Fox News Thinks Tucker Carlson Is Still Good for Business

Jonathan Greenblatt, the chief executive officer of the Anti-Defamation League, asked advertisers gathered Tuesday for Global Marketer Week to press Fox Corp. to fire its resident flamethrower and ratings-magnet, Tucker Carlson.

Carlson has been trafficking in white supremacist myths recently on Fox News and his broadcasts, Greenblatt said, offer an “example of how hatred is being mainstreamed in America in 2021.” He recommended that advertisers rein in spending on Carlson’s show. “You can hold them accountable like few other actors in society because your dollars are the fuel that enables their business model.”

There is a long tradition of companies using ad budgets to strong-arm reporters, commentators and their publishers into avoiding unfavorable coverage, so invoking the power of the purse to stymie inquiries and conversations is thorny. In this particular instance, though, it’s helpful to remember who Carlson is and what he’s up to. He’s certainly not a reporter, and he’s not a commentator in any classic sense. He’s a deft propagandist and performance artist who steeps himself and his audience in bigotry, racism and “cancel culture” antics to keep the world at bay.

As Michael Gerson, a former adviser to George W. Bush, noted in the Washington Post last week, Carlson is “providing his audience with sophisticated rationales for their worst, most prejudicial instincts. And the brilliance of Carlson’s business model is to reinterpret moral criticism of his bigotry as an attack by elites on his viewers.”

This bile is a hallmark of our times. And it’s not about left versus right. At its core, it’s about a war between facts and disinformation, with power as the prize, and deserves to be throttled. Greenblatt’s appeal to advertisers aims to cut off one source of funding for it, but Carlson is just a front man for the larger enterprise churning along behind him. The Murdochs call the shots at Fox, and convincing them to change course matters most.

Greenblatt recognizes that as well. He and Lachlan Murdoch, Fox’s chief executive officer, exchanged letters recently about Carlson. Murdoch defended his star, saying Greenblatt somehow misinterpreted Carlson’s advocacy for the voting rights of white people, and his invocation of the Great Replacement Theory, as bigotry. “Fox Corporation shares your values and abhors anti-Semitism, white supremacy and racism of any kind,” Murdoch assured him.

Aha. Carlson, however, has been taking deep dives into this sort of muck for some time. So has his network. The Murdochs don’t see a moral imperative at work because they’re politically aligned with the project they, their shareholders and their subscribers are funding. Fox’s programming, Murdoch told investors in February, “is exactly where we should be targeted.”

Does staying the course make business sense for Rupert Murdoch and his son even if they don’t have ethical qualms about it? They’ve never stopped supporting programs simply because advertisers have threatened to walk, perhaps because advertisers have found other places in the Fox empire to park their money even after abandoning hosts such as Carlson and Laura Ingraham.

Advertisers have been pulling out of Carlson’s show over the last year, and its ad revenues slid accordingly, despite boffo ratings. Carlson has no blue-chip advertisers on his show, and one of his biggest sponsors is My Pillow Inc., the company founded by a Donald Trump loyalist, Mike Lindell. But Fox’s overall ad revenues were up about 14% in its most-recent quarter, in part because of a handsome – and one-time – boost from political advertising tied to the 2020 presidential election.

As my colleague Tara Lachapelle has also pointed out, Fox generates only about 30% of its earnings from advertising. Its bottom line is insulated from vagaries in the ad market and among viewers by multiyear affiliate deals locked in with pay-TV providers.

Still, Fox’s shares are trading at $37.80, down about 6% from their closing price of $40.34 on March 19, 2019 – the day the company began life as a standalone after being spun off from 21st Century Fox in a transaction with Walt Disney Co. There are lots of factors causing the stock to lag, but incendiary programming a la Carlson clearly hasn’t given the shares a major boost. Fox’s audience is also significantly older than those of competitors, and it’s not clear younger viewers will have the same appetite for the dumpster fires the network features each evening.

For now, at least, the Murdochs appear content with their bottom line, despite the divisions Carlson and Fox’s other hosts stoke. That leaves plenty of room for Carlson to continue lighting matches – and to play make-believe about what he’s doing.

“I’m sure that people who hate my politics will try to discredit them by calling me names, but there is no show that I’m aware of that has made a stronger case for a color-blind meritocracy than ours has,” he told Variety in an interview last summer.

Carlson and his handlers at Fox are anything but color-blind, of course, even if they interpret everything around them as black and white — and green, the color of money.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Timothy L. O'Brien is a senior columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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