Journalism and Entertainment

Tucker Carlson interviews Vladimir Putin

This week former Fox News commentator, now self-employed audio-visual journalist, Tucker Carlson interviewed the president of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin. According to his own account, it was a mission opposed—secretly by the agencies of the “Vatican on the Potomac” and with it the hierarchy of the American Church. A summary of the sermons and homilies published by its national and international propaganda organs indicates concerted efforts to spin this encounter in ways that profess the faith and confirm the purported apostasy of the successor to that patriarch of the beloved if short-lived Russian-American Church, Boris Yeltsin.

Carlson has acquired a wide and varied following not only because of the topics he began to cover but by some things conspicuously absent from the broadcasting and cable genre in which he made his career—a robust sense of humor and allowing the people to whom he talks to speak without rude interruptions. Throughout the illegal and unconstitutional mass incarcerations starting in 2020 he insisted without reservation that Americans have rights that are being violated. George Carlin would have said their temporary privileges had been suspended or revoked. As a personally wealthy individual from an establishment background, Carlson is essentially a believer in the status quo or at least the status quo of the era in which he grew up. As a media professional he is sensitive to the way the business works and the role people like him play in it. He does not pretend to identify with everyone he meets. Despite his clearly conservative position he has acquired a reputation for sincerity throughout what is called “alternative journalism”. There was an age, long forgotten by many, when a journalist of reputation or representing a major media outlet did not have to explain publicly why he chose to report on something or talk to somebody. The fact that Tucker Carlson felt compelled to give several introductory explanations for speaking to the elected leader of a major nation with whom his country has been at war (unofficially since 1917) reflects the dismal state of affairs even in a profession subject to corruption since its institutionalization by magnates like Pulitzer, Hearst, Rothermere and Beaverbrook.

By his own admission, Carlson was surprised at among other things the history lesson he was given in the first third of the interview. One might ask if in the course of his preparation he had viewed Oliver Stone’s extensive interviews with the Russian president in 2017? Anyone who watched them would not have been surprised by Vladimir Putin’s style or substance. Stone, who had much more time, asked many of the same questions Carlson asked. In those interviews President Putin was very detailed in his answers with frequent historical explanations given as context. Perhaps that is what most surprised Carlson since the absence of context is the primary characteristic of what passes for journalism in the West. However Tucker Carlson, began no later than the 22 February 2022 Russian intervention, to add context and history to his own reporting. What is more logic acquired a greater role than dogma. So what role was Tucker Carlson performing?

Perhaps his questions were formulated to simulate the kind of bar, living room and dinner table discussions his viewers are likely to have when the subjects of Putin or Russia are raised. If one wants to inform a notoriously isolated and ignorant population one has to start with their knowledge base and the things they are likely to ask. President Putin asked Carlson after the first question, was this a talk show or a serious conversation? By surrendering to a serious conversation he was breaching the unstated barrier of all domestic political gossip and chatter. Yet it was too late to change either his style or his pattern of questions. Without diminishing the value of the interview as a whole, it is worth considering the role model upon which Carlson explicitly drew. He has mentioned Barbara Walters. Those who can still recall her career in American television will remember how she became the first woman to co-anchor that TV slot for the nightly news. She replaced Chet Huntley after he died to share the NBC show with David Brinkley. Then she went on to conduct “star” interviews with world leaders. Those performances raised the TV presenter to a certain mutual celebrity in the penumbra of the personality interviewed. It also created a new platform for selected leaders to be displayed to a mass television audience, not unlike the 1969 broadcast of the putative moon landings. Political leaders obtained a new kind of pulpit with this precursor to the ubiquitous talk show. Performers from the news theater genre were able to enhance their credibility as conduits for official views presented in living room conversation format. David Frost was the master of this format- although even his famous Nixon interviews were just a bit too English for an average US audience (unless sedated by Masterpiece Theater episodes). Barbara Walters in contrast was the Maria Callas of the grand interview. At least Maria Callas knew she was only a performer and used her own voice. Tucker Carlson can be forgiven for avoiding the David Frost style. However had he learned something from Oliver Stone he might have transcended the living room TV style and focussed on things Americans and Westerners really need to understand.

Repeated questions to Vladimir Putin were couched in phrases like “why do you think America does something?” From the Stone interviews he would have learned that the Russian president does not try to guess why other people act as they do. He merely describes the actions as he sees them and what he thinks they mean for Russia. Carlson’s approach indirectly reflects the absence (or impossibility) of any serious questioning by Americans as to why their government acts as it does? Vladimir Putin pointed both Stone and Carlson toward home saying essentially- Ask the people who act for their reasons. I can only tell you why we act as we do. The critical viewer will immediately recognize that Western policy is never honestly explained. Hence while the whole world (except the citizens of NATO countries) can know why the Russian Federation acts, no one has an honest answer from those in the West who drive US actions.

Another curious aspect of the interview is Carlson’s questions about diplomacy and the implied question about the “special services”. Tucker Carlson’s father was a journalist working with the American “special services” or other government agencies. The level of passive and active cooperation between the corporate media and the CIA (or FBI) is a matter of record. Originally discrete, they even operate overtly today. As a former intelligence officer (like George H W Bush), the Russian president respects the rules by which those services operate. In contrast to the legions of CIA assets in the US and the West as a whole, Vladimir Putin neither denies this stage in his career nor does he trivialize the functions these services perform. Yet he comes just short of suggesting that the lead Western services drive policy. In contrast one hears little to indicate that the Russian president is run by his country’s covert action branch. Does Carlson appreciate this difference? Vladimir Putin answers Carlson with the rhetorical question, who is Boris Johnson? To which Carlson seemed to have no answer. Again a critical viewer could understand the insinuation. Boris Johnson, who was no longer British prime minister was in Kiev on someone’s behalf. Johnson himself, unlike a member of the Biden family, had no obvious personal interest in Ukraine. Yet his words were apparently enough to destroy the Istanbul format where Russia and Ukraine had initialed accords that according to President Putin would have ended the war. So on whose behalf was the backbencher sent? What did he offer or threaten to persuade Kiev to renounce what they had already accepted? Even if Tucker Carlson did not know the answer the question was hard to overlook.

Already before FOX sacked him Tucker Carlson had begun to question the appearances of government in the US. However little attention has been paid to the “secret team”, the term Prouty used to describe the permanent government, and how it rules and disseminates propaganda. So little critical attention is given to covert government because it also transcends the political and social categories in which the mass and sacraments of the American Church are celebrated. Carlson ended his interview with questions couched in the language of Christian catechism. He asked the Russian president, as a Christian, if he would not act in accordance with a platitude of that same Sunday school version of Christianity characteristic of the West: “why don’t you turn the other cheek?” Sensibly Vladimir Putin responded as a head of state and not a pupil summoned to the principal’s office for fighting on the playground. He said with calm neutrality that the West was more “pragmatic” than Russia. Without demeaning the West, Vladimir Putin answered in a way deeply consistent with the Orthodox Christianity overthrown by Rome in the Fourth Crusade. His conviction was that Russians had a life and soul that were indivisible. The implication was that the West in its pragmatism could dispense with one or the other.

Certainly the enormous viewer numbers Tucker Carlson reaches will uniquely benefit if they really listen to the conversation. Nonetheless the legacy of Walters will be hard to transcend. Carlson as the celebrity interviewer risks not just being unheard. There is still the opportunity for a new news entertainment brand to emerge by which the medium remains the message. Tucker Carlson then would join the pantheon of celebrity with surprising but increasingly superficial product. The Church has always known how to absorb divergence into entertainment (if it could not be suppressed) and its grand corporate successors, who Putin correctly identified as directly or indirectly controlling almost all the world‘s mass media, have refined those methods using both natural and artificial intelligence.

Dr T.P. Wilkinson writes, teaches History and English, directs theatre and coaches cricket between the cradles of Heine and Saramago. He is also the author of Church Clothes, Land, Mission and the End of Apartheid in South Africa. Read other articles by T.P..