The Media Today

The unmasking of Tucker Carlson

March 10, 2023
Tucker Carlson in 2017.(AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)

Tucker Carlson has had a week. First came (another) drip of disclosures in the defamation lawsuit that Dominion Voting Systems, an election-tech company, has filed against Carlson’s employer, Fox News; this time, there was news that Carlson had acknowledged, via text message, that he couldn’t stand Donald Trump. “I hate him passionately,” he wrote to a colleague. Then came the sham of the security-camera video from the January 6 attack on the Capitol. Carlson, who had been handed footage for air by Kevin McCarthy, the House Speaker, attempted to buttress a conspiracy theory that the seditious assault was not an assault at all. Even top Republicans, including Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, thought Carlson went too far in the segment. “It was a mistake,” McConnell said. When Senator Thom Tillis was asked about it, he replied, “Bullshit.”

There’s a chance we’ll eventually learn about Carlson’s January 6 claims what we now know to be true about his views on Trump: That they were all a pose. That Carlson’s performative outrage is based less on any conviction than about keeping the viewers, and the money, rolling into Fox. In essence, the Dominion disclosures paint the same picture: the most-watched cable news network in America was, in fact, a troll factory, churning out sludge that many people at Fox didn’t believe and kept regurgitating anyway.

That, arguably, is a defensible strategy if you’re McDonald’s, but not if you claim to be a journalistic enterprise. It’s a particularly pointed quandary for Fox right now, as they seek to wrap themselves in the high ideals of the First Amendment in their fight against Dominion while evidence continues to surface that truth was never high in the value chain at the Murdoch shop. As the standard-bearer and chief moneymaker of the Fox brand, Carlson has spewed falsehoods with impunity, even as he positions himself, often with a giggle, as the only reporter brave enough to tell it like it is.

Since 2016, in particular, that hypocrisy has driven some of us crazy: How can someone be so reckless in his falsehoods, while still clinging, self-righteously, to his place in the journalistic church? In a profile for CJR in 2018, Lyz Lenz referenced Carlson’s past in some of the loftier precincts of DC journalism: “If we can figure out how an intelligent writer and conservative can go from writing National Magazine Award–nominated articles to shouting about immigrants on Fox News perhaps we can understand what is happening to this country, or at least to journalism.”

In her profile, Lenz described the hall-of-mirrors, reality-distorting nature of right-wing media just as it was picking up steam. Little has changed since that piece was published, even after the deadly attack of January 6. Neither Fox, as a company, nor Murdoch, as a business owner, has shown any public sign of reckoning with the Dominion disclosures or the serious distortions of Carlson’s insurrection coverage. (In a statement reported by Axios, Fox accused Dominion of running a PR campaign “to smear Fox News and trample on free speech and freedom of the press.”)

In theory, Dominion’s lawsuit has the potential to seriously hurt Fox, and not only because it is claiming 1.6 billion dollars in damages. Each new disclosure about Fox—from the cynical manipulation of its audience to the leaking of an unaired Biden campaign ad to Trump’s family—could build pressure for some kind of crackdown on, or containment of, disinformation. Yet there are no obvious remedies. There is no political consensus on how to regulate a wildly mendacious, wildly popular media organization that presents itself as journalistic. Beyond the court case, the likeliest consequences, if Fox faces any, will come from advertisers who deem the brand too untrustworthy to be associated with and from the viewers who decide to finally leave.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

But Carlson seems destined to go on portraying himself as a flinty truth-teller in a spineless age, even as his private texts reveal that the spinelessness is his. As Lenz wrote:

This wily incongruity of Carlson—his refusal to be pinned down, his legendary contrarianism—is why his audience loves him. He’s an independent thinker, just like them. He’s not loyal to a party, just like them. He tells them to think for themselves. To trust no one. The mainstream media is lying to you, he says. Everyone, except him of course. It’s like the scene in the movie The Life of Brian, where Brian tells a crowd of people, “You are all individuals.”

“We are all individuals!” they yell in unison.

“Well not me,” one man pipes up from the back.

You can read Lenz’s piece here.

Other notable stories:

ICYMI: Glitches, trolls, and declining revenue take center stage in the Twitter soap opera

Kyle Pope was the editor in chief and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review. He is now executive director of strategic initiatives at Covering Climate Now.