This article originally appeared in the Line.
By Peter Menzies, April 25, 2023
The problem with earning a living by constantly serving up red meat is that sooner or later you become the meat.
Such would appear to be the case with Fox News’s star ratings performer Tucker Carlson, who departed America’s top cable news provider on Monday under the shadow of the company’s epic U.S. $787 million defamation settlement with Dominion Voting Systems. Fox had alleged Dominion rigged the 2020 US Presidential election that resulted in the defeat of Fox-favoured Republican President Donald Trump.
Just as we were rocked last summer by the sacking of grey-haired CTV News anchor Lisa LaFlamme, media junkies are now left to wonder what convinced Fox to pull the plug on its leading light.
Carlson, 53, displays no grey hair and is a man, so the most likely suspect — the one in the library holding the bloody candlestick — is definitely the lawsuit. The settlement was, after all, the largest in history against a media company, and proved that you don’t need a high-minded regulator to ensure those who abandon journalism principles face serious consequences.
Alternatively, my most trusted government-funded news source these days — Qatar Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani’s Al Jazeera — pointed out that only one of Dominion’s 20 defamation claims actually aired on the Tucker Carlson Tonight show. So it could be that when you are making $15-$20 million a year to be an angry talking head, and the boss settles a lawsuit you think should have been defended, quitting in a huff is an option. Besides, Carlson will either pop up somewhere else, or spend the rest of his days living the sort of happy, carefree life about which most of us can only fantasize.
Theorists may also wonder if the end came after Carlson’s plea for the American liberation of Canada from what he viewed as the authoritarian jackboot of Justin Trudeau. Indeed, some might even blame (hope?) Egale Canada’s demands for the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) to remove Fox News from its list of approved foreign broadcasters had something to do with it.
Egale’s executive director Helen Kennedy said a segment by Carlson concerning her organization labeled 2STNBGN groups as “violent and dangerous.”
“Carlson made the inflammatory and false claim that trans people are ‘targeting’ Christians,” Kennedy wrote in an open letter. “To position trans people in existential opposition to Christianity is an incitement of violence against trans people that is plain to any viewer.”
Indeed, Carlson has made quite a career out of outrage and inflammatory comments — the very juice that has always kept the complaints department buzzing at speech regulators like the CRTC.
Far from being an unintended consequence of his schtick, this is why Carlson was so successful. The pressure to maintain large audiences regularly forces presenters beyond the pale and over the edge.
In the beginning, it’s usually honest and innocent enough. Like Fox did, you provide and build on information that no one else is providing — with guests offering experiences and perspectives unique to your programming, but which other media have ignored. Journalism may even be involved. But once you’ve mined out that vein of ratings gold, the default strategy to drive audiences and advertising dollars becomes mad as hell, not gonna take it anymore outrage — liberally spiced with inflammatory comments.
When you run out, you need more. And the next thing you know you’re running “never before seen footage” alleging the innocence of the Q-Anon Shaman (aka Yellowstone Wolf) during the Jan. 6, 2021 Capitol breach and destroying your organization’s credibility.
Madonna played the outrage game with MTV videos. Howard Stern did it. Geraldo Rivera sure did (Al Capone’s vault was vintage) and boy oh boy did Jerry Springer ever get at it. You push the edge of outrageous, then you push it again, always thinking there is no end and there are no consequences. But there always is and there always are. Spare a thought, here, for CNN’s Don Lemon, who also appears to be past his prime.
As a person who rarely watches cable, my experience with Carlson involves viewing his shows while in hotel rooms and catching the occasional YouTube clip. For a time, before his show went crazy, it gave many Canadians a place to go free from the unctuous and overbearing influence of a media overseen by a content regulator. He offered a glimpse over the wall.
The main reason to tune in was not the pursuit of learning or high-minded journalism. No, it was for the voyeuristic thrill of watching sacred cows being slaughtered. To contrast Carlson to anything on Canadian TV was to witness how effectively the CRTC has forced our broadcasters to adopt formats so mushy and mediocre they could only have been designed by regulatory lawyers.
Like Don Lemon, Tucker Carlson was likely the victim of his own outrageousness. However, it should be noted that, in the end, no regulator was required to shut him up. He appears to have done it to himself.
Peter Menzies is a senior fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, past vice-chair of the CRTC and a former newspaper publisher.