Here’s what was in the news on February 28, 2018: Dick’s Sporting Goods and Walmart announced that they would be ending sales of “assault-style” rifles, President Donald Trump (briefly) came out in favor of raising the minimum purchase age on some guns, and an explosive report from the United Nations linked North Korea to Syria’s chemical weapons program.
Viewers of Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight, however, would not be hearing about any of those stories. Instead, they got front-row seats to an exclusive interview with Ryan Wolfe, a Wake Forest student upset that the university had not pursued a “school judicial case” against other students after one photoshopped his face onto a picture of a saltine cracker 16 months earlier.
“I assume that’s a slur against your ethnicity, correct?” Carlson asked Wolfe, referring to the photo. It was a patently ridiculous moment in television history, and it went on for four surreal minutes. It was something you might expect to find in a school newspaper, or maybe hear a quick mention about on a local TV segment -- but almost certainly not something one might expect to see broadcasted to Carlson’s more than 2.5 million nightly viewers. Except it actually is, if you’ve kept up with the show at all.
One way of thinking about Tucker Carlson Tonight is as less of a nationally broadcast news show, and more … local news from hell.
Here’s what I mean by that. Local news broadcasts are known for including a few cutesy local interest stories or lighthearted takes on things that happened around town. Tucker Carlson Tonight functions as a sort of “greatest hits” round-up for local stories and minor controversies that feel custom-made for the Fox News audience. Now, I should be clear: This is pretty standard for Fox shows, but Carlson’s is truly the pièce de résistance of the whole lineup, the broadcast your local news outlet would tease with scary cliffhangers like, “This one common household item might kill you. Tune in at 9 to learn more!”
A lot of the time, Carlson does this with the help of Cathy Areu during a regular segment called “The Liberal Sherpa.” Areu is introduced as the founder of Catalina magazine and, as Carlson said during his July 4 show, as someone “willing to defend pretty much any new fad on the left, whether it's hiding in cry closets or getting consent before you change your baby's diaper.”
Recent “Liberal Sherpa” segments included discussion about Cleveland radio station WDOK’s decision to leave the song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” off of its holiday playlists, a British university’s internal memo asking professors to avoid writing in all capital letters in correspondence with students, and a California school district’s new dress code.
Others included debate over a college diversity network’s recommendation to curtail use of the phrase “as you know,” a pair of Massachusetts parents who’ve decided to raise their children gender neutral (Carlson called this “steep civilizational decline”), a New Jersey high school that let all interested students join the cheerleading team without tryouts, a white Utah teen wearing a traditional Chinese dress to prom, as well as the aforementioned cry closet and diaper consent stories.
Sometimes, as was the case in a February 23 segment about Purdue University urging students not to use words with “man” in them, Carlson & Company straddle the line somewhere between exaggerating and being willfully misleading.
Areu is the Washington Generals to Carlson’s Harlem Globetrotters, reinforcing the audience’s perception of liberals as a whole.
Areu’s role really does seem to be to defend anything Carlson puts forward as being a trend on “the left.” Watching these segments, you get the clear impression that the mainstream “left” would back every single one of these views, even taken to the absolute extreme. For instance, Carlson asked Areu during the “dress code” segment whether girls should just be allowed to come to school topless if they want; instead of telling him that’s ridiculous, she actually agreed that they should.
These clips seem to exist primarily as a way to get Carlson’s audience worked up into a lather about how ridiculous or out of touch progressives are, and based on the responses they elicit when they’re posted on social media, it seems to work. It’s genuinely unclear whether Areu is being completely earnest in her Tucker Carlson Tonight appearances; in fact, there’s at least one thread on the pro-Trump r/The_Donald reddit forum asking whether she’s just playing a character.
Is the average Democratic voter a gender-neutral, clothing-optional, lowercase-letter-using, cry-closet-dwelling, language-policing, prom-dress-hating, Christmas-song-averse parent who asks their babies for permission to change their diapers? No. On the local news broadcast from hell, however, that’s the party’s core constituency.
These segments fuel the identity politics-driven culture war that conservative media blame on progressives.
One way Carlson achieves this is by covering hot-button social issues, such as the ongoing debates over transgender rights, plucking examples of minor controversies around the country and overwhelming his audience with sheer quantity. For instance, as of this writing, someone has mentioned the word “transgender” on 35 episodes of Tucker Carlson Tonight in 2018. Sometimes, it comes in reference to a policy that has a legitimate place in national news, such as the Trump administration’s efforts to ban trans people from the military.
Many of the others times, however, it’s just more local news stories blown up for effect. For example, in March, Carlson interviewed a college student who was reportedly “kicked out of class” for saying there were “only two genders.” Carlson has also used his show to discuss the results of a Connecticut track meet, the Boston Marathon’s entry rules, and a bizarre story involving the winner of the women’s 35-to-44 division cycling meet in Los Angeles -- all because the stories involved trans people.
Very few, if any, of these stories were likely deserving of national airtime, and yet, Tucker Carlson Tonight was there to give them a boost. What makes the conservative media obsession with trans issues a bit maddening is that these outlets appear unwilling to admit that such a preoccupation exists at all. Carlson took time out of his July 24 episode to chide former Bernie Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver for the Democratic Party’s supposed “fixation” on “esoteric sexual politics like transgender bathrooms.”
Meanwhile, The Rachel Maddow Show, Carlson’s MSNBC counterpart, mentioned the word “transgender” during just six episodes over the course of the same period. Four shows were discussing Trump’s military ban, one was about Vermont’s Democratic nominee for governor, Christine Hallquist, and another addressed The New York Times’ bombshell October 21 report that the Trump administration was considering sweeping changes to the federal definitions of “sex” and “gender.”
Whether it’s by design or not, the stories highlighted on Carlson’s show help build upon a conservative media alternate reality in which the deck is stacked against Republicans, where they’re the primary victims of discrimination, where the world is out to get them, and where every success they have comes in spite of all of this -- a topic I recently covered. The stories themselves surface from a number of places: other Fox News shows, other conservative outlets, or even 4chan. Once Fox covers a story, whether on Tucker Carlson Tonight or any of its other programming, it signals a sort of legitimacy to the rest of the world that this actually is worthy of national coverage. This has played out in the past with trumped-up “War on Christmas” narratives, and we’re seeing it happen now with overblown stories about free speech on college campuses.
I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating: Neither conservatives nor liberals benefit from portraying the most extreme elements of the opposing side as mainstream. This isn’t to say that one should adopt a Pollyanna approach to media coverage and pretend that “unity” is all we need to solve the very serious differences we have with one another. Let’s be real: We live in a particularly fraught moment in political history. The local news broadcast from hell serves only to convince us that things are somehow even worse and more divided than reality would show.
Shelby Jamerson contributed research to this post.