“I hate him passionately.”
Thanks to new court filings in a $1.6bn defamation lawsuit against Fox News we now know exactly how the network’s star host, Tucker Carlson, really feels about Donald Trump. Two days before the insurrection at the Capitol, around the same time that Carlson was publicly singing Trump’s praises to his audience of millions, he was also sending private texts to members of his staff about how much despised the guy. It’s almost like Carlson doesn’t believe a single word he says on TV.
That text message wasn’t some one-off: the court documents are full of juicy little examples of Carlson bashing Trump. During the 2020 presidential election, for example, Carlson told his producer that Trump was a terrible businessman. “All of [his businesses] fail,” he texted. “What he’s good at is destroying things. He’s the undisputed world champion of that.” In another text, sent the day after the Capitol riots, Carlson described Trump as a “demonic force, a destroyer.” And in yet another text he called Trump’s presidency a “disaster.” Weirdly none of those opinions made it onto his show.
While these text messages may only have been exposed recently, it’s hardly a revelation that Carlson’s public and private views frequently diverge. Hunter Biden, Joe Biden’s prodigal son, for example, is a frequent subject of ridicule and ire on Fox News. In the real world, however, Carlson seems to have rather different views towards Hunter. While Tucker Carlson has admitted he was close to Hunter in the past, he hasn’t exactly been enthusiastic about publicizing how cosy their relationship was. Last year it was revealed that, back in 2014, Carlson and his wife asked for Hunter’s help in getting their son, Buckley, into Georgetown University. Hunter graciously agreed to write a letter of recommendation.
Buckley didn’t end up at Georgetown. However, as the Washington Post noted at the time, Carlson’s emails with Hunter show “how Carlson once sought to benefit from the elite political circles in Washington that he now regularly rails against as the ‘ruling class.’” Carlson, let’s also remember, also likes to rail against “affirmative action” in university admissions, saying that “a meritocracy is the only fair way to run a society.” I’m not sure that asking the (then) vice-president’s son to help get your spawn into university is ‘meritocracy.’
Who is Carlson really? What, if anything, does he actually believe? It seems unlikely, but I would hope that the news about his feelings towards Trump might make Carlson’s viewers start asking those questions – and start questioning his credibility. After all, the court filings don’t just make Carlson’s opinions about Trump clear, they demonstrate that he has zero respect for his viewers. As the journalism professor Jay Rosen tweeted: “When you feel you have to conceal a view like this from your viewers, night after night, you develop a deep contempt for them because, night after night, they fall for what you in your heart know is an act.”
Once upon a time, Carlson was publicly disgusted by journalists who put on an act for their viewers. The internet has a very long memory and, in light of the new court documents, a 2003 video of Carlson criticizing Bill O’Reilly, then a massive name on Fox News, has resurfaced. “Bill O’Reilly is really talented,” a fresh-faced Carlson said in the clip. “…[But] O’Reilly success is built on the perception that he really is who he claims to be. If he ever gets caught out of character, it’s over. There’s a deep phoniness at the center of his shtik.”
Carlson has been caught out of character. Is it over for him? Somehow, I don’t think so. The world is a very different place than it was in 2003; the increase in political tribalism means that hypocrisy is more rampant and more easily forgiven. New York University Professor Jay Van Bavel, an expert on the “partisan brain” has noted that presenting people with examples of someone on ‘their side’ being hypocritical rarely changes behaviour.
Rather people often “double down on their beliefs or ignore evidence that their behavior is inconsistent with the past.” In other words, Carlson’s viewers will probably just ignore the court filings. Which won’t be very difficult as they’re unlikely to be heavily showcased on Fox News.
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