From principled conservative to Bubba the Love Sponge: The devolution of Tucker Carlson

Tucker Carlson. Photo (cc) 2018 by Gage Skidmore.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Tucker Carlson may have finally hit bottom. Then again, maybe not. If Fox News fails to act after Carlson was exposed over the weekend for making insanely misogynist comments on a low-rent radio show between 2006 and 2011, then he will probably continue on his merry way, indulging in sexism and racism on what might be the worst prime-time program on cable news.

A brief synopsis. During the period in question, Carlson made weekly on-air calls to a show hosted by Bubba the Love Sponge, whose name you may vaguely recall from Hulk Hogan’s successful lawsuit against Gawker Media. Mrs. Sponge, as we shall call Bubba’s ex-wife, was videotaped having sex with Hogan, and Gawker published it. That, in turn, led to the demise of Gawker at the hands of Hogan’s lawyer and his secret financier, the tech entrepreneur Peter Thiel, who had his own axe to grind against the company.

Anyway, Carlson’s appearances on Bubba’s show were sort of like his Fox News program, only cruder and much more disturbing. Madeline Peltz of Media Matters for America, a liberal media-watch organization, has gone through many hours of audio in which Carlson defended statutory rape, used the C-word, and, as Peltz put it, “called journalist Arianna Huffington a ‘pig,’ and labeled Britney Spears and Paris Hilton ‘the biggest white whores in America.’ He also said that women enjoy being told to ‘be quiet and kind of do what you’re told’ and that they are ‘extremely primitive.’” The story includes audio clips and extensive transcripts. Carlson doesn’t deny it. More was posted Monday night, with the new cache consisting of what Media Matters calls “white nationalist rhetoric” and “racist remarks.”

The revelations about Carlson were the worst news for Fox News in, oh, about a week. Last week brought us Jane Mayer’s New Yorker story detailing the multifarious ways in which Fox now functions as President Trump’s chief propaganda arm, as well as weekend host Jeanine Pirro’s assertion that U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar’s hijab is somehow a violation of the Constitution. (Fox condemned those remarks.)

Now, forgive me for taking a detour, because I want to talk about an earlier, better version of Tucker Carlson. To my mind, one of the stranger and more disheartening developments in conservative media in recent years has been Carlson’s devolution from a stylish writer of smart magazine pieces to a ranting racist and misogynist.

My first exposure to Carlson came in September 1995, when The Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine founded by Bill Kristol and funded by Rupert Murdoch, made its debut. Back then I was the media columnist for The Boston Phoenix. I took a look at the Standard’s first issue and pronounced most of it to be a snooze. The exception was an amusing piece by Carlson, who contacted various celebrities about a petition they’d signed calling for a new trial for Mumia Abu-Jamal, then facing the death penalty after he was convicted of murdering a police officer. Carlson innocently asked his targets what they actually knew about the case, which turned out to be not much.

After that, Carlson was someone I checked in with from time to time. I admired a long profile he wrote for Tina Brown’s Talk magazine of then-presidential candidate George W. Bush, whom he depicted as cruelly mocking Karla Faye Tucker, a murderer and born-again Christian he’d sent to her death when he was governor of Texas. On one of my visits to Washington around the same time, Carlson took me to lunch at The Palm. He was utterly charming. The only disconcerting note was when he genially berated me for not keeping a gun at home in order to protect my family.

I should add that many people have had similar experiences with Carlson. Last fall Lyz Lenz wrote a long profile of Carlson for the Columbia Journalism Review in which she quoted a number of editors and others who worked with Carlson back in the day and who can’t believe how far he’s fallen — fallen being a term of art, of course, given that he’s never been more prominent or highly compensated than he is right now.

“What happened to Tucker Carlson?,” Lenz wrote. “People in media ask themselves this question with the same pearl-clutching, righteous tone they use when discussing their aunt in Connecticut who voted for Trump.”

Sadly, the answer to Lenz’s question is obvious enough. Late last year The Weekly Standard died — or, rather, was killed by its last owner, Philip Anschutz. In its final incarnation the Standard had established itself as an outlet for principled conservatism that was usually (though not always) harshly critical of Trump and Trumpism. Kristol, a leading voice of the #NeverTrump right, as well as several like-minded conservatives, have gone off to found projects such as The Bulwark (which preceded the Standard’s closing) and a yet-to-be-named venture announced by Jonah Goldberg and Stephen Hayes. Anschutz is now lavishing attention and money on another property he owns, the pro-Trump Washington Examiner.

Meanwhile Carlson, whose intellectual traveling companions were once thinking conservatives like Kristol and John Podhoretz, is now mentioned in the same breath as Trump toadies such as Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham. It’s a matter of prosperity over principle. Too bad one of the most gifted journalists of his generation turned out to be nothing but a cheap hustler.

Research assistance was provided by Northeastern University student Caroline Hanlon.

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Globe to address columnist Sununu’s outside interests

Last week the liberal media watchdog group Media Matters for America published its latest post on the many conflicts of Boston Globe columnist John E. Sununu, a former Republican senator and the son of former New Hampshire governor John Sununu.

Now the Globe’s editorial-page editor, Ellen Clegg, says she’s dealing with Sununu in several ways:

  • By posting in the near future biographies of Sununu and other freelance columnists that disclose their outside interests.
  • By reaching an understanding with Sununu that he will not write about cable and Internet access.
  • By requiring a specific disclosure within his column whenever he writes about the presidential campaign. (Sununu is a prominent supporter of Ohio Gov. John Kasich.)

“It’s safe to say that few freelance columnists make their living solely from writing for newspapers these days, so most have other jobs or consultancies,” Clegg told me by email. “We want to be more transparent with our readers about the nature of columnists’ work and affiliations.”

Sununu’s outside interests, which I have written about previously, was the subject of an Aug. 17 analysis by Eric Hananoki of Media Matters. Hananoki observed that Sununu’s column of that same date criticized President Obama’s environmental policies as well as his regulatory decisions regarding cable and the Internet without mentioning his ties to businesses that oppose administration policies.

In particular, Hanonoki wrote, Sununu was paid more than $750,000 by the industry-funded lobbying organization Broadband for America and by Time Warner Cable, on whose board he sits.

Sununu’s ties to the energy industry stem from his status as a policy adviser to the Washington lobbying firm Akin Gump.

The online disclosures Clegg envisions for freelance columnists seem like a reasonable solution in most cases, although, as she notes, there are times when the disclosure should be included in the column — or when the conflict of interest is so blatant that the columnist should simply choose another topic.

The online disclosures are also of no help to those who only read the print edition. Clegg told Joe Strupp of Media Matters that she’d “take a look at” what to do about print and added that “we do require that [disclosure] when we think it’s warranted.”

What follows is the full text of Clegg’s email to Media Nation.

In the interest of more transparency, we’re posting bios for our regular freelance op-ed columnists online and linking those bios to their bylines. John Sununu has told me he will avoid writing about issues pertaining to cable and internet access because of his seat on the Time Warner Cable board. He has also assured me that he will disclose his support of GOP presidential candidate John Kasich in the text of any columns he writes about presidential politics (he is chair of his campaign in New Hampshire.)

It’s safe to say that few freelance columnists make their living solely from writing for newspapers these days, so most have other jobs or consultancies. We want to be more transparent with our readers about the nature of columnists’ work and affiliations. When appropriate, we’ll include relevant details in the text of the print edition of the column, as well as the link for our digital readers.

Also published at WGBHNews.org.

Media Matters whacks Sununu over Keystone column

John Sununu
John Sununu

The liberal media watchdog group Media Matters for America has resurrected an old charge: that former Republican senator John Sununu Jr. is using his Boston Globe column to advance the interests of a lobbying firm he advises.

In this case, writes Eric Hananoki, the Washington firm of Akin Gump, with which Sununu has a relationship, has received at least $90,000 from a company that would be involved in building the Keystone pipeline — and on Thursday the Globe posted a full-throated defense of Keystone by Sununu, complete with crocodile tears for Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu. The Akin Gump connection is not disclosed.

When I looked into Sununu’s relationship with Akin Gump in 2012, then-editorial page editor Peter Canellos assured me that the former senator’s ties to the lobbying group were tangential enough that they did not rise to the level of a conflict. And Media Matters’ own report at the time made it clear that the situation was ambiguous. (On Akin Gump’s website Sununu is listed as an “Adjunct Senior Policy Advisor.”) Still, on a certain level what’s good for Akin Gump is good for John Sununu.

But as I wrote at the time, the larger question is why the Globe would hand over precious op-ed space to a partisan hack like Sununu. It’s still a good question. I hope it’s something Canellos’ interim successor, Ellen Clegg, is giving some thought to.

John Sununu’s complicated alliances

John Sununu

Boston Globe editorial-page editor Peter Canellos and I recently exchanged some emails over Globe op-ed columnist John Sununu’s lobbying work on behalf of Akin Gump. I ended up choosing not to write about Sununu because I was satisfied that Sununu’s non-disclosure in his columns, though potentially problematic, did not rise to the level of unethical behavior. It was also clear that I’d need to do a lot more research than I had time for in order to put some flesh on the bones.

Today Media Matters, a prominent liberal media-watch organization, weighs in. And I don’t regret my decision. Oliver Willis and Joe Strupp have really done their homework, only to find that the whole situation is fairly ambiguous. It looks like they got excited about the chance to write that the former New Hampshire senator was using the Globe to further his interests in such controversial practices as hydrofracking only to find that Sununu’s ties to Akin Gump are rather tangential.

One thing Willis and Strupp don’t mention is that Sununu has used his column to carry water for Mitt Romney on several occasions, including the run-up to the New Hampshire primary. This one, for instance, couldn’t be any more favorable if one of Romney’s kids had written it. Sununu did not endorse anyone, but his column dutifully noted that his father, former New Hampshire governor John Sununu, had endorsed Romney.

There is a larger question here. Why do news organizations use political partisans and lobbyists — and people who are both — to write opinion pieces for them? That, to me, is the real issue. I find nothing in Sununu’s columns that are insightful or fresh enough to make me think he earned a piece of the valuable real estate he commands. He’s there because of who he is, not because of what he has to say.

I don’t mind strong opinions. Frankly, I’d like to see more of them in the Globe. But if I want those opinions from a politician-turned-lobbyist, I can always turn on cable TV.