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The Erosion of American Democracy, in a short cable news segment


Given how often I report Fox News’ Tucker Carlson saying something wrong, it’s fair to watch when he says something right. And Thursday night, he did.

His show began in a pattern now familiar to the network, energetically promoting a Republican facing an uphill battle in the upcoming midterm elections. While colleague Sean Hannity has been wide-ranging in the candidates he backs, Carlson’s interviews tend to focus more on candidates closest to his own far-right politics – like the subject of his talk show. Thursday, Arizona governor candidate Kari Lake.

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Before entering politics, Lake spent decades as a local newscaster in Phoenix. This, according to Carlson, gave him unique insight into the dangers of American media.

“She’s been in the TV news for 30 years,” Carlson said in his lengthy introduction to an interview with the contestant. “So when Kari Lake says the media is corrupt, she’s not guessing. She lived right in the middle for decades.

Carlson, who has certainly lived amid “media” for decades (given his stints on CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News, as well as print and online publications), knows he’s overstating things a bit. (I’d be curious if he knew of Lake’s work before she ran for office.) But Carlson wanted his audience to understand Lake as the ultimate media insider so they could make their point. desired rhetoric, a common destiny for those who end up being celebrated on his show. This point: that the media fear Lake because she challenges their hegemony.

“They’re not just boring,” he said of “liberal media.” “They are the key to the whole system. Take them out and everything changes. Thus, he said, “it is essential for officials that voters continue to believe that the so-called media coverage they see and read is real, that it conveys facts and not simply political propaganda. rude to North Korea. But Kari Lake knows better.

And here is where we come to the point where Carlson said something true. It showed a clip of Lake insulting a CNN reporter who had hoped to ask him questions, Carlson then burst out laughing. And why shouldn’t she insult them? The power of outlets like CNN, he argued, depends entirely on the respect given to them.

“They only have power because we empower them, because we treat them like they’re real,” he continued. “…These are fantasies that can only continue as long as we participate. So in attacking the media, what Kari Lake is really doing is standing up to institutional power.

That – that paragraph right there – is right. The media Is derives its power from its — our — public treating us as legitimate. And Lake is actually attacking the institutional power that the media wields.

But where Carlson is dangerously wrong is in his presentation of the importance of this power. The role of the media is to challenge power and help Americans understand what is true and what is false. The respect afforded to the mainstream media is partly a function of tradition and partly of recognition of the importance of this role. that the should being outside institutions willing to examine the power wielded by elected officials and corporations and even others in the media, even when this is uncomfortable.

It is an ideal, of course, and the media have sometimes failed to live up to it. But Carlson doesn’t say he thinks the media doesn’t deserve respect because it has failed to uphold its ideal. He just brandishes it all as biased and political and greedy because, in keeping with a long tradition of powerful people who don’t want to be accountable, he doesn’t want want to the media to challenge those in power or tell the truth. He is just trying to deliver the final blow to an industry that is already struggling to retain the trust of its target audience, just as he is trying to eviscerate all the other institutional seats of power that might stand in the way of his desired political outcomes.

This is carlson, not Lake, who is the media insider now bent on tearing the industry apart from the inside. It is reinforced by this collapse in media trust, a collapse that is often linked to isolated and hand-picked examples of errors, but which is probably more strongly attributable to the fragmentation of the media itself. People want their opponents held accountable, not themselves, and now there’s no shortage of outlets and TV hosts willing to provide just that kind of accountability.

So, fine. Carlson wants to eviscerate the media, and he uses Lake to describe the process he himself is engaged in. So what ?

Carlson also responded to this.

“Assuming all the votes are counted – and we should never believe that. We should never take it on faith; if it’s a democracy, we have the absolute right to have the election proven to be fair,” Carlson said. “If it’s fair, Kari Lake will win.”

I am fully aware of the futility of typing these words, but I still have to type them: it is not true. Polls don’t show Lake with a consistent or wide lead; even right-wing pollsters show the race is just as tight. Lake could win. FiveThirtyEight thinks it’s slightly more likely than losing. But she could lose, even in a fair election – which there’s no reason to think this election won’t.

But now you see how Carlson opened the door. If you don’t trust me and you don’t trust FiveThirtyEight and you do trust lake and you do trust Carlson, you’ll see that as reasonable. Earlier in the segment, Carlson hailed Lake’s rejection of the 2020 election results as eminently reasonable, despite the obvious inconsistency and fallacy of his position on the matter.

There is no defense of the position that the 2020 election was tainted by fraud that does not depend on ignoring available evidence. Nor should one have to prove that an election was fair when there is no evidence of irregularity; the onus is on those who insist that it was not right. But now we’ve framed all of the media as liars, hacks, and supporters, and so none of those caveats matter, and Lake’s embrace of election misrepresentation is perfectly valid.

Discard objectivity and responsibility, and you enter a space where emotion and rhetoric prevail – and that’s precisely the space Carlson wants to operate in. So that he can help reshape American politics as he sees fit.

Of course, Carlson, as a member of the media, only has power because his audience empowers him. It’s a fantasy that can only continue as long as we participate in it. Us, including me: By writing this, I am strengthening its power.

But it’s my job to question his power and challenge him, to measure his words against reality. I hope you are reading this means you find this valuable. You can, however, recognize how skewed this dynamic is in his favor, and therefore in favor of his desired outcomes.


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