And it was all a complete surprise. Fox News released a statement just a few sentences long on Monday noting that it and Carlson “have agreed to part ways” and brusquely thanking him for his “service to the network and prior to that as a contributor.” Notably, the release said Carlson’s last show was last week — meaning he isn’t getting a farewell episode or an opportunity to explain what happened on air. The news was so abrupt that promos for his show were running on Fox News on Monday morning.
American political life most likely will be enriched by Carlson’s exit from his mega-influential perch.
The exact reason for Carlson’s departure remains unclear. It comes on the heels of Fox News’ massive $787.5 million settlement with Dominion Voting Systems over Fox’s false claims that Dominion conducted voter fraud with its machines. Carlson was just one of many hosts who trafficked in evidence-free conspiracy theories about Dominion, so that alone doesn’t explain it. But regardless of why this happened, American political life most likely will be enriched by Carlson’s exit from his mega-influential perch.
Carlson has dominated prime-time cable news for years — he had held the 8 p.m. prime-time slot at Fox News since 2017. His unrivaled viewership at Fox and in American cable news more broadly was due to a combination of content and style. Substantively speaking, his migration to hard-line right-wing nationalism positioned him as the premier Trump-era talking head; he appeared to be a true believer in the shift in American conservatism ushered in by Donald Trump’s rise, stoking fears about immigration, national identity and cultural purity. Some of this was sincere — Carlson was an early and rare critic on the right of the Iraq War, long before it became fashionable. Some of it was not — text messages published in the Dominion lawsuit showed Carlson privately hated Trump and was skeptical of his election-rigging claims yet hid these views from the audience who trusted him. In any case, Carlson’s location in the ideological matrix meant he could champion Trumpism and also act as Trump’s most serious gadfly in a way no other talking head could.
Stylistically, Carlson was a slick sophist. He used clever questions to spread confusion, suspicion and outright disinformation about the Jan. 6 insurrection and other issues and to warm his viewers up to the authoritarian politics of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Carlson also deliberately sought out guests who don’t identify as conservatives to degrade his ideological opponents. He invited commentators who associated themselves with the left to criticize Democrats or other members of the left. This sometimes backfired, as when Amazon union organizer Christian Smalls outwitted him on his show. But Carlson persisted in these segments as part of a broader bid to encourage infighting on the left and to try to persuade the public that the right is the true defender of working people.
This combination of his having his pulse on the finger of the American right and his genuine savvy as a commentator gave him tremendous influence — and he used that influence to dangerous ends. He spread conspiracy theories such as the racist “great replacement” theory and carefully fostered in his audience the conviction that diversity initiatives and immigration pose existential threats to so-called Real America.
Carlson’s toxic cocktail of misinformation, racism and reactionary ideas is why his departure from Fox is likely to be good news. There’s a thriving right-wing media ecosystem that includes Fox, but there’s nothing else quite like Fox in terms of reach and centrality in the culture of the right. It’s not just that Fox has a huge audience; it’s also how much politicians on the right care about that audience. Consider, for example, how Trump apparently sourced ideas from Fox News and raged against any of its coverage that he disliked or found unflattering.
Consider also how Fox News hosts who have quit or been kicked off the network have never regained their influence. After Bill O’Reilly was forced out of the company in 2017 because of sexual harassment allegations, he set up his own website, where he broadcasts an independent version of the show he had at Fox News, and he kept writing books. He’s making a living — but when’s the last time you heard about anything he said? Likewise, after Fox News decided in 2011 that Glenn Beck was too outlandish even for it, he founded his own media outfit. Beck has been able to maintain a position as a commentator on the right, but he has always been a much smaller deal. (Beck immediately invited Carlson to join his media network after he learned of the latter’s departure from Fox News.) It’s hard to imagine how Carlson could go anywhere but down in his influence as a pundit.
But where O’Reilly’s and Beck’s departures were no problem for Fox News, Carlson’s exit may be another story. The channel’s credibility with its MAGA base may suffer as a result of this decision. Fox faces increasing competition from independent and increasingly berserk right-wing media, with some of its staffers believing that Fox executives co-signed Trump’s 2020 election disinformation brand out of a fear of losing viewers to outfits like Newsmax, which were more brazen about embracing fringe conspiracy theories. It is within the realm of possibility that the exit of Fox’s most popular and controversial host — and the one most closely associated with the tip of the MAGA spear — will be read as a sign that the network is out of touch and should be shunned. Some right-wing activists are already making that case.
But there’s nowhere else at the moment where Carlson can shape and manipulate as many people as he could when he was there. That’s a good thing.
Zeeshan Aleem is a writer and editor for MSNBC Daily.