Madeline Peltz works the night shift at the liberal media watchdog group Media Matters for America. Given the timing of that particular shift, one of her main responsibilities is watching Tucker Carlson’s 8 p.m. show on Fox News.
And she’s watched a lot of Tucker Carlson.
Carlson has been in the public eye for some 20 years — first as a print journalist, then a television commentator, founder of the conservative site the Daily Caller, and now, Fox News host, with a prime-time slot and a salary in the millions. But people have been confused by Carlson’s tone on Fox since he took over for Bill O’Reilly in 2018, noting concern about diversity and demographics in his show.
After many Carlson-watching hours, the 24-year-old researcher developed a working theory, which she outlined on the nonprofit’s website: that Carlson is using his platform on Fox News to introduce white-nationalist ideas to the mainstream, making him a uniquely prominent “mouthpiece for white supremacy.”
Peltz dug into his recent past and discovered a trove of appearances he made on shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge’s radio show between 2006 and 2011. She found a series of misogynistic, racist and homophobic remarks Carlson made, the audio of which Media Matters published this week.
In response, Carlson was defiant, casting himself as the victim of “the great American outrage machine,” a mob of power-seeking organizations and people he says are waging a political war to censor him.
In reality, credit for the tapes’ publication is due to Peltz: a 20-something in her first adult job who lives in the basement of a D.C. house she rents with five other people, a few cats and a dog named Noodles.
“I’m not like some high-power-wielding globalist,” Peltz said, adopting the conspiracy-inflected jargon of the far right. “I’m this kid who’s been on the Internet my whole life and knows how to get around it.”
It’s been a busy week at Media Matters, which tracks conservative media trends and has engaged in a years-long effort to cast light on the ways Fox News and its hosts sidestep traditional journalism guidelines.
The organization released the first audio of Carlson on Sunday. In that, Carlson called rape shield laws “totally unfair” and was adamantly supportive of Warren Jeffs, the former leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who is serving a life sentence for child rape. Carlson also said he would “love” a scenario involving young girls sexually experimenting and described women as “extremely primitive.”
The next day, Media Matters for America released another audio file just moments after Carlson’s show began. In that, Carlson said that white men deserve credit for “creating civilization,” called Iraqis a bunch of “semiliterate primitive monkeys,” and spoke about his desire for a presidential candidate to blame the “lunatic Muslims who are behaving like animals.”
There was more on Tuesday. This time, Carlson could be heard joking about having sex with someone he thought was an underage beauty pageant contestant.
On his Tuesday night show, Carlson did not address the audio itself. Instead, he took aim at Media Matters, calling it “a George Soros-funded lobbying organization whose sole mission is to punish critics of the Democratic Party.”
But the tapes have turned up pressure on the show, teeing off an advertiser boycott and a protest in front of Fox News’s headquarters in New York on Wednesday, which Media Matters helped organize.
When asked for a comment for this story, Fox News spokeswoman Carly Shanahan pointed to Carlson’s statements on his show this week.
A liberal watchdog
Media Matters for America is not currently funded by George Soros; he has not donated to the organization in many years, its president, Angelo Carusone, said in an interview.
While Carlson described Media Matters as working to “bully” corporations, it is a fraction of the size of Fox News, whose revenue for 2018 has been estimated to be more than $3 billion. Media Matters has about 80 employees and a budget of about $14 million that mostly comes from private donors, Carusone said.
The group conducts media analysis from a left-leaning perspective, studying trends and themes to see how political discussions play out in the nation’s media bubbles. Its staff monitors some 50,000 hours of live programming on television and radio every year, and the organization tapes another million hours of audio and video.
Media Matters, which has an active website that highlights and contextualizes some of these moments, drew criticism during the 2016 election campaign for what some saw as an attempt to malign coverage that was critical of Hillary Clinton. But it has found a renewed prominence in the Trump era by turning its sights to the new information economy: the rise of conspiracy theories and misinformation online, the increased visibility of fringe right-wing websites and ideas, and an energized conservative media ecosystem that helps amplifies those ideas.
“When we did a power mapping of the landscape at the end of 2016, early 2017, what we found was that so much of what used to be dismissed as the fringes was now where power was being organized: 4chan, Daily Stormer comment sections, subreddits,” Carusone said. “These would never have been considered worthy enough or important enough to monitor [before]. But we looked at it, and they were — they were driving a lot of the misinformation and fake news of 2016. They were creating a lot of material that was making it onto Fox News or Donald Trump’s Twitter feed.”
Carusone said the organization had to build some new digital technology to track the online conversations in forums and message boards that he said have such a large effect on political discourse in the United States.
“It’s basically it’s just a giant DVR for the ’chans, an archive of these message boards,” Carusone said.
And Media Matters has been doing studies and using other data to advocate better practices. It pushed Google to stop allowing what it had assessed as fake-news-purveying websites to use the company’s AdSense program. It has met with the big three technology companies — Facebook, Google and Twitter — Carusone said, but he said nondisclosure agreements prevented him from disclosing more about that. It also works with journalists to publicize problems or issues when other methods of persuasion fail.
“It’s a combination of building up public pressure or direct lobbying,” Carusone said.
Peltz’s project was her idea, Carusone said. He said the organization decided to publish portions of what she had found after deciding it was relevant to understanding Carlson’s current political views.
“We didn’t just try to embarrass him,” Carusone said. “We took things that directly echo his show now, and things that had some relevancy today.”
A defiant response
Carlson has responded by attacking Media Matters for America, along with the Southern Poverty Law Center, whose categorization of hate groups is used widely by media organizations.
He has also been engaged in a long-running feud with CNN; on Tuesday he called anchor Brian Stelter a “eunuch” multiple times, name-calling that was omitted from the text of his monologue later posted on the Fox News website.
“This is what an authoritarian society looks like,” Carlson said. “It was only a matter of time before they came for Fox News.”
He also took aim at Media Matters’s designation as a tax-exempt nonprofit and urged viewers to call the Internal Revenue Service.
“In its original tax application to the IRS, Media Matters claimed that the American news media were dominated by a pro-Christian bias and that they were needed to balance it,” Carlson said. “It has been violating the terms of that status ever since.”
He interviewed Boyden Gray, a former counsel to President George H.W. Bush, who has filed a complaint with the IRS about Media Matters.
“There is something wrong with the IRS,” Gray said. “There is nothing more harmful than to keep silent when you shouldn’t be defending yourself.”
The Daily Caller, which Carlson founded in 2010, also repurposed a story it had written previously about some racist and transphobic slurs that Carusone used on a blog in 2005. Carusone had used slurs about transgender people, Jews and Japanese people.
In October 2005, for example, he wrote about his boyfriend, now husband, saying that “despite his jewry, you KNOW he’s adorable.”
Carlson pointed to Carusone’s comments on his show Wednesday, speaking about the “irony” of the offense and saying that Media Matters should issue a press release about them. “They’ve done a lot more for a lot less,” he said.
Carusone, he said, is an “enthusiastic bigot.” But Carlson also said that he didn’t care what Carusone wrote on his “dumb blog” and that his “dumb opinions don’t interest me at all.”
Carusone said the posts, which he intended as satire, recirculate every time Media Matters is in the news. And he said that the persona of the blog, which he wrote in college, was designed to parody a “right-wing blowhard.”
“It didn’t work very well, and I killed it,” he said. “It’s not funny, and it’s not nice.”
The controversy continues
Peltz said there’s no doubt in her mind that Carlson has been trying to “thread the needle of mainstreaming overt white nationalism” while also avoiding the consequences for it. She cited well-publicized instances: when Carlson said in December that immigration was making the country “dirtier,” and another segment in which Carlson claimed the South African government was seizing land from white owners, simply because they were white. Carlson has defended that story.
Peltz said she believes the extremism has been escalating.
“It’s clear in the editorial choices that he makes that he covers demographic change as basically the end of white people,” Peltz said. “As someone with one of the largest platforms in media, he frequently portrays himself as a victim. And that’s a long tactic of white nationalists, going back all the way to the civil rights struggle in the South.”
She said Carlson’s response to the audio’s publication is a sign that it had an effect. Media Matters says it has more material; it is not clear if the releases will continue.
“There’s a lot of stuff that I don’t think Fox News is super proud of,” Peltz said. “It just took 10 hours a day [listening to] Bubba the Love Sponge to figure out.”
Shivani Vora, Michael Brice-Saddler and Allyson Chiu contributed to this report.