Ever since Fox News announced two weeks ago that it was parting ways with Tucker Carlson, its biggest star, speculation has raged about exactly which straw broke the network’s back. Was it the price tag to settle the Dominion lawsuit? The embarrassing texts in which Carlson privately disparaged Donald Trump even as he praised the president on the air? The video of Carlson mocking his own fans as “postmenopausal”? Still-unreleased texts in which he reportedly called a senior Fox executive a “c–t”? Rupert Murdoch’s dismay at the increasingly religious tone of Carlson’s commentary? Or (my preferred theory) some yet-to-be-disclosed act or statement pertaining to former Fox producer Abby Grossberg’s lawsuit charging Carlson and his team with “rampant” misogyny and antisemitism?
The latest explanation offered by the New York Times maintains that it was the revelation of a particular text sent by Carlson to one of his producers on Jan. 6, 2021, that “set off a panic at the highest levels of Fox.” The text describes Carlson’s reactions to a video filmed during the riots at the Capitol in which “at least” three Trump supporters ganged up on and beat an “Antifa kid.” Decrying the attack as “dishonorable,” Carlson remarked, “It’s not how white men fight.” He doesn’t elaborate on this racist point, however, going on to engage in some tortured self-examination about his own desire to see the “Antifa kid” hurt and then excoriating himself for that desire, writing “if I reduce people to their politics, how am I better than he is?”
If this is indeed the text that got Carlson canned, then … anticlimax! In contrast to Carlson’s typical thinly veiled racist tirades on the air, this quaint and frankly delusional statement about how white men supposedly fight—apparently by flicking their gloves at an Antifa kid’s cheek and challenging him to pistols at dawn—seems comparatively tame. Is it just the absence of any veil—the flagrant use of the word “white”—that did it? If so, this scenario conjures up an absurd funhouse-mirror mentality among Fox management, where it’s acceptable to pretend to be racist on TV so that actual racists will watch and learn from your show, yet it’s a scandal to be racist yourself in private. (If anything, I’d imagine Fox viewers would be more likely to object to Carlson’s moral scruples about brutalizing the Antifa bogeyman that the network has convinced them is at their gates.)
Fox had plenty of reasons to jettison Carlson, who, despite his strong ratings, was shunned by many advertisers. He has a big mouth and a bad attitude, and the texts that came out during the Dominion suit made the whole network look hypocritical. For a network clinging to a rebellious audience, if there’s anything worse than being a real-life racist rather than a pretend one, it’s revealing the fact that you’re just pretending to like a demagogue you actually hate. Maybe this latest text was just a pretext to rid the network of a guy who had become more liability than asset. Maybe. But my money is still on the Grossberg lawsuit and that there’s much more dirt to come.