Tucker, the Twitter phoenix
Just a week ago, Tucker Carlson was in the wilderness after being fired from Fox News. This week, in a move that could upend the media and social media landscapes ahead of 2024, America’s most popular TV news host announced that he is bringing his show to Twitter.
In a video post on Tuesday, Tucker said he will launch a news show on Twitter, a first for the social media platform. Carlson, whom Fox ousted unexpectedly in the wake of its $790 million defamation settlement with Dominion Voting Systems, said that because “there aren’t many platforms left that allow free speech, the only one is Twitter.”
By any measure, this is a big catch for Elon Musk. Carlson is one of the most influential voices in the growing populist movement within the Republican Party and the single most-watched nighttime TV host, with a regular nightly audience averaging about 3.5 million people.
What might this mean for Twitter? Musk wants Carlson to be the first megastar of his Twitter 2.0 — and to showcase the money and influence his subscription revenue-sharing model could offer content creators. For Twitter, giving Carlson a show marks a transition towards more traditional TV-style broadcasting that could completely transform the platform.
Making this work is crucial for Musk, whose erratic management and drastic changes have put a dent in Twitter’s ad revenue since he took over last year. On Thursday, Musk announced that he had hired a new CEO; he's reportedly in talks with NBCUniversal’s Linda Yaccarino for the role.
Carlson, of course, has his own history of alienating advertisers at Fox. But Musk is betting that Carlson is the key to getting a new subscription revenue model off the ground, and he’s willing to take more risks with his ad revenue to get there. While the specifics haven’t been announced, under Twitter Blue’s new model followers will pay a low fee to subscribe and gain access to Carlson’s content.
But … will Carlson’s audience follow him? It’s unclear how many of his regular viewers are already on Twitter, or how many will meet him there. Carlson’s cable audience was engaged and receptive to his narrative, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into tweets. Carlson is popular with boomers, who do not make up a large portion of Twitter users. What’s more, the experience of scrolling through Twitter is very different from planting yourself in front of the TV for 30 minutes.
Another big question: Call the lawyers!
There are a few legal wildcards. For one thing, Carlson is still trying to get out of his Fox News contract, which continues to pay him $20 million a year but also includes strict non-compete clauses.
But there is a bigger legal issue looming for Musk if he really wants to transform Twitter into a social media broadcaster. Twitter could be subject to FCC fairness rules, which require that it gives voice to both political parties' views on controversial issues — especially if Carlson lands any right-wing 2024 presidential candidates as guests. Musk seems to be trying to get out ahead of this by saying that he is open to liberal content creators, too. On Wednesday, he invited the freshly fired CNN host Don Lemon to join Twitter’s ranks.
Carrying content like Carlson’s could also end up weakening Twitter’s claim to Section 230 protections, internet laws from the 1990s that shield social media platforms from legal liability for content posted on their sites. (Dominion, for example, could not sue Twitter for libel in the same way that it did Fox.)
Musk’s announcement that he is treating Carlson as a “content creator” rather than a news broadcaster may be a feint to avoid liability for Carlson’s content. YouTube, which this future version of Twitter may resemble, is not liable for users’ content. If Twitter was seen as a producer and a publisher of news, however, it might not be able to make the same argument.
What might all of this mean for 2024?
Carlson has a prominent media perch again, and that will matter for the US presidential race. The Fox v. Dominion case unearthed private communications of Carlson bad-mouthing former President Donald Trump, who remains the odds-on favorite to get the GOP nomination (despite, or because of, his outrageous performance on CNN this week.)
On his Fox News show, Carlson was careful not to challenge Trump. It’s unclear whether that was because of the network’s tight leash or because of other strategic calculations he made. But this much is certain: If Carlson on this new Twitter show voices sentiments similar to what he’s texted, we could be in for a showdown between the populist right’s most prominent politician and its most popular media figure.