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‘Tucker Carlson Tonight’ Takes Over Bill O’Reilly’s Timeslot — and Delivers the Same Bombast (Column)

It would seem that nothing has changed.

With characteristic, disingenuous smarm, Tucker Carlson debuted “Tucker Carlson Tonight” at the 8 p.m. hour on Fox News, taking over from disgraced anchor Bill O’Reilly. Carlson began the hour with a statement about O’Reilly that lionized the former Fox News host: “I watched Bill O’Reilly at this hour for years and I always marveled at how well-prepared he was, how tough he was, and how crisply and directly he expressed his views. What O’Reilly did was not easy — he set a high bar — and I’m going to do my best to meet it. Thanks for sticking with us.”

Carlson’s program then proceeded to follow a template of the exact same demonizing, disingenuous rhetoric that has characterized his style for years and Fox News’ strategy for decades. When O’Reilly was let go from the network, the Murdoch family stated that they were prioritizing a culture shift at the network, which has been rocked by ongoing sexual harassment and racial discrimination scandals. Carlson, who has said that Democrats “made up the concept of sexual harassment,” did not seem like the most promising replacement.

His first move was to book Caitlyn Jenner, who O’Reilly had made transphobic remarks about in 2015: “Pardon me for this, but from the waist down, he is a ‘he.’” While he didn’t say anything nearly as boorish when interviewing Jenner, who was on the show to discuss her new memoir, “The Secrets of my Life,” he was not interested in forging a new path forward for the timeslot’s tone, either. In his signature method of stunt-like interviewing and leading questions, Carlson had Jenner on to make a fool of her. He (and the show’s chyrons) were quick to highlight that Jenner said she felt it was harder to come out as a Republican than as trans — but then tried to ignore or dismiss everything else she said, such as her criticism for President Trump and Attorney Jeff Sessions’ LGBT policies. He defensively repeated that “people of good faith” struggled to understand transgender people, and then argued against hate crime legislation when she introduced the troubling numbers of trans women murdered in America.

Jenner grew visibly irritated with Carlson, and at one point chose to abstain from getting into biological determinism and Olympic athleticism with Carlson. Her desire to not engage with Carlson because he was being disingenuous led to her looking disingenuous, which is presumably exactly what he was hoping to accomplish.

Even the way her interview was framed in the larger show served to undercut her. The segment immediately preceding her interview was about how fashion retailer Nordstrom’s is selling pre-muddied jeans for $400 a pop; a segment following was about how the culture of elite millionaires from Harvard Business School has engendered a culture of prioritizing shareholders over employees. “Tucker Carlson Tonight” has a vested interest in making Jenner look like a frivolous rich person, and maybe she is one. But one wonders if Carlson thought to aim that same criticism at his own company, which took 13 years and three weeks to prioritize its employees over its shareholders — or to leverage his blue-collar righteousness at the combined $65 million settlement shared between Roger Ailes and O’Reilly. The sheer hypocrisy on display was absurd.

Everything about “Tucker Carlson Tonight’s” premiere in the 8 p.m. timeslot signifies business as usual for Fox News. The opening segment even went so far as to re-battle, for some reason, the election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump — using a poll released today to beat the dead horse of the 2016 vote and crow victory over Democrats. Carlson even went so far as to outright mock the women’s march of January 21, dismissing it as being without policy goals, and pointing out that Donald Trump won the majority of the white female vote. “Are [white women] stupid, are they crazy, are they bigots?” he asked his guest Richard Goodstein — seemingly not realizing how inflammatory it might be to call any women stupid, crazy, or bigots on the heels of a sexual harassment controversy. Indeed: Not counting Jenner — who lived as a white man for most of her life — the show featured only white men as guests, interviewees, or experts until 10 minutes before the end, when two white women shared space to compete against each other in a recurring segment called “Top That.”

Carlson knows how to jigger an argument so that he can win it, and he knows how to manufacture the most drama possible out of an interview segment. He is a worthy successor to O’Reilly, if perhaps not quite as cutting in his delivery. (“Hm,” he said towards the end of his program. “Maybe [Bernie] Sanders and [Bill] Maher are old enough to remember when the left actually believed in free speech, instead of paying lip service to it.”) But if tonight is any evidence — and judging by how nearly every guest congratulated Carlson on his 8 p.m. slot as if he’d won it out of pure merit, and not in an ongoing scandal, it probably is — “Tucker Carlson Tonight” will not be doing much to change the culture of Fox News.

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