Cable news—particularly the late-night-commentary variety—is inane when it isn’t being actively destructive. And most of the time, it’s being actively destructive: a firehose of inflammatory and addictive nonsense aimed at keeping its viewers (largely retirees) hooked on their own terror and anger.
But if there’s one thing that can be said in cable news’s favor, it’s that the production values are generally high. The writing is sharp. The cameras are good. The people who work there may have sold their souls, but they generally know what they’re doing.
Now consider the proof-of-life video sent by Tucker Carlson on Wednesday evening, just two days after Fox News unceremoniously dumped him.
He’s broadcasting from an expensive home studio built for him by Fox for the express purpose of being able to deliver, from the comfort of his home, screeds about the danger posed by immigrants, the nonwhite, and liberals, as well as a host of other boogeymen, real and mostly imagined. But without Fox’s graphics behind him, he just looks off. He’s too close to the camera. He’s shiny and red. You can see the lights in the studio radiating off his glistening skin and eyes. The whole thing has the feel of a deep fake, except it’s real.
You know it’s real because Carlson’s message is vintage Carlson. It’s vague—he says almost nothing of substance in its two minutes—but it is aimed squarely at his most reactionary viewers.
“One of the first things you realize when you step outside the noise for a few days is how many genuinely nice people there are in this country,” Carlson says. This, in and of itself, is a funny thing to say after you’ve been out of a job for roughly 48 hours—surely enough time to gain a radically different sense of perspective.
And what perspective has Carlson gained? Mostly that his former employer is full of shit. “The other thing you notice when you take a little time off is how unbelievably stupid most of the debates you see on television are. They’re completely irrelevant. They mean nothing.” He should know!
Carlson then goes on to lay out exactly what’s been missing from cable news:
In five years, we won’t even remember that we had them. Trust me, as someone who’s participated. And yet at the same time, and this is the amazing thing, the undeniably big topics, the ones that will define our future, get virtually no discussion at all: war, civil liberties, emerging science, demographic change, corporate power, natural resources. When was the last time you heard a legitimate debate about any of those issues?
Carlson here is gassing himself up—and not so subtly making the case that he was kicked off the network for being too real. The inclusion of “demographic change” on the list of forbidden topics is particularly galling, but it’s not surprising. Carlson is telling his viewers that he’s still one of them, and that Fox, by extension, is too woke.
All of this is especially funny because the vast majority of Carlson’s show was devoted not to these topics but instead to absurd tedium: a singular obsession on individual journalists, minute fixation on bits of evidence that corporate America had given over to the mob, and random stories meant to show that America had been taken over by a vicious cabal of woke college students and vicious undocumented immigrants. If anyone could be accused of making his show about stupid topics, it was Tucker Carlson.
There was, for much of the Trump era, a tedious and silly debate about how much of his schtick Carlson actually believed. The answer has never mattered, but it’s clear that Carlson knows that his future is with the lunatic fringe. This Twitter video is a message to that segment of his audience: He’s telling them he’s still here. He’s telling them to stand by.
It’s also a message to Fox News. The video was not brought about by honest reflection after a few hours on the unemployment lines. Instead, it was clearly a reaction to leaks from Fox, particularly a story in The New York Times suggesting a possible motivation for his firing: “Private messages sent by Mr. Carlson that had been redacted in legal filings showed him making highly offensive and crude remarks that went beyond the inflammatory, often racist comments of his prime-time show and anything disclosed in the lead-up to the trial.” That sounds bad! But Carlson’s video is a reminder to Fox that he’s ready to go to war if need be.
But Carlson is coming from a position of weakness, and not just because he’s currently out of a job. He can bloviate all he wants, but he’s cut off from Fox’s firehose audience. His audience may adore him, but it’s still not clear that they’ll cut away from Fox for him—especially if he goes somewhere that’s not television. There will be a lot of sound and fury—leaks from Fox, followed by hostage videos from Tucker—in the coming days. But it increasingly seems clear that Carlson has already lost.