A text message sent by Tucker Carlson that set off a panic at the highest levels of Fox on the eve of its billion-dollar defamation trial showed its most popular host sharing his private, inflammatory views about violence and race.
The discovery of the message contributed to a chain of events that ultimately led to Mr. Carlson’s firing.
In the message, sent to one of his producers in the hours after violent Trump supporters stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, Mr. Carlson described how he had recently watched a video of a group of men — Trump supporters, he said — violently attacking “an Antifa kid.”
It was “three against one, at least,” he wrote.
And then he expressed a sense of dismay that the attackers, like him, were white.
“Jumping a guy like that is dishonorable obviously,” he wrote.
“It’s not how white men fight,” he said. But he said he found himself for a moment wanting the group to kill the person he had described as the Antifa kid.
For years, Mr. Carlson espoused views on his show that amplified the ideology of white nationalism. But the text message revealed more about his views on racial superiority.
The text alarmed the Fox board, which saw the message a day before Fox was set to defend itself against Dominion Voting Systems before a jury. The board grew concerned that the message could become public at trial when Mr. Carlson was on the stand, creating a sensational and damaging moment that would raise broader questions about the company.
The day after the discovery, the board told Fox executives it was bringing in an outside law firm to conduct an investigation into Mr. Carlson’s conduct.
The text message added to a growing number of internal issues involving Mr. Carlson that led the company’s leadership to conclude he was more of a problem than an asset and had to go, according to several people with knowledge of the decision. In other messages he had referred to women — including a senior Fox executive — in crude and misogynistic terms. The message about the fight also played a role in the company’s decision to settle with Dominion for $787.5 million, the highest known payout in a defamation case.
A representative for Mr. Carlson said he had no comment.
The text is part of redacted court filings and its contents were previously unreported. The contents of the text were disclosed in interviews with several people close to the defamation lawsuit against Fox. The people spoke on the condition of anonymity because they did not want to be identified discussing a message that is protected by a court order. In public filings, it remains hidden behind a block of black text.
Mr. Carlson’s messages were collected as part of the defamation lawsuit filed against Fox by Dominion, which accused the network of knowingly airing falsehoods about election fraud. Many of the messages shared in the case, including those among Fox executives and hosts, were released publicly. But others, like the one between Mr. Carlson and one of his producers in the hours after Jan. 6, 2021, remain redacted.
In that text, Mr. Carlson described his own emotions as he watched the video of the violent clash, which he said took place on the streets of Washington. Mr. Carlson did not describe the race of the man being attacked.
“I found myself rooting for the mob against the man, hoping they’d hit him harder, kill him. I really wanted them to hurt the kid. I could taste it,” he wrote. “Then somewhere deep in my brain, an alarm went off: this isn’t good for me. I’m becoming something I don’t want to be.”
After all, he wrote, “Somebody probably loves this kid, and would be crushed if he was killed.”
“If I don’t care about those things, if I reduce people to their politics, how am I better than he is?” he wrote.
The text message came to the attention of Fox’s board of directors and even some senior executives only last month, on the Sunday before the trial was set to begin, according to two people with knowledge of Fox’s internal deliberations. At the time, Fox’s negotiators were entering discussions about an out-of-court settlement ahead of the swearing in of what was shaping up to be a diverse jury.
The next day, the board told Fox’s leadership about its plan to have the law firm Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen and Katz investigate Mr. Carlson. That disclosure set up the possibility that there could be a continuing investigation into what was behind Mr. Carlson’s messages at the same time as a trial, and as he was serving as its top host in prime time.
Fox has not commented about Mr. Carlson’s ouster last week beyond an initial statement announcing that they “agreed to part ways” and thanking “him for his service.” It did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday on the contents of Mr. Carlson’s redacted message.
It remains unclear how the text escaped more notice earlier, given that the Fox legal team was aware of it and other offensive texts written by Mr. Carlson. Fox’s lawyers had produced the text as part of the discovery process and were involved in the redactions. Mr. Carlson had even been asked about it during a deposition, according to several people who have read the unredacted transcripts of his deposition.
It was not guaranteed that the text would have been revealed in open court. Dominion’s lawyers had still not decided whether they would introduce the text in front of the jury, according to people with knowledge of their plans. The two sides disagreed on whether the Dominion lawyers could have presented such a redacted message at trial if they had decided to do so, a decision that would have ultimately fallen to the judge. The difference became moot after Fox struck an 11th-hour deal on April 18 to pay Dominion $787.5 million and avoid trial.
How Fox’s executives and board handled the case in the months before the trial was scheduled to begin is expected to be at issue in shareholder lawsuits filed against the company in Delaware.
Though Mr. Carlson’s show, “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” was only a small factor in the Dominion suit, his personal texts were drawing outsize scrutiny.
The text about the fight came on top of a damaging chain of messages that had been revealed publicly ahead of trial, and that were shocking in their own right. Writing to one of his producers after the assault on the Capitol, Mr. Carlson describes the president he championed on his show as a “demonic force” and a “destroyer.”
A recurring theme of his show during the six years that it ran in prime time on Fox News was the displacement of white Americans by people of color. Mr. Carlson often framed topics in the news as part of a larger struggle between “us” and “them,” with immigrants and other marginalized groups steadily and surely taking from whites what had long been theirs: political and cultural power in the United States.
He attacked Black social justice activists and portrayed immigrants from Central America as a blight on the nation. He said in 2018 that immigrants make the country “dirtier.”
In the aftermath of a mass shooting in El Paso at the hands of a gunman who cited white supremacist beliefs in his manifesto, Mr. Carlson declared on his show that white supremacy was “not a real problem,” likening it to a conspiracy theory.
On Monday, The New York Times and other news organizations urged the judge overseeing the Dominion case to release some of the messages that were redacted.