Tucker Carlson and the Court of Public Opinion

He’s worthy of opprobrium no matter what he told Bubba the Love Sponge.

Tucker Carlson
Michael S. Schwartz / Getty

Words broadcast via television and radio waves once drifted off into the ether, rendered harmless by fading human memory as they traversed the vacuum of space-time — though perhaps bound for aliens who’ll find cause in them to punish us. Today, humanity dutifully preserves most content and posts it online. We even archive the most unpleasant output of our most polarizing figures.

Take Fox News host Tucker Carlson. Prior to his current gig, there was a five- or six-year period when he occasionally called into The Bubba the Love Sponge Show, a radio program run by a Tampa, Florida, shock jock who will make it more difficult to blame the least merciful of those aforementioned aliens. On Monday, offense archaeologists working for the progressive group Media Matters for America resurfaced archival material from those decade-old appearances. They hope to force the highly rated cable-news commentator off the air.

Among the offensive remarks in question:

  • “Iraq is a crappy place filled with a bunch of, you know, semiliterate primitive monkeys—that’s why it wasn’t worth invading. But Canada’s a solid place with good-looking women and good fishing. We should invade.”

  • “I hate the war. You know, I’m not defending the war in any way, but I just have zero sympathy for them or their culture. A culture where people just don’t use toilet paper or forks … They can just shut the fuck up and obey, is my view. And, you know, the second we leave, they’re going to be calling for us to return, because they can’t govern themselves.”
  • “I was just reading a story trying to figure out how to get it into our show tonight, about the kid, the 13-year-old, who was, I guess, molested, they’re saying, by his teacher, who had sex with him 28 times in one week … Could you sleep with a 165-pound woman 28 times in one week? Are you physically capable of doing that, or do you take your hat off to this kid? … Look, my theory on this is, you know, 13-year-old boys have one goal, obviously, in life … So my point is that teachers like this, not necessarily this one in particular, but they are doing a service to all 13-year-old girls by taking the pressure off. They are a pressure-relief valve, like the kind you have on your furnace.”

The media critic Jack Shafer explains that a comedy show such as Bubba the Love Sponge chooses guests such as Tucker Carlson not because they are funny in their own right, but because they abase themselves in the role of “the upright, proper person who the host makes funny by getting him to break character with dirty and nasty comments,” as Donald Trump did for Howard Stern.

Says Shafer:

The Bubba Show transcripts provided by Media Matters show Bubba and his co-host leading Carlson toward outré topics … basically daring him to say something rascally.

Because Carlson wants to be judged funny and thinks such talk will win him that reward, he goes there … he called for the execution of quarterback Michael Vick, assessed Elena Kagan as “unattractive,” referred to Arianna Huffington as a “pig,” and called Martha Stewart’s daughter Alexis Stewart a name I’d rather not repeat here. Listening to Carlson on Bubba is a lot like listening to the 2-year-old a babysitter has taught to say the word shit. Although both might make you laugh, neither Carlson nor the toddler is funny.

They’re the joke.

It had never occurred to me before that Carlson’s affinity for Trump is partly rooted in their mutual willingness to compromise their dignity for more attention.

While the motives of the people who resurfaced these clips may be partisan, umbrage at Carlson’s remarks is not a case of absurdist or runaway political correctness. The longtime broadcaster’s words transgressed known, widely held, substantive, sound norms, such as Don’t endorse adult women having sex with young boys and Don’t describe foreigners as subhumans. Perhaps society would have been better off if the audio never resurfaced, sparing molestation victims, Iraqis, and others from seeing those taboos broken and leaving the rest of us to focus on matters more pressing than what was once said on a dumb broadcast.

Digging them up forces an unfortunate choice:

  1. We can judge the remarks by applying our usual standards, upholding whatever substantive norms that we want to see in the world yet creating a perverse incentive for more people to resurface forgotten remarks.
  2. Or we could try to strengthen a new norm against offense archaeology, treating it as inadmissible in the court of public opinion (like the fruit of the poisonous tree) at the risk of weakening broadly shared, desirable norms.

Media Matters wants the public to choose option one. But if Fox News keeps the host employed even as he declines to apologize for anything he said, the activist organization may wind up weakening the taboos that it sought to marshal.

National Review’s David French, a writer with a track record of denouncing populist-right racism, made the case for choosing option two after the first batch of resurfaced audio, but before Media Matters released the second batch.

I don’t like many of Tucker Carlson’s ideas. As I’ve written at length, I think his embrace of victimhood populism is bad for the nation and bad for the conservative movement,” he wrote. “I find his brand of right-wing outrage journalism tiresome and destructive in its own right. But we should respond to his arguments with arguments of our own. We should debate him on the air and in print. And if we don’t like his show, we can change the channel. Our nation cannot maintain its culture of free speech if we continue to reward those who seek to destroy careers rather than rebut ideas. And when you reward a Media Matters search-and-destroy fishing expedition with calls for boycotts or reprisals, then you are doing your part to destroy debate. It’s vengeful. It’s cowardly. And it’s exactly the online world that spiteful partisans want to build.

French is not alone in pushing back against “search-and-destroy” expeditions.

The leftist writer Freddie deBoer, who coined the phrase offense archaeology, once complained about the same phenomenon as it manifested in intra-left debates:

The woke world is a world of snitches, informants, rats. Go to any space concerned with social justice and what will you find? Endless surveillance. Everybody is to be judged.

Everyone is under suspicion. Everything you say is to be scoured, picked over, analyzed for any possible offense. Everyone’s a detective in the Division of Problematics, and they walk the beat 24/7. You search and search for someone Bad doing Bad Things, finding ways to indict writers and artists and ordinary people for something, anything. That movie that got popular? Give me a few hours and 800 words. I’ll get you your indictments. That’s what liberalism is, now — the search for baddies doing bad things, like little offense archaeologists, digging deeper and deeper to find out who’s Good and who’s Bad.”

The podcast Invisibilia produced a haunting episode on a deep-digging tactic used to destroy a private individual in a tiny subculture. And political observers with a long memory will remember Andrew Breitbart delighting in it, to the consternation of his critics, as when he bragged about obtaining old video of Barack Obama. “We are going to vet him from his college days,” he told CPAC in 2012. As it turned out, there was nothing to the video. But imagine, for the sake of argument, that this satirical Key & Peele sketch—in which Obama smokes pot and community-organizes an “inspirational” college party—was real. Would the country be well served by debating something so irrelevant, even if the subject of the material was a sitting president?

The question will become more germane with each election, until all our presidents will have come of age at a time when digital surveillance was everywhere. A return to monarchy might be preferable to parsing the Google histories of the major party nominees of the 2030s, especially if Kanye West is among them.

On the other hand, it is important to vet presidential candidates and many times when the bygone statements of public figures play a useful role in public discourse.

Where should the lines, however informal, be drawn?

As the court of public opinion considers all the factors in Media Matters for America v. Tucker Carlson, members of the jury will not reach unanimity on the verdict or the right sentence. But the subset of jurors who feel torn because they lament and disapprove of both offense archaeology and remarks of the sort that Carlson made ought to respect one another’s reactions to this controversy, even if they find themselves differing on the least bad trade-off to make.

As the high-court judge in this article, I’m inclined to avoid making bad law on a tough case, since no artifacts of offense from a decade ago need be admitted into evidence to find Carlson worthy of public opprobrium. The content of his Fox show is arguably worse than anything he told the shock jocks. It’s scripted for an audience of millions, he isn’t ostensibly joking, and he still indulges in rhetoric as irresponsible as maligning an entire ethnic group with xenophobic tropes.

Exhibit A:

I sentence him to the contempt of decent, intellectually honest people for segments like that, which are anything but buried. Merciful aliens, don’t judge us by him.