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I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when Tucker Carlson approached the podium on the IU Auditorium stage last Tuesday evening. I knew that he was one of the shouting heads on CNN’s Crossfire. But since I have come to view post-9/11 cable news as an insidious virus infecting the body politic, I didn’t know if he played a liberal or a conservative.
I was fairly certain, however, that I would leave the experience secure in my professional judgment that Carlson, a symbol of the corporate TV news biz, defames the term "journalist" when he claims to be one. I didn’t expect to exit the Auditorium gratified. But, on balance, I did.
It wasn’t that Carlson, who put on a splendid performance, persuaded me during his lecture on "The Political Landscape" that he is a practitioner of the honorable craft of journalism. To the contrary. During one of his Democrat-bashing segments, he said: "Part of this is unfair, not that I’ve ever had trouble being unfair. Indeed I do it for a living."
Journalists seek the truth. Carlson seeks ratings. That the two are mutually exclusive was underscored in a Wednesday New York Times piece headlined "Cable War Coverage Suggests a New ‘Fox Effect’ on Television." It read in part:
"This was supposed to be CNN’s war, a chance for the network, which is owned by AOL Time Warner, to reassert its ratings lead using its international perspective and straightforward approach.
"Instead, it has been the Fox News Channel, owned by the News Corporation, that has emerged as the most-watched source of cable news by far, with anchors and commentators who skewer the mainstream media, disparage the French and flay anybody else who questions President Bush’s war effort.
"Fox’s formula had already proved there were huge ratings in opinionated news with an America-first flair. But with 46 of the top 50 cable shows last week alone, Fox has brought prominence to a new sort of TV journalism that casts aside traditional notions of objectivity, holds contempt for dissent and eschews the skepticism of government at mainstream journalism’s core."
Imagine CNN as the responsible media. Imagine, as Carlson said at Tuesday’s lecture, that cable news’ leading personalities Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Chris Matthews, James Carville, etc. actually tone down their personalities for their shows. Imagine that.
My gratification didn’t stem from the fact that, on occasion during his performance, Carlson did deliver some truth. For instance, he was particularly on point when he skewered the Democratic Party for its lack of ideology. Healthy political debate is critical to a democracy, he said. Likening an argument with a Democrat to an argument with a drunk or a child, Carlson said it’s worse than unpleasant: "It’s also bad for the country."
But Tuesday’s speech-goers had to endure prodigious quantities of nonsense in between such nuggets of truth.
Carlson characterized arguments that Bush War II is over oil as "majestic dumbness." Never mind that American troops aggressively secured the oil fields but retreated when banks, hospitals, museums, and every other institution in Iraqi life was looted and destroyed. Never mind that everything the United States does in the Middle East, except its commitment to Israel, is about oil. If Iraq didn’t have oil, the U.S. government would still be selling Saddam Hussein deadly chemicals to use against his own people.
He brushed off campaign finance reform as the driving force behind John McCain’s early electoral success in the 2000 primary elections, positing instead that McCain had no ideology and couldn’t explain his own success. Never mind that McCain, like Al Gore, achieved electoral success espousing populist ideology directed at the chasm between the rich and the poor, the imbalance between the powerful and the disenfranchised. Never mind that the McCain-Feingold bill, the long-stalled legislative proposal to reform campaign finance, became law shortly after McCain’s campaign on the issue.
Nonsense was a commodity in great supply Tuesday evening, at least on the stage. Since it was tax day, Carlson told the crowd that if they were self-employed, they would hate the IRS. For the record, I am self-employed. I paid three tax bills last Tuesday. I do not hate the IRS.
The crowd, however, provided intellectual relief from the onstage babble, witty and entertaining as it was.
When the predominantly student audience got its chance at the microphone, questioner after questioner dispelled the notion that today’s students are self-indulgent, Real World twits. Steady lines six to eight deep formed behind two microphones until time ran out. And they ignored Carlson’s repeated requests to hit him hard, to be rude, like he is. Instead, they asked thoughtful, reasoned questions.
Their questions, about conservatives and gays, motivations behind the war, the need for a United Nations’ role in Iraq’s future, broader military excursions in the Middle East, and the impacts of the war on the American economy, to list a few, suggested deep skepticism about the Bush administration and its right-wing agenda.
Many prefaced their questions by telling Carlson they disagreed with his politics. One told him: "I think all my friends are nervous because I’m such a liberal."
I found that gratifying.