The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Now is the time to remember what Fox’s own lawyers said about Tucker Carlson

His ugly defense of Vladimir Putin should be seen in the light of his employer’s argument that no one should take him seriously

Tucker Carlson in Washington in 2019. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
4 min

As Russia prepared to invade Ukraine, the biggest star on Fox News was busy doing what he does best: being thoroughly and appallingly wrong.

He defended the murderous instigator Vladimir Putin while disparaging legitimate heroes like Alexander Vindman, the Ukrainian-born retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel and former White House national security aide who was a key witness to Donald Trump’s abuses of power in his first impeachment and who has warned of Putin’s aggressions — but whom Carlson preferred to paint as some kind of sanctimonious warmonger.

In late February, Fox News host Tucker Carlson openly questioned the legitimacy of Ukraine’s political system, openly dismissing its status as a democracy. (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

Carlson glibly broad-brushed Vindman’s criticism of the GOP’s Putin apologists with his usual schoolboy sarcasm: “Your job is to take up arms in defense of Alexander Vindman’s home country, or else you’re evil.”

Carlson insisted that Ukraine was not a democracy but a “pure client state” of the U.S. government. And, in a particularly obnoxious rant, he suggested that Putin is morally superior to “permanent Washington,” some vaguely malign force that Carlson claims is manufacturing a global pandemic, teaching children to embrace racial discrimination and trying to snuff out Christianity.

Tucker Carlson, downplaying Russia-Ukraine conflict, urges Americans to ask, ‘Why do I hate Putin?’

Carlson’s pro-Putin act is so helpful that Russian state television has been rebroadcasting it with Russian subtitles. Carlson “urged Americans to turn against their government on the grounds that higher costs for them, in exchange for a pointless stand against Putin, is a ‘terrible deal for you,’” as Will Saletan summed it up in a Bulwark story comparing him to Charles Coughlin, the WWII-era radio host who defended the Nazis and painted Jews as a conniving force pushing the United States into the European conflict.

Carlson is dangerous because he has a cultlike following who believe his nightly rants. I would love to see the Murdochs put decency above dollars and remove him from the airwaves.

Congressional Republicans have blamed President Biden’s actions and “weakness” for leaving an opening for Russia to attack Ukraine. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

But it’s important to remember what Carlson is: nothing more than an outrage machine. What he offers is not political commentary. It’s Fox-approved nonsense meant to juice ratings — and it works.

Don’t take my word for it. In 2020, Fox’s own lawyers successfully made the case in court that Carlson shouldn’t be taken seriously. And a Trump-appointed federal judge agreed.

U.S. District Court Judge Mary Kay Vyskocil echoed Fox’s own arguments in finding that Carlson didn’t commit slander when he accused a former Playboy model, Karen McDougal, of extortion, after the National Enquirer bought her story of an affair with Trump and then promptly shelved it on his behalf.

Why not? Because, Vyskocil decided, the whole tenor of Carlson’s show makes it clear to viewers that he is not stating “actual facts” about his topics.

“Whether the Court frames Mr. Carlson’s statements as ‘exaggeration,’ ‘non-literal commentary,’ or simply bloviating for his audience,” she wrote, “the conclusion remains the same — the statements are not actionable.”

She added: “Fox persuasively argues, that given Mr. Carlson’s reputation, any reasonable viewer 'arrive[s] with an appropriate amount of skepticism’ about the statement he makes.”

That’s the problem, of course. Too many in Carlson’s audience simply don’t arrive with that measure of doubt or disbelief. They swallow his nonsense whole.

“He’s dangerous because millions & millions of Americans are nodding in agreement with him tonight,” tweeted Joe Walsh, the conservative talk-radio host and former Illinois congressman, on Tuesday.

Given the First Amendment, Carlson has the right to say what he wants on his opinion show. Judge Vyskocil made that clear in her opinion, using Fox’s own rationale. This is entertainment — of a particularly ugly and dark variety — but it’s not news and shouldn’t be mistaken for it.

Nevertheless, whether he’s talking trash about Anthony S. Fauci, Democrats, the reality-based press, or educators who want to teach history to children, Carlson does harm. The only defense against it is informed knowledge of exactly what he’s up to.

The millions who tune in to Carlson every night to get their outrage on should remember what their favorite host traffics in: bloviation, demagoguery and unrighteous indignation.

And they should remember what he isn’t obligated to deal in: the truth.