Watching Tucker Carlson for Work
On a recent episode of “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” a prime-time show on Fox News, Tucker Carlson introduced his first guest, Mark McCloskey, at the end of a long segment on how “self-defense is becoming illegal” in America. McCloskey and his wife, Patricia, were the St. Louis couple made briefly and ignominiously famous for brandishing weapons
On a recent episode of “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” a prime-time show on Fox News, Tucker Carlson introduced his first guest, Mark McCloskey, at the end of a long segment on how “self-defense is becoming illegal” in America. McCloskey and his wife, Patricia, were the St. Louis couple made briefly and ignominiously famous for brandishing weapons at Black Lives Matter protesters outside their Midwestern palazzo. “So they’re racist,” Carlson said, with a squeaky, cartoonish emphasis.
“There’s that stupid voice,” Kat Abughazaleh, a twenty-three-year-old senior video producer for the liberal watchdog Media Matters for America, said. She and I were watching Carlson’s show in side-by-side cubicles at her organization’s offices, in Washington, D.C. Abughazaleh, a pair of sunglasses perched on her head and a vape pen always within reach, was flagging moments from the episode to post online. One clip, of Carlson declaring that “the F.B.I., as an organization, has joined in the hunt for Christians,” went immediately to Twitter. “I was so excited to hear that hilarious Christian line—it was so good,” she told me during a commercial break. Another clip, an interview with the “pro-life Spider-Man”—a baby-faced young man who climbs buildings without ropes to protest abortion—was saved for an end-of-week roundup. (“Abortion is just like climbing a skyscraper,” the pro-life Spider-Man had said. “It’s a matter of life or death.”) Abughazaleh films her roundups on Fridays and posts them to TikTok, where she’s building a following. Her most popular video, which includes a clip of a Fox News host comparing Washington, D.C., to Somalia, has just under a million views.
“I watch Tucker Carlson so you don’t have to,” the bio spaces of her social-media accounts read. Abughazaleh has been professionally watching Carlson, who has around three million viewers a night, for nearly two years. “You don’t know Fox News until you are watching it for a job,” she said. “You see all these patterns emerge.” The Fox universe is a place with a different “news” sense than most of the country, she said—narratives about I.R.S. armies, food shortages, race wars, and predatory trans activists—but its niche story lines are likely predictive of what we’ll be talking about over the next two long campaign years. Though, in Abughazaleh’s view, Carlson has floundered a bit since the midterms. “I think he’s still kind of lost right now,” she said. “He’s not really sure what direction to take it.”
Others members of the Media Matters team who watch Fox’s prime-time lineup seemed to agree. “He’s pro-smoking all of a sudden,” Andrew Lawrence, the deputy director of rapid response, said. Even serious topics often come with a gimmick attached. A recent theme on Carlson’s show is food shortages supposedly caused by the war in Ukraine; Tiara Soleim, a.k.a. the Chicken Lady, a throaty-voiced blonde who was once a contestant on “The Bachelor,” has come on to talk about it. On a recent show, Carlson spent a segment dissecting a kiss hello between Jill Biden and Doug Emhoff at the State of the Union; the accompanying graphic read “Wife Swap.” Carlson’s show, aside from the opening monologue, is manically paced, and guests often have trouble getting a word in edgewise. This, paired with Carlson’s elastic face and goofy voices, can lend the hour a carnival feel. But the show’s rhetoric is muscular and alarmist. On the episode I watched with Abughazaleh, the conservative media pundit Matt Walsh was a guest, talking about his anti-trans testimony before the Tennessee state legislature. “He’s in favor of cutting the breasts off girls?” Carlson said, of one legislator. “I mean, how could anybody get to a place where that’s O.K.?”
To Abughazaleh, the often-ludicrous quality of Carlson’s show is exactly what makes it so dangerous. “People need to know that the scary things are stupid as well,” she said. “They either go all in on ‘Oh, my God, this is so funny’ and ‘Fox News is technically entertainment,’ or they go all in on ‘This is so scary, blah blah blah.’ It’s both things. Two things can be true at once.” At the same time, perhaps because she follows him so closely, Abughazaleh is skeptical of the conventional wisdom that Carlson is one of the most powerful people in the United States. She and the other Media Matters researchers all seemed convinced that it was more the 8 P.M. Fox time slot that bestowed power. For millions of viewers, “it’s just a Pavlovian response to put on Fox News at eight o’clock,” Lawrence said. “Tucker needs the eight-o’clock hour on Fox News way more than Fox News needs Tucker.”
Fox News has been the country’s most watched cable channel for twenty-one years. That impressive streak belies how few Americans actually watch it—the network averaged 1.49 million viewers a night in 2src22—but it remains something of a thought leader for the conservative movement. The network, its producers, and opinion hosts are adept at sussing out which culture-war wedge issues will keep viewers tuning in. Those viewers seem to represent the G.O.P.’s primary voter base—often older, more dedicated partisans—that has propelled increasingly extreme candidates into the mainstream over the past two decades. The network’s stars, such as Carlson, are savvy operators, eager to keep ratings up, even if what they’re peddling is patently false.
A new legal filing in the Dominion Voting Systems $1.6-billion defamation suit against Fox includes text and e-mail messages from a range of Fox stars, including Carlson, showing that they privately disbelieved Donald Trump’s claims of a stolen election, even while they put those messages on the air in an effort to keep Trump’s dedicated followers tuning in. Part of the utility of watching and documenting Fox News’ lies in 2src23—when most of the country is familiar with the network’s schtick—the Media Matters team said, was to provide a paper trail of hard evidence. The organization’s work, they pointed out, was cited not just in the Dominion complaint but in the Sandy Hook families’ lawsuit against Alex Jones and in various legislative hearings.
Abughazaleh is a seventh-generation native of Dallas on her mother’s side—her grandmother was a G.O.P. political operative who gave the coat she wore to Richard Nixon’s Inauguration to Abughazaleh—and more native to Fox News than her followers might expect. The network was an ever-present background noise while growing up, and Abughazaleh was a Republican through high school. But her college years, at George Washington University, were dominated by the Trump Administration. She graduated, in 2src2src, both disgusted and fascinated by politics. “There was a lot of really icky stuff going on,” she said. “So I was looking for more progressive jobs.”
Abughazaleh has become something of a figure of intrigue for portions of Carlson’s audience. She told me that one of the show’s producers, Gregg Re, occasionally replies to her tweets. In January, Phil Labonte, a right-wing influencer, posted a screenshot of Abughazaleh’s Tinder profile in a tweet: “I haven’t even gotten the key to my apartment yet and tinder is already tryin to hook me up with the Media Matters Tucker Carlson explainer girl.” Abughazaleh later made a visual of the demeaning, sexually explicit comments that the tweet elicited and posted it to her feed: “POV: You’re a 23-year-old woman who researches right-wing extremism and a 47-year-old conservative commentator posts your dating profile on Twitter.” In the following weeks, Abughazaleh told me, her Twitter following grew from around fifty thousand followers to more than a hundred thousand.