book excerpt

“It Was Always Going to End Badly”: The Untold Story of Tucker Carlson’蝉 Ugly Exit From Fox News

Fox never explained that abrupt firing of cable news’ biggest star, allowing conspiracy theories to fester. Now, in his new book, Network of Lies, Brian Stelter explores the myriad factors contributing to Carlson’蝉 cancellation.
The Untold Story of Tucker Carlsons Ugly Exit From Fox News
Illustration by Brian Stauffer.

When Fox News Media CEO Suzanne Scott called Tucker Carlson around 11:15 a.m. on Monday, April 24, and said, “We’re taking you off the air,” she didn’t give him a reason. To Carlson, cancellation was unthinkable. He was the highest-rated host across all of cable news—and he was suddenly sentenced to execution. It was like somebody canceling Taylor Swift mid-tour or removing Stranger Things from Netflix before anyone could stream the ending. It made no sense.

Carlson wasn’t given a path to sign off and pretend that it was on his terms, but Scott did offer him one thing—the chance to include his own comment in the press release. For a moment, he thought about saying yes; maybe he did want the breakup to sound mutually beneficial. But he quickly snapped out of that. He was being dumped, and he wanted everyone else to know it too. He tapped out a farewell email to his staff, known as the Tuckertroop, before his Fox email account was disabled. “I’ve never worked with better people in my life, and I don’t expect I ever will,” he wrote, adding: “I’m a little unclear on what’蝉 going on right now, but at this point it looks unexpectedly bad.”

Then the news erupted in public. “Fox News Media and Tucker Carlson have agreed to part ways,” the announcement said, abusing the word agreed and glaringly lacking any quote from the host. His production team was not given a heads-up, so they found out that Carlson was gone the same way as everyone else, through smartphone news alerts or texts from friends. The show’蝉 senior executive producer Justin Wells was also sacked, but the rest of the staff was still on the clock. They were supposed to stay at their keyboards and whip up a replacement show that very night. Instead, they swapped theories about the canceling. One of his producers thought it was tied to Fox’蝉 blockbuster $787.5 million settlement of the Dominion Voting Systems case, which was struck just a few days earlier. Another producer thought it was triggered by ex-producer Abby Grossberg’蝉 lawsuits alleging a toxic workplace. A third wondered if it was somehow related to January 6 protester Ray Epps’蝉 interview on 60 Minutes the night before, when Epps said Carlson was “going to any means possible to destroy my life.” Epps was believed to be preparing a lawsuit against Fox, which he would file in July.

The reason Carlson’蝉 team couldn’t immediately settle on one simple explanation is because there wasn’t one. Though Carlson would later suggest his ouster was a “condition” of the Dominion suit, there’蝉 no evidence to support that theory, and both parties deny it. According to my reporting, many factors contributed to the defenestration of Carlson, which ranks among the biggest bombshells in cable news history, not only because of what his exit meant for Fox, but also what it meant for the Republican Party.

Carlson was believed to have Trump-like hypnotic power over the GOP base. He was believed to be irreplaceable. But that impression was, in large part, a creation of Carlson’蝉. In truth, Carlson had alienated so many people, instigated so many internal and external scandals, fanned so many flames of ugliness, that his firing was inevitable. After all, he’d been fired from CNN and MSNBC earlier in his career. That’蝉 why, at Fox, he puffed out his chest and pretended to be immune to attack. His long relationship with career vulnerability caused him to foster an image of untouchability. And it worked so well that even now, more than six months after his exit, people are wondering why it happened.

The fact that Fox had no firm plan for its marquee 8 p.m. time slot—no splashy outside hire, no new graphics, no innovative new format—speaks to how suddenly and sloppily Carlson had been terminated. But some of Carlson’蝉 staffers were not entirely shocked. They knew they pushed the envelope far past the point of a paper cut. “It was always going to end badly,” one Carlson producer said. “We knew we were burning too bright.” The royal we was something Carlson always used. He portrayed his production team—and only his team—as a force for good in the battle against the evils he presumed nightly. His entire show was about us versus them, and this approach extended to the rest of Fox, where Tucker Carlson Tonight had the appearance of a rogue unit. According to a Grossberg lawsuit, Carlson’蝉 “bro-fest” environment was antagonistic toward other Fox shows, including Maria Bartiromo’蝉, where she had worked before. Grossberg said she was hauled into Wells’蝉 office in her first week on the job and asked, “Is Maria Bartiromo fucking Kevin McCarthy?” (No, she said.)

Through interviews for my book, Network of Lies, I found that Carlson’蝉 producers and writers were more loyal to him than to Fox as a network. They were a saboteur squad of true believers, regarding the mother ship as almost enemy territory, since as a Fortune 500 company, Fox Corp had policies in place promoting diversity and supporting transgender employees—the very types of things Carlson railed against on air. Of course, Carlson always genuflected to Fox in public, praising the network for letting him “say what we think is true.” But his expressions of gratitude to Fox didn’t fool management because they knew how he acted in private. Six years in prime time had reshaped Carlson, darkened his heart, driven him to the edge. He berated Fox News executives in New York. He belittled people (like me) who scrutinized him. In the view of some of his own colleagues, he became unglued.

While at Fox, Carlson always specified that he worked for the Murdochs, which was a way to elevate his standing and diminish what the org chart said: that his opinion show, like all the others, reported through executive vice president Meade Cooper to Scott, who was a rare female CEO in the male-dominated TV business. According to sources on the staff, Carlson shit-talked both women as well as his number one enemy within Fox News, the entrenched public relations boss Irena Briganti, whom he called a cunt.

Carlson’蝉 internal critics, of whom there were many, viewed his treatment of the female executives as part and parcel with the misogyny displayed on his show. More than a dozen current and former Fox staffers brought this problem up to me, unprompted. “Tucker is very titillated by misogyny,” a host said. Some of the staffers theorized that his mother’蝉 mistreatment—she abandoned the family when Carlson was six—engendered a negativity toward women.

The counterpoint I heard from a Fox lifer was that “Tucker didn’t respect anyone of any gender.” Carlson hit men with the same C-word too, so, according to Fox’蝉 boys-will-be-boys etiquette, he was apparently an equal-opportunity basher. (Remember, this was supposed to be a defense of him.)

Carlson told a friend that the word fuck “is so overused it’蝉 lost all its power and meaning,” so cunt was more effective: “It’蝉 super naughty, but it’蝉 to the point.” His brand, weird as it was, revolved around the idea that he could call anyone the C-word, or anything else, at any time. He could say anything, do anything, and never be held accountable, so long as he commanded the attention and affection of millions. On the inside, that was partially true. Scott, for example, was personally disgusted by some of Carlson’蝉 on-air comments and off-air conduct but felt hemmed in by Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch. She was in charge—except when she wasn’t.

Relatively early in his years at Fox, Carlson struck up a personal relationship with Lachlan, who became the CEO of a slimmed-down Fox Corp when Disney acquired most of Fox’蝉 entertainment assets in 2019. Most Fox hosts didn’t know Lachlan personally, but Carlson did, and he made sure everyone else knew he did. “You couldn’t ask for a better relationship,” he bragged of the Murdochs in 2019. “They are completely supportive. They are nice. They are fun to eat with. They’ve never asked me to go easy on this person or tough on that person.” Media reports about the stream of controversies Carlson invited on himself and the company often emphasized this family connection, as if to say, “Doesn’t matter; he’蝉 safe.”

Internally too, Carlson and Wells routinely dropped Lachlan’蝉 name to get their way: “I’ll talk to Lachlan.” “Lachlan told Tucker he could do this.” But this portrayal they encouraged—of Carlson and Lachlan as regular dinner mates, just two middle-aged dads working together to right all that was wrong with the world—unraveled when both men were under oath in depositions. When asked about Carlson, Lachlan said they only spoke “rarely.” When asked the same question about Lachlan, Carlson chose the same word, rarely, volunteering that “it’蝉 not on a weekly basis or even a monthly basis.” A text message from Carlson to Lachlan in September 2020 also suggested some serious distance between them: “Lachlan, it’蝉 Tucker. Hope you’re great. Thanks for staying strong through all this insanity. We’re all grateful for it.” With its whiff of obsequiousness, that sounds like the way you address the guy who owns your company, not a close friend.

So Carlson was not invincible. But outside Fox, where perception mattered more than reality, he had seeded a compelling story—that he controlled one of the most powerful TV brands in America. That he fearlessly defended free speech from the censors and the liars. (Carlson is no ordinary TV host, he is “a movement,” Wells proclaimed.) Like most of Carlson’蝉 stories, this was wild hyperbole but hypnotically powerful to the people primed to believe it.

Fans told him all the time that he should run for president in 2024. There was even a “Draft Tucker” PAC. So that’蝉 why, on that Monday morning in April, Carlson didn’t think long about finding contentment from cancellation and retiring from public life. Instead, he defied Fox’蝉 lawyers by posting videos on Twitter—now X—and began to raise millions for a new media venture.

Carlson’蝉 brain immediately ballooned with theories about his dismissal. He suspected it was the father’蝉 doing, not the son’蝉. He wondered if it might be related to Rupert’蝉 recent romantic entanglement. On April 4, when Vanity Fair’蝉 Gabriel Sherman broke the news that Rupert had broken up with Ann Lesley Smith, his fiancée of only two weeks, Sherman wrote that “one source close to Murdoch said he had become increasingly uncomfortable with Smith’蝉 outspoken evangelical views.” One week later Sherman relayed this quote from a Murdoch source: “She said Tucker Carlson is a messenger from God, and he said nope.” Carlson’蝉 friends believed Rupert was freaked out by his fiancée’蝉 comments, plus sketchy details about her past, and thus called off the wedding and, perhaps to rub it in, canceled her favorite show.

They buzzed about other possibilities too—one theory held that Lachlan was showing his skeptical siblings James and Elisabeth that he was a suitable long-term leader of the firm. Yet another theory focused on the Fox Corp board of directors and its belated awareness of damaging text messages from Carlson—texts that Dominion intended to display for the first time at trial. The most incendiary as-yet-unpublished message was from the day after January 6. Carlson reflected on watching a video of three or more “Trump guys” surrounding an “Antifa creep” and “pounding the living shit out of him.”

“Jumping a guy like that is dishonorable obviously,” Carlson wrote. “It’蝉 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 moral of his story was about the dangers of dehumanizing political opponents, but the words “it’蝉 not how white men fight” are what startled some Fox board members. It similarly disturbed Dominion executives who read it during the discovery process. The text indicated a view of racial superiority that contradicted Carlson’蝉 frequent (and much doubted) claims of color blindness—and set up an excruciating cross-examination scenario in court.

This much is known for sure: The Fox board retained Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, a notoriously powerful white-shoe law firm, to investigate Carlson and any other malign messages that might exist. “There were major concerns about liability,” an executive told me. Within a week, Carlson was out.

The legal probe was a conceivable reason why he was ousted—but it was hard to square the purported distress over the text with the disturbing performances that Carlson put on night after night. So what else could it be? Carlson’蝉 position on Russia’蝉 invasion of Ukraine—for which he was accused of pro-Putin sycophancy—was thought, by some of his supporters, to be another reason for Lachlan’蝉 action. Carlson’蝉 allies kept coming up with new theories, new ways he had transgressed, which only reinforced his opponents’ view that he was long overdue for a comeuppance.

After he was fired, Carlson claimed to know for a fact that he was canceled due to Dominion. “They agreed to take me off the air, my show off the air, as a condition of the Dominion settlement,” he told Chadwick Moore, a friendly biographer. His camp also leaked this claim to Variety in mid-May, with the added detail that an unnamed Fox board member told Carlson about it on April 26, two days after the cancellation.

I felt like I was witnessing the live birth of a conspiracy theory. Dominion refuted it about as strongly as any company has ever denied anything and said “Fox should take every effort to stop these lies immediately.” Indeed, Fox did, calling the claim “categorically false.” Of course, a conspiracy-addled brain would think they agreed to deny it. Conspiracy theories are self-sealing in that way. (Author Michael Wolff later suggested in his book The Fall that Rupert secretly agreed to drop Carlson as a condition of the Dominion settlement, some kind of gentleman’蝉 agreement, but for which there’蝉 no direct evidence.)

Nothing about Carlson’蝉 “condition of the Dominion settlement” statement made sense. Dominion harbored no special ill will toward Carlson. Given his aggressive vituperation in the transcripts, he actually helped their case by lambasting former Trump lawyer Sidney Powell. His name did not come up at all during the negotiations, according to my sources who were involved in the talks.

Though he was still being paid—and handsomely—in “pay or play” status, he was unable to work for any other network. So Carlson’蝉 attorney Bryan Freedman had ample reason to seek maximum leverage to get the contract dissolved. In a May 9 letter to Viet Dinh, then Fox’蝉 chief legal officer, Freedman accused Fox of fraud and breach of contract because, he wrote, the network promised that it would not settle with Dominion “in a way which would indicate wrongdoing” on the part of Carlson. “We just put Dominion back on the table,” a Carlson friend bragged to me, asserting that this move would help win Carlson his freedom.

Making Dominion a bogeyman also fit neatly into Carlson’蝉 us-versus-them framing of the world. He told his biographer that the lawsuit was “silly” and that the whole point of the case “was to emasculate Fox, take Fox out of the game because Fox was a huge vector for Donald Trump.” Dominion “got it in front of some sort of partisan, low-IQ jury,” Carlson continued, -staying in character and demeaning the majority-Black jury, and Fox -“worried they were going to lose,” he said, so they settled. “That’蝉 not -justice, that’蝉 a scam.”

Let’蝉 step away from the conspiracy cliff. Carlson was not a victim of the settlement. But Dominion did deserve credit for dragging some of Carlson’蝉 intolerability out in the open. “It’蝉 one thing to know about abusive language and angry emails. It’蝉 another thing to have it all read back to you during a deposition,” a source observed. And to have the Fox board retain lawyers to read through his deepest, darkest texts. “People were telling Rupert and Lachlan, ‘This guy is not worth it,’?” an insider said. That’蝉 why Dominion’蝉 wins were a tipping point, even though Carlson’蝉 termination was not part of the settlement. So why was he removed, and what does it reveal about the network of lies?

Think, for just a moment, about the worst relationship in your past—and why it ended. Odds are, there wasn’t just one reason, it wasn’t one thing, it was everything: a book’蝉 worth of fights and slights and resentments and grievances. Maybe there was a final indignity—an affair, a betrayal, the discovery of a derogatory text—but even if one party was blindsided, the other could list a dozen long-gestating reasons for the breakup. That’蝉 why Fox dropped Carlson. It wasn’t one thing. It was everything.

Yes, he was in the sights of the Fox board. Yes, he was under scrutiny for his “cunt” texts. Yes, his “white men fight” message made matters worse. Yes, his show’蝉 climate was so hostile that Grossberg had standing to sue. But there was so much more:

  • Carlson repulsed large swaths of the company he worked for.
  • He created internal strife with his conspiratorial commentaries.
  • He exposed Fox to defamation suits from the likes of Ray Epps.
  • He offended key executives and seemed to take delight in doing so, to the point that managers believed he broke rules and norms just to show he could.
  • He strained friendships, as Rupert’蝉 and Lachlan’蝉 chums repeatedly complained to them about his poisonous rhetoric.
  • He triggered so many ad boycotts and turned off so many advertisers that his time slot was far less profitable for Fox than it should have been.
  • And he committed the cardinal Fox sin of acting like he was bigger than the network he was on.

It was a tale as old as TV. Stardom is a potent and often destructive drug. Icarus flew too close to the sun; he got his wings melted. Carlson flapped away, higher and higher, until one day the Murdochs just couldn’t tolerate his flapping anymore. “He got too big for his boots,” Rupert told at least one confidant.

While Rupert was involved in talks about potentially throwing Carlson overboard, my reporting indicated that Lachlan, not Rupert, made the cold-blooded business decision to do it. Lachlan notified Scott on the evening of Friday, April 21, and waited until Saturday to tell Rupert, according to two C-suite sources. Then Scott made the “You’re fired” call to Carlson on Monday. The executives made a conscious choice not to state a reason for the breakup; thus a dozen different possibilities filled the information vacuum. “It’蝉 Dominion all over again,” one lawyer sighed as -conspiracy theories about the firing festered.

It all called to mind what one of Rupert’蝉 former deputies told me: He “is loyal, loyal, loyal, loyal, loyal—until the minute you’re dead.” By pulling Carlson’蝉 plug, Lachlan showed the same trait.

Copyright ? 2023 by Brian Stelter. Adapted from the forthcoming book Network of Lies, by Brian Stelter, to be published by One Signal Publishers, an Imprint of Simon & Schuster. Printed by permission.