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No, Tucker Carlson is not a free speech martyr
In fact, his firing shows how right-wing "free speech" arguments are designed to silence speech.
By Noah Berlatsky
“Today we are a poorer country under the First Amendment than we were yesterday,” Alan Dershowitz declared on Newsmax.
Dershowitz was not, of course, talking about the hundreds of books banned in Florida schools, nor about Missouri’s assault on the funding for its own public library system, nor about conservative Montana lawmakers silencing their trans colleague in the legislature.
He was instead bemoaning Fox News’ decision to fire popular anchor/fascist propagandist Tucker Carlson.
Carlson’s far right sycophants have been scurrying around social media insisting that his firing is a blow to free expression. In fact, Carlson’s departure is a reminder that the right’s free speech narratives are disingenuous and designed to enable the privileged and powerful to silence dissent.
Carlson used his platform to defend the perks of wealthy plutocrats and boost authoritarian white supremacist nationalism. Ironically, he lost his job after he revealed his true thoughts about those forces in private communications released as part of a lawsuit.
The lesson is clear enough: if you want to limit expression, be like Tucker and shill for the powerful.
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The right would have you believe college students are silencing us all
The right insists that the main threat to free speech is from campus protesters and the left criticizing those in power. Tucker Carlson has embraced this position enthusiastically. In a 2019 opinion piece, he denounced protests against then Attorney General Jeff Sessions at Northwestern University. More recently, Tucker framed the conviction of Douglas Mackey as “the most shocking attack on free speech in our lifetimes.” Mackey conspired with others to try to trick Clinton voters in 2016 into believing that they could vote by text message.
Protesting campus speakers is itself an exercise of free speech, but lying to voters to prevent them from voting is absolutely not protected under the First Amendment. But what free speech means for the right isn’t that everyone gets to speak without government interference. Rather, “free speech” means that the powerful — wealthy white Christian cishet conservative men — get to speak without interruption, and everyone else has to shut up. Jeff Sessions should be able to speak unfettered from every platform with no contradiction (until someone even more powerful decides otherwise). Mackey should be able to perpetrate whatever fraud he wants in order to silence Black voters, because, for the right, white people should speak and Black people should not.
“Free speech” on the right is a tool for enforcing hierarchy. But, as Carlson has discovered to his embarrassment, enforcing hierarchy, in the real world outside the right-wing media bubble of lies and nonsense, doesn’t open speech up. It shuts it down.
Don’t criticize the boss
We don’t know for sure why Tucker Carlson was fired. But the decision appears to have come directly from Fox’s billionaire evil overlord Rupert Murdoch. And it seems to have been prompted by personal communications revealed during discovery after Dominion Voting Systems sued Fox for spreading election conspiracy theory lies.
Some of those texts included sexist and misogynist statements directed at colleagues or guests. Others were direct criticisms of Fox leadership.
“Do the executives understand how much credibility and trust we’ve lost with our audience?” Carlson ranted, angered that Fox was not more aggressive in pushing election lies. Fox executives apparently also saw redacted comments that may have been even more explicit.
Carlson’s misogyny is well-known and long-standing. It’s hard to believe that he said anything in the texts that would really have surprised his bosses. Criticizing the executives themselves — well, that’s another story. Everyone knows you’re not supposed to tell your boss what you really think of them. People just assume it’s natural and normal to curtail criticism in the office. The power of bosses to control what their workers say rarely comes up in discussions of free speech. Those at the bottom of the pecking order are supposed to do as their told — which is precisely why it seems like a nightmare reversal of freedom to people like Carlson when students dare to question their supposed betters.
Workers tend to have more ability to speak up when they have strong union protections and a strong safety net, so they don’t fear losing their jobs. Carlson, though, tends to oppose any effort to build worker power. He’s called for teacher union members to be imprisoned and viciously attacked teachers who called for vaccinations and advocated for workplace covid mitigation. He’s smeared Medicare for All as “socialism.” He attacked expanded unemployment insurance during the pandemic.
Despite his populist branding and occasional attacks on corporations he deems too “woke,” Carlson is an untiring foe of worker benefits, and an unwavering shill for bosses. That means he is on the side of employers when they silence their workers. He should, therefore, feel a righteous thrill that Murdoch has exercised his billionaire prerogative to kick an irritating employee to the curb. Except, of course, when the irritating employee is him.
Trump chills speech of bold truth-teller Tucker
Murdoch did that curb-kicking because of the revelations in discovery. Without the Dominion voting case, which cost Fox a $787 million settlement, it’s pretty clear Carlson would still be at Fox.
And what led Fox and Carlson into Dominion voting machine conspiracy nonsense? Fear of speaking against Trump.
The First Amendment is specifically intended to protect journalists from government reprisals and government control. But Fox in general, and Tucker Carlson in particular, have long positioned themselves as the messaging wing of the Republican Party. They tossed away their own journalistic independence in favor of partisan hackery. They wanted the perks that come from licking the boots of those in power. And it’s hard to speak freely when your mouth is full of boot.
Carlson, the released text communications make clear, personally loathed Trump.
“We are very, very close to being able to ignore Trump most nights. I truly can’t wait,” he told one interlocutor by text, and added, “I hate him passionately … I can’t handle much more of this.”
Part of the reason Carlson hated Trump was because Trump was spreading obviously false lies about the election. Carlson didn’t believe the election was rigged, for the very solid reason that there was no evidence the election was rigged. In texts, he harshly criticized Trumpworld clowns.
“Sidney Powell is lying,” he said, and called her an “unguided missile” who was “dangerous as hell.”
But Carlson did not tell his viewers that the election was free and fair. Instead, he broadcast endless election conspiracy lies, claiming that Biden’s 2020 victory was “a grave betrayal of American democracy.” This, again, despite the fact that we know from his text messages that he did not believe it was a grave betrayal of anything.
Why did Carlson stifle himself? As Fox text messages make clear, he was afraid of Trump. After Fox (accurately) called Arizona for Biden, Trump was enraged, and encouraged viewers to switch to Newsmax.
Many did as Trump told them, leading to panic at Fox. Carlson characterized Fox’s occasional vague efforts to report accurately on the election as “vandalism” and a destruction of the brand. He begged colleague Sean Hannity to get correspondent Jacqui Heinrich fired after she fact-checked Trump’s false election nonsense.
Carlson, in short, lied to his audience about the election and he also lied about his own views. He did so because he feared retaliation, not from student protesters or the left, but from the right wing president of the United States who Carlson had been boosting for years.
When there’s less equality, less free speech
Presidents are a lot more powerful than campus protestors. They can use that power to intimidate the press. Carlson’s fanbase claims to care about free speech. But they’ll never talk about the fact that Carlson himself was effectively silenced not by the left, but by their authoritarian fascist cult leader, Donald Trump.
Trump has made it clear that he wants even more power, and even less free speech. He’s promised to change federal libel laws to make it harder for reporters to criticize politicians in general, and Trump in particular. Nor is this just a Trump policy: Governor Ron DeSantis, Trump’s chief rival for the GOP nomination, also has been targeting journalists in his state.
Republicans, as a party, want to subvert elections and silence dissent. Tucker Carlson is all in on that agenda. Now that his boss and his president have shown him exactly how authoritarianism in the country and on the job undermines free speech, he could reconsider.
But worms rarely spontaneously grow spines. Carlson has spent his life crawling on his belly to those in power. On his belly he will remain. He’ll be back spreading his slime on some platform or other soon enough. When that happens, we should all remember that his whole career has been devoted to silencing free speech, even his own.
New podcast dropping Thursday morning
By Aaron Rupar
Heads up that this week’s episode of my podcast — which will feature an interview with J. Patrick Coolican, editor of the Minnesota Reporter and a longtime chronicler of Minnesota politics — will drop first thing Thursday morning. We’re going to talk the struggles of the Minnesota Republican Party, what Dems are doing with a trifecta, independent journalism, and more.
All eight episodes of the show can be found here, and they’re evergreen, so please check them out if you haven’t already. I had a really good chat a couple weeks ago with Kat Abu of Media Matters about Tucker Carlson …
… and then last week I talked at length with Dan Froomkin of Press Watch about press accountability and coverage of Trump’s third presidential run.
I’m trying to grow the show, so please share and spread the word!
Check out Public Notice’s fancy new domain name
You might’ve noticed that Public Notice has a new URL! The web address for the site is now publicnotice.co.
I’ve wanted to get my name out of the URL for a while, but buying a custom domain became an urgent priority last week when Elon Musk started throttling any links with “substack” in them on Twitter. I’m by no means a tech genius, so I was pleasantly surprised at how slick and easy the process is for buying a domain and applying it to the site. Take that, Elon.
All old links should still work and take people to the pages they want to go to, but if you notice any bugs, let me know. And thank you for bearing with me as I’ve had to deal with an annoying range of Musk-inflicted tech and logistical issues in recent weeks. I look forward to being able to spend more time actually writing stories soon, though I’m obviously thrilled with the quality of work I’ve had the privilege of editing and publishing in recent weeks.
That’s it for today
I’ll be back with more Friday. If you’re a free subscriber, please consider supporting this work with a paid subscription.