Sorry Not Sorry
Bob Garfield: Fox News channel primetime host Tucker Carlson has already had quite the July. On the plus side, the latest ratings for his show have made him officially the most watched cable news host in the history of the cosmos. On the other side of the ledger, advertisers are fleeing his show on the grounds of not wishing to be associated with lies and hate speech. Oh, also, his head writer and primary douche whisperer, Blake Neff, was forced out of Fox after his explicitly racist and misogynist social media posts were unmasked online.
The last time Carlson was in the headlines with the March, 2019 resurrection of his very own hate speech, we spoke to writer, Lyz Lenz, whose profile of the cable news' enfant truly, truly terrible, plumbed the depths of his soul, such that it is. We replay that for you now complete with the original introduction, because that's where a lot of the most damning tape is. This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
Tucker Carlson: Our leaders demand that you shut up and accept this. We have a moral obligation to admit the world's poor, they tell us, even if it makes our own country poorer and dirtier and more divided.
Bob: To say that Tucker Carlson toys with dog whistles and nakedly white supremacist tropes on his nightly Fox News broadcast is, at this point in his long career in commentary, cliché. But of course, clichés don't come from nowhere.
Tucker: The spectacle of illegal immigrants separated from their children at the border has ceased to be a news story in any traditional sense of the term. It is now an event of competition in which elites vie to see who can reach greater heights of rhetorical excess and self-righteous posturing. It is performance art, really.
Bob: Carlson's supposedly intellectualized arguments against immigrants and minorities have made him the darling of the alt-right. The Daily Stormer claims him as a poster child, and lately the declaration 'Heil Tucker' is being used without irony. Now, courtesy of the Fox-obsessed liberal media watchdog Media Matters comes a trove of archival Carlson rhetoric that dispenses with intellectual pretense altogether. It's just hate speech.
Tucker: Iraq is a crappy place filled with a bunch of semi-literate primitive monkeys.
Bob: There's some overtalk there, but he's saying, "Semi-literate primitive monkeys," referring to Iraqis. All of them, I suppose. It's just one of many decade-old clips from shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge's radio show. Carlson, a frequent guest there, is also heard denouncing women in the most vulgar terms, and his defense of whiteness goes to a very creepy place.
Tucker: You know, white men, they've contributed some, I would say, like creating civilization and stuff. I think they've done a pretty-- I don't know, whatever.
Radio Host: Obama would kick your ass playing basketball.
Tucker: Yes, of course he would.
Tucker: Basketball? Come on.
Radio Host: He's Black. He's a real brother. Hey, do you think he--?
Tucker: I don't know how Black he is. How is he Black? For one thing, he has one white parent, one Black parent. So, that makes him-- I mean, why isn't he white?
Bob: Yes, the heir to Bill O'Reilly's pulpit of lies and intolerance seems to have been born for the job and yet his history, prep school son of elite parents who made a name as a stylish and diligent shoe leather journalist seems to have predicted nothing of the tele-creep he has become. How in the world did he get here? Lyz Lenz is a writer for Columbia Journalism Review. In September of last year, she profiled Carlson, exploring very much that same question. Lyz, welcome to On the Media.
Lyz: Thank you for having me.
Bob: He founded the Daily Caller, which started out with journalistic aspirations and it's now essentially Fox primetime in text, which, I would say, is kind of a microcosm of his entire career. Let's begin with what Tucker Carlson used to be.
Lyz: He had this reputation as a serious journalist, but the Tucker we see now was present from day one on the page. When he graduated from college, he got a job at Policy Review, and went from there to work for the Democrat Gazette in Arkansas, then The Weekly Standard, and was freelancing for Esquire and Talk Magazine, and then from there founded the Daily Caller and pivoted to video, where we find him now.
Bob: But, back in the day, he had a lot of admirers among respected journalists.
Lyz: He still does. One of the things that we were reporting out in the piece was there were a lot of people who worked with him who stand by his early journalism as this kind of Hunter S. Thompsonesque voicey journalist who did the work. He would talk to people and people would talk to him. That was the foundation of his career. It was this charming rogue who could get people to talk to him in a real, unfiltered way. He had that profile of George Bush, where Bush was saying all sorts of swear words and talking about Karla Faye Tucker and mimicking her on death row in this real, uncensored way. He had this reputation as somebody who could charm anybody into being real with him.
Bob: He went to Liberia with Al Sharpton, the scholar Cornell West, and the saxophonist and spiritual leader, Franzo King, all Black, and it wasn't as though he was the Klansman in their midst. It was quite a sharp piece of reporting.
Lyz: Carlson did some real diligence there, but there is a lot of reverse racism rhetoric and he's really lampooning people in a way that I think that if we would go back now with our 2019 eyes, and honestly we should have seen it then, too, but there's a lot of racism there. I think we know that reverse racism is not an actual thing, and there's parts of his article where he's talking about, "Oh, how I was raised. We didn't see color. We were just people with last names." These are the ways we wrap up racism and put a bow tie on it. I think that he was performing conscionable racism at the time and people were buying it and letting it be published and nominating it for National Magazine Awards.
Bob: He even had the actual bow tie.
Lyz: That was when he had the bow tie, but he has lost it, and we will never forgive him for it [chuckles].
Bob: We're going to get to the inner Tucker unleashed in a moment, but I want to come back to the Daily Caller, which, I guess, is about a decade old. At its inception, it was not the reactionary propaganda rag that it has become. What were they going for at the time?
Lyz: I would say as long as it remained an idea, it was not the reactionary propaganda mag. The moment it became a living entity, it was a reactionary propaganda mag. In its inception, when it was still a growing fetus inside the uterus of his mind, it had this idea of being, yes, this pure thing, this way of being the independent voice. I think so many media outlets begin this way. "We're going to be the one that is independent. We're going to be the one that holds the feet to the fire of power," but the moment he started raising money, he got all these really shady people involved, the man who famously told Andrea Mitchell that, back in his day, women held aspirin between their legs as birth control. That guy was on from day one.
It's hard to see how, even idealistically, you could make something independent with that guy giving you money. Money is not free of moral compromise, and no matter who you are, the person who pays you is the person who pulls the strings, even if you think you're independent, and Carlson does. He still thinks he's independent, even though he's blatantly biased.
Bob: Now, in life, we are all-- are we're not?-- on a journey. I, myself, have gradually gone from kind of centrist to basically Che Guevara. Others get more conservative as they get invested in the status quo. But, with Carlson it's as if someone threw a switch or at least activated something inside him and turned on this demagogue. What was the switch?
Lyz: Money. That's the simple answer, I think, but I think two things are happening here. I think it's too simplistic to say that one day he just changed. Again, I think he was always this person, but what made it more raw and more real to us or to our culture is changing. We don't have the tolerance we had for these "contrarians with their un-PC jokes." We're realizing the harm that that language causes, the harm to people, the violence it can incite and has incited. One, our culture is changing. Two, I think, the longer Carlson is in his job at Fox News, he's protected from the consequences of his speech. He lives in a nice house. He goes to a nice job. He has a ton of money, and he would have a ton of money, regardless of the Fox news job. This money inculcates him from the realities of the rest of the world, and so the moments that he's marginally forced to come to grips with what his words mean and how they affect people, he can't handle it. He refuses to apologize.
In some ways it's understandable, because, again, he has been this person from day one. Read his 2003 book, he has horrible, offensive comments about Monica Lewinsky in there. He jokes about Jim Traficant sexually assaulting women at MSNBC and thinking that it's funny. These comments on the Bubba the Love Sponge show are old, as people are fond of pointing out, but I actually think that that is a better argument for this is just who he was coming to fruition. He's always been this person, but he was never called out on it before because our culture was different before, and now all of a sudden he's getting called out on it and he's shocked.
Bob: All right. Now, when I asked you what had changed, you instantaneously said money. Now, as someone who struggles to make a living as a freelance writer-- in fact, in your piece you talked about how underwater you were in that line of work. You know that the whole money proposition changes immediately once you're on TV, where the real money is. Could you have just as easily said that the thing that unleashed the inner Tucker Carlson was TV and the money that it's based on?
Lyz: Sure. I think that the TV problem comes from a money problem, and they both feed into each other in this gross symbiotic relationship. The voices that have the most power over the news right now for every day, normal Americans are the voices on cable news, and of those, Tucker Carlson is one. Yes, it's a power problem because he is popular. He has a lot of money and it's this thing where as long as he stays popular, he'll keep earning money, and as long as he keeps earning money, he'll be popular. It's the self-feeding beast. That's not just a Tucker problem. This is a many-headed hydra. You cut the head of Tucker off, and I mean that very metaphorically, and then 10 more are going to pop-up.
Bob: There was an incident you wrote about in your CJR piece. In 2009 Carlson was at CPAC, the big annual convention of conservatives in Washington. He was on stage warning the audience away from spewing and imbibing demagoguery.
Tucker: I am literally in the process of stockpiling weapons and food and moving to Idaho. So, I'm not in any way going to take a second seat to anybody in this room, ideologically, but I will say, honestly, if you create a news organization whose primary objective is not to deliver accurate news, you will fail. You will fail. The New York Times is a liberal paper, but it's also, and it is to its core a liberal paper. It's also a paper that cares about whether they spell people's names right, by and large. It's a paper that actually cares about accuracy. Conservatives needs to build institutions that mirror those institutions, that's the truth. You don't believe me? The New York Times, you don't think--?
Bob: Those are boos which, on the subject of reacting to the marketplace, I think are probably very significant in his trajectory.
Lyz: The real tragedy of Carlson is not that he became something that he wasn't. It's what is that he saw the problem, but then fell right into the same trap he identified. He used to be so self-aware and then lost that, but yes, he's right in that moment that not just conservatives, but Americans need to develop institutions that care about factual accuracy. The problem is that Carlson didn't just come up through Fox. He came up through CNN, he came up through MSNBC and it's really easy for us to Pontius Pilate wash our hands and say, "This is a Fox News problem," but it's not. It's a cable news problem.
There are deeper issues here and he was right. At that moment he was right. There's other moments, too, where he gets it right early in his Policy Review days, he has this great piece where he mocks liberals for advocating for racial justice while living in gated communities and sending their kids to private schools. He's not wrong, but he's also very wrong [chuckles].
Bob: To your point about cable news as a whole, here's another episode from way back in 2004 that I believe was also formative in the evolution or devolution of Tucker Carlson. It was from his CNN show Crossfire. The guest was John Stewart and this exchange lives on the internet for ever.
John Stewart: To do a debate would be great but that's like saying pro wrestling is a show about athletics competition.
Tucker: I think you're a good comedian. I think your lectures are boring. Let me ask you a question on the news.
John: No, this is theater, it's obvious-- how old are you?
John: And you wear a bow tie.
Tucker: No, no, I know you're right. Let me [unintelligible 00:16:04].
John: Listen, I'm not suggesting that you're not a smart guy, because those are not easy to tie, but the thing is that this, you're doing theater, when you should be doing debate, which would be great.
Tucker: I'm honest.
John: What you do is perfect partisan hackery and I'll tell you to why--
Bob: I will get to my suspicions in a moment, but what you saw in this exchange was not just an attack on cable pyrotechnics, but you actually saw a similarity between John Stewart, who was a hero of the liberals, with Tucker Carlson, who was on his way to becoming a hero of the conservatives.
Lyz: When I was reporting out the profile, the PR person for Fox News constantly reminded me, "Tucker is not news. We consider him entertainment. He's not news. We consider him entertainment," which was the exact defense that Stewart uses for himself. I don't think that that's a coincidence. I do think that Stewart sidestepped a lot of criticism by saying, "Oh no, I'm entertainment. I'm not news," and that's exactly what you see happening in cable news right now. The people who are the most influential voices are sidestepping people's attempts to call them out on factual accuracy by them saying, "I'm just an entertainment voice."
Bob: Another similarity you point out is charm. They've both cultivated this persona of a charming rogue. Now, you've spent some time with him. Is he charming actually? Is he roguish versus just plain monstrous?
Lyz: I didn't spend time with him in-person. A lot of people told me he was charming. I did not find him charming. I found him to be boring. All he did was lecture about free speech, even when I was just saying, "What did you do in college? And who do you vote for?", and just very simple background questions, all devolved into these borish lectures on free speech, which was the exact same thing he accused John steward of doing, and so again, the comparisons get mixed there. But no, I didn't find him charming. I don't know. Maybe if I had been from the New Yorker and if I had been a different person and he had made me pancakes, maybe it would have been different, but I do think that there is-- he hasn't been profiled by a lot of women, has he?
I actually asked this of the PR person. I said, "How many women have profiled him?" She was like, "Oh, all these women have interviewed him." I was like, "No, no, no, but for an in-depth profile, how many women?" They assured me there were some, but we couldn't come up with any and in the deep LexisNexis search, I couldn't come up with any. So, I do think that there is a perspective here which, as a side note, is always why you should have gender and racial diversity in your journalism rooms, because you're going to see something a lot different than what you would see if you send in the same old same old every time.
Bob: That makes me a little frightened to ask the next question, but what the heck, if it's mansplaining, I apologize in advance.
Lyz: Go for it, I'll make it really fun. What have I yell at you? [laughs].
Lyz: My theory that may be bright young Tucker Carlson is just a learner. He learned from the feet of the master, John Stewart, how to hijack and manipulate in arguments sometimes for a punchline, but certainly to stifle debate. He learned from that CPAC audience what the marketplace wants and what it absolutely does not want. He learned that TV is agnostic about your politics if you deliver ratings. He learned from Bill O'Reilly, that going on the attack creates drama and forecloses actual debate. Even after the Bubba tapes were resurrected, his defiant refusal to apologize to the so-called liberal mob, as he described it, played very well to the mob that he incites every night. Does any of that resonate with you?
Lyz: I think that yes, in a sense, but also, I think that that perhaps erases his past of bow-tied acceptable racism. I do think it has always been there. It is always there. Sure. Has he learned new methods and grown? Yes, but I think he has been the same Tucker from day one. I think that, however you see Tucker, I think, really defines how you see America. If you want to see America as all of a sudden we pivoted and what happened, we have no idea what's happening to our country, or you can look at our country and say, "Yes, there are all these problems that are getting worse, or maybe we're just cleaning out from under the bed."
Maybe these problems have always been there. We just didn't see them, or we refused to see them before. I think that's why a lot of his fan base side with him. If he had changed so much, they wouldn't side with him, because they're in the same place. They've been doing the same thing for so long, saying the same thing about immigrants or their communities and religion and women, and all of a sudden now it's not okay. They don't understand what's changed, because they certainly haven't.
Bob: I want to ask you about self-awareness. This resonates with me, because when I get agitated, my voice shoots straight up, which, of course, a lot of people read as aggression, which it is not meant to be. It's just me being upset. There is this bit of a funny dialogue between yourself and Tucker in your piece that just strikes me as being so eminently Carlsonian. He says to you in the interview, "The idea that I win debates because I yell louder, it's, like, absurd." Of course, it is absurd, because he absolutely starts shouting on TV, shouting down his guests. It happens all the time, or shouting down people not even on the set. Yet, he denies that it's taking place and as he said those words to you, he was shouting,
Lyz: He was. Well, I'm also a shouter. I would just like to make clear, I get very passionate about things. I'm trying to keep my voice a very calm for you, but I am shouter. 9 times out of 10, I'm the loudest person in the room. I was in a Brooklyn bar recently and I got asked to keep it quiet. If you're the loudest person in a Brooklyn bar, and you're a mom from Iowa, I feel like that's a real-- I'm really proud of that. But, what was happening in that moment was I had asked him-- because right before his MSNBC show was launched, he had given this interview where he said, "I'm not going to shout. I'm not going to do that crossfire thing anymore. I'm going to be a whole new person." Then, he wasn't. So, I had asked him, I was like, "Do you think that you set out with these good intentions and then change them?"
He immediately got defensive and was like, "I'm not a shouter. I'm not shouting. I never shout." I think what was happening there was just a bit of cognitive dissonance. I was actually laughing in the interview because it was funny. "No, but you're actually shouting right now." He was like, "Okay, well, maybe I get loud sometimes," which I felt-- [crosstalk]
Bob: [unintelligible 00:24:02] been there.
Lyz: Right. Who hasn't? I think that was maybe the most human he did get in that interview, because it was a moment where he perhaps admitted that yes, he was this person. There are some meta-issues, like you pointed out, him pointing out a problem with the media, and then him becoming that problem with the media. You know, it's almost perfectly scripted. He's the tragic hero of media, but not so tragic, because he's very wealthy. No matter what happens, even if his show is canceled, he's going to be fine.
Bob: Well, you did meditate thoughtfully in your piece. It took you 5,000 words to do it or so.
Lyz: Hey, look-- [chuckles].
Bob: Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. Here, this is just a punch. Of course, John Stewart did it in three words. He said, "Tucker, you're a dick." Is that what it comes down to, just that Tucker is a dick?
Lyz: It's so easy. It's so easy just to say, "Oh, you're a horrible person," and write them off. I don't think it is that easy because you cannot just write Tucker Carlson off, because he has enormous power and enormous influence. A source that I talked to for that story called me up the other day and was talking to me about all the Tucker revelations, she just wanted to chat. She's still a fan and there are still so many fans. If you just write him off as a dick, you're writing off a whole huge part of America, rather than looking at it and grappling with the messiness.
Bob: One final thing, you mentioned earlier that during the course of writing the piece and preparing for it, there was frequent intervention by Carlson's PR people, which made me think that he was very concerned, or Fox was very concerned, about how this all was going to come out. Did you ever hear from him or them?
Lyz: The day before the piece was published, there was a flurry of PR activity where the PR person decided she would no longer deal with me. This PR person, I think a lot of journalists have reached out to me in the intervening time, and this PR person and Fox's PR people have quite the reputation among journalists for being very heavy-handed, so no shock there. I did send the link to Tucker and he wrote back, essentially, I'm going to misquote it, "Ha, good one." Which is funny, because if we're talking about meta things that Carlson has done, traps he's fallen into, one of the things that it did occur to me while I was writing it was that I was Tucker Carlsoning Tucker Carlson, writing the profile of him that he would have written of himself back in the day. That's the only feedback I've gotten.
Bob: Lyz, thank you, thank you very much.
Lyz: Thank you.
Bob: Lyz Lenz is a writer for, among other august outlets, the Columbia Journalism Review. Following Media Matters' first article on the Love Sponge tapes, Tucker Carlson responded on Twitter that, "Media Matters caught me saying something naughty on a radio show more than a decade ago. Rather than express the usual ritual contrition, how about this? I'm on television every week night live for an hour. If you want to know where I think, you can watch. Anyone who disagrees with my views is welcome to come on and explain why."
We first gave you this interview in March of 2019. This has been an On the Media podcast extra. For another weekly OTM fix, sign up for our newsletter at onthemedia.org/newsletter. I'm Bob Garfield.
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