Five nights a week, Tucker Carlson uses his platform on Fox News to tell millions of viewers what he believes: that “the world’s poor” make the United States “dirtier and more divided,” that “the American Nazi Party and the KKK don’t really exist in a meaningful [sense],” that Alaska renaming Columbus Day as Indigenous People’s Day was an “attack on civilization.” These are the familiar politics of white grievance, and they have been profitable for Carlson. So whether he believes the things he says or simply repeats them like a trained pet to collect millions of dollars every year is not really an interesting question, yet it is the premise of nearly 2,000 words of reporting in The Atlantic.
Former Atlantic staff writer and current New York Times reporter Elaina Plott’s latest offering, published over the weekend, is a profile of Carlson. The piece uses a soft touch throughout, and even the headline—“What Does Tucker Carlson Believe?”—treats him more as an object of curiosity than the bigot with a powerful national platform that he is. After an introduction that seeks to distinguish Carlson for his willingness to criticize some Republicans, the piece moves to the question of Carlson’s politics and the white nationalism of his worldview. To set it up, Plott writes that, “for a time, the question could be written off as unserious, a voguish desire to ascribe racism to anyone who might not support increased immigration.” (The obvious question here: written off as unserious by whom?) Plott then concedes that, judged by his recent work, the Fox News megastar has at least partially squandered that excuse. This comes just after an anecdote in which Carlson complains to her that at his fishing spot on the Potomac River, “litter is left almost exclusively by immigrants.” On this at least, Plott pushes back. “Wait, how do you know they’re—,” she asks, before Carlson cuts her off: “Because I’m there, I watch it.”
On first read, Plott and her editors choosing to include this moment in the opening of the piece would seem like a hopeful direction, one that probes Carlson’s long-standing racist and revanchist views and answers the question posed by the headline in the affirmative: You already know what Tucker Carlson believes. Instead, the ensuing 1,500 words amount to little more than free copy space for Carlson to laugh at quotes Plott reads to him from other conservatives and to revel in just how far this son of unearned wealth has come. (For those seeking an example of what an honest Tucker Carlson profile looks like, one that charts the younger journalist who defended segregation to the older talking head ginning up white resentment on Fox News every night, try this one from 2018 by Columbia Journalism Review’s Lyz Lenz.)
This is more or less Plott’s thing: Last year, she offered a feather pillow of a profile to Heidi Cruz a month before Senator Ted Cruz, her husband, narrowly defeated Beto O’Rourke in the 2018 midterms. Two months later, she gushingly reviewed a book that called born-millionaire George H.W. Bush “one of us,” and defended the very access journalism that her entire schtick rests upon. Then in April, Plott published a plushy profile of Ivanka Trump, sourced by an off-the-record chat with the first daughter, which amounted to a puff piece absolving her of almost all responsibility for choosing to work in her father’s administration.
Though arriving from a repeat offender, this style of reporting is not unique to Plott or The Atlantic. You see it everywhere: A story by a (usually white) journalist at an “objective” national publication claiming to reveal something profound about an open racist or some style of bigot, while actually concealing the true stakes of the issue they’re covering.
In 2015, the Los Angeles Times granted Milo Yiannopoulos nearly an entire article to rage against women confronting rampant sexism in the video game industry, describing him as “a darling among hyper-masculine gamers” and “a glorified Internet troll” equipped with “overblown rhetoric.” As a gesture toward balance, the paper quoted a professor and feminist game scholar who “contends that the ideas espoused by Yiannopoulos minimize serious threats to women.” Unmentioned in the piece were the women who, by that time, had been driven from their homes and targeted with SWAT attacks by Gamergaters. In 2017, Ben Shapiro was infamously crowned the “cool kid’s philosopher” by Sabrina Tavernise in a sprawling New York Times feature. Tavernise went on to describe a video of Shapiro telling a college student that being trans is the same thing as deciding to be a different age. There are no trans people quoted in the piece, no references to the discriminatory legal infrastructure and daily violence fostered by Shapiro and those who support his views. Instead, she described the segment as “vintage Shapiro.”
The same year as the Shapiro profile, Politico ran a both-sides entry detailing how liberals and conservatives alike discriminate against one another, with a lede that glided over the cause of Middlebury College students protesting a speech by Charles Murray, the notorious Bell Curve author, saying it was due to “some of his writings.” (Some were, unfortunately, published here, in The New Republic, in 1994.)
This style of reporting—of granting equal credence to the peddlers of heinous views and their opposition through the framing of “just asking questions”—erases the actual people affected by the actions as well as the power and profile of the interview subject. The stakes are entirely flattened. The ideas become a game.
This is not an argument to lock out conservative subjects from interviews or profiles. The purpose of the press is in large part to scrutinize those in power. And the strength of a print column or a good blog, while still present, sometimes can’t carry the urgent necessity of reporting that confronts powerful people with questions directly to their face and demands an answer.
But this basic mandate for publications, especially those operating under the guise of being nonpartisan, still confounds some reporters. It all comes back to the lie of objectivity in journalism—the idea that reporters and editors are not themselves actual people with beliefs and bias. If an outlet takes a stand and dares to say, for instance, that President Donald Trump is a racist, it runs the risk of appearing “biased”—or worse still, alienating the faction of its wealthy conservative readership with sympathetic views of the administration. Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet exemplified this when he deflected a simple question about whether Trump is racist, responding in that special Timesian speak to say, “I’m not in [Trump’s] head enough to know whether he says [racist comments] because he wants to stoke his base.”
Then, to make a straightforward enough statement—that Tucker Carlson is a racist, say—is to issue a grave moral ruling, rather than to simply describe what is plain to see. And so for the purpose of self-preservation, and grinding against the core tenets of journalism, a facade must be crafted, one that requires a very specific kind of reporter and a very specific environment of praise and accolade in political journalism.
Reporters who carry out this grimy task are actively rewarded by the editors who hold the keys to power at major national publications. Shortly after the Carlson piece dropped, Yoni Appelbaum, a senior editor at The Atlantic, deemed it “fabulous” and doted on Plott as one of the industry’s “great profile writers.” CNN’s media critic lauded it as “very good.” John Hendrickson, an Atlantic senior editor, wrote that the piece included “the greatest kicker I’ve read all year.” Bill Scher, contributing editor at Politico, called the piece “exceptional.”
Look beyond Plott and the Carlson piece: When Tavernise’s Shapiro profile published, it was shared by both conservative media leaders and members of the mainstream press—it got a co-sign from The Washington Post’s White House reporter Josh Dawsey, Shapiro was declared “the young conservative gladiator for a new generation” by the Times’ Peter Baker, Times columnist Nicholas Kristof described the piece about the “hero to many young conservatives” as “interesting.”
These pieces are not the pinnacle of journalism or feature writing; they are laundering the extremity of their subjects through the packaging of from-nowhere or “objective” reporting. The rate at which you see this style of work, marketed as scoops or revealing interviews with conservative trendsetters, exposes the personal and institutional prerogatives of those involved—even as they pretend they don’t exist.
Good interviewers and profile writers have the ability to write stories with the participation of people like Carlson while still laying out the stakes and pushing back on their subjects. Some reporters, like The New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner or Lyz Lenz of the Columbia Journalism Review, are incredibly, almost unfairly, adept at this. By including the questions they ask, or their mind-set at the time of asking them, they let the fuller picture of the interview come into focus. This allows the reader to recognize that what they are consuming is not written by some amorphous blob that goes only by the name of The New York Times or The Atlantic but by a person, with distinct political views and personal beliefs and an understanding that other people in the world, beyond the interviewer and their subject, also exist.
In a 2017 blog published by The Outline, writer Leah Finnegan revisited a 1941 Dorothy Thompson essay in Harper’s that asked a simple question: “Who goes Nazi?” Thompson’s article was an exercise meant to identify the ways in which Nazism “appeals to a certain type of mind” as much as anything else—“the born Nazis, the Nazis whom democracy itself has created, the certain-to-be fellow-travelers.”
Carlson, to Thompson’s game, has that “certain type of mind.” It doesn’t matter if he thinks he is a white nationalist or a racist in the essence of his soul. If I lit up a cigarette in my office and accidentally burned the place down, it wouldn’t matter if being a smoker fit my personal definition of who I believe myself to be. I burned the office down. If the job is to get very rich spewing racist filth, then one is a racist. There are other questions to be asked about Carlson and his contemporaries, but we don’t need a few thousand words pondering What It All Means for him to be exactly as racist as he presents himself to be on television every weeknight.
Eight decades later, Thompson’s inquiry still has the media industry in knots. Not because editors and reporters are being duped by crafty subjects. The opposite, actually: Everyone knows what they’re doing and what part they’re playing. And as long as they’re rewarded for it, they’ll maintain the facade, one profile of a white supremacist at a time.