The second reaction is condemnation. In the wake of the mass shooting in Buffalo earlier this month, allegedly committed by a man who’d espoused “great replacement theory” online, new attention was paid to Carlson’s comments and Fox News faced new, more vocal criticism. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), for example, sent a letter to a number of Fox executives, including Fox CEO Lachlan Murdoch. In it, Schumer demanded that Fox News “immediately cease the reckless amplification of the so-called ‘Great Replacement’ theory.” It was certainly a political move, aimed at leveraging outrage about the shooting and the network — but it wasn’t baseless.
In response, Lachlan Murdoch offered a third reaction to Carlson’s rhetoric: a shrug. In an interview with Axios published on Tuesday, Murdoch dismissed the furor as jealousy at Fox News’s success, and a product of existing cultural divisions.
“I think when you’re in the news business, and you’re number one … you get a lot of heat and it just comes with the territory,” Murdoch told Axios’s Sara Fischer. He later added, “I think on the noise around it, so much of it is politicized. … And so, you’ve got to be tough about it.”
On the surface, there’s little to make of this. Presented with Tucker Carlson combining anti-left and anti-immigrant rhetoric into an indefensible the elites are out to get regular Americans narrative — a common racist trope — the CEO of Fox responds: Haters gonna hate. Never mind that nearly half of Republicans now think that this theory accurately reflects reality; people are just jealous of Fox News.
Yet it’s useful to consider how Murdoch’s defense of his network depends on the rhetoric that Fox espouses. He waves away criticism of Carlson as really being about ratings, but those ratings are a function of the sharp partisan line Fox draws. And he casts the criticism as politicized, as though Fox News has played no role in amplifying the partisan divide.
That first point is underrecognized: Fox News does consistently pull more viewers than its main competitors, CNN and MSNBC, particularly in prime time. But that’s because it enjoys two advantages. The first is that older Americans tend to watch more cable news — and tend to be more Republican. The second is that Fox News enjoys a near-monopoly as a news source on the political right, while CNN and MSNBC tend to compete with each other and other news outlets.
Polling from YouGov conducted for the Economist in March showed the distribution of trust between news sources. Notice that red, Republican blob.
That’s a measure of trust. But actual consumption patterns look similar. In December, The Washington Post and our partners at the University of Maryland asked Americans what media they actually consumed. Among Republicans, Fox News stood out.
The effect of this is obvious: Fox News has a loyal base of heavily Republican viewers who tune in and boost the network’s ratings. But it means that Murdoch’s defense of Carlson — that it’s just sour grapes from his competitors — depends significantly on the fact that Fox News benefits from partisanship.
Then we get the other claim — that somehow, Carlson is being criticized because “the noise” has been “politicized.” That “great replacement theory” is just another red vs. blue chit.
To some extent, it is, since Carlson and other right-wing voices, including Republican lawmakers, have espoused it. It’s useful political rhetoric if you ignore the downsides, like it reflecting a white nationalist worldview or it being clearly untrue.
But the head of Fox News declaring that criticism is just partisan chatter is like John Wayne Gacy lamenting that some people find clowns creepy. Fox is centered on amplifying partisan rhetoric. It’s why Carlson has a job. This, too, has been documented, with recent research showing that Fox News viewers who were paid to watch CNN soon came to recognize the ways in which the right-leaning network filtered its coverage. In 2007, research determined that the introduction of Fox News into communities “induced a substantial percentage of the non-Republican viewers to vote for the Republican Party.” And that was the old Fox News, where moderate voices were more commonly heard. A number of former Fox employees have since criticized the network’s shift.
The New York Times’s lengthy assessment of Carlson’s programming (and his embrace of “great replacement theory”) offered a more credible explanation for why Fox executives like Murdoch are fine with what Carlson says: People tune in. The paper’s Nicholas Confessore spoke with a former Fox News employee who framed the shtick in terms of the ratings measured by a metric called “minute-by-minutes”: “He is going to double down on the white nationalism because the minute-by-minutes show that the audience eats it up.”
Fox News has long stoked partisanship, using it to build a largely politically homogeneous viewer base that enables the network to win ratings battles. Carlson is good at pushing those numbers higher and uses white-nationalist-approved rhetoric to do so. And when criticized, his boss ignores the merits of the complaints and instead says it’s simply a function of Fox News’s ratings success and the unfortunate taint of partisanship.