The erosion of American democracy, in one short cable news segment


HR King
May 29, 2001
Given how often I point out when Fox News’s Tucker Carlson says something false, it is fair to observe when he says something true. And on Thursday night, he did.
His show began in keeping with a now-familiar pattern for the network, energetically promoting a Republican facing a difficult fight in the upcoming midterm elections. While his colleague Sean Hannity has been wide-ranging in the candidates he props up, Carlson’s interviews-as-endorsements tend to focus more heavily on the candidates closer to his own far-right politics — as was the case with his show Thursday that featured Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake.

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Before she jumped into politics, Lake spent decades as the anchor of a local television news broadcast in Phoenix. This, Carlson argued, gave her unique insight into the dangers of the American media.


“She spent 30 years in television news,” Carlson said in his lengthy introduction to an interview with the candidate. “So when Kari Lake says the media are corrupt, she’s not guessing. She lived right in the middle of it for decades.”
Carlson, who certainly has lived right in the middle of “the media” for decades (given his stints on CNN, MSNBC and Fox News, as well as print and online publications), knows that he’s exaggerating things a bit. (I’d be curious if he were familiar with Lake’s work prior to her running for office.) But Carlson wanted his audience to understand Lake as the ultimate media insider so that he could make his desired rhetorical point, a common fate for those who wind up being celebrated on his show. That point: that the news media fear Lake because she challenges their hegemony.
“They’re not just annoying,” he said of the “liberal media.” “They’re the key to the whole system. Take them away, and everything changes.” So, he said, “it’s essential to the people in charge that voters continue to believe that the so-called news coverage they see and read is real, that it conveys facts and not simply crude, North Korea-style political propaganda. But Kari Lake knows better.”

And here’s where we get to the point at which Carlson said something true. He showed a snippet of Lake insulting a CNN reporter who had hoped to ask her questions, with Carlson then erupting in giggles. And why shouldn’t she insult them? The power of outlets like CNN, he argued, is entirely a function of the respect they are given.
“They only have power because we give them power, because we treat them like they’re real,” he continued. “ … They are fantasy 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 accurate. The media do derive their power from their — our — audience treating them as legitimate. And Lake is, in fact, attacking the institutional power the media hold.

But where Carlson is dangerously wrong is in his presentation of why that power is important. The media’s role is to challenge power and help Americans understand what’s true and what’s false. The respect the mainstream media is given is in part a function of tradition and in part a function of recognizing that this role is important. That there should be outside institutions willing to examine the power held by elected officials and businesses and even others in the media, even when doing so is uncomfortable.
This is an ideal, certainly, and the media have at times failed to live up to it. But Carlson isn’t saying that he thinks the media do not deserve respect because they have failed to uphold their ideals. He’s simply waving them all away as biased and political and grasping because, in keeping with a lengthy tradition of powerful people unwilling to be held to account, he doesn’t want the media to challenge those with power or to tell the truth. He’s just trying to deal the final blow to an industry that’s already struggling to retain the confidence of its intended audience, just as he’s trying to eviscerate every other institutional seat of power that might stand in the way of his desired political outcomes.
It’s Carlson, not Lake, who is the media insider now bent on ripping the industry apart from the inside. He’s empowered by that collapse of public confidence in the media, a collapse that is often pegged to isolated and cherry-picked examples of mistakes but is probably more robustly attributable to the fragmentation of the media themselves. People want their opponents, not themselves, to be held accountable, and there is by now no shortage of outlets and television hosts willing to provide solely that sort of accountability.

So, fine. Carlson wants to gut the media, and he’s using Lake as a way to describe the process in which he himself is engaged. Then what?
Carlson answered that, too.
“Assuming that all votes are counted — and we should never take that on faith. We should never take that on faith; if this is a democracy, we’ve an absolute right to have it proven to us that the election was fair,” Carlson said. “If it is fair, Kari Lake’s going to win.”
I am acutely aware of the futility of typing these words, but I have to type them anyway: That’s not true. Polling doesn’t show Lake with a consistent or wide lead; even right-leaning pollsters show the race as close. Lake could win. FiveThirtyEight thinks that’s slightly more likely than her losing. But she might lose, even in a fair election — which there is zero reason to think this election won’t be.

But now you see how Carlson has 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 misguidedness of her position on the subject.
There is no defense of the position that the 2020 election was tainted by fraud that isn’t dependent on ignoring the available evidence. Nor should one have to prove that an election was fair when there’s no evidence of impropriety; the burden is on those who insist it wasn’t fair. But now we’ve cast the entire media as liars and hacks and partisans, and so none of that caution matters, and Lake’s embrace of false claims about the election is perfectly valid.
Reject objectivity and accountability, and you enter a space where emotion and rhetoric carry the day — and that’s precisely the space in which Carlson wants to operate. So that he can help reshape American politics the way he sees fit.

Of course, Carlson, as a member of the media, has power only because his audience gives him power. His is a fantasy that can continue only as long as we participate. We, including me: By writing this, I am bolstering his power.
But it is my job to question his power and to challenge it, to measure his words against reality. That you’re reading this hopefully means that you find that valuable. You can recognize, though, how this dynamic is unbalanced in his favor, and therefore in favor of his desired outcomes.