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Media notes: Will Lewis’ unethical ask, Biden is still old and Hub Blog is back

Photo (cc) 2016 by Dan Kennedy

Once the mishegas over the shake-up at The Washington Post dies down, we are left with a question: Is publisher Will Lewis the right person to set a new direction for Jeff Bezos’ money-losing, reader-hemorrhaging newspaper? The New York Times has some disturbing news (free link) on that front.

According to Times reporters Benjamin Mullin and Katie Robertson, executive editor Sally Buzbee clashed with Lewis over a story about new developments in the British tabloid phone-hacking scandal. Lewis had some involvement as an executive in Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, and he reportedly told Buzbee that he didn’t want the story to run. Buzbee ran it anyway. The Times reports that the exchange was a factor, though not the decisive one, in Buzbee’s decision to leave the Post rather than accept a reduced role under Lewis’ plan to reorganize the staff into three newsrooms.

And lest we forget, Max Tani of Semafor reported a couple of weeks ago that the Post’s director of newsletter strategy, Elana Zak, sent out a missive instructing staff members “don’t distribute this story” in its newsletters. At the time, Zak’s email was attributed to some sort of internal mix-up, but the Times story casts that in a new light.

Buzbee, at least, stood up to Lewis and his ethically inappropriate demand. The problem is that his handpicked new editors, Matt Murray and Robert Winnett, may prove to be more malleable.

A flawed WSJ story

The Wall Street Journal has published a lengthy inquiry (free link) into President Biden’s mental acuity that has inflamed liberal critics. I read it with an open mind, but the story, by Annie Linskey and Siobhan Hughes, is based almost entirely on the observations of partisan Republicans like former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who’s quoted on the record, and current Speaker Mike Johnson, who isn’t.

The article, we’re told, is based on interviews with 45 people — but apparently six of those interviews were devoted to what Johnson had told people about a meeting he had with Biden in February. The story also contradicts earlier reporting about McCarthy, who has privately praised Biden’s mental sharpness even while mocking him in public.

One of the most fair-minded, nonpartisan media observers out there is Tom Jones of Poynter Online, so I was curious as to what he would have to say about it. Here’s his take:

Is it a fairly reported story on a pertinent topic? Or is it a pointed piece based pretty much on quotes and opinions from those who don’t want to see Biden elected to a second term?

I’d go with the latter — considering the money quote is from McCarthy, another key anecdote was reported by current Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson, and other tales suggesting Biden’s decline are flimsy, at best. (For example, he sometimes talks quietly, he uses notes, and he relies on aides.)

That “money quote” from McCarthy, by the way, is this: “I used to meet with him [Biden] when he was vice president. I’d go to his house. He’s not the same person.”

Despite Murdoch’s ownership, the Journal’s news coverage is generally superb. It was the Journal’s reporting, after all, that led to Donald Trump’s 34 felony convictions last week. You have to wonder how a slanted piece like this passed muster.

Fairly or not, the Journal has raised the stakes for Biden’s June 27 debate with Trump, who, it should be said much more often than it is, is nearly as old as Biden and whose own problems with age-related mental slips tend to play out in public rather than (allegedly) behind closed doors.

Jay Fitzgerald returns

Veteran journalist Jay Fitzgerald, one of the original Boston bloggers, has revived Hub Blog (via Contrarian Boston). It looks like Jay is mainly writing an old-fashioned link blog with a few longer posts on the turmoil at The Washington Post.

I started writing an early version of this blog in 2002, shortly after Hub Blog launched. I was actually doing it by hand — I had no idea there was this thing called blogging software that automated the process of date-stamping, archiving older posts, adding permalinks and the like until Jay asked me, “What are you using.” He led me to Blogspot, though I’ve been using WordPress since 2005.

Anyway, it’s good to have Jay back in harness.

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‘Catch and kill’ isn’t new; plus, Facebook spurns news, and why the WSJ will miss Rupe

Three media tidbits for your Tuesday morning:

• Catch and kill. The National Enquirer’s practice of paying for stories and of deep-sixing articles in order to gain power and influence over someone — known as “catch and kill” — didn’t start with former Enquirer owner David Pecker. Nor was Donald Trump the first alleged beneficiary. I recommend “Scandalous,” a 2019 documentary about the Enquirer that is revealing and highly entertaining. Both Bob Hope and Bill Cosby were caught dead to rights in tawdry sexual affairs, and the Enquirer killed stories about those affairs in order to force them to cooperative in cheery feature stories. Pecker’s innovation was to politicize the practice.

• Facebook and news. Back when I was reporting my 2018 book, “The Return of the Moguls,” news organizations desperately sought to use Facebook as a way of distributing their journalism. News publishers liked to talk about “the barbell,” by which they would attract readers on Facebook (one end of the barbell) and try to get them to migrate to their own digital products (the other end of the barbell), where, it was hoped, they would become paying subscribers.

In the years since, Meta executives have decided news just isn’t worth it and have throttled journalism on Facebook and other products, including Threads and Instagram. How bad is it? The Washington Post has conducted a data analysis (free link) showing that “the 25 most-cited news organizations in the United States lost 75 percent of their total user engagement on Facebook” between the first quarter of 2022 and the first quarter of 2024. It’s further evidence that news organizations’ business models shouldn’t be dependent on giant corporations with their own agendas.

• The WSJ will miss Murdoch. Axel Springer, the right-wing German media conglomerate that took over Politico in 2021, has its sights set on The Wall Street Journal, according to Ben Smith of Semafor. Rupert Murdoch, through his control of the Fox News Channel and other outlets on three continents, may be the most malignant media magnate on the planet. But he’s been a surprisingly good steward of the Journal, which after 17 years of his ownership remains one of our great newspapers. At 93, he won’t be in charge too much longer. And here’s a quote from Axel Springer CEO Mathias Döpfner that you might enjoy: “I’m all for climate change. We shouldn’t fight climate change but adjust to it.”

I’ll grant you that’s something you might see on the Journal’s editorial page even  now. Murdoch, though, has been better about not letting that bleed into the news pages than Axel Springer might be.

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Despite warning signs, Lewis may prove to be an inspired choice as Post publisher

Will Lewis (photo via LinkedIn)

The Washington Post has named a new publisher to replace Fred Ryan, who left earlier this year amid widening losses, falling circulation and a reported rift with executive editor Sally Buzbee. Ryan will be succeeded by Will Lewis, and there are some flashing lights we ought to pay attention to.

For one thing, Lewis was knighted by King Charles III on the recommendation of Boris Johnson. For another, he is a former top lieutenant to Rupert Murdoch, although he denies that he and Murdoch are close. Weirdly, a Post profile of Lewis says that “Lewis disagrees with media descriptions of him as a former ‘Murdoch lieutenant,’” but it’s a simple fact. It doesn’t mean that he still speaks to Murdoch or that he doesn’t have his own set of values.

Lewis is the founder, CEO and publisher of a project called The News Movement, which the Post describes as “a social-first media business providing nonpartisan news to Gen Z.” The homepage offers BuzzFeed-style clickbait, but Lewis also has a background in serious journalism.

In other words, there are warning signs, but Lewis may turn out to be an inspired choice. That said, Post owner Jeff Bezos’ hiring record is mixed. Ryan always struck me as not quite right for the job, something confirmed by former executive editor Marty Baron in his book “Collision of Power.” Among Ryan’s last acts was presiding over the death of the Post’s gaming vertical, one of the few features the paper offered that appealed to a younger readership.

Bezos’ pick for editorial page editor, David Shipley, has not improved the Post’s opinion section, which, with few exceptions, has been dismal for many years. The jury is still out on Buzbee. She was well-regarded in her previous job as executive editor of The Associated Press. Her performance at the Post strikes me as solid, but I’m not sure what her vision is. Perhaps her tense relationship with Ryan held her back.

Final fun fact: The New York Times beat the Post in breaking the news about Lewis’ hiring. Yes, I know it can be difficult to report on your own institution, but good grief.

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How Rupert Murdoch saved the Boston Herald — not just once, but twice

As I noted Thursday, one of the few positive contributions Rupert Murdoch can take credit for is preserving The Wall Street Journal as a great national newspaper. Another is that he saved the Boston Herald — not once, but twice. Larry Edelman of The Boston Globe writes about the first time (he interviewed me). I tell that story as well as the tale of Murdoch’s second rescue in my 2018 book “The Return of the Moguls,” which I excerpt below.

The Hearst chain, which had converted the Herald (known then as the Herald American) to a tabloid during the final years of its ownership, had run out the string by 1982. I remember one old-timer telling me that, with closure just hours away, workers came in to rip out the vending machines from the paper’s hulking plant in the South End. At the last minute, Murdoch reached a deal with the unions and the paper was saved.

Under Murdoch’s ownership, the Herald established itself as a feisty alternative to the Globe, sometimes beating its larger rival on important local stories. That continued in the 1990s after Murdoch’s protégé Pat Purcell bought it from him. To this day there are people who believe that Murdoch continued to pull the strings behind the scenes, but I never believed it. Murdoch just didn’t care that much about the Herald, and I don’t doubt that he let Purcell have it on extremely favorable terms.

Unfortunately, the Herald’s financial model pretty much stopped working in the early 2000s, and today it’s owned by the New York hedge fund Alden Global Capital, famous for sucking the life out of its papers. Alden owns two other Massachusetts papers as well — The Sun of Lowell and the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg.

At one time Murdoch also owned the Ottaway chain, which included the Cape Cod Times and some small weeklies, including the Middleboro Gazette, where I grew up. Murdoch is fondly remembered by taking a hands-off approach, but I honestly wonder whether he even knew those papers were part of his empire. The Gazette was later closed by the Gannett chain, and today Middleborough is served by an independent startup, Nemasket Weekly.

Here’s what I wrote in “Moguls” about the Herald and Murdoch’s TV station, WFXT-TV (Channel 25), which he sold off a few years ago. The “endless struggle” I refer to was the Herald’s long-time ownership of Channel 5, an existential threat to the Globe that was removed when the Globe reported that its rival had gained the broadcast license because of corruption at the Federal Communications Commission. The Herald was stripped of its license in 1972, and Hearst swooped in to pick up the pieces.

The Globe’s endless struggle with the Herald’s broadcast ambitions played itself out in one last, faint echo in 1988, when Murdoch, who then owned the Herald, purchased Channel 25. Ted Kennedy, by then a leading member of the Senate, quietly slipped a provision into a bill that made it almost impossible for the FCC to grant a waiver to its rule prohibiting someone from owning both a daily newspaper and a TV station in the same market. At the time, I was a reporter for The Daily Times Chronicle, which served Woburn and several surrounding communities north of Boston. I remember covering a local appearance by Kennedy as he was dogged by the Herald reporter Wayne Woodlief. “Senator, why are you trying to kill the Herald?” the persistent Woodlief asked him several times.

Murdoch chose to sell off Channel 25, thus saving the Herald; he repurchased the TV station after selling the Herald to Purcell. But the Herald columnist Howie Carr remained bitter. He told me years later that Kennedy’s actions were worse than [Globe ally Tip] O’Neill’s, since O’Neill was just trying to help one of several papers rather than destroy the Globe’s only daily competitor. “I think Tip was just trying to get an ally,” Carr said, “whereas Ted was trying to kill the paper in order to deliver the monopoly to his friends.”

The liberal reputation the Globe developed during the Winship era was cemented during Boston’s school desegregation crisis of the mid-1970s, when the Globe wholeheartedly supported federal judge Arthur Garrity’s order to bus children to different neighborhoods in the city to achieve racial balance. It was a terrible time in Boston, as white racism ran rampant and bullets were fired into the Globe’s headquarters and at one of the paper’s delivery trucks. The Globe took the right moral stand, and its coverage earned the paper its second Pulitzer for Public Service. Winship in those years enjoyed a reputation as one of the finest editors in the country. But it was also during those years that the Globe became known as the paper of Boston’s suburban liberal elite and the Herald that of the urban white working class, a dichotomy that has persisted to this day.

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No one has done more to harm our public discourse than Rupert Murdoch

Rupert Murdoch. Photo (cc) 2015 by the Hudson Institute.

Over the past 50 or so years, no one has done more harm to our public discourse than Rupert Murdoch, who announced earlier today that he’s semi-retiring from his position as one of the world’s most powerful media moguls. Since his son Lachlan Murdoch will remain in charge of the family’s various media holdings, as he has been for several years now, today’s news should be regarded as little more than a symbolic moment at which we can take stock, once again, of the damage Rupe hath wrought.

Murdoch, now 92, wields enormous power through his various media holdings in his native Australia, the U.K. and the U.S. Over time, though, that power increasingly has become centered within the Fox News Channel, launched in 1996 as a supposedly conservative alternative to CNN. (MSNBC, founded the same year, didn’t embrace its liberal identity until much later.) Fox News was never what you might call a normal conservative operation — despite initially billing itself as “fair and balanced,” it always trafficked in anger and mudslinging, epitomized by its most popular host, Bill O’Reilly.

Since the rise of Donald Trump, though, Fox News has gone crazy, embracing Trump’s lies about the election, engaging in climate-change denialism, spreading falsehoods about COVID and vaccines, and generally spewing weaponized right-wing propaganda in order to goose ratings and keep viewers glued to the set. I’m not a fan of cable news talk shows as a genre, but at least CNN’s and MSNBC’s are grounded in reality. Fox News lies. It caught up with the Murdochs in 2023, when they agreed to pay more than $787 million to settle a lawsuit brought by the Dominion voting machine company, whose business had suffered at the hands of a smear campaign by Trump insiders, amplified by Fox. That, in turn, led (or seemed to lead) to the firing of Fox’s biggest star, the white supremacist Tucker Carlson.

Through it all, Murdoch came across as the ultimate cynic. Numerous profiles have portrayed him as someone who cares about nothing but ratings and money. He holds Trump in contempt, and he made several attempts to cast him aside — trying and failing to take Trump out during the 2016 presidential campaign and then initially refusing to embrace election lies after Trump was defeated by Joe Biden in 2020. Both times, Murdoch and Fox were dragged back to Trump at the first sign that their ratings might suffer. You might say that Murdoch followed rather than led his audience, but it was a symbiotic relationship. If Murdoch had any courage, he could have weathered the storm, and Fox News might have emerged stronger than ever. As it is, it’s now a wounded behemoth, kept alive by an elderly audience that is averse to digital and without any clear path forward beyond the next few years.

How much does this matter? In recent years, many observers, including me, have blamed our cultural descent into alternative reality and authoritarianism on social media, especially Facebook and to a lesser extent the Platform Formerly Known as Twitter. That may always have been exaggerated, though. In a new piece on polarization for The New York Times, Thomas Edsall places the blame squarely on cable news.

If you want to give Murdoch credit for one thing, it’s that he maintained The Wall Street Journal as one of our three great national newspapers after he bought it. Sure, the opinion section is nutty, but that was true long before Murdoch arrived on the scene. On the other hand, he took a respectable if fading liberal newspaper, the New York Post, in an aggressively downmarket direction after he purchased it in 1976. As a leading retail executive supposedly said when Murdoch complained about the lack of advertising support, “But Rupert, Rupert, your readers are my shoplifters.”

Murdoch’s announcement that he’s reducing his role coincides with the news that the celebrity journalist Michael Wolff is about to release a book titled “The Fall: The End of Fox News and the Murdoch Dynasty.” It is, in a sense, the perfect match: a book by an author who’s often accused of playing fast and loose with the facts writing about an empire built on a foundation of lies. As CNN media reporter Oliver Darcy wrote earlier this week, “Wolff has a history of printing claims that end up being strongly disputed by the subjects themselves.” Still, a book written by a bestselling author that describes one host, Laura Ingraham, as a “drunk” and another, Sean Hannity, as a “moron” is sure to get attention.

This would be an excellent time to say good riddance to Murdoch except that he’s not going anywhere, and it wouldn’t matter that much even if he was. Unlike Rupert, Lachlan Murdoch is said to hold genuinely right-wing views. Thus the House That Murdoch Built will continue to wreak havoc at least for a few more years. I wish I thought that what comes after will be better, but I’m not holding out much hope.

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Tucker Carlson had to go because his racist text cost Rupert Murdoch money

Trump supporters rally following the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection.

Photo (cc) 2021 by David Geitgey Sierralupe

Who could have imagined that Tucker Carlson, a white supremacist in public, is also a white supremacist in private? The New York Times has unearthed what it claims is the text message that got Carlson fired from Fox News. It’s from Jan. 7, 2021, the day after the insurrection. Here it is in full:

A couple of weeks ago, I was watching video of people fighting on the street in Washington. A group of Trump guys surrounded an Antifa kid and started pounding the living shit out of him. It was three against one, at least. Jumping a guy like that is dishonorable obviously. It’s not how white men fight. Yet suddenly I found myself rooting for the mob against the man, hoping they’d hit him harder, kill him. I really wanted them to hurt the kid. I could taste it. Then somewhere deep in my brain, an alarm went off: this isn’t good for me. I’m becoming something I don’t want to be. The Antifa creep is a human being. Much as I despise what he says and does, much as I’m sure I’d hate him personally if I knew him, I shouldn’t gloat over his suffering. I should be bothered by it. I should remember that somewhere somebody probably loves this kid, and would be crushed if he was killed. If I don’t care about those things, if I reduce people to their politics, how am I better than he is?

Fox executives were terrified that the message, which Carlson had sent to one of his producers, would be introduced at trial by Dominion Voting Systems as part of the company’s libel case against Fox. That fear contributed to Fox’s decision to settle the case for nearly $800 million.

In other words, Carlson had to go because he cost Rupert Murdoch money.

But his emails: A working theory of why Tucker Carlson was pushed out by Fox

Tucker Carlson. Photo (cc) 2022 by Gage Skidmore.

It’s going to be a while — if ever — before we know why the loathsome white nationalist Tucker Carlson and his ratings-obsessed enablers at Fox News parted company.

Carlson was far from the biggest on-air liar in claiming that Dominion Voting Systems had rigged the 2020 presidential election for Joe Biden. As Josh Marshall puts it, “If you looked at the material Dominion had assembled the most damning stuff was about Bartiromo, Pirro, Dobbs. Very much the B Team. As odious as he may be, Carlson is quite good at the ‘just asking questions’ shtick.”

Carlson’s internal emails, though, were incredibly embarrassing and damaging, proving beyond a doubt that no one inside Fox believed claims by Donald Trump and his hangers-on about voting-machine fraud. My insta-theory is that Rupert Murdoch fired Carlson in a blind rage after Dominion extracted a nearly $800 billion million settlement.

For those of you who are hoping for a kinder, gentler Fox, you may recall that the firings of Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly a few years ago led to similar dreams. Instead, Fox took a sharp turn from the right toward the far right. I’m not sure a similar move now is even possible unless Carlson is replaced by, say, Alex Jones or Steve Bannon.

Carlson is the big media news of the day, but let’s not overlook Don Lemon, the hapless CNN host who was fired today. Lemon has been on thin ice since making some cringe-worthy sexist remarks on air, but he deserved better than (as he claims) to be cut loose without any communication from CNN management.

For Carlson, it’s been a long, strange devolution from principled conservative to openly racist hate-monger. In 2019, I wrote a piece for GBH News detailing my own experience with Carlson, including a convivial lunch at The Palm in Washington more than 20 years ago. I’ve occasionally wondered what happened to that guy. Maybe he does, too.

Despite the letdown, Tuesday was a very bad day for Rupert Murdoch and Fox News

Rupert Murdoch. Photo (cc) 2015 by the Hudson Institute.

For those of us who had hoped that Fox News would be publicly humiliated in the courtroom, Tuesday’s announcement that a settlement had been reached was disappointing but not surprising. The purpose of lawsuits is to resolve disputes, not to provide justice.

And what a settlement Dominion Voting Systems got: $787.5 million, or about 19% of the cash or “cash equivalents” held by Fox Corp. at the end of 2022, according to The New York Times. No, not even Rupert Murdoch has that kind of money sloshing around in a spare pants pocket. It also amounts to half the $1.6 billion in damages Dominion said it had suffered as a result of on-air lies that the company’s machines had switched votes from Donald Trump to Joe Biden in the 2020 election.

Still, it would have been lovely to watch the 92-year-old mogul take the stand and be confronted with internal communications that showed he and other Fox executives and talk-show hosts knew Donald Trump and his supporters were lying about the election being stolen by Dominion and other dark forces but promoted those lies anyway. I also wish that Fox were being forced to apologize for its lies, over and over again, but that was probably never in the cards.

On the other hand, Fox News faces more legal troubles, including a $2.7 billion lawsuit brought by yet another voting technology company, Smartmatic. So unless Fox settles that case as well, this saga is a long way from being resolved. Good.

Some media observers were breathing a sigh of relief that the First Amendment protections for libel would not be put to the test. I’m not among them. As I wrote earlier, this was really a textbook example of “actual malice” — that is, publishing or broadcasting false information despite knowing that it’s false, or demonstrating reckless disregard for the truth. It was not a “landmark case.” I talked about that before the settlement was announced with WBZ-TV (Channel 4) political analyst Jon Keller, who provides a good overview of Tuesday’s events and what they mean.

I’ll close with a post on Mastodon by M.S. Bellows Jr., a lawyer and commentator who gets to the heart of it in a way that’s both illuminating and entertaining:

I’m a former trial lawyer, former prosecutor, and current mediator. I have both represented and sued some of the largest companies in the world. I am very experienced, and VERY good, at what I do.

At trial, Dominion would not and could not have received an apology. Period. The vanishingly rare circumstances in which a court could order a retraction do not exist here.

At trial, Dominion would not have received $787.5 million, which is 45x its highest annual earnings. If a jury awarded it that much, the court almost certainly would have reduced it on remittitur.

This is a superb and stunning settlement. Dominion has hurt Fox badly, exposed Fox’s lies, and done the American public a massive service. If you feel otherwise, fine – but that’s all it is: a feeling. Factually, you are incorrect, and to soothe your feelings you should take recourse to bourbon or cannabis, not social media.

Thank you.

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Catching up on some stories about local news that you might have missed

I don’t do this very often, but there are a number of important stories in local journalism that are flying by, and I want to put down a marker. No need to go into detail — just click on the links to find out more.

  • California sets aside $25 million in government money to support local journalism.
    • The move follows the creation of the New Jersey Civic Information Consortium, which this year will distribute $3 million for specific projects such as a plan to expand news coverage across Jersey City; an online radio program in Creole for the Haitian community; and an oral history on efforts to clean up drinking water in Newark.
    • Unlike New Jersey, the California initiative will be used to pay reporting fellows from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism to cover under-represented communities.
  • The Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, which would set aside antitrust law to allow news organizations to bargain collectively with Google and Facebook for compensation, was dealt a huge setback.
    • U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, succeeded in adding an amendment that would make it more difficult for news organizations to moderate comments. The lead sponsor of the bill, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., responded by withdrawing the legislation but said she’ll be back.
    • LION (Local Independent Online News) Publishers and a number of organizations came out in opposition to the proposal, calling it “ill-advised” and “enormously problematic.” A similar law in Australia has been criticized for lining the pockets of large publishers — mainly Rupert Murdoch — while doing little for smaller players.
  • Google News Showcase, touted as a source of revenue for news outlets whose content would be featured, has been stalled because the giant platform has been unable to reach agreements with several key publishers.
    • Gannett, the country’s largest newspaper chain, was offered $6 million a year to feature journalism from its flagship USA Today  as well as its local papers, according to The Wall Street Journal. Gannett’s reported counter-demand: $300 million.
  • Speaking of Gannett, a nauseating development has surfaced in a sexual-abuse lawsuit against the company’s Democrat & Chronicle newspaper in Rochester, New York.
    • According to the independent Rochester Beacon, the company is arguing that seven former newspaper carriers who say they were molested by a supervisor should have filed for workers’ compensation at the time the alleged abuse took place.
    • The carriers were 11 and 12 years old at the time of the alleged incidents.

The Times’ Tucker Carlson series is a triumph of explanatory journalism

Tucker Carlson. Photo (cc) 2020 by Gage Skidmore.

Yes, I read The New York Times’ massive deep dive into Tucker Carlson, whose Fox News program was dubbed — accurately — as “what may be the most racist show in the history of cable news.”

Something as lengthy and detailed as this defies summary. If you don’t have the time or the inclination to slog through the whole thing, the “key takeaways” sidebar is quite good. I also recommend that you interact with the digital version of part three, in which you’ll hear Carlson’s own words, taken from more than 1,100 episodes.

Times reporter Nicholas Confessore has done a remarkable job of combing through Carlson’s past and present in an attempt to explain his rise from stylish but obscure magazine writer and failed television host to the most powerful force in cable. And Confessore offers partial answers, at least, to some aspects of the Carlson phenomenon. For instance:

Did Carlson change? Or has he always been this way and we just didn’t see it? Several years ago I wrote a piece for GBH News in which I recounted my own long-ago experience with Carlson, who came across as a charming raconteur with mainstream conservative-libertarian views.

Confessore’s answer, I think, is that Carlson really did change, although the seeds of his transformation were always there. His childhood sounds like it was truly miserable. And, in looking back, I have to say that my only personal experience with him was in how he interacted with a fellow white man. It doesn’t sound like he’s spent much time at all with people of color.

Does he really believe the terrible things he says? Or is it all an act? This comes up in conversation with friends and associates all the time — again, mainly because he seemed to be someone entirely different a generation ago. Confessore’s answer: it’s a little of both.

I thought Confessore was especially strong in his explanation of Carlson’s attempt to reinvent himself after his failed stints at CNN and MSNBC by launching The Daily Caller, a conservative news outlet that moved increasingly to the fringe right. Carlson comes across as someone who embraced extremism partly out of conviction and partly as a way to amuse himself. He does not seem like someone who ever gives much thought to the consequences of what he writes and says.

He is also portrayed as really, really wanting to make it in television, and he was probably willing to do just about anything to make his Fox gig a success. The late Fox impresario Roger Ailes reportedly once said that Fox was Carlson’s “last chance.” So Carlson’s shtick could be seen as a poisonous combination of his own flirtation with extremist ideas; delight at provoking the “elites” whom he hates; and desperate ambition.

What’s next? Would Carlson run for president? Confessore doesn’t get into that, even though he portrays Carlson as the logical successor to Trump — “Trumpism without Trump,” as he puts it. I don’t see why Carlson would take the next step given the riches and fame that have already come his way. But we don’t know whether he lusts for power, just as we didn’t know that Trump would aspire to authoritarian rule once he got past the novelty stage of what started out as a celebrity candidacy in 2015.

Confessore also does a good job of explaining how Fox has overcome the problems with advertisers that Carlson has experienced, and the role played by Lachlan Murdoch, who is far more ideological and extreme than his cynical, greed-crazed father, Rupert. The Times has produced a triumph of explanatory journalism.

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