In recent weeks he has claimed that Democrats are deliberately importing immigrants to weaken American voters’ power, which – to me – looks an awful lot like the racist “white replacement” theory. He has cast doubt over the motivations of jurors in the Derek Chauvin trial.
His most recent outrage? Urging viewers to report parents to police if their children wear face masks and telling them to approach adults sporting such coverings out of doors to “politely” urge them to take them off.
The first of those prompted the Anti Defamation League (ADL), which combats antisemitism and hate, to call for Carlson’s firing. The plea got about as far as you might expect from a network, and a business, that stands out to me for its shamelessness even in an era of post-shame politics.
However, the ADL also called upon advertisers to boycott not just Carlson but also Fox News. That is where this gets interesting.
Many journalists - and I count myself among them - are deeply wary of ad boycotts and for obvious reasons. If every opinion expressed first had to be given the green light by corporate heads of marketing the media would become a sea of bland homogenised pap, which no one would consume.
Nor is it just opinion that could be affected. Meticulously researched investigative stories about, say, sweatshops or the decarbonisation promises made by companies that I’ve recently been highlighting, or just everyday excessive exec pay, would all be endangered.
Even reserving boycott calls for content “beyond the pale” could be a step too far given how flawed the moral compass of big business can be.
But in going so far into the netherworld of thinly veiled racism, while also encouraging viewers – potentially angry, aggressive viewers in a country with a disturbing fondness for military grade assault weapons, to harass innocent Americans, it seems to me that Carlson may be the exception that proves the rule.
There is a bridge too far and he has crossed it more than once, as the ADL, which once conferred an award on Rupert Murdoch, Carlson’s ultimate boss, has recognised.
At this point, it’s worth considering how Carlson got to this (low) point and to ask a question: Are these honestly held opinions or is Carlson simply indulging his finely honed perforative streak for the purposes of Fox making money?
He was, after all, once a proponent of masks and his initially serious take on the virus when compared with the output of fellow prime time host Sean Hannity, who downplayed it, may actually have saved lives. Researchers from the University of Chicago concluded that “greater exposure to Hannity relative to Tucker Carlson Tonight leads to a greater number of Covid-19 cases and deaths”.
While people’s opinions can change, consider the backdrop. Fox has recently cut back its news division in favour of more “opinion” programming, of which Carlson’s show is part. This followed the furious blowback the network received after it was the first to (correctly) call Arizona for President Joe Biden.
Viewers, egged on by Donald Trump and his shills, threatened a mass walk out in favour of NewsMax or One America News, the much smaller rivals to Fox that have attempted to outflank it on the right. Fox viewers didn’t much like the idea of being told facts that they didn’t want to hear and the ratings proved it.
The network got the message and put more red meat on the menu, with Carlson serving as the prime rib eye to shore up its viewership and thus keep the advertising dollars flowing.
Carlson’s show itself isn’t a big draw for advertisers. The big, prestigious ones have proved wary of being associated with him. But the host, whose audience leans younger than any of colleagues, draws them into, or maybe back into, the Fox eco-system, where advertisers are still in plentiful supply.
Bill Kristol, the conservative pundit and founder of the Weekly Standard, who gave Carlson his first job in the media, described him as a “propagandist” of “really a low order” in a CNN interview. “This is beyond being a little outrageous and trolling,” he said, referring to Carlson’s comments vis masks.
“We need to think in creative ways about the way to put pressure on Fox, the way to put pressure on him,” he continued. Kristol mentioned guests going on the show, alluding to another sort of boycott, but people who think like Carlson and who are willing to play footsie with him aren’t in short supply.
No, the ugliness he puts out is, for Fox, all about commerce and commercial pressure is just about the only type it has proved responsive to. If the commercial dynamic changes, then Fox will change.
This explains why the ADL called upon advertisers to target the network as an entity rather than simply focussing on Carlson’s show. I’ve reluctantly concluded that it was right to do so.
When you consider the consequences of what he’s been saying, this is a rare occasion where a boycott may be merited.