When truth is an 'unsellable product'
Why would a multi-billion dollar cable network fire its most popular host? The host who reliably racked up 3 million primetime viewers every night? If the network in question is Fox News, the answer is three-fold.
First, because Tucker Carlson become an in-house legal liability, allegedly for creating a hostile work environment, apparently something of a tradition within the misogynistic frat house that is Fox.
Second, because redacted texts from Carlson included remarks so offensive that they represented a public relations disaster for Fox, even by the networks debased standards. (Those who have seen the texts say they include use of a particularly despicable four-letter word, the so-called c-word.)
But Carlson’s third offense was more fundamental: he told the truth.
Not on air, of course. On air, Tucker Carlson was an energetic and obedient liar. Like most demagogues, he was smug, insinuating and allergic to morality or self-reflection, a bow-tied trust-funder who once dreamed of creating a fact-based conservative media empire, but who quickly recognized that truth was an unsellable product in the modern conservative movement.
Instead, he chose to incite his viewers by playing to their worst instincts. With a shrill cackle and a constipated look of bewilderment, he promoted the racist paranoia of “replacement theory,” kissed up to Vladimir Putin, called women “primitive,” and portrayed the violent insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol on January 6, 2021 as “peaceful tourists.”
Then came the 2020 election and its aftermath, during which Carlson enthusiastically spread the Big Lie that Joe Biden’s victory was the result of “massive voter fraud.” There was no evidence of this. Carlson and his fellow Fox propagandists knew there was no evidence of this.
But they continued to spread this “crazy stuff” for one reason: because it was what their viewers wanted to hear. Unlike most of the sycophants in Trump’s noxious orbit, Carlson enjoyed genuine influence on the former president, owing to his massive following.
Thanks to the defamation lawsuit filed by Dominion Voting Systems — which Fox settled by paying nearly $800 million dollars to avoid a humiliating trial — we now know what Tucker Carlson really thought about Donald Trump.
In private, he was telling colleagues things like this:
He’s only good at destroying.
… we are very, very close to being able to ignore Trump most nights … I truly can’t wait.
We’re all pretending we’ve got a lot to show for it, because admitting what a disaster it’s been is too tough to digest. But come on. There really isn’t an upside to Trump.
In front of the camera, of course, Tucker was continuing to spread Trump’s lies. He went so far as attempting to get a colleague fired for fact-checking the very lies he was amplifying.
“Please get her fired,” Carlson texted to fellow host Sean Hannity. “It needs to stop immediately, like tonight. It’s immeasurably hurting the company. The stock price is down.”
That’s really the bottom line here: the firing of Tucker Carlson was a business decision, one that proves no host is bigger than the network. Any time a Fox employee tells the truth — even in private text messages — it poses a threat to the company’s bottom line, which depends entirely on parroting whatever lies its viewers want to hear.
For years, the company used the slogan “Fair and Balanced,” a swaggering bit of Orwellian doubletalk. We now know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the philosophy that guides every single decision at Fox News: The customer is always right.
This was especially true during the twilight of the Trump era, when smaller, right-wing networks such as Newsmax and OAN began airing even more outlandish propaganda. As the Dominion case revealed, Carlson privately fretted that Fox would lose audience to these upstarts if they didn’t follow suit.
That’s what this whole Carlson story is about: a media company so desperate to hold onto its audience that it’s willing to empower a demonic force in the process.
So please, for heaven’s sake, stop pondering what will become of Tucker Carlson. He’ll find some new, smaller audience of rubes to pander to, just like Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck before him.
And stop pretending that Fox News is going to suddenly change course or grow a conscience. That’s not how Fox works. The network will find a new demagogue, who will continue to stoke the hatred and paranoia that has proved so lucrative.
We now know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the philosophy that guides every single decision at Fox News: The customer is always right.
When the Founders enshrined freedom of the press into the First Amendment, they conceived of the Fourth Estate as a civic institution, one that would hold politicians and businesses accountable.
They believed, reasonably enough, that journalism would deliver the truth to its readers, whether they liked it or not. But today, the Fourth Estate is a market ruled by the ultimate incentive of any market: profit.
It’s worth noting some context here. While nearly twice as many Americans watch broadcast news over cable, traditional journalism outlets are in crisis. This is, in large part, because of a fundamental asymmetry. Serious, fact-based reporting takes more time and money to produce than the kind of garish click-bait that fuels the Carlson and his ilk. It’s also much easier to get viewers addicted to your program when you constantly pander to their bigotries and delusions.
At present, the one remedy available to hold demagogues accountable appears to be the legal system. It allows companies, such as Dominion, or individuals, such as the parents of the children massacred at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn. to sue the individuals and companies who spread lies about them, and thus to correct the public record. But it’s a deterrent to for-profit propagandists because it threatens the only thing that matters to them: money.
Americans shouldn’t have to file $1 billion-dollar lawsuits to hold hucksters like Tucker Carlson accountable. But if that’s what it takes, I hope those parties damaged by Fox and friends will continue to lawyer up.