For a while, Media Matters was one of my go-to sources for media criticism. The group, a nonprofit based in DC that bills itself as a media watchdog, was especially useful if I needed statistics on, say, how little cable news covered climate change during the 2016 primary election (or ever). It’s what they do: slog through hours of prattling heads so the rest of us don’t have to, and it’s a good resource for people who want to know what Sean Hannity is saying without sullying their brains with his face.
But then something changed. Maybe it was me, maybe it was them, probably it was me, but I’ve recently begun disagreeing with what Media Matters is doing. I still support the mission—to monitor conservative media, particularly Fox News. Fox News has long spread propaganda and misinformation, but with Trump in office, it’s also become the most powerful cable news network in the U.S., if not the world. Just last week, the New York Times reported that Trump is considering famed homophobe Ken Cuccinelli for “immigration czar” because he saw him railing against immigration on Fox News. That network changes public policy, and someone besides Donald Trump and America’s most racist uncles needs to be watching. And yet, while I still think Media Matters does some good work, more and more, I find myself opposing their tactics, which seem to be blurring the line between media watchdog and woke Twitter scold.
The most glaring example of this came in March, when Media Matters, which was founded by Republican operative turned Democratic activist David Brock, published several reports on Tucker Carlson’s appearances on a shock jock radio show hosted by Bubba the Love Sponge (who, I’m going to assume, was given that name by his parents). Carlson, whose perplexed, frat boy expression is on Fox News at least five times a week, said some truly offensive shit. For instance: “Iraq is a crappy place filled with a bunch of, you know, semiliterate primitive monkeys.” He also made gay jokes, disparaged women, questioned if Barack Obama is actually black, and defended convicted child rapist and spiritual leader Warren Jeffs. His statements are, by the standards of 2019, hugely offensive. But that’s the thing: Most of the clips Media Matters unearthed are over a decade old. Carlson wasn’t even working in conservative media at the time: He was a host on the liberal-leaning MSNBC instead.
I don’t like Tucker Carlson. I think he’s deliberately inflammatory, not very bright, and his brand of punditry is based less on fact than on fear-mongering. He’s bad for his brainwashed viewers and he’s bad for the country in general. But as much as I dislike Carlson, I dislike this trend of dredging up old statements and judging them by the standards of today—whether the guilty party is Tucker Carlson or James Gunn or Kevin Hart or a football star who tweeted something homophobic as a teenager—even more.
After the Media Matters report was published, Carlson refused to apologize for his past comments. “Media Matters caught me saying something naughty on a radio show more than a decade ago,” he wrote in a statement. “Rather than express the usual ritual contrition, how about this: I’m on television every weeknight live for an hour. If you want to know what I think, you can watch. Anyone who disagrees with my views is welcome to come on and explain why.” I have a hard time imagining that Carlson would actually allow anyone who disagrees with his views on air (and there’s no way an hour a night would cut it), but a few days later, he gleefully aired his own trump card: The president of Media Matters, Angelo Carusone, has a problematic history of his own.
Here's what Carlson said on air:
For years, Carusone maintained a racist blog. One post, entitled quote, “Tranny Paradise,” addressed a crime story from Thailand. A Bangladeshi man had been robbed and assaulted by a group of male prostitutes dressed as women. Carusone objected to the idea this was even newsworthy, and ridiculed south Asians as inherently ugly and poor. Quote: “Is the writer a tranny lover too? Or, perhaps he’s trying to justify how these trannies tricked this Bangladeshi in the first place? Look man, we don’t need to know whether or not they were attractive. The f-ing guy was Bangladeshi.... What the hell was he doing with $7,300 worth of stuff? The guy’s Bangladeshi!”
In another post, Carusone described how a male coach at a Japanese high school had sexually abused female players. People in Japan were understandably horrified by this. Carusone was not. His advice: quote, “lighten up, Japs.” Later that same month, Carusone, by now in a frenzy of unapologetic racism, heaped praise on a former Ku Klux Klan leader.
In still another post from the same period, Carusone described a Jewish man as being handsome, quote, “despite his Jewry.” Carusone didn’t like the man’s political views, but attributed them to quote, “his possession of several bags of Jewish gold.”
I looked at Carusone’s old blog, and while Tucker wasn’t lying, Carusone was very obviously kidding. The writing is an affectation, a voice, a parody of an ugly American. And yet, the hypocrisy, on both sides, is obvious, and I found myself siding, for maybe the first time, with a Fox News host over a progressive nonprofit. If Tucker Carlson’s old statements on the radio are problematic enough to make a big deal of a decade later, then what does this mean for everyone else?
The trend of relitigating old comments, usually stripped of context, by the current standards troubles me because things were really different just 10 years ago. I see that when I look at the archives of this very paper. Not all that long ago, jokes were regularly made about rape and incest and child abuse and obesity, and even the Holocaust. Were some people offended? Definitely, but jokes that weren’t beyond the pale at the time they were written can now get you canceled, if not actually fired. If groups like Media Matters start mining the past for problematic content, what is to keep conservative groups from doing the very same? Absolutely nothing.
Why would Media Matters open that particular Pandora’s box, especially with Carusone’s own blog already archived? I wanted to know, so I reached out to Carusone, the 37-year-old president of the organization, and he agreed to explain what they were thinking.
We talked for over an hour, and over the course of our conversation, Carusone told me exactly what he and his staff were trying to do by publicizing Carlson’s old tweets. He also listened to my concerns and addressed them, one by one. On some points, I think he convinced me, on others, probably not, but it was a good faith conversation with someone I’ve both disagreed with and publicly criticized, and I, at least, learned a lot.
Media Matters worked on the Tucker Carlson report for two months, and the date they chose to publish was no coincidence.
In March, just days after the report was published, Fox News was scheduled to hold upfronts, or meetings in which the network pitches their shows to advertisers and ad buyers. Carlson, along with Chris Wallace, was supposed to be the face of the network at these meetings. They would speak on stage, presumably wow the audience, and Fox News would sell millions of dollars of advertising spots.
Fox News has had a bad year, and so these upfronts were important. Just weeks before the event, the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer published a blockbuster story on how Fox News evolved from a network of partisan hacks to government-endorsed propaganda (the timing of this story, I assume, was also very deliberate). Consumer boycotts have targeted the advertisers of both Tucker Carlson Tonight and the Ingraham Angle after host Laura Ingraham joked about a survivor of the Parkland shooting being rejected from college.
Advertisers were beginning to grow wary of all the negative press. The goal of the upfronts this year, according to Carusone, was to convince ad buyers that Fox News is stable, but when Media Matters released their report, Tucker quickly became toxic. This was the goal: To make advertisers think that Fox News is falling apart. And Carusone says that it worked: Fox News replaced Carlson with Laura Ingraham at the upfronts, and Ingraham proceeded to get into an argument with Chris Wallace on stage. It was not exactly the face of a united front.
While Carusone considers the Carlson campaign a success, the goal is ultimately much bigger. “The goal is not to bankrupt Fox News,” he said. “That's absurd. The goal should never be to destroy or decimate something. The goal is to neutralize their power or, alternatively, to improve their programming in some way. The advertiser stuff is a pressure point.”
Was this truly effective? Hard to know. Carusone says the network's ad sales have been soft, but Carlson hasn’t become any less of a demagogue on air since Media Matters unearthed his old statements. Just last week, he said immigrants are “plundering” the United States. And while ad sales might be down, ratings are not: In April, the network was the most watched cable news network for the 34th month in a row.
Still, Carusone made some valid points about targeting Fox News through advertisers, and I was heartened to know that this wasn’t something his group did on a whim or without any debate. They considered the consequences, he said, and opted to do it. Carusone also said the researchers who combed through old Bubba the Love Sponge shows (and I hope Media Matters pays for their weed bills) found many more offensive statements than the ones they decided to publicize, but they only ran with the ones that mirror statements Carlson is still making. If he’s dropped a particular line of attack, they decided, his old comments are no longer relevant.
Carusone and I also talked about Democratic presidential candidates deciding whether or not to appear on Fox News town halls, something I support and he doesn't. My rationale is that by refusing to go on Fox News, the candidates—Elizabeth Warren in particular—come across as both unwilling to reach out to conservative voters and scared to play on Trump’s home court. Warren’s rationale for refusing to do a Fox News town hall was solid. As she said on Twitter, “Fox News is a hate-for-profit racket that gives a megaphone to racists and conspiracists.” Still, I doubt many Fox News voters are following the senator’s Twitter account, and when this refusal gets distorted and filtered through Fox News, it comes across as a rejection of Fox News viewers, not the network itself. This could easily become Warren’s “deplorable” moment. Despite her completely rational explanation, it still looks like she’s writing off half the country as though their opinions don’t matter.
Carusone disagrees. “I think, on balance, it's important to engage with people you think you can persuade, and I think it's important to go places where you may be criticized. And most campaigns have become so scripted and saccharine that you don't even have to put yourself in that challenge. But,” he adds, “I think if you're going to make a criticism, you need to act accordingly. If you say something is a white supremacist or white nationalist or racist network or that it's actual propaganda and then partner with them in an official capacity, I'm confused as to how you reconcile those things.”
That said, we both agree that timing matters, and there is a difference between going on Fox News now, eights months before the first primary, and doing it right before the general election. “In March, April, May, I'm very sharply critical of candidates partnering with Fox News,” Carusone said. “I don't find it acceptable. Even if you got 200,000 more people to know you than you normally would, I don’t see the material good.”
There was one other issue I wanted to discuss with Carusone, and it has to do with Dave Rubin, a formerly liberal media figure who has spent the last several years responding to the increasing intolerance of parts of the left—a trend that includes deplatforming speakers and tagging everyone they disagree with as Nazis, fascists, and Literally Hitler—by turning right. Like Carusone, I’ve been critical of Rubin in the past (here and here, for example), but despite my problems with his work, I don’t think speaking with him (or, really, anyone) is somehow a danger to the republic.
Carusone has a different take on Dave Rubin, in part because of who he's had on his show in the past. After Dave Rubin invited Pete Buttigieg onto his show via Twitter and his communications manager Chris Meagher expressed interest, Carusone saw this, tagged Meagher in a Tweet and said, "Hi Chris. If you don’t know who [Mike] Cernovich is and why this is probably not a good look for the mayor, feel free to visit mediamatters.com or just DM me and I’d be happy to share.” Attached to the tweet was an ad for Dave Rubin’s conversation with Mike Cernovich. The implication was, Dave Rubin has interviewed Mike Cernovich, so therefore he should be off limits to presidential candidates.
Now, I don’t think that Buttigieg will see much advantage by going on Dave Rubin’s show. He is, for some reason, a serious presidential contender, and going on Rubin would probably cause Buttigieg more headache that it is worth. That said, Caruso’s tweet struck me the sort of guilt-by-association scolding you see often on Twitter: Dave Rubin has talked to Mike Cernovich, and Mike Cernovich is bad, and therefore Dave Rubin is off limits. I hate this shit. I don’t agree with Mike Cernovich, a man who lies about his critics and stirs up shit against liberals for a living, but I’ve debated him on a podcast myself. Interacting with him didn’t make me any less of a liberal or any worse of a person. It’s this sort of thinking that makes the left look intolerant, because, frankly, it is. We should be able to speak to people we disagree with, if for no other reason than to actually understand what our adversaries believe, but Carusone, the head of Media Matters, looked like he trying to stifle political discourse.
“If the impression was that I was telling him to run for the hills because these people are all bad, no,” Carusone said when I asked him about it. “What I was getting to was, 'Did you even look at who this guy is?' That was the thinking behind it. Do I think that because [Rubin] interviewed Mike Cernovich, he’s disqualifying? No. But what I will say is, you don't get to do both. You don't get to play footsie with Cernovich on Tuesday, interview a presidential candidate on Wednesday, and no way, shape, or form think about your role and responsibility and platform.”
Of course, when Mayor Pete declined to go on Rubin's show, Rubin immediately turned it into another story of leftist intolerance. The president of Media Matters was acting like a hall monitor, and Rubin milked it for all it was worth. And that is what really concerns me, because when the left appears to be less and less tolerant of ideological dissent, it turns people away. And where do they turn? As Rubin's popularity has shown, plenty of them turn to the right. And Carusone agreed that this is a problem.
“I don't know how to solve that except that I shouldn't just dumbly contribute to it,” he said. “From an organizational perspective, it's extremely difficult. You survive by funders, and you know what they want to know? That you're going to punish bad people. There is an irresistible temptation to say, ‘I'm going to get that person fired, and that person fired, and that person fired.’ It's a simple story to tell, and it's easy for foundations or groups to measure and understand.” But, he added, “We aren't trying to get Dave Rubin fired. That's not our thing. That would be the easiest thing to do but also the most damaging.”
On that, at least, we agree.
As for his own problematic history, Carusone says he both regrets and doesn’t regret his old blog posts. “Overall, would I say things would be so much easier if I never wrote those posts? Totally.” But, he adds, the writing itself was, at the time, part of a process of coming to terms with his own identity as a gay man. He was writing as a way to deal with his own sometimes uncomfortable evolution. “It sucks because it was actually a useful exercise but I also need to own up to it and sincerely apologize, which I’ve done," he says, "unlike some people.”
The "some people" here is clearly Tucker Carlson, a man who is as unapologetic as he is smug. And when it comes to public shaming, Carlson might actually have something to teach Angelo Carusone, because he’s shown us, over and over again, that when you refuse to apologize, sometimes you actually win.