Breakfast, Swimming, and Syria: A Conversation with Tucker Carlson

  Image: Blythe Gulley

Image: Blythe Gulley

Conservative firebrand Tucker Carlson came to Carolina in April to deliver the School of Media and Journalism's annual Park Lecture and answer questions from a panel of students and faculty. Carlson’s selection proved controversial among the Chapel Hill community; some questioned the decision to host yet another conservative commentator from Fox News, while others felt his appearance might spark a healthy debate on campus. Before the address, Carolina Political Review editors Kirk Kovach and Sydney Persing sat down with Carlson to pick the brain of one of the country’s most-watched political pundits.

Carlson’s meteoric rise to the coveted 8:00 PM prime time slot on Fox News has featured a wide range of endeavors in the press. He started his career as an editor of Policy Review, a research journal published by The Heritage Foundation, and later worked at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and The Weekly Standard. He joined CNN’s Crossfire as a co-host in 2001 and then moved to MSNBC to spearhead Tucker, sometimes reporting live from the Middle East. Carlson has taken on increasing roles at Fox since joining the network in 2009 and currently hosts Tucker Carlson Tonight, which has seen impressive ratings since replacing The O’Reilly Factor last year.

  Image: Blythe Gulley

Image: Blythe Gulley

A frequent topic on Tucker Carlson Tonight is the alleged liberal indoctrination that many conservatives feel is pervading college campuses in the U.S. Tucker was first asked if women’s studies departments, viewed by many as one indication of this trend, were problematic. He seemed reassuring, saying, “I don’t think inquiry is ever problematic. Learning things is always good.” Still, he claimed that a department “whose stated agenda is to empower half the population because of their sex” would be flawed in the sense that it serves not a role of inquiry, but one of activism.

Carlson pointed out the absurdity of maintaining entire departments devoted to undoing the patriarchy when, in his view, the patriarchy has already been undone. He argued that men needed help, citing their lower enrollment and graduation rates compared to women. He also mentioned conversations with his kids and their friends and quipped, “The girls are on it, and the boys are stoned!” Carlson stated a huge amount of data showed these trends, but it was being ignored for political reasons. He said, “My job - as, yes, a journalist - is to bring to public attention the things that we are ignoring.”

Carlson was then asked if he would support a “men's studies” academic field but declined to take the bait, instead saying he was “In favor of ceasing attacks on individuals based on their sex.” He doubled down on his previous argument: “How would you like a department devoted to attacking gay people, or black people...toxic masculinity, how about toxic homosexuality?”

The next question pertained to fellow conservative commentator Ann Coulter's appearance on Tucker Carlson Tonight, in which she and the show's namesake discussed the impact of university faculty on the worldview of their students. After mentioning a Gallup poll demonstrating similarities in the political ideologies of students and professors, Carlson had asked Coulter, “Has there ever been a more obedient little cadre of robots than college students?"

This recollection brought an animated giddiness to Carlson, who interjected, “Oh gosh, is that true? They all believe their professors! Can you imagine?” He expressed concerns that students’ and professors’ views were so reflective of each other. The pundit cited his view of skepticism as the inspiration for why he went into journalism in the first place and suggested that the “brainwashing” taking place on American campuses conflicts directly with the critical thinking that should be taught instead.

  Image: Blythe Gulley

Image: Blythe Gulley

Included in promotional materials for the Park Lecture was James Carville’s description of Carlson as “the world’s greatest contrarian”. When asked if there are any drawbacks to such a role, however, Carlson denied the contrarian label, saying, “I don’t arrive at a position just to ‘flip the bird’ to other people.” Carlson said he tries to be honest in his coverage, but he sees a concerning lack of critical thinking in the public’s consumption of the media.

He followed up with his signature approach of masking an unorthodox claim in an elementary analogy. He continued, “A lot of things that we all assume are true - ‘breakfast is the most important meal of the day’ - are totally false actually. Breakfast is bad for you. You can swim within two hours of eating. A lot of the, sort of, ‘cliches’ that we accept uncritically are false.” Then came the kicker: “Actually, the Assad government probably didn’t use chemical weapons last week.” Carlson criticized the public’s quickness to believe the authorities but then threw up a cautionary hand as if to backtrack, clarifying, “I don’t believe what people say just because they said it.” The pundit admitted this puts him “on the opposite side of a lot of people” but said he doesn’t do so intentionally.

Tucker touched on similar points in the lecture following the interview. His defenses of free speech and truth-seeking saw frequent applause from those in attendance, and his biting cynicism drew some laughs even among his detractors in the audience. Those hoping for a fierce debate over his contributions to journalism might have found the talk and panel underwhelming, but in any case, the Tucker Carlson that visited our campus proved no different than the one who ruthlessly wages war on his counterparts on television. For better or for worse, his voice will continue to be an emphatic one in the national discourse far into the future.