Donahue: But worse.
Ben Smith tries to hold Tucker Carlson accountable. He failed. Plus: Someone blew up America's eugenicist Stonehenge!
It’s 1991: Phil Donahue is sitting across from David Duke.
Donahue essentially invented the daytime talk show. He was Oprah before there was an Oprah.
It was must-see TV. Viewers might get a sobering account of the Gulf War one day, and an off-the-wall piece on the sex lives of bisexuals the next. ("We do the Persian Gulf. We sneak it in between the male strippers,” he told the Washington Post in 1987.)
That afternoon, Donahue is sharing his stage with the former grand wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. Duke had just come off a term as a state representative in Louisiana and an unsuccessful campaign for the U.S. Senate — where he, despite a long history of militant racism and anti-semitism — had scooped up some 43% of the vote. Now he’s running for governor, after coming a close second in an open primary.
Donahue opens by asking Duke about recent comments he made about being uncomfortable that Clarence Thomas, then just about to assume a spot on the Supreme Court, was married to a white woman. “Why does it bother you?” Donahue asks, his face all askew. His coke-bottle glasses virtually obscuring his eyes.
“I think inter-marriage, between blacks and whites, often hurts the children,” Duke says. “I think that most Black people and most white people in America believe that way. I think a lot of people are afraid to say how they think about some of those issues.”
The camera cuts to a Black woman sitting in the front row, rolling her eyes, and looking like she wants to throw a shoe at the man. (You couldn’t blame her if she did.)
“You’re foursquare against affirmative action,” Donahue follows up a minute later.
“I'm against discrimination,” Duke replies. “I believe equal rights must be for everybody in this country, Black or white.”
Back to Donahue: “Do you accept the phrase ‘racial purity’?”
“I don't think there's any pure race,” Duke says, like he had rehearsed this answer a thousand times. And, well, clearly he had. “There are certainly races and there's heritages that exist, and there's nothing wrong with Black people being proud of their heritage.” Duke goes on to compare himself to civil rights leader Jesse Jackson.
This isn’t Duke’s first appearance on Donahue. The host even plays a clip from Duke’s very first appearance on the show, from 13 years prior, when he was still grand wizard of a white supremacist movement — a dressed up version of an actual terrorist organization. And Donahue starts playing Duke’s greatest hits, while Duke tries to dance past it.
“So you’re against killing Jews, but they are a blight?”
“I’ve said intolerant things in my life.”
“This is a 1986 interview,” just five years prior, Donahue shoots back.
Even if Duke’s attempt to paint himself as reformed fall flat — of course, Duke’s effort to put curtains over his obvious racism was never meant to be that convincing — the camera frequently pans out to the audience, where neatly-dressed white women nodded along as he speaks.
Donahue doesn’t monopolize Duke. After 15 minutes of one-on-one, the audience gets a turn. “This guy is full of baloney,” one caller exclaims, eliciting cheers from the audience. One audience member stands up to ask Duke what he admired about Hitler, given that the former Klansman had attended his birthday celebration. At times, it feels like the audience is giving Duke the what for that Donahue hadn’t quite landed.
But then a white woman stands up. She confesses that she, after watching Duke for the past 20 minutes, had changed her mind about the man. Walking into the studio, she had some “prejudices” against him. “All I had based my opinion on was what I heard direct from the media,” she tells Donahue. Duke’s changed ways resonate with her. “Heaven forbid that I was judged for my past mistakes.” She elicits, it seems, equal amounts of applause and jeers. If she lived in Louisiana, she might vote for him, she says.
She wasn’t the only one.
"After watching Donahue this morning, David Duke stood out like a shining knight," a reader wrote to The Times, out of Shreveport, Louisiana a few days later. Another wrote: "I saw David Duke and he made me proud of the state of Louisiana."
Donahue had admitted, in a 1978 interview with the Washington Post, that inviting Duke on his show caused some anxiety. “But I'm convinced you don't solve problems by repressing unpleasant ideas,” he said. “Suppression doesn't work.”
By the 1990s, however, there was no fear that these characters were being suppressed. Oprah, Geraldo Rivera, Morton Downey Jr — the titans of daytime talk were clamoring to invite on virulent racists and anti-semites to goose their ratings. One episode of Geraldo, featuring a panel of white supremacists and neo-Nazis, ended with Geraldo’s nose being broken after they threw around some racial and anti-Semitic slurs.
Even if we take Donahue at his word, that inviting Duke on was an effort to use sunlight as disinfectant, that noble — if perhaps optimistic — goal was perverted quickly in pursuit of ratings. And boy did they get ratings.
Which brings to me to the real topic of this week’s Bug-eyed and Shameless. (I love a long intro, what can I say.)
In advance of the great reveal of his new media venture, Semafor, ex-BuzzFeed News editor-in-chief and former New York Times media columnist Ben Smith had a truly cringe-worthy interview with Tucker Carlson.
The event, co-hosted with the Knight Foundation, was notionally about restoring trust in media and journalism as an institution. And it’s not hard to hear someone try and justify bringing in Carlson, perhaps one of the most pugilistic personalities on television, to answer for his role in smashing whatever remains of that trust. You can probably even imagine it in Donahue’s voice, deadpan while peering over his glasses, delivering an appeal to air out all sides of the issue and let truth prevail.
But, let’s be real, this was about ratings.
“I'm just hoping you'll let me ask questions and not steamroll me,” Smith began the interview. Carlson interrupted right away. “You’re the tough one, Ben!”
Out of the gate, Smith’s Donahue impression was on point. “Do you believe white people are superior to other races?” He asked in all earnesty.
And we went off to the races, as it were.
“Of course not,” Carlson laughed.
Negotiating with himself, Smith reframed the question. “Do you think that white people have some claim on America that people of other races don’t?”
“I think there are a lot of criticisms you could level with me. I think sometimes I overstate the case, I get pissed, I can be very nasty,” Carlson said. Hard to disagree with that. “If you were to look at my texts, or listen to my personal conversations, or read my mind, you would find no instance where I'm like: ‘I'm mad at Black people.’”
One positive thing you can say about Donahue’s interview with Duke is that Donahue hit him with things he actually believed and said. Here was Ben Smith trying to prosecute a case against Carlson that no smart lawyer would take. And Carlson took the opportunity to appeal to the jury.
“100% of the people that I'm mad at are well-educated white liberals,” he said. “In my mind, the sort of archetype of the person I don't like is a 38 year old female white lawyer with a barren personal life that yells at me on airplanes.”
There was really no recovering from that start. Smith was clearly building up to a clip of Carlson voicing the white replacement theory — “the replacement of legacy Americans with more obedient people from faraway countries,” Carlson told his massive Fox News audience — but even just a few minutes in, Carlson was clearly in control.
“What’s a legacy American?” Smith asked.
“People who were born here: Black people, white people, Hispanic people, Asian people, people who are citizens,” Carlson said, before launching into a monologue that, despite Smith’s initial plea, steamrolled over any interjection.
Watching that interview live on Thursday, it was hard to look away. It was hard to stop watching. It was Donahue: But worse. Donahue had control of his set, he had a pile of research under his thumb, he had decades of hosting experience that let him at least push the interview in the right direction. Smith was getting slapped around by a TV host joining live by Zoom from his closet.
At that point, Smith’s point — that Carlson’s dog whistle has radicalized the nationalist right in America into a new era of race politics, and emboldened legitimate white supremacists, including some who have committed acts of domestic terror — may as well have been a recipe for mushroom soup.
“I don't think I've ever talked to a white supremacist,” Carlson mused. Everyone is a child of god, all races are equal, it’s Democrats who are race-obsessed.
Outgunned, Smith tried to take the reins with a bit of askew humour.
“Do you feel that in just your own career, you've been kind of discriminated against as a white Protestant?”
“No,” Carlson responded, with genuine puzzlement. “No?”
“And I ask, in part, because I had been told that Roger Ailes…the former head of Fox, had a preference for Irish Catholics, and then it kind of held you back.”
Carlson started giggling. And off he goes on another monologue. “I don't think you should ever hire someone on the basis of race or sex,” he added. “That's grotesque to me.”
I should say, here, that I don’t think Tucker Carlson is David Duke — Duke’s past militancy is miles worse than anything Carlson has ever said or supported. But I think the version of himself that David Duke wanted to convey on Donahue in 1991 is almost exactly the character Tucker Carlson plays on TV, right down to their shared effort to sell opposition to affirmative action as being the real anti-racist position.
And much like the woman who stood to tell Donahue that listening to Duke had helped the scales fall from her eyes, teaching her that the media was an unreliable messenger, Carlson was using this forum on trust in media to continue kicking the shit out of the media.
“This is why you are considered, correctly, a propagandist and not a journalist,” he lambasted Smith. “Because I just explained in detail, with total sincerity, what I believe. You ignored it and invoked mass shooters.”
The interview continues on much this tract. Smith, over time, looked to be slowly deflating. As the 30 minutes drew to a close, Smith meekly tried to find some common ground: “Is there anything that we — you — ought to be doing to sort of diminish this [growing distrust in media]?”
And Carlson spiked the volleyball back into Smith’s face.
“De-racialize things,” Carlson said.
A minute later, Smith tried to get out of the interview, looking defeated. “We are out of time,” he sighs, as Carlson continues thumping: “Make it less! racial!” Unconvincingly, Smith signs off: “I'm glad you could join us.” Carlson giggled some more: “That was fun!”
I wonder a lot about where the line falls between accountability and promotion.
I think Donahue was right: Ignoring these people doesn’t work. You can’t close your eyes and hope they go away. Indeed, we hoped that many on the emergent far right would just evaporate if we ignored them. That wishful thinking meant these virulent ideas both went unchecked and garnered a forbidden mystique. And it led to America being shocked when the Oklahoma City bombing, inspired by a fast-growing militia movement and far-right radio broadcaster William Cooper; and it’s left us woefully unprepared for the current rise in far-right extremism.
But inviting them onstage doesn’t work, either. Whether it’s Donald Trump, Tucker Carlson, or Marine Le Pen — figures who set out to destroy institutions don’t suddenly respect them when you invite them inside the very institutions they’re trying to wreck. It just makes their jobs easier.
When Trump says he doesn’t know who QAnon is, he’s lying. When Carlson says his fear of the “replacement” of Americans is race blind, he’s lying. When Marine Le Pen says the only anti-semitism in France comes from Muslims, she’s lying.
But those lies sound convincing, and they are nearly impossible to dismantle. Every example is met with deflection — if you point out that, despite Carlson’s claim to defend Americans of all race and creed, adherents to his message have opened fire on those “obedient people from faraway countries,” he waves his hands and says you propagandist!
Journalists needs to dispose of the idea that we are so clever, so nimble, so quick, that we can catch someone like Carlson or Duke in that aha! moment that will expose them for the racist they really are. It won’t happen. They will lie about what they believe, and we can only tell the truth about what they say. And they’re trash our credibility while they’re at it. We are inherently outmatched.
The solution, I think, is to showcase what these characters say when they’re speaking to the true believers.
Outlets like RightWingWatch and MediaMatters make it their business to promote videos of this emergent right-wing speaking to their fellow travellers. Some deride that as platforming. On the contrary, I think it lets us hear these people at their most honest.
Understanding this ideology, and what makes it so effective, is the way to combat it. Not by trying to spar in hand-to-hand combat.
MediaMatters came to a very similar conclusion about the Smith-Carlson trainwreck as I have: “Talking to Carlson is a terrible way to elicit information about him and his work,” they note, while also drawing attention to many of Carlson’s past comments that blow a hole in his claim that his nationalism is not drawn along ethnic lines.
Years later, Donahue would keep defending his interviews with Duke, while also tacitly admitting his role in promoting the “unusually telegenic racist.”
“One of the things that white supremacists do is bring other people of similar feeling out of the woodwork — so you get a kind of lightning rod education, here,” he added. Donahue repeated his belief that “you don't fix racism by throwing a blanket over the people who are racist — put them on! Let's hear them! We want to know who they are! Where they are! What are they saying! What are they thinking!”
Without pausing, Donahue continued that it’s “no small issue, now, with the number of militia movements in our nation — people who essentially are dropping out of mainstream society and, I don't know, waiting for armageddon, or whatever.” He didn’t stop to contemplate whether he had a role in that.
“David Duke was that kind of lightning rod.”
Today, Tucker Carlson is that kind of lightning rod.
On CBC’s The National this week, I dive into some of the Westerners who are helping Vladimir Putin make the case that Ukraine is the one committing war crimes in his brutal invasion. Give it a watch.
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