’s attorney said Monday that “Fox’s decision may shield them from responsibility for Carlson’s future lies, but Fox remains liable for Carlson’s past lies.”
On Monday, Fox News colleagues were stunned by Carlson’s departure. “We’re just learning of this like everyone else; total surprise on my end,” one staffer told The Post, speaking on the condition of anonymity to share private insights into the newsroom.
Another on-air personality added: “This is major. It sends a message that even the guy with the highest ratings of all, by a long shot, doesn’t get to survive this disaster.”
It fell to Fox News anchor Harris Faulkner to announce Carlson’s departure to viewers on Monday.
“We have some news within our Fox family,” she said. “We want to thank Tucker Carlson for his service to the network, as a host, and prior to that, as a long-term contributor.”
Isaac Arnsdorf and Paul Farhi contributed to this report.