Media Criticism

Did Fox Really Fire Tucker Carlson for Crossing the 'Red Line' of Criticizing Big Pharma, as RFK Jr. Claims?

If so, the network failed to enforce the supposed rule before and after cancelling its top-rated host.


In the scores of news articles trying to pinpoint why Fox News removed its top-rated host Tucker Carlson on April 24, the prevailing theories have centered on his behavior behind the scenes rather than what Carlson said on air: his off-color texts and internal nose-thumbing toward management; his centrality in a lawsuit filed against the company by one of his former producers; or maybe, some have speculated, it was just a condition of Fox's $787.5 million settlement with Dominion Voting Systems.

The most notable exception has come from 2024 Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. "Fox fires @TuckerCarlson five days after he crosses the red line by acknowledging that the TV networks pushed a deadly and ineffective vaccine to please their Pharma advertisers," Kennedy, who had appeared during Carlson's final week, tweeted in reaction to the news. "Carlson's breathtakingly courageous April 19 monologue broke TV's two biggest rules: Tucker told the truth about how greedy Pharma advertisers controlled TV news content and he lambasted obsequious newscasters for promoting jabs they knew to be lethal and worthless….Fox just demonstrated the terrifying power of Big Pharma."

Then on May 11, RFK Jr. further "connected some dots" (his phrasing) in an interview with ex-Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly. "What his firing showed," Kennedy posited on Kelly's podcast, "was that the ideology trumps popularity and even revenues, that they were willing to get rid of a guy like that because…he wouldn't follow the narrative."

Kennedy said his "background assumption"—that "if you talk about this on Fox, you're going to get fired"—was based on a conversation with former Fox News chief and longtime personal friend Roger Ailes, back when Ailes was explaining why RFK could not come on the air to promote his 2014 documentary Trace Amounts: Autism, Mercury, and the Hidden Truth.

"'I can't do that for you, Bobby,'" Kennedy recounted, "'because if any of my hosts allow you onto a show without asking my permission, I would have to fire them. And if I didn't fire them, I would get a phone call from Rupert [Murdoch] within 10 minutes.'"

But what do the Fox News archives suggest about a "red line" prohibiting criticism of the pharmaceutical industry? That if there is a rule about bashing Big Pharma, no one's enforcing it.

On May 7, two weeks after Carlson's cancellation, host Steve Hilton of The Next Revolution kicked off a segment titled "America's War on Children" by saying, "We often talk on this program about how Big Pharma corruptly pushes prescription drugs on adults. That's bad enough. But just look at what they're doing to our kids."

This has been a recurring theme for Hilton. In February, he decried "this disgusting [Big Pharma] corruption that's really really hurting—and killing!—Americans." In July 2017, Hilton devoted a "Swamp Watch" segment to drug companies, asking "Who could possibly benefit from us spending more on drugs but not getting any healthier as a result? The pharmaceutical companies, whose main incentive is to sell as many drugs as possible."

Fox has broken RFK's purported "two biggest rules" about pharmaceutical influence and COVID vaccine promotion so often that the progressive watchdog Media Matters for America, in a December 2021 report titled, "Fox News employs its own familiar anti-vaccine tactics to attack COVID booster shots," listed a dozen examples under the subheading "Suggesting boosters are a nefarious plot by Big Pharma to drive up profits."

Tucker Carlson is no stranger to such lists. Long before his April 19 monologue, the populist conservative essayed that "the COVID vaccine is dangerous for kids" (June 2021); that "very serious questions have emerged about some of the most widely prescribed drugs in America, very much including the COVID vaccines" (July 2022); and that Pfizer had the power to engineer "a near-total media blackout" of an unfavorable news story about the vaccine (January 2023).

Back in November 2021, Carlson invited Kennedy to be the main subject of a Fox Nation streaming special titled "Coup de Vax," in which he called RFK "one of the bravest and most impressive people I have ever met," heaping praise on his just-released book, The Real Anthony Fauci: Bill Gates, Big Pharma, and the Global War on Democracy and Public Health. In comments promoting the special on his TV show, Carlson said it was "an exhaustively reported book that I can't recommend strongly enough," written by "one of the smartest and most articulate chroniclers of the erosion of our civil liberties in this country."

By imagining Carlson's firing as proof of Big Pharma's "terrifying power," Kennedy may have missed a more interesting if less lurid story: The leading cable news outlet has been admirably willing to bite the hand of the "fourth-largest spender on TV ads in the country," in a way that reflects the ongoing transformation of conservatism into an ideology far more suspicious of Corporate America.

That process was kicked into gear by Donald Trump, who, as president-elect in 2017, complained that drug companies were "getting away with murder," and as president in 2020, charged that "Big Pharma is taking ads against me because I am MASSIVELY lowering your drug prices, which is obviously not good for them."

RFK Jr., throughout his decades in public life, has repeatedly painted vivid pictures of malevolent actors conspiring to inflict intentional harm for personal profit. In both style and substance, he has more recently been joined by populist conservatives such as Carlson, the leading practitioner of "Trumpism without Trump."

"The other channels took hundreds of millions of dollars from Big Pharma companies and then they [shilled] for their sketchy products on the air," Carlson said in his April 19 monologue before introducing Kennedy. "And as they did that, they maligned anyone who was skeptical of those products. At the very least, this was a moral crime. It was disgusting, but it was universal. It happened across the American news media. They all did it."

Fox declined to comment on its handling of potential conflicts of interest with pharmaceutical companies or the Megyn Kelly interview beyond pointing to its April 24 press release, which said in part: "FOX News Media and Tucker Carlson have agreed to part ways. We thank him for his service to the network as a host and prior to that as a contributor."

Ailes, who was fired by Murdoch in July 2016 amid a flurry of sexual harassment lawsuits, died in May 2017 and thus cannot corroborate Kennedy's claim. In a rare interview with The Daily Beast published Monday, his widow, Elizabeth Ailes, said that Carlson was dismissed for the same reason that her husband and former leading anchor Bill O'Reilly were: Murdoch believed they had become too powerful.