The erosion of American democracy, in a short cable news segment



Given how often I point out when Fox News’ Tucker Carlson says something untrue, it’s fair to watch when he says something true. And on Thursday night, he did.

His show began according to a pattern now familiar to the network, aggressively promoting a Republican facing a tough fight in the upcoming midterm elections. While his colleague Sean Hannity has been broad on the candidates he supports, Carlson’s endorsement interviews tend to focus more on candidates closer to his own far-right politics, as was the case with his Thursday show that hosted The Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake.

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Before jumping into politics, Lake spent decades as a local television news anchor in Phoenix. This, Carlson argued, gave him a unique insight into the dangers of the American media.

“She spent 30 years in television news,” Carlson said in his lengthy introduction to an interview with the candidate. “So when Kari Lake says the media is corrupt, she’s not guessing. She lived right in the middle of it for decades.”

Carlson, who has certainly lived smack in the middle of “the media” for decades (given his stints at CNN, MSNBC and Fox News, as well as in print and online), knows he’s stretching things a bit. (He would be curious if he was familiar with Lake’s work before she ran for the job.) But Carlson wanted his audience to understand Lake as the ultimate media insider so he could express her desired rhetorical point, a common fate for those who end up being celebrated on his show. That point: that the news media fears Lake because she challenges her hegemony.

“They’re not just annoying,” he said of the “liberal media.” “They are the key to the whole system. Take them away and everything will change. So, he said, “it is essential for the people in charge that voters continue to believe that the so-called news coverage they see and read is real, that it conveys facts and not just crude North Korean-style political propaganda. But Kari Lake knows better.”

And this is where we get to the point where Carlson said something true. He showed a clip of Lake insulting a CNN reporter who was waiting to ask him questions, and then Carlson burst out laughing. And why wasn’t he going to insult them? The power of media outlets like CNN, he argued, is entirely a function of the respect given to them.

“They only have power because we empower them, because we treat them like they’re real,” he continued. “… These are fantasies that can only continue as long as we participate. So by attacking the media, what Kari Lake is really doing is taking on institutional power.”

That, that paragraph right there, is accurate. The media do They get their power from their (our) audience by treating them as legitimate. And Lake, in fact, is attacking the institutional power of the media.

But where Carlson is dangerously wrong is in his presentation of why that power is important. The role of the media is to challenge power and help Americans understand what is true and what is false. The respect given to the mainstream media is partly a function of tradition and partly a function of recognition that this role is important. what’s up should being outside of institutions willing to examine the power held by elected officials and businesses and even others in the media, even when doing so is uncomfortable.

This is an ideal, to be sure, and the media has sometimes fallen short. But Carlson isn’t saying he thinks the media doesn’t deserve respect because it has failed to uphold its ideals. He is simply writing them all off as biased, political and greedy because, in accordance with a long tradition of powerful people not willing to be held accountable, he is not want the media to challenge those in power or to tell the truth. It is only trying to deliver the final blow to an industry that is already struggling to retain the trust of its target audience, just as it is trying to eviscerate any other institutional seats of power that might stand in the way of desired political outcomes.

It is CarlsonNot Lake, who is the media insider now hell-bent on ripping the industry apart from the inside. He is empowered by that collapse of public trust in the media, a collapse that is often linked to isolated and selected examples of failure, but is probably more solidly attributed to the fragmentation of the media itself. People want their opponents, not themselves, to be held accountable, and right now there is no shortage of media outlets and TV hosts willing to provide just that kind of accountability.

Then good. Carlson wants to gut the media and is using Lake as a way to describe the process he himself is involved in. And that?

Carlson answered that too.

“Assuming all the votes are counted, and we should never believe that. We must never take that on faith; if this is a democracy, we have an absolute right to be shown that the election was fair,” Carlson said. “If it’s fair, Kari Lake is going to win.”

I am well aware of the futility of writing these words, but I have to write them anyway: that is not true. The polls don’t show Lake with a consistent or wide lead; even right-wing pollsters show the race is close. Lake could win. FiveThirtyEight believes that he is slightly more likely to lose. But he could lose, even in a fair election, which there is no reason to think this election won’t be.

But now you see how Carlson has opened the door. If you don’t trust me and you don’t trust FiveThirtyEight and you do trust lake and you do Trust Carlson, you’ll see it as reasonable. Earlier in the segment, Carlson praised Lake’s rejection of the 2020 election results as eminently reasonable, despite the glaring inconsistency and flaw in his position on the issue.

There is no defense for the position that the 2020 election was tainted by fraud that does not depend on ignoring the available evidence. Nor should one have to prove that an election was fair when there is no evidence of wrongdoing; the burden falls on those who insist it was not fair. But now we’ve portrayed the entire media as liars, hackers, and partisans, so none of that caution matters, and Lake’s acceptance of false election claims is perfectly valid.

Reject objectivity and responsibility, and you enter a space where emotion and rhetoric dominate, and that is precisely the space in which Carlson wants to operate. So that he can help reshape American politics in any way he sees fit.

Of course, Carlson, as a member of the media, has power only because his audience gives him power. His is a fantasy that can continue as long as we participate. Us, including me: By writing this, I am reinforcing the power of him.

But it is my job to question his power and challenge him, to measure his words against reality. That you are reading this means that you find it valuable. However, you can recognize how this dynamic is lopsided in your favor and therefore in favor of your desired results.


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