I don’t know Tucker Carlson personally. I have nothing against him, beyond my low opinion of his professional work-product. In fact, I suspect he and his team work diligently and tirelessly to produce his new program on the Fox News Channel, Tucker Carlson Tonight. So I do appreciate the program’s January 24th invitation to appear live on-air with Tucker and discuss whether or not U.S. journalists should continue to interview one of President Trump’s top advisors, Kellyanne Conway.
Even so, I politely declined Tucker’s invitation.
While I don’t subscribe to a blanket prohibition against appearing on Fox News, I do think that journalists should avoid, en masse, certain of the channel’s programs as a means of conditioning their hosts to do better than they have thus far at serving the general public.
I realize that writing about declining an invitation to appear on television seems ungracious, perhaps even gauche. But I think Tucker will understand—in fact, given the format of his nightly television program, I think he’ll grok better than most—that events of the moment are often well-calibrated, seemingly in advance, to point us toward larger lessons.
It’s with that in mind that I say that I declined Tucker’s invitation to chat on-air for the very same reason Tucker invited me to debate with him live on FNC in the first place: because I believe America gets the media it deserves, and getting to the media we deserve from the one we have now requires small acts of resistance on the part of those who participate in the media either as television hosts or television interviewees. I’ll give Tucker the benefit of the doubt by supposing that he actually believes my appearance on his program would have been a deserving one; I disagree, however, in large part because there’s a difference between resisting and promulgating media formats that encourage bad behavior.
The resistance to disingenuous corporate media that I advocate here can take many forms, but by and large it has to do with (a) considering who the media covers and how much it covers them, and (b) identifying which media are privileged in and by our daily journalistic practices and which are rightly (or unfairly) deemed outside such common practices.
This goes well beyond the question of “fake news,” as taking into account only the proper definition of that term—that is, media content that willfully misinforms the public by positioning falsehoods as truth—we can see that fake news is, finally, not so difficult to avoid. The onus is ultimately on the consumer; if you wish to be misinformed, you will be. And usually it will happen because you failed to double-check a story that seemed too good to be true, or else had ineffectually developed in yourself a barometer for what sorts of stories are likely to be true. If you think the Clintons are behind a series of homicides in Arkansas, or a pedophilia ring run out of a D.C. pizzeria, you’ve watched too much House of Cards and consequently have little sense of how power is actually wielded in and out of Washington. (Mind you, I like anyone have been guilty at times of falling for the too-good-to-be-true story, so I’m implicated in this imprecation against lazy news consumption as well.)
Far more often than “fake news,” though, it’s “non-news” that we fall for -- and hard.
And don’t get me started on Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh, whose coordinated disinformation campaigns, disseminated via radio and (in Hannity’s case) also television, I tune in to regularly in large part to mortify myself out of any residual complacency about Truth. The critical foundational and/or contextualizing information that Hannity and Limbaugh elide from each proclamation they deliver would, if included in their monologues, entirely negate the truth-value of the words we do hear.
Far more often than “fake news,” though, it’s “non-news” that we fall for—and hard. For instance, major media outlets sometimes make errors in their reporting, thereby inadvertently “creating” news where none exists. Far more often these days, they invite propagandists on-air under the guise of “punditry” and do nothing to counteract the propaganda that then predictably floods the public airwaves. CNN’s Kayleigh McEnany is a good example; her penchant for disseminating provably false claims on the invisible currents we taxpayers implicitly own is unmatched on cable news right now. But neither accidents of reporting nor errors in judgment in the hiring of political “analysts” comprise “fake news.” After all, subsequently corrected reporting errors—like the recent one regarding whether a bust of Martin Luther King, Jr. had been removed from the Oval Office—are definitionally either accidental or negligent, and even punditry as risibly empty of veritas as McEnany’s is usually pre-coded in such in a way that discerning viewers can’t easily miss it.
So the reason I declined to appear on Tucker Carlson’s program isn’t because I think Tucker promotes “fake news,” but because he’s guilty of two more nefarious (because far easier to miss) kinds of malfeasance: (1) his topic selection doesn’t demonstrate a good-faith consideration of either the nation’s core principles or policy priorities, leading him to favor the sensational, the anecdotal, and the trifling over the profound, the influential, and the conspicuously urgent in American government, business, and culture; (2) his method of “discussion” of the topics he selects is fundamentally disingenuous, as it’s based on a predetermined and usually misleading rhetorical cross-examination of the interviewee. Instead of an earnest dialogue in which two people temperately and with evident goodwill discuss the key issues of the day, we get a mawkish mummery.
Here’s just one example of what I mean. Note Tucker’s conspicuous and repeated dismissal of a key point: that he and his guest don’t actually disagree.
On a certain level, calling out Tucker Carlson for this sort of behavior is deeply unfair. First, because an invitation to appear on his Fox News program gives enormous publicity to his guest—consider the recent, viral tilt with Teen Vogue writer Lauren Duca in the video above. That’s a real benefit even for a guest (and I’d by no means put Duca in this camp) who Tucker has quite evidently bested through a variety of off-putting, rudely dismissive “interviewing” techniques. Second, it’s true that many longer-standing television programs commit the same sorts of malfeasance Carlson’s does, simply doing so with greater subtlety and the imprimatur of a more august provenance.
When I tweeted out, on January 22nd, that the networks should “stop booking Kellyanne Conway, the first U.S. presidential counselor to openly advocate lying to the public,” I had no idea that within 72 hours 100,000 Twitter users would retweet it.
While with the above tweet I was hoping—indeed explicitly asking—for people on Twitter to share a succinct message about Conway’s appropriateness as an intermediary between a public and its government, I didn’t realize the message would resonate to the degree it did. That’s largely because Kellyanne Conway is by no means the first on-air personality who should have been excised from our media ecosystem during the recent campaign season. For that reason, my call felt a little “late,” rather than timely.
For instance, the aforementioned McEnany falls into the camp of someone engaged in serial disinformation—which I say not because I disagree with her political messaging, though I do, but because on those occasions she’s been caught out in an untruth, she’s not corrected herself. Conventionally, that’s been a disqualifier for a primetime, major-media television gig. Now it isn’t, perhaps because the chief culprit in this regard is the current president, and the chief enabler of that president’s habitual misinformation is the entirety of the nation’s media apparatus and in particular the media organization that employs McEnany. We long ago should have stopped reporting on Mr. Trump’s tweets and rhetoric, both of which are habitually rife with knowing or profoundly reckless falsehoods.
There is no shame in a journalist calling a lie a lie—indeed, corporate media currently refrains from doing so not in the interest of journalistic ethics, or because it’s incapable of determing the motive behind a given falsehood, but to maintain and not alienate its bipartisan viewership—nor is there any shame in declining to offer the public or private airwaves to those who, like, say, Ann Coulter, have a lengthy record of disseminating disinformation for professional and/or pecuniary profit.
Mind you, I’m not speaking of those who interpret facts differently than I do, or who don’t share my values, or have favor different policy prescriptions than I do in solving the nation’s most pressing problems. Rather, I’m speaking of those who either (a) invent their own “facts,” or (b) deny the existence of provable and verifiable phenomena. And I know the difference between the two, as throughout the Democratic primary supporters of Hillary Clinton accused me—a Bernie Sanders supporter—of “lying” in my columns, when in fact I was merely offering a different interpretation to the facts than the one they favored (or, in some cases, offering internals of national polling data that the Clinton camp preferred to ignore, many of which became fatal to Clinton’s general election campaign just a few months later). I also know the difference because, like many Americans, I’ve witnessed and experienced gaslighting firsthand.
Discerning who’s worthy of airtime and who isn’t is actually something the media does daily. There’s a reason that David Duke isn’t given a media platform. There’s also a reason that tweets aren’t in themselves newsworthy, whether they’re authored by Donald Trump or by me, and no matter how frequently they’re retweeted. And there’s a reason—yet another one—that James O’Keefe’s Project Veritas is either never covered by the major media or, when discussed, (a) is discussed without any representative from the Project appearing, or (b) is presented with the caveat that the Project often lies to interviewees in order to entrap them into making incriminating or simply embarrassing statements into a hidden microphone.
Tucker was, I suspect, hoping that I’d become more grist for his particular sector of the right-wing outrage mill, a sort of red meat for the banquet of triviality he serves up daily to a ravenous audience.
And yes, there’s a reason that Tucker Carlson, gifted with an hour of airtime nightly, books hardly any of the significant guests he could readily book—for instance, those who are at this very moment determining the policies that will change or even cost American lives—and instead selects tangential participants, like myself, in unusual and unlikely to be repeated (or simply trifling) controversies du jour in the hope of riling up his audience. If Tucker wants to know why the media interviews Kellyanne Conway and whether it plans to continue to do so, he should interview either those who weekly make the decision that she can lie on their airwaves (e.g., Chuck Todd or any NBC Politics producer) or any well-known media personalities who have made the decision not to book Conway for precisely that reason. If Tucker believes Todd is correct in booking Conway—which I surmise he does—and if no media outlet has yet declined to book Conway for the reason I cited in my tweet, the “controversy” over Conway’s relationship with the media should be limited to an on-air mention rather than an on-air interview.
Alternatively, Carlson could report the fact that, following my tweet and its viral dissemination, Conway announced that “she now hopes to limit her television appearances.”
In inviting me on his program, Tucker was, I suspect, hoping that I’d become more grist for his particular sector of the right-wing outrage mill, a sort of red meat for the banquet of triviality he serves up daily to a ravenous audience. I declined the invitation because the question of whether someone who lies pathologically should be featured on American airwaves daily is a serious one deserving debate between those with an authority to consequentially act upon it one way or another. When, instead, you ask a blogger to speak to the issue, you’re forecasting that you don’t take it seriously. And that’s a shame; it’s not just inappropriate but deeply disappointing if and when this weighty subject (that is, Conway’s fitness to be a regular media guest) is treated as a circus act or a game show in which the winner is whoever most flagrantly embarrasses his opponent before a large television audience.
There are corporate media outlets in which rigorous, earnest debate still occurs—Chris Matthews’ nightly program on MSNBC comes to mind—but if you find yourself on one of CNN’s “panels,” or watching Meet the Press interview a committed propagandist as though doing so will inform rather than mislead its audience, or staring at an empty stage on your television screen (this being the bulk, in total minutes, of every Trump “press conference”) rather than watching the confirmation hearing of a member of the president’s Cabinet, you’re wasting your time. And frankly, if you’re watching someone “defend a tweet”—really, on any subject—you’re being denied a more robust, well-framed conversation about the weighty issue which (almost certainly) underwrote that tweet. I’ll note again that Tucker’s producers are likely diligent and well-intended; they’re also barking up the wrong tree more nights than not.
Recently, New York University professor Jay Rosen advocated a new journalistic model for the Trump era: one in which junior members of the media are assigned to cover (but only selectively) the statements made daily by known propagandists, even as veteran reporters are assigned the less visible but far nobler and more important work of investigating, at their source, the nation’s most complex processes and policy debates. It’s odd that Rosen’s suggestion—which simply privileges news over on-air exposure—should seem so radical to us in 2017, but here we are.
Per Rosen, appearing on Tucker Carlson’s program would have been excellent exposure for me as a freelance journalist and a longtime political columnist—but it wouldn’t have advanced in any meaningful way any conversation that the nation needs to be having right now. My tweet was about journalistic ethics at major media institutions, not about whether Tucker Carlson, with his decades of on-air experience, can make me seem a fool on-air. I’ll grant him that he likely could; I’m a trial attorney and a professor, not a seasoned media personality who knows how to hijack a decent conversation with false equivalencies and other fallacies. My tweet about Conway was unambiguous; either Carlson also found it trivial, in which case he shouldn’t be covering it, or he found it serious and relevant, in which case he should investigate whether my prescription for the media’s handling of Conway is likely to be followed by the media institutions I was critiquing—and if not, why not. That’s journalism. Belittling my tweet for an audience thirsty for its deconstruction is merely theater. If my previous experience with Carlson’s rather new program is any guide—and I’ve watched the show a number of times already—its eponymous host would’ve contrived to make me look foolish, much like other hosts on the Fox News Channel find ever more shameless ways to disrespect those they disagree with. (Consider Carlson’s own, in his conversation with Lauren Duca, “I guess you write for Teen Vogue...”) The result would’ve been fun for those who found me and/or my tweet ridiculous, but hardly beneficial to either the nation or its media apparatus. And even had I landed some hits—as Duca did on Carlson—what does that do for anyone but give us another empty spectacle to titter about online? Meanwhile, tens of millions will lose their healthcare.
Media attention is cheap—any tweet or essay can go viral at the drop of a hat, as is confirmed for us daily when we go online—whereas genuine contributions to serious political debates are exceedingly rare. Even well-intended thinkpieces do little to advance the policy discussions they summarize, and are largely read by those who’ve already done all the thinking they’re going to do on the topic under consideration. Journalists like Chuck Todd, who are likely well-intended in choosing to interview highly placed, influential members of the Trump administration, are implicitly called upon, now, as are the nation’s thinkpiece-writers, to consider the impact and broader significance of their journalistic elections. The nation simply doesn’t have any more time for the frivolities it indulged in the immediate pre-Trump years. Our present moral crisis—a dangerous sociopath in the White House—decrees it.
Conway’s persistent, strategic, and systemic use of propaganda and disinformation—nothing like the occasional falsehoods or errors of speech we’ve seen in prior administrations—is a major driver of this moral crisis, not simply a distant adjunct to it that we should be interrogating afresh on television each day.
I recognize the irony of writing an essay about a refusal. It will seem, to some, that I’m simply seeking now the attention I deprived myself when I refused to appear on Tucker Carlson Tonight. In fact, my hope with this essay, as was the case with my initial tweet about Kellyanne Conway, is to practice what I preach: extolling earnest dialogue in the national media, while decrying rhetorical judo and highly staged corporatist theater. Indeed, I might have said as much to Carlson had I spoken to him on air. Then again, one thing I’ve learned in my years as a freelance journalist is that the truth never manifests as a sound-bite. The truth is, as it were, bad television, at least in the sort of short-form interview format that Carlson favors (as compared to, say, Charlie Rose, Inside the Actors’ Studio, or 60 Minutes). Even my tweet about Conway was merely a provocation to a larger long-form discussion, not the beginning, middle, or ending of one.
President Trump has one thing correct: those with political power are in a constant state of conflict with the media. Sometimes it’s a “cold war,” sometimes a spectacular conflagration, and sometimes a tense negotiation in which both sides have the right to retreat from the negotiating table (provided that they are willing, too, to lose the public’s trust in doing so). The Trump administration threatens to lose the public’s trust when it spreads disinformation, as this is counter to the very basis for any administration’s elevation to power; the national news media likewise threatens to lose the public’s trust when it violates its own core mandate: to investigate, illuminate, and inform.
After all, we have Netflix, HBO, and Amazon Prime for entertainment. We don’t need Chuck Todd for that.
As a television guest, Kellyanne Conway neither serves the mandate of an elected administration nor that of the nation’s fourth estate. And as a television program, Tucker Carlson Tonight has not yet—over the episodes of it I’ve watched—well-served any of its presumptively noble ends, either. So just as Chuck Todd should condition the Trump administration to eschew domestic propaganda, “PSYOP”, and other types of disinformation campaigns by refusing to weekly air rhetoric so counter to his mission, I think it’s incumbent upon those of us in the media with, like anyone, a natural desire to find an audience for our viewpoint to nevertheless eschew fora in which we reproduce rather than help annihilate the nonsense of our times.
Seth Abramson is an assistant professor at University of New Hampshire and the author of six books, most recently Golden Age (BlazeVOX, 2017).