The New York Times ran a three part series recently on the rise of the Fox News host Tucker Carlson. As you can imagine, it was not a flattering portrait: Carlson is described as demagogic, racist, nativist, cynical and countless other things. He has a calculated “on-air technique,” the article says, that involves “gleefully courting blowback, then fashioning himself as his aggrieved viewers’ partner in victimhood.” He has “adopted the rhetorical tropes and exotic fixations of white nationalists” in order to “channel [Americans’] fears into ratings.” He “declares himself an enemy of prejudice … a few weeks before accusing impoverished immigrants of making America dirty.”
I agree with much of that. I also agreed with the main premise of the article, which was that all those nasty things about Carlson matter because he is a uniquely powerful figure in American media. He’s the highest-rated talk show host in the nation!
But then I saw this tweet.
Father Coughlin was the most incendiary media figure of his day—the so-called “radio priest.” In the 1930s, he made weekly hour-long broadcasts from his church in Royal Oak, Michigan, called “Golden Hour of the Shrine of the Little Flower.” Coughlin thought Jewish bankers controlled the world, was fond of Hitler, hated immigrants, and thought all political parties ought to be abolished. He was a nasty piece of work. In his heyday—as Sam Haselby’s tweet says—he had an audience of 30 to 40 million people, at a time when the American population was 127 million.
Carlson and Coughlin may have superficial similarities. But Sam Haselby is right. Carlson isn’t the new Coughlin. To be Coughlin he would need to have an audience at least ten times larger. In his day, Coughlin was the main event. Carlson is a sideshow.
As it happens, I’ve been working on an episode of my podcast Revisionist History that talks about the changes in the television landscape over the past 50 years. So I had already been mulling over this same phenomenon. What “popular” means today is not the same as what it meant 50 years ago.
Here, for example, are the top-rated shows on broadcast TV fifty years ago—1972.
The “rating” number refers to the percentage of homes with a television who regularly watch that particular show.
Now compare that to the ratings list for 2018, the most recent year on record:
What we call a hit today would’ve been considered a complete bust half a century ago.
Those of us who are as old as I am remember what that old media world was like. Growing up in the 1970s, my friends and acquaintances and classmates all listened to the same music, went to see the same movies, and watched the same television shows. When I was in my thirties, in the early days of the internet, I used to write an email newsletter every week, which was a mock-serious analysis of the latest episode of Melrose Place. Did I think Melrose Place was the greatest TV show ever? Not in the slightest. But everyone I knew watched Melrose Place, and if I wanted to be part of the cultural conversation in my social circle, I needed to watch Melrose Place too. There is a reason that NBC in the glory days of Cheers and Seinfeld and Friends used to refer to its vaunted Thursday lineup as “must-see TV.” Network TV shows, back then, were must-see.
But there is no must-see TV today. The rise of cable and streaming have shattered the old mass market into a thousand pieces. The New York Times made much of the fact that Tucker Carlson is the most-watched TV news host. But let’s be clear: in a country of 326 million people, Carlson has an audience of 3 million. With that kind of reach, it is statistically unlikely that anyone reading this newsletter watches Tucker Carlson. It’s even statistically unlikely that any friend of anyone reading this newsletter watches Tucker Carlson. I am reminded of William F. Buckley’s crack, in the 1960s, when he heard someone described as “America’s greatest living socialist.” That was, Buckley said, like celebrating “the tallest building in Wichita, Kansas.”
Does this mean we treat Tucker Carlson with indifference? Not at all. Payton Gendron, the alleged 18-year-old white supremacist who murdered 10 people in a Buffalo supermarket over the weekend, was obsessed with the so-called “great replacement” theory—which suggests that liberals deliberately let in immigrants in order to dilute the power of nice, right-leaning white people. It is entirely possible that the shooter learned that bit of nonsense from Tucker Carlson, since the great replacement theory is a Carlson favorite.
But with Carlson, we are talking about a very different kind of threat from the likes of Father Coughlin. Coughlin was terrifying because he was spreading a message of hate and nativism to a wide swath of the American public. But that was also his undoing: in the end, his views proved far too unsavory for such a wide swath of the American public, because there’s a limit to what the average American can stomach. Carlson is the opposite phenomenon. He is a nasty little sideshow who depends, for his continued existence, on reaching such a tiny swath of the listening public that he can say whatever he wants for as long as he wants. I mean, if Payton Gendron is in your audience, it's going to be hard to go too far, isn’t it?
So who should we worry about more, the Coughlins or the Carlsons? I wish I knew the answer. But in many ways, it's the wrong question, because the fragmentation of the media landscape means that we can’t have Coughlins anymore. We can only have Carlsons. Let’s just hope that the hundred other minor media voices—speaking to their own narrow audiences—find a way to drown out the vitriol and the hate.
[Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images]