Last week, Fox News Channel’s Tucker Carlson, or else the eponymous populist demagogue that he plays on TV, declared on Tucker Carlson Tonight, “If you’re looking to understand what’s actually happening in this country, always assume the opposite of whatever they’re telling you on the big news stations.”
He has previously hosted TV shows on CNN, MSNBC, and PBS.
While not uncharacteristic of the flagrantly illogical pandering regularly broadcast on his current show, Carlson’s comment proved to be particularly controversial, prompting a sharp rebuke from comedian Seth MacFarlane, creator of the hit Fox-owned series Family Guy, who tweeted, “In other words, don’t think critically, don’t consult multiple news sources, and in general, don’t use your brain. Just blindly obey Fox News. This is fringe shit, and it’s business like this that makes me embarrassed to work for this company.”
Steve Levitan, creator of Modern Family, the hit sitcom produced by a division of the company that owns Fox News, piled on, writing, “I’m disgusted to work at a company that has anything whatsoever to do with Fox News. This bullshit is the opposite of what #Modern Family stands for.” Judd Apatow urged other Fox executives and showrunners to speak up in opposition to its infotainment arm.
The kerfuffle is interesting in part because those critics are among the rare Hollywood power brokers with appeal that extends beyond liberals and progressives—on Adam Carolla’s popular right-leaning podcast, for instance, Modern Family, Apatow, and MacFarlane are all praised as regularly as is Carlson.
But it is most noteworthy, at least among Carlson observers, for its jarring dissonance with what the commentator told America about the news media before his latest reinvention: He warned that the consequences are dire if a people charged with self-government loses confidence in mainstream sources of information.
To quote him:
In a democracy, it is vital that citizens have a common frame of reference for reality. There has to be a place where all citizens can go and look at facts about what happened yesterday and say you know what, I agree that’s probably roughly what happened. The electorate’s confidence in the news being real is all important.
You see this when you go to other countries that don’t have a history of a straightforward, honest press––places like Pakistan where I’ve spent a lot of time, where the press has always been dishonest, every newspaper is an organ of a political movement or other, and people have come over time to be really cynical about the press. They don’t believe anything that is written in newspapers because they assume that all of it is just another man’s view, all of it is bias. And so in the absence of any recognized standard or source of news, what happens? Well, rumors take the place of news. So ultimately you have an electorate that is really poorly informed and incredibly suspicious, and in that environment all sorts of crazy conspiracy theories bloom and take the place of facts.
I think the American press does a pretty good job having spent time abroad in the past 15 years. Whatever hangups I have or whatever anger I feel toward news coverage I try to compare that with things I’ve seen abroad and I think we’re doing a pretty good job by comparison. But we’re still not living up to the standard we set for ourselves in the press.
Then in 2009, he rose to the podium at CPAC, an annual gathering of movement conservatives, and defended the fact-gathering of The New York Times:
If I could just say, and I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings, I lived here in the 1990s, and I saw conservatives create many of their own media organizations. And I saw many of those organizations prosper and I saw many of them fail. And here’s the difference. The ones that failed refused to put accuracy first. This is the hard truth and conservatives need to deal with this. I believe this.
I’m as conservative as any person in this room. I am literally in the process of stockpiling food and moving to Idaho, so I am not in any way going to take a second seat to anyone in this room ideologically. But I will say, honestly, if you create a news organization whose primary objective is not to deliver accurate news, you will fail. You will fail. The New York Times is a liberal paper. But it’s also—and it is to its core a liberal paper—it’s also a paper that cares about whether the spell people’s names right, by and large. It’s a paper that actually cares about accuracy. Conservatives need to build institutions that mirror those institutions. (boos) That’s the truth! You don’t believe me? (more boos).
The New York Times? You don’t think—why isn’t there—(inaudible) But I’m not saying they’re not. I’m merely saying that at the core of their news gathering operation is gathering news. (Someone shots “No!”) And conservatives need to do the same! Yes, they are liberal, yes they twist it, but they are still out there finding the facts and bringing them to people. (“No!”) You can believe it or not! But conservatives need to mimic that in their own news organizations. They need to go out there and find what is happening, find actually what is going on, not just interpret things they hear in the mainstream media, but gather the news themselves. That’s expensive, it’s difficult, and it is worth doing. And Fox News is a great example of that and there ought to be more.
That same year, appearing on C-SPAN, he was asked about the proliferation of cable and internet news sources. “Has it helped us grow more informed,” the host asked, “or has it made the landscape so confusing we’re struggling to keep up?”
Well, it’s good and bad, like everything. It’s good in that people spend more time consuming news than they ever have. I don’t think there’s any question about that. The average person has access to more information than any time in history by a factor of something high. Truly, you can get primary documents, you can look at information online … The bad news is narrowcasting.
In other words, people can spend their entire lives hearing their own opinions repeated back to them. Conservatives can spend their entire waking day on conservative websites. Liberals the same. And there’s something bad about that. It’s good to be challenged. It’s good to hear your own assumptions thrown back in your face once in awhile because it forces you to reassess why you think what you do. And increasingly people don’t have to have that experience.
Nothing in those bygone statements is incompatible with criticizing CBS News, or NBC News, or ABC News, or CNN, or MSNBC, or advising viewers to watch them with a critical eye rather than taking everything that they say as gospel.
Indeed, I’d endorse that counsel.
But Carlson’s previously expressed concerns are utterly at odds with an admonition to “always” assume “the opposite” of what big news stations report to be true and the implication that it is better to rely on Carlson and Fox News. The civic corrosiveness of dismissing mainstream news sources so sweepingly, even as they are attacked as never before by a lying president, is something that Carlson presumably understands, given his own past statements.
That he issued his carelessly maximalist denunciation anyway calls to mind something he told GQ last year. The quote stuck with me as an unusually pithy rationalization for a D.C. elite who has earned his living in ways parasitic on American civic life. “There’s this illusion, and it’s created by the people who live here, that everything is meaningful, everything important,” Carlson said. “It’s not.”
If true, that would excuse Carlson’s lucrative turn in the cable-news game as inconsequential—and there are many pundits on the left and right in Washington who treat appearances before millions on TV as a frivolous mercenary game.
But in my view, Beltway insiders would do better to adopt the ethos of those Washington journalists as smart and talented as Carlson but too scrupulous to compromise their integrity in the manner that he has—the ethos that every time Carlson squandered his considerable God-given talent for scrupulously true commentary, opting instead for clickbait at The Daily Caller or dumbed-down demagoguery at Fox, the failures of intellectual honesty were meaningful. His part in the degradation of the conservative media ecosystem was important.
Among other things, Carlson degraded the part of his message that deserves a hearing:
We have a ruling class. And I’ve lived in it most of my life, so I know it’s real. It’s not a conspiracy but we have a class system, increasingly, in this country. And the people in charge have done a really bad job on the big things—on foreign policy and on the economy. And they’ve gotten us into a number of counterproductive wars. That was a bipartisan effort. It was started by Bush but it was applauded by Clinton. So it wasn’t one party. It was both parties. And they made a bunch of assumptions about the economy that turned out to be wrong. And they helped to destroy the American middle class. And then they don’t care.
So why has he conducted his career like Gail Wynand?
“When you have four kids in private schools,” Carlson told the same GQ profile writer, reflecting on the various gigs that he’s taken, “you don’t get to be choosy.” The implicit insider entitlement is just the sort that the typical Fox News viewer might rightly see as an embodiment of “the swamp” they want to drain. Yet Carlson dares to accuse other elites of betrayal and disingenuousness.
The writer Henry Farrell, who has drawn similar conclusions about the parasitic, mercenary role Carlson plays in civic life, writes that he “isn’t himself very interesting—he’s a hustler. As he said in his Daily Caller days, ‘links are what I’m after.’ But precisely because he’s such an opportunist, he’s a human map of where the opportunities are in right wing media. Like Randall Jarrell's President Robbins, he’s so well attuned to his environment that sometimes you cannot tell which is the environment and which is Carlson. And the opportunities are not in replicating the structures of fact-based journalism on the right, as he once thought they were. They are in trying to swamp them and drown them.”