Rural America & the New World of Media

April 24, 2023 may go down as Bloody Monday in the annals of American media. News of a “parting of ways” with FOX News anchor Tucker Carlson came an hour before Don Lemon announced his own termination at CNN.

Mr. Lemon was the host of Don Lemon Tonight from 2014 to 2022 before he was moved to the morning slot, co-hosting CNN This Morning with Poppy Harlow. But it was Mr. Carlson’s exit that rocked media watchers. The top-rated host in cable news history, his show drew over 3.5 million viewers each night—though boycotts are said to have stunted his advertising revenue. While MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show sold Mercedes-Benz, Tucker Carlson Tonight hocked MyPillow and Pure Talk USA.

FOX made the announcement without explanation, effective immediately. The decision looked sudden and not his own. Whispers of lawsuits, a hostile work environment, leaked texts, and a jealous CEO proved in his absence what made it so unimaginable for a media company to part with him: Mr. Carlson doesn’t just report news, he drives it.

He became a voice from and to the middle America wilderness. After taking over the FOX primetime slot in 2016, he regularly covered issues that impact red states: green energy, hunting, ranching, even a short documentary on mysterious cattle mutilations. He talked his belief that manufacturing jobs created the American middle class, and outsourcing those jobs to other countries was destroying it.

In a 2019 segment titled “What is destroying rural America?” Mr. Carlson reported on the sale of Cabela’s, a popular fishing and hunting supply store based in Sidney, Nebraska. By name and apparently against advisement he called out Paul Singer, the billionaire hedge fund manager who bought a huge stake in the company before pressuring them to sell to Bass Pro Shops. Singer cashed out once the sale went through. His hedge fund made nearly $100 million and the town of Sidney lost 2000 jobs.

“Singer was the second-largest donor to the Republican party in 2016,” Tucker said. “You may never have heard of Paul Singer, but in Washington he is rockstar famous. And that may be why he is almost certainly paying a lower effective tax rate than your average fireman, just in case you were still wondering if our system is rigged. Oh yeah it is.”

Tucker Carlson does not own a television. He reads books, he writes his own scripts. Those 10 to 20-minute monologues had the ability to go viral online for resonance, not gaffes—a cable unicorn.

But Tucker Carlson Tonight was not fatuous. In what became its final segment, Tucker waved goodbye for the weekend after eating pizza with a deliveryman who had stymied a carjacker. He liked featuring Americans in all their boisterous, unrefined glory. Perhaps his defining characteristic, the thing that made him singular in all of mainstream media: He likes Americans. But neither did his show feel cheap. Mr. Carlson is heterodox, critical of foreign wars and the corporate right (both of these liberal talking points, once upon a time). By contrast, FOX host Sean Hannity is a GOP party man who does not draw heavy scrutiny or advertiser blackouts.

In April 2022, one year before its cancellation, a New York Times analyst conducted a review of 1150 episodes of Tucker Carlson Tonight. The findings, reported breathlessly:

“Mr. Carlson tells you over and over: They don’t care about you and will do whatever they can to maintain power.”

“Mr. Carlson frames nearly every topic on his show as a ‘ruling class’ plot…”

“Mr. Carlson continually hammers at the idea that they care more about everything else…than you.”

“Not only do they want to control you, Mr. Carlson warns, they want to destroy you and your way of life.”

“You vs. them” language, the New York Times analyst warned, is a devise used by populists to create an emotional connection with viewers.

Looking back on his career, Mr. Carlson considers himself among the “them.” On an episode of Full Send podcast in March 2023, Tucker Carlson—the biggest name in news—got vulnerable and introspective with two young hosts.

“That is a big part of the revelation that’s changed my life: the media are part of the control apparatus. Not only are they part of the problem, but I spent most of my life being part of the problem. Defending the Iraq War; I actually did that. I have a million regrets. Not being more skeptical, calling people names when I should have listened to what they were saying. When someone makes a claim, there is only one question that is important: Is the claim true or not? For too long I participated in the culture where anyone who thinks outside these pre-prescribed lanes is crazy, is a conspiracy theorist. And I just really regret that, I’m ashamed that I did that.”

Tucker Carlson now has the rare distinction of having been fired by three major networks: MSNBC, CNN, and FOX.

Mainstream media is crumbling. BuzzFeed just announced closure of their news division, Vice World News may be next. Jeff Shell, the CEO of MSNBC, resigned. Dan Bongino was let go from FOX days before Mr. Carlson and Mr. Lemon. Viewership is in freefall. The latest survey shows trust in media is so low, half of viewers now believe news organizations are actively trying to mislead them.

To be a public person in the Internet Age is to record your own dossier of missteps and mistakes. Those who have risen above—Joe Rogan, Megyn Kelly, Tucker Carlson, it’s a short list—claim to center the old-fashioned virtue of humility, taking the truth seriously, themselves lightly. They confess an error or ignorance. Viewers get the sense that accuracy is the aim, not the host’s validation. Even with the long memory of an all-seeing Internet, audiences will forgive a seeker.

The primetime hour at FOX News looks bleak in the days since Bloody Monday. Tuesday saw the network’s worst ratings since pre-9/11 days.

Wednesday, Tucker Carlson dropped a short video on his personal Twitter page precisely at 8:01 p.m. Cheerful, upbeat, choosing his words carefully, Tucker thanked his audience and reminded them to speak truth.

“When honest people say what’s true, calmly and without embarrassment, they become powerful. That’s the iron law of the universe: True things prevail.”

As of this writing, this video has 19.4 million views.

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