Fox News and Tucker Carlson don’t want to talk about what Tucker Carlson said. They want to talk about his accuser, the liberal media watchdog group Media Matters for America.
On the air and off, Carlson and Fox News have defended Carlson’s ugly comments on a syndicated radio program a decade or so ago by turning the spotlight back on Media Matters, which released transcripts and audio recordings of Carlson earlier this week.
On his prime-time program on Tuesday, for example, Carlson continued to portray himself and Fox News as the targets of a liberal “outrage machine” whose goal is to shut down the cable network and “dissenting opinions.” He offered no apologies or explanations, nor did he bother to mention why Media Matters had called him out in the first place.
“Media Matters is a George Soros-funded lobbying organization whose sole mission is to punish critics of the Democratic Party,” Carlson said, referring to the liberal billionaire philanthropist and political activist. He went on to accuse the Washington-based organization of violating the terms of its nonprofit status by campaigning on behalf of Democratic candidates, including Hillary Clinton.
“This isn’t just unethical, it’s illegal,” Carlson said, urging viewers to call the Internal Revenue Service and complain. (Media Matters denied any violation of its tax-exempt status and pointed out that Soros has not contributed to the organization in five years.)
On his show, Carlson had no comment about any of the statements, unearthed by Media Matters, that he made on the Bubba the Love Sponge radio program between 2006 and 2011. These included describing the daughter of Martha Stewart with the c-word, labeling a gay person a “f----t,” and calling Iraqis “semiliterate, primitive monkeys” who “don’t use toilet paper or forks.”
Like Carlson, Fox has also gone on the counterattack against Media Matters, in effect ignoring the message and striking back at the messenger.
After Media Matters dropped its first round of Carlson recordings on Monday, Fox’s press representatives compiled and distributed a list of similarly vulgar comments or racially offensive material by other TV personalities, including MSNBC’s Joy Reid and Mika Brzezinski, “The View’s” Joy Behar, and late-night comics Jimmy Kimmel, Stephen Colbert and Samantha Bee.
Fox’s point: that Media Matters was hypocritically targeting Fox and Carlson in urging advertisers to boycott Carlson’s program when others have made similarly offensive comments without any boycott calls.
However, Media Matters President Angelo Carusone said in an interview Wednesday that the difference is that those other TV figures apologized for their comments when called on them. Fox has not.
“We didn’t give [the others] a pass,” he said. “But their comments weren’t core to their business model, the way [Carlson’s] are. In Fox’s case, this is a feature, not a bug” of their programming model.
Reid, a liberal commentator, came under fire last year for homophobic statements and other inflammatory blog posts that she had written a decade earlier. After initially blaming hackers for inserting some of the comments into her blog, Reid repeatedly apologized, including during her program, “AM Joy.” (MSNBC permitted her to continue as a host.) Bee also apologized on her TBS show after she was broadly criticized for referring to Ivanka Trump with the same vulgarity Carlson applied to Martha Stewart’s daughter, (TBS also stuck by Bee.)
Media Matters was founded in 2004 by conservative writer turned liberal activist David Brock with a mission to rebut conservative media rhetoric. The nonprofit organization has publicized inflammatory comments by the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Don Imus (leading to an ad boycott of the former in 2012, and the firing of the latter in 2007). Most of its energies over the years have been aimed at Fox News and its current and former stars, such as Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham and Carlson.
The release of Carlson’s radio comments this week was timed to precede Fox’s meeting on Wednesday with advertising buyers before the annual “upfront” season, in which the buyers purchase airtime on TV networks for next season. Fox’s president of advertising sales, Marianne Gambelli, described the gathering as successful, with more than 100 ad reps in attendance.
Although some advertisers have left Carlson’s program amid Media Matters’ publicity campaign, Carlson’s audience remains loyal and Fox’s overall financial health remains strong. His program was the highest rated among cable news shows at 8 p.m. on Monday and Tuesday, drawing 2.9 million and 3.1 million viewers, according to Nielsen figures. Overall, Fox News is projected to earn a record $1.7 billion in 2019, according to the financial research firm S&P Global Market Intelligence.
In response to Carlson’s claims about Media Matters’ tax status — an attack Fox has made dozens of times over the years — Carusone said the group “completely adheres to the rules pertaining to our status.” He added, “We are not going to take advice from how to run an ethical organization from Fox.”
Carusone said Media Matters has more material from Carlson’s radio interviews, but he wasn’t sure when this would be released. For now, he said, the organization was concentrating on persuading ad buyers to withhold their dollars from Fox. If the effort is successful, he said, it could trigger a shareholder lawsuit against Fox’s parent company, 21st Century Fox, for failure to exercise its fiduciary duty by effectively endorsing offensive speech.
“I don’t want [Fox] to go off the air,” Carusone said. “I want them to have some basic standards that are clearly not there now. If there were, this would not keep happening.”