Writing in The Washington Post, Matt Bai tells us that he doesn't trouble his beautiful mind about Fox News.
Normally, I don’t spend much time thinking about the nonsense on cable television, because it’s like paying attention to the guy on the street corner who shouts about Armageddon through a bullhorn. Some words are just noise.
This would be a brilliant analogy if the guy on the street corner who shouts about Armageddon were the main transmitter of propaganda for a major political party that wants to ban abortion, flood America with guns, suspend all pandemic mitigation measures, block every effort to reduce global warming, and continue shifting America's tax burden from the haves to the have-nots, all while working to eliminate the possibility that America's other major political party can successfully challenge it at the ballot box.
Bai doesn't pay any attention to Fox as it does all that. But if someone at Fox messes with a guy Bai used to work with, then he'll sit up and take notice.
Last week, though, Tucker Carlson acidly attacked a former colleague of mine....
Here’s what happened: Jon Ward, a top political reporter at Yahoo News, was about to post a critical story about Carlson’s Fox News series looking at the 2020 election and the insurrection at the Capitol. (Shocker: Carlson says it was all a leftist conspiracy.)
The fact that Carlson says this to millions of viewers on a regular basis doesn't seem to bother Bai much. What's really important is that Carlson insulted a fellow journalist.
In a preemptive attack on the piece, Carlson launched into a tirade on his nightly Fox News show, accusing Ward of doctoring a transcript of Carlson’s on-air comments.
(He hadn’t. In fact, Ward had sent the transcript to Carlson to check its accuracy, which is what reporters are supposed to do.)
Even by the standards of prime-time cable, Carlson’s rant was remarkably personal. While posting a picture of Ward on screen, he noted that Ward had once worked for him at the Daily Caller and that the Ward family had even visited his home.
“He’s a very nice person, he’s a sincere family man,” Carlson said. “He’s also weak. And at a moment like this, weak people get crushed by the forces above them. Weak people conform.”
Ward is a friend of mine; we worked together at Yahoo. He doesn’t need my defense here, but I’ll just say I don’t know many journalists who have more spine or integrity. His only fealty is to what’s true.
We now pause briefly to discuss Tucker Carlson, even though he's just a guy on a street corner shouting about Armageddon.
I’ve also met Carlson many times over the years. I remember him as a very talented, unfailingly amiable magazine writer in the years when we were both starting out, and then as an unusually thoughtful daytime host on MSNBC.
Yes, Carlson was so "unusually thoughtful" in his MSNBC years that he said of Hillary Clinton on the air, "when she comes on television, I involuntarily cross my legs.” He also boasted that he once smashed a man's head into a restroom stall because the man made a sexual advance. Boasted thoughtfully, I suppose.
There are a lot less intellectually gifted people than Carlson succeeding in media right now — I promise you that — but probably none who are more fraudulent. It seems to me that Carlson is just suiting up to play a character every night — the vitriolic blowhard he created in middle age when it became apparent that the market would reward it.
More than anyone in prime-time cable, Carlson seems to have conceded that the venue is pure entertainment, fueled by a self-righteousness that is, in most cases, no realer than “WandaVision.”
I wish he’d decided to use his considerable talent for less cynical ends, but you know, everybody’s got to look in their own mirror at the end of the day.
I'm not sure how Carlson can be both an insignificant crazy guy on a street corner and a guy who's built a lucrative career spreading disinformation, but Bai is a highly respected journalist and I'm not, so I guess there's no contradiction there. I suppose it doesn't matter because it's "pure entertainment," even though millions of people actually believe what Carlson says, and vote accordingly.
Now we move on to Bai's main point, which is: both sides!
The point I really want to make, though, has to do with Carlson’s shot about weakness, which is a recurring theme these days.
There’s a narrative in the modern media and political world — not just on the right — that real courage can only be expressed through uncompromising partisanship.
If you’re always standing up for something like “America First” or the Green New Deal, then you’re speaking truth to power. But if you resist a tribal mentality and try to sift through the nuance of the issue, then you must be a quivering toady who just wants to please The Man, whether he’s a greedy CEO or a leftist revolutionary.
That's right: If you go on MSNBC and speak favorably of the Green New Deal, that's exactly like Tucker Carlson going on Fox and saying,
The point of mandatory vaccination [in the military] is to identify the sincere Christians in the ranks, the freethinkers, the men with high testosterone levels, and anyone else who does not love Joe Biden and make them leave immediately. It’s a takeover of the U.S. military.
Jan. 6 is being used as a pretext to strip millions of Americans — disfavored Americans — of their core constitutional rights, and to defame them as domestic terrorists.
In reality, the easiest thing to do right now is what Carlson does — to seek out the ardent applause of one side or the other, because the more strident and predictable you are, the more eyeballs you attract and the more appreciation you’ll garner.
There's nothing wrong with "seek[ing] out the ardent applause of one side or the other." There's nothing wtrong with being a passionate advocate. What's wrong is lying. It's wrong to use a major media platform to deceive people every night because (a) it sells and (b) a right-wing billionaire and his right-wing billionaire son pay you handsomely to do it, as much out of political interest as economic interest.
The harder thing is to stand against either onrushing current, pounded on all sides because you won’t just bend to the seductive idea that the answers to the country’s problems are obvious and comforting.
Actually, it's very easy to use your media megaphone to say that both sides do it and the truth is smack dab in the middle. Hundreds of elite media figures say this every day.
But maybe we should worry less about the relative manliness of Ward and Carlson (and, implicitly, Bai) and worry more about what happens to a country when a segment of its population is fed a steady diet of inflammatory lies designed to make it hate people on the other side. But Matt Bai can't be bothered to notice any of that, even glancingly, unless you're attacking his friend.