It has been self-evident for a long time to almost every astute observer of Tucker Carlson — his friends, his acquaintances in the journalism profession, even some viewers of his nightly Fox News Channel program — that he doesn’t believe half of the things he says on his show. That obvious truth can now be enjoyed more widely, including by fans of his show, which happens to be the most popular single attraction in cableland, thanks to new filings released from the $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit Dominion Voting Systems has leveled against Fox.
In the filings — text messages and emails authored by Carlson (and other Foxies) — he reveals that the wildly pro-Trump stance that he and his network long cultivated has been a theatrical performance. Carlson, who has long defended and promoted Trump, as well as advised him on national security issues, has never been a genuine Trumpie, he has just played the role on TV. His support of Trump and many Trump-adjacent issues has been one of convenience, and when not a matter of convenience, a measure of his fear of Trump.
“We are very, very close to being able to ignore Trump most nights,” Carlson texted an unnamed Fox co-worker on Jan. 4, 2021. “I truly can’t wait.” When Carlson’s colleague responded, “I want nothing more,” Carlson texted back, “I hate him passionately.”
Carlson continued: “What he’s good at is destroying things. He’s the undisputed world champion of that. He could easily destroy us if we play it wrong.” Elsewhere, Carlson said of the Trump presidency, “That’s the last four years. We’re all pretending we’ve got a lot to show for it, because admitting what a disaster it’s been is too tough to digest. But come on. There isn’t really an upside to Trump.”
In an earlier filing, we learn that Carlson cared more about Fox’s bottom line than he did about journalistic accuracy after Fox’s White House correspondent dispelled notions about voter fraud and Dominion. “Please get her fired,” Carlson texted to Fox hosts Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity. “Seriously … What the fuck? I’m actually shocked… It needs to stop immediately, like tonight. It’s measurably hurting the company. The stock price is down. Not a joke.”
To accuse the leading attraction on cable news of being so craven is a big claim. Can we really believe that a prime-time nightly cable host would gin up a unique and false persona just to sucker viewers into watching his show? What responsible observer could make such a claim? Well, two decades ago, Tucker Carlson said exactly that. In his 2003 book, Politicians, Partisans, and Parasites: My Adventures in Cable News, written long before he joined Fox, Carlson had this to say about Bill O’Reilly, then the king of cable news.
“Like everyone in TV, he has a shtick. O’Reilly is Everyman — the faithful but slightly lapsed Catholic son of the working class who knows slick, eastern Establishment BS when he sees it. A guy who tells the truth and demands that others do the same. A man who won’t be pushed around or take maybe for an answer,” Carlson wrote, completely on target.
With a little tweaking, this assessment of O’Reilly could be cut and tapered to dress Carlson. But there’s more. Did Carlson know that he was writing his future prospectus when he continued with these insights about cable’s top host?
“O’Reilly’s success is built on the perception that he really is who he claims to be,” Carlson wrote. “If he ever gets caught out of character, it’s over. If someday he punches out a flight attendant on the Concorde for bringing him a glass of warm champagne, the whole franchise will come tumbling down. He’ll make the whatever-happened-to … ? list quicker than you can say ‘Morton Downey, Jr.’”
Soon after the book was published, Carlson went on C-SPAN to reiterate his worship and disdain of O’Reilly. “Bill O’Reilly is really talented, he’s more talented than I am, he’s got a lot more viewers, he’s a better communicator than I am, but I think there is a deep phoniness at the center of his schtick, and again as I say the schtick is built on the perception that he is the character he plays,” Carlson said.
What Carlson wrote and said in 2003 surprised nobody, especially O’Reilly’s friends, his acquaintances in the journalism profession or even some viewers of his nightly Fox News Channel program. O’Reilly was clearly playing a character of his own invention in a multi-episode TV drama called The O’Reilly Factor. The bluster and outrage, the name calling, O’Reilly’s endless demands that his interview subjects “shut up!“ was all a performance.
Bill O’Reilly was a phony, and so now we can all see that Tucker Carlson is, too.
Having diagnosed O’Reilly’s shortcomings so long ago, how did Carlson eventually become him? As many have written before, Carlson was one of the most talented Washington-based journalists of his generation. He excelled at the Weekly Standard. At Tina Brown’s Talk magazine, he scored a KO on presidential candidate George W. Bush. He distinguished himself as a New York magazine columnist. He wrote for Esquire.
TV came calling at about the same time, and he answered. As I’ve theorized before, Carlson’s slide into the dark side that is Fox News began with his initial failures in the medium. After several years doing CNN’s Crossfire, his show got blown to bits by Jon Stewart’s October 2004 guest appearance. A few months later, the show was canceled and Carlson’s contract was not renewed. Not counting a short run at PBS with a show titled Tucker Carlson: Unfiltered, his next TV stop was MSNBC, which ran from 2005 to 2008. Carlson was genuine to his journalistic values on all of these shows, but none of them took root.
Running out of networks to work for, he finally joined Fox in 2009 and served as a sort of utility player on the network’s shows. It was there and then, I surmise, that Carlson vowed he would not fail at TV again, no matter what. In 2016, Fox returned him to prime-time and gave him his own show. It was then that Carlson began to cultivate the deep phoniness that had made O’Reilly so popular. He co-opted O’Reilly’s everyman schtick, his bluster, his truth-teller guise, and his populism, and he soared in the ratings. When Fox dumped O’Reilly in 2017 — not for breaking character, as Carlson had predicted, but following allegations of sexual harassment — Carlson became the network’s face. And, finally, a towering success.
How much of the Trump agenda did Carlson really buy and how much of it was put on? Absent additional court filings revealing his unguarded thoughts, we may never know. But what we do know now, thanks to the Dominion lawsuit, is that the extremely talented and accomplished Tucker Carlson, hoodwinked by his own ambition, became the very thing the younger and smarter Tucker Carlson scorned in 2003. A transparent phony.
Never go on TV. You’ll only say things you don’t really believe. Tell me things you don’t believe with email to [email protected]. No new email alert subscriptions are being honored at this time. My Twitter feed is honest. My Mastodon and Post accounts will remain silent until/if Twitter folds. My RSS feed is all an act.
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