Since Donald Trump’s election, Fox News host Tucker Carlson has ascended to become a full caricature of white supremacy. Carlson frequently uses his 8 p.m. slot to attack immigrants with cherry-picked fear-mongering presented as news despite being little more than racist fan fiction. Last week, at least as far as advertisers are concerned, he went too far. Boycotts resulted in more than a dozen companies pulling ads from the show. Since the corporate exodus began, various media gatekeepers rushed to condemn the boycotting of Tucker Carlson Tonight. The resulting debate has provided a stark example of the mind-numbing paradigm of “both sidesism,” and the way it scrambles the national conversation. Engaging with different political viewpoints is not the same thing as sponsoring hate speech.
The inciting episode aired last Thursday, when Carlson claimed that allowing Central American immigrants into the country “makes our own country poorer and dirtier and more divided.” Earlier in his remarks, he openly mocked those who believe “we have a moral obligation to accept the world’s poor.” The segment featured an image of literal garbage. Carlson’s remarks were met with successful calls to boycott companies that advertise during his show. On Friday, Pacific Life Insurance pulled its ads, noting that, “As a company, we strongly disagree with Mr. Carlson’s statements.” On Monday, Carlson doubled down on his initial remarks and complained he was being silenced by liberals. By Tuesday, more than a dozen companies asked that their ads be removed from Tucker Carlson Tonight.
In reaction to the boycott, Carlson is defending himself on the basis of “free speech.” I keep Command-F-ing the Constitution, and can’t seem to find the place where our founding fathers guaranteed that a bigotry variety hour be sponsored by IHOP, but Carlson is not wrong in that he is being “silenced.” Boycotts are a tactic of exerting public will, in which money is used as speech. By applying pressure to the companies who choose to be associated with Carlson’s show, boycotters refuse to allow his white supremacist rhetoric into mainstream acceptability. The goal is absolutely to get Tucker Carlson to shut up. Given the apparent lack of accountability at the government level (see: the president doing lots of crimes), the way corporate sponsorship responds to economic pressure is a crucial bastion of public will. As the writer Alexander Chee wrote on Twitter, “When an un-democratic minority installs itself and is entrenched through voter suppression, gerrymandering, dark money, foreign intervention, and regularly moves against popular will, boycotts become a last way to express the democratic will of the majority.”
Several media figureheads took issue with the result of the boycotts, and what they would mean for advertisers impacting freedom of expression. Politico columnist Jack Schafer was one of the first to express concern: “I didn't like the organized advertiser boycotts against Bill O'Reilly,” he tweeted on Tuesday, “and I don't like the ones against Tucker Carlson.” FiveThirtyEight editor-in-chief Nate Silver agreed: “Jack is right,” he wrote. “The logical endpoint of deeming advertisers to have endorsed the political messages of the shows they run ads on is that only milquetoast both-sidesism with a pro-corportate [sic] bent will be advertising-supported, if any political content is ad-supported at all.”
In response to Silver, the Sleeping Giants campaign, which aims to make bigotry and sexism less profitable, asserted that the issue is in framing bigotry as a legitimate political opinion. “You are speaking as a publisher, not a citizen,” the campaign tweeted, “If you’re a person of color or a member of the LGBTQ community or an immigrant, these companies are literally footing the bill for you to be vilified every week. Bigotry should not be deemed political. That’s a big part of the issue.”
The conversation unraveled from there, with Silver asserting that he “tends to agree Tucker is racist” and defending himself with a smooth, but I’m gay tho!!! referencing his memory of “conservative groups [that] urged boycotts of advertisers and networks who were seen as promoting LGBTQ or other ‘nontraditional’ lifestyles.” This is also the argument Schafer made in his take on O’Reilly, after his alleged history of sexual harassment led dozens of companies to remove their ads from the show, leading to O’Reilly’s ouster from Fox News and teeing up Carlson for his current time slot. “The other possibilities are endless,” Schafer wrote. “We’re not that many years removed from a world in which an outed homosexual anchor or commentator would have faced boycott calls for their ‘immorality.’” Hopefully, he was able to avoid injuring himself when traversing such a slippery slope.
Caught up in this conversation is the warped understanding of “both sides.” Silver cites the moral middle ground as the inevitable conclusion of advertisers policing opinion, while himself engaging in a more toxic brand of false equivocation. The crux of the issue seems to be the misunderstanding that what Carlson does on television is journalism and/or legitimate political opinion. It is neither.
From the set of Tucker Carlson Tonight, Fox’s foremost talking head launders hatred through the character of a journalistic news host, fraying the brains of his viewers with a potent mix of paranoia and xenophobia presented as fact. Vox’s Carlos Maza has spent the past two years cataloging Carlson’s white supremacy, and the means by which it masquerades as journalism.
“Fox is set up to not clearly demarcate between what is opinion and what is news,” he said on a call with Out. “They don’t hold their host to journalistic standards, and so Carlson is able to distribute deliberately misleading information.” That deliberately misleading information is often indistinguishable from the stuff of genocidal propaganda. “It’s the classic model in which a marginalized group is targeted through the idea that they are undermining the value of the nation state,” Maza explained.
For Carlson, that means othering immigrants as dirty and dangerous by morphing negative one-off stories into trends of national concern. It is no mistake that this rhetoric has won the enthusiastic approval of white supremacists like Richard Spencer and former grand wizard of the Klu Klux Klan David Duke, or that the Nazi website Stormfront called Carlson “literally our greatest ally.”
On the most basic level, this is not about Carlson’s “right” to treat Mein Kampf as his personal vision board. He is more than welcome to say whatever he likes while sitting on a curb and drinking straight from a bottle of Fireball. There are no constitutional guidelines or journalistic ethics, however, that guarantee Carlson’s right to spew hate speech with the support of a structure of corporate sponsorship that implies mainstream acceptability. That’s what boycotting is about. Choosing to run ads on a program is an affirmative choice requiring accountability. Furthermore, Carlson’s white supremacist propaganda has to be considered in terms of its attack on personhood. This is not a matter of mere bad opinion. It is about spreading propaganda that specifically attacks and targets a marginalized group. Carlson is challenging the very humanity of immigrants, then asserting his right to do so based on equality of expression.
The false equivalence at the crux of this particular dumpster fire calls to mind the recent “see all sides” ad campaign from Yahoo News. In one, blue and red barbed-wire walls intersect into purple. The blue reads, “Immigrants Enrich Us.” The red reads, “Immigrants Endanger Us.” Yahoo News has since apologized, but initially the publisher wrote that the goal of the campaign was part of an effort to give users “the complete picture.” This perfectly encapsulates the “both sides-ism” on display in prominent journalists’ defense of Tucker. The truth is not a math equation, and the discussion of immigrants is the perfect illustration. Point blank, “immigrants endanger us” is a falsehood based on statistical evidence. (A 2017 qualitative research study from Oxford University found that “being foreign born is negatively associated with crime overall and is not significantly associated with committing either violent or property crime.” That means, statistically speaking, immigrants are actually less likely to commit crimes. (I’m not even going to get into the “dirty” thing, because, if you don’t understand the problem with those remarks, I don’t know, go watch the 2006 Oscar-winning film Crash.)
The “both sides” mode of thinking makes this all seem far more complicated than it is. “Immigrants enrich us” and “immigrants endanger us” is not a “complete picture” of the truth. Those are two opinions, the latter of which is offensive at once because it is racist and factually incorrect.
According to Carlson and those condemning the boycotts of his show, the right to empower white supremacy relies on the idea that all views deserve unbridled expression regardless of public will or their relative harm. This creates a perverted juxtaposition in which personhood is set on a level playing field with bigotry. The idea that a group who is being targeted has no right to self-defense is a patently absurd. You could fault Carlson’s line of thinking as a person with a soul, or just as someone who comprehends the basic principles of logic. If nothing else, we can thank Carlson for the egregiousness of this example, which reveals the fatal flaw at the core of “both sides” nonsense with stunning clarity. Carlson insists that his dehumanization of immigrants be heard based on the ignorance at the core of “both sides-ism” and the “free speech” hysteria that often surrounds it. Beneath his whiny white supremacy lies the ugly fallacy that somehow all opinions are equal, but all people aren’t.