April 29, 2023
It’s been a lifetime since Fox News offloaded Tucker Carlson, and when I say a lifetime, I mean six days.
It feels like forever thanks to the exhausting velocity of theories that seek to explain the downfall of cable television’s most famous host and racist. Carlson was fired because of the Dominion Voting Systems lawsuit. Carlson was fired because he used the C-word. Carlson was fired because he prayed too much. Carlson was fired because even his colleagues at Fox despised him.
That’s just a partial list of the best guesses circulating in the media ether. While Carlson was probably felled by more than a single factor, these guesses are akin to the trees that obscure the proverbial forest. Rupert Murdoch, who founded Fox News, did what he often does at a moment of crisis, swiveling 180 degrees to secure his business empire. The move is famous enough to have an unusual name in Britain, where Murdoch first came to global prominence: the reverse ferret.
In the 1980s, Kelvin MacKenzie was the editor of Murdoch’s London tabloid The Sun, and he loved to describe his spiciest stories as putting a ferret down the pants of whichever celebrity or politician was targeted. But when a story turned out to be wrong or legally actionable, as often happened, MacKenzie burst out of his office and shouted to the newsroom, “Reverse ferret! Reverse ferret!” That meant one thing: The paper had to climb down immediately. After a string of fabricated stories about Elton John in 1988, for instance, The Sun paid the singer 1 million pounds and printed a headline on its front page that said, “SORRY ELTON.”
One of the sharpest Murdoch watchers, the Australian investigative journalist Neil Chenoweth, connected MacKenzie’s antics to his billionaire proprietor. “Rupert Murdoch’s entire business style may be characterized as a reverse ferret,” Chenoweth wrote more than 20 years ago. “Time and again when his plans have gone awry and he has found himself facing calamity, his superb survival skills have saved him. Just before he hits the wall, he does a little dummy, he feints this way and that, and then he sets off with undiminished speed in a new direction.” For instance, the right-wing Murdoch unexpectedly threw The Sun’s support to the Labor Party and Tony Blair in 1997, reportedly because then-Prime Minister John Major refused to back policies that Murdoch had pressed him on.
That kind of out-of-the-blue abandonment is basically what happened with Carlson, Fox’s biggest star and the pride and joy of not just Rupert Murdoch but also his son Lachlan, who runs the network on a daily basis. Both Murdochs had unusually close relationships with their favorite host — Carlson even dined with Rupert at the 92-year-old’s estate in Bel Air just a few weeks ago — until, all of a sudden, they didn’t. Carlson learned just a few minutes before the rest of us that his services were no longer required at Fox News.
This occurred a few days after another big reversal: Fox’s decision to pay $787.5 million in damages to Dominion for wrongfully reporting that its machines took votes away from then-President Donald Trump in 2020. The stop-the-steal ferret placed in America’s pants by Carlson and other Fox hosts, such as Maria Bartiromo and Lou Dobbs, was suddenly extracted, and while it was major news across the country, Fox hardly mentioned it, just as the network said almost nothing about Carlson’s exit. The properly executed reverse ferret denies its own existence.
THE PHILOSOPHY BEHIND this maneuver helps answer another question: What’s next for Fox? The consensus, expressed by journalist Brian Stelter, is that the Murdochs have learned to never again let a host become as extreme and beyond their control as Carlson. The Murdochs have a line of allowed mendacity, Stelter explained this week, and Carlson crossed it all the time; whoever replaces him will understand that you do not cross the line. Stelter, who is now working on his second book about Fox News, added, “I would like to believe that maybe Rupert Murdoch wants to drag his network back to a more reality-based place.”
That would defy the imperative of the reverse ferret. Glenn Beck got too wild and was reverse ferreted more than a decade ago. As NPR reported in 2011, “At long last, we have an answer to the enduring question: Is it possible for someone to be too incendiary, even for the Fox News channel?” Bill O’Reilly took Beck’s place as the network’s headliner, and when he eventually went too far (by sexually harassing women), he too was gone. Now, it’s Tucker Carlson’s turn. Throughout it all, Fox has made piles of money, billions and billions of dollars, far more than its rivals.
The lucrative dialectic of the ferret/reverse ferret is the spring mechanism for Murdoch’s business success. That’s because the kind of right-wing propaganda that makes the greatest amount of money is not reality-based; it’s how we got birtherism, the war on Christmas, Seth Rich, ivermectin, the “great replacement theory,” and election denialism. Walking up to the edge of what might destroy them, and doing an about-face that might involve paying off an aggrieved party, is not a mistake but a business strategy.
It is magical thinking to believe that Rupert and Lachlan have any interest in abandoning a strategy that constitutes their DNA. The Murdochs will not save us from the Murdochs.