Overheated rhetoric is not a new feature of the American news landscape.
In the 19th century, newspapers were openly partisan and sometimes directly tied to a particular political party. And just as the “big three” era of alleged unbiased reporting gave way to more aggressive matchups on ideological cable news networks, so too the fallout from the split between primetime viewership leader Tucker Carlson and Fox News might be a glimpse of what the news business might look like in its next evolution.
As Carlson himself said in his single video comment since parting ways with Fox, the problem with much of what passes for debate or national conversation on cable TV is not that it’s extreme, mean or overly vigorous, but that it’s “unbelievably stupid.” Delivering the news entertainingly is itself no crime, but Carlson pointed to something deeper about the talking point yelling matches on our televisions.
The things our talking heads fight about on cable are “completely irrelevant, they mean nothing,” said Carlson, speaking directly to the camera in a video posted on Twitter. “And yet at the same time – and this is the amazing thing – the undeniably big topics , the ones that will define our future, get virtually no discussion at all: war, civil liberties, emerging science, demographic change, corporate power, natural resources.”
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What separated Tucker’s show and made it so popular was exactly what he pointed to in his video message: its focus on topics that are of utmost political importance but get almost no actual political attention from either side of the partisan divide.
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Topics like the way government and corporations seem to have coordinated to sidestep the First Amendment and censor Americans, a ruling class that openly declares that it has moved beyond chauvinistic notions like loyalty to nation, or ideas that the foreign policy blob that administers the American empire – and it is an empire – places beyond the boundaries of the Overton window with regard to matters of war and peace. All were covered extensively on “Tucker Carlson Tonight” and unlikely to see much discussion anywhere else on cable.
Carlson’s video got more than 23 million views, 7.5 times Tucker’s best-in-business audience on Fox, and almost 20 times its current viewership. Of course, it’s only one video, not an apples-to-apples comparison, but one has to imagine its sheer reach has caused some headaches, not only at Fox News corporate, but among counterparts at MSNBC and CNN.
Whether he elevates viewership and purchase at one of many alternative media outlets or strikes out independently, Tucker Carlson will be just fine. Any program he anchors will instantly attract millions of viewers. But the question that can’t quite be answered yet is whether the flow of trust, viewership, and respectability unfairly still granted to a handful of legacy media organizations has tipped far enough that Tucker’s departure hurts them more than removing his views from primetime air hurts him.
Will viewers move on from legacy media?
The media ecosystem is vastly different today than when Fox previously fired other popular primetime hosts, like Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly. “The O’Reilly Factor” averaged around 3.7 million viewers in its final weeks on the air, with Carlson consistently bringing in 3 or 4 million.
Meanwhile, The Joe Rogan Experience has an audience of 11 million, and another mainstream anchor who made the jump to independence, Megyn Kelly, has surpassed a million subscribers on YouTube (her audience is likely much bigger).
There’s no doubt that the 8 p.m. slot on a successful cable news network still gives you a mighty megaphone, and more importantly, the patina of legitimacy, the privilege of driving the debate at other legacy outlets, and a direct line in particular to many older voters. But that slot appears to have lost roughly one half of its audience with Tucker’s departure, and, even more encouragingly, that audience is starting to show up on alternative programming like the conservative upstart Newsmax.
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Many in legacy media want to believe the success of Carlson’s show and the popularity of some of his anti-establishment positions is a form of hypnotism; Tucker spun his watch in front of his 3.5 million viewers, and they all came away repeating them. Few stop to consider that the show was popular exactly because it gave a hearing to the views millions of Americans already held, and voice to a mistrust they already shared of virtually every one of America’s elite institutions. Many of those views simply cannot be found anywhere else in legacy media – yet – and as the conduit of opinions hardly out of the ordinary among voters but shocking to the uniparty, “Tucker Carlson Tonight” will be sorely missed.
Getting rid of Carlson won’t make his viewers less interested in matters legacy outlets deem too controversial or dangerous for discussion. It remains to be seen whether winning the short-term battle by firing Tucker will turn into the ultimate pyrrhic victory for cable news.
Inez Feltscher Stepman is a senior policy analyst at Independent Women’s Forum and host of the High Noon with Inez Stepman podcast.