The Media Today

Mr. Carlson goes to Moscow

February 6, 2024
Tucker Carlson in 2017.(AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)

In 1934, William Randolph Hearst, the American publishing tycoon, visited Germany, where Adolf Hitler had recently come to power. Hearst had been quoted in the press praising both the country—he described the city of Munich to a reporter as “delightful,” citing, among other things, “the shops, the theaters, the museums, and the beer”—and Hitler himself. Mindful of telegraphing an even stronger endorsement, according to a book by the journalist Andrew Nagorski, Hearst rejected an invitation to a rally in Nuremberg during his 1934 visit, though he did take a meeting with Hitler at his chancellery in Berlin, during which Hitler asked why he was so “misunderstood” in the US. (Hearst replied that Americans “believe in democracy,” according to an account by his secretary.) In a letter to an acquaintance after the meeting, Hearst wrote of Hitler’s “enormous energy, intense enthusiasm, marvelous facility for dramatic rhetoric, and great organizing ability”—though he allowed that such qualities could be “misdirected.”

This past week, Tucker Carlson, the American subscription vlogging tycoon, has been visiting Russia, where he has been sighted at an airport, at a fancy restaurant, and taking in a ballet at the Bolshoi Theater. He told a local journalist—in a weird, shaky video that at least appeared to have been shot surreptitiously—that Moscow is “beautiful,” adding that he was in the city to “look around, and see how it’s doing…and it’s doing very well.” Speculation soon swelled that Carlson was actually in the city to conduct a sit-down interview with Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president—something that no Western journalist has done since Russia invaded Ukraine two years ago. Asked about this by the local journalist, Carlson was coy (“We’ll see,” he said, with a signature smirk); so was a spokesperson for the Kremlin, who said that while “many foreign journalists come to the Russian Federation every day,” he had “nothing to report” on any presidential interview. Yesterday, Russian state media did report that a van supposedly transporting Carlson had turned up at Putin’s offices, then driven away an hour later.

Back in the US, the reaction to all this was exactly as you’d expect. Critics of Carlson slammed his visit as (literal) treachery, citing his past apologism for Putin’s regime. (The liberal pundit David Axelrod said on CNN that when he first heard that Carlson was in Moscow, he assumed that it was to collect an award for his services.) Meanwhile, defenders of Carlson sniffed that he was merely doing proper journalism, not that the left would understand. Writing in the conservative magazine The Spectator, Freddy Gray argued that Carlson is curious to find out the truth about what Putin thinks and to show it to people. Gray also reached for the Hearst-Hitler parallel, arguing that while Hearst has since been “rightly criticised for his favourable and gullible view of Nazism,” nobody would have suggested at the time that his meeting Hitler was inherently “evil,” because “back then people understood that journalism was not about good guys vs bad guys” but rather “giving readers information and context.”

Visiting Russia to interview Vladimir Putin is not an inherently evil act—far from it. Indeed, my colleague Yona TR Golding recently conducted a thoughtful interview for this newsletter that explored—also with reference to US journalists in Nazi Germany—how reporting on the ground in a dictatorship can help bring the truth to light, even if that task is always fraught.

Nor do we yet have a Carlson interview to judge—assuming that he actually sat down with Putin at all. (As of this morning, there are growing indications that he did.) We already know more than enough about Carlson, though, to suspect that any Putin interview of his is likely to be about as illuminating as a light bulb with no filament. And we have seen enough of his visit to Moscow to suspect that the visit itself was the point—at least as far as Putin is concerned. The fact that he’s been allowed to make the trip is telling enough.

Telling the truth about Putin’s Russia tends to come with a higher price than a ticket to the Bolshoi. After Putin invaded Ukraine, the Western journalists who left Russia did not do so in a fit of pique but out of concern for their personal safety amid a ferocious clampdown on critical speech. Last year, those who stayed (or had come back) found themselves facing an even bleaker situation as the authorities jailed two American journalists: Evan Gershkovich, a reporter at the Wall Street Journal, and Alsu Kurmasheva, of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Less than a week before Carlson supposedly landed in Moscow, a court in the city extended Gershkovich’s pretrial detention by two months. While Carlson was being spotted around town, police outside the Kremlin detained and interrogated nearly two dozen journalists, including from Western outlets, who were covering a protest by military spouses who have criticized the war in Ukraine. (They were later released with a warning.)

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Russia’s state media, which toes an obsequiously pro-Putin line, ignored the military spouses’ protest over the weekend, according to Politico, but did cover Carlson’s visit—indeed, we know about his itinerary in part because state-run outlets broadcast paparazzi-style footage of it. This isn’t the first time that Carlson has appeared on Russian state TV—during his Fox News days, state outlets rebroadcast some of his coverage, including segments referring to Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, as a dictator and a puppet of the West. When Carlson was pushed out of Fox last year amid a messy tangle of domestic-facing scandals, some Russian talking heads pinned his ouster on his supposed honesty about Ukraine. Different arms of state TV even offered Carlson a job, then promoted his work as he pivoted to streaming on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter (seemingly without his knowledge or consent).

Indeed, Carlson now appears to be something of a celebrity in Russia. The other day, the state broadcaster Sputnik put together a man-on-the-street video declaring him to be “winning hearts and minds” in the country, and pulling together supposed public testimony about his visit. “He is the bravest and most courageous American journalist today,” one woman said. “It’s appealing that he goes against the grain of anti-Russian propaganda,” said another.

Anti-Russian propaganda is the reason that a Kremlin spokesperson has given for Putin dodging Western interviewers since the invasion of Ukraine, rather than any lack of opportunity—indeed, the spokesperson claims to receive “dozens” of such requests every day. Perhaps more than any other world leader, Putin prizes meticulous control over his own information environment. If he has indeed chosen to sit down with Carlson, you can draw your own conclusions as to why. Already, his visit alone has been a propaganda coup.

Following his meeting with Hitler in 1934, Hearst was apparently pressed to pose for photos with Nazi functionaries. At some point during the same decade, he struck a deal with the Nazis’ state production company, according to the historian Kathryn Olmsted—Hearst’s media empire sent newsreels to Germany and received official Nazi footage in return, which it distributed in the US. (Hearst papers also published op-eds by Hitler.) In a 2022 interview pegged to the publication of her book The Newspaper Axis: Six Press Barons Who Enabled Hitler, Olmsted drew a direct line from Hearst and others to the right-wing media environment of today, with its embrace of “authoritarian dictators” and “populist nationalism.” (“In this period, we can see the primordial Fox News,” she said.) Hearst embraced the slogan “AMERICA FIRST.” Carlson has embraced Donald Trump’s “America First” worldview, perhaps more darkly than any other pundit

Historical parallels, while often seductive, are, of course, never exact. Carlson does not have Hearst’s power or reach—certainly not in his post-Fox days. (Hearst would likely be confused by the concept of a visual media venture based partly on a declining social platform, as, indeed, am I.) Hearst was circumspect about his visit to Hitler. (“Visiting Hitler is like calling on the President of the United States,” he told the AP, when asked for comment. “One doesn’t talk about it for publication.”) It would be unwise to expect similar discretion from Carlson. And—if we are to compare the arc of Hitler’s Germany with that of Putin’s Russia, which is itself a fraught task—Carlson would seem to have gone to Moscow at a later point than Hearst’s trip to Berlin. If that trip looks terrible in the harsh glare of hindsight, Carlson’s might come to look even worse.

Numerous Western journalists interviewed or met with Hitler in the years prior to the Second World War; Putin sat with various Western interviewers in the years prior to the invasion of Ukraine. This is not to say that interviewing Putin now is a worthless task. But any valuable interview would have to reflect the gravity of the current moment and at least attempt to hold Putin to account for the horrors of his war; at minimum, it would have to try to extract some insight from Putin that he couldn’t simply blast out in an unfiltered medium of his own choosing. Putin doesn’t seem likely to allow this, even if Carlson were of a mind to try.

And, sometimes, even interviews with genuinely skeptical interlocutors can muddy truths that are clearer from afar. Before Hearst met with Hitler in 1934, a different American journalist, Dorothy Thompson, did so in 1931, before Hitler came to power. Thompson wrote later that she went into that interview “convinced that I was meeting the future dictator of Germany,” but in “something less than fifty seconds I was quite sure I was not. It took just about that time to measure the startling insignificance of this man who has set the world agog.” 

Thompson went on to be a leading and notably strident anti-Nazi voice in the US press. In 1934, she returned to Germany. In August of that year, about a month prior to Hearst’s meeting with Hitler, she became the first US reporter to be formally expelled by Hitler’s regime. She received a letter accusing her of offending “national self-respect.” She framed it.

Other notable stories:

  • On Friday, a spokesperson for the US National Security Council told reporters that officials had informed the government of Iraq prior to striking Iranian-linked targets inside that country earlier in the day. Yesterday, however, a State Department spokesperson acknowledged that Iraq had not been explicitly notified. The first spokesperson said that he’d shared the information he had at the time. (I wrote about the strikes yesterday.)
  • Yesterday, Microsoft announced partnerships that it says are aimed at harnessing the journalistic power of generative artificial intelligence with a series of journalism organizations, including the GroundTruth Project, the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York, and the news site Semafor. The latter will use AI as a research aid for a breaking-news feed; the Financial Times has more.
  • Also yesterday, CNN announced its “first significant programming move” (as the New York Times put it) since Mark Thompson took charge of the network last year, doing away with its struggling morning chat show, CNN This Morning, to pivot to a format focused more on straight news. Poppy Harlow and Phil Mattingly, the show’s hosts, are in talks about new roles; the team that produced the show will be disbanded.
  • For CJR, Joel Simon assesses the decline, in recent years, of the police beat, against a backdrop of significant cuts to local newsrooms and deteriorating relationships between officers and reporters. “A healthy relationship between the police and the press requires both regular contact and close scrutiny,” Simon writes. “That’s why we need beat reporters. Their decline, ultimately, is bad for accountability, and bad for our democracy.” 
  • And, during an interview in the UK, Piers Morgan bet Rishi Sunak a thousand-pound donation to a refugee charity that Sunak won’t be able to kick-start his stalled policy of deporting migrants to Rwanda before the next election. Sunak accepted, but then rowed back, claiming that Morgan took him by surprise. The Guardian’s John Crace described the bet as “a low moment in TV interviewing,” and an even lower one for UK politics.

ICYMI: Is the press dragging America to war again?

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.