Media Matters is at it again. Its diligent efforts to find bad things said by conservatives has paid off. It found years-old recordings of Tucker Carlson saying terrible things to radio shock-jock Bubba the Love Sponge. Twitter, of course, lit up. And yes, the hashtags #BoycottTuckerCarlson and #FireTuckerCarlson are — at the moment I write this piece — trending items one and two on my Twitter feed.
I don’t like what Tucker said, but here’s what is far, far worse for our nation and our culture than a pundit saying shocking things to a shock jock: the creation and sustainment of an outrage industry that spends millions of dollars (and countless man-hours) in the quest to destroy the lives and careers of the people it dislikes.
Here’s the way it works. If you’re a conservative or a Republican who attains any kind of prominence at all, then the hunt is on. Media Matters has its rolling list of allegedly bad or silly things I’ve said and written, for example. And the more prominent you are, the more diligent the hunt. People will listen to hundreds of hours of radio shows or podcasts. They’ll watch tapes of cable news until their eyes glaze over. They’ll scan through hundreds of thousands of written words — letting the sum total of the person’s world view and body of work wash over them — looking for that “gotcha” moment, the word or phrase that proves “the bad man really is bad.”
And let’s be clear, Tucker’s words aren’t “hurtful” or “offensive” in the truest sense. At the time, they passed through the media ether without notice or comment. There were no outraged victims seeking redress. Nobody was crying sincere tears on camera because of the bad things a (then) MSNBC contributor said about them. And no one is really hurt today either. Instead, the atmosphere is one of vengeful glee. We got him now.
But note very carefully the process here. The person is truly rendered “bad” by his or her ideology. Pro-life? Republican? Conservative? Populist? Trumpist? Once you pass the ideological threshold that renders you an enemy, you’re fair game. The true intent is not to cleanse the public square of bad people. Otherwise, the search would be bipartisan, applying the same rules to both sides. The intent is to clear the public square of bad ideas, and if they have to destroy careers and reputations to do so, well then, that’s all the more fun.
So the dreary cycle repeats itself time and again. Kevin Williamson has the opportunity to speak to a different audience in The Atlantic? Well, let’s go to the podcast archives. Bari Weiss is making an impact at the New York Times? Let’s reexamine (and mislead people about) her college activism. Ben Shapiro is drawing crowds? Let’s make him answer (again) for years-old tweets. Sometimes the Twitter outrage claims a scalp. Sometimes it doesn’t. But always it deepens our public divide. Always it leads some people to dismiss other ideas and other people on the basis of partial information, deliberate distortions, and sheer partisan animus.
If we doubt the bad faith of the process, consider the glaring double standards. If you’re a progressive — if your ideas are deemed good — then media grace abounds. Colin Kaepernick can dehumanize cops as pigs, and we should just move on. That doesn’t define his message. Instead, he signs a lucrative contract with Nike. Ta-Nehisi Coates can say awful things about the heroic cops and firefighters who made their doomed climb up the stairs of the Twin Towers on 9/11, and that’s but a trifle — not even worth considering compared with his “essential” body of work. He gets a genius grant. Joy Reid can say bad things and then spin out the wildest, strangest tale about “hacking,” and it’s all just fine. Her MSNBC timeslot is secure.
And let’s not even get started about the many bad tweets of the New York Times’s Sarah Jeong. “Good” people make mistakes, right? Or maybe — according to progressive think-pieces — they’re not even mistakes, but rather expressions of understandable outrage in the face of an oppressive culture.
I don’t like many of Tucker Carlson’s ideas. As I’ve written at length, I think his embrace of victimhood populism is bad for the nation and bad for the conservative movement. I’ve tried to follow his show, but I find his brand of right-wing outrage journalism tiresome and destructive in its own right. But we should respond to his arguments with arguments of our own. We should debate him on the air and in print. And if we don’t like his show, we can change the channel.
Our nation cannot maintain its culture of free speech if we continue to reward those who seek to destroy careers rather than rebut ideas. And when you reward a Media Matters search-and-destroy fishing expedition with calls for boycotts or reprisals, then you are doing your part to destroy debate. It’s vengeful. It’s cowardly. And it’s exactly the online world that spiteful partisans want to build.