The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Even Tucker Carlson knew Tucker Carlson was out of control

Tucker Carlson at the Bedminster Invitational LIV Golf tournament in Bedminster, N.J., in 2022. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
5 min

When Fox News last month announced a parting of ways with host Tucker Carlson, it supplied no explanation for the abrupt break. There was a sense, however, that the precipitating circumstances had to be bad. Why else, after all, would Fox News management dump a popular host in whom it had invested so much?

And as the New York Times reported on Tuesday night, the circumstances were indeed bad. About as bad as an episode of “Tucker Carlson Tonight.”

In a string of text messages from January 2021, Carlson was discussing the stresses of producing a commentary show in the midst of Donald Trump’s election-theft conspiracy theories. The messages came to light through discovery in the defamation suit filed in March 2021 by Dominion Voting Systems against Fox News. In this instance, they show Carlson denouncing Trump as a “demonic force, a destroyer,” adding, “But he’s not going to destroy us.” After some back and forth about the insanity swirling in Trump’s America, Carlson riffed:

Tucker Carlson January 7, 2021 — 04:18:04 PM UTC
A couple of weeks ago, I was watching video of people fighting on the street in Washington. A group of Trump guys surrounded an Antifa kid and started pounding the living shit out of him. It was three against one, at least. Jumping a guy like that is dishonorable obviously. It’s not how white men fight. Yet suddenly I found myself rooting for the mob against the man, hoping they’d hit him harder, kill him. I really wanted them to hurt the kid. I could taste it. Then somewhere deep in my brain, an alarm went off: this isn’t good for me. I’m becoming something I don’t want to be. The Antifa creep is a human being. Much as I despise what he says and does, much as I’m sure I’d hate him personally if I knew him, I shouldn’t gloat over his suffering. I should be bothered by it. I should remember that somewhere somebody probably loves this kid, and would be crushed if he was killed. If I don’t care about those things, if I reduce people to their politics, how am I better than he is?

Like many passages in the discovery materials, that one was redacted in the court docket. But the Times secured the material, noting that it set off a panic among Fox News higher-ups when they read it in the lead-up to the trial. “The [Fox] board grew concerned,” wrote Times reporters Jeremy W. Peters, Michael S. Schmidt and Jim Rutenberg, “that the message could become public at trial when Mr. Carlson was on the stand, creating a sensational and damaging moment that would raise broader questions about the company.” In a development that stunned the press corps assembled in Wilmington, Del., for the trial, a settlement was announced on April 18, just before opening statements were to begin.

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Broader questions about the company, huh? Let’s stipulate here that the message did raise deeply troubling questions. Carlson appears to believe that “white men” somehow stick to principles of fairness and chivalry when fighting in the streets — whereas men of color presumably hew to a less honorable code of engagement. Racist trash, all of it. Another chilling consideration is that Carlson, who has made cable-news history with his ratings, had to grab hold of himself to curb his inner bloodlust. Not a pleasant revelation for any board of directors.

But if the board was genuinely concerned, perhaps it should have paid attention to Carlson’s nightly output over the past six years. There was plenty of racism on “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” as when the host said that immigrants made the country “dirtier” or when he repeatedly espoused the “great replacement theory” or when he said that Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), who fled civil war in Somalia, is a “living fire alarm” for the U.S. immigration system. There was plenty of twisted commentary about political violence, too, as when Carlson repeatedly attempted to convince his viewers that it came predominantly from the progressive left or when he attempted to justify the shootings by then-17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse at protests in Kenosha, Wis., in 2020: “How shocked are we that 17-year-olds with rifles decided they had to maintain order when no one else would?”

Is there anything more scandalous at Fox News, in other words, than the material that is broadcast on Fox News?

In March 2019, Media Matters for America unearthed some old radio recordings of Carlson spewing racist, sexist and misanthropic commentary. In one outburst, he called Iraqis “semiliterate primitive monkeys.” Much like the text messages in the Dominion suit, the recordings portrayed Tucker Carlson in a state of loose candor, riffing on current affairs without worry about punishment. But if the network cautioned Carlson about those remarks, he gave no indication. “Fox News is behind us, as they have been since the very first day. Toughness is a rare quality in a TV network, and we are grateful for that,” Carlson said at the time.

So grateful, in fact, that Carlson apparently interpreted the company’s support as carte blanche to hit the throttle on his particular brand of offensive commentary — both on air and, as we’re now learning, off. What other explanation is there, after all, for a workplace in which Carlson felt free to call women the c-word in text messages and toss around such an overt expression of racism as, “It’s not how white men fight”? The Times reported that the Fox board hatched a plan to engage a law firm to investigate Carlson; now that he’s gone, how about investigating the office culture that he left behind?

Carlson’s progression over the past quarter-century from a ho-hum, bow-tied conservative commentator to a preacher of hatred and misinformation stunned many of his peers in Washington journalism. “What happened to Tucker?” is a question that has morphed in recent years from question to lamentation. The allegedly pivotal text message, however, at least furnishes some evidence that Carlson himself pondered the same evolution: “I’m becoming something I don’t want to be.”