Defiant Tucker Carlson Tests the Bounds of Public Tolerance
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because perhaps no other media personality encapsulates the appeal, contradictions and the controversy of the Trump era more than him.
By Sean Braswell
OZY Newsmakers: Deep dives on the names you need to know.
“You’re a sexist pig.”
You can’t actually hear the words. But you don’t need to be a trained lip reader to glean what Teen Vogue writer Lauren Duca was saying to Fox News host Tucker Carlson right after her mic was cut on his show back in December 2016. And you don’t need to be a gender studies expert to understand what provoked her to say it after Carlson had spent a segment about Ivanka Trump talking over Duca and mockingly reading excerpts from her celebrity fashion coverage (including comments about singer Ariana Grande’s thigh-high boots) before advising Duca to “stick to the thigh-high boots. You’re better at that.” Carlson was savaged on Twitter and in the media for being mean, sexist, condescending — you name it — a furor that might have muzzled another commentator. But for Fox News’ contrarian-in-chief, it was just another night in front of the cameras. Carlson said he regretted that he “was kind of rude to her,” but said he didn’t think the incident “was that interesting or revealing a moment.”
This week, in the wake of two audio dumps from the liberal watchdog group Media Matters for America containing recordings of Carlson on the radio program “Bubba the Love Sponge Show” between 2006 and 2011, in which he’s heard, among other things, describing women as “extremely primitive,” defending marriages between adults and underage girls and using racist and homophobic language to describe African-Americans, gay people and immigrants — including calling Iraqis “semiliterate primitive monkeys” — the pundit provocateur again finds himself in the hot seat. (In response, a Fox News spokesperson pointed to an unapologetic Carlson’s opening monologue on Monday night in which he promised, “We will never bow to the mob.”) Carlson weathered the Lauren Duca storm and has survived numerous others in his years on television. Whatever controversy doesn’t kill Tucker seems to only make him stronger — and his ratings higher. Could it be different this time? Or did Media Matters pick a fight with the wrong pugilist?
Carlson has gotten rich by peddling a brand of anti-elitism … that is remarkable given its source.
Before he had adopted the television persona of the charming/smarmy rogue and perfected the arts of split-screen smirking and carving up guests’ responses like a human deli slicer, Carlson was an equally engaging magazine writer. Once upon a time, he wrote for established news media outlets like Esquire and The Weekly Standard and was nominated for a National Magazine Award. He almost died in a plane crash while covering Pakistan for The New York Times Magazine.
Often his pieces, like his current on-air persona, were scathing critiques that skewered their targets. In a 1996 article, “James Carville: Populist Plutocrat,” he deftly dissects the Bayou-turned-Beltway political operative for profiting so handsomely from his populist views — a critique that could be turned on Carlson himself today with few edits: “Carville is a novelty act to his audiences, like a circus performer with political insight,” Carlson observes, one who “made his reputation — and, ironically, his fortune — by attacking the very people he now brushes elbows with at The Palm.”
Carlson, 49, has also gotten rich by peddling a brand of anti-elitism directed at America’s “ruling class” that is remarkable given its source: a WASP-looking East Coast boarding school graduate and native of posh La Jolla, California, whose father, a media executive, was once the CEO of The Corporation for Public Broadcasting and whose stepmother was an heiress to the Swanson frozen-dinner empire.
How did a well-bred writer turn into an over-the-top television personality railing against the elite, immigrants and more? Although “What Happened to Tucker Carlson?” is something of a popular D.C. parlor game these days, there might be a simple answer, says Lyz Lenz, a contributing writer to the Columbia Journalism Review who has profiled Carlson at length: nothing. “Tucker Carlson isn’t any worse now than he’s ever been,” says Lenz. “He’s always been the same person.” And Carlson’s derogatory statements about women and people of color are nothing new and no more upsetting, she says, than his comments about Monica Lewinsky’s appearance and workplace sexual harassment way back in a 2003 book. Richard West concurs: “At one point, I thought that he was similar to a shock jock, like Howard Stern,” says the professor of communications at Emerson College, “but Carlson is much more dangerous. His comments appear to be not intended for shock as much as they are a reflection of his values.”
What has changed, however, is the environment in which Carlson operates. On the one hand, Carlson’s ability to win the hearts and minds of working people from his elevated perch has been mirrored by a similarly elite, rogue president, and Tucker’s fortunes and ratings — his 2.8 million viewers give him the most watched show on cable television in its 8pm time slot — have also soared under a Donald Trump presidency. On the other, despite his audience’s love of his sharp-edged contrarianism, what’s also changed in the past two decades, says Lenz, is what the public will tolerate in our pundits and leaders. And with a defiant Carlson refusing to apologize for his remarks, his continued TV viability will come down to what the public — through pressure on and from the show’s advertisers — will tolerate. Media Matters, in fact, is staging a protest Wednesday morning at Fox News headquarters to coincide with an advertisers meeting. “The success and failure of Carlson’s show rest upon advertisers,” says West. “Only then will we be able to know whether he weathers the storm.”
Warning: The following audio contains explicit language.