Last week, in an appearance on a Mediaite podcast, the journalist Glenn Greenwald came to the defense once again of Fox News’s chief hatemonger, Tucker Carlson. While he rightly accused Carlson of “deliberately inflaming ... dangerous and potentially volatile racial divisions” by “focusing on, say, how Black cops kill white people, and then under-covering when white cops kill Black people,” Greenwald added that Carlson’s “overall ideology” was “frequently misunderstood.”
It was a perfect encapsulation of the two media celebrities’ flourishing partnership. Carlson’s racism is not so disqualifying as to discourage Greenwald from regularly appearing on Tucker Carlson Tonight, where the two faux-populists unite in their reflexive opposition to anything remotely establishmentarian—especially the U.S. government, the Democratic Party, and mainstream media. The mutual benefit is clear: By platforming a decorated journalist once associated with the left, Carlson is implicitly rebutting charges that he’s a right-wing ideologue, while Greenwald gets to burnish his own supposed iconoclasm and raise his profile via the most watched cable news program in the country.
You might even call it a marriage of convenience at this stage, given the events of this week. On Monday, Carlson claimed that he was the subject of a government surveillance program designed to gather damning information on him, with the intention of leaking it to force his show off the air. Carlson said that he owed this discovery to a National Security Agency whistleblower but offered no evidence except his word that his digital communications were being collected. The whistleblower, Carlson said, knew details “that could only come from my texts and emails.” The surveillance orders originated with the Biden administration, Carlson claimed, warning that “spying on opposition journalists is incompatible with democracy.”
There’s reason to be skeptical of Carlson’s allegation, given his penchant for fabulism. Nonetheless, he’s managed to wring almost a week of content, attention, and political support out of what may be a totally invented scandal. In an unusual move, the NSA tweeted a statement claiming that Carlson “has never been an intelligence target of the Agency and the NSA has never had any plans to try to take his program off the air.” Republican Representative Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader, on Thursday called for an official inquiry into the alleged spying and is asking Representative Devin Nunes—who has a history of pushing politically motivated investigations, from Benghazi to Trump, into intelligence community malfeasance—to lead the effort.
McCarthy, who has voted in favor of preserving NSA surveillance authorities, might be dismissed as a cynical opportunist trying to show his support for a right-wing grandee. But Carlson has found an even more important and useful supporter in Greenwald, who famously broke the Edward Snowden revelations. Despite the lack of evidence—something that Greenwald frequently demands from his opponents and which, earlier in his career, he would have demanded of Carlson—Greenwald has embraced the host’s claims, using them as an opportunity to slam some of his favorite targets: security-state-friendly liberals and the cable news channels that hire them. (He also chided other cable networks for not covering the allegations—though CNN did, albeit skeptically.)
For Greenwald, the Carlson story has become another example of the perfidy of an incurious media unwilling to question state power. “We know that the Democratic party and journalism in general has aligned with the CIA, NSA, and the FBI, and has aligned and merged with the security state,” Greenwald told Carlson this week. “And so in response to the report you did, you would think other journalists … would say we want to know whether the NSA is abusing their powers in order to spy on journalists they dislike. Instead, they mocked it.”
In providing journalistic ballast to a story that so far appears to have none, Greenwald has made himself Carlson’s willing partner in a potential lie. Their pairing has found its ultimate synergy in a story that combines Greenwald’s righteous war against state surveillance and the mainstream media with Carlson’s own narcissistic need to place himself at the center of the story. It would be a potentially perilous position for both, if either had anything to fear about their credibility. Instead, together they’re pushing a story into the public consciousness that distorts and misrepresents the true threat of mass government surveillance.
If Greenwald were a more honest broker, he would denounce Fox News as fiercely as he does CNN and MSNBC. In the world of 24/7 infotainment, there are no redeemable cable news networks, but Fox’s list of sins is long. Carlson peddles vile anti-immigrant rhetoric (as Greenwald did, early in his blogging career) and has expressed support for replacement theory, in which, according to its adherents, the white population of this country is threatened. Carlson is also less than reliable. Last year, in defending their star personality in a slander case, Fox News’s lawyers said that he should not be taken seriously. Instead, they claimed, Carlson is “engaging in ‘exaggeration’ and ‘non-literal commentary.’” Tucker Carlson Tonight, which until last year employed a writer who posted floridly racist comments on internet forums, trafficks in conspiracy and unsourced rumormongering: Just last week, speaking above a chyron that warned of “Anti-White Mania,” Carlson suggested that white Americans might go the way of Rwandan Tutsis, who were massacred in a genocide. Between these segments on threats to white Americans and the perils of immigration caravans appears one of the most laureled and famous journalists of recent years.
Commentators have spent plenty of time examining Greenwald’s supposed right-wing turn, and it is possible that he and Carlson share some ideological affinities. Greenwald claims that the other networks don’t invite him on, and he attempts to justify his own appearances as providing an antidote of truth that Fox’s conservative viewers might not otherwise be exposed to. But his embrace of Fox smacks of expedience and a well-established contrarian streak, two qualities that have visibly come to the fore in recent years. Greenwald appears on Fox not because he agrees with its personalities’ odious politics but because it offers an opportunity to spread his own ideas and to generate subscribers for his Substack. (In addition to frequently citing his Pulitzer Prize, the anti-establishment Greenwald seems to care a great deal about ratings. He mockingly tweets about MSNBC’s and CNN’s low viewership—which he attributes, at least partly, to a misplaced Trump obsession that has since wilted in the Biden era.)
With Greenwald’s partnership with Carlson cemented, the debate over why he should go on Fox News is exhausted. The real disappointment—one that he surely doesn’t care about at all, even if he reads commentary about himself—in Greenwald’s evolution is that a once-great journalist has dispensed with investigatory skepticism, turning himself into an unquestioning collaborator for a network as hateful and propagandistic as anything on the air. Extending every measure of good faith to Fox’s clownish right-wing personalities, Greenwald is just as ruthless and unforgiving with his enemies, who now seem to be everywhere. Promising that he’s tolerant of genuine critique, he brooks none. With 1.6 million Twitter followers and tens of thousands of Substack subscribers, he can afford to live in his own bubble.
Even as he devotes himself to rage-tweeting about wokeness and runaway identity politics, Greenwald still occasionally offers a useful counter to mainstream media’s unthinking fealty to the security state. There are hints of the old iconoclast lurking in between the Fox hits and the silly Twitter fights, but you won’t find them in this week’s NSA story. As Greenwald might have acknowledged a few years ago, the real threats of the NSA have little to do with Tucker Carlson or his semi-fictionalized news show. The NSA undoubtedly spies on Americans, both directly and through the practice of “incidental collection,” in which Americans’ communications are swept up in the process of surveilling foreign targets. As we learned via Snowden and other whistleblowers, there are many programs of mass surveillance, some of them potentially illegal or unsupervised, and the agency taps communication cables all over the world, vacuuming up as much data as it can. As the CIA’s chief technology officer said in 2013, “We fundamentally try to collect everything and hang on to it forever.” (In his memoir, Snowden cited this comment as helping to lead to his disillusionment.)
The security state deserves heavy critique, if not total dismantlement. A society whose sense of public order and safety depends on mass surveillance is an inherently authoritarian one. But this latest ginned-up scandal isn’t about securing Americans’ general liberty or stopping the perpetual war machine. Instead, it’s about boosting the positions of an execrable cable news host and his favorite reputation-launderer. In casting Carlson as the next victim of government overreach—which has had a genuinely deleterious impact on investigative journalism in this country, including for Greenwald’s former colleagues at The Intercept—Greenwald seems to be guilty of exactly what he despises in others: He’s granted the mantle of oppression to someone who doesn’t deserve it. And he’s done it without seeing any evidence. As Greenwald well understands, there are journalists and whistleblowers and many innocent Muslim Americans who have suffered greatly because of NSA surveillance. These are the real targets of the security state. So far as we know, Tucker Carlson isn’t one of them.