The Tucker Carlson profile industrial complex
Tell us something we don't already know or don't tell us at all.
When I first saw that New York Times media columnist Ben Smith wrote a piece about Tucker Carlson, I was intrigued. For nerds who are too into following the ins and outs of U.S. political media (see: me), Smith’s weekly column has been as close to a must-read as currently exists. That’s not to say that I always agree with Smith’s takeaways (if you’re reading someone you always agree with, what’s really the point?), but I appreciate a lot of what’s come out of his roughly year-old column.
In March 2020, Smith published a piece about the dissonance between what was being talked about on Fox News (host Trish Regan was calling it the “coronavirus impeachment scam” and what Fox chairman Rupert Murdoch was doing in private (canceling his 89th birthday party because the virus was a legitimate threat). In June of that year, Smith covered the “uneasy alliance” between Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and the Trump administration. In July, he drew attention to the “COVID contrarians” who were going viral with pandemic misinformation. In September, Smith correctly noted that Fox News’ Arnon Mishkin could play a key role in thwarting Trump’s attempts to discredit the election results. Mishkin correctly called Arizona for Biden on election night, drawing the ire of the Trump campaign, after which he was fired by Fox.
That said, I was underwhelmed by his latest column on Tucker Carlson.
Calling it “one of Washington’s open secrets,” Smith explains that Carlson is frequently “the go-to guy for sometimes-unflattering stories about Donald J. Trump and for coverage of the internal politics of Fox News (not to mention stories about Carlson himself).” Smith takes a promising premise, but in my view, simply doesn’t deliver.
Aside from a few notes here and there about stories Carlson fessed up to being the source (Carlson was, apparently, the source for the story about how he urged Trump to take COVID seriously), Smith’s column consists mostly of abstract and generalized statements about Carlson’s deep connections without actually exposing said connections.
The story here is an old one. Politics journalists and pundits keep cozy relationships with abhorrent people, making their public performances little more than kayfabe.
And Mr. Carlson’s comfortable place inside Washington media, many of the reporters who cover him say, has taken the edge off some of the coverage. It has also served as a kind of insurance policy, they say, protecting him from the marginalization that ended the Fox career of his predecessor, Glenn Beck, who also drew a huge audience with shadowy theories of elite conspiracy.
“It’s so unknown in the general public how much he plays both sides,” marveled one reporter for a prominent publication who speaks to Mr. Carlson regularly.
Another Washington journalist in his orbit said he thought Mr. Carlson benefited from his value to the media.
“If you open yourself up as a resource to mainstream media reporters, you don’t even have to ask them to go soft on you,” the journalist said.
The all-too-cozy relationship D.C. journalists have with politicians, celebrities, and others in media is one of my biggest pet peeves (I wrote about why it was long past time to cancel the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner back in 2018). It’s a toxic culture that does little besides fueling distrust of the press. Smith’s column extending that clique to Carlson is unsurprising.
I’m something of a Tucker Carlson expert, as sad as that may be.
I’ve written a lot about Fox News host Tucker Carlson in recent years. There’s really no other way to put it. Here’s an incomplete rundown of some of my Carlson coverage:
In December 2018, I called his show “the local news broadcast from hell” due to his tendency to lend his nationally-watched platform to draw attention to local outrages.
In February 2019, I reviewed his book, Ship of Fools, and I drew attention to the way he successfully manipulates arguments in a way that gives the impression that he’s different from others on the right.
In March 2019, after Media Matters uncovered a bevy of Carlson recordings from a decade earlier, I argued that the alarming part wasn’t that those tapes existed but that his views in those tapes seemed consistent with what he broadcasted nightly during his current Fox show.
In February 2021, I examined the role rhetoric from his show may have played in the run-up to the January 6 insurrection attempt.
In March 2021, I sounded the alarm on the damage Fox’s primetime lineup was doing to the vaccine rollout efforts. Carlson, in particular, seemed to adopt a vaccine-skeptical view that when mixed with misinformation, seemed as though it was custom made for stoking panic.
Bafflingly gentle profiles of Carlson are essentially their own subset of journalism at this point.
Carlson profiles tend to be written from the perspective of someone who can’t quite pin down what the Fox host believes.
Here’s McKay Coppins in a 2017 profile for The Atlantic.
What’s more, Carlson’s politics have undergone more than one evolution over the course of his career in television. When he started out in the early 2000s on CNN’s Crossfire, he generally played the part of a mainline partisan—a champion of the Iraq War (he soured on the endeavor after a year), and an ardent Bush defender (he soured on the president after a term). After leaving CNN in 2005 he landed at MSNBC, where he morphed into a libertarian. And when his show there was cancelled less than three years later, he ended up at Fox News, serving as a utility pundit and eventually emerging as a mischief-making advocate for Trump-style nationalism.
As Peter Beinart wrote in yet another Profile for The Atlantic in 2017:
His nastiness notwithstanding, Carlson is offering a glimpse into what Fox News would look like as an intellectually interesting network. He’s moderating a debate between the two strands of thinking that have dominated conservative foreign policy for roughly a century.
For a 2017 New Yorker profile on Carlson, Kelefa Sanneh wrote:
In many ways, Carlson is a throwback, and a contradiction: a fierce critic of the political and cultural establishment who is also, unapologetically, a member of it. He has endless disdain for the Washington élite and its conventional wisdom, including the belief—widespread among political insiders—that Washington stinks.
And then there’s Playboy (a number of times, the author asked Carlson if he actually believes what he says), Vox (“Tucker Carlson has sparked the most interesting debate in conservative politics”), and probably the worst of them all, a 2019 profile in The Atlantic (yes, another Atlantic profile) written by a hardcore conservative. (The authors of the Vox and this Atlantic profile — pieces that are cartoonishly fawning — both now work for The New York Times.)
The only large-scale profile that even comes close to taking a critical look at Carlson is Lyz Lenz’ 2018 “The mystery of Tucker Carlson” piece for The Columbia Journalism Review.
In Smith’s column this week, he had a real opportunity to shine a light on the symbiotic relationship between Carlson and D.C. journalists. Unfortunately, he pulled his punches and told us little more than what readers of past Carlson profiles have long known. That’s disappointing.