"I'm getting weaker, I'm getting thin. I hate how obvious I have been."
Tucker Carlson exemplifies "I read it in the paper" as much as anyone ever has.
I, as promised, was in the middle of writing a longer newsletter today as a sort of requiem for my social media network of choice, but then I found out that Tucker Carlson is leaving Fox News. So, Twitter will come next week.
The dovetailing of both topics is that Twitter’s ubiquity only bought it so much in the actual greater culture; it was always a fairly closed system with which the mainstream news media had (has?) a fascination. TV news, as we’ve noted here before, is not that. It is a driving force in the way Baby Boomers consume news and it – more than social media – moves the ways the rest of the media reports (thus the ways that other generations get their news). While roughly half of Americans prefer to get their news on digital spaces, that includes all digital media (including legacy broadcast media pared to digital like CNN.com, which is a top-five site in the U.S.). Carlson, in a way, is the grand example of this; his ratings were at or near the top of cable news, while also having more than 6 million followers on Facebook alone. He is a huge deal and market reacted.
There is a lot to be written – mostly by people smarter than I – about the impact of Carlson’s show on the American political culture, but I want to note his import on the news industry and the way people consume news. I’ll start with a dumb anecdote that I’ve probably said/written before online:
Part of my education was the “Missouri Method,” which lays out journalism as much as a vocation than a profession. It is, in a way, an apprentice-lite program in which college kids do real work at a real news organization (in the print case, the Columbia Missourian, a real newspaper in a decent-sized town). The Missourian’s archives are kinda wonky, so I don’t know if my old clips are online, but I assure you that I covered the move of the Broadway Diner from one part of downtown Columbia to another for the paper in the summer of 2002.
Part of that coverage was watching the diner – one of those old one-piece-looking structures that resembled a trailer – get lifted up, put on a truck and moved across town. The move would happen at midnight and, being that it was a minor local landmark, people came out to see it move. I had written a preview story for the paper and I was there to write the event up. As I was checking my notes before everything started, I overheard one of the spectators ask another how he knew about it and he said “I read it in the paper. The Missourian.”
I was 20 years old and my work – “work” is doing a lot there, of course – was being cited in regular conversation. More than that, the phrase “I read it in the paper” is something that has come to define my worldview regarding Carlson, cable news and the ~problems~ with the news industry: The medium gives people and ideas their authority.
The Internet has certainly scrambled this, but cable news’ ubiquity is such that anyone saying anything on its air can reach enough people to make it seem true. More than anyone, Carlson knows and knew this. He knows that his saying something will make other people report on it, thereby amplifying it (even if it is in mocking). He knows that saying something enough will make people believe it, even if he doesn’t himself believe it (as we saw in the Dominion case).
News organizations have been very hot on labeling things as news or opinion as ways to skirt around this fact. Fox seemingly would’ve tried this in the Dominion case, had it gone to trial; the New York Times has done some version of it every time they give space to a bigot on their editorial page. The editorial page is not the same as the news reporting organization, just as the opinion shows (Carlson) are not the same as the news shows (Bret Baier). That’s what news organizations say and they’re right… to a point.
Because, ultimately, “I read it in the paper” is the thing most audiences know and they think. They see the proverbial talking head on TV, explaining “it” to them. Sometimes they have a guest like Mike Lindell or David Clarke or whoever, sometimes it’s just a monologue about why smoking tobacco is better than smoking weed. But, it’s got authority because a handsome, articulate person said it in an interesting way.
Cable news is bad because Americans are not media literate enough to differentiate between entertainment and information. TV is an entertainment medium with more weight than other media, thus making cable news need to be entertaining – facts be damned – in order to keep eyeballs. During the attention economy era, the incentive and reception systems are all awry, thus making the loudest and most outrageous voices the ones that break through.
Carlson knows this. Fox knows this. It’s how they got to where they are. “I read it in the paper” means the same for news and opinion; it all washes out in the end.
There’s certainly a lot more to be written about Carlson and the Dominion lawsuit almost certainly had something to do with his departure. I have a friend – my most politically conservative friend – who wants Carlson to run for president and I don’t imagine my friend is alone. Carlson, for all of his agita around Trump, seemed to understand the same impulses in this country that Trump does.
In the interest of getting this out before the news overtakes it (just in the time that I was editing this, Don Lemon parted ways with CNN) gets away from me, I’ll just point you in the direction of a show we did last week on adoption of digital government services.
The thing I keep coming back to is the access needed for digital government services and the delta between what I need (more digital) and what my parents need (less digital). This inflection point in the technological era is tough and government doesn’t have the option to just cater toward digital natives because government is supposed to serve everyone … even the people without broadband or who don’t know how to use a smartphone.
We had a decent storm over the weekend, which meant that Lulu needed to bark at the rain and thunder as it was happening. She wants to fight the noise and it’s both irritating and adorable.
A Recommendation: Nick Lutsko’s Songs On the Computer cycle
Twitter – as a microcosm of the Internet – has been a great repository of offbeat creativity that the world hasn’t seen previously. Nick Lutsko created an unhinged character that both satirized the current moment and showcased his wild imagination and world-building.
The Songs on the Computer cycle is the fruit of that. With truly catchy melodies and a lot of bizarre antics, Lutsko really nailed a lot of what made the pandemic era so troubling and bizarre. He felt like an in-joke and a pop culture one, all at once. It’s only fitting that you check out his ode to Carlson’s oeuvre this week.