Tucker Carlson failed upward into a chance to do real journalism. Will he take it?

May 4, 2017
Carlson gives a speech in 2012. Photo by Gage Skidmore.

Tucker Carlson’s ascent to the top of Fox News could be a real opportunity for him to become the respected gentleman journalist his famed bowtie always wanted him to be.

Though he long ago shelved the signature neckwear, the newly launched Tucker Carlson Tonight puts him in a position to change the tenor and approach of the old Bill O’Reilly timeslot and bring much-needed journalistic integrity.

But Carlson’s early outings suggest the 47-year-old anchor intends to dutifully maintain the bedtime ritual of millions of aging Americans who want to growl at their televisions until it’s time to soak their dentures and dream of an America where many of us didn’t exist.

The O’Reilly Factor successor has fared well: Carlson’s 8 pm premiere clocked 3.2 million viewers age 55 or older in early returns—about the same as O’Reilly’s numbers.

The question is: Can anyone who has risen to the top at Fox News do anything but parrot the will of the network’s ideologues? Fox News founding chairman Roger Ailes was forced out last summer, and co-president Bill Shine was forced out this week, a move conservative host Sean Hannity dubbed “the total end of the [Fox News Channel] as we know it.”

Hannity meant it as a threat, but it also could be seen as a welcome promise for those marginalized by the network’s hostile workplace.

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Maybe there is a strident, curious, and watchable talk-show host in Carlson—someone who fits the Fox News agenda minus all the creepy sexual abuse.


Carlson’s hire doesn’t offer a sense Fox is seeking to correct course. The hire of a high-profile woman to the role might have signaled to viewers and staffers that the network intended to do something about the now-revealed seams of the company’s misogynistic culture. Yet there were few women candidates available in-house after the high-profile departures of Megyn Kelly, Gretchen Carlson, and Greta Van Susteren within the past year. I can’t imagine a person of color Fox could give the role to—some folks outside the editorial division are alleging a culture of racial bias and insensitivity at Fox, too.

So fans of more-of-the-same got what they wanted with Tucker Carlson, who becomes the prime-time anchor at the GOP’s favored news station during an openly cable news-dependent Trump administration. Carlson already caught the president’s attention earlier this year for making claims of a refugee-driven crime spree in Sweden. Trump was lambasted for making unsupported claims of chaos in Scandinavia based on a Fox News report Carlson anchored. Those claims were debunked, but the event illuminated a relationship between the presidency and Fox News that Carlson should take seriously.

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Carlson, who has stacked failed career moves atop failed career moves to reach new heights, is the epitome of how privilege operates for the American white male.

He was born into his career and wealth—dad was a news anchor in LA who went on to become the president of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and his stepmom, who raised him from age 6, was an heiress to the Swanson TV-dinner fortune. The long-running CNN show Crossfire died on his watch in 2004; it had run without interruption from 1982 until former Daily Show host Jon Stewart eviscerated Carlson and Paul Begala on their own show that fall. The show was canceled the following January. (A 2014 version lasted briefly, a seeming casualty of the incessant coverage of Malaysian Air’s missing airplane.) He spent three years at MSNBC before joining Fox News in 2009, where he lurked on pundit panels and played substitute host for absent anchors until he was tapped to co-host morning programming on weekends.

In November, Tucker Carlson Tonight debuted at 7 pm. He briefly took over Megyn Kelly’s slot when she left the network, before taking over the vaunted 8 pm slot on April 19.

His career was pocked with turns, notable bylines, and skips around networks without landing a hit show, until America tuned in to watch him get booted off of Dancing With the Stars on the season opener in 2006.

“I’m loosening up,” he told his frustrated instructor, tone defensive, as his Frankenstein-esque pelvic thrusts proved otherwise. Even that moment invokes a meme for which Carlson seems well-suited: Give me the confidence of a mediocre white man.

Carlson can fight that notion by digging in and doing smarter work than his predecessor. He has the right tendencies as a journalist—when he isn’t giving in to smarm, condescension, and pretending not to understand guests who disagree with him, as he did with this hard-to-watch badgering of Teen Vogue’s Lauren Duca. He does like to push his interview subjects and dig at truth—from a particular side of the aisle, yes, and dripping with his own ego and bias. But maybe there is a strident, curious, and watchable talk-show host in Carlson—someone who fits the Fox News agenda minus all the creepy sexual abuse. Someone who advances a dialogue that is fact-finding and informative, in between all the high-horse tirades conservative viewers seem to require.

Carlson, who has stacked failed career moves atop failed career moves to reach new heights, is the epitome of how privilege operates for the American white male.

Meanwhile, the message to women at Fox News can’t get much clearer at this point: There is no winning, ladies. Bad guys finish first, rewarded with more money than you can even imagine, shouting their claims of conspiracy and “fake news” all the way to the bank. To leave the network, it’s been reported O’Reilly was paid $25 million and Ailes banked $40 million. Fox paid $13 million to settle harassment claims from women accusers.

To pretend the problem only exists at Fox is a mistake, sure. The New York Times explains with exacting detail what too many women in American workplaces have internalized and lived with for too long: A woman who points out bias, mistreatment, or outright abuse will be ignored; he will stay your boss, in a position to ruin your life with smirking impunity. Instead of moving to protect the woman, the company will close ranks around the manager and treat the complaint only as a source of possible litigation instead of rehabilitating or rectifying any pattern of abuse.

There’s no promise any of that will change at Fox. But if Carlson wanted to lead a culture change through journalistic integrity, it could be a boon to us all.

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Shaya Tayefe Mohajer teaches journalism at the University of Southern California and works as a freelance journalist in Los Angeles. Previously, she was the news editor for and a reporter for The Associated Press. She is a graduate of New York University's masters program in journalism. Follow her on Twitter @Shaya_in_LA.