My old buddy Tucker Carlson is in the news, but is he really in trouble?
The Fox News millionaire and I aren’t truly buddies, but we were friendly when we worked together at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in the 1990s.
Carlson’s under fire for saying bad things on tape, denigrating women as “extremely primitive” and dismissing Iraqis as “semiliterate monkeys.” On the radio with a shock jock, he also applauded the sexual stamina of a 13-year-old abuse victim.
Tapes from the “Bubba the Love Sponge Show,” where the pundit was a weekly guest from 2006 to 2011, went global after Media Matters for America spotlighted them online. Carlson said he’d been caught saying “something naughty,” but refused to apologize.
What naughtiness? He belittled unattractive women, used the C-word for Martha Stewart’s daughter, called Arianna Huffington a “pig” and defamed Paris Hilton and Britney Spears as “two of the biggest white whores in America.”
Amid the backlash, he cast himself as victim of liberal outrage and vowed to never give in to the “mob,” suggesting that Americans might soon be hounded for off-color musings at the dinner table.
Dinner comments are a far cry from on-air remarks, of course, but Carlson’s strategy may be working. He’s drawn support from many conservatives who say shock jock talk is, after all, meant to be shocking.
As groups like Women’s March called an ad boycott, Fox owner Rupert Murdoch also sent signals that he hates apologies and supports Carlson’s double-down.
New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez seized on that in a tweet:
Between Tucker Carlson’s defense of sexual assault + calling women “extremely primitive,” or Jeanine Pirro’s bigoted diatribe that hijabi women are “antithetical” to the Constitution, who do you think Fox News will give a promotion to first? Ã°¤" https://t.co/suqHHFW3WX— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) March 11, 2019
“Between Tucker Carlson’s defense of sexual assault + calling women ‘extremely primitive,’ or Jeanine Pirro’s bigoted diatribe that hijabi women are ‘antithetical’ to the Constitution, who do you think Fox News will give a promotion to first?”
For the record, Fox did condemn Pirro’s comments, and the network ousted Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly for sexual harassment not so long ago. But Carlson’s case is different, said Dylan McLemore, a public relations professor at the University of Central Arkansas.
“What Carlson said is exactly on-brand,” McLemore told Outtakes. “This is the character he created, and he plays the notes. He’s basically a radio shock jock on TV. O’Reilly’s case involved sexual abuse allegations, not crude remarks. That was also in the wake of Roger Ailes, so there were many more moving parts.”
Carlson, who returned to Arkansas to headline the state GOP’s Reagan-Rockefeller fundraiser in 2016, framed the boycott as a liberal bid to blunt free speech and impose political correctness. He had a different take, though, when conservatives boycotted Nike for embracing Colin Kaepernick, and when Sean Hannity fans were blowing up Keurig coffee makers over that company’s withdrawal as a Hannity sponsor.
Damage control in PR usually requires owning up to bad behavior and apologizing promptly. But Fox News is an exception. “The feeling is they don’t have to do the traditional apology thing, and for what he’s trying to do, Carlson’s response was calculated, and it seems to be working,” McLemore said.
Instead of mea culpas, Carlson invited detractors to debate him on his show.
“He said I’m not going to kowtow; you have to join my circus,” McLemore said. “An apology would have angered Carlson’s audience, and the people calling for an apology are not going to be watching Fox in any case.”
At one point in the “Love Sponge” interviews, “Bubba” and his co-host speculate about possible lesbian explorations in the dorms of Carlson’s daughter’s boarding school. This was Carlson’s astounding response: “If it weren’t my daughter I would love that scenario.”
That’s shockingly similar to Donald Trump’s reaction to Howard Stern in 2004 when he agreed with Stern’s description of Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, as “a piece of ass.” “Yeah,” Trump replied, yet he paid no clear political price for that, or for his “grab ’em” remarks caught on the “Access Hollywood” tape from 2005. Carlson can’t claim “locker room talk.” He knew he was speaking on the air.
So what’s the lesson? Amy Barnes, the former TV news anchor now teaching PR at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, said she pushes the Public Relations Society of America’s Code of Ethics as her go-to guide.
“Yes, it demands honesty, fairness, free flow of information, transparency, etc.,” she said. “Yes, some very prominent people very openly violate those values. … But they are the exceptions, not the rule. Eventually, even those exceptions feel the heat. Finally, most politics ain’t PR — not the same ethically driven PR that legitimate professionals practice.”