Tucker Carlson and the murky state of US media

We have no way of knowing whether Carlson’s relentless critique of US backing of Ukraine proved to be the last straw on the camel’s back. PHOTO: REUTERS

Tucker Carlson, the recently fired US cable television talk show host at Fox News, was quite a force to be reckoned with. Carlson had built an on-screen persona that slayed all competitors on prime time US television. Not unlike his predecessor a few years ago, Bill O'Reilly, also of Fox News, he built a reputation as an ally of the little guy, who speaks truth to power. His rants against the elites who were shortchanging the average Joe gained enough traction to put him on a perch where he seemed invincible.

Until, he was fired. Ah, Murdoch giveth, and Murdoch taketh away. This is the crucial point to which I shall return. For a moment, let's focus on Carlson's extraordinary success as a talk show host. Day after day, as he chronicled the depredations of the elites, he built a formidable personal following, evident from the colossal drop of viewership of the show after his exit.

His critics dismiss his fulminations, even his persona, as schtick – a character he plays. Given the vanishing line between entertainment and news on cable television talk shows, there may indeed be some truth to that. Authenticity on cable television reminds one of Groucho Marx's tart observation: "The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you've got it made."

There is much about Carlson to give anyone a serious pause. His toxic brew of white grievance often spilled over to outright racism, and his penchant for using policy disagreements to foment vicious demonisation of the Democrats, his intentionally apocalyptic vision that bred blind hatred instead of attempts to understand and battle policy disputes – have permanently sullied the political discourse. Latest revelations show he didn't always believe what he so ferociously espoused. In texts made public in a lawsuit against Fox News, he lambasts the very same Donald Trump whose false claims of "election rigging" he so heartily championed to gin up viewership ratings.

However, it is the circumstances of his dismissal that cast a dark cloud over how the US media functions. Why was Carlson fired at this particular time? The short answer, of course, is that we don't really know. Both Fox News and Carlson are absolutely mum. But there is an angle in Carlson's recent coverage that was novel. He was a bitter critic of the US role in the Ukraine-Russia war. This made for strange bedfellows. His new admirer, I kid you not, was the Russian media, which frequently regaled its audience with clips of his shows. Now the rumour mill has it that it was Rupert Murdoch, the owner of Fox News, who decided to fire Carlson. It is difficult to make a case that this was done in a spirit of civic duty, given Murdoch's dubious track record. Remember, this is the same Murdoch who cosied up to the Chinese and kept a disgraced editor of Britain's News of the World after a terrible scandal led to the closure of the tabloid.

The firing of Carlson raises broader questions about the freedom of the US media. While critics say that Western media is essentially a vessel for corporate interests, its supporters prefer to see it as a marketplace of ideas. One way it is supposed to work is that broadcasters ultimately back individuals or shows that draw the most viewers. In that case, why was Tucker Carlson fired at a time when his popularity was at its peak? This comes during a time when strange things have been happening in the US. There are reports of YouTube arbitrarily demonetising or removing videos, and PayPal blocking those accounts. What these videos have in common is they are all critical of the US backing of the Ukraine-Russia war. Before the takeover by Elon Musk, Twitter had taken to arbitrarily labelling individual accounts as backed by Russia or China.

We have no way of knowing whether Carlson's relentless critique of US backing of Ukraine proved to be the last straw on the camel's back. However, there are disquieting signs that there is a line that the US media is learning not to cross. A CBS news report on corruption in Ukraine was partially retracted. There has been a complete mainstream media blackout on Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Seymour Hersh's reports on possible US complicity in blowing up the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline and corruption in Ukraine.

Now let's take a walk down memory lane. In 2003, the legendary television host Phil Donahue was fired from his prime-time MSNBC talk show during the run-up to the US invasion of Iraq. The problem was not Donahue's ratings, but rather his views: an internal MSNBC memo warned Donahue was a "difficult public face for NBC in a time of war," providing "a home for the liberal anti-war agenda at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity."

This does not seem to be about ideology – MSNBC, after all, is the Democratic version of Fox News. The arbitrary reason provided for Donahue's dismissal makes even less sense in the case of Carlson. Regardless of competitors – the entire US media, truth be told – waving the flag, Carlson had apparently struck a chord with the viewing public.His viewers weren't going anywhere.

While we can't really know what exactly brought Carlson's downfall, here's what we do know. Half of Americans in a recent survey indicated they believe national news organisations intend to mislead, misinform or persuade the public to adopt a particular point of view through their reporting.

"The survey, released in February by Gallup and the Knight Foundation, goes beyond others that have shown a low level of trust in the media to the startling point where many believe there is an intent to deceive," Al-Jazeera reported. Some of this can be attributed to partisan hostility – more Democrats trust the media – but not all of it. The US media has its work cut out - and it's going to be an uphill task.

Ashfaque Swapan is a writer and editor based in Atlanta, US.