Fox News host Tucker Carlson's on-air war with elitism
It was the 7 p.m. hour on Fox News and famed New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof found himself in the hot seat, forced to defend a column he had authored, in part, about President-elect Donald Trump's supporters.
"I guess what I'm here for is empathy," host Tucker Carlson told Kristof, noting the Times journalist had an extensive background traveling to some of the most troubled places on the globe.
"I've never read a column by you that suggests the people in those places — who support dictators oftentimes — are racists or bad people," Carlson said, as he placed a printed copy of the column on the studio's glass desk. "You would never write that about a poor person in the third world. But you're implying that about your fellow Americans."
Kristof rejected Carlson's characterization of his work, but the newly minted Fox News primetime host, who previously hosted shows on CNN and MSNBC, calmly pressed forward.
"You've thought a lot about the suffering of people in other countries. You've thought a lot about it," Carlson said. "It doesn't seem you've thought that deeply about the suffering of your fellow Americans."
For anyone familiar with Carlson, the sentiment he was expressing on his show, "Tucker Carlson Tonight," was not new. His show, which premiered in the week after the election, has already become a standout in Fox News' nightly programming.
Carlson, a conservative journalist who most recently founded The Daily Caller, a right-leaning online publication, holds ardent views about small government, excessive regulation, and a multitude of other issues typically shared among Republicans.
But the issue he perhaps is most passionate about these days cuts across party lines: He describes it as a distaste for elitism, particularly among political journalists who reside in the Acela corridor.
"What bothers me is the lack of self-awareness. I don't know if I have ever met a group less self-aware than political reporters," Carlson told Business Insider in a recent interview. "They honestly don't believe that there are legitimate alternative views of anything. And like most small-minded and dumb people they are very, very quick to dismiss anything they don't understand as crazy."
'No one believes anything unless it comes from The New Yorker'
Following Trump's unforeseen election victory, the journalism community went into self-evaluation mode, hoping to understand how it had failed to see a Trump win on the horizon.
One of the immediate conclusions was that reporters had become too encapsulated in some sort of bubble. They had failed to detect, and thus understand, the sentiment of Americans residing in the heartland.
That was a conclusion with which Carlson wholeheartedly agreed.
Referencing a widely circulated quote from conservative Wisconsin-based talk-radio host Charlie Sykes, in which he suggested conservative voters were stuck in a bubble and only accepting news from right-wing sources, Carlson said the same was true of the mainstream media.
"It's the mirror image of the world I live in," Carlson said. "In Washington, no one believes anything unless it comes from The New Yorker, New York Times editorial page, or The Washington Post. There's not just one bubble."
Carlson also threw cold water on some of the other theories that have been floated by political journalists and analysts aiming to explain Trump's victory.
"All the explanations have one thing in common," Carlson said. "They don't take voters seriously."
"So whether you believe that the Russians somehow rigged the system ... or you believe that somehow voters were hypnotized by demagoguery from the alt-right. Or if you think they were hoodwinked by fake news," he continued. "All of these are ways of saying that voters didn't know what they were doing, voters weren't making a rational choice."
The suggestion voters were too uninformed to make a wise decision while casting their ballots, Carlson posited, was exactly the attitude that blindsided the media this cycle.
"What I would say is that clearly voters are mad at the establishment and have contempt for the establishment. But the establishment has greater contempt for voters," he said. "If you think your average Trump voter in Ohio hates Washington, you should see what Washington thinks about the Trump voter in Ohio."
Carlson said that "the core irony" of the political system is that "the people who are running the democracy don't believe in democracy."
"That's why they are calling for a recount, that's why the financial community called for another election after Brexit, and it's why the Republican establishment tried to take the nomination away from Trump at the convention," he explained. "Because they are not interested in allowing voters to make these choices."
"And that's fine if it's an oligarchy, you can get away with stuff like this. But if you tell people it's democracy, and then you can't as if it isn't, it really gets people mad."
'Chaos and division'
One thing that does worry Carlson about the growing distrust of the media these days is that individuals on various sides of the political spectrum are moving away from a common fact set in which they form their opinions.
Conservatives refuse to trust legacy outlets like CNN and the Times, while liberals are skeptical about reporting from outlets like Fox News.
"You need, in order to run a country as diverse as ours, a prominently recognized news source. You do," he explained. "You need — if there's a crisis. And I've seen this in other countries. I saw it in a bunch of countries. ... Where there's a crisis and nobody can agree on what the basic facts are."
"That's a source of disunity and that creates chaos and division," Carlson said.
The Fox News host continued: "I hate the mainstream media, but I'm not against the idea of the mainstream media. I am for it, actually. I think it would be nice if there were news organizations that in the end, everybody agreed were on the level."
Carlson said, however, that the so-called mainstream media discredited itself this cycle, prompting a large chunk of the country to turn to alternative outlets for their news.
"The reason people don't agree [the traditional media outlets] are on a level is because they are not on a level," Carlson said. "That's kind of the point."
"Maybe the reason people don't trust The New York Times is because maybe it's not trustworthy. Maybe that's the point?" he rhetorically asked. "So whoever is mad about Breitbart and Alex Jones — well, we wouldn't have Breitbart and Alex Jones if the gatekeepers had done their jobs. But they didn't."
Some news outlets, following introspection in the aftermath of the election, have suggested they will make changes to better represent the views of the broader American population. But Carlson thinks it's too late. These outlets, he said, will never regain the trust of the readers they lost.
"It's over," he bluntly told Business Insider.
How he tries to combat it
Regular viewers of Carlson's show know that one institution in particular has earned his scorn: the higher-education system. It's his way of pushing back against what he views as a system dominated by elites.
Part of the reason he has taken a keen interest in the higher-education system, he said, is because he has two children currently enrolled in college. But he said he was "also struck by how very much modern academia resembles the Medieval Church."
"It's an institution that everyone is required to revere, you send in your tides, all of us are saving money for college, we give more to colleges than our churches, and you are not allowed to ask hard questions, you are not allowed to question what happens there," he explained.
In the month since his show premiered, Carlson has made a habit of interviewing both students and administrators from various colleges. In fact, his show has a reoccurring segment called "Campus Craziness."
In one lengthy segment, he pressed a Hampshire College student over why he didn't believe the American flag should fly on campus. In another, he grilled Michael Roth, the president of Wesleyan University in Connecticut, over his plans to have his school be a "sanctuary campus" throughout Trump's presidency.
Carlson said journalists "rarely" seem to ask hard questions about the people making decisions in the US higher-education system.
"If there was a for-profit company and its CEO made a million dollars a year with subsidized housing, and tons of servants, with a guaranteed five-year contract, and a massive payout at the end, who was taking more than half his budget from the taxpayer — the rest of us would feel like we kind of have a right to know what he's doing, wouldn't we?" he asked. "I kind of think we would!"
Carlson's show marked the first change to Fox News' primetime lineup since founding CEO Roger Ailes departed the network.
The addition of his program also came as Megyn Kelly, considered by many observers to be the outlet's most valuable talent, subtly feuds with network heavyweights like Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity.
But Carlson said he has no part in it and insisted the world he lives in is "entirely drama free."
"There's a little cloud of happiness around my head. If there's drama going on, I am literally the last one to know," he said. "Everyone in my world is nice. I am friends with everybody. Everybody involved in this stuff, at every level, I like."
"And I'm not just saying this," he added. "You can ask — ask anybody. I am not involved in any of that. And when I see people in the hall it's always totally happy. I don't know any details, you know, and I don't seek to."
Instead, the cable news veteran said he was impressed by the "confidence at Fox that shows in the way they treat people."
"I've been here seven years. Nobody has ever told me not to say something, or to say something," he said. "I have never had any kind of editorial mandate of any kind."
(Carlson later backtracked the comment to note that there was one time the network forced him to do something: Get a haircut for his new show. "It was brute force," he explained.)
While his show has debuted during a turbulent time for Fox News, and politics in general, it has proved to be a ratings hit thus far.
On the show's inaugural night, 3.7 million viewers tuned in, making it Fox News' most watched telecast of the year in the time slot. For the month of November, Carlson posted double-digit increases from last year in the key 25-54 demo.
And he's done so with a consistent message — one he delivers to begin the show each night.
"Good evening and welcome to 'Tucker Carlson Tonight,'" he says, "the show that is the sworn enemy of lying, pomposity, smugness, and groupthink."