The State Defeated Tucker Carlson When Boycotts Could Not

Fox News demagogue Tucker Carlson was brought down by lawsuits and settlements after years of failed consumer activism.

Tucker Carlson speaks during 2022 FOX Nation Patriot Awards on November 17, 2022 in Hollywood, Florida. (Jason Koerner / Getty Images)

Tucker Carlson has been kicked off of Fox News, just like his predecessor Bill O’Reilly. (Sorry, he’s been “future endeavored” if you like.) Like O’Reilly, Carlson was the target of years of boycotts and advertiser pressure campaigns from activists who opposed his right-wing demagoguery. Like O’Reilly, Carlson easily withstood it all. And like O’Reilly, what eventually brought down Tucker Carlson was the irresistible power of the democratic state.

O’Reilly, remember, was fired from Fox after the New York Times reported that he had settled multiple sexual misconduct lawsuits. Fox was able to ignore twenty years of consumer activism from liberals who had hoped that they could leverage the market against him, but had to fold when it became clear that he was becoming a legal liability. Carlson withstood multiple aggressive boycott campaigns led by media watchdogs like Media Matters for America, NGOs like the Anti-Defamation League, and politicians like Ilhan Omar; but as Politico noted just a few years ago, the high ratings he brought to the network made him “all but cancel-proof.” But when Carlson exposed Fox to the threat of state action and, ultimately, a historic $787.5 million defamation settlement, it couldn’t defend him anymore.

Liberalism presents consumer activism as an effectively omnipotent cure for every problem capitalism can inflict upon us. It has to, because if we recognize the limits of things like boycotts and advertiser pressure campaigns then we have to accept that sometimes state intervention is the only possible solution. Capitalism has to resist this principle because once you acknowledge the state’s ultimate sovereignty over markets, you’ve destroyed the premise of private property — the foundation upon which capitalism is built.

That’s why even left activists are often tempted to regard boycotts as how you do politics rather than as a sometimes ill-fitting strategy.

Three years ago this week, Bernie Sanders appeared on Fox News during his 2020 primary campaign. It was widely regarded as an extraordinarily successful event; Sanders refused to pander to Fox’s right-wing audience, but he was still able to build common ground with them over issues like health care and taxes. At the time, however, a widespread objection among liberals and many ostensible leftists was that by appearing on Fox he was “legitimizing” it. Media Matters, which had been promoting advertiser boycotts because of Carlson, loudly complained that the appearance was undermining its strategy: “Democrats need to ask themselves if at this moment they really want to be throwing Fox News a lifeline,” Media Matters president Angelo Carusone said.

I don’t think it very plausible to argue that but-for-Bernie Carlson would have left Fox in 2019, but casting blame for the strategy’s failure is beside the point. It failed. As I argued at the time, if your boycott strategy demands absolute buy-in that you’ve never been able to achieve, it’s time to change the strategy. Fox kept Carlson on because he was more of an asset than a liability; this is easy enough to see when you look at its stock yesterday.

Can you guess when news broke that Carlson was leaving? Fox was always going to be able to swallow these little ad revenue hits, but what it couldn’t absorb was Dominion Voting Systems taking it to court and suing it into oblivion.

I am not going to use this piece to address concerns about state censorship from folks who are fine with market censorship, which is what boycott deplatforming strategies obviously are. I do, however, want to take this opportunity to remind everyone which strategy is more effective.