The Washington Post
Tucker Carlson lectures on the media. That’s rich.
Normally, I don’t spend much time thinking about the nonsense on cable television, because it’s like paying attention to the guy on the street corner who shouts about Armageddon through a bullhorn. Some words are just noise.
Last week, though, Tucker Carlson acidly attacked a former colleague of mine, and what he said got me thinking about one of the most persistent myths of our media moment.
Here’s what happened: Jon Ward, a top political reporter at Yahoo News, was about to post a critical story about Carlson’s Fox News series looking at the 2020 election and the insurrection at the Capitol. (Shocker: Carlson says it was all a leftist conspiracy.)
In a preemptive attack on the piece, Carlson launched into a tirade on his nightly Fox News show, accusing Ward of doctoring a transcript of Carlson’s on-air comments.
(He hadn’t. In fact, Ward had sent the edited transcript to Carlson to check its accuracy, which is what reporters are supposed to do.)
Even by the standards of prime-time cable, Carlson’s rant was remarkably personal. While posting a picture of Ward on screen, he noted that Ward had once worked for him at the Daily Caller and that the Ward family had even visited his home.
“He’s a very nice person, he’s a sincere family man,” Carlson said. “He’s also weak. And at a moment like this, weak people get crushed by the forces above them. Weak people conform.”
Ward is a friend of mine; we worked together at Yahoo. He doesn’t need my defense here, but I’ ll just say I don’t know many journalists who have more spine or integrity. His only fealty is to what’s true.
I’ve also met Carlson many times over the years. I remember him as a very talented, unfailingly amiable magazine writer in the years when we were both starting out, and then as an unusually thoughtful daytime host on MSNBC.
There are a lot less intellectually gifted people than Carlson succeeding in media right now — I promise you that — but probably none who are more fraudulent. It seems to me that Carlson is just suiting up to play a character every night — the vitriolic blowhard he created in middle age when it became apparent that the market would reward it.
More than anyone in prime-time cable, Carlson seems to have conceded that the venue is pure entertainment, fueled by a self-righteousness that is, in most cases, no realer than “Wandavision.”
I wish he’d decided to use his considerable talent for less cynical ends, but you know, everybody’s got to look in their own mirror at the end of the day.
The point I really want to make, though, has to do with Carlson’s shot about weakness, which is a recurring theme these days.
There’s a narrative in the modern media and political world — not just on the right — that real courage only be expressed only through uncompromising partisanship.
If you’re always standing up for something like “America First” or the Green New Deal, then you’re speaking truth to power. But if you resist a tribal mentality and try to sift through the nuance of the issue, then you must be a quivering toady who just wants to please The Man, whether he’s a greedy CEO or a leftist revolutionary.
The truth, as anyone who actually works in the media and is honest about this will tell you, is that this narrative is entirely upside down.
In reality, the easiest thing to do right now is what Carlson does — to seek out the ardent applause of one side or the other, because the more strident and predictable you are, the more eyeballs you attract and the more appreciation you’ll garner.
This isn’t only on television. In too many opinion forums now, the only objective seems to be validating the preconceptions of the audience.
The more courageous thing, by far, is to tell people what they may not want to hear, to insist on independent thought even as the business model for it grows smaller by the day.
The harder thing is to stand against either onrushing current, pounded on all sides because you won’t just bend to the seductive idea that the answers to the country’s problems are obvious and comforting.
When strength becomes a synonym for extremism, bullies prevail. When moderation becomes a hallmark of cravenness, complex thought disappears.
“If you want to draw a salary from a big media company right now, you do what you’re told, you toe the line,” Carlson said in his monologue last week. “If it comes down to it, you lie.”
He’s right about that. But if Tucker wants to know what that kind of weakness really looks like, he should give that mirror a longer look.