On Eve of Trial, Discovery of Carlson Texts Set Off Crisis Atop Fox

The day before Dominion Voting Systems’ defamation trial against Fox News was set to begin in a Delaware courthouse, the Fox board of directors and top executives made a startling discovery that helped lead to the breaking point between the network and Tucker Carlson, one of its top stars.

Private messages sent by Mr. Carlson that had been redacted in legal filings showed him making highly offensive and crude remarks that went beyond the inflammatory, often racist comments of his prime-time show and anything disclosed in the lead-up to the trial.

Despite the fact that Fox’s trial lawyers had these messages for months, the board and some senior executives were now learning about their details for the first time, setting off a crisis at the highest level of the company, according to two people with knowledge of the discussions.

The discovery added pressure on the Fox leadership as it sought to find a way to avoid a trial where Mr. Carlson — not to mention so many others at the network — would be questioned about the contents of the private messages they exchanged in the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election.

Two days after the board’s discovery, Fox settled that case for $787.5 million, believed to be the highest for a defamation trial.

Several people with knowledge of Fox’s discussions said the redacted messages were a catalyst for one of the most momentous decisions Fox and its leaders — the father-son team of Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch — had made in years: to sever ties with the host of their highest-rated and highly profitable prime-time program and a face of the network in the Trump era.

The company dismissed him on Monday, with a phone call from Suzanne Scott, the chief executive of Fox News Media.

In the end, according to one of the people with knowledge of the internal discussions, Lachlan Murdoch viewed forcing out Mr. Carlson as a “business decision,” just as he did the Dominion settlement.

Fox had no comment beyond its initial, terse statement announcing “Fox News Media and Tucker Carlson have agreed to part ways.”

Mr. Carlson and Bryan Freedman, a lawyer representing him, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

It is unclear why the Fox board and other executives did not know about the contents of the redacted messages until just before the trial, which was focused on whether Fox News had knowingly aired false claims about Dominion and its voting machines after the 2020 election. Unredacted portions of the documents, including some in which Mr. Carlson spoke derisively about former President Donald J. Trump, were widely reported on in the weeks before the trial.

The board considered using an outside law firm to investigate the top-rated host, concerned about the harm Mr. Carlson’s behavior might cause even beyond the Dominion case, the two people said.

By the time the board did see the redacted material, Lachlan Murdoch was already moving to find an out-of-court accommodation with Dominion, having given his negotiators the go-ahead to increase Fox’s offer to the company, according to one of the people briefed on the discussions.

Company executives have indicated that a variety of factors fed into the decision to fire Mr. Carlson after Fox stood by him for years as he drew protest and advertiser boycotts for trafficking in conspiracy theories and narratives of white grievance. But they acknowledge that the discovery of what was in the redacted text messages was an important factor in his ultimate dismissal.

The role that the messages — produced in the Dominion discovery process — played in helping to end Mr. Carlson’s career at Fox demonstrates the severity of the damage the suit inflicted on the company. Fox was battered repeatedly by damaging disclosures as it proceeded to trial. If it had settled far earlier in the process, the company could have avoided having to hand over Mr. Carlson’s messages and those of others, including from the personal accounts of both Murdochs.

Over the past two years, the Murdochs’ patience began to wear thin, said people familiar with their complaints. Mr. Carlson emerged as an almost unaccountable figure who drew new headaches with conspiracy theory programming that included falsely portraying the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol as possibly orchestrated by the federal government. Then, as the Dominion case headed to trial, he told his audience last month that the rioting was, in fact, a peaceful exercise, using security footage that the Republican Speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy, had given to Mr. Carlson exclusively.

Although statements made on his show represented only a small piece of the Dominion lawsuit, the disclosures related to his messages took on an outsize role and added to the company’s public relations woes.

It is notable that even when compared with the extreme rhetoric Mr. Carlson was allowed to use on air, the messages released publicly had the ability to shock. In one, he referred to the lawyer Sidney Powell, a major proponent of the debunked theory that the Dominion machines switched votes, with a crude and misogynistic slur. Amid the cache of redacted messages was one in which he used a similar vulgarity to describe a senior Fox News executive, The Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday.

One person briefed on the contents of the redacted material said one of the messages was particularly offensive, adding to the concern at the top of the company. The Times has not seen the contents of the message.

Dominion lawyers planned to press the judge about using the contents of the redacted messages in their questioning of Mr. Carlson. The lawyers prepped dozens of potential questions for the host, along with hypothetical rejoinders they thought Mr. Carlson might use to deflect the toughest of them. And they planned to pin him down on the ones that were most demeaning toward women. The two sides had different views of whether much or any of Mr. Carlson’s unredacted messages would be seen in court — a difference that, at trial, would have been sorted by the presiding judge, Eric M. Davis of Delaware Superior Court.

The settlement of the Dominion case, however, has not ended the threat posed by the messages. The New York Times, The Associated Press and National Public Radio have challenged the redactions, meaning they could still become public.

And Mr. Carlson’s indiscretion has exposed him further. Given how polarizing he has been, both inside and outside Fox News, more evidence of embarrassing and inappropriate conduct could emerge. In video obtained by The Times, for instance, Mr. Carlson is shown off camera discussing his “postmenopausal fans” and whether they will approve of how he looks on the air. In another video, he is overheard describing a woman he finds “yummy.”

His texts could also factor in a pending defamation suit that the software company Smartmatic — often paired with Dominion in the wildest versions of the stolen-election conspiracy theory — has brought against Fox, as well as in a suit brought by a former Carlson producer, Abby Grossberg, alleging a hostile and discriminatory work environment.

All this was in the mix when the network finally cut Mr. Carlson’s program this week, according to several people familiar with the internal discussions. And, the end of his run followed a pattern.

His unceremonious departure made Mr. Carlson the latest in a list of prominent hosts and executives Fox has decided to show the door once the Murdochs concluded they were no longer worth the trouble: Glenn Beck (2011), Sarah Palin (2013), Roger Ailes, the network’s co-founder (2016) and Bill O’Reilly (2017).

Despite the political clout he could exercise and the money his top-rated show brought in for the network, ultimately, Mr. Carlson learned that he served at the pleasure of the Murdochs.

Their decision in the end was as swift and unsentimental as the two-paragraph statement the network sent in announcing his dismissal: “We thank him for his service.”

Katie Robertson, Nicholas Confessore and Michael M. Grynbaum contributed reporting.

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