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Bowtie Me Up

Geeky conservative Tucker Carlson's move to MSNBC appears to be yet another sign of 'right-shift' in cable news – but is that really it?
 
 
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CARLSON: We've been hearing all day about this volcano in the Canary Islands that may collapse at some point and send a tsunami toward the East Coast of the United States drowning the Hamptons. Do you consider that a likely scenario, a possible scenario?

SIPKIN: You know, I hate to say things are impossible ... I would say that it is not very likely, that if it was possible there's no way of telling whether it's going to happen in 100,000 years – I don't even know what the likelihood is.

– Tucker Carlson, on CNN's Newsnight, interviewing seismologist Stuart Sipkin of the U.S. Geological Survey.

Thank you, Tucker, thank you. When this whole tsunami thing happened, that was my first thought, too – hey, what about the Hamptons? Are the Hamptons safe? Now I know.

Tucker Carlson is in the news this week. Rumor has it he is going to take Deborah Norville's nine o'clock slot on MSNBC, providing society with the hyperambitious, polysyllabic segue to Scarborough Country it has been lacking all these years. The move comes amidst reports that the network has scrapped plans for its long-anticipated revival show, Alvin Ailey Presents Michael Savage .

Carlson's move to MSNBC is almost certain to provoke yet another series of articles about the "right-i-zation" of cable news. Liberal outlets everywhere are going to remind us that the Fox network has been crushing its opposition so convincingly that the other networks are now fighting back with moves like this Carlson thing – by trying, in other words, to equal or surpass Fox's partisanship. Weed out the old "neutral" voices, stick in a seemingly open, unapologetic conservative like Carlson, and eventually the entire informational landscape will be dominated by flag-waving dunderheads fighting over the carcass of Alan Colmes. This is the terrifying future we are going to be warned about once again, if Carlson goes GE.

Certainly this is a frightening prospect, but I'm not sure the ascension of Carlson is the right thing to get upset about. Carlson's role in the cable-news world – that absurdist interpretation of Orwell that dominates the shape and speed of the American news cycle – has never been entirely clear. He has never been believable as a hatemongering brownshirt; his political ethnicity is probably closer to traitor than demagogue. You'd know exactly which side of the desert island to search for Carlson, if he were ever to be stranded on one with the Barnard French faculty and the Tuscaloosa chapter of the Klan – he'd be on the left bank, passionately misquoting Baudelaire. The same cannot be said for people like Sean Hannity and Michael Savage, genuinely insecure creeps whose ideal natural habitat is the praise of bigots.

Carlson occupies the same role for conservatives in the media landscape that Colmes does for liberals. Colmes is a pale-faced, paint-by-numbers loser whose only job is to be a believable liberal for people who live in trailers. Carlson is CNN's idea of a conservative. His right-wing ideas come from his changeable, expensive brains instead of his stomach. In the same way that the helpless, ineffectual Colmes is a reassuring image to hardcore conservatives, Carlson puts a soothing face on conservatism for educated East Coast progressives – because even the biggest neo-Marxist wanker from Brown takes one look at Carlson and sees the one man in America he would feel sure of being able to kick the shit out of in a back alley.

That same wanker could probably take Savage or O'Reilly, too, but those guys have supplicants and constituents by the millions who would come rushing to their aid. Not Carlson. In a bar fight, no 35-year-old man with a bowtie has friends. Especially not a smart-aleck closet case like Carlson. You would be hard-pressed to find an American who would not leap to his feet to cheer the sight of Tucker Carlson getting his teeth kicked down an alley, which I suspect is the reason CNN picked him to be their champion of conservatism. He is a patsy and a fraud – the kind of public personality totalitarian regimes used to nurture for years in order to execute for a lack of orthodoxy at some opportune historical moment much later on. That MSNBC hires him thinking they're getting the real thing, a big ticket to red-state ratings, just shows how clueless that network really is.

It's true that Carlson has said and done a lot of inflammatory things over the years. His criminal niches in the conservative pundit world seem to be the bald factual misrepresentation and the suggestively over-enthusiastic gay-bashing joke. He once described cross-dressing as a "Democratic value," and said the following about gay, lesbian and transgender delegates at the DNC: "If you don't find them at least mildly funny, you're probably a Democrat." In yet another break from the grimly onanistic Hannity/Savage aesthetic, Tucker will occasionally come on like a lascivious young sex god, and often seems anxious that the CNN demographic know how much he digs chicks and even – gasp – lesbians. "One area of liberal phenomenon I support is female bi-sexuality, this apparent increased willingness of girls to bring along a friend," he told Elle magazine. Famously, he once also confessed to a sex fantasy about Hillary Clinton; he said she was too wound up and that he could "help her."

More seriously, Carlson has been known to do things like falsely report that Al Gore decided to go campaigning on the day his sister died, and that Republican speakers were booed and hounded by angry activists at Paul Wellstone's memorial service (they were not). But this is academic. You play a conservative pundit on television long enough, and anyone will be able to find a whole pile of objectionable statements in your past. The real significance of Carlson, as the celebrated exchange with Jon Stewart incoherently hinted at, is not what he says about the right, but what he says about television.

Stewart was right to target Crossfire. The Carlson/Paul Begala "debate" show is not only one of the biggest con games in the informational arena, it's the archetypal blueprint for the larger con game of American politics. In the show, the "left" battles the "right," and the segments are structured in such a way that the commentary is bound to outrage virtually every viewer away from one or the other debate participant. Taking sides, the viewer accepts the black-and-white left-right paradigm and focuses exclusively on the two debaters. As a result, he doesn't ask the important question, which is this: If Tucker Carlson represents the right and Paul Begala represents the left, what is the ideology of the TV studio in which they sit? What's the politics of that dull white table upon which their arms rest? Because the unspoken assumption of the show is that the debate is held in a perfectly neutral medium – and this is a false assumption.

Television has its own ideology. No matter who wins the fake debates, it always wins. It is always selling something: not just products, but a whole mountain of cultural assumptions and prejudices that make the population passive, submissive and amenable to buying. One of the biggest of those assumptions is that politics is something neat and theatrical that fits in three eight-minute segments, and can be conducted with a handshake on an unchanging set day after day for decades, by a pair of glib geeks in suits who probably drink espresso together or blow each other after each show.

Real politics isn't a ping-pong game. It's ugly, uncomfortable, deadly serious and inherently bad television. That both Crossfire and our presidential elections are good television ought to tell us something. We're being had by a league of frauds, and whether they play on the right or the left is immaterial.

Matt Taibbi lives in New York. He covers politics for Rolling Stone and the New York Press.