DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I’m Dave Davies, in today for Terry Gross. If you follow cable TV at all, you probably know that Fox News host Tucker Carlson is one of the most influential commentators in conservative media and one of the most provocative. He’s known for praising authoritarian leaders such as Vladimir Putin and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and warning his viewers about the dangers of foreign immigrants and elites who want to control their lives. Our guest, New York Times reporter Nicholas Confessore, recently wrote a series of articles about Carlson drawing on an analysis of more than 1,100 episodes of his show, “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” conducted by Confessore and a team of Times reporters as well as interviews with dozens of current and former Fox executives, producers and journalists.
Confessore concludes that Carlson has constructed what may be the most racist show in the history of cable news and, by some measures, the most successful. Confessore’s articles include some surprising details, such as the fact that Carlson hosts many of his shows from a town in rural Maine where he has a home and a studio. Nicholas Confessore is a political and investigative reporter for The Times and a staff writer at The New York Times Magazine. He’s won or shared in a host of journalistic honors, including a Pulitzer Prize and the George Polk Award. His series, called “American Nationalist,” is available on the Times website. Nicholas Confessore, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
NICHOLAS CONFESSORE: It’s great to be here. Thank you.
DAVIES: You’ve done a lot of political reporting, campaign finance reporting. What made you want to take a deep dive into Tucker Carlson?
CONFESSORE: That’s a great question. I’m not a media reporter normally. But I think you can’t understand how we got to this moment in American politics, especially on the right, without understanding the journey of a person like Tucker Carlson and without understanding the influence he has in Fox, outside of Fox, on politics generally and how much his voice has helped shape what is now the MAGA movement, the Trump movement, and how important a voice he is in that movement.
DAVIES: You know, you can take pretty much anyone who – in public life, in politics or the media – who has a long record of public utterances and, you know, cherry pick their most intemperate comments and make them look bad. I mean, this is what political ads are all about, right? I’m wondering, as you undertook this examination, what did you do to make sure you were capturing not just his worst moments but the heart of his messages?
CONFESSORE: Well, I thought it was important to capture his whole story. And I set into this with an open mind. On many occasions, I asked myself, so what is Carlson correct about on his show, and what’s he wrong about on the facts – not on the opinions but on the facts? And what we found, first of all, was just a long pattern of overhyping and wrong facts and misleading statements on the show. You could pick almost any show and find one.
But more importantly, the things that we honed in on to back up our claim – and it’s a big one, that this may be the most racist show in the history of cable news – was a close look that my colleagues anchored on the graphics desk of the New York Times, looking at every single episode of the show through the end of last year. That’s a lot of work. It’s a lot of watching Tucker Carlson and reading transcripts of the show. And what we found was that the elements that he borrows and sands down from the far right are not just, you know, kind of isolated incidents on the show or things he pops into here and there. They are a constant theme, a drumbeat spanning hundreds of episodes of the show, hundreds of segments.
And I’ll give you one example, which we can come back to. This idea of replacement theory – you’ve probably heard about it. And even if you’re not paying much attention to cable news, you’ll probably recall that last spring he got in some hot water for saying, yeah, the elites in this country are trying to replace Americans with obedient people from what he called the Third World.
Now, that is a direct borrowing of language and concept from white nationalists and not just conservatives. I’m talking about people who are neo-Nazis, open nativists, white nationalists, people who get together in dark corners of the internet, mostly, and propound theories about how a cabal of elites – sometimes Jews, sometimes broader – are trying to replace Americans. Now, that theme hadn’t just popped up on the show last April. A version of it has been present in 400-plus episodes of the show.
DAVIES: I noted that. And I wanted to play a montage from Part III of your series, which is kind of an interactive thing that’s available on the website in which you kind of map the shows and how often certain themes occur. And this is one in which you have – this is a montage of excerpts of shows in which he proposed the idea that elites and Democrats want to increase immigration to get them more voters. Let’s listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)
TUCKER CARLSON: They can embrace the issues the middle class cares about, or they can import an entirely new electorate from the Third World and change the demographics of the U.S. so completely they’ll never lose again.
Democrats know if they import enough new voters, they’ll be able to run the country forever.
Dramatic demographic change means many Americans don’t recognize where they grew up.
As with illegal immigration, the long-term agenda of refugee resettlement is to bring in future Democratic voters.
Illegal immigrants are the key to their power.
The point is to import as many new Democratic voters as possible.
The whole point of their immigration policy is to ensure political control, replace the population.
This policy is called the great replacement, the replacement of legacy Americans with more obedient people from faraway countries.
DAVIES: All right. That’s excerpts of eight different episodes of “Tucker Carlson Tonight.” That theme, that message appeared in more than 400 shows. This is the kind of statistical analysis you undertook to make it clear that this wasn’t an outlier.
CONFESSORE: Right. It’s not an outlier. It’s a continual theme of the show. And it’s a racist conspiracy theory. And there’s no other way to describe it. It’s a conspiracy theory because it isn’t true. But it’s a powerful idea. And it’s an old one on the far right that has made a, you know, new entrance in recent years.
DAVIES: Tucker Carlson uses the expression legacy Americans. Where does that come from? What does it mean?
CONFESSORE: Well, we went and looked. We were like, so where does he get that? Where did that come from? We could find no trace of that phrase in mainstream media until he started using it. Where we found it was far-right sites. It was VDARE, which is a nativist site also popular with white nationalists, with some other corners of the internet. He literally plucked that phrase from the racist right and started using it on the air on Fox News.
DAVIES: And it means what?
CONFESSORE: You know, it’s a little bit of code, right? It doesn’t explicitly mean white Americans, although certainly it suggests people who are already here – right? – or have been here for some generations. And it harkens back to an earlier era, Carlson’s childhood and mine, when America was not just majority white but disproportionately and overwhelmingly composed of white citizens. So when I hear legacy Americans, I hear a dog whistle.
DAVIES: One of the things you hear a lot on his show is him looking into the camera, as he does in his opening monologues, and speaks to his audience and says, they don’t like you. They don’t care about you. They want to control your lives. Who’s the they?
CONFESSORE: In Carlson’s telling, in his narrative, they is the ruling class. And the ruling class is pretty much anybody he wants it to be. It’s people who actually are in charge and have power and are elected to office – presidents, vice presidents, people in Congress. It’s pro athletes. It’s Chelsea Clinton. It’s comedians who make jokes about America. It’s pretty much anybody who’s in the news that day for whatever reason. And his great skill as a broadcaster, among others, is that he can always take whatever’s happening that day and make it part of his narrative of the ruling class. If someone’s talking about making pot legal, he goes on the air and says that the ruling class is trying to legalize pot because a plying population is a good population. So it doesn’t matter what the story is, it always gets wrapped back into the narrative of the day versus you.
DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We’re speaking with Nicholas Confessore. He is a political and investigative reporter for The New York Times and a staff writer at the Times Magazine. We will continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SOLANGE SONG, “WEARY”)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we’re speaking with New York Times investigative and political reporter Nicholas Confessore. He recently wrote a series of articles about Fox News host Tucker Carlson called “American Nationalist” that are available on the Times website.
How has he characterized the protests that followed the killing of George Floyd?
CONFESSORE: Well, these protests, as you know, were mostly peaceful and, in places, violent. And what Carlson has done – and he isn’t unique on this on the right. But he has taken a movement that started from Americans who said that maybe it’s a bad thing when a Black person with a broken taillight ends up on the pavement dead, and he made them a threat to American civilization, perhaps one of the greatest threats to American civilization. And when people went out in the street and protested, he would say, they are coming for you – they, you, they, you. And it’s pretty clear what he meant by that. Of course, when he got in hot water for that statement, Fox said, no, no, no, he was being misinterpreted. But come on, you can listen to the show and you’ll understand the emotional impact of the show and what words actually mean when people are listening to them.
DAVIES: Yeah. A lot of it’s about fear.
CONFESSORE: Yeah. You know, I would – I talked to one former Fox employee about the programming strategy on Carlson’s show and across it – or board more broadly. And what he said – I’m going to paraphrase – is, anger gets people to tune in and stay locked onto the network, keep their TVs on. But what’s better than anger? Anger and fear. And what you see on Fox in the last few years, but especially on Carlson’s show, is rage inflation. You see an effort to just dial it up to 11 every night. And the point is, keep people tuned in.
DAVIES: You mentioned that nothing keeps people tuned in, like anger and fear. To what extent are the messages driven by ratings and analysis of ratings?
CONFESSORE: What our story shows is that from the beginning, Carlson’s show, his provocations on the air, his escalating rhetoric are all part of a careful and intentional effort to build and hold Fox’s audience in an era when the cable audience in general is in decline. And it’s been incredibly successful overall. You saw that in 2020, Carlson attracted more viewers than any other show in the history of cable news. And on one night during the George Floyd protests, he had the highest rated show on all of television, broadcast and cable. It’s very potent. And for a lot of people, it’s really gripping viewing. And so I think it’s important to understand that – I think these are his real views. And we show in the story kind of how he got there.
But I also say that, you know, I was talking to two people who worked with him at The Daily Caller, which is an online tabloid he founded in 2010. And they each separately volunteered a quote from Kurt Vonnegut, and it really struck me. And the quote was basically, we are who we pretend to be. And if you think about that, I think it explains a lot about how you build a personality on cable TV. You start with what you think and know, but you’re also watching what the audience responds to. And in the case of Fox, you are seeing a minute-by-minute analysis of the ratings, right? You’re seeing, down to the minute, what makes the audience change the channel. And so, of course, you give them more of what makes them stay, and that becomes who you are, and that becomes your persona.
DAVIES: Right. You mentioned this minute-by-minute analysis, which is – you know, ratings were typically done by quarter-hour. I mean, this is an even more intricate way of, you know, measuring what an audience does and what it responds to minute by minute. I think Carlson has said he never looks at ratings, doesn’t even know how to, right?
CONFESSORE: Yeah. In response to this story, which is based on interviews with dozens and dozens of current and former Fox people, Carlson says he doesn’t even know how. He’s lying, I believe. Of course he looks at the ratings (laughter). Everyone at Fox looks at the ratings. And he is said to be among the closest consumers, the most avid consumers, of ratings at Fox. And there’s a simple reason – he’s failed twice before in cable. He swung and missed. He’s gotten canceled. And he doesn’t want it to happen again. And he has really devoted himself to learning the craft of cable news and becoming extremely good at it. And he is very good at it.
DAVIES: You and I are speaking on Wednesday. And Tuesday night, I watched Tucker Carlson’s opening monologue, which was about Karine Jean-Pierre, who is the new press secretary who is replacing Jen Psaki. And, you know, he spent a long time mocking her and the fact that she is Black and LGBTQ and that she’s the first person in that role from that background. But he also repeatedly said how she had no qualifications. And the fact is, she has a fairly substantial history in political communications. Is this a common theme of his? Is he tough on women of color in particular?
CONFESSORE: He definitely is. I mean, he’s tough on a lot of people. He thinks a lot of people are stupid. But what we found in our reporting was that he really seems to reserve special scorn for Black women. In his cast of characters, you really see a disproportionate focus, I think, on Black women – on Kamala Harris, who he’s insinuated only has her job today because of who she dated; to Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, who he’s demanded the LSAT scores of – I don’t recall him demanding the LSAT scores for Brett Kavanaugh – Karine Jean-Pierre. And on Carlson’s show, it’s not just that they’re wrong or they have bad ideas. They’re stupid and evil and unqualified. And you see that theme, you know, over and over. And certainly it’s not only Black women, but that jumped out when we saw – you know, often repeating the same words about different people over and over again.
DAVIES: You know, you write that one of the things that he and his producers do is to take local stories that fit into some of their common themes and narratives and then, you know, kind of give them a national audience. As you spoke to all of these Fox, you know, producers and journalists, what did you learn about his fact-gathering process, and where do these stories come from?
CONFESSORE: You would start seeing these kind of weird stories on “Tucker Carlson Tonight.” And you’d – and if you were a casual viewer, you might wonder, like, where did that come from? So I’ll give you an example. In 2017 – in the summer of 2017, there was a segment called “Gypsies: Coming To America.” And this was an entire segment based on a local news story in a small city in Pennsylvania – California, Pa. – where a few dozen refugees – Roma – had sought asylum and been settled there as their asylum was being processed because they said they faced discrimination back in their home country, in Europe. And in the way that, you know, a small-town gossip mill can run, it appears that one Roma child, you know, peed in the playground. And that became a rumor mill of lots and lots of Roma peeing and defecating everywhere. And, of course, that wasn’t true.
Carlson grabbed that, spun it up and told his viewers that there was poop all over the streets of this town. And, you know, he played it for laughs. But then he said something really interesting. He said, these people have been their own community in Europe for a thousand years, and what makes you think they’re going to assimilate in America? So he was playing on this small story – which ended well, by the way, in Pennsylvania, where these people acclimated and the community helped them, as Americans do.
DAVIES: Could you tell how many of these stories, if any of these stories, originated in, you know, racist or neo-Nazi sites?
CONFESSORE: Well, we can tell you that in hundreds of episodes, they are borrowing themes and ideas from far-right sources. What we can also tell you is that when the show began, Fox had a big department called the Brain Room. It was the pride and joy of Roger Ailes. It was the fact-checking department. And these guys loved to go do research and fact-check stuff. And early on, you know, Tucker’s producers would send stuff down to the Brain Room to check it out or get more information. And sometimes the Brain Room would say, you know what? That story actually comes from, like Stormfront, which is a neo-Nazi website. You shouldn’t use that. But, of course, they kept doing it. And they stopped asking for help from the Brain Room because they weren’t looking for facts. They weren’t looking for correct information. They were looking for stories that would light up the audience.
And if you go back, you can find traces of them jumping around. I mean, I found this one guy – a right-wing blogger – who was posting and complaining about how Tucker – a Tucker producer stole one of his stories and didn’t give him credit. They would post on Reddit – on the Trump forum on Reddit, which has been a – unfortunately, a hotbed of really gross stuff, and say, hey, if you have any interview ideas, please approach us.
DAVIES: You know, I think Tucker Carlson said at one point that white supremacy is largely a hoax. Do neo-Nazis and white supremacists – what do they have to say about Tucker and – Tucker Carlson and his impact and message?
CONFESSORE: White nationalists and neo-Nazis love Tucker Carlson’s show. They watch it. They talk about watching it. They post clips from it. They cheer it online. And the reason is simple. He has taken ideas that were caged in a dark corner of American life, on a few websites that don’t get that many visitors, and he made it the animating force on the most popular cable news program in history. And if you listen to them, what they say is, Carlson is taking our ideas. He is the most effective popularizer of the importance of white identity of any person around today. And Carlson just kind of waves us away. He says, if you want to know what I think, watch my show, which is a way of evading the question.
DAVIES: We need to take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. We’re speaking with Nicholas Confessore. He’s a political and investigative reporter for The New York Times and a staff writer at The New York Times Magazine. He recently wrote a series of articles about Fox News host Tucker Carlson titled “American Nationalist.” All are available on the Times website. He’ll be back to talk more after this break. I’m Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALBERTO IGLESIAS’ “COMANDANTE I (FROM “COMANDANTE”)”)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. We’re speaking with New York Times political and investigative reporter Nicholas Confessore. He recently wrote a series of articles about the life, views and influence of Fox News host Tucker Carlson. He writes that Carlson has constructed what may be the most racist show in the history of cable news and, by some measures, the most successful. The articles, titled “American Nationalist,” are available on the Times website.
I wanted to listen to a bit of Tucker Carlson talking about Vladimir Putin. And this was in February, right before the invasion of Ukraine.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, “TUCKER CARLSON TONIGHT”)
CARLSON: Good evening, and welcome to “Tucker Carlson Tonight.” Since the day that Donald Trump became president, Democrats in Washington have told you, you have a patriotic duty to hate Vladimir Putin. It’s not a suggestion. It’s a mandate. Anything less than hatred for Putin is treason. Many Americans have obeyed this directive. They now dutifully hate Vladimir Putin. Maybe you’re one of them. Hating Putin has become the central purpose of America’s foreign policy. It’s the main thing that we talk about. Entire cable channels are now devoted to it. Very soon, that hatred of Vladimir Putin could bring the United States into a conflict in Eastern Europe.
Before that happens, it might be worth asking yourself, since it is getting pretty serious. What is this really about? Why do I hate Putin so much? Has Putin ever called me a racist? Has he threatened to get me fired for disagreeing with him? Has he shipped every middle-class job in my town to Russia? Did he manufacture a worldwide pandemic that wrecked my business and kept me indoors for two years? Is he teaching my children to embrace racial discrimination? Is he making fentanyl? Is he trying to snuff out Christianity? Does he eat dogs? These are fair questions, and the answer to all of them is no. Vladimir Putin didn’t do any of that.
So why does permanent Washington hate him so much? If you’ve been watching the news, you know that Putin is having a border dispute with a nation called Ukraine. Now, the main thing to know about Ukraine for our purposes is that its leaders once sent millions of dollars to Joe Biden’s family. Not surprisingly, Ukraine is now one of Biden’s favorite countries. Biden has pledged to defend Ukraine’s borders even as he opens our borders to the world. That’s how it works. Invading America is called equity. Invading Ukraine is a war crime.
DAVIES: And that is Tucker Carlson talking about Vladimir Putin on his show, “Tucker Carlson Tonight” in February. Nicholas Confessore, that’s quite a discourse there. I mean, I guess we should just, first of all, note that the leaders of Ukraine didn’t exactly pay Joe Biden’s family millions of dollars. Do you want to parse that comment first?
CONFESSORE: Yeah. I mean, it’s simply not true. The whole thing would take thousands of words just to unpack all the things that are wrong in that. But what’s important is the total effect, right? The total effect is, don’t focus on the bad guy that they say is the bad guy. Return to your chairs and remember that the real bad guy is here at home. That’s the ruling class who’s letting fentanyl come in and kill your kids, who’s letting immigrants come in and take your jobs.
And you know, that segment has aged very poorly for Tucker Carlson. There are Russian troops accused of atrocities and mass rape. And you can see in that one segment he somehow goes from calling it a mere border dispute to admitting it’s an invasion. So which is it? Again, this is the technique, is to always bring it back to the narrative. The narrative is they verse you.
DAVIES: He mentions fentanyl in that discourse. You know, the Ohio Senate candidate, J.D. Vance, indicated or suggested that Joe Biden actually wanted fentanyl to come into the country so that it would kill MAGA voters. Is this an idea that Carlson has embraced?
CONFESSORE: Absolutely. In some ways, he’s the popularizer of that idea. And Vance, I would say – more than being a Trump candidate, you know, Vance is a Carlson candidate. If you watch his stump speeches, they’re practically ripped from Tucker Carlson’s show. And it’s one reason why Carlson fought so hard behind the scenes to get Trump’s endorsement for Vance. Because if Vance lost the nomination for the Senate in his party, it would be a blow to Carlson, as well, to his power and influence.
You know, what they want you to think of is this idea that, you know, Joe Biden or Democrats or the cabal, the elite literally have a plan where they’re opening their borders so that caravan migrants from Guatemala can march into America with backpacks full of fentanyl to kill Americans. That’s, like, the image that this rhetoric conjures. Fentanyl is a deadly problem. It’s bad. And, of course, there are lots of very earnest policymakers and think tank people and activists who want to do something about a fentanyl crisis who have bills and white papers. But you can’t build a top-rated show on cable by being earnest. There has to be a bad guy.
DAVIES: I wanted to return to something that we talked about earlier, and that was Tucker Carlson’s favorable comments about Putin right before the Ukrainian invasion. Is Carlson a supporter of Vladimir Putin still?
CONFESSORE: I don’t think he would characterize himself as a supporter of Putin. I think he would say that the war is a mistake and that, by his view, it doesn’t advance American interests. But, you know, if you look at his romance with Viktor Orban, the prime minister of Hungary, you know, why does Carlson lionize Orban, who has tried to shut down a free press? He’s handed out huge amounts of government assets to cronies. There’s a lot of corruption in that government. There’s less and less freedom there. Plus, Orban is in bed with China, which is a big investor in his country.
You know, why would Carlson sort of lionize this guy? And I think it’s to show the audience – it’s to give the audience the contrast that Carlson’s trying to create. He’s even said that, that Viktor Orban is evidence that you can take your country back. So he presents a sanitized vision of Orban’s Hungary to contrast with the desolate and apocalyptic vision he presents of America in decline.
DAVIES: Do things that Tucker Carlson says about the war in Ukraine or about Putin end up appearing in Russian propaganda?
CONFESSORE: Frequently. Perhaps the only place that Carlson is as influential as he is in America is in Putin’s Russia, where, reportedly, the propaganda apparatus orders media outlets to promote his comments about Putin, promote his comments on Ukraine. And, in fact, on his show, Carlson has advanced the same conspiracy theories that the Putin regime has worked to advance – that there are bioweapons labs, American-funded bioweapons labs and, in some version, American-funded bioweapons labs that are somehow connected to the Biden family. That’s the line that Russia pushes, and it’s the line you can sometimes find on “Tucker Carlson Tonight.”
DAVIES: You’ve said that much of what he says is demonstrably inaccurate. You know, journalists get sued for getting things wrong sometimes, depending on who’s harmed and whether they’re a public figure and whether they are inclined to go to court. Has Tucker Carlson suffered any consequences for getting things wrong? Does he even acknowledge it when inaccuracies are pointed out?
CONFESSORE: He will occasionally acknowledge inaccuracies and say, hey, we got that wrong. Here’s the reality. Sometimes he goes back and just repeats the wrong thing in the next show or in some future show. What’s interesting is, when push comes to shove, even Fox admits that it’s hyperbole. It’s not actual fact. And one example is a lawsuit that Fox faced for comments that Carlson made about a former Trump paramour. And she sued him. And in the defense, which Fox won, they said, well, a talk show is not a good venue for statements of fact, for, you know, for getting at facts. And the defense essentially revolved around what are the permissible limits of hyperbole or what are the – what expectations do viewers have when they watch the show? And Fox’s assertion was that people don’t come to the show thinking that everything on it is true (laughter). So don’t, you know, trust me or The New York Times. Trust Fox. Fox says you can’t believe what you see on “Tucker Carlson Tonight.”
DAVIES: We need to take another break here. We are speaking with Nicholas Confessore. He’s a political and investigative reporter for The New York Times. He recently wrote a series of articles about Fox News host Tucker Carlson. We’ll continue our conversation after this break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we’re speaking with New York Times political and investigative reporter Nicholas Confessore. He recently wrote a series of articles about Fox News host Tucker Carlson. It’s available on the Times’ website. It’s called “American Nationalist.” Let’s talk a bit about Tucker Carlson’s history and his background. His dad, Richard Carlson – do I have the name right? – was a TV reporter. Tucker grew up with a brother. The parents divorced. What kind of schooling and family life did he have growing up?
CONFESSORE: You know, I think Carlson had a hard early life emotionally. You know, he wouldn’t say he was underprivileged or poor by any means, middle class kid. And his parents had a really tough divorce. And what we found looking into this – and we started looking into it, by the way, because Carlson himself had started talking about it in interviews. And I was really struck by some of the things he said about what impact this had on him as a young man, his parents’ divorce. And in the course of the divorce, his father, Dick Carlson, said, look, Lisa Carlson is abusing drugs. She’s sending the kids on the plane back to San Diego without shoes on. I’m worried about her mental state. Her relatives are telling me not to leave the kids alone with her. And he eventually wins custody. And Lisa, the boy’s mother, eventually moves to France. And she never sees the sons again – ever again.
And then Dick Carlson remarried. His second wife or his subsequent wife adopted the Carlson boys. But later in life, in the interviews that we listened to, Carlson would talk about how this impacted him. And he said, first of all, he felt all kinds of rage about it for many years. He alluded to the fact that he thinks it played a role in him being a heavy drinker before he quit drinking. But there was something else. I told Megyn Kelly this, the former Fox host who now has a YouTube show. He talked about how he had learned from the experience of his mother kind of messing with his head and his emotional life that he would never let people in there ever again, that he wouldn’t let his critics get inside his head. And he wouldn’t listen to criticism from people who he thought didn’t have his best interests in mind.
And I think when you look at how the show has progressed, you know, he says he doesn’t watch TV. He doesn’t look at Twitter. He doesn’t read stories about him. He claims that he hasn’t read my story about him, although he seems to be well informed about what’s in it. And you think of what it takes to put on that show and how much criticism it has gotten. And I thought that was really striking when you think about how, in order to build the citadel of his soul to absorb and deflect all the criticism he’s gotten as he takes his show into darker and darker territory, that comes from his mother leaving to some extent.
DAVIES: You know, he didn’t agree to an interview with you for the series, which you point out several times, but he did respond on his show. I thought we’d listen to a little bit of that. Let’s listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, “TUCKER CARLSON TONIGHT”)
CONFESSORE: Here’s a news flash from The New York Times preparing yet another story about how this show is racist because we support national borders. If that sounds like a familiar attack, well, because it is. This has got to be the 10th or 27th or 217th story just like this The New York Times has run, and all of them were pretty much identical – racist, racist, racist. The latest version of the story is being written by a kid called Nick Confessore. Confessore seems a little more self-important than most of them, but essentially, he’s the same as the last guy and the guy before him because on some level, all these guys are the same. They’re obedient little establishment defenders who will say anything to please their bosses. They’re suck-ups, brown-nosers, lickspittles, not people you’d want to have dinner with.
Anyway, The New York Times is calling us racist again, and we’re still on the air, which shows you how well it works. But you’ve got to wonder, why do they keep doing this? If you wanted to criticize this show, there are plenty of things you could say. We’ve got a ton of supposedly controversial opinions on a million different topics. We talk about them every night. Big finance is wrecking America. Marijuana actually isn’t medicine. Russiagate is totally idiotic and so is the war it’s now causing. Feminism is a corporate lie. Marriage makes you happy, so does raising your own children and so on. We even think UFOs are real.
DAVIES: Yeah. Well, that is some controversial ideas. That’s Tucker Carlson on his show, “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” talking about the series of stories by our guest, New York Times reporter Nicholas Confessore. He calls you a lick-spittle and a obedient little establishment defender. You know, the reason I wanted to bring this up is that I know – I mean, I know what kind of reporting you do and people at the Times do and journalists all over the country where you – you know, you immerse yourself in a story. You talk to people you disagree with. You give everybody a chance to dispute facts. I know that you contacted not just Tucker Carlson but the show to ask them if they wanted to comment on information you’d gotten from others.
And, you know, I’ve been a daily newspaper reporter. I wrote tough columns about people, but I always, always felt you have to talk to the people that you are criticizing because, you know, opinion journalism needs to be informed. You know, he – you write – I learned in your series that Tucker Carlson started at an early age writing for, you know, conservative publications. Did he ever have the experience of the kind of job in journalism where you have to talk to both sides, where you have to, you know, explore a subject thoroughly?
CONFESSORE: I think he absolutely did. He was quite a good magazine writer in kind of a P.J. O’Rourke kind of way. He was a satirist. And in his magazine days at The Weekly Standard and elsewhere, he wasn’t really an ideologue. It’s hard to actually really trace out his own personal politics from reading his magazine work in those days. But he did. He traveled. He reported. He was really good at getting people to talk. He did a really funny story that helped make him famous back during the Clinton impeachment, where he got on the phone with the therapist for Monica Lewinsky, who should not have talked to him but did. And it is a very interesting story. And over time, though, he kind of gave up writing for the most part, except his books, which are mostly – essentially collections of his monologues from Fox. And he moved into TV, and that became kind of his consuming passion. But absolutely, he’s had the experience of doing reporting, of filling a notebook, of talking to the people he’s going to take a swing at. He’s definitely done that.
DAVIES: You know, he did say things over the course of the last few years that caused some advertisers to pull their support, including saying that white supremacy was largely a hoax. I guess that was after the shooting at the El Paso Walmart by a guy who said he was – a white guy who said was protesting the Hispanic invasion of Texas. There were other things he said that caused advertisers to leave. I mean, what impact did that have on the company and on Tucker Carlson’s status?
CONFESSORE: Well, the ad boycotts and the controversies and the efforts to get advertisers to leave the show were successful in a sense. Premium advertising, blue chip advertising left the show over several years starting in 2018 and hasn’t really returned. And yet, according to our reporting or estimates we collected from a company called iSpot, every year since 2018, Carlson’s show has bought (ph) in more estimated ad revenue every year than any other show on Fox. So you ask, well, how does that work? And the answer is ratings.
If you have a huge audience, there’s always someone out there who wants to sell something to them. And if your audience is bigger than anyone else’s and if all over the television landscape, audiences are fracturing into smaller and smaller ones and you have one of the few big ones, there are companies that are going to want to advertise on your show. It’s mostly direct-to-consumer marketing, supplements, MyPillow. But you can charge premium rates to those advertisers because you have a really big audience.
And so the irony is the people who are left advertising on the show are the ones who don’t care that some people find these comments on the show offensive. In fact, they want the intensity of the show to rub off on their brands in a way. They want the audience watching Tucker Carlson with this intense bond with him who are convinced that they’re coming to get you to then appreciate the people who are advertising on this show and want to be a piece of their business.
DAVIES: Nicholas Confessore, thanks so much for speaking with us again.
CONFESSORE: It’s my great pleasure. Thank you.
DAVIES: Nicholas Confessore is a political and investigative reporter for The New York Times and a staff writer at The New York Times Magazine. He recently wrote a series of articles about Fox News host Tucker Carlson titled “American Nationalist.” They’re all available on The New York Times website. Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews the new book from Hernan Diaz, which she says is an ingeniously constructed historical novel. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUY MINTUS TRIO’S “OUR JOURNEY TOGETHER”) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.