Tucker Carlson Was Wrong About the Media

The ousted Fox News host misrepresented the tenor of discussion.

Tucker Carlson
Leigh Vogel / The New York Times / Redux

Welcome to Up for Debate. Each week, Conor Friedersdorf rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Question of the Week

Today I invite emails debating any of the following subjects: war, civil liberties, emerging science, demographic change, corporate power, or natural resources. Read on for more context.

Send your responses to conor@theatlantic.com or simply reply to this email.

Conversations of Note

After the television host Tucker Carlson was fired by Fox News, he posted a video message to Twitter that quickly went viral. In it, he noted that, in his newfound “time off” he has observed that “most of the debates you see on television” are so stupid and irrelevant that, in five years, we won’t even remember we had them. “Trust me, as someone who's participated,” he added, which squares with my impression of his show––an assessment I feel comfortable making only because I have carefully documented its shoddy reasoning.

But then Carlson added: “The undeniably big topics, the ones that will define our future, get virtually no discussion at all. War. Civil liberties. Emerging science. Demographic change. Corporate power. Natural resources. When was the last time you heard a legitimate debate about any of those issues? It’s been a long time. Debates like that are not permitted in American media.” I disagree, and not just because I intend to air your perspectives on those very subjects.

Last March, this newsletter invited debate about the war in Ukraine and ran your responses. On the whole, The Atlantic––and most of the mainstream media––has published a lot more total articles from people who are supportive of Western aid for Ukraine, as I am, than contrary perspectives. But as you can see, this newsletter has made it a point to highlight the smartest writing I could find from different perspectives. If you look, you can find additional examples of contrasting perspectives from across the U.S. media: in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Nation, National Review, Vox, and beyond. There are all sorts of plausible critiques of the way the American news media has covered Ukraine. But “debate is not permitted” is demonstrably false.

On civil liberties, which I’ve championed on scores of occasions in The Atlantic, the notion that debate isn’t permitted is likewise preposterous. Few issues are debated more than the parameters of free speech, abortion rights, gun rights, transgender rights, pandemic rights and restrictions, and more. “Emerging science” is a bit vague, but surely debates about mRNA-vaccine mandates and artificial intelligence count. The Atlantic has repeatedly published entries in ongoing debates about demographic change. I understand corporate power to be a perennial topic of debate in journalistic organizations. As for natural resources, I’ve recently read about subjects including climate change, gas stoves, Colorado River water supply, oil drilling and pipelines, and plastics pollution.

Again, there are all sorts of critiques of the media that are plausible, on those subjects and others, but the particular critique that Carlson actually prepared and uttered is demonstrably false, so I find it strange that so many people reacted to it by treating Carlson as if he is a truth-teller. Lots of people in the American media work much harder at avoiding the utterance of falsehoods.

How to Mark May 1?

The law professor Ilya Somin commemorates it every year in a highly nontraditional fashion, arguing that we all ought to treat the traditional workers holiday as Victims of Communism Day.

Here’s his case:

Since 2007, I have advocated using this date as an international Victims of Communism Day. I outlined the rationale for this proposal (which was not my original idea) in my very first post on the subject: May Day began as a holiday for socialists and labor union activists, not just communists. But over time, the date was taken over by the Soviet Union and other communist regimes and used as a propaganda tool to prop up their [authority]. I suggest that we instead use it as a day to commemorate those regimes' millions of victims. The authoritative Black Book of Communism estimates the total at 80 to 100 million dead, greater than that caused by all other twentieth century tyrannies combined. We appropriately have a Holocaust Memorial Day. It is equally appropriate to commemorate the victims of the twentieth century’s other great totalitarian tyranny. And May Day is the most fitting day to do so …

Our comparative neglect of communist crimes has serious costs. Victims of Communism Day can serve the dual purpose of appropriately commemorating the millions of victims, and diminishing the likelihood that such atrocities will recur. Just as Holocaust Memorial Day and other similar events promote awareness of the dangers of racism, anti-Semitism, and radical nationalism, so Victims of Communism Day can increase awareness of the dangers of left-wing forms of totalitarianism, and government domination of the economy and civil society.

Meanwhile, at the World Socialist Web Site, David North published the speech he gave to open the International May Day Online Rally. His remarks included provocative statements about the war in Ukraine:

The present war in Ukraine and the escalating conflict with China are the manifestations, though on a much more advanced and complex level, of the global contradictions analyzed by Lenin more than a century ago. Far from being the sudden and unexpected outcome of Putin’s “unprovoked” invasion—as if the expansion of NATO 800 miles eastward since 1991 did not constitute a provocation against Russia—the war in Ukraine is the continuation and escalation of 30 years of continuous war waged by the United States. The essential aim of the unending series of conflicts has been to offset the protracted economic decline of US imperialism and to secure its global hegemony through military conquest.

In 1934, Leon Trotsky wrote that while German imperialism sought to “organize Europe,” it was the ambition of US imperialism to “organize the world.” Using language that seemed intended to confirm Trotsky’s analysis, Joe Biden, then a candidate for the presidency, wrote in April 2020: “The Biden foreign policy will place the United States back at the head of the table … the world does not organize itself.” But the United States confronts a world that does not necessarily want to be organized by the United States. The role of the dollar as the world reserve currency, the financial underpinning of American geo-political supremacy, is being increasingly challenged. The growing role of China as an economic and military competitor is viewed by Washington as an existential threat to American dominance.

Imperialism is objectionable but to me that premise leads to a starkly different conclusion: that the imperial ambitions of Russia and China ought to be resisted and that insofar as NATO or the United States helps Ukraine or Taiwan, we are reducing the likelihood of imperial conquest, not engaging in it.

More to Come on Trans Issues

Another batch of responses from readers should be coming soon. (If you missed the first batch, they’re here.) In the meantime, here’s a question from the Up for Debate reader Paul, who writes:

I have come to understand and accept that the concept of “gender” is largely a social construct, is not synonymous with “sex,” and indeed is not dependent upon or related to sex in any objective way. This notion—that gender and sex are independent attributes—is, I think, one of the ideas that is fundamental to understanding and accepting transgender people. For many young people, this idea seems simple and self-evident. Yet, for anyone who has lived any length of time in a culture where, for centuries, these two words held virtually identical meanings, separating them can be a real struggle.

It is with that thought in mind—the acceptance of the fundamental difference between gender and sex—that I approach the issue of transgender people participating in competitive sport with the following sincere question: Are sports competitions divided by gender or are they divided by sex? If sports are divided by sex, then it follows logically that gender should have nothing to do with the discussion. That is, it follows that transgender people should only participate in sports along with those of their same birth sex. On the other hand, if sports participation is divided along gender lines, then everyone of the same gender (obviously, by definition this must include transgender people) should be invited to participate, regardless of sex. Is there more evidence that sports are arranged as a competition between those of the same sex, or those of the same gender?

Provocation of the Week

At Hold That Thought, Sarah Haider writes that for a long time, she assumed that “with no material incentives in one direction or another, people will think more freely. A world in which no one has to worry about where their paycheck will come will be a world in which people are more likely to be courageous, and tell the truth more openly. And of course, it is obvious how financial incentives can distort truth-telling. This is, of course, the justification for academic tenure.”

Now she wonders if tenure may actually pave the way for more conformity. She explains:

First and foremost, it is not the case that free people will necessarily speak truthfully. No matter the romantic notions we like to hold about ourselves, humans do not deeply desire to “speak the truth”. There are more beautiful things to say, things that make us feel good about ourselves and our respective tribes, things that grant us hope and moral strength and personal significance—truth, meanwhile, is insufferably inconvenient, occasionally ugly, and insensitive to our feelings. But lies, by their very nature, can be as beautiful and emotionally satisfying as our imaginations will allow them.

Unfortunately, some degree of fidelity to reality is often required to prosper, and so occasionally we must choose truth. But that degree is dependent on our environments: lies are a luxury which some can afford more than others. Material freedom isn’t just the freedom to tell the truth, it is the freedom to tell lies and get away with it. As I’ve noted before, the lack of economic pressures can clear the way for independent thinking, but they can also remove crucial “skin in the game” that might keep one tethered to reality.

I suspect that on the whole, tenure might simply make more room for social pressures to pull with fewer impediments. If keeping your job is no longer a concern, you will not be “concern-free”. Your mind will be more occupied instead by luxury concerns, like winning and maintaining the esteem of your peers. (And in fact, we do see this playing out at universities. Professors are more protected from the pressures of the outside world due to tenure, yet they are uniquely subservient to the politics within their local university environment.) …

Academics actively shape their own environments. They grant students their doctorates, they help hire other faculty, they elect their department chairs. When an idea becomes prominent in academia, the structure of the environment selects for more of the same … When you are forced to coexist with the enemy, you develop norms which allow both parties to function with as much freedom and fairness as possible. Ideologically mixed groups will, in other words, tend to emphasize objective process because they do not agree on ends. This environment is fairly conducive to the pursuit of truth.

More uniform groups, on the other hand, will tend to abandon process—rushing instead towards the end they are predisposed to believe is true and willing to use dubious means to get there. This creates a hostile environment for dissenting members, and over time, there will be less of them and more uniformity, which will inevitably lead to an even more hostile environment for dissent. When a majority ideology develops, it is likely only to increase in influence, and when it is sufficiently powerful, it can begin competing with reality itself.

I retain hope that tenure does more good than harm but encourage faculty members who enjoy it to exhibit more courage to dissent from any orthodoxies of thought they regard as questionable.