Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson clashed with former New York Times media columnist Ben Smith at a pre-launch event for Semafor, an upmarket online news startup.
Ben Smith has left the NYT to work on Semafor alongside Bloomberg Media chief executive Justin B Smith.
Carlson dismissed accusations that he was “pouring gasoline” on US political divisions, and claimed he pays no attention to his ratings. But he conceded he “sometimes overstates the case”, that “I can be very nasty” and that he had reassessed his views on the extra-legal detention of Muslims in the wake of 9/11.
Justin B Smith told the audience earlier in the event that Semafor is aiming to launch formally on 15 October 2022 and that it currently has “15, 16 people” on its staff.
Carlson’s virtual appearance at the event was itself the subject of controversy: the philanthropic Knight Foundation, which sponsored the event, was accused of “betraying its mission” by platforming Carlson.
Carlson, who has latterly become the most prominent host in the Fox News stable, has been accused of promoting the idea that elites are purposefully trying to bring non-white people into white-majority countries.
Smith asked Carlson: “Do you believe white people are superior to other races?” and “Do you think that white people have some claim on America that people of other races don’t?”
Carlson said no, arguing that “The idea that I harbour some sort of deep racial animus is like – I mean, I think there are a lot of criticisms you could level at me. I think sometimes I overstate the case, I get pissed, I can be very nasty…”
But, he claimed, “100% of the people that I’m mad at are well educated white liberals”.
Smith asked Carlson about the 6 January 2021 attack on the US Capitol.
Prosecutions of those involved in the riot have become a frequent feature of Carlson’s coverage, with Carlson promoting theories the insurrection was an FBI false flag operation.
Smith asked Carlson whether the prosecutions in the attack’s aftermath had made him “rethink both the FBI’s treatment, and the media’s coverage, of Muslims after 9/11”.
“Oh, absolutely. Yeah! For sure,” said Carlson. “And the Patriot Act, and the Iraq War.
“The Patriot Act, the rush to eliminate core historic civil liberties in this country after 9/11 has not been, I would say, examined in the depth that it requires, and I don’t think there have been enough mea culpas.
“I personally supported the Iraq War technically [and] have apologised for it in a very heartfelt way… I have apologised, let me do it again, for my support of the Patriot Act. Due process is not just, you know, something we have as an added feature. It’s central to maintaining a free country.”
Turning to deepening polarisation in the US, Smith said: “I think, and maybe I’m wrong, but that your audience enjoys it when you kind of pour gasoline on those fires, not when you try to put them out.
“And I wonder… if the nature of cable, of the ratings-driven business of cable news… basically makes it impossible to do anything else.”
Carlson claimed not to care about his ratings.
“I don’t know how to read a ratings chart. Ask anyone who works for me, or has worked with me. I never look at the ratings. I’m not on the ratings email – I’m not even on email!
“I don’t know what my ratings are. And I mean that. You may not believe me – I don’t own a TV! That’s true. So I’m actually never thinking about ratings.”
Smith asked Carlson how he thought the country could be de-polarised.
“De-racialise things. The scariest thing that could happen to America is to wind up in a country that cleaves along racial lines. Because that’s just Rwanda.”
At a panel talk immediately prior to the clash, CBS News journalist Wesley Lowery directly criticised Carlson.
“I can launch a big police shooting database, and win a Pulitzer Prize on it… Win every award in journalism.
“And none of that matters when Tucker Carlson goes on air later that night and goes: ‘Wesley Lowery hates cops, send him death threats.’ He wouldn’t say that, but that’s what would end up happening…
“We have these powerful propaganda organisations in our country that have the ability to speak to millions of people, without any context, without any semblance of fairness, and poison the water system.”