Tucker Carlson often spends his mornings working out in a home gym with the TV on his treadmill tuned to MSNBC.
When he watches a show like “Morning Joe,” Carlson says, he appreciates the fact that the hosts are open about their points of view and how they come by them. “I don’t agree with anything they say, but I don’t feel like they are trying to fool me,” he says.
Most people who watch Carlson’s own program, “Tucker Carlson Tonight” likely couldn’t picture him watching such stuff. After all, Carlson has built a sizable audience on MSNBC’s political-spectrum counterpart, Fox News Channel, despite switching time slots three times since the fall of 2016. He doesn’t sound much like any of MSNBC’s most popular personalities.
Carlson believes people want to see him is for much the same reason he checks out MSNBC. They aren’t shy about hearing opposing views. He says he treats left-leaning guests with respect. “I treat their ideas seriously because I take them seriously and I don’t always agree, but it’s not like I have some need to shout people down,” he says. “Quite the opposite.” Justin Wells, the show’s executive producer, says audiences also like the fact that Carlson will tackle lighter fare, with segments on sports and popular culture, at a time when most shows drill down on nothing but hard news.
After replacing Brit Hume in Fox News’ 7 p.m. slot just before the 2016 presidential election, Carlson took the reins last January of a 9 p.m. hour once hosted by Megyn Kelly. Within months, he moved to Bill O’Reilly’s longtime roost at 8, part of a significant realignment of the cable-news network’s primetime schedule in a chaotic year.
Audiences have followed the host despite the switches. The January viewership for “Tucker Carlson Tonight” is delivering more of the viewers advertisers crave – people between 25 and 54 – than the last full year of “The O’Reilly Factor,” which aired during an election-fueled 2016. Carlson’s show has won an average of 598,000 viewers between 25 and 54r during the period, according to Nielsen. “Factor” won an average of 564,000. Overall January viewership through the 26th of the month stands at about 2.98 million, compared with nearly 3.3 million for the venerable “Factor” during 2016, according to Nielsen.
Critics might suggest the reason fans and detractors tune in is to see Carlson spar with some of his visitors. “If you could give me a crisp answer and not filibuster, I’d appreciate it,” he told Julissa Arce, billed on the program as “an immigrant and former DREAMer,” on the program last week. There are times when cross-talk between host and guest rings across a segment.
“The point is not to dominate or crush or destroy people at all,” says Carlson, who acknowledges some exchanges grow testy. “The point is to have a legitimate, adult conversation about what is at stake.”
Sometimes, he says, he even comes over to the guest’s point of view. When talking with Fox Sports 1 personality Jason Whitlock last week about some controversies surrounding the broadcast of Super Bowl LII, Carlson acknowledged being swayed by his guest. “I think you’re two for two. I’m shocked, actually,” Carlson confessed on air “That never happens to me.”
The challenge Carlson thinks he faces, he says, is a growing inability by people to hold nuanced opinions. He can understand how a young person might get very passionate about a particular opinion, but as a person matures “you start to see how complicated life is.” Or at least he used to think that was the case.
“A lot of that has been reversed in the last couple of years. All of a sudden, I’m seeing people how are smart and humane and decent who really seem to believe that everyone who disagrees with them is evil and they are in ultimate possession of the truth,” says. “It’s starting to scare me a little bit.” Such a sentiment “is a really dark path to go down, a really destructive mind-set.”
He has taken a lot of heat for supporting President Trump’s immigration policies. As recently as Monday night, he asked a guest, “I’m not asking whether it’s morally great to let people in. Of course it is. I’m asking about the economic benefit and I never get an answer to that, because, as you know, there isn’t one.”
Carlson believes the issue is one of the most pressing of the moment. “I strongly felt and felt we need to have an honest conversation about immigration and its costs and benefits. I’m pretty pro-immigration in a lot of ways, but I think our leaders have an obligation to do the best they can for the people who already live here.”
He holds rare status in the cable-news business. Other than Greta Van Susteren, it’s tough to quickly rattle off many anchors or hosts who have held tenures at CNN. MSNBC and Fox News Channel. Carlson thinks CNN “is in a tough spot.” The network has portrayed itself for decades as a place for down-the-middle newsgathering, but Carlson says he thinks it has grown more opinionated. He suggested its anchors divulge leanings to the audience. “I would have every anchor say at the outset, ‘These are my views,’” he says. CNN has conducted market research at least three times over the past year showing audiences have maintained a strong perception of the network’s brand.
Carlson expects new issues will arise that need to be explored, like China’s growing power or the nation’s levels of consumer debut. He seems particularly interested in the plight of men in modern society, noting that he sees suicide rates, health issues and employment trends that will start to hurt males. “Men are beginning to lag far behind women,” he says.
No matter what the subject, you can probably expect to see Carlson ready to hash it all out with a guest who will likely stand on the opposite side of the argument. “This has been one of those moments where big questions are being raised,” he says. “It’s not small ball.”