SIX YEARS AGO the most popular cable-television host had a prime-time show on Fox News. Loud, opinionated and bombastic, he was a thorn in the side of two Democratic administrations. Liberals abhorred him; conservatives tuned in to see him rail against “political correctness” and other liberal pieties. But after the New York Times reported that Fox had paid out $13m to settle lawsuits from five women accusing him of sexual harassment or inappropriate behaviour, and more than 50 advertisers abandoned his show, the network unceremoniously kicked Bill O’Reilly to the kerb (Mr O’Reilly has long denied the charges against him).
History does not repeat itself, but it sometimes rhymes. On April 24th—almost six years to the day after Fox dismissed Mr O’Reilly—it parted ways with Tucker Carlson, currently the most popular host on cable television, who also rouses liberal ire and delights in skewering all things “woke” (the current term for “politically correct”). Fox is also facing a lawsuit, this time brought by one of his former producers, Abby Grossberg, accusing the network and Mr Carlson’s staff of sexism and anti-Semitism—charges that Fox vigorously denies.
Mr Carlson was always an unlikely populist. Expensively and coastally educated, his stepmother is heir to a frozen-foods fortune and he has a home studio in Maine, where he has summered all his life. Earlier in his career he put in stints at PBS and MSNBC, both liberal stalwarts. Mr O’Reilly affected an outer-borough, guy-next-to-you-at-a-bar pugnacity; Mr Carlson’s blue blazers, repp ties and cocksure delivery made him appear the embodiment of an old-school, East Coast establishment Republican.
That species is as endangered as the blue whale; Mr Carlson’s political views are far more baroque and hard-edged. Like many on the new right, he has fawned over Viktor Orban, Hungary’s illiberal leader. He has argued that Democrats are “trying to replace the current electorate…with new people, more obedient voters from the Third World”—a theory that finds favour on the hard right. He has downplayed and distorted Trump supporters’ attack on the Capitol on January 6th 2021, airing selectively edited video and claiming the rioters were “meek” “sightseers”. And he reliably supported Mr Trump, devoting an entire show to an interview with him just two weeks ago.
In private, however, his feelings about Mr Trump were not nearly so warm. Just two days before the Capitol riot, he texted his producer: “I hate [Trump] passionately,” he wrote. The former president’s greatest strength, according to Mr Carlson, “is destroying things. He’s the undisputed world champion of that. He could easily destroy us if we play it wrong.” To another colleague, he wrote: “We are very, very close to being able to ignore Trump most nights. I truly can’t wait.” Mr Carlson had some interesting things to say about Fox’s management, too. “Those f-s are destroying our credibility,” he wrote. It is not yet clear if these sorts of remarks occasioned his departure.
These texts emerged as part of a defamation lawsuit filed by Dominion Voting Systems, which makes voting machines that Fox hosts and guests falsely claimed had flipped votes and could be easily hacked. On April 18th Fox agreed to pay $787.5m to settle the case—one of the biggest defamation payouts ever—just as the trial was getting started.
Some see Mr Carlson’s unceremonious departure—he and his executive producer Justin Wells, who is also out, reportedly had no inkling of their fate on Monday morning—as a tacit admission of wrongdoing, intended to reassure investors and pre-emptively stanch an advertising outflow of the sort that hit Mr O’Reilly’s show. Just a few days earlier, Fox parted ways with another Trump-boosting host, Dan Bongino. Perhaps Fox is cleaning house and needs a couple of severed heads to remind its employees of the distinction between pandering to its base, as partisan political programmes on both Fox and MSNBC regularly do, and actually defaming people or companies that might sue. Perhaps it was related to Ms Grossberg’s lawsuit.
Whatever the reason, Mr Carlson’s departure, like Mr O’Reilly’s, is a reminder that while Fox news may nurture and create stars, it is not beholden to them. When their antics become too costly or embarrassing, they are shown the door, whatever the cost (Fox’s stock dropped sharply today). But there is a lesson here for gleeful liberals too. They danced on Mr O’Reilly’s grave, and Mr Carlson sprung up to replace him. Today they may be celebrating Mr Carlson’s departure, but Fox News is alive and well. It is still the most-watched cable network in the country, and has seen off threats from upstart rivals on the right. It won’t take Fox long to find someone else to thrill its viewers and enrage American liberals. ■