This piece was originally published in The Point.
For a huge swath of the New Right, Tucker Carlson’s 8 p.m. slot was not only a TV show; it was a portal to the Tuckerverse. The old-school idea of “the news” assumed that there were objectively important events and it was the reporter’s duty to inform the public of them. Tucker Carlson Tonight, the most popular cable news show in history, rejected this premise. Carlson pursued stories—frivolous ones full of culture-war red meat, but also more substantial ones about massive financial corruption and deaths of despair—that few major pundits had picked up. But he wasn’t just interpreting the news; he was making it. What made something newsworthy was whether it fit into the narrative.
The Tuckerverse was the apotheosis of a style of infotainment where the host is no mere talking head, but a controversy-courting prophet. Carlson perfected, to his own ends, a format originated by the liberal comedian Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. This format eventually migrated from Comedy Central to the mainstream networks and became one of the dominant styles of news commentary in the 2010s. Using the near-infinite archive of clips made accessible by digital technology, Carlson recontextualizes them with tightly written monologues, turning real-world people and events into recurring characters and narrative themes taken up show after show. As Tucker Carlson Tonight went on, the number of segments where Carlson debated an opposing guest dropped to nearly zero, while his monologues grew longer and revisited his preferred narratives nearly every night. On the show, these recurring segments were often marked by an identifiable graphic and punning headline—another trope copped from The Daily Show.
As the advertising-based mass media model collapsed, for-profit media companies, including large news organizations like Fox, have had to reinvent themselves with a “digital first, subscriber first” business model geared at commanding viewer loyalty. Amid the internet’s infinite deluge of information, hot takes and perspectives, having a trusted figure interpret the world for us, provide a signal among the noise, is the single most valuable thing they can provide. Stephen Colbert (in character at the Colbert Report as a Carlson-like conservative host) was more prophetic than he knew when he stipulated in his debut monologue that “anyone can read the news to you. I promise to feel the news at you.”