Tucker Carlson: Just 'Right' for PBS?

AUTHOR'S NOTE: Tucker Carlson phoned in to yell at me about this article on his new PBS public affairs program. (Read about Carlson's response to this story)

He says women want "to be listened to, protected and amused" and "to be spanked vigorously every once in a while."

His "guilty fantasy" is "Hillary. Every time I see her I think I could, you know, help."

He thinks that if journalists carry guns, it makes them safer, and he was prepared to "shoot first" and ask no questions in Iraq, where "I could have done anything."

And he noted at a PBS Annual meeting that television is "not a good medium for spreading information to the general public."

He's the conservative commentator Tucker Carlson, bow-tied poster boy of the ascendant right, and his eponymous weekly public affairs program "Tucker Carlson: Unfiltered" debuts this week on that same PBS system.

Presumably the new program, as with Carlson's other shows (such as CNN's "Crossfire" and the late-and-unlamented "Spin Room") will refrain from any ill-fated attempts to spread information to viewers.

Given his flippant, embarrassingly callow demeanor, reactionary (one might even say radical) views, and stated disbelief in the more informational aspects of public affairs programming, one might reasonably wonder why Tucker Carlson was chosen to host a weekly public affairs program on America's only publicly-owned network.

Carlson does.

"The whole thing is confusing to me," he recently told Newsday. "I'm still confused by how the whole works -- the stations, PBS, the Congress..."

Maybe his father can explain things to him.

After all, Richard Carlson used to head the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which partially funds PBS, and also contributes to the production of -- you guessed it -- "Tucker Carlson Unfiltered! Before that, Richard headed the United States Information Agency, which presumably explains the propaganda gene so prevalent in much of young Tuck's prior shouting . . .er, "reporting."

Or maybe Tucker could read Ken Auletta's recent New Yorker dissection of public broadcasting's latest conservative swerve. Auletta detailed the current PBS and CPB tilt to the right, fostered by political pressure from Bush appointees to the CPB board and Congressional allies. As a result, pubcasting's powers-that-be handpicked Carlson fills in order to 'balance' the hard-hitting journalism and insufficiently conservative commentary on that other weekly PBS public affairs program, "Now with Bill Moyers," which of course has never received a penny of support from CPB.

As detailed in the public broadcasting newspaper Current, two recently appointed CPB Board members, Gay Hart Gaines and Cheryl Halpern, together with their families, have given more than $816,000 to Republican causes over the past fourteen years. And, as Common Cause reported in a little-noticed news release last December, Gaines was a key fundraiser for Newt Gingrich a decade ago, when the then-House speaker was actively campaigning to defund CPB. Halpern meanwhile has suggested that CPB should be given authority to impose accountability and penalties for broadcasts it deems unbalanced -- such as, presumably, "Now with Bill Moyers."

CPB Chairman Kenneth Tomlinson -- Director of Voice of America for two years during the Reagan Administration -- has also weighed in, telling Auletta that "it is absolutely critical for people on the right to feel they have the same ownership stake in pubic television as people on the left have."

Confusion, connections and caveats aside, Carlson is an unlikely choice for the position of House-Conservative-in-Charge at PBS, for any number of reasons. Pre-eminent among them is the fact that many right-thinking political operatives consider him to be too liberal to represent their concerns -- thus denying them that all-important feeling of ownership that Tomlinson sees as common to "people on the left." As Tim Graham of the conservative watchdog group Media Research Center put it, "If you took a poll of conservatives and said, which of the following would you like to have a PBS show, he wouldn't be in the top three or four. Maybe he's what PBS wants. He's not a red-meat thrower." To which Carlson responds, "It's ludicrous. I'm the most conservative, slash, libertarian person I know."

It's true, and to his credit, that Carlson is not doctrinaire. He's abandoned, for example, his earlier support of rightist positions on issues as varied as the war in Iraq and the death penalty -- both of which he once favored. "I enjoy changing my mind based on reality," he told Newsday, "I can't control whatever vulgar, outdated stereotypes exist out there." Carlson even went so far as say he "didn't know" if he will vote for Bush this fall, given the situation in Baghdad.

Fear not, however -- help is on the way for the ever-beleaguered conservatives. Other right-wingers are waiting in the wings for their PBS slot, including Paul Gigot, editor of the Wall Street Journal editorial page, and conservative culture critic Michael Medved. And at the same time, Bill Moyers is stepping back as host of "Now" after the elections, and PBS plans to cut the duration of the hour-long program in half starting in January, when it will be headlined by current co-host David Brancaccio.

As for "Tucker Carlson: Unfiltered," which debuts this week -- what can we expect? "The standards are going to be pretty clear -- tell me something I don't know and no lying," he says. They're simple, but you rarely see that on TV, so it's harder than it sounds."

Almost as hard as spreading information to the public.

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