The scandal over Fox News pundit Tucker Carlson’s sexist and racist radio comments from about a decade ago has turned into a debate about “outrage culture” and the practice of mining people’s pasts for career-killing lapses.
While many advertisers are fleeing, a number of conservatives — including some highly critical of conservatism’s amoral drift under Donald Trump, such as National Review’s David French — have argued that a call for Carlson’s firing means caving to outrage mobs. But one can oppose digital hit squads and censorious speech-policing, and also conclude that Carlson’s defense is a bad cause for principled conservatives.
One of the conservative media’s leading champions of Trumpian populism and nationalism, Carlson also has been frequently accused of overt xenophobia and racism. He has claimed that immigrants make America “dirtier,” flogged baseless rumors about Gypsy refugees defecating in the streets of a Pennsylvania town, and openly suggested that diversity makes society worse.
Now, Carlson is under fire for things he said years ago as a call-in guest on “Bubba the Love Sponge,” a shock-jock radio program.
The comments were collected by Media Matters for America, an unabashedly left-wing watchdog group that tends to cast too wide a net when trawling for outrage. The rap sheet includes Carlson calling media figure Arianna Huffington a “pig” (he’s been called the same, no doubt), his argument that letting rape accusers remain anonymous is injurious to due process for the accused (a legitimate viewpoint shared even by some feminist commentators), and failing to object to some comments making light of physical abuse of women.
Yet, whatever one thinks of Media Matters, many of Carlson’s remarks are unquestionably vile, even allowing for deliberate attempts to be provocative. There’s the semi-defense of polygamist cult leader Warren Jeffs, then facing rape charges for arranging marriages between grown men and underage girls. There are crude and cruel jokes about a “dumb” teen beauty pageant contestant and about having sex with her. There is, worst of all, a remark that democracy-building in Iraq was doomed because Iraqis were “semiliterate primitive monkeys.”
Some of these comments foreshadow Trumpism. In a 2006 segment, Carlson fantasized about a presidential candidate who would take an unapologetic stand against “lunatic Muslims who are behaving like animals,” promise to “kill as many of them as [he] can,” and openly say that he doesn’t care if he’s branded a bigot.
Some Carlson defenses are steeped in the usual partisan hypocrisy. People who think it’s unfair to punish him for old sins are often the same ones who sniffed around Barack Obama’s college years for evidence of radicalism, and who are slamming Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) for 1988 comments praising some things about the Soviet Union. Carlson, who decries outrage mobs, did some outrage-mongering himself when leftist cable TV host Samantha Bee used an obscene insult to chastise Ivanka Trump. Of course, the hypocrisy shoe is on the other foot as well: Many of Carlson’s detractors are more than willing to excuse progressives who make hateful comments about men or white people.
Carlson, who has defiantly refused to apologize, says critics should challenge him on current opinions expressed on his show. And indeed, those opinions are noxious enough. Yet, despite flirtations with white nationalism, Carlson is still respectable enough to have a major platform on national cable television and get invited to talk at the conference of the National Review Institute later this month. The revelation of even more odious statements from his fairly recent past makes it harder for conservative media to run from his bigotry-peddling.
One cheer to Media Matters for that.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.