stop the presses

When Fox News Turns On Its Own

Tucker Carlson’s allies can’t believe this is happening to them.

As seen on Twitter. Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: @TuckerCarlson/Twitter/AP Photo/Richard Drew
As seen on Twitter. Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: @TuckerCarlson/Twitter/AP Photo/Richard Drew

This article was featured in One Great Story, New York’s reading recommendation newsletter. Sign up here to get it nightly.

Tucker Carlson opened a new front in the battle against his old employer this week when he announced he’ll be hosting his own show on … Twitter? “The news you consume is a lie,” he said in a cheerfully ominous three-minute promo video he tweeted out, possibly in violation of his contract with Fox. “What’s it like to work in a system like that? After more than 30 years, we could tell you stories.”

A fog of war has descended over Fox News and the star it nurtured, then spit out. He’s hunkered down with his producer Justin Wells, who was dismissed the same day as Carlson, April 24. Last week, the pair persuaded two more Fox colleagues to come help them do … whatever it is they are now doing.

Meanwhile, back on the 20th floor of Fox’s midtown headquarters, the many young people who worked for Carlson and Wells must now fend for themselves. “There are lots of tears and fears on the team right now,” says one. “We feel like we’re out there by ourselves, just trying to survive really.” No one at Fox has explained to them why their bosses were actually pushed.

Lacking information, they’ve all become a bit paranoid. Who’s pulling the strings here? Who has been un-redacting Carlson’s creepy text messages for the Daily Beast and the New York Times? How does Fox’s nemesis, the left-wing watchdog Media Matters for America, keep obtaining hot-mic clips from their show? Could it all be part of some plan hatched from within Fox to smear Carlson and kick him while he’s down?

His erstwhile staff is running around 1211 Sixth Avenue like Anthony Perkins in The Trial, seeing sinister plots and shadowy characters behind every door and down every hallway. Lurking just out of sight, as always, is Fox’s longtime communications chief, Irena Briganti, for whom Carlson and his MAGA allies are now openly gunning.

There’s also Abby Grossberg. She arrived on Carlson’s team last summer and has since filed a lawsuit alleging that the show was a hostile workplace seething with misogyny and antisemitism. Staffers who were basically anonymous now have their names and photos in The Daily Mail, while Grossberg has become a hero to the very people she — and they —were paid to troll nightly in their programming: the liberal media. “We’ve always felt that there are spies on us in the building,” says one still employed there who, like other conspiracy-minded people I spoke to, wondered aloud if Grossberg was somehow a “plant.”

It’s a sign of just how on-edge Team Carlson feels now that they are no longer in Murdoch’s favor. “The viciousness of Fox News is on full display,” says another Carlson loyalist. “They try to crush whoever leaves, whether it’s on good terms, bad terms, or, in this case, terms that nobody quite understands.”

And yet, curiously, in each new clip that dribbles out, Carlson happens to be caught saying things his audience would hardly find objectionable. (The latest has him trashing people who use pronouns in their bio and liberals inside Fox. “Roger would never put up with this shit …”) So, as another theory out there goes, could it all actually somehow be coming from … Carlson’s side? Is it a sophisticated scheme to signal something to his once and presumably future viewers, all while keeping his ex-employer on the defensive?

Paranoia, conspiracy, and character assassination — it’s like watching an hour of Tucker Carlson Tonight. And what an entertaining spectacle it is: The people who for years happily put out prime time’s most poisonous program never thought they would end up on this side of it.

Whodunit? Photo: Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images

Tucker Carlson Tonight debuted in November of 2016. It became at times more a political project than a news or even opinion program. Carlson wanted to change the Republican party. His populist rodomontades hit anyone — especially those he saw as RINOs — who strayed from his agenda, even President Trump. Carlson would often espouse ideas — about Ukraine and globalism, among other things — that were antithetical to those of the Wall Street Journal editorial page, which basically speaks for the Republican donor class. Some of Carlson’s views went so far around the bend they appealed to the left wing. (See Glenn Greenwald, among others.)

In its early days, the show’s worldview was crafted by not only its host, but a small number of right-wing true-believer researchers, particularly those based in the Washington, D.C., office. Some had followed Carlson to Fox from the Daily Caller, the website he co-founded and once ran. (One such person, Blake Neff, who wrote for Carlson, resigned in 2020 after his pseudonymous racist musings on a message board came to light.)

But not everyone was a crusader. In fact, most at Fox aren’t all that conservative. They’re just people who wanted to work in TV, and this is where they ended up. The New York office is full of people who grew up in Long Island and New Jersey and who graduated from, say, Hofstra.

Carlson’s show was not the most diverse place, racially, but it was run by gay men. His top two producers, Wells and Alex McCaskill, are married to other men. Several of the bookers and producers working for the 8 p.m. hour of Fox with whom I spoke mostly just see themselves as talented TV-makers whose jobs — what they were hired to do by their boss, who knows his audience better than anyone — were to stand their ground against invidious wokeness, one mocking segment at a time. “We live in Brooklyn,” says one staffer. “We’re hip, normal people who have very normal lives.”

If you ask these allegedly hip, normal Brooklyn dwellers how they think about working for someone who says that immigrants make “our country poorer and dirtier,” peddled pernicious tales about January 6, and has opinions about “how white men fight,” their explanations go something like this: Those clips that go viral on Twitter are always taken out of context … He’s speaking for half the country, whether you agree with it or not … free speech blah blah blah. And so what if the Times publishes an 18,000 word treatise laying out how the program they work on each night “may be the most racist show in the history of cable news”? The New York Times calls everything racist! They hate America and Christmas, football and the Fourth of July! 

Some realize such rationalizations aren’t always compelling. “I can’t tell you the number of friends I’ve lost over the years,” says one. But, says another, “everyone wants to bring him down and it makes you feel like, No, we’re in this together.

And so the Carlson crew got tight. They would go drinking many nights at the Elgin, a whiskey bar on West 48th Street, and they liked their guy, even admired him, for being a success, a fearless truth-teller, and a good boss. He was, to much of America, a sneering parody of a mean, privileged prep-school man-child; to his staff, he was generous, an un-diva who never yelled and often sent attaboy emails.

In 2018, activists swarmed Carlson’s house in Washington while his wife was home, spray-painting an anarchy symbol on the driveway. Carlson left D.C. for good; from then on, he filmed his show from his home studios in rural Maine and on Florida’s Gulf Coast. Certain staffers would make trips to those homes. Carlson’s work family became close with his own family. It was all humming along pleasantly, and inside Fox, Tucker Carlson Tonight became a show people wanted to work on.

One such person was Abby Grossberg. She had worked at CBS, CNN, NBC and ABC before landing at Sunday Morning Futures With Maria Bartiromo in 2019. That show, more than Carlson’s — perhaps more than any other on Fox News — pushed brazen election conspiracies, which means that Grossberg had to book guests like Rudy Giuliani (her emails appear in the Dominion discovery).

After Grossberg wasn’t promoted, she applied to work on Tucker Carlson Tonight. On July 19, she was hired at $145,000, which was, according to her suit, “significantly less” than the salary of a male in a similar role. In September, she was deposed in the Dominion suit. Afterward, she told her new co-workers how she had “protected” Carlson when his name came up. They celebrated by ordering in lunch to the office. (Grossberg’s suit contends that she felt pressured by the company to give misleading testimony; Fox has vehemently denied that.)

The staff recall that, in those early days, she seemed to like the vibes at the show. They say she was included in social gatherings, like the time they all went for drinks at Empire Rooftop on the Upper West Side. Grossberg’s suit, though, tells how she “quickly learned” that the show was a place “where unprofessionalism reigned supreme.”

A whole host of Fox executives and lowly Carlson staffers are mentioned in the lawsuit, but her primary villains are Wells and McCaskill, the two producers. Depending on your reading of the suit, the two come off as prurient misogynists or gossipy gay men making shady, jokingly inappropriate comments. Grossberg details their “blown up photographs of Nancy Pelosi in a plunging bathing suit revealing her cleavage,” their japery about testicle-tanning and Kelly Clarkson’s weight, and the time the pair asked her if it’s really true that Bartiromo was “fucking” Kevin McCarthy. None of it was PC, but that’s what Carlson’s staff liked about their workplace — they seemed to think they could speak and behave in a manner just as uninhibited as their boss did on air each night. Turns out that when you work for a publicly traded company with an infamous history of treating women badly, you can’t.

I asked Grossberg’s attorney, Parisis Filippatos, about all of this. He declined to make his client available for an interview but said, “every single fact that we assert in our pleadings is absolutely substantiated and correct. We stand by every word.” He later called me an “idiot” and said, “It’s not my job to teach you how to write a true and accurate story.”

Grossberg’s suit hit at the right time, with Fox already on the back foot thanks to the Dominion lawsuit. She’s appeared on Anderson Cooper 360°, had a power-victim portrait taken by the Times, and told MSNBC’s Nicolle Wallace that Carlson and Wells made “my life a living hell.” Those sympathetic to Carlson and his staff are especially outraged that her lawsuit is being pointed to in media reports as a reason for why the host had to go.

The Grossberg episode seems yet another way in which Carlson’s staff are now having their own playbook wielded against them. The very people she’s gone after would gleefully book any partisan, no matter how questionable their credentials, so long as they were willing to sing in tune. “She’s very convenient,” admits one person mentioned in her suit. “Look, it’s a juicy headline, a Tucker producer saying Tucker people are horrible. Who isn’t going to book that person? But we’re not allowed to defend ourselves, and we feel like we’re pariahs and villains and like we’re never going to get jobs again.”

Grossberg appears on CNN. Photo: CNN

Fox paid Dominion $787 million to avoid a public trial, only to then be dragged into another — the one against their former No. 1 star. His allies are now flaming the network. “I’m with Tucker,” Brett Favre tweeted this week to the MAGA masses. “Time to boycott Fox until they come to their senses.” Megyn Kelly said her audience now refers to the network as #Foxweiser. Donald Trump Jr. tweeted that he’s “heard from a few of my friends at Fox News that the leftist executives running things are pissed at me for calling them out over firing Tucker and to ‘expect retaliation.’”

Fox’s Briganti, the comms chief, is the company’s arch-defender. She’s been there since the dawn of time (otherwise known as 1996, the year Fox launched). Back then, Fox was a smaller, scrappier operation. Briganti learned PR guerrilla warfare under its founder, Roger Ailes, and his lieutenant Brian Lewis. In 2013, Ailes turned on Lewis, suspecting him of leaking to Gabriel Sherman. Briganti took his place and later managed to hang on as Ailes himself went down. She now serves Ailes’s successor, CEO Suzanne Scott. “She’s a shadowy figure,” one top producer at Fox says of Briganti. “I’ve never actually seen her. I only hear about her.”

“She’s trusted with a lot of sensitive things,” says one exec at Fox. “It takes a while to get to the inner circle here, and she’s sort of built it.”

“Fox News staffers live in fear of Briganti and that’s by design,” Kelly said in a report in Rolling Stone this week. “They know she will plant negative stories about them.” (Briganti has continued to deny this.) That report detailed how Carlson had tried to get Briganti fired in 2020 for being meddlesome.

Carlson regards Briganti as the mongoose regards the cobra. She’s whom he referred to as a “cunt” in a message turned up in the Dominion discovery. Things were so bad between the two that another executive, Raj Shah, was assigned to Carlson as a go-between.

She seems a proxy for his rage at Fox management, which he is rattling perhaps in the hope that they will finally just let him wriggle free from his contract. Carlson’s umbrage at Briganti and her tactics is all a bit rich, considering he’s long been known for his strategic relationships with the so-called mainstream media. (See Ben Smith’s 2021 Times column calling him a journalist’s “best source.”)

Ultimately, trying to see anything clearly amid this fog of war is a hilarious exercise. Everyone involved in this story succeeded in part through their paranoid worldview. That’s what it means to work at Fox: Watch your back, it’s us against them. Sometimes, though, the “us” and the “them” can change rather abruptly. Ailes designed it to be that way, and the place hasn’t changed that much. People there think everybody — including, sometimes, their own co-workers — is out to get them, and usually, they’re kind of right. The network seems now like it’s on wartime footing, but it’s always on wartime footing.

And the show must go on. When ex-Trump White House flack Kayleigh McEnany announced on Twitter that she would anchor the 8 p.m. hour for the week, irate viewers swarmed. (Top reply: “Will you be talking about the horribly unchristian way that Fox has treated the good man whose slot you’re so honored to usurp?”) The ratings are down by 50 percent, and the network is understandably quite concerned. They’re putting executives on the record to gush about how advertisers have at last returned to the tainted hour now that Carlson has been banished.

The large staff Carlson had to leave behind (beyond the prime-time show, there was his Fox Nation streaming show and a documentary unit) is bracing for more of what the network has told them will be “restructurings.” Some have already been let go. “We have to work for a show that is not what we signed on for,” says one who remains.

What comes next? It depends whom you ask and what their agenda is, of which there are many when it comes to the wily players in this tale. To quote Carlson’s Twitter promo this week: “Facts have been withheld on purpose, along with proportion and perspective. You are being manipulated.”

More on tucker carlson

See All
When Fox News Turns on Its Own