Racism and the business of Fox News
Jonathan Greenblatt, the chief executive officer of the Anti-Defamation League, asked advertisers gathered last week 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.
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.
And 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.
Timothy L. O'Brien is a senior columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.
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