This week's controversy over statements made by Fox News Channel's Tucker Carlson is as much about a high-stakes battle over the network's financial future as it is over what he said on a radio show a decade ago.
The liberal advocacy group Media Matters for America this week released two batches of recordings Carlson made as a guest on radio's "Bubba the Love Sponge Show" between 2006 and 2011, before he worked at Fox. The release was timed to coincide with Fox's meeting with advertisers on Wednesday, the first time it has ever made a sales pitch that for most television networks is a rite of spring.
In the tapes, Carlson made remarks minimizing statutory rape, used sexist slurs to refer to specific women and referred to Iraq as "a crappy place filled with a bunch of, you know, semiliterate primitive monkeys."
Fox's primetime host has responded by attacking Media Matters and vowing that "we will never bow to the mob." In the only specific reference to his quoted remarks, Carlson said that "it's pointless to try to explain how the words were spoken in jest, or taken out of context, or in any case bear no resemblance to what you actually think."
What's behind the words is a bare-knuckles brawl over advertising revenue, the lifeblood for any network. Media Matters' goal has been to publicize controversial or offensive things said by Fox's prime-time hosts Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham to attract the attention of advertisers, who are usually loathe to see their products associated with controversy.
A show becomes less viable if advertising dollars are choked off — a strategy that worked before for liberal activists when Fox News parted ways with Glenn Beck.
Under normal circumstances, Fox's primetime lineup would be a coveted spot for advertisers since it routinely has the biggest audience of any cable television network. But Fox's controversies have tarnished the brand, said Mark Hughes, CEO of C3, a firm that consults companies on effective advertising strategies. The troubles date to sexual misconduct allegations against Carlson's predecessor Bill O'Reilly and the late Fox chief Roger Ailes, which turned off women who make a large percentage of ad-buying decisions, he said.
With continued controversy, Fox News is going to see less ad revenue from top brands, Hughes said.
Carlson's show on Tuesday, for example, contained no advertisements from car companies, soft drink makers or any of the brands that are traditionally big spenders on TV commercials. The commercials on Carlson's show featured four for Fox programming, two each for a pillow manufacturer and a storage company, and plugs for a walker, hearing aid, blood pressure-lowering device and testosterone booster. Another commercial was for a computer-cleaning service that dubbed itself "the people's militia."
Advertising has been shifted to different parts of the day so no revenue was lost and Fox is on track for a record year in ad sales, said Marianne Gambelli, the network's advertising sales president. Kantar Media estimated Fox News had $1.022 billion in advertising revenue in 2018, up from $1.019 billion in 2017.
Carlson said on his show Tuesday that critics like Media Matters "would like Fox News shut down tomorrow. The other news channels agree with that."
But Angelo Carusone, president of Media Matters, denied that.
"My intention ultimately is to enforce a change of behavior, not to eradicate Fox," he said.
He said he doesn't mind a network with opposing political views, but objects to one that uses offensive language and promotes division.
"Do you think it's OK to make money off of everything and anything?" he said. "I think most people would say the answer is no. So now we're just talking about where the line is. I think it's OK to go after someone's livelihoods, when their livelihood is something uniquely bad and destructive or in bad faith."
Carusone said he was encouraged last fall when Fox cut back on airing President Donald Trump's campaign rallies in their entirety. But he also said he's concerned that progress can't be made if Fox and its supporters feel backed into a corner.
Fox and its defenders are particularly angered by efforts to go after advertisers, worrying that it can cost someone their job.
"Even if Tucker apologized for what he said, it wouldn't make a difference to those who are pushing for this narrative," wrote political comedian Tim Young in USA Today. "They don't actually care about what he said on shock jock radio; they care about what he says on his show every night and the influence he has on American politics as an entertainer. And they won't settle for anything less than his silencing — which will never happen."
During its presentation to advertisers, Fox touted news shows and personalities like Bret Baier, Chris Wallace and Shepard Smith. It offered statistics to show its popularity in parts of the country that aren't necessarily dominated by conservatives.
Fox declined to allow a reporter from The Associated Press to attend the sales pitch.
A recent New Yorker magazine article detailing the network's ties to President Trump, and the Democratic National Committee's decision not to allow Fox News to host one of its debates of 2020 presidential contenders have recently hurt Fox's efforts to distinguish between its news and opinion sides.