When the world learned last Monday that Fox News host Tucker Carlson had been suddenly and unceremoniously axed by the network with which he had become synonymous, the immediate next question, for me and many others, was: Seriously—why? “Because Carlson was a smarmy xenophobe” is not in itself a sufficient answer to the question. Indeed, those were the traits that had made him indispensable to Fox News. Since assuming the network’s 8 p.m. weeknight time slot in 2017, Carlson had become the well-coiffed avatar of a brash nativist populism which the host and his staff had deemed “Trumpism without Trump.” This orientation, in turn, had made him both a force in national Republican politics and appointment television for the sorts of angry Republican voters on whose loyalty Fox News is reliant. The smart move for Fox, arguably, would have been to extend Carlson’s contract. So what really led to Tucker’s ouster?
Over the past week, there’s been lots of reporting on this story, much of it overlapping and contradictory, little of it verifiably sourced, almost none of it particularly convincing. Some say the firing was related to an ex-producer’s lawsuit alleging a hostile workplace at Tucker Carlson Tonight, one characterized by sexism and antisemitism. Others ascribe it to communications unearthed in the discovery process for the Fox-Dominion case, in which Carlson had said crude and disparaging things about certain Fox reporters and executives. Still others have cited internal unease and resentment at Fox over Carlson’s ungovernability, discomfort with some of the host’s aggressively heterodox editorial stances, and perhaps some downstream effects of the network’s recent $787.5 million settlement in the Dominion case.
But while all of these tidbits certainly make the case that Carlson was a bad colleague and a worse journalist, none of them, to my mind, convincingly explain his dismissal. The network is not generally in the habit of dumping its stars for having bad takes; indeed, having bad takes is what makes someone a star at Fox News. And while ex-producer Abby Grossberg’s lawsuit paints a dire picture of the work environment at Tucker Carlson Tonight, I will note that it took at least five settlements of suits alleging sexual harassment and other inappropriate behavior for Fox to get rid of Carlson’s predecessor, Bill O’Reilly. Moreover, if Fox was trying to make heads-must-roll changes in the wake of the Dominion lawsuit, then why do Jeanine Pirro and Maria Bartiromo—both of whom were much more culpable than Carlson in spreading Sidney Powell’s dumb theories of 2020 election fraud—still have jobs there?
Carlson wasn’t just some fungible weekend guy. He was the network’s biggest name. Firing him because he texted crude things about his colleagues does not seem like the most rational decision. And so I tend to credit the one dispatch I’ve seen which indicates that this decision was perhaps an irrational one, made by the one man on the Fox org chart who could decide on a whim to jettison the network’s biggest star and not face any meaningful internal blowback for doing so: the irascible 92-year-old chairman of Fox Corporation, Rupert Murdoch.
On April 25, Gabriel Sherman reported in Vanity Fair that Murdoch, who is not a notably devout man, had been unnerved by a religiously tinged speech Carlson gave to the Heritage Foundation on Friday, April 21, in which the host suggested that “prayer” was the best weapon against the cultural leftists seeking to destroy America. This speech, Sherman wrote, annoyed Murdoch in part because it echoed some themes he had heard and disliked during his recent whirlwind two-week engagement to a very religious Carlson fan named Ann Lesley Smith. In March, Sherman reported, the mogul had became irritated by his fiancée’s “end-times worldview,” by the fact that she had called Carlson “a messenger from God,” and by her decision to deliver an impromptu Bible reading during a meal at which all three were present. The engagement ended soon after Smith had harshed the mood at dinner. Carlson was gone three weeks later. “By taking Carlson off the air,” Sherman wrote, “Murdoch was also taking away his ex’s favorite show.”
This would be a very, very petty reason to fire your network’s star opinion host and plunge Fox’s prime-time schedule into chaos. But, then again, occasional pettiness is a trait inherent to corporate autocracy, and chaos has always been Rupert Murdoch’s flow state. In a 2004 essay for the London Review of Books, John Lanchester suggested that Murdoch “needs the stimulus of exposure to risk to stay fully present. His attention is always seeking to wander off: it’s only in a crisis that he feels he is where he wants to be. … He is that strange thing, a sensualist of crisis.” Lighting things on fire, so to speak, is Murdoch’s way of reasserting control—and I would not be surprised to learn that the 92-year-old mogul deemed it a very good time to send a message about who is still in charge at Fox Corp by engaging in a round of auto-da-fé.
Although media writers have been speculating about Murdoch’s health for decades now, the is-Rupert-breathing rumor mill has been especially active in recent months. In March, lawyers for Fox News tried to argue that the mogul was too feeble to travel to Delaware to testify in the now-settled Dominion case. (Judge Eric Davis wasn’t buying Fox’s lawyers’ claims of Murdoch’s infirmity, though, citing Murdoch’s recent engagement as well as his existing travel schedule as proof of the mogul’s relative vigor, and warning Fox’s lawyers to not make him “look like an idiot.”) In Semafor last week, Max Tani cited several recent “abrupt, erratic decisions” from Murdoch that have raised questions internally about the mogul’s “state of mind, temperament,” and continued ability to lead a major media company. In Sherman’s Vanity Fair piece, the author also noted “a string of erratic decisions” from Murdoch, and quoted an unnamed source on internal fears at Fox about Murdoch’s capacites: “It’s like the King is senile but no one wants to say anything.”
So how is Murdoch doing these days? The question is more than just ghoulish speculation on the lifeline of the world’s worst 92-year-old man. It’s directly relevant to the near-term prospects of an influential media company in advance of a presidential election. The Fox Corp chair and “billionaire tyrant” has long proceeded as if he is his businesses, and his confidence in that standpoint has in many ways been the source of his ongoing power. When he dies, the tight hold he’s maintained on Fox’s operations will come undone. The only thing worse than a tyrant is, arguably, a power vacuum.
Some have speculated that leadership turnover atop Fox News might precipitate positive changes there, and perhaps cause the network to pivot away from its “all bullshit, all the time” programming strategy. I think this thesis is naïve. When longtime network president Roger Ailes left the network in disgrace amid many, many sexual harassment charges in 2016, his departure was cheered by many who held him responsible for the network’s low standards, and who hoped that Fox might get better once the mean old autocrat was gone. That did not happen. Instead, Fox News got worse. Under Ailes’s successor, Suzanne Scott, the network gradually rid itself of many of its remaining reasonable hosts and reporters while letting hosts such as Carlson chase their worst editorial instincts down desperate paths. The thing about mean old autocrats is that people—including otherwise boisterous pundits—are generally afraid of them, and do not want to get on their bad side.
It’s wishcasting to think that Murdoch’s successor, whoever it may be, will have either the ability or the desire to remake Fox News in a moderate image. Fox News is successful and profitable as-is, and a new CEO would have zero reason to tweak the formula, as well as very little internal support for such a crusade. The brand is what it is at this point, and the next chair will likely choose to double down on the network’s existing editorial strategies while lacking the forcefulness and stature necessary to successfully execute any sudden, seismic changes. There is every reason to believe that whoever eventually takes over for Murdoch will probably just let Fox keep following its core audience of older Republican voters in a crazy, nativist direction that leads straight into the arms of Donald John Trump.
Murdoch’s odds-on successor at this point is probably his son, Lachlan Murdoch, whom some reporters have credited with being the prime mover behind the Carlson decision, along with Suzanne Scott. In 2017, there were also reports that Lachlan had convinced Rupert to cut O’Reilly at a moment when Rupert did not want to be seen as bowing to media pressure to do so. If true, these rumors would indicate that Murdoch fils, who was said to be close to Carlson, can be coldblooded when necessary. But there’s a big difference between working behind the scenes and sitting on the throne. As Lanchester wrote in 2004, “the only coherence News Corp [Fox Corp’s sister company] has is as an image of [Rupert] Murdoch.” Lachlan Murdoch didn’t build his family’s empire—his father did. And if Lachlan takes over for Rupert, he won’t immediately command the same levels of fear and respect. Rupert Murdoch’s proven himself to be a true bastard. Lachlan Murdoch’s just his son.
I suppose that’s the reason why I still think that Rupert Murdoch pulled the trigger on the Carlson move. He strikes me as the only person at Fox Corp who could just ignore every other rational reason to keep the anchor around, make the call to fire him anyway, and still be confident that the company would survive and everything would still be fine. And, you know what, Carlson is currently reduced to uploading weird videos to Twitter instead of spouting nonsense to millions of people on TV every weeknight, while Fox Corp’s stock price has basically recovered from last Monday’s dip. The other thing about mean old autocrats is that sometimes they can end up doing the right thing—even if they do it for the wrong reasons—in ways that a more traditional leader would not be able to pull off. Bad process, good outcome!
A recent Sherman Vanity Fair cover story, which was also about Murdoch, began with a scene in which the mogul “nearly collapsed” at his granddaughter’s wedding in July 2022. You don’t lead with an anecdote like that by accident. The point of such a lede is to remind readers of Murdoch’s mortality, and to suggest that, finally, he might not be long for this world. And yet when Murdoch dies, the world he created will still be here, and Fox News will still be churning out toxic bile, barely disguised propaganda, and whatever else MyPillow likes to advertise against. The only reason to mourn his eventual death will be the likelihood that Fox News will only get more dangerous with a weaker, less forceful sociopath in charge.
For now, though, the 92-year-old Murdoch still seems to see death as just another subordinate to be bullied into submission. It is reasonable to interpret the Carlson move as Murdoch reminding all those around him not to close the casket before he stops breathing. And it is reasonable to hope that the meanest man alive stays alive for just a little bit longer.