Is Tucker Carlson the Most Powerful Person in Media?

"By law, the United States only has to offer 66,000 H-2B visas per year," Fox News Channel host Tucker Carlson said on his show April 1. "But Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf has used his discretionary powers to add 35,000 extra visas. So that's a total of 100,000 workers coming to this country to take jobs during the single biggest unemployment crisis in a century. It's demented."

Insiders say President Donald Trump caught wind of Carlson's segment, and the next day the Department of Homeland Security tweeted that "no additional H-2B visas will be released until further notice." That's the kind of influence journalists can only dream about having.

But how, and when, did this happen for Carlson? A private, two-hour meeting with the president on March 7 at Trump's Mar-a-Lago club in Florida where the two discussed the dangers of the coronavirus certainly helped. But the stage for Carlson's rise was set in motion six weeks earlier when most TV news anchors were focused on Trump's impeachment trial and Carlson was already reporting on "a potential pandemic."

"We'll consider the stories (the media's) downplaying in favor of a protracted government hearing, whose ending we already know," Carlson said on Jan. 28. "At this moment, a serious viral outbreak is spreading across China, the world's biggest country. In just a matter of weeks, this new strain of [the] coronavirus has generated almost as many new cases as SARS did ... that is the biggest story of the day, maybe of the moment, a potential pandemic rising from Asia." By comparison, an article in Slate one week later claimed the coronavirus "panic" was a "racist" way of "profiling" against Asians, quotes that Carlson played up during a segment where he wondered aloud why the mainstream media was downplaying what, in a month's time, would be declared a national emergency.

Since then, Carlson's coverage has remained unique — criticizing Trump when others at Fox News were not, and praising him while CNN and MSNBC were engaging in wall-to-wall negativity. Then, on April 4, Carlson pivoted again with an opening monologue outlining the ways Dr. Anthony Fauci has been wrong about COVID-19, something his competitors were loathe to do. "More than 10 million Americans have already lost their jobs," Carlson said during his segment about the U.S. director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. "Imagine another year of this. That would be national suicide, and yet, that is what Anthony Fauci is suggesting."

And on Tuesday, following multiple reports on CNN and MSNBC about how irresponsible it is for Trump and others to promote malaria drug hydoroxychloroquine as a potential treatment for COVID-19 (and Facebook and Twitter blocking posts suggesting that it was), Carlson did the opposite yet again, telling viewers: "Watching people in the media talk down a potentially lifesaving medicine because a politician they don't like endorsed it is probably the most shameful thing that I, who have done this for 29 years, have ever seen, and it's making a lot of us ashamed to work in the same profession as those people. So reckless, and wrong, in the middle of a pandemic. It really is. For real."

Carlson's brand of reporting during the national emergency has resulted in a ratings surge for Tucker Carlson Tonight, which scored 4.2 million viewers per day in March, according to Nielsen Media Research. Not only is that more than twice the ratings of CNN and MSNBC in the same time slot, but it also surpasses the gaudy numbers that his predecessor, Bill O'Reilly, used to amass before his show was canceled three years ago over a sex scandal. For the entire first quarter, Carlson averaged more than 4 million viewers per night, beating even entertainment programming like Modern Family on ABC.

Pollster Frank Luntz, author of Words that Work and a frequent guest on Fox News, said Carlson's early alarm bells over coronavirus have been paying dividends ever since. "Tucker was prepared to speak truth to power, and he did so before anyone else. If you're first, and it turns out you are correct, you earn greater popularity and influence," Luntz told Newsweek.

Tucker Carlson in studio
Tucker Carlson hosts "Tucker Carlson Tonight" on the Fox News Channel. Fox News/Courtesy of Fox News

Carlson, who was unavailable for comment, is "likeable, approachable, friendly and social," said Christina Bellantoni, the director of the Media Center at the USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism.

Bellantoni, who occasionally socialized with Carlson while covering the same stories in Washington, calls it "fascinating" how early Carlson was on the coronavirus story. "He rightly gets credit for shooting from the hip," she said.

While conservatives have largely respected Carlson for many years, he may have made his first positive impression on liberals in early January while reporting on the Trump-ordered killing of Gen. Qasem Soleimani of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard. After several Republican lawmakers were warning of harsh consequences should Iran retaliate, Carlson said this: "It's harder to get rich and powerful in Washington during peacetime, so our leaders have a built-in bias for war. And so they descended on television studios over the weekend to describe in detail the kind of violence they're prepared to wreak on a country very few of them know anything about." After Iran did, indeed, retaliate by lobbing missiles at U.S. bases in Iraq resulting in about 100 injuries but no casualties, many predicted war, and again Carlson seemed a voice of reason to many. "I continue to believe the president doesn't want full-blown war," he said. "Some around him might, but I think most sober people don't want that."

Like with the H-2B visas, Trump was paying attention to Carlson's show that night, according to published reports, and within 14 hours the president said the U.S. would not be retaliating against Iran. "Mockery" of Fox News turned to "strange new respect this week," Politico wrote a couple days later in an article titled, "For one shining moment, liberals loved Fox News."

Carlson, 50, is the son of Richard Warner Carlson, a former president of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting who was U.S. ambassador to the Seychelles under President George H.W. Bush. He got his start as a print journalist in the 1990s writing for magazines like the The Weekly Standard and made his way into television as a commentator on CNN and co-host of Crossfire. From 2005-2008 he hosted his own show on MSNBC, and in 2011 he cofounded conservative news outlet, The Daily Caller. He got his Fox News show in 2016, sliding into O'Reilly's coveted 8 p.m. time slot a year later after the latter's implosion.

"There's a sense that even when someone in the media craps on Washington, they're still playing Washington's game," Bellantoni told Newsweek. "Tucker is better at calling people out. Everybody at Fox calls out the mainstream media, but he does it in a more believable way, probably because he has worked for three networks and ran The Daily Caller. He's got a handle on media."

At times, it has been a rocky tenure for Carlson at Fox News, mostly owed to the self-described "progressive" watchdog group, Media Matters for America, a longtime foe of Fox News that routinely cherry-picks controversial commentary and uses it to dissuade advertisers from buying airtime on the network.

Last year, for example, Media Matters circulated comments Carlson made 10 years earlier on the Bubba the Love Sponge radio show. During a conversation about a man accused of arranging marriages between men and girls who weren't yet adults, Carlson said: "I am not defending underage marriage at all. I just don't think it's the same thing exactly as pulling a child from a bus stop and sexually assaulting that child."

Even in the midst of advertiser defections, Carlson displayed a uniqueness that escapes other journalists by inviting his detractors on his show via a tweet that read: "Media Matters caught me saying something naughty on a radio show more than a decade ago. Rather than express the usual ritual contrition, how about this: I'm on television every weeknight live for an hour. If you want to know what I think, you can watch. Anyone who disagrees with my views is welcome to come on and explain why."

And in December, 2018, Media Matters attacked Carlson after he said on his show that, "We have a moral obligation to admit the world's poor, they tell us, even if it makes our own country poorer, and dirtier, and more divided." Media Matters president Angelo Carusone told Newsweek that Carlson is "uniquely toxic" to advertisers, noting that before the immigration comments his show had 30 paid advertisers but the number was cut in half a month later.

"We cannot and will not allow voices like Tucker Carlson to be censored by agenda-driven intimidation efforts from the likes of, Media Matters and Sleeping Giants," Fox News said at the time. "Attempts were made in November to bully and terrorize Tucker and his family at their home. He is now once again being threatened via Twitter by far left activist groups with deeply political motives. While we do not advocate boycotts, these same groups never target other broadcasters and operate under a grossly hypocritical double standard given their intolerance to all opposing points of view."

While Carlson was earlier than most with his scary reports about coronavirus, he's proven lately that he's not married to the position. Wednesday, for example, he reported that the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation slashed its estimate of the number of Americans who would die from the current outbreak of coronavirus down to 60,000 whereas it had been as high as 245,000. "Some people will be offended to hear this," he said, just before reminding his audience that 61,000 people died of the annual flu in 2018, echoing a comparison that Trump was harshly criticized for making a month earlier. "Accurate statistics are not offensive," Carlson said, "and reality should always be the baseline from which we we make important decisions."

And when it comes to impressing Trump, Carlson has the right background, personality and even physical appearance, says John Pitney, the Roy P. Crocker professor of American Politics at Claremont McKenna College. "Trump envies elites, and Tucker Carlson grew up in privilege. Carlson is also intelligent, and Trump loves it when his defenders can display a bit of polish," said Pitney. "And it may sound trivial, but it's not: Tucker Carlson is tall. Trump judges people by their height."