Semafor founder Ben Smith’s much-ballyhooed Thursday interview with Fox News host Tucker Carlson was, predictably, a total shitshow.
“I’m just hoping you’ll let me ask questions and not steamroll me, because you’re a professional and I’m not,” the former New York Times media columnist said at the start of the discussion. But Carlson was unwilling to oblige, and he spent the next 20 minutes relentlessly dunking on Smith in a performance reminiscent of a Harlem Globetrotters game.
Journalists, if they choose, can learn a valuable lesson from Smith’s plight: There is no news value in interviewing Carlson. If they try to inform their audiences about the Fox host by talking to him, they will fail, because he is relentlessly dishonest and extremely good at what he does.
News outlets have frequently used one of their standard tools – the interview profile – to chronicle Carlson’s rise as he became a powerful figure in the right-wing media and the GOP since launching his Fox show in late 2016. But Carlson’s comments in those profiles are rarely revelatory. He is a professional media personality with nearly three decades of experience handling interviews, and is adept at responding to penetrating questions by deflecting, lying, and attacking the questioner.
When Smith drew criticism after the interview was announced from ad technology watchdog Nandini Jammi for inviting “the biggest white nationalist in America to join you at your first event,” he responded by saying he intended to hold Carlson to account. “Our plans are to ask hard questions of powerful people,” he tweeted. “I don't think there are a lot of journalists who would refuse to do that interview?”
Indeed, that’s the problem – the journalists who think they can glean valuable insight by asking Carlson “hard questions” are mistaken.
Smith, to his credit, aired a clip of Carlson promoting the white nationalist “great replacement” conspiracy theory, and repeatedly tried to pin Carlson down about, among other things, his bigoted commentary and associates. But to no avail: Carlson dodged Smith’s questions with ease, berated him throughout the interview, and inserted his talking points about how his critics are the real racists and Fox is the only network for free speech.
Here, for example, is what happened when Smith tried to ask Carlson about all the white supremacists who have worked for him:
Carlson is lying. He has employed white supremacists, including Daily Caller editor Scott Greer and his show’s former head writer, Blake Neff, each of whom were fired following the revelation of their bigoted pseudonymous postings. He has published white supremacists. He has interviewed white supremacists on his show. He regularly pushes white supremacist talking points. That’s why white supremacists love him and his program.
Smith, by his own admission not a TV-ready debater, was utterly unprepared for Carlson’s harangues. Getting no real response to his question about Neff, Greer, and the other bigots in Carlson’s orbit, he moved on to a different line of questioning.
Journalists should learn from this. The best reporting on Carlson dissects who at Fox has made Carlson such a power at the network, the internal dissent against his rise, and the show he puts on for his millions of viewers every weeknight. Talking to Carlson is a terrible way to elicit information about him and his work.
The only revelatory Carlson interviews come when he is talking to someone he views as friendly. In interviews with radio host Bubba the Love Sponge unearthed by Media Matters, for example, he credited “white men” for “creating civilization,” called Iraqis “semiliterate primitive monkeys,” distinguished between underage marriage and child rape, and said he would “love” a scenario with underaged girls sexually experimenting.
Those are not statements he would make to the likes of Smith – his guard is up when he is being interviewed by professional journalists.
“That was fun!” Carlson exclaimed, laughing, at the conclusion of his interview with Smith. Reporters interested in explaining Carlson’s worldview and influence should take notice.