demonstration, Fox News, lies
A demonstration outside of Fox News Channel in New York City denounces the lies broadcast by the network. Photo credit: © Gina M Randazzo/ZUMA Press Wire Description: Demonstration outside of Fox News Channel in NYC

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The Tucker Carlson obits have come rolling in. 

Some are in the nature of autopsies, speculating on the “real” reasons behind his sudden and maximally unceremonious sacking by Fox News. 

Many are delicious malogies, ticking off his manifest sins. One referred to “the stench he exuded,” noting that it will not be “easily expunged”; another likened him to herpes, the recurrent retrovirus; yet another offered a link to a well-loved 1964 celebratory hit by Martha and the Vandellas, a fitting tribute to the demise of a reactionary White Nationalist.

It’s been a heaping pile of schadenfreude on rye with all the fixin’s.

But a common thread among these damning accounts is the obligatory nod to Tucker’s “gifts” and “talent” as an “entertainer.” Critic after critic acknowledges the entertainment value of his show. Even several non-MAGA people I know personally, who tuned into him religiously, told me they did so in large part because they found him so “entertaining.”

This got me thinking about Carlson’s viewers and their share of responsibility for the massive damage done. Perhaps the fault, dear viewers, is not in Tucker but in yourselves that you are so woefully misinformed?

Carlson used his purportedly prodigious talents to spread lies and baseless suspicions by the bucketful, and — not unlike Donald Trump and Alex Jones — felt no great obligation to correct himself and acknowledge when his lies were exposed as such. He just moved on to the next lie, the next baseless suspicion, the next clown face. 

Such lies pile up into a worldview, one that justifies resentment, hate, vengeance, and magical thinking — calling forth the worst devils of our nature. And Carlson succeeded in doing so in large part because he had the talent to make it all entertaining

I’m no curmudgeon: Of course entertainment has a place in our lives! But when it’s wrapped around lies and designed to make people feel good about doing bad, then it’s a menace. The devil’s work, if you want to put it into a Judeo-Chrisitan framing. (To take one such devil, Joseph Goebbels made sure to make his antisemitic and anti-gay venom “entertaining” to the Nazi-era German public.)

Put simply — and I say this not as a self-interested print journalist but as a student of democracy and its demands on us — we should be reading more and watching less.

Take climate change. As many have observed, figuring out how to handle it presents complex challenges and tradeoffs. Collective sacrifice — giving up a meat-based diet, carpooling or using mass transit, avoiding unnecessary energy use — is always a hard sell, the more so when national and tribal divisions make us less inclined to cooperate. 

And the business models and political power of corporations are such that capitalist self-interest is the main driver of the status quo (or worse) and a major impediment to needed change. So there is much to discuss about how to shape our response to this looming crisis, individually, collectively, and corporately. 

Carlson’s very last lie (on Fox at least) was that climate change is a hoax — the folks at Davos want to take your meat away and force-feed you bugs. Quite a whopper, that. 

Here we are trying to save the planet and there’s Carlson promoting his new “documentary” Let Them Eat Bugs, throwing a for-profit monkey wrench into an effort that has already been sandbagged by every power player from Big Oil to Big Ag to Big Plastics — to the point where we’re flirting with genuine global cataclysm, unless thousands of scientists who have spent their careers studying the complex dynamics of climate are all just lying to us. 

Carlson’s final lie was typical of what he has fed his rapt Fox audience for 15 years: juicy hunks of red meat (or bugs) spiced with denial, scorn, and conspiracist fear-mongering. I suppose this is entertaining stuff — for those with a chip on their shoulder, an ax to grind, or just a general sense that something is wrong with the modern world. 

How satisfying to channel amorphous fury against the perfect targets for resentment — whether scientists (“They think they’re so smart!”), elites (“They meet at Davos and plan, down to the tiniest detail, how to control our lives!”), immigrants (“Murderers, rapists, moochers brought here by the elites to replace us — oh and I’m sure some of them are good people!”), people of color (“The streets aren’t safe! We’ve got to take our country back!”), “deviants” (“They’re grooming your innocent little children! The trans freaks are coming for us!”), and of course the Jews (excuse me, “George Soros”). It’s an old playbook — the fascist how-to manual.

Fascism itself seems to be something of a retrovirus and there are too many signs to ignore that it is on the march and the survival of our democracy is no longer to be taken for granted. 

There’s no shortage of talented, “entertaining” demagogues queuing up to bring our democracy down. Carlson, like Bill O’Reilly before him, will be replaced at Fox by the next in line — and he himself will almost certainly pop up elsewhere, probably even less constrained. 

Ultimately, though, it’s up to the audience where and how we get our information — whether you follow Carlson to a new platform, embrace the next Carlson on Fox, or seek out some less “entertaining” source. 

This choice will rest on how seriously one takes their role in democracy — seriously enough to value good, old, dull, boring accuracy and honesty over manipulative “entertainment” that functions on the level of professional wrestling’s nightly blood fests, albeit based on emotional, not physical, low blows. 

Put simply — and I say this not as a self-interested print journalist but as a student of democracy and its demands on us — we should be reading more and watching less.

Tucker Carlson, 2022 AmericaFest

Tucker Carlson speaking on stage at the 2022 AmericaFest at the Phoenix Convention Center in Phoenix, AZ. Photo credit: Gage Skidmore / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Description: Tucker Carlson at the 2022 AmericaFest

The pedestrian pace of reading allows for reflection, questioning, flagging, checking, contextualizing, assessing, agreeing or disagreeing in whole or in part. The galloping pace of Tucker (or Rachel Maddow, for that matter) allows for little or none of that. You can barely catch your breath — and that is precisely the idea.

I’ve had lots of conversations and encounters in my life where the bounding momentum of my charismatic interlocutor carried me away and I thought “Yes! Yes! Of course!!” Only to find the many holes or the fatal flaw some time later when I’d had time to cool and reflect. 

I think it’s fair to say that reflection is not a staple among Carlson’s audience — and that few have the patience, or the openness to competing information sources, to separate the valid wheat from the manipulative chaff in any given Carlson rant.

A polemicist — especially a talented one like Carlson — leads his audience by the nose. By the time he’s done, vile and vicious extremism and hate have been transformed into a “Yeah, that’s what I’ve always thought myself!” kind of locker room consensus, tribal and enticing.

But that molds only perceptions. It does not change the nuanced and complex nature of reality. Precisely because reality is complex, and democracy clunky by nature, it would behoove each of us as stakeholders to dedicate our efforts to serving it in some way — seeking a way to give, to strengthen our society’s fabric. 

Those prioritizing entertainment are, on the other hand, seeking to get — to receive some sort of pleasurable, dopamine-releasing experience. There are plenty of opportunities for that in our lives: films, concerts, comedy shows, Netflix blockbusters, bowling, Bingo, hiking, biking, baking, bird-watching, porn… 

The one place where entertainment can be out of place, and dangerous, is in informing ourselves about the world and its complex issues. Precisely because they are complex, the issues of our time deserve a discerning, reflective process, and that takes some work — giving, not getting. 

I’m deeply concerned that entertainment can serve as an anesthetic — and an addictive one at that — for the brain surgery being performed on viewers. And Tucker Carlson is nothing if not a talented anesthesiologist.

I’m talking about proportion. I’m not saying never tune in to a Stephen Colbert or John Oliver open, or even a few minutes of Carlson, wherever he resurfaces. But a steady diet of chocolate sundaes will be lacking in essential nutrients — not to mention the toxicity of the Fox brand’s special sauce. I hate to put it this way but I think if we’re going to save our democracy we’d better eat more broccoli. 

You, WhoWhatWhy readers, already know and practice this. I wish there were some way to get the word to Fox viewers.

Jonathan D. Simon is a senior editor at WhoWhatWhy and author of CODE RED: Computerized Elections and the War on American Democracy.

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