Tucker Carlson, currently its headline star, is out here claiming, with zero proof, that “the NSA, the National Security Agency, is monitoring our electronic communications and is planning to leak them to take this show off the air.” But network executives haven’t had Carlson’s back on that one, to his reported fury—the network’s news division isn’t covering the allegations as news, and the network hasn’t released a statement decrying the NSA’s supposed abuses. “Tensions are sky high,” one source told CNN Business. Carlson is “extra pissed,” said another.
Then there’s Donald Trump’s Big Lie about the election having been stolen from him. In the wake of the 2020 elections, Fox News joined in on Trump’s claims about election irregularities, and even promoted conspiracy theories about voting machines rigging the election against Trump, only to have to back off under threat of lawsuits from voting machine companies. The network repeatedly aired a debunking of the conspiracy theories in December, and continues to try to protect itself against possible legal action. It aired Trump’s CPAC speech over the weekend, but ran a disclaimer in a chyron saying “The voting system companies have denied the various allegations made by President Trump and his counsel regarding the 2020 election” the minute Trump seemed ready to get into specific “the election was stolen” lies.
Fox News is also on a balance beam when it comes to vaccines. The network has produced a PSA promoting vaccination. Several of its personalities have spoken on the air and on social media about being vaccinated themselves. Rupert Murdoch, the network’s founder, got vaccinated. But Fox has also been a constant source of vaccine disinformation. Carlson has said that young people “ shouldn’t get the shot” because it is, he falsely claimed, more dangerous than COVID-19, with his on-air guest saying college vaccination requirements are “almost this apartheid-style open-air hostage situation, like: ‘Oh, you can have your freedom back if you get the jab.’” Carlson and Laura Ingraham have tried to whip up viewer rage about the Biden administration’s efforts to get more people vaccinated.
Fox News was never shy with the misrepresentations and racist dog whistles and lies. But Trump has pushed the right wing so far in the direction of falsehood and conspiracy theory that the network is in a real bind, needing to play to those things for an audience drunk on Trumpism, but not quite wanting to lose its plausible deniability as a source of journalism and definitely not wanting to get sued by a deep-pocketed voting machine company. The end result, at this point, seems to be Carlson, Ingraham, and a couple of other hosts going full Trump, while the network’s official position—in court—is that no reasonable person could believe what Carlson says. And so you get Carlson claiming the NSA is spying on him while the network remains silent, or Carlson lying about the safety of vaccination while the network has a PSA in favor of it.
Make no mistake, though: Fox News is making a decision to let Carlson peddle his dangerous lies. Plausible deniability for legal purposes doesn’t keep network executives from airing claims that undermine faith in our elections and are putting the U.S. at risk of a COVID-19 spike that could be averted if more people would get vaccinated. Carlson is the face of Fox News now.