What does honest journalism look like?

The American comedian Groucho Marx is often attributed with the quote: “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them… well, I have others.” It’s been regularly cited to embody the tenuous relationship between those involved in politics, and their principles. Never does it seem more relevant than in relation to American political commentator and former Fox News host Tucker Carlson. Idolised as a crusader who dares to speak truth to power by many on the Republican right, he’s actually exactly the kind of person Marx is referring to. 

In 2021 Dominion Voting Systems, a company that manufactures voting machines used in US elections, sued Fox News for defamation. Carlson and his colleagues had made numerous false statements on the network that Dominion’s voting machines had been rigged in favour of Joe Biden for the 2020 US Presidential Election. 

Of course Dominion’s case was rock solid, and Fox knew this. They reached a settlement with Dominion amounting to a staggering $787.5 million, in order to avoid trial. 

During the lawsuit, Dominion subpoenaed internal text messages and emails from many prominent figures at Fox. They revealed that Fox hosts were knowingly encouraging Trump’s lies about the outcome of the election, a figure who many of them despised. Carlson was among the worst offenders. 

On Trump, he said on November 5th “What he’s good at is destroying things… He’s the undisputed world champion of that. He could easily destroy us if we play it wrong.” On November 9th, referring to the claims about rigged Dominion machines, Carlson said: “the software s*** is absurd.” Of Trump’s presidency, he said: “We’re all pretending we’ve got a lot to show for it, because admitting what a disaster it’s been is too tough to digest. But come on. There really isn’t an upside to Trump.” 

These statements contradict pretty much everything else he has said publicly about Trump. He was a passionate supporter of the Trump agenda, and touter of the lies Dominion would call him out on. 

Why he would be so dishonest about Trump and the 2020 election is anyone’s guess. But you don’t have to be a cynic to see that his quote “(Trump) could easily destroy us if we play it wrong,” offers some clues. Carlson moulds his views to the audience base he is trying to appease: if they don’t like his principles, he has others. 

Dominion would result in Tucker parting ways with Fox and going solo. Most recently he caused a stir by interviewing Russian President Vladimir Putin, to discuss the war in Ukraine and the changing global power structures. 

Much like his views on Trump, Carlson’s take on Putin has been malleable to say the least. In the era of the Bush administration, with neoconservatives dominating the Republican party, he was extremely hostile towards the Russian president. Now that the law of the land is isolationist Republicans who are suspicious of interventionist American foreign policy, Carlson has (since 2017) been heavily sympathetic to Putin’s position. 

Much like his views on Trump, Carlson’s take on Putin has been malleable to say the least

This history meant that from the outset, the decision to interview a leader already known for manipulating narratives to suit his own agenda was met with some trepidation. 

Carlson framed the decision as grounded in a journalistic obligation to inform the American people about what is happening in Ukraine. In his view, Western media outlets are presenting a biassed account of the war, fawning over Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in a way which amounts to government propaganda. By contrast, no one is interested in hearing Russia’s side of the story. The American taxpayer is spending significant amounts of money to support the Ukrainian war effort: they have the right to know the whole truth. The pitch, then, is that Carlson is acting in the tradition of independent, honest journalism.

Of course, to present Western media outlets as uninterested in hearing from Putin is just completely false. It’s so false that it was even denied by Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin Press Secretary, who noted that in fact they receive a lot of requests for interviews with Putin. Journalists want the opportunity to make him accountable. The BBC’s Moscow Correspondent Steve Rosenberg has been behind some of those requests, including waiting to ask a question in Putin’s most recent four hour televised Q&A, to no avail. Rosenberg has in the past been praised for his bravery in asking tough, direct questions to Putin. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, it has simply not been possible for Western journalists to get an interview with the President. 

To present Western media outlets as uninterested in hearing from Putin is just completely false

Besides the initial flawed framing, Carlson could have used the interview as a genuine opportunity to hold Putin accountable. Indeed, people were only suspicious of the whole project because of the many public statements Carlson has made sympathising with Putin and presenting a flawed narrative of the Russia-Ukraine war. No doubt if any serious Western journalist was interviewing the Russian President, people would have been eager to see the results. 

Suffice it to say that Carlson did not take his golden opportunity with the President to seek genuine accountability. Putin steamrolled him, beginning the interview with a 30 minute lecture on the history of Russia, starting in the 9th century. He repeated many of the claims made in his 2021 essay “On the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” that the creation of Ukrainian identity was intended to undermine Russia. He sees Ukraine ultimately as an artificial creation of the USSR, when Lenin established the Soviet Republics (including Ukraine) as autonomous regions existing within the union. 

In reality, the Russian state has historically sought to suppress Ukrainian identity. Serhii Plokhy, a professor of Ukrainian and Eastern European history at Harvard, describes how from the 1860s, there was a more than 40 year prohibition on the publication of Ukrainian. Whilst this position moderated under the Bolsheviks, as Lenin allowed autonomy for the independently minded ethnic groups in the Soviet Union, it would continue at pace under Stalin. In 1932 during the Ukrainian famine, he moved to stop any education or publication of Ukrainian outside of the socialist republic. This was part of a broader attack on Ukrainian culture and institutions.

Ukraine even fought a war of independence from 1917-21, establishing an independent Ukrainian republic which would ultimately be absorbed into the USSR. More than 92% of Ukrainians would vote for independence in 1991. 

To say that Ukraine was an artificial creation by Lenin is to completely ignore the agency of the Ukrainian people, who have long sought to preserve their own ethnic and cultural identity. 

Despite studying history in college (as Putin appeared all too keen to point out in the interview) Carlson did not seek to push back on any of Putin’s analysis. He simply allowed a distorted account to go completely unchallenged. It’s not as if he wouldn’t have had adequate opportunity to prepare for such claims, either: Putin’s views on this topic have been well publicised since his 2021 essay. 

(Carlson) simply allowed a distorted account to go completely unchallenged

This lack of pushback is a running theme throughout. Putin was then allowed to set out his own case to justify war in Ukraine virtually unchallenged. NATO expansion and the 2014 removal of President Yanukovych (which for him was engineered by the West) are the main acts of aggression which forced Russia into action in Ukraine. 

I think it’s perfectly legitimate to ask whether the West’s approach to relations with Russia since 1991 has been appropriate. But all we hear in this interview is how Western aggression has caused every single problem under the sun. There is no mention of the Chechen wars, or Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia. Eastern European countries have been acting to ensure their own security against an openly aggressive Russia, which has shown a willingness to wage war on multiple fronts. 

Take the most recent NATO expansion, which is a strategic disaster for Russia. Finland joining has more than doubled the size of the Russia-NATO border. Sweden’s imminent membership will help bolster NATO’s position in the Baltic sea, allowing it to effectively challenge the Russian navy and offer alternative supply lines to the Baltic states if Russia closes off the Poland-Lithuania border in a war. 

Putin could view this as a major act of aggression, but it has been entirely in response to his own actions. Historically both countries have fiercely sought to defend their own non-alignment in Russia’s tense standoffs with the West. Prior to the Russian invasion, NATO membership polled badly in both Sweden and Finland. It was only after the destruction of Ukraine that the reality of the Russian threat crystallised. In October 2021, one poll put Finnish popular support for joining the alliance at 24%. By October 2022, it was at 78%.

European countries are fearful for their own safety. They are acting to protect themselves, not as part of a wider goal to destroy Russia, but due to legitimate fears sparked by real decisions the Russian government has made. Carlson did not use the interview to present a rival account of Russian foreign policy which highlighted Russia’s aggressive acts since the 1990s. All we got was a brief reference to concerns about a Russian invasion of Poland, which Putin quickly dismissed, saying that Russia would only invade if attacked by Poland first. This claim is surely of little comfort to the Polish, who were attacked (unprovoked) from both sides by the Nazis and Soviets during the second world war, and proceeded to live under the tyranny of Soviet puppet regimes for decades. 

Carlson did at least raise the issue of Evan Gershkovich, the Wall Street Journal reporter who is currently wrongfully imprisoned in Russia on espionage charges. But even here, some real scrutiny was lacking. Once Putin set out that he believed Gershkovich had carried out espionage under Russian law, the matter was essentially closed. Gershkovich is the polar opposite of Carlson when it comes to his work in Russia. He was brave enough to continue telling the truth during the war, when many of his colleagues had left and others had already been arrested. 

So we leave the interview learning nothing new, but experiencing a whole lot of damage. The perspective Putin laid out was already public, but Carlson gave him a platform to amplify his warped worldview. 

The job of a journalist is not to amplify propaganda

The issue here is not the idea of a western journalist holding an interview with Putin. Done correctly, it would be interesting to listen to him defend his position. The problem is giving him a platform to spout his false agenda unchallenged, especially when that agenda has led to the suffering of millions of innocent people. 

Carlson presented this as a journalistic crusade to uncover the truth, when all he’s done is promote the lies of a dangerous authoritarian. For him to consider himself some kind of hero of his field (as his announcement of the interview seemed to suggest) is ridiculous.

The real heroes are the Evan Gershkoviches and Steve Rosenbergs of this world. They are the ones who are showing the bravery to actually speak truth to power, challenging the echo chamber of Russian politics and exposing Putin’s crimes. The job of a journalist is not to amplify propaganda: it is to give a fair and balanced account of events. It is then up to the individual to make their own judgement. This was severely lacking from Carlson’s interview, and journalism is all the worse for it. 

Image credit: Interview with Vladimir Putin to Tucker Carlson (2024-02-06) 02 by Kremlin, licensed under CC-BY-4.0, cropped from original.

Image description: Tucker Carlson interviewing Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin.