This piece originally appeared in COMPACT.
The presidential debate as we know it was born with television, and this year, it is dying alongside television. The contrast between the Fox News-hosted GOP primary debate and Tucker Carlson’s counter-programmed interview with Donald Trump is the latest harbinger of a fundamental shift underway in America, as the long age of broadcast technology comes to a close.
It is no accident that it was Tucker Carlson who offered Trump a platform while he was skipping the Fox debate. Well before he was expelled from Rupert Murdoch’s empire and transferred operations to Elon Musk’s X, traditional TV journalism, paid for by mass-market advertising, was becoming obsolete. What was replacing it was the sort of audience-driven, interpretive infotainment pioneered by The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart in the 2000s and later perfected by Tucker on his Fox show. Tucker’s firing, in this sense, offered him the opportunity to achieve the full potential of the Tuckerverse by leaning into the incentives provided by digital media.
The first GOP primary debate in 2015, also on Fox News, was the most watched live broadcast for a non-sporting event in cable television history, with 24 million viewers. The first general presidential debate between Trump and Clinton in 2016 drew over 80 million viewers, the most in television history. But already, there were signs of the medium’s demise. The vast majority of those viewers watched the debate…and then turned it off to scroll through social media.