Fox News is America's most watched cable news network. But at least with respect to its prime-time commentary programs, Fox News is not "news" at all, but a right-wing propaganda machine that has helped to fracture American politics by undermining the shared sense of empirical reality necessary for a healthy democracy.
Fox News is both a mouthpiece for President Trump and a mechanism for implanting ideas and voices in Trump's head. Trump then repeats these ideas and parrots the voices, sometimes word for word, believing they are his own.
Donald Trump has now told more than 10,000 public lies since 2016. Communications scholars and other social scientists have shown that Fox News lies to its audience so often that a person who watches no TV news at all would know more about factual current events than a regular Fox viewer.
Fox News traffics in white racial resentment, white identity politics, overt racism, white victimology, nativism, xenophobia and misogyny, as well as bigotry and fear-mongering against Muslims and other out-groups. Donald Trump does the same things.
Donald Trump is an authoritarian with no respect for the rule of law and democracy. He has used scripted violence and stochastic terrorism to target his political enemies, with the most recent example being his attacks on the four nonwhite Democratic congresswomen he recently told to leave America unless they are willing to comply with his racially authoritarian regime.
On Wednesday night at a rally in Greenville, North Carolina, Trump continued with his racist threats, specifically targeting Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., with abuse and lies. The attendees at his hate rally then responded on cue, almost apoplectic with excitement as they followed their cult leader's commands, chanting "Send her back!"
Fox News enables, legitimates and encourages this behavior. How does the network mainstream racial animosity and overt racism to its viewers? Are Fox News and hosts such as Tucker Carlson radicalizing their viewers into extreme and dangerous beliefs and behavior? Has the rise of Trumpism driven Fox News itself toward even more extreme racist and nativist positions, especially against migrants and refugees from Latin America? Is there a relationship between white supremacist hate groups and Fox News? Is it productive or counterproductive Democratic presidential candidates to appear on Fox News programs?
To address these questions I recently spoke with Madeline Peltz, a researcher and writer for Media Matters for America who focuses on Fox News and its major hosts and personalities, including Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity. Peltz is also the author of the widely read article, "Tucker Carlson's descent into white supremacy: A timeline."
You closely track Tucker Carlson's Fox News show. How much of what the public sees with Carlson on his TV show is real? Does Carlson actually believe the things he says?
It is hard to say. I think that Tucker Carlson really does want to be the most notorious and controversial personality on Fox News. Much of his bravado is self-aggrandizement and can be boiled down to being a self-serving obsession with his own media profile. But at the same time, Carlson goes out of his way to cover these obscure far-right issues that no one else in the mainstream media is covering. This makes it clear that he is very aware of what is happening online.
He's very much in touch with these fringe forums such as 4Chan and some of what is happening on Reddit. Carlson actually sources stories from Reddit. He is very much in touch with what white nationalists are discussing online across various social media. With Tucker, I believe that it lies somewhere between his own ego and a genuine belief that immigrants are causing the downfall of Western civilization — and whatever else white nationalists happen to hold a consensus about today.
What are some of the repeated themes on Carlson's show, especially in terms of white supremacy and white nationalism?
One of my recent analyses contains more than 140 examples of when Tucker Carlson has relied on white nationalists and anti-Semitic tropes in his programming. One of the most prominent ways this manifests is an obsession with racial demographics, and how they are changing in the United States. Tucker Carlson is obsessed with "cultural preservation." There is an entire international far-right movement that echoes such sentiments. Carlson is also constantly fear-mongering about immigrants and blaming every possible problem on the individual choices of immigrants, as opposed to systemic institutions that perpetuate poverty and racism and which impact all people in the United States.
Carlson deflects away from institutional and structural inequality to pin social ills on migrants and refugees at the U.S.-Mexico border, refugees from the Vietnam War, refugees from the Haitian earthquake and other people who have sought safety and shelter and opportunity in the United States. Tucker Carlson would love to see — and he has actually said this — those individuals and groups deported tomorrow. This is one of his standard tropes, one he repeats all the time. This is a pattern by Carlson that radicalizes the Fox News audience.
Other researchers have shown how Tucker Carlson's show, and Fox News in general, mainstream white-supremacist talking points found online and elsewhere. Have you found this to be true?
Absolutely. Tucker Carlson has built his career over the last decade on the inherent authority which comes with being on television. He can use his platform to mainstream white nationalist or white supremacist talking points and ideas that his audience otherwise would not be privy to. Tucker Carlson has managed to pervert the privilege with comes with being on television into an opportunity to mainstream white nationalism.
What Tucker is doing is not abstract. Mainstreaming these talking points puts vulnerable communities under direct threat of physical and material harm. The FBI has documented a rise in hate crimes since Trump's campaign and through to the third year of his presidency. There have been massacres targeting Muslims, black people and Jewish people in churches, mosques and synagogues. There is a real life-and-death consequence from the unfettered white nationalism on Fox News, the No. 1 cable news network in the country.
Can you describe the world Tucker Carlson has created for himself and his audience?
One of the main pillars of Tucker's brand is that he refuses to acknowledge the power dynamics that perpetuate racism and social inequality more broadly. When a person removes those power dynamics from discussions about racism, things such as "racial sensitivity" training or college activists advocating for "safe spaces" become some type of new Jim Crow directed against white people and conservatives, as explained on Fox News. Carlson has actually made such ridiculous claims.
Carlson often makes historical parallels that are completely unfounded. He creates this fictional, imaginary world in which he is a victim, white men in general are victims, and the only form of racism is "reverse racism" against white people.
Does he actually believe such things? Or is this purely cynical, or a question of editors and producers putting such nonsense in his head?
If you "trigger the libs," that is going to be viral content which will get lots of attention and traffic. Tucker's show is always reaching for that. The entire right-wing media ecosystem thrives on "triggering the libs" and getting viral traffic. So that is absolutely a factor in what Tucker Carlson does on his show.
Each of the prime-time hosts on Fox News have top-down authority within their own show to direct programming. Roger Ailes was famous for distributing a memo at the beginning of the day saying, "This is the narrative. These are the stories we're going to focus on." Those days are long gone. Now it is just a situation like "Lord of the Flies," with the hosts creating their own little universes with guests who appear frequently on one program but nowhere else. The show you see from Tucker Carlson is very much reflective of what he thinks is most important.
What do we know about how Fox News distorts reality? How, in turn, does that impact Fox News' ability to radicalize its audience in support of Trump, or in support of right-wing extremism?
For example, consider the way that Tucker Carlson elevates local news stories and makes them into national stories. There is a college called Evergreen State [in Olympia, Washington]. Carlson started covering an activist event which took place there, involving a controversy about one of the college's professors and how to deal with racism and racial inequality at the school. Tucker started covering Evergreen State obsessively. There were threats, the school had to close [for three days in June 2017], and now Evergreen State may have to close because of Tucker's threats and what they did to application rates.
This is just one example of a very clear chain of events where a random Fox News personality picks a story that makes him or her mad and then there are consequences for the targets of their ire. Fox News, and the right-wing media in general, frame reality for their audiences by focusing on some stories and excluding others. If you are watching Sean Hannity, for example, you are constantly hearing about Hillary Clinton's emails. Or with the Mueller report, there will be a focus on some obscure people who worked for the FBI. In total this is creating a world that people outside Fox News' audience would not recognize. A person who watches Fox News, especially during prime time, would not be properly informed about current events. What is really happening in the world — reality as it actually exists — is not breaking through to Fox News programming.
There was a recent case in Indiana where a young woman allegedly radicalized her fiancé into becoming a neo-Nazi through Fox News and other right-wing media. From Fox News he went on to more explicit and extreme white supremacist propaganda. He was later arrested and convicted for vandalizing a synagogue.
That is not surprising to me at all. That example involves Ben Shapiro, who is absolutely an extremist. He tries to hide behind his identification as an Orthodox Jew to shield him from criticism of anti-Semitism, when in reality he routinely targets progressive Jews and Reform Jews. Any Jewish person who does not conform to Shapiro's worldview becomes a "bad Jew." It is ultimately a driver of anti-Semitism to label certain Jews as being not Jewish. In turn, Shapiro hides behind his own Jewish identity to shield himself from that criticism. The most viewed web page of the right-wing terrorist who attacked a Quebec mosque in 2017 was Ben Shapiro's Facebook page.
This reflects an insular echo chamber of hatred. It is not hard to envision that this is what helped to create the motivation and impetus for the Parkland High School massacre in Florida. A person experiences a destabilizing event — be it personal or political — and they become violent. The narratives being pushed by the Tucker Carlsons and Ben Shapiros of the world are very much fuel for that fire.
Has Fox News been channeling this Charlottesville conspiracy theory which claims that Donald Trump is not a racist and did not say that the white supremacists in Charlottesville were "very fine people"?
Yes. We have documented this at Media Matters. When Joe Biden made his presidential announcement, they started saying that Trump's comments about "very fine people" among the Nazis and other white supremacists at the Charlottesville hate riot was a lie. I remember that Candace Owens specifically said on Laura Ingraham's show that Trump did not praise white supremacists. This is all directly out of the Fox News playbook. In the absence of outside pressure campaigns, Fox News is able to get away with rewriting current events without consequence. Charlottesville was not that long ago and even then Fox News is able to lie about what happened. Fox News is a huge disinformation network.
Fox News is a different animal under Trump. The white nationalist rhetoric and the fear-mongering about demographics and immigration, which for decades has been a central issue to racists and other right-wing extremists, has been taken up to another level. Without pressure on advertisers it continues unabated, because there are just no editorial standards at the network.
Do Nazis, Klan members and other white supremacist hate-mongers explicitly praise Tucker Carlson? What do they say about Fox News?
For them there are three main right-wing media figures. One is Tucker Carlson, the second is Donald Trump and the third is Ann Coulter. There is an extensive podcast network of white supremacists and avowed neo-Nazis who flood the media space with content in an effort to getting their hate messaging out. They constantly praise Carlson on these podcasts. White supremacists also loved his book which came out last year. They say that Carlson won't "reveal his power level." In right-wing racist code this means that Carlson is speaking in dog whistles. It is all mutual adoration. Neo-Nazis and other white supremacists praise Carlson, and in turn he covers the issues that are important to them. They do each other favors all the time.
How did Tucker Carlson ride out the controversy regarding the "Bubba the Love Sponge" radio show where he said overtly racist things and joked about having sex with underage girls?
He lost a lot of advertisers. His ad real estate value is down significantly. Tucker started his show right after that controversy with the sentiment of "Never bend to the mob," and "They're trying to silence me," and just doing his regular victimhood routine. He then tried to turn the tables and point accusatory fingers at other people. But ultimately Fox News stood behind him and as a result they are losing money on his show. But he's still there. That Tucker Carlson still has a show is a reflection of the moral rot at the core of the Fox News business model. Racism and misogyny are themes throughout Tucker Carlson's career.
Why do Carlson's viewers watch his show? What is the appeal?
I think the thrill is "owning the libs." I think the other thrill is watching Tucker Carlson be pedantic, combative and contrarian. Because he offers takes that no one else is giving, his hardcore fans hang on his every word. The combativeness is just pure reality-TV-style entertainment. It's often incoherent. He's yelling and laughing over his guests. He's making unfair pivots from one point to another.
You study Fox News and its hosts. If someone asked you for advice about appearing on the network, what would you tell them? How should someone who disagrees with Tucker Carlson approach an interview with him? What Dutch historian Rutger Bregman did back in January was masterful. Carlson was so flustered and angry that he ended the segment and did not air it.
I think what made Tucker mad is when Bregman called him a millionaire funded by billionaires. The criticism of Fox is valid. If Tucker was being honest he would probably have unkind things to say about Sean Hannity and other aspects of the Fox News business.
I would just tell someone who was approached by Fox News not to go on. I would explain that it's a waste of time. Tucker has the upper hand in any interview where he's trying to "own a lib." Tucker also has the microphone and can cut you off. You're stepping onto Tucker Carlson's turf. It is an away game, and you are the visiting team. You are going to lose every time. If you win, Tucker is not going to run the segment.
If they insisted on going on Carlson's show I would tell them, "Why don't you ask Tucker why he defended Warren Jeffs? Why he fantasized about 16-year-old girls experimenting with each other in boarding-school dorm rooms? Why he called Iraqis semi-literate primitive monkeys." Those are relevant questions. They reflect on Carlson's career, which is making him so much money now. Carlson should be forced to answer those questions and be held accountable.
A few months ago Tucker Carlson began talking about his support for economic populism. He has said that capitalism can be unfair, and that he could support some of Elizabeth Warren's policy ideas. This was obviously disingenuous, another version of right-wing "producerism." Students of history will recognize this: What Carlson is saying about "populism" and "capitalism" and "fairness" echoes the debates between Otto and Gregor Strasser and Adolf Hitler during the rise of the Nazi Party. What would you say to liberals and others who were perhaps taken in by Carlson's populist con job?
Tucker Carlson is following old school patriarchal racist values that ultimately benefit himself. He's lying with this supposed "anti-capitalist" critique. He has this wild new talking point that the reason why our so-called elites want women to get abortions or have abortion access is because it keeps them in the workplace if they're not mothers. In reality, it's just an issue of bodily autonomy. Tucker has said in the past that there shouldn't even be protections for victims of sexual harassment in the workplace.
Tucker Carlson is selling a lie in terms of his critique of capitalism. These leftists who appear on his show, such as Glenn Greenwald, are forging an alliance with someone who wants mass deportation, ethnic cleansing and the complete rollback of the meager civil rights that transgender people have. Tucker Carlson also wants to restrict the rights of women to pursue careers and feel safe in the workplace. This is all a backward-looking ideology and it is fundamental to the rise of global fascism. If you are in alliance with Tucker Carlson you are in an alliance with global fascism.
As part of its fake routine of being "fair and balanced," Fox News loves to bring on the liberal punching bag of the day. The late Alan Colmes used to play that role. The liberal punching bag is a caricature, a "well-intentioned," naive person who thinks that there is some benefit to be had in some type of "discourse" with Fox News. This person is also there to be humiliated if need be. What would you say to such a person?
It's hard for Fox News to get people who are not regulars. So they have people like Christopher Hahn, Richard Goodstein and Jason Nichols. Honestly, I think what they're doing is pathetic. I think it is immoral. I believe they are going on Fox News either for the check or the exposure or both. It's the same game that Fox News has been playing since 1996. It is not new. There's nothing edgy about it. You're nver going to win. The liberal guest on Fox News is knowingly participating in that tactic. These so-called liberals know that Tucker Carlson is a white nationalist. They know the dangerous game that Carlson is playing and they go on his show anyway.
Would you interview Tucker Carlson? Do you think that anyone who is a real liberal or progressive should even speak to him?
I wouldn't go on his show under any circumstances. I wouldn't sit across from a fascist. This is a new era of Fox News right-wing propaganda. I just think that these people need to be driven out of public life through de-platforming. I fundamentally believe in that.
Do you think that Democratic presidential candidates should appear on Fox News?
They are ultimately shooting themselves in the foot. Of course there are people who are tuning into Fox News because it's what they've always done or it's what their parents did. I understand that it is important for candidates to talk to voters. But I think in the final analysis — and this is clear from what happened with Bernie Sanders — Fox News is using these town halls to sell advertisements. This is a critical period where they're trying to sell ad real estate for the upcoming year.
After the Bernie Sanders town hall, they took out a full-page color ad in the New York Times targeting advertisers and bragging about the ratings of the Bernie Sanders special. Democrats who go on Fox News are just funding a network that is going to stop at nothing to tear down your campaign, your message, and to take what you say out of context. After Pete Buttigieg did his Fox News town hall, they spent the next two to three days mocking him, no holds barred.
If I was Pete Buttigieg, I would feel humiliated. Yes. Bernie did a good job. He sounded good. He had a great viral moment with his "Medicare for All" comments. That's great. But ultimately you are fueling a right-wing propaganda machine that is going to overpower whatever benefit you receive.