Tucker Carlson's Twitter Venture Tests Mainstream Media's Eroding Grip
The controversial host launches his effort at a promising moment for dissident voices.
"Will anybody be able to police what Carlson says, or is this the point? It's just a free for all?" NBC News's Tom Costello asked earlier this week of Tucker Carlson's new Twitter project, neatly summarizing the increasingly odd relationship between the mainstream media and the audience it serves. With traditional outlets shedding trust among a public that disagrees with journalists about the role of news media, a talking head publicly frets about the fired nationalist host setting up shop on a platform where he'll have to please nobody but his fans (and, presumably, advertisers).
Escaping Policing Is the Point
It's precisely that relatively free hand that drew Carlson after he was benched by Fox News.
"Speech is the fundamental prerequisite for democracy. That's why it's enshrined in the first of our constitutional amendments," Carlson announced on the platform that will host his new show. "Amazingly, as of tonight, there aren't many platforms left that allow free speech. The last big one remaining in the world, the only one, is Twitter—where we are now."
Carlson also described what he saw as flaws in the traditional media he involuntarily left behind, where Costello and company recoil at the thought of a rival escaping the gatekeepers.
"Much of what you see on television or read in The New York Times is in fact true in the literal sense. It could pass one of the media's own fact checks. Lawyers would be willing to sign off on it. In fact, they may have, but that doesn't make it true. It's not true. At the most basic level, the news you consume is a lie, a lie of the stealthiest and most insidious kind. Facts have been withheld on purpose along with proportion and perspective. You are being manipulated."
Left unsaid was that on-air, Carlson withheld his own disdain for Donald Trump, privately describing him as "destructive" and a "demonic force," while publicly catering to supporters of the former president. Those personal omissions aside, he endorsed suspicions about the media held by many Americans.
Losing Public Trust
"While 72% say national news organizations have the resources and opportunity to report the news accurately and fairly to the public, only 35% say most national news organizations can be relied on to deliver the information they need," Gallup and the Knight Foundation reported in February of this year. "Fifty percent of Americans feel most national news organizations intend to mislead, misinform or persuade the public."
The gatekeeping function—policing what people have to say, as Costello put it—is a place where Americans have significant disagreements with journalists.
"Journalists in the United States differ markedly from the general public in their views of 'bothsidesism' – whether journalists should always strive to give equal coverage to all sides of an issue," Pew Research reported last summer. "A little more than half of the journalists surveyed (55%) say that every side does not always deserve equal coverage in the news. By contrast, 22% of Americans overall say the same, whereas about three-quarters (76%) say journalists should always strive to give all sides equal coverage."
Journalists have the right to disagree with the public, of course, and to act accordingly. But then they shouldn't act surprised when the public that dislikes the way they do their jobs turns to dissident voices and to platforms that welcome those dissidents.
In the Footsteps of Media Dissidents
"Hey everyone, this is Glenn Greenwald, and I'm incredibly excited to announce that we have created a new channel on Rumble called System Update with Glenn Greenwald," the journalist best known for publicizing Edward Snowden's revelations about the surveillance state announced last year. "Rumble is a platform devoted not to a particular ideology but to defending a free internet by guaranteeing free debate and free discourse and offers an opportunity to liberate ourselves from the repression, the increasing repression, of big-tech monopolies."
Similarly, Bari Weiss moved to Substack to escape "the forced political homogenization of schools and newsrooms" after being pushed out of The New York Times. "When a person used to pick up The Times, for example, they assumed what they read in its pages was true," she commented. "It had authority and trust that it had accumulated over many decades. That trust has collapsed for a majority of Americans."
Substack offered a home to other dissident journalists including Matt Taibbi and Michael Shellenberger. Joe Rogan turned his podcast, now hosted by Spotify, into what The New York Times itself admitted is "one of the most consumed media products on the planet — with the power to shape tastes, politics, medical decisions."
Earlier media outcasts had established independent platforms. That includes Glenn Beck who founded TheBlaze (and tried to recruit Tucker Carlson). Decades before, I. F. Stone published an influential newsletter after becoming persona non grata at mainstream outlets. These efforts achieved varying degrees of success, though audiences often had to seek them out and they offered limited competition to the mainstream. That's changing as established outlets lose their hold and alternatives gain stature.
Losing Their Grip
"We are living through a historic, technology-fueled shift in the balance of power between the media and its subjects," Hamilton Nolan wrote in 2020 for the Columbia Journalism Review. "The subjects are winning. The internet in general—and social media platforms in particular—have destroyed one of the media's most important sources of power: being the only place that could offer access to an audience."
Nolan thought that was a bad thing, on the assumption that the press enforces accountability. But if you're part of the public that considers mainstream outlets untrustworthy and misleading, then you're probably delighted that the same developments eroding the traditional media's grip are also empowering dissident voices and alternative platforms to challenge traditional media.
Whether Tucker Carlson's media effort on Twitter will succeed is still to be seen. But he's trying his luck at perhaps the most promising moment in recent history to launch such an operation. Fox News's ratings have dropped since he left, suggesting loyalty to him rather than the former platform. Carlson starts with greater prominence than many independent journalists who have found success with their own projects, which bodes well for his plans. Twitter is untried as a platform for a news and commentary show, but so were Rumble, Spotify, and Substack not so long ago.
And if nobody is able to police what Carlson says, as NBC's Tom Costello frets, that may be all to the controversial host's benefit. As with many dissident media voices, his audience follows him not despite the fact that he horrifies the old guard, but because he does.