David Zurawik

Tucker Carlson's politics aren't the issue, it's his ugly, divisive, hateful rhetoric

Advertiser boycotts played a role in taking down hosts Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck on Fox News in years past.

Here’s hoping for the same fate for Tucker Carlson today as the prime-time host finds himself back in the news this week over ugly, crude, debased, misogynistic, homophobic and racist remarks he made on a shock jock radio show between 2006 and 2011.


The remarks were unearthed by researchers at Media Matters, a left-wing media watchdog and advocacy group, and pushed out into the media ecosystem this week where they are causing a stir. About 150 protesters rallied outside Fox News headquarters Wednesday as part of an effort calling for an boycott of Carlson’s show.

In December, you might recall, Carlson’s show also faced a boycott by advertisers after he said immigrants make America “poorer and dirtier and more divided.” Those are the comments that still upset me — the kind of comments that I believe are dangerous to not just the victims of the hateful words but also to our future as a nation.


Without a doubt, the remarks he made about women, homosexuality and Iraqis on the Florida-based Bubba the Love Sponge radio show are vile and disgusting. So vile and disgusting that I’m not going to repeat them here.

But by going that far back in time for ammunition to use against Carlson, Media Matters has given him an opportunity to further confuse the issue and deflect attention away from the racist and ugly remarks he is making now on prime-time TV when he says things like immigrants make America “dirtier.”

Let’s get one thing straight right off the bat in connection with that December boycott that fizzled over the holidays and the one now faced by Carlson: Despite his best efforts to frame the boycotts as ”free speech” issues, no one’s First Amendment rights are being denied or violated when advertisers refuse to place their ads on Carlson’s show. Why should any advertiser pay money to place an ad on a show that insults and demeans huge demographic groups of potential customers?

Carlson is free to say anything he wants on his show as long as he is willing to accept the same kinds of consequences dealt to O’Reilly and Beck as they were forced off one of the largest platforms in American media at Fox and banished to the margins of popular culture.

But it is clear Carlson does not intend to go there without a fight.

Since even Carlson seems to understand that his past words are indefensible, what he started out trying to do this week instead was fan the flames of culture wars and exploit the dangerous divisions in American life by invoking some of the darkest, most paranoid imaginings of the right. It’s all about politics and the evil ways of the left, according to Carlson.

“The left's main goal, in case you haven't noticed, is controlling what you think,” he told viewers on Monday in response to the revelations from Media Matters and calls for a boycott.

“In order to do that, they have to control the information that you receive,” he continued, framing the matter as an effort to silence him.


“One of the only places left in the United States where independent thoughts are allowed is right here at Fox News, the opinion hours on this network. Just a few hours in a sea of television programming,” he added.

“For now, just two points to leave you with,” he concluded. “First, Fox News is behind us, as they have been since the very first day. ... Second, we've always apologized when we are wrong and we will continue to do that. That's what decent people do — they apologize. … But we will never bow to the mob — ever. No matter what.”

First of all, I heard defiance in that statement, not an apology. And second, does he really think he can sell the proposition that Fox News is “one of the only places left in the United States where independent thoughts are allowed?”

Fox News, the propaganda arm of the Trump White House? Fox News, the network Trump watches obsessively and applauds for its lockstep support? Fox News, which was founded as a political tool of the right rather than a journalistic enterprise by the late Roger Ailes and has gone beyond even the worst impulses of Ailes in becoming a mouthpiece and lapdog for Trump? That Fox News is a sanctuary city for “independent thoughts”?

As for “mobs,” I’ll take 150 peaceful protesters with placards outside Fox News, even if they were organized by Media Matters, as opposed to the ones made up of people who mindlessly chant “lock her up” and threaten the press at Trump rallies.

Wednesday night, Carlson amped up the culture-wars conspiracy talk.


“Well, the left is now entirely engaged in destroying the First Amendment and imposing basically a totalitarian outrage culture on this country,” he said setting the table for a segment late in the show that again dealt with Media Matters and its campaign against him.

The segment featured Carlson trying to turn the tables on Media Matters President Angelo Carusone by sharing words Carlson said Carusone wrote on a blog 14 years ago. Carusone’s words were first reported by The Daily Caller, which Carlson co-founded.

The segment reminded me of one of the darkest periods of cable TV news in 2009 when Beck asked Fox News viewers to send him any damaging information they had on President Barack Obama or any members of his administration.

And MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann countered by asking his viewers to send him any dirt they had on Beck or Ailes.

I decried that level of toxicity and warfare then, and I denounce it with every bone in my body now. Tit for tat, smear for smear warfare is not how cable news channels, which are at the core of the civic conversation of American life today, should be used.

But that is where Carlson lives. And that’s why I would love to see him shunted off to a place on the media landscape where he will have a much smaller audience for his rhetoric of division and hate.


As I wrote during the boycott in December, Carlson has built a TV persona on inflammatory statements like the one about immigrants. Even more than O’Reilly in his heyday, Carlson is constantly stirring the pot of racial, gender and class tensions.

Playing the same game Trump played in appealing to the fear some whites have of changing demographics and distributions of power, Carlson has made himself into a smirking TV face of white male privilege.

He’s become a nightly cable TV surrogate for Trump to those who want to deny the inevitability of a more diverse and equitable America.

That’s part of the package that makes his show one of the most popular on cable TV — as well as one of the most reactionary.

Fox News said in December that it wasn’t losing money when advertisers pulled out of Carlson’s show because their ads simply appeared elsewhere. The network is saying the same thing now.

But I heard that rationale during the boycotts of O’Reilly and Beck as well.


Fingers crossed.