The Tucker Carlson Origin Story: Beyond the Fish Sticks

Carl Bernstein and Tucker Carlson at The Creative Coalitions' "Freedon of the Press During Wartime" panel discussion at Chadwick Restaurant in Beverly Hills, Ca. Thursday, June 20, 2002. Photo by Kevin Winter/ImageDirect
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I mentioned last week that there is this ironic backstory to Tucker Carlson. Even as he is daily exposed in the non-Fox/Trump bubble universe as the epitome of the corruption of conservative media he also, a dozen years ago, had one of the most solid critiques of that same conservative media ecosystem. At CPAC of all places.

I was watching Chris Hayes’ show last night and he referenced the same video I embedded in that Deep Archeology post. He said it could serve as the origin story for the super villain version of Carlson we know today. I wanted to say a bit more about this.

I think I may have been introduced to Carlson once or twice years ago. I do not know him at all. But I’ve been observing him since the beginning of his career about a quarter century ago. In my post last week I said that while Carlson was always a conservative, “his younger incarnation held an air of ironic and quasi-urbane detachment from full wingnut intensity.”

Really, Carlson started off wanting to be Bill Buckley, with a bit of Tom Wolfe in the mix. He made his name originally with longform magazine pieces. I believe they were in The Weekly Standard, and they were good. In the Buckley mold, he was very much a right winger but yet pretty open with you, the reader, that he knows some of these folks are rubes just as much as you do. He may agree with where they want to go in a broad directional sense. But he’s no idiot. People might hate Buckley. But they respected him, at least as a writer and raconteur.

Buckley was no fool and no one ever accused him of being one. But he was never big time — not mass market big time. Rush was big time. Bill Buckley was never big time.

Carlson’s air of ironic detachment mirrored Buckley, and it remained part of his schtick in his earlier TV incarnations at CNN and MSNBC. (Remember that Buckley’s TV tenure was all on public television.) I don’t know if maybe Carlson’s dad also wore a bowtie and maybe it’s some Rosebud type key into his inner story. But I suspect not. The bowtie itself was part of that schtick. But irony and detachment and being the conservative guy outside the right-wing media ecosystem didn’t make him big time. And there were more than a few professional embarrassments and humiliations along the way.

As I noted last week, in Carlson’s 2009 CPAC critique of right-wing media — in which he said that right-wing journalism didn’t get taken seriously because it wasn’t really journalism — he was slated not only as the John The Baptist figure but the Jesus too. The answer was his new project, The Daily Caller. But as a real news organization it flopped. And so he shifted gears right, into the fake news ecosystem, soon enough.

There’s another person who was big time: Bill O’Reilly. Indeed, O’Reilly was consistently Fox’s biggest star for its first 20 years on air. He was such an epitome of the full-throttle right-wing blowhard that Stephen Colbert modeled his satirical Colbert Report identity on him. When O’Reilly got bounced from Fox over serial sexual harassment allegations in 2017, Carlson got the opportunity to replace him. Fox doesn’t do irony or detachment.

For Carlson there was no turning back. In a way, he’s bigger than O’Reilly ever was.

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