The mystery surrounding Tucker Carlson’s ouster from the airwaves at Fox News — and his future plans in media — are coming into sharper focus.
On April 26, Carlson spoke by phone with one of Fox Corp.’s eight board members, who told the host that his recent benching was a condition of Fox News’ settlement with Dominion Voting Systems, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the conversation.
The unnamed board member told Carlson that the condition does not appear in any of the settlement’s documents, and instead was a verbal agreement. If Fox didn’t comply, the settlement was off, Carlson was told. Dominion had plenty of leverage given that the $787.5 million deal to settle Dominion’s defamation suit against the network wouldn’t officially close until late-May.
If Dominion opted to blow up the deal, Fox would return to square one on settlement talks or potentially subject the Murdoch family empire to a jury trial that would undoubtedly expose more embarrassing details about the operation of Fox News and fallout from its 2020 president election coverage. Unlike Sean Hannity, Jeanine Pirro and Maria Bartiromo, Carlson wasn’t a key player in the suit that claimed Fox News repeatedly and knowingly aired false claims about the company with regards to the 2020 U.S. presidential election.
But Dominion was looking for the best way to maim the conservative news network, and forcing Fox News to cut ties with the most-watched personality in cable news would deal a potentially insurmountable blow and lead to a viewer exodus, according to Carlson’s understanding.
“That condition was intended to hurt Fox, and Tucker is just collateral damage,” says a source familiar with the matter. “Dominion wanted to punish Fox, and it’s working.”
Dominion and Fox Corp. both strongly dispute that the decision to take Carlson off the air was directly linked to the settlement. A Fox News spokeswoman called it “categorically false.” Dominion issued a statement to Variety.
“As the Fox principals who negotiated the settlement well know, Dominion made no demands about Tucker Carlson’s employment orally or in writing,” Dominion said in a statement. “Any claims otherwise are categorically false and a thinly veiled effort to further damage Dominion. Fox should take every effort to stop these lies immediately.”
Still, the speculation about Dominion and Carlson has spread. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, inserted himself into the drama on May 13 when he called out Dominion’s alleged role in Carlson’s removal from the airwaves. “I am happy that Dominion does not operate in Texas, and I don’t think that they should do so in the future,” Abbott tweeted. “We may disagree with other’s positions, but we should never try to improperly silence views contrary to our own.” (In 2020, Texas rejected the use of Dominion software.) Some other Republican governors are expected to follow Abbot’s lead.
Amid a standoff with Fox — technically still Carlson’s employer given that the network has not terminated his employment — the polarizing but popular anchor is poised to launch a show on Twitter within the month, two knowledgeable sources say. With “Tucker Carlson Tonight” senior executive producer Justin Wells on board, Team Carlson is working as quickly as possible to post his debut show from his home in Maine, where he has a full production studio.
If Fox tries to prevent Carlson from launching the show on the social media platform, where he enjoys a following of 7.5 million, the host is prepared to litigate or “watch the network implode attempting to challenge free speech,” says one of the sources. As the battle plays out, Fox is continuing to pay Carlson, an enormously influential voice in conservative politics, his $20 million annual salary.
After learning that he was being sidelined on April 24, Carlson hired high-powered Hollywood attorney Bryan Freedman for the contract dispute. Freedman — whose other media clients include Don Lemon (ousted by CNN on the same day as the Carlson-Fox split), Megyn Kelly, Chris Cuomo and Tiffany Cross — is well known as the lawyer you retain when you are ready to go to war with a media giant. As such, Freedman sent a letter to Fox on May 9 saying Fox employees, including “Rupert Murdoch himself,” broke promises to Carlson “intentionally and with reckless disregard for the truth.” (A source says Fox has not yet responded to the letter.)
The attorney, who forced NBC News to pay Kelly $69 million after she was fired in 2019, has made it clear to Fox that its cabler breached Carlson’s contract by pulling him from his top-rated 8 p.m. slot, and now he is free to do what he wants. (Carlson’s contract expires in January 2025.) Freedman declined to comment for this story but recently told Axios: “The idea that anyone is going to silence Tucker and prevent him from speaking to his audience is beyond preposterous.”
Following the split, embarrassing Carlson text messages leaked to various media outlets, the worst being a missive in which he expressed mixed feelings about three Donald Trump supporters beating up on an Antifa activist during the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021. “Jumping a guy like that is dishonorable obviously. It’s not how white men fight,” he wrote. The text messages were part of Dominion legal filings, and unredacted versions were not available to the public. One of the sources says Carlson believes the leaks came from either Fox or Dominion.
But the leaks may play to Carlson’s advantage. If Fox tries to cite Carlson’s text messages as cause for firing, it will open a Pandora’s box given that other popular anchors the network is trying to hold onto are said to have embarrassing text exchanges that would surface in any Carlson litigation, negating the point of Fox paying nearly $800 million to make the Dominion suit go away.
Carlson’s Twitter move could have additional reverberations with talent at the network. A handful of Fox anchors have reached out to Carlson directly or had their surrogates contact him to say they are eager to join whatever venture he starts on Twitter when their contracts are up, according to sources.
Twitter owner Elon Musk stressed that Carlson does not have a deal with the social media giant. “[W]e have not signed a deal of any kind whatsoever,” he recently tweeted. “Tucker is subject to the same rules & rewards of all content creators.” As for how Carlson could monetize his mega following on Twitter, Musk also recently detailed how any such arrangement would work, noting that the company will take nothing the first year and then 10% on content subscriptions thereafter. Ever since Carlson interviewed Musk in mid-April, the two have been in constant communication, says a source familiar with their dealings. (Perhaps surprisingly, Carlson has been texting with recently ousted CNN anchor Lemon and also has been in talks with Kelly to appear as a guest on her titular SiriusXM show.) As for Carlson’s relationship with his former bosses, that source says he still has some affection for Lachlan Murdoch and doesn’t blame the scion for being sidelined.
Meanwhile, Dominion may not have been the only entity looking for Carlson’s removal from the airwaves. Semafor recently reported that both Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch held separate calls with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy this spring, leaving open the possibility that Carlson’s benching may be related. But a source in contact with the Ukrainian leader threw cold water on the idea of Zelenskyy lobbying the Murdochs to cut ties with the anchor who has been skeptical of the U.S. sending billions of dollars in weaponry to Ukraine.
“Zelenskyy knows who Tucker is and is aware of him, but that’s it,” the Zelenskyy source says. “He definitely likes Hannity better.”