The Media

The Hosts Battling to Be Fox News’ Next Tucker Carlson

And the one topic they’re all obsessed with.

Side by side photos of the four hosts
Trey Gowdy, Brian Kilmeade, Maria Bartiromo, and Mark Steyn. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images, Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images, John Lamparski/Getty Images, and manningcentre/Wikipedia.

A week ago, just one day after a gunman killed 10 people at a supermarket in Colorado and one week after another gunman killed eight people at a series of massage parlors in Georgia, Fox News host Brian Kilmeade convened a segment about the folly of gun control. His guest, Sen. John Kennedy, said that “America is a big country, we’re free, and one of the prices we pay for that freedom is that you’re always going to have some people who abuse it.” The Louisiana Republican went on to say that “freedom is risk,” and that “we do not need more gun control. We need more idiot control.” Kilmeade nodded silently.

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A few minutes later, having dispensed with guns, Kilmeade moved on to idiots, which Fox News has long found to be a much more fertile topic. Kilmeade was guest-hosting Fox News Primetime, the network’s new early-evening program. Alongside guest Brit Hume, Kilmeade blasted teachers unions for standing in the way of school reopenings. He grinned broadly as guest Glenn Greenwald mocked the institutional motto that the Washington Post adopted during the Trump years: “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” And he welcomed University of Tennessee law professor Glenn “Instapundit” Reynolds for a rousing segment on the most imminent danger facing America today: cancel culture.

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“They bully people and they threaten them and they go after them and people just want them all to go away, so they give in,” Reynolds observed of the supposedly woke. “We can’t let a minority of bullies take over our culture and terrorize the public.” How does the public seize power back from these woke bullies, Kilmeade asked? “Well, you have to take it back. That’s how you get power back everywhere, through all time,” said Reynolds.

This was a form of idiot control that Kilmeade could get behind. The Fox & Friends co-host is currently vying to become the permanent anchor of Fox News Primetime, an amorphous, news-adjacent program that might be the most revealing window into the choices Fox faces as it seeks to define itself in the Biden era. Kilmeade’s strategy in his live-on-air auditions is the exact same strategy that Fox will deploy in the months and years to come: waging the culture wars while validating and encouraging the worst-faith arguments from the least credible actors in American politics. Opposing cancel culture, Kilmeade said, “is a matter of saving the country,” as though he hadn’t been discussing two mass murders less than an hour before.

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“Oh, absolutely,” Reynolds agreed.

“Cancel culture” is one of Fox News’ favorite topics these days, just as “political correctness” was in days past. If you have watched Fox News at all over the past year, then you are well aware of the network’s thesis that cancel culture is allegedly scarier and more dangerous than COVID, mass shootings, and Godzilla combined—and certainly a more preferable discussion topic than broadly popular Democratic initiatives like the latest economic relief bill. Day after day, week after week, in countless indistinguishably shrill segments, the network has warned viewers that American democracy is directly imperiled by the recent phenomenon of some prominent people being held accountable by their fans, peers, critics, colleagues, or employers for saying or doing things that those stakeholders deem insensitive or inappropriate. These episodes exist on a spectrum, with some more immediately understandable than others, and the whole thing is certainly worthy of debate. But Fox News is less interested in debating these incidents than in jamming them all into an ongoing narrative of woke tyranny—and making that narrative the No. 1 story in America.

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Fox News has perfected the creation and monetization of moral panics as a means of reinforcing conservative tribal identity. What’s new here, more or less, is the network’s timing. The 7 p.m. slot on Fox News has historically been reserved for programming from the network’s news side. For decades, led by a handful of broadly respectable hosts, this time block offered Fox viewers the sort of interviews, reportage, and commentary that, though conservative-leaning, was meant to compete with other news programs on broadcast and cable stations across America. Since January, though, Fox News has been working to bring 7 p.m. more directly in line with the rest of its opinionated evening programming—and to find a permanent host who cares less about the news than about owning the libs.

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For the past two months, a rotating cast of guest hosts has taken over the not-quite-prime-time slot previously occupied by The Story With Martha MacCallum, which has moved to afternoons. These hosts have spent a week at a time regurgitating the same sorts of stories seen elsewhere on the network, with each trying to bring some personal flair to set them apart from the competition. The contenders range from old Fox News favorites to relatively new faces, former business reporters to former Real World participants, braying British-accented Canadians to honey-toned South Carolinians.

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None of the options is great. Kilmeade, said by some to have an inside track on the job, has been on the network for decades and has said approximately three thoughtful things in that time. Fox Business Network host Maria Bartiromo has pro-Trump bona fides—in a recent stint on Fox News Primetime, Bartiromo scored a live interview with Trump, and also cried on air while reminiscing about his corporate tax cuts—but is also a named defendant in Smartmatic’s $2.7 billion lawsuit against Fox News over its feckless amplification of the former president’s stolen-election lies. Though Trey Gowdy, a former federal prosecutor who served in Congress for eight years, has the experience to shine light on the inner workings of the legislature and the judiciary, in his stints thus far he has instead preferred to offer rambling, cornpone monologues on broad topics like “who do we trust in our everyday lives” (God) and “what would you want people to say about you at your funeral” (that he was a good prosecutor). Well-traveled conservative pundit Mark Steyn marked his weeklong tryout in February by comparing the post-presidency impeachment of Donald Trump to the posthumous beheading of Oliver Cromwell in 1661, which is pretty much all you need to know about him. Katie Pavlich, Lawrence Jones, and Rachel Campos-Duffy, all familiar faces on Fox News, have also taken turns in the anchor chair, and left little impression on this exhausted viewer.

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Kilmeade was the third contender to be invited back for a second turn in the host’s chair. (Gowdy was the first repeat host, Bartiromo was second to return, and Campos-Duffy, up this week, is fourth.) As a Fox News fixture—Kilmeade has co-hosted Fox & Friends since 1998—he is well aware of what plays well on the network these days. (In short, tendentious right-wing framings of complicated cultural phenomena.) He is surely also aware of why the 7 p.m. slot has opened up, and what Fox News executives will expect from that slot once the permanent host is chosen. Fox is in need of an orthodox Trumpist lead-in to its marquee prime-time opinion programming, a show that will lure and retain the substantial percentage of conservative media consumers who believe the truth is exactly what the elitists in the lamestream media say it isn’t. After almost a full quarter-century, the network has finally decided to cleanse its prime-time lineup of anything resembling actual news.

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When Fox News debuted back in 1996, it was competing not just with CNN, but with the broadcast network newscasts that still defined television journalism for most of the country. As such, the network devoted early evenings to relatively straightforward news programming, which were a bit more overtly conservative than what you’d see on CBS or NBC, but were still broadly similar to the way TV news had always looked. For years, the 7 p.m. slot was filled by Shepard Smith and Fox Report. When Smith was bumped to afternoons back in 2013, his slot was filled by On the Record, hosted first by Greta Van Susteren and then by Brit Hume. After the 2016 presidential election, Tucker Carlson’s opinion show appeared at 7 p.m. for two months before moving later into the evenings.

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Martha MacCallum took over 7 p.m. from Carlson and had held the slot ever since the early days of the Trump administration. Objectively, her show wasn’t great; relative to the rest of the network’s prime-time programming, it was a beacon of sanity. The Story had a distinctly pro-Trump outlook, yes, but it was still rooted in real-world events and occurrences, and was not exclusively composed of the weird theories and vendettas that shape the other shows in Fox’s evening lineup.

In the immediate aftermath of the 2020 presidential election, though, a very strange thing happened: Fox News began to face serious competition from the right. Throughout 2020, then-President Trump had taken potshots at Fox News from his late, lamented Twitter account, blasting the network for being insufficiently obsequious to him. These simmering tensions boiled over on election night, when Fox made the shocking, and ultimately accurate, decision to call the state of Arizona for Joe Biden, days before any other cable network felt comfortable making the same call. Fox’s projection complicated the Trump camp’s plans to prematurely declare victory on election night, and it is no exaggeration to say that if Fox hadn’t called Arizona for Biden when it did, the transition period could have been even more chaotic than it turned out to be. Thanks for saving democracy, Fox News!

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In response to Fox’s Arizona call, a sizable contingent of Always Trump viewers chose to defect to Newsmax TV and One America News Network, two smaller and battier cable networks that had never harbored any pretensions of being mistaken for actual journalism. Newsmax and OANN, unburdened by substantial newsgathering operations that might have offered reporting that would complicate the conspiratorial narratives that sprang up on the far-right in the postelection haze, were happy to indulge the Trump campaign’s most risible theories and fantasies about the not-actually-disputed election results. As the stolen-election saga dragged on, many Fox defectors stuck with these new networks.

Newsmax, in particular, saw great gains in its own 7 p.m. slot, currently occupied by Greg Kelly Reports, whose host—a former New York City morning news guy and vocal Trump partisan—was more than happy to platform cranks like Sidney Powell and proclaim the election results to be indeterminate. Kelly offered stupid, intellectually dishonest punditry at 7 p.m. while, in the same time slot, Fox was still offering something vaguely resembling the news, and this put Fox at a competitive disadvantage. Before the election, according to CNN, Greg Kelly Reports logged a lackluster 100,000 viewers per night. By mid-November, Kelly’s program had become the first Newsmax TV program ever to draw more than a million viewers at a time; on at least one occasion, Greg Kelly Reports even beat The Story With Martha MacCallum head-to-head in the all-important 25-to-54-year-old viewer demographic. All of a sudden, Fox executives realized that their decadeslong primacy among right-wing cable viewers was in jeopardy.

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Newsmax’s ratings have fallen back to earth since Biden’s inauguration—cable news ratings are down across the board compared with this time last year—while Fox News has regained its status as the top-rated cable news network. And lately, according to Adweek, it’s consistently ranked as the most-watched cable network, period.

In part, Fox’s revived fortunes have at least something to do with the network’s moves to win back viewers unwilling to tolerate even one moderately sane hour of evening programming. (Fox does still air the newsy, relatively straightforward Special Report With Bret Baier at 6 p.m., a liminal time slot that bridges afternoons and evenings on the network.) The notion of a nightly 7 p.m. news show on Fox is a vestigial remnant of an era when the mediasphere was smaller and perhaps less choleric, and people still watched cable news to learn about what was going on in the world. When Fox News moved The Story into the 3 p.m. slot back in January and opened the 7 p.m. slot up for its current carousel of collaborators, it was a tacit confirmation of something sentient observers have known for years: that the American right-wing news consumer no longer has much interest in turning to television for actual, legitimate information.

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And so demagoguery now reigns at 7 p.m. on Fox since mid-January, and so it will in the 11 p.m. hour as of April 5, as Shannon Bream’s Fox News @ Night gives way to a new Greg Gutfeld vehicle called, simply, Gutfeld!, which sounds like the title of a misbegotten Broadway musical that’s canceled after four performances. (Bream’s show is moving back an hour to midnight.) The rotating Fox News Primetime hosts have cycled through a selection of the network’s recent greatest hits. They’ve played up the current “border crisis” as a purported harbinger of American carnage to come, courtesy of Sleepy Joe Biden. “They’re destroying our country. People are coming in by the hundreds of thousands,” Trump told Maria Bartiromo in mid-March. “It is a crisis like we’ve rarely had, and certainly we’ve never had on the border. But it’s going to get much worse.”

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They’ve discussed the alleged atrocities being perpetrated by antifa and Black Lives Matter protesters in Democratic-run cities across the country, especially in contrast to what they deem to have been the comparatively peaceful incursion at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. (“The Capitol is already rebuilt and restored, the money goes in, the cleaning crews come in, and they come out,” said Kilmeade during his mid-January hosting stint. “And as horrific as Jan. 6 is, it’s almost back to normal. Minneapolis is not back to normal, Kenosha is not back to normal, Seattle has never been normal.”) They’ve gamely attempted to portray Joe Biden as a sleazy crook and radical liberal who will stop at nothing less than the de facto destruction of freedom in America. “We’re going to find out what liberal policies’ impact is on everyday American lives. And it’s not going to be pretty,” Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson told Bartiromo during her first turn in the chair. “We won’t have border security. We’re seeing murder rates increase dramatically in Democrat-controlled cities. This is going to continue. It’s not going to be good, Maria. It’s not going to be good.”

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But most of all, they’ve cried foul about cancel culture, a term which means whatever Fox News wants it to mean at any given moment. Cancel culture has become the network’s great theme in the early Biden administration as it attempts to reel back in its prodigal viewers by providing wall-to-wall coverage of a suite of largely illusory and unfalsifiable threats to the conservative version of the American way of life. The network seeks to deflect viewers’ attention from any good things that are happening in the country—or even any actual bad things that, for whatever reason, do not push right-wingers’ buttons—by focusing intently on the turmeric tea–drinking, tweet-shaming enemy that is allegedly at the gate.

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In early March, for instance, during his second stint in the Fox News Primetime hosting chair, Trey Gowdy welcomed a fellow former U.S. representative, Tulsi Gabbard, who informed Gowdy that “you see the final expression of cancel culture in Islamist terrorist groups like ISIS and al-Qaida,” and suggested that cultivating a personal relationship with God is one of the best ways for everyday people to “stand up to this cancel culture, this fearmongering, this bullying.” Gabbard’s moralistic assertions get at the crux of why this cancel culture stuff is the GOP’s strategy for counteracting the Biden presidency, as opposed to literally anything else actually about Joe Biden.

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For decades now, far-right political operators and media personalities have worked to cohere conservative electoral support by convincing values voters that godless, elitist leftists want to destroy their way of life, thus fulfilling Saul Alinsky’s final wishes. Many on the right are legitimately terrified that an online army of critical race theorists are plotting together to repeal their First Amendment right to tell ethnic jokes in the workplace, replace their Gadsden flags with antifa banners, and force their children to memorize selections from The Vagina Monologues.

This strategy is very stupid but also very effective, and it is certainly more effective than trying to win Republican voters on the merits of the party’s actual policy platform, which mostly exists to benefit plutocrats who only care about culture warriorhood insofar as it keeps the rubes hot, bothered, and pliable. It also makes for addictive television, which is why Fox News will never, ever stop prosecuting the culture wars—and why, in the Newsmax and OANN era, the network knows that it needs to be at the vanguard of the fight.

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Hence the network’s ongoing fixation on cancel culture; hence the present and future of Fox News Primetime. Preceding Glenn Reynolds on Fox News Primetime last Tuesday was Ian Prior, ex–deputy director of public affairs for the Department of Justice and a resident of Loudoun County, Virginia, who claimed that he had been targeted for cancellation by fellow parents for his opposition to the supposed teaching of critical race theory in county schools. “So you didn’t want your kid to grow up apologizing for being male or white?” asked Kilmeade, and Prior chuckled. The segment went on, with Prior explaining that mockery was a powerful tool to use against the woke left, verifying that he’s not saying that slavery didn’t exist, and trying very hard to plug his new newsletter: “It’s ironic that the very people tried to cancel somebody that writes a newsletter—that comes out at 4 p.m. every day—on cancel culture!”

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“Ian, this is not over, right?” asked Kilmeade. Prior verified that it is not, in fact, over. It never will be.

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