‘No One Has Control Over Tucker’: How Fox News Let Its Biggest Star Go Rogue

Tucker Carlson and Donald Trump

AP Photo/Seth Wenig

As Fox News finds itself beset by an internal crisis fueled by Dominion’s $1.6 billion defamation suit, long-simmering tensions between network CEO Suzanne Scott and star host Tucker Carlson have taken center stage.

Carlson, according to sources inside and outside the network who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, has for years been at odds with Scott, a 26-year Fox News veteran who ascended to the top of the network in the wake of a series of sexual harassment scandals that dethroned Roger Ailes.

Her efforts to maintain control of the network’s often divisive coverage have run up against Carlson’s penchant for courting controversy, his proud disregard for facts, and apparently unconditional backing from Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch, the top executives at Fox News parent company Fox Corporation.

“She’s not the biggest fan of what he does,” an industry source familiar with their relationship said. “But he gets viewers, and that’s why he has a direct relationship with Lachlan and Rupert.”

Carlson, in comments to Mediaite, denied there is any bad blood when asked about a power struggle between him and his boss.

“I strongly support Suzanne and have for a long time, and for what it’s worth, I also like her a lot personally,” he said. “I can’t remember a single conflict with her in seven years. The idea that there’s a ‘power struggle’ between us is absurd. I’m a talk show host. She’s the president of the network. I work for her. It’s pretty straightforward.”

Despite that vote of confidence in the CEO, sources inside and outside Fox News said Carlson operates in his own fiefdom at the network, unaccountable to leadership as he broadcasts his nightly show from his homes in Maine and Florida.

A spokesperson for the Murdochs denied Carlson enjoys any special treatment, calling claims otherwise “absolutely untrue.”

One source with knowledge of the inner workings at Fox pointed out that Carlson’s show has five editorial layers before reaching Scott, including Justin Wells, its senior executive producer, Ron Mitchell, a senior vice president, Meade Cooper, the executive who oversees primetime, Tom Lowell, who was just promoted to oversee all editorial, and Jay Wallace, Fox News president and executive editor.

Yet insiders told Mediaite that Scott and Wallace have no control over what Carlson does between 8 and 9 p.m., one of the most-watched hours in all of television.

“No one has control over Tucker,” one former Fox News veteran told me. “I don’t even know if the Murdochs do.”

That lack of editorial oversight was on display earlier this month when Carlson spent two nights of his prime time show airing bizarre commentary about the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, which he described as a mostly peaceful sightseeing trip by Trump supporters.

The segment angered members of Fox’s news division at the network who spoke with Mediaite, since it came as Fox was still under constant fire from damning revelations in the Dominion case.

The disapproval inside the network was apparent on air. As a series of Senate Republicans and the Capitol Police chief decried the spin as dishonest revisionism, none of Fox’s news programs covered the revelations that Carlson had presented as a bombshell of historic proportions.

The only segment came from Special Report with anchor Bret Baier, the most-watched news program on Fox. Chad Pergram, a respected congressional correspondent who was present at the Capitol during the attack, delivered a report rebuking some of Carlson’s claims while noting the searing criticism from lawmakers.

There was no top-down mandate to ignore the story, Fox News sources said. In fact, some programs were encouraged to cover it. But shows on the news side simply refused.

I asked Carlson what he made of the rest of the network mostly ignoring his commentary. “I didn’t see it. Not my division,” he said.

In a radio interview this week, following my conversation with Carlson, the Fox host said leadership had no involvement in his Jan. 6 coverage beyond legal vetting.

“Fox did not get involved,” Carlson said. “This was only my show. I don’t think any other show has played it. But Fox did not stop me from airing anything. They lawyered it up quite a bit to make sure we didn’t get sued.”

While Carlson’s coverage may pass muster with Fox’s lawyers, those guardrails have not kept false information off the air, nor have they protected the prime time host from serious legal threats.

Ray Epps, a former Marine who took part in the riot at the U.S. Capitol, sent a letter on Thursday demanding retractions and apologies from Carlson over his commentary suggesting Epps was a government provocateur. As the Times notes, “Letters seeking retractions and apologies are often sent when lawyers are preparing to file a defamation lawsuit.”

There has never been any evidence to support the conspiracy theory that the government orchestrated the riot. Nonetheless, the crackpot claim has been given ample time on the air of Carlson’s nightly prime time show as well in his widely-panned documentary on the Capitol riot.

The absence of Carlson’s Jan. 6 commentary from almost every other Fox News show was a dramatic on-air manifestation of the behind-the-scenes dynamic at the network — where Carlson has few allies.

Chaos, in many respects, has become Tucker Carlson’s brand. Sources said he has tried to foment it inside the network as well as outside. Throughout the years, he has worked to fortify his position at Fox News by ginning up internal conflict and leaking negative stories about the network to the press.

The controversial Fox News host has long had a reputation as an industry gossip who speaks regularly with the same community of mainstream media journalists he so often attacks on the air. That Carlson leaks incessantly to reporters is an open secret within Fox News.

“There is no doubt that Tucker spreads shit about hosts he doesn’t like to the press,” one source outside the network told me. “And leadership at Fox News knows it.”

That reputation has sparked internal conflict. When his cozy relationship with the Beltway press was exposed by Ben Smith in a column for the New York Times, Carlson’s Fox News colleague Mark Levin publicly scolded him for consorting with the enemy.

Carlson denied leaking dirt to reporters when asked by Mediaite.

“There have been a million pieces over the years attacking my views. But I don’t [think] there’s ever been a piece claiming I’m involved in some sort of internal treachery within the company, because I’m not,” he said. “I hate that shit. Also I’m busy with a daily tv show. Who has time?”

When I mentioned Smith’s 2021 piece in the Times, Carlson replied, “I’ve never talked to any reporter about what goes on inside Fox. And actually most of the time I don’t really know what’s going on inside Fox. I’m not in management.”

In response to a request for comment for this story, a Fox News spokesperson told Mediaite: “A story littered with anonymous sources from former disgruntled employees spreading gossip on things they know absolutely nothing about is hardly groundbreaking and should be taken with a huge grain of salt.”

The narrative of internal strife at Fox is undoubtedly easier to sell right now, given the external pressures facing the network, most notably the $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit it is facing from Dominion. The lawsuit — which exposed in shocking detail the extent Fox News hosts and executives went to promote Trump’s election lie in an effort to mollify an audience outraged by his loss — has put the war between the opinion side of the network and its news division in full view.

It’s a war with a long, explosive history. In 2019, Carlson mocked his news side colleague Shepard Smith on the air, a shot inside the tent that contributed to the anchor’s departure from Fox News weeks later.

The bitter divide between news and opinion continued to manifest behind the scenes. In texts between Carlson and fellow prime time hosts Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham revealed in the Dominion suit, the hosts fumed about reporters and anchors fact-checking Trump’s claims and plotted ways to band together and protect the network from boiling viewer outrage over its 2020 Arizona call.

“My anger at the news channel is pronounced,” Ingraham said in one exchange.

“It should be,” Carlson replied, before taking a direct shot at two Fox anchors who have since left the network. “We devote our lives to building an audience and they let Chris Wallace and Leland fucking Vittert wreck it. Too much.”

In another conversation, Carlson expressed outrage that Fox News reporter Jacqui Heinrich fact-checked a Trump tweet that mentioned Hannity.

“Please get her fired,” he wrote. “Seriously… What the fuck? I’m actually shocked. It needs to stop immediately, like tonight. It’s measurably hurting the company. The stock price is down. Not a joke.”

The submission of the news division at the hands of powerful opinion hosts at Fox News is something that sources said would never have happened under former network boss Roger Ailes.

Despite his prodigious misconduct, Ailes was keenly aware that Fox News would not survive if the news end of the network was not protected. “Ailes cared about the brand,” one former Fox veteran said. “It was all about the brand.”

A source with knowledge of the inner workings at Fox explained that Scott is “not in the weeds of editorial on a day to day basis. There’s an entire editorial leadership team that oversees that, and Suzanne is focused on running the business.”

Whereas Ailes ruled Fox’s newsroom with an iron fist, Scott has been more hands-off in her approach to editorial. And that’s made her an easier target for Carlson, who, two sources outside the network said, is an enthusiastic purveyor of rumors that the network chief is on the chopping block.

“Everybody knows that Tucker is the one spreading it,” one industry insider told Mediaite. “He is under a tremendous amount of pressure right now, and this takes the heat off him. That is the sole reason. It’s based on his own speculation and a desire to get more power within Fox News.”

Carlson vehemently denied that allegation.

“I’d love to know who your source is because the opposite is true,” he told me. “I’m not involved in office politics on any level, ever. Ask around. I never get involved in anything, and I’m hardly a rumor spreader. If I think something, I say so directly. Plus, as noted, I’m grateful that Suzanne runs the place. I don’t know who’s telling you this but it’s a lie, and a very weird one.”

Multiple sources said this wouldn’t be the first time Carlson has spread rumors about the internal operations of Fox News that turned out to be false.

“He has spread false rumors to other reporters about internal goings on at Fox News to stir internal conflict,” one journalist told Mediaite.

(Carlson is also eager to share his unvarnished opinions on Trump revealed in the Dominion suit with reporters. As one told me, “Not a word in this was any surprise to the dozen or so journalists Tucker talks to, at the New York Times and elsewhere.”)

There’s little evidence Scott is fazed by the whispers of bad blood. “She is as buttoned up as they come,” one industry leader said. “If Tucker Carlson is getting under Suzanne’s skin, no one is going to see it.”

“Suzanne doesn’t gossip,” they added. “She’s got a tight, loyal circle. She’s not going to air dirty laundry.”

Scott appears safe in her job, but several more weeks of bad headlines and a potentially brutal trial in the Dominion case, slated for April, could put even the most well-regarded newsroom CEO in peril.

Notably, Rupert Murdoch made clear in his deposition in the case that Scott is in charge of decision-making at the network. “I appointed Ms. Scott to the job,” he said, “and I delegate everything to her.”

Those comments have fueled speculation that Murdoch is setting up Scott to take the fall for the scandal.

“I don’t believe that there’s any merit in those rumors,” one source familiar with the matter said.

“If they fired Suzanne Scott, there would be an uproar,” they added, noting she is highly regarded by Rupert Murdoch and star anchors like Bret Baier.

It’s true, Scott has overseen an expansion of the highly-profitable business, programming decisions that have grown the network’s audience, and is revered by many sources in the industry who nevertheless harbor concerns about the editorial direction of Fox.

What’s more, Lachlan Murdoch delivered an enthusiastic endorsement of Scott during a investor conference earlier this month.

“The position of the channel is very strong and doing very well,” Murdoch said. “It’s a credit to Suzanne Scott and all of her team there… Suzanne Scott has done a tremendous job.”

But what if Murdoch is forced to choose between Carlson and Scott? One former on-air talent at the network said it won’t be a fair fight.

“Tucker was hand-selected by the Murdochs. They love him. Push comes to shove, Tucker’s going to win any battle, including one against Suzanne,” they said.

Indeed, Carlson is seen as untouchable thanks to his relationship with the Murdochs. One Fox insider described Carlson as the “favorite” of Rupert and his “golden boy” — a privilege that will continue to afford him free-reign on his nightly show.

“Everyone just bows to him, because he’s got the Murdochs’ ear,” the insider said. “He can do no wrong.”

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Aidan McLaughlin is the Editor in Chief of Mediaite. Send tips via email: aidan@mediaite.com. Ask for Signal. Follow him on Twitter: @aidnmclaughlin