Rupert Murdoch moved swiftly and unexpectedly to fill the void opened up by Megyn Kelly’s departure for NBC. Thursday morning, Fox News announced Tucker Carlson is taking over Kelly’s 9 p.m. slot. Carlson’s ascension to prime time is significant in several ways, the most crucial being this: It’s another sign that Murdoch is pushing Fox News in a more pro-Trump direction.
Carlson’s promotion stunned many inside Fox, according to sources. In the hours after Kelly announced Tuesday morning that she was leaving for NBC, senior Fox executives were led to believe the network would take time to fill her slot. “There will be a lot of experimenting,” one insider told me yesterday. The leading internal candidates were thought to be women. Since Fox’s launch, in 1996, a female anchor has held a prime-time position.
This morning, Fox co-president Bill Shine called Carlson to give him the news, a source said. Murdoch had personally made the decision to promote Carlson, two senior Fox staffers said. Murdoch is a big Carlson fan, according to sources. This fall, he invited Carlson to lunch at his Madison Square Park penthouse and personally offered him the 7 p.m. show when Greta Van Susteren left the network. Since then, Carlson’s show has been a ratings success, posting double-digit gains (in recent weeks Carlson’s 7 p.m. show beat Megyn Kelly’s at 9). Perhaps as important, Carlson has a good relationship with Trump, and his show has been broadly in line with the Trumpian wing of the GOP. Whereas Kelly was all but blacklisted by Trump, Carlson scored more than a dozen interviews with Trump during the campaign. In recent weeks, his show has been sympathetic to Trump’s skepticism about the intelligence community’s claims that Russia hacked the DNC and intentionally meddled in the election.
Getting 9 p.m. right is crucial for Fox. According to one network insider, Kelly’s show generated more advertising revenue than Bill O’Reilly or Sean Hannity. (Veteran Fox anchor Martha MacCallum is taking over at 7 p.m.)
Carlson’s promotion is one sign of just how much Murdoch wants to appease Trump, Fox insiders say. Murdoch has been intent on forging a tight relationship with Trump since his victory, sources close to both men tell me. One longtime Murdoch confidante told me the two speak by phone at least three times per week. As I reported Tuesday, at Mar-a-Lago over the holidays Trump criticized Roger Ailes and lavished praise on Murdoch. And Murdoch has told Fox executives that Trump asked him to submit names for FCC commissioner. (A Trump spokesperson denied that.) Murdoch has allowed Sean Hannity to turn his 10 p.m. show into de facto infomercials for Trump.
People close to Murdoch are surprised by how fast Fox has fallen into line with the Trump administration. This morning, Bill Kristol, a longtime Fox contributor, criticized Hannity’s fawning interview with Julian Assange. “I’m old enough to remember when Fox News was pro-American soldier not pro-anti-American leaker,” Kristol tweeted. During the GOP primary, Murdoch veered from neutral to openly hostile to Trump’s candidacy. One Murdoch associate told me that over the years Murdoch spoke of Trump as a buffoon. Murdoch was also turned off by Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric. But in the general election, Murdoch came around to backing Trump (after a détente brokered by Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner). Now he seems intent on turning up Fox’s support to a new level.
Murdoch’s reversal, the associate said, can partly be explained by Murdoch’s longtime desire to have a relationship with an American president. Murdoch has met every occupant of the Oval Office since Nixon, but has never had a personal connection with one. The 85-year-old Murdoch may see Trump as his last chance.