The Last Newsman
Tucker Carlson, the End of an Archetype, and the Bridge to New Media
The departure of Tucker Carlson from Fox News marks the closure of an era of un-precedented media centralization. The advent of broadcast one-to-many telecommunication gave rise to modes of mass mobilization previously unimaginable. Atop the broadcast pyramid were the chosen few assigned the role of propagating information down to the masses. These towering figures were supported and anointed by large organizations made viable by the technological infrastructure that shaped their perches. Decentralizing telecommunications technology is now overtaking the old structures, and with it, new kinds of organizations, personas, and propagation networks will assume preeminence.
Beginning with radio, and reaching its highest form in television, broadcast technology made possible titanic forms of social organization and coordination on the order of tens of millions by the press of a button. New possibilities in governance arose from the power of this structural dynamic, including the mainstays of 20th century conflict: Communism, Fascism, and Mass Democracy. And while regimes of the former two types are often touted as having been early adopters of propagandistic mediums, it was in liberal democracies that the art reached its apotheosis and formalization.
Better Living Through Persuasion
The field of propaganda itself began as a project to leverage emerging broadcast mediums for democratic social control. Nowadays propaganda carries a sinister connotation, but this was not always the case. Walter Lippmann, writing in 1921, expressed optimism that public opinion could be channeled by appeal to our unreasonable tendencies into more reasonable decisions:
“We can use our wit and our force to make footholds for reason.”
Similarly, “father of public relations” Edward Bernays, acknowledged that
“The instruments by which public opinion is organized and focused may be misused. But such organization and focusing are necessary to orderly life.”
He correctly deduced that only a small group of people comprising several thousand “men and women who, because of their position in public life, might fairly be called the molders of public opinion” would be needed to coordinate democratic masses in ways amenable to reason, or a the very least, favorable to existing powers. Both advocated better living through persuasion and saw broadcast technology as a tool of enlightenment in the hands of benevolent and judicious elites.
By late century these aspirations had proved seriously naive. Americans disaffected by the Vietnam War, countercultural enervation, and scandal after scandal involving collusion between the news media and government or corporate interests, became open to the idea that the talking heads of the press were less watchdogs of democracy than unscrupulous mouthpieces for Bernays’ “invisible governors.” Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman in Manufacturing Consent (1988) blamed corporatization, globalization, and capital consolidation for producing an even more centralized media landscape precariously beholden to entrenched government and corporate interests. These historical processes lead, in their view, to an enmeshing of incentives whereby media’s interdependency with power brokers generated one-sided coverage sympathetic to valid victims, silent on invalid victims, and unified in the up-regulation and down-regulation of narratives in correspondence with their utility to regime interests.
At this stage, decentralizing technology was but a fledgling. Chomsky and Herman acknowledged the internet’s usefulness for dissidents and protesters, but expressed concern that it may already have begun being co-opted in the cradle, stating that “[o]nly sizable commercial organizations have been able to make large numbers aware of the existence of their Internet offerings.” They had no sense of how deep a deviation the shift in technical architecture would be from the structural forces that gave rise to the mono-party media environment of the 20th century.
Age of the Anchor
Still, the stalwart image of the reliable anchorman persisted well into the late 20th and early 21st centuries. A lineage spanning “Uncle Walter” Cronkite to Larry King took the mantle of America’s conscience, showing up nightly to ask pressing questions of the day and assure the viewing public that, despite our tumults, the country remained unified by a commitment to common American ideals.
Tucker Carlson is in many ways the natural heir to this lineage. The son of Dick Carlson, former director of Voice of America and the U.S. Information Agency, young Carlson got his start as an influential print journalist before moving to television. Starting in 2000 he co-hosted CNN’s The Spin Room, then Crossfire from 2001 to 2004, before getting his own show, initially on PBS, then with MSNBC’s Tucker from 2005-2008. Fox News brought him on as a contributor in 2009, and he became a co-host of Fox and Friends in 2013. His ascent from print journalist to big network media personality set the stage for his greatest and most impactful chair to-date as host of the eponymous Tucker Carlson Tonight; launched November, 2016.
The premier episode of Tucker Carlson Tonight garnered a staggering 3.7 million viewers and quickly established itself as the most beloved conservative news show in America. For a network television news show deep into the internet era, a viewership of this size represented a genuine feat of attention-grabbing and credibility, given an ocean of alternatives and distractions. Tucker Carlson Tonight continued to pull massive audiences throughout the show’s tenure, breaking the record for the highest rated program in U.S. cable news history, with an average nightly viewership of 4.33 million in 2020.
With such weight came impact. Tucker and his team regularly assembled and emphasized segments meant to convey crucial points and nudge the direction of public sentiment, often in direct opposition to the Republican Party. He invited guests from across the political spectrum who took heterodox, principled positions when they were frequently boxed out of other traditional media venues. He hosted Glenn Greenwald, Kyle Rittenhouse, Tulsi Gabbard, Mark McCloskey, Bret Weinstein, Robert Kennedy Jr., and Riley Gaines, among others. Sincere people with something worth saying got a voice on his show, wether large or small. His influence on former President Trump’s administration was tangible, but immeasurable. Anya Parampil of The Greyzone recently credited Carlson as having “done more to disrupt the imperial drum beat to war than all of the professional ‘anti-imperialist’ cosplayers currently celebrating his ouster will ever accomplish.” Intellectually honest commentators, wether left, right, or something else entirely, were given a platform on one of the biggest news shows in television.
The sworn enemy of lying, pomposity, smugness and groupthink.
Gone was the semblance of objectivity characterized by past figureheads, but nonetheless, Tucker strove to embody quintessentially American ideals within the constraints of his medium. The show’s unofficial tagline: “the sworn enemy of lying, pomposity, smugness and groupthink”, harkened back to the simple virtues of folk heroes and a commitment to individual thought that was once the cornerstone of American civic life. It certainly had its biases, but truth is often partially revealed in bias and entirely obscured in faux-objectivity. In persistent tension, though, was the framing of individual and intellectually honest perspectives within a product meant for mass orchestration. Marshall McLuhan’s refrain, the medium is the message, is more than a pithy slogan. Ultimately, the contradiction between content and form could not be sustained.
Last One In, First One Out
The true reasons for Tucker Carlson’s unceremonious departure from Fox News are not yet known, but it’s clear his circumscribed role as a talking head on a highly centralized broadcast news network fitted neither his message nor his temperament. In a personal address sent out the day after his departure, during his show’s usual time slot, Tucker cited the following topics as issues on which he is at odds with the priorities of mainstream media:
These are topics of crucial importance to any nation and its people. Matters of life and death, freedom, discovery, belonging, sovereignty, and independence. By his account, coordinators of public opinion wished to delimit, or refrain altogether from, discourse on that which threatens their position. Below the murkiness of separation, at bottom, was a mismatch between values and mandate.
Fortunately, the means for voicing individual perspectives and counteracting centrally-controlled narratives have now become ubiquitous. Social media stars and podcasters regularly best large networks with massive budgets and staffs in audience share. Many have begun funneling their gains into independent media production companies and platforms. Youtube competitor Rumble continues to pick up contracts for those seeking to monetize outside Big Tech. Web3 offers a plethora of even more fundamentally decentralized alternatives that stand to hasten the diffusion of power from large institutions to individuals. A key difference from prior eras is that audiences can follow the individual, institutional seal or not.
Technology terraforms media landscapes. Last century’s radio waves and landlines wiped away villages of small-town print publications to make way for glimmering skyscrapers of network broadcasting. This century another topographical change is underway. With it, new media archetypes will arise as old ones die. Tucker Carlson was in the old media world, but not of it. His release from the broadcast tower marks the end of an archetypal figure and the ascent of a new type of media man. Doubtless, he will bridge the gap in stride. Cometh the last newsman to the other side.