Analysis: Fox News' sudden firing of Tucker Carlson may have come down to 'risk versus reward'

Analysis by Oliver Darcy for CNN


That is the question I have been asked — and expect to continue to be asked — more than any other after the seismic news that Fox News had fired its highest-rated host, Tucker Carlson. The news, which rocked both the media and political worlds, begs for an answer to that fundamental question.

But answering it is anything but easy. In the hours following Carlson's abrupt dismissal from the right-wing channel, a number of explanations have emerged — all with plausibility. It goes without saying that it was no coincidence that the dismissal came just days after Fox's historic settlement with Dominion Voting Systems. But what specifically about that case prompted Carlson's undoing remains murky.

Perhaps it was related to ex-producer Abby Grossberg's lawsuit against the network, which alleged rampant sexism and anti-Semitic behavior behind the scenes at Carlson's show? Or perhaps it was profanity-laced remarks, some of which were redacted in the Dominion discovery documents, that Carlson privately made, disparaging his colleagues, including Fox brass? Or perhaps Rupert Murdoch, and his chief executive son Lachlan, wanted to send a message about who is ultimately in command at the company after having been embarrassed for months with the public airing of Fox's dirty laundry?

It's possible it was all of the above, given that each of the issues are intertwined. For its part, Fox News did not offer an explanation for Carlson's ouster in the short statement the network put out announcing the bombshell decision. "We thank him for his service to the network as a host and prior to that as a contributor," Fox News said. Carlson also offered no comment on Monday, ignoring my many texts and phone calls seeking information.

Which leaves us in a frustrating position. We know the basic contours of how the decision was made (Lachlan Murdoch and Suzanne Scott came to agreement Friday evening about canceling Carlson's show and informed him on Monday morning, just before publicly announcing the news). But we are unable to say definitively, for now, what led to the firing of one of the most powerful figures in modern American media and politics.

One veteran television news executive told me that they believed the decision came down to a straightforward calculation by the Murdochs: Risk versus reward. "There's a lot of drama and intrigue, but this is always about managing risk vs reward," the person said.

"I know that's not very exciting, but it's how these decisions get made at the highest level," the executive added. "A weighing of the negatives - and risks to the business - versus the positives or benefits."

And if you're the Murdochs, it is easy to say how holding on to Carlson comes with more much more risk than reward. Carlson is not a team player, and in fact is uncontrollable. He carries legal baggage, and the Murdochs are trying to put an end to the legal disputes they find themselves in. He regularly births negative news cycles about the network that tarnish the brand, and Fox News is desperate to emerge from the cloud of negative press it has been the subject of. Meanwhile, mainstream advertisers have stayed far away from Carlson's show, which is far too toxic to associate with.

The Murdochs also have plenty of evidence to support the bet that Fox News is bigger than any single person. Just look at Glenn Beck, Bill O'Reilly, Megyn Kelly, and others who have exited the network. None of them have bigger platforms today than they did when they were on Fox News. They all have a less powerful megaphone than the one they carried when employed by the Murdochs.

Meanwhile, the network itself has endured. It is pretty much enshrined as a law of physics in the universe of right-wing media that whoever the Murdochs put in prime time will rate. In some cases, certain shows have out-rated their predecessors. Beck was replaced by the higher rated "The Five," for instance.

All that said, Carlson will test the hypothesis that Fox News as a brand trumps any single personality. Carlson is a force unlike any other in right-wing media and politics. He commands a loyal audience that is really not akin to anything else in the space. If he were to turn up on another channel, it's certainly possible that a not-so-insignificant chunk of his audience would follow him over — especially with former President Donald Trump eager to rip the Murdochs and fan chaos in right-wing media.

Which is all to say that, while the Murdochs may have made a calculated bet that the odds will remain in their favor, it is still a bet. And it's not clear exactly how things will shake out when the dice land.