Correction: This article originally stated that the square root of 9 is 6. The article has been corrected.
This is not how it works on television. There are several important differences between television and writing online. One is impermanence: If you read these words, it’s easy to come back and read them again if you wish to, whereas, on television, most commentary is transitory. Another is density: I can transmit a lot more information in writing than I can by speaking over the same period of time. (You just read the beginning of this paragraph. Now go back and read it out loud. Which was faster?) A third is constraint: If your show is one hour long, you have one hour. That’s it.
So when something inaccurate is said on television, it’s much harder to correct. Any on-air correction that isn’t a flash in the lower third eats up programming time. In part, that’s because you have to give the context for what it is that you’re correcting, since it’s not accompanying the original story. (This is a challenge for corrections in the print newspaper, too, although there we have more space to play with.) And, then, that explanation on TV takes longer than a written one because speaking is slower than reading. That’s a lot of disincentive for on-air corrections — and certainly one reason we so infrequently see them.
That’s if you want to correct your mistakes, which Fox News and Tucker Carlson very obviously don’t.
If you are here at The Washington Post reading this, you may be inherently skeptical of Carlson’s assertions. There’s some overlap between our audiences but not an enormous amount. And if you’re reading this, you may have read our prior coverage, pointing out places where Carlson’s claims and rhetoric are provably false, objections that apparently are as important to him as wind speeds on Venus.
But it’s worth a review of how spectacularly wrong and misleading Carlson has been just over the past year on an array of issues that sit at the heart of the national conversation. So here’s a list — an admittedly incomplete one, as I’ll explain in a second.
- He alleged that the Justice Department aimed to “tell teachers and school board members that when parents complain, it’s domestic terrorism” — a wild mischaracterization of a memo speaking out against violent threats.
- He falsely stated that President Biden had warned that “White Republican men” were “more dangerous” than the Islamic State.
- He produced a thoroughly debunked three-part documentary seeking to recast the Jan. 6, 2021, attack at the Capitol as a function of federal provocations.
- He elevated an unfounded report that unnamed co-conspirators mentioned in charging documents centered on the Capitol riot were federal agents — a claim so sloppy that it failed to realize that one of those unnamed individuals was clearly the suspect’s wife.
- He hyped the idea that a man videotaped telling people on Jan. 5 that they should go into the Capitol was an FBI provocateur — a claim without any basis in evidence — only to redirect his claims, without correction, when it was revealed that the man had denied that assertion under penalty of perjury.
- He aired an allegation that a man in red face paint was a federal agent, only to have it reported that he was, instead, an amateur mascot for the St. Louis Cardinals.
- He was one of many on the right who claimed that the lack of charges centered on sedition undercut the idea that the riot amounted to an attempted insurrection. Sedition charges were announced Thursday. One of those charged was one of the “unnamed co-conspirators” in Carlson’s earlier coverage.
- He repeatedly hosted guests who spread misinformation about the coronavirus vaccines, including Alex Berenson. He misrepresented a database of claimed side effects from the vaccines as presenting evidence of calamitous dangers.
- Even after Fox News had already debunked a right-wing talking point about deaths from covid-19 and comorbidities, Carlson repeated the talking point on-air.
- He asserted that “they” were “banning Dr. Seuss” after the author’s estate pulled some books from publication.
- He claimed that Texas’s power outages during a deep freeze last year was a function of the state’s “total reliance” on wind turbines, which isn’t true.
- He elevated unfounded claims about 2020 ballots being double-counted and tampered with in Georgia.
- He claimed that the National Security Agency had targeted his communications “for political reasons” and that he had confirmed that “the Biden administration is spying on us” — claims he never substantiated. The NSA took the unusual step of publicly denying the claims; it was later reported that he had been in contact with staffers of Russian President Vladimir Putin at the time of the alleged targeting, individuals who certainly would been actual targets of the NSA.
The list above — which, again, looks only at the past 12 months — excludes the hundreds of vaguer exaggerations that pepper Carlson’s broadcasts. I waded through 10 minutes of one episode a few weeks ago; over and over, his assertions included claims that could not be defended as objectively true.
Of course, Carlson’s program isn’t promoted as objective. It’s part of Fox News’s opinion coverage, which: fine. But it’s opinion coverage in which Carlson makes assertions of fact that often collapse under the scrutiny that he never bothers to pay them. Fox News’s lawyers at one point infamously defended him from a slander allegation. The “tenor” of the show, they argued, should make clear that Carlson is not “stating actual facts.” Viewers were expected to understand that he was engaged in “non-literal commentary.”
That said, Carlson regularly promotes his claims as reporting that the mainstream media is withholding. Skip through a few of the links above; you’ll likely find one or more instances in which Carlson asserts that he is sharing something “they won’t tell you.” He casts himself directly as revealing a hidden truth, as being the only person willing to “state actual facts.” And when those “facts” are revealed as falsehoods, the revelation almost never gets any sort of correction.
Millions of people watch Carlson’s show and hear these claims. Others watch his segments picked up on other Fox programs or the Fox website. But there’s no effort or even any apparent mechanism to ensure that viewers are learning actual facts. In June, as noted, Carlson implicitly accused the wife of one indicted individual of being a federal agent. In October, he invited the couple on his show, not mentioning his previous comments.
The Washington Post corrects its mistakes — even in opinion columns — because this is a central component of responsible journalism. An outlet that chooses not to correct or amend its coverage does not share that same intention. It’s as obvious as the fact that the square root of 9 is 3.