Before Tucker Carlson’s Fox rise, an on-air ‘brawl’ led to his CNN firing

Nearly two decades before he became host of the top-rated show on cable news and one of the most influential voices in conservative media, Tucker Carlson could only give a half-smile and awkwardly laugh when Jon Stewart accused of him of being a d— who was “hurting” the country.

Carlson, then known for wearing bow ties and his media presence on PBS and in New York magazine, was one of the featured co-hosts in the rotating cast of liberals and conservatives on CNN’s “Crossfire,” a program designed to challenge opinions on the left and right that often turned into hyperpartisan debate. So when Stewart appeared on “Crossfire” to help promote his new book in October 2004, the comedian, who did not shy away from his disdain for the program, confronted Carlson and co-host Paul Begala about what Stewart believed were “partisan hacks” sowing division every afternoon.

Subscribe to The Post Most newsletter for the most important and interesting stories from The Washington Post.

“It’s not so much that [the show’s] bad as it’s hurting America,” Stewart told Carlson and Begala.

Carlson tried to interrupt Stewart, but the comedian held him off and continued: “Here is what I wanted to tell you guys: Stop. Stop, stop, stop hurting America.” Stewart added, “You have a responsibility to the public discourse, and you’ve failed miserably.”

Then, as the segment went on, Carlson quipped that he thought Stewart, who was hosting Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” was “more fun on your show, just my opinion.” What happened next would be one of the turning points in the early part of Carlson’s television career.

“You know what’s interesting though?” Stewart replied. “You’re as big a d— on your show as you are on any show.”

The exchange with Stewart has followed Carlson in a career that’s seen him go from a conservative talking head with canceled shows on CNN and MSNBC to the face of Fox News during the Trump years. That changed Monday when Fox announced it had dropped Carlson in a sudden and surprise firing less than a week after the network settled a defamation lawsuit from Dominion Voting Systems.

As Dominion sued Fox for airing false claims that it had conspired to rig the 2020 presidential election – which resulted in a historic $787.5 million defamation settlement – Carlson’s private messages were among thousands of internal communications made public. The lawsuit caused angst and embarrassment for Fox and heightened the company’s legal jeopardy. Allegations surrounding Carlson’s staff culture and comments about Fox colleagues, as partly revealed in the Dominion case, are also believed to have played roles in his sudden departure from the network.

Carlson has not publicly commented on his firing in nearly 24 hours since it was announced. Former president Donald Trump said he was “shocked” over Carlson’s firing, while Fox News hosts such as Sean Hannity made it clear that his former colleague’s dismissal would not be discussed on-air: “We’re not talking about Tucker.”

But as his firing has dominated headlines and social media, some have shared the video of Carlson’s encounter with Stewart, which unfolded at a time when Carlson did not have the platform or influence on Republican politics that he would have in 2023.

In 2000, Carlson arrived at CNN on the heels of an impressive career as a columnist for the Weekly Standard, New York and Reader’s Digest. His 1999 interview with Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush in Talk magazine earned him praise as Carlson captured the Texas governor frequently using the f-word and appearing to mock a female death-row inmate who was executed in Bush’s home state.

Carlson acknowledged to The Washington Post in a 1999 profile that he identified as both arrogant and combative, but claimed he acted that way with purpose.

“I can be nasty, and most of the time it’s a good thing to be nasty,” Carlson said at the time from his Weekly Standard office. “A lot of people deserve it. But it’s a bad thing to be cutting or cruel for no reason.”

After a short-lived run co-hosting “The Spin Room,” Carlson was named one of the co-hosts of “Crossfire,” a current affairs debate show that had enjoyed success in the early years of CNN before its move to an afternoon time slot. Despite being dubbed a “conservative wunderkind” by Variety, Carlson could not help a show that had suffered in the ratings. One of his more notable interviews came in 2003, when Carlson got Britney Spears to say she supported and trusted Bush in the Iraq War.

But that changed on Oct. 15, 2004. After Carlson asked Stewart about whether Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry was the best America had to offer, the comedian took the conversation in a different direction – one more directed at “Crossfire” itself.

“I made a special effort to come on the show today, because I have privately, among my friends and also in occasional newspapers and television shows, mentioned this show as being bad,” Stewart said, eliciting laughter from the live audience at George Washington University.

During the course of the episode, Stewart and Carlson went back and forth in a conversation that was funny, and at times uncomfortable. Carlson questioned Stewart’s interview with Kerry, describing the faux newsman as a “butt boy” for the Democratic nominee. Stewart laughed at Carlson comparing “The Daily Show” to “Crossfire,” considering that the lead-in for the Comedy Central program was “Crank Yankers,” which Stewart accurately described as “puppets making crank phone calls.”

Stewart then accused Carlson and Begala of failing miserably in their jobs.

“You need to get a job at a journalism school,” Carlson responded.

Stewart replied, “You need to go to one.”

Carlson then tried to get Stewart to be as funny as he was on his nightly show.

“I thought you were going to be funny. Come on, be funny,” Carlson said.

“No,” Stewart responded. “I’m not going to be your monkey.”

When Stewart called Carlson a part of the anatomy unique to men before commercial break, Carlson pushed out a smile and laughed: “Now you’re getting into it. I like that.”

Begala recalled in 2015 how excited he was to have Stewart on the show, and how the co-host’s wife, Diane, was excited to watch.

“By the time Stewart finished disemboweling my show, I was hoping she wasn’t watching,” Begala wrote for CNN.

The back-and-forth between Carlson and Stewart made headlines in what The Washington Post and other outlets described as “a brawl.” Three months later, there was a larger fallout: CNN canceled “Crossfire” and cut ties with Carlson in January 2005. Jonathan Klein, then the president of CNN, cited Stewart’s appearance on “Crossfire” as part of why Carlson was dismissed, telling the New York Times, “I agree wholeheartedly with Jon Stewart’s overall premise.”

“There are outlets for the kind of show Tucker wants to do and CNN isn’t going to be one of them,” Klein said at the time.

Carlson claimed he had already resigned from the show in April “many months before Jon Stewart came on our show, because I didn’t like the partisanship, and I thought in some ways it was kind of a pointless conversation,” according to Insider.

The moment, however, followed Carlson both on “Dancing With The Stars,” where the pundit was cut in the first round of the show’s third season in 2006, and at MSNBC, where his show was canceled in 2008 after less than three years.

When Carlson agreed to be a paid contributor at Fox in May 2009, he was seeking stability at his third cable news network in four years. Carlson was about to turn 40 and hoped Fox was finally the place for him, he told the Times.

“I’m doing whatever they want me to do,” Carlson said.

– – –

The Washington Post’s Jeremy Barr and Sarah Ellison contributed to this report.

Related Content

Schools brace for challenges as once-in-a-lifetime cash runs out

Is Lewis Hamilton too old to keep winning? Other drivers say it’s complicated.