Two bombshells hit the media world in quick succession Monday, with the announcement that Tucker Carlson was leaving Fox News and, a short time later, that Don Lemon had been fired by CNN.
Carlson was the much bigger explosion.
He has long been a furiously divisive figure.
Conservative viewers rallied to his fiery, nightly condemnations of President Biden, Democrats and alleged left-wing media bias. Liberals condemned him for incendiary language that they complained gave credence to white nationalists and conspiracy theorists.
In business terms, Carlson’s departure is also huge news.
His show typically vied with “The Five,” also on Fox, as the highest-rated in all of cable news. On Thursday, the most recent day for which ratings were available as of Monday afternoon, Carlson was in the top spot, with a fraction under three million viewers.
Carlson has, at time of writing, not commented on his departure. On air, Fox News’s Harris Faulkner said that the network and Carlson had “mutually agreed to part ways.”
Here are some possible reasons why the dramatic move happened.
The Dominion case showed he was becoming too costly
Carlson was a central figure in the defamation case that had been taken against Fox by Dominion Voting Systems.
The high-profile legal battle was settled last week, with Fox agreeing to pay Dominion $787.5 million. But the network did not commit to issuing an apology, instead merely saying that it was willing to “acknowledge” the court’s ruling “finding certain claims about Dominion to be false.”
The case revolved around false claims about the 2020 election that were propagated on the network’s airwaves. Those included some incorrect — and wild — suggestions that Dominion somehow had a hand in flipping votes from then-President Trump to President Biden.
But, in its efforts to prove that the network had acted with actual malice or reckless disregard for the truth, Dominion also uncovered private messages that told a different story from the one being told on air.
On one occasion, for example. Carlson told colleagues that Trump lawyer Sidney Powell “is lying” in some of her claims.
On another, Carlson sought the firing of a Fox reporter who had fact-checked a tweet from Trump.
Many media observers thought that Fox, which is vastly profitable, would simply pay the settlement and continue down the same road as before.
Now, it looks like that may have been wrong.
The “other” legal suit
If there were legal reasons why Fox decided to distance itself from Carlson, they may not be confined to the specific allegations regarding Dominion.
Tangential to that case, a woman named Abby Grossberg on March 20 filed a legal suit against Fox News, Carlson and several others. At the time, Grossberg was head booker on Carlson’s show, though she was subsequently fired by then network.
In her 79-page complaint, Grossberg framed her experiences as “yet another in the long line of cases chronicling the misogynistic environment that permeates Fox News.”
Her suit also alleged that the atmosphere on Carlson’s show “subjugates women based on vile sexist stereotypes, typecasts religious minorities and belittles their traditions, and demonstrates little to no regard for those suffering from mental illness.”
Grossberg alleged that she “felt coerced” to give misleading testimony in the Dominion case.
But she also alleged that the work area for Carlson’s show included “many large and blown-up photos” of former Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in a swimsuit; that she was asked about whether a Fox personality with whom she had previously worked, Maria Bartiromo, was in a sexual relationship with Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), which she was not; and was subject to grossly inappropriate conversations about whether Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) or her Republican opponent last November, Tudor Dixon were “hotter and more f**kable.”
Fox strongly denies wrongdoing in the case.
But the allegations in themselves may still have weighed Carlson down in ways that he could ill afford.
He was exposed as two-faced to viewers
The reputational danger to Fox from the Dominion suit did not only come from the bogus claims of election chicanery.
There was also a broader danger that loyal viewers of the network might begin to ask whether they were being conned.
Perhaps the single most striking example came from Carlson.
In one text, revealed in the discovery process, Carlson said of Trump, “I hate him passionately.”
An assessment so incongruous with Carlson’s on-air attitudes to the former president had to raise questions.
He could run for president
There was presidential buzz about Carlson at one point, though it has recently become more muted.
Back in 2020, a Politico story suggested that if the anchor were to get into the 2024 race, there were many in the GOP “believing he would be an immediate frontrunner in a Republican primary.”
Later developments — such as Carlson’s appearance last year at a key meeting of social conservatives in Iowa also set tongues wagging.
Still, it strains credulity to imagine Carlson would depart Fox so abruptly, with so few hints dropped in advance, if this was really his intention.
He will have plenty more time on his hands now, of course. Maybe that would make a run for office more appealing.
But it seems equally likely he will land elsewhere on the media landscape, or try to plow his own furrow as another controversial former Fox News personality, Bill O’Reilly, has done.
AOC doesn’t like him
Not really, obviously.
Fox News is hardly renowned for doing anything at the behest of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).
But the fact that Carlson’s departure came right on the heels of pointed criticism from the New York Democrat incited plenty of comment from the host’s defenders.
In an MSNBC interview broadcast Sunday, Ocasio-Cortez told anchor Jen Psaki — formerly President Biden’s White House Press Secretary — that Carlson and Fox were guilty of “very, very clear incitement of violence” and suggested some form of “federal regulation” should be deployed to curb such rhetoric.
Glenn Greenwald, often a guest on Carlson’s show, characterized Ocasio-Cortez as having “demanded that the Govt. ban Tucker from being allowed on TV.”
On the right, there was also more generalized sympathy for Carlson and frustration with Fox.
“Wherever Tucker Carlson goes, America will follow!” Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo) tweeted.
Donald Trump Jr., the former president’s eldest son, told conservative activist Charlie Kirk that Carlson’s departure “changes things permanently” and was “mind-boggling.”
Michael Caputo, a longtime friend and advisor to Trump, tweeted a screenshot apparently showing him canceling his subscription to Fox Nation in the wake of the news.
As for Ocasio-Cortez, she tweeted a news story about Carlson’s departure Monday and appended just one word: “Wow.”