When Fox settled the defamation lawsuit brought by Dominion Voting Systems for $787.5 million, the conventional wisdom was that it would alter little about the way Fox News operates. “Don’t Expect Fox News to Change After Massive Dominion Payout,” said a Vanity Fair headline. “Will Fox Settlement Alter Conservative Media? Apparently Not,” said The Associated Press.
Maybe the settlement didn’t change much, but it increasingly looks as if the lawsuit itself did. On Monday, news broke that Tucker Carlson, Fox News’s highest-rated and most demagogic prime time host, was out, and wouldn’t even get a final show to say goodbye. The Los Angeles Times reported that Carlson was defenestrated by Rupert Murdoch himself, and that his exit was related to the discrimination lawsuit filed by Carlson’s former head of booking Abby Grossberg. Grossberg alleges that Fox coerced her into giving misleading testimony in the Dominion case, and has said she filed the discrimination suit, as well as a separate lawsuit, after fearing that the network was going to make her a scapegoat. The Washington Post, meanwhile, reported that Murdoch was incensed about insubordinate remarks Carlson made about Fox management, which were revealed during the discovery phase of the Dominion case.
All this suggests that Dominion was responsible for shaking loose the information that brought Carlson down. The end of his Fox News tenure should be a reminder to people on the left not to surrender to the cynical illusion that, to revive a Trump-era phrase, LOL nothing matters. Sometimes the terrible elements of our political culture seem so immutable that it’s tempting to give in to despair as a prophylactic against perpetual disappointment. But it turns out that it is in fact sometimes possible to shame the shameless. Once in a while, justice is delivered.
Grossberg’s lawsuit had seemed, before Monday, to be at most a footnote to the broader Dominion drama, even though the behavior detailed in it was disgusting. Grossberg describes an environment in which women of all political persuasions were constantly discussed in terms of sexual desirability. One of Carlson’s bookers, she alleges, was told that she should sleep with Elon Musk to secure an interview. She claims that Carlson’s executive producer Justin Wells, also fired on Monday, called her into his office to ask about the sex life of her previous boss, the Fox Business host Maria Bartiromo. In a statement, Fox said that Grossberg’s accusations were made following a critical performance review, and said that it had hired “an independent outside counsel to immediately investigate the concerns” she had raised.
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If indeed Carlson was fired in part for workplace misogyny, he will fall into a venerable Fox tradition. The network has a history of tolerating the abuse of women until revelations become too inconvenient, at which point even figures who’d seemed irreplaceable, like Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly, are tossed overboard. Contempt for women was part of Carlson’s brand at Fox News; his infamous “The End of Men” special urged men to tan their testicles to ostensibly increase testosterone and thereby rescue society from collapse. It would be fitting if contempt for women is what finally derailed him.
But Carlson had contempt for so many. He was the Trumpiest of Fox News hosts, even though we now know, thanks to discovery in the Dominion case, that he hated Donald Trump “passionately.” Like Trump, he and his producers mined the white nationalist internet for narratives, promiscuously spread wild conspiracy theories, and hinted at the need for violence to take back America. After Trump was indicted last month, Carlson said, “Probably not the best time to give up your AR-15.” He created, as Nick Confessore wrote in The New York Times, “what may be the most racist show in the history of cable news — and also, by some measures, the most successful.”
The similarity of Carlson and Trump’s sensibilities might derive from the similarity of their resentments. Both were children of privilege — Carlson was kicked out of a Swiss boarding school — who sought the respect of the establishment but never got it. It’s worth noting, given his loathing of the putative deep state, that Carlson tried to join the C.I.A. but was rejected. He shifted his ambitions to cable news, but before landing at Fox News, he struggled to fit in. In a 2021 interview, Carlson described having a “kind of meltdown” after being fired from MSNBC in 2008, the latest of a string of failures, and having to sell his house. Speaking of the television industry, he said, “I was living in that world and I was not succeeding.”
Like Trump, he would find success by catering to people who despised the world that had spurned him. He made revenge into a career.
It’s impossible to know what happens to that career now that Carlson has achieved the rare cable news trifecta of flaming out at CNN, MSNBC and Fox. He has an intensely loyal following, and could easily start his own venture or join a would-be Fox competitor like Newsmax or OAN. It would be a tremendous irony if Fox News, which aired lies about Dominion because it was afraid of being outflanked on the right by Newsmax, now finds itself losing to Newsmax thanks to the fallout from the Dominion lawsuit.
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But other Fox hosts have seen their relevance rapidly diminish after being deprived of the network’s platform. Glenn Beck is still performing his 21st-century John Birch Society routine at his company Blaze Media, but he’s speaking to a much smaller niche than he once did. Bill O’Reilly, once the face of Fox, has a podcast and a string of best-selling books, but he’s no longer a particularly important cultural figure. Maybe Carlson will be different, though the text messages exposed by Dominion suggest an intense awareness of his own vulnerability. After the viewer backlash over Fox News correctly calling Arizona for Joe Biden, an enraged Carlson texted a producer, “We worked really hard to build what we have.” And now it’s gone.
Michelle Goldberg has been an Opinion columnist since 2017. She is the author of several books about politics, religion and women’s rights, and was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for public service in 2018 for reporting on workplace sexual harassment. @michelleinbklyn