By Patra Taylor
In an industry that runs on ratings, the host of Fox News Channel’s Tucker Carlson Tonight seems indifferent to the numbers game playing out around him. Instead, the political junkie constantly focuses on his next show … on finding his next guest and preparing for that next on-air conservation about to unfold. When the lights go up and the cameras turn on, the host takes action — donning the mantle of “the sworn enemy of lying, pomposity, smugness and groupthink” before lobbing his first pointed question at his guest, hoping to ignite a spirited debate that engages his growing audience in the process.
It’s game on.
No matter your political views, Tucker Carlson is a force to be reckoned with in today’s challenging political arena. In the week following the 2016 presidential election, Tucker Carlson Tonight premiered in FNC’s 7 p.m. slot. Within days, the new show leapfrogged to the coveted 9 o’clock spot following the O’Reilly Factor, the number one cable news program for 14 consecutive years. Since its launch in November, Tucker Carlson Tonight has outpaced its predecessor, the Kelly File, by 48 percent. The show is also up 41 percent in total viewers and a whopping 80 percent in the critical 25-54 demographic.
So we must ask: Who is Tucker Carlson?
Tucker Carlson is the older son of Richard W. Carlson, well known in the Holy City for his insightful columns on terrorism and national security that appear regularly in the Charleston Mercury. A journalist to the core, the elder Carlson has served as a newspaper and wire service reporter, magazine writer, television and radio correspondent and documentary filmmaker. A few other highlights of his remarkable career include director of Voice of America during the last years of the Cold War; United States ambassador to the Republic of Seychelles; president and CEO of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, president and CEO of King World Public Television; and vice chairman of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a counterterrorism institute based in Washington, D.C. and Brussels.
“Everything about my life was shaped by my father,” states Tucker Carlson as we talk over the telephone, he in his office at Fox News in Washington, D.C. “I got into journalism because of him. I grew up listening to his stories and they convinced me that journalism probably wasn’t the quickest way to make a buck, but it is an interesting life … an excellent way to see the world and meet people and be on the scene when history happens. That’s what I really wanted. And I got it.
“Almost all of my attitudes come from my father, who has a well-honed sense of adventure,” continues Mr. Carlson. “He’s completely open-minded. He’s one of the only people I’ve ever met who has passionately-held opinions but is open to new experiences and new ideas at the same time. He knows what he thinks but is willing to change his mind. That’s a rare thing.”
Mr. Carlson notes that his father also holds a deep skepticism of people in power. “He is a classic liberal in that sense,” he insists. “He is always pushing for a real answer from people. He believe that’s how adults in a free society ought to behave … politely but firmly requesting the answers they deserve as citizens.”
Like father, like son. Mr. Carlson, who landed at Fox eight years ago after on-air stints at both CNN and MSNBC, professes to love to talk with people who hold different views than his own. “I like being won over,” Carlson says. “I like changing my mind. What I don’t like — because it’s boring and repetitive — are people jumping up and down repeating the same slogan with increasing volume. What’s the pleasure in that? Who gets anything out of that?”
Mr. Carlson continues, “One thing that bothers me about our political conversation is that it’s not much of a conversation anymore. People don’t say, ‘I have a point of view and here it is.’ Instead it’s, ‘I’m a good person and you’re a bad person. I’m moral and you’re sinful. I’m virtuous and you’re fallen.’ My belief is that it’s great to be a good person, but this isn’t church. This is politics.”
He believes that many of the guests who appear on Tucker Carlson Tonight, especially young people, have never actually thought through what they believe. So they fallback on the-person-I disagree-with-is-evil-and-I’m good” routine. “It doesn’t advance the conversation at all,” insists Mr. Carlson.
He points to the 2016 presidential election to further emphasis his point. “Politics is basically about two things,” explains Mr. Carlson. “First, it’s about preserving people’s physical safety … to protect them from foreign invaders and terrorists and criminals. Second, it’s about improving people’s standard of living and giving them economic security. That’s what people want. The first is a prerequisite to the other, because you can’t have prosperity without stability and safety.
“So the election wasn’t about Donald Trump, the man,” continues Mr. Carlson. “For me, it was about what he was saying. He made the argument that the system wasn’t working for people in the middle class and he was going to fix it. But Trump is such a mesmerizing and polarizing figure that a lot of people don’t hear what he says. They are totally fixated on his appearance, his mannerisms and personal style that they don’t hear the arguments he’s making. But they’re coherent arguments.”
On the other hand, Hillary Clinton became the good-vs.-evil candidate. “He’s a bigot, so if you’re a good person like me, you won’t vote for him,” went the spiel.
“Hillary didn’t even bother to assemble an economic argument,” says Carlson. “That’s part of why she lost the election.”
In a nutshell, Mr. Carlson believes that Trump’s win was a reflection of the state of the country. “If I had to summarize it in just one sentence, it would be this,” he says. “The middle class is dying.
“This has always been a middle class country. That’s the essence of our strength. It’s why our democracy has worked and it’s why our market economy has worked. So if the middle class continues to die, all that will be in jeopardy. President Trump understands that.”
Asked if he thought the media was responsible for the growing divide among Americans today, Mr. Carlson gave a qualified “no.”
“I think the media’s behavior is a lagging indicator,” he says. “It’s not necessarily the cause, but the symptom of something much bigger. There’s growing geographic and economic segregation of various classes of people in the country … again, this is what happens when the middle class dies. The people who run everything — from the media institutions to Hollywood to the tech community to finance, business and the political class — are comprised of the same sort of people. They are well-educated affluent people who all occupy the same political side. Plus, they all live in the same places. So the country is divided along those lines.
“As for the press,” he continues, I think there is almost nothing more important than a free press in a society. Without the media, the people won’t be informed and those in power will take advantage of that. Democracy will wither and die without a free press.
“That said, I’m just not impressed by the way a lot of the media are conducting themselves now,” he adds. “As a journalist, you should have some emotional distance from the subject you’re covering and if you find yourself setting out to destroy the person you’re covering, you’re not really doing your job. You’re goal should be to tell the truth, not to try to affect a certain political outcome.”
Viewers of Tucker Carlson Tonight get an immediate sense that the show is a true reflection of the man behind the camera. He agrees. “I think that’s true of everybody who has a daily show. In the end, television reveals who you are. I think that people’s true selves convey after a while. If you watch someone on the tube everyday for a month, you really have a pretty good sense of what that person is like. The same is true of my show. This is all I’ve got. This is what I’m interested in and this is what I’m like. I can’t pretend to be somebody else.”