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What listening to hundreds of hours of Tucker Carlson will teach you

Media Matters researcher Madeline Peltz on what the Bubba tapes taught her about Fox News’s embattled primetime host.

Tucker Carlson, then (in 2007, at left), and now.
Mark Von Holden; Roy Rochlin/Getty Images

In some respects, Fox News host Tucker Carlson is a different man now than he was a decade ago, when he said a slew of racist, sexist, and otherwise offensive things on Bubba the Love Sponge’s radio show. The Ron Paul libertarian who was skeptical of government power then now supports President Trump’s efforts to seize emergency powers for a border wall at home while declaring trade wars abroad.

The most important thing about Carlson, however, has remained the same.

So says Madeline Peltz, the Media Matters for America staffer who unearthed and published the explosive clips and has spent the past two years watching Carlson’s Fox News show on a nightly basis.

“He’s had very consistent rhetorical turns of phrase regarding women and people of color and immigrants,” she told me during an interview last Friday. “He has such a narrow frame of the world in terms of interacting with people who are not white men.”

Peltz reviewed hundreds of hours of Carlson’s guest appearances on Bubba’s show before the clips were published. While she couldn’t say for sure if more will surface, she’s suggested additional revelations will be forthcoming.

Media Matters didn’t want to discuss sources and methods for uncovering the clips, but Peltz did talk about Carlson’s current Fox News show, his response to Media Matters’ unearthing and publishing them, and why she thinks the most openly white nationalist show on cable TV keeps drawing such strong ratings.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Aaron Rupar

Days after the clip you found were published, Tucker Carlson did a two-part “investigation” of Media Matters on his show that mostly consisted of whataboutism regarding old blog posts written by MMFA CEO Angelo Carusone. It was obviously pretty lame. With your experience watching Carlson’s show and Fox News more broadly, is that their standard play when a scandal like this erupts, and do you think there will be more of that as more audio clips emerge?

Madeline Peltz

Their content hosts do run these quote-unquote “Media Matters investigations” every time, and they’re the same. They’re ineffective. For Tucker, who projects this message of being so principled and independent, it shows how desperate he is that he’s in the situation where he has to run with that segment.

Aaron Rupar

I know there hasn’t been much advertising content on his show recently. [Ed. note: Two days after the Bubba clips hit the internet, Carlson’s show was mostly bereft of advertising.] Is it your sense that at this point with Tucker there’s still value for Fox in the ratings even if they’re not monetizing that? I know there was a report that Rupert Murdoch rebuked [Fox News host] Laura Ingraham after she apologized for things she said on her show last year.

Is there a similar thing happening here, where Fox is digging in because they don’t want to give an inch on this?

Madeline Peltz

I do know that it’s a really big problem if there’s other less well-rated programming, where there are less eyes on the TV, that are running all of the ads, and the primetime lineup is so toxic that the rest of the channel doesn’t have them. In a normal situation, the primetime lineup would be subsidizing the other channels — but it’s reversing the situation because advertisers don’t want their brands associated with toxic Fox News.

I don’t know exactly how the math works out on that, but it is a fundamental, structural problem that they’re having.

Aaron Rupar

I want to go back to the tapes. Was it your sense with some of the offensive stuff that Tucker said, was he goaded into saying these things by Bubba, or was he volunteering these viewpoints that for most people seem pretty reprehensible?

You mentioned the shock-jock nature of Bubba’s show earlier, and I could envision a situation when they’re goading Tucker to go further and further with some of this stuff. I think back when Trump would go on The Howard Stern Show and there was that dynamic at points. Was there something similar going on here?

Madeline Peltz

I think there was a pretty even give-and-take between the host and Tucker Carlson.

I think a lot of times, Tucker accepts these premises that the hosts are giving him without fully endorsing them. There’s a lot in what we found in which he is agreeing with things that of course he doesn’t say it himself, but he’s accepting these very offensive things these hosts are doing.

A lot of the most offensive clips is him volunteering this information. In the clip where he refers to Alexis Stewart as a derogatory term for a woman, he not only brought her up — no one was talking about her and then he mentioned her — and then he used that language to describe her. I think in some cases he’s the one who’s offering the offensive language. In other instances, he knows how to avoid giving a certain sound bite.

I don’t think it’s fair to say that it was just the context, when the subtotal of the clips actually provides important background into what Tucker’s career looks like today.

Aaron Rupar

Some people have reacted to these clips by shifting part of the blame to MSNBC, because Tucker was obviously employed by them for most of these clips [Carlson joined Fox News in 2009]. Do you think that speaks to a different day and age? It’s hard to imagine prominent MSNBC hosts these days going on a radio show in Florida and staying stuff like this and getting away with it.

Do you have any thoughts on how that could have happened back then? Do you think it’s a bad look for MSNBC that they didn’t do something about this?

Madeline Peltz

I don’t know what this says about MSNBC. I know that [from] what I’ve heard from the clips, he says in one of them, “I couldn’t have done this if I didn’t have an office.” He was like, “If I had a cubicle, I wouldn’t be able to appear on this show.” And so I think it was a fragmented audience, and I also think of course there’s not the same social media machine; the aggregation machine that would make this go viral really quickly in 2006. So I think that is a little bit different.

But I agree with what you said that if MSNBC or CNN had a similar situation when one of their top talents was uncovered defending child rape, it wouldn’t take long for them to be disciplined or fired. It just goes to show that Fox is trying to hold the line on this slug of liabilities that is their primetime talent.

And so if they were to discipline or fire Tucker, it would probably lead to a domino effect exposing the systemic rot at the core of the business model.

Aaron Rupar

Obviously Tucker is on one of these tapes defending child rape. He makes some very racist comments about Iraqis.

Were any of these things he’s joking about or defending in these Bubba clips — are there any that seem hypocritical with the themes he promotes now on his show? Are there any major disconnects that you noticed between what he was saying then and what he’s saying now?

Madeline Peltz

I think there’s two sides to this question. On the one hand, in these clips — 2006 to 2011, roughly — he says on the show that he’s this hardcore libertarian and he’s very anti-market intervention and very anti-regulation — you know, all your libertarian classic tropes. I think that at that time, that was the cutting edge of contrarian politics, if you think of the rise of Ron Paul and the sort of whirlwind around the ’08 campaign, which Tucker did talk about while he was on Bubba.

And now, what he’s saying on this program [today] is different in terms of, he’s raising these issues of changing racial demographics and saying that women in the workplace lead to higher drug use rates and suicide rates among men — he’s saying that immigrants make America poorer and dirtier.

These are all new talking points, but at the same time, he is just reflecting what is at the height of right-wing culture and politics at the time, which is an overt white nationalism and right-wing populism. [Carlson] knows what’s hot. But at the same time, a lot of his rhetorical turns of phrase and views that he expresses about women or immigrants or people of color are the exact same, in that he sees people who do not look or think like him as less than human.

Aaron Rupar

Was the right-wing populism part of his identity in the Bubba tapes that you listened to? That’s kind of what he’s known for these days. We did a Vox piece recently about his economic populism as a different idea for someone so prominent in that part of the right wing. Was that at all a strain of what he was saying [earlier]?

Madeline Peltz

No, not at all. In fact, during many of the clips we produced — and I believe one that was put up by the Intercept recently — he jokes about being an elitist and being heir to this massive industrial fortune. So no, he was not pretending to be the man of people that he is today.

At the same time, his broader worldview is very much the same in terms of stoking hatred in this country; it’s just the sort of dressing around the edges has changed.

Aaron Rupar

What are your thoughts about the response [to the clips]? Were you thinking when these clips were dropped that that would be curtains for Tucker? What did you expect the impact to be?

Madeline Peltz

I knew that these clips were very troublesome, and I knew that people who were paying attention to this very concerning overt white nationalism that was being spewed on Fox News primetime every night were going to understand that these clips provided important context. But I’ve been very surprised.

It’s been huge. It really went bigger than I expected. Because you never know. When you’re monitoring Fox News and right-wing media in general, you take in a lot of stuff that an untrained ear would hear and be like, “Oh, my gosh! Did they just say Robert Mueller should be fired? Did they just say that immigrants are takers and not makers?”

You’re just like, “Yeah, they say that every night. That doesn’t demonstrate anything new.” You just never know when you put something out there if people are going to respond to it or not, because it’s just this firehose of this stuff all the time.

In regards to [Carlson’s] future, I really don’t know. I think the Fox executives are trying to rebrand Fox News and distance itself from itself. They’re emphasizing their anchors that are not in primetime to try to distance themselves from their own top talent.

Aaron Rupar

One thing that surprised me is how strong Tucker’s ratings are — he’s regularly crushing Chris Hayes and Anderson Cooper. As someone who watches his show a lot, what explains that? Why are his ratings so strong?

Madeline Peltz

I think the top reason he has these high ratings is because he plays into this heightened sense of conflict where he’s trying to, quote, “own the libs” and get one over on his guest.

There’s a variety of ways that exact segment can play out. One way is he can have on one of the same people he has on every night, which include Chris Hahn or Richard Goodstein, where they have this same sort of playacting that they do every night.

Or once he had on someone from the party for socialism and liberation, and it was this older woman and she defended the North Korean nuclear regime — he’ll also sort of have these fringe people on, and that’s an example from the left, but that’s what I mean by this heightened sense of conflict.

He’ll also have Ralph Peters on from the right. So I really think it’s that — it’s this absolutely ridiculous image he projects that he’s uncompromised, very principled, and he will just debate you until you give in.

There’s only one of two ways a Tucker Carlson segment goes. One, as I described, is highly dramatized, conflict-driven argument where Tucker ends it by cutting off your mic. Or he has someone on like Glenn Greenwald or Dave Portnoy of Barstool Sports, and it’s just like a lovefest, and they compliment each other until a good time is up. And you don’t learn anything from either of these types of segments. But I think it’s kind of like reality television.

The news moves fast. To stay updated, follow Aaron Rupar on Twitter, and read more of Vox’s policy and politics coverage.

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