Tucker Carlson Is a Made Man

Fox News host loves to rail against the mainstream press but enjoys the protection of media clubbiness.

Ben Smith has a real barn-burner of a profile of Tucker Carlson that I strongly recommend. The thrust of the piece is that Carlson, despite his performance as a (faux) populist in rebellion against elite consensus, has always been a consummate insider who has cagily used the rules of access journalism to secure favorable coverage.

Here is who Carlson is behind the scenes:

Mr. Carlson was born to a world of insiders and story shapers, and makes no secret of it. His father was a reporter in Los Angeles and San Diego before Ronald Reagan appointed him director of the Voice of America, and the son grew up with a generation of elite Washington journalists. “I’ve always lived around people who are wielding authority, around the ruling class,” he said in a 2018 interview

In front of the camera, Carlson presents a very different picture to the world, claiming to be a traitor to his class who is willing to take up the pitchfork against the corrupt ruling class. This is the Carlson who refers to the media as “cringing animals who are not worthy of respect.”

But the private Carlson is the same as he’s always been: companionable and gifted with knowing how to leak information about Fox News and the Trump administration to the right reporters in exchange for favorable coverage for himself.

The upshot of this “double-game” is that Carlson is protected by the reporters who use him as a source:

And Mr. Carlson’s comfortable place inside Washington media, many of the reporters who cover him say, has taken the edge off some of the coverage. It has also served as a kind of insurance policy, they say, protecting him from the marginalization that ended the Fox career of his predecessor, Glenn Beck, who also drew a huge audience with shadowy theories of elite conspiracy.

“It’s so unknown in the general public how much he plays both sides,” marveled one reporter for a prominent publication who speaks to Mr. Carlson regularly.

Another Washington journalist in his orbit said he thought Mr. Carlson benefited from his value to the media.

“If you open yourself up as a resource to mainstream media reporters, you don’t even have to ask them to go soft on you,” the journalist said.

Smith rightly notes that Carlson’s “double-game” is hardly new. Joseph McCarthy and Donald Trump fought the same fake battles with the press, which disguised their covert alliances. There’s a way in which the long story of right-wing demagogues battling the media has always been akin to professional wrestling: a staged and scripted pseudo-battle.

One could add Roy Cohn (Trump’s mentor and close buddy of reporters like Barbara Walters) to the list. Many in the Trump’s circle, notably Ivanka Trump and Steve Bannon, have also had a mutually beneficial relationship with the press. If you read the news carefully, it’s not hard to find evidence of reports that seem to rely on their leaks. These news accounts are usually characterized by narratives structured so Ivanka Trump and Bannon come across as relatively sympathetic.

Access journalism is nothing new. But is is still morally defensible in the current crisis of American democracy? Carlson, after all, is someone touting a conspiratorial view of the January 6 riot as almost entirely an FBI false flag operation. (This is to be distinguished from legitimate questions about FBI conduct in the lead up to January 6, which deserve congressional investigation). Carlson’s role in promoting racism, including a version of the neo-Nazi fear that white Americans are being replaced, is well-documented.

Ben’s Smith’s report forces a number of pressing questions. Access journalism has always been morally dodgy but in the case of protecting a figure like Carlson (not to mention Trump) shouldn’t it be seen as beyond the pale? And who are these journalists who are shielding Carlson? Do they think his anti-democratic and xenophobic agitation is acceptable? Do they even share some of it?

Carlson enjoys the type of protection usually reserved for made men in the mafia. A code of omerta shields him. A reckoning with Trumpism is needed, which means the code of omerta has to end.

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