It's not outrage; it's bewilderment. (Tucker Carlson/X)

September 8, 2023   5 mins

There’s this face Tucker Carlson makes when he’s got a particularly wild story in the offing. The eyebrows knit together at the centre, the mouth is downturned with lips either slightly open or pursed in a pouty frown. Whoever wrote Carlson’s Wikipedia entry describes it as his “trademark scowl”, but scowl isn’t quite the right word. The expression isn’t so much angry as astonished, maybe even a little bewildered. It’s an embodiment of the classic newsman’s caveat, “Big, if true”, which allows members of the press to maintain plausible incredulity about a rumour even as they spread that same rumour all over the place.

Whether Carlson makes this face strategically is hard to say; it’s certainly a fortuitous way for someone in this line of work to look, but is it also just how he looks, generally. He got a lot of mileage out of it when he was the primetime poster boy at Fox News, monologuing on such matters of national importance as the gender identity of the green M&M. And he’s working it to great effect in his new interview with Larry Sinclair, a man who has spent the past 15 years alleging that he once engaged in a drug-fuelled homosexual liaison, in a Comfort Inn, with the then-not-yet-President Barack Obama.

“What was Obama like on crack?” Carlson asks, and then pulls the trademark face while Sinclair meanders through an answer. It’s a neat trick. The pundit’s new self-produced show on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, is a lower-budget affair than the Fox News position from which he was fired in April; it doesn’t allow for such technical flourishes as a chyron. But he doesn’t need one: Carlson’s expression alone creates the impression of a subtextual thought bubble floating invisibly somewhere above his head: Do you believe this shit?

Full disclosure: I, for one, do not believe this shit. It’s not just Sinclair’s less-than-credible history, which includes multiple convictions for fraud and forgery, or the lie detector test he voluntarily took and summarily failed back in 2008 when he first levelled his allegations. It’s that the substance of Sinclair’s claims is wildly out of keeping with virtually everything we know about Obama, if not in terms of moral goodness, then certainly in terms of his ambition. Even Obama’s fiercest critics would surely concede that a man who structured his entire personal and professional life around making himself electable was unlikely, as a married state senator at the very start of a long-desired and painstakingly planned-for political career, to risk it all for the sake of $250 worth of cocaine and a blowjob.

But more importantly, does Tucker Carlson believe it? It’s not unreasonable to be a little bit cynical on this front. There is, arguably, a burgeoning effort afoot by certain members of the media to take Barack Obama down a peg, retroactively tarnishing his presidential legacy as well as his reputation for being a paragon of moral uprightness. Obama’s continued presence in Washington has been raising eyebrows among conservatives from basically the moment he left office, and some have begun to openly speculate that he’s acting as a sort of puppet master to the addled senior citizen currently occupying the White House.

And of course, there’s the matter of Carlson’s own integrity. Like many American media personalities, he does not necessarily believe all the words that come out of his mouth on camera. Among the revelations that preceded his ousting from Fox were text messages in which he privately contradicted his on-camera stances on Donald Trump and the 2020 election, which he publicly described as a “scam”. “We are very, very close to being able to ignore Trump most nights. I truly can’t wait,” he texted a producer in the days after the election had been called for Biden. “I hate him passionately.”

In this case, though, there’s a peculiar twist. Carlson has chosen to platform Sinclair’s allegations, which he describes as “obviously true” — but his ultimate contention is that the substance of the allegations doesn’t even matter.

“You know, in 2008 it became really clear that Barack Obama had been having sex with men, and smoking crack,” Carlson told podcast host Adam Carolla on a recent episode of his eponymous show. “It’s not gonna change the world that Barack Obama likes dudes… I’m just saying, the amount of lying in the media about it was unbelievable. People knew this was true! And it was quite obviously true at the time, and people who covered the campaign didn’t say anything about it because they didn’t want to lose access to the campaign.”

It’s intriguing to realise that as far as Carlson is concerned, the real story — and the most interesting thing about this sordid tale of crack-smoking and secret gay sex — is what it reveals about the relationship between media and government. What’s also intriguing is that this is the one area in which Carlson has something that sort of resembles a point.

Unlike the #MeToo-era allegations that sank the Senate candidacy of Roy Moore (or, for that matter, the ones that could have caused considerable trouble for Joe Biden in his run for president), Sinclair’s story does not appear to have ever been rigorously investigated by the media. The few stories to even mention Sinclair’s existence also summarily dismissed him as a kook and a criminal — and while journalists’ incuriosity at the time may be understandable (not least because Sinclair is, in fact, a kook and a criminal), it has also ironically created the sense that there might be something there. Conspiracy theories flourish in the dark, which is why even the most ludicrous ones (like, say, the notion that Obama looked on while his personal chef drowned in Martha’s Vineyard) are often worth taking the time to debunk. If journalists had seriously looked into this story back in 2008, and exposed it for the flimsy pile of nonsense it surely is, there would be no intrigue or mystery still swirling around it today.

Alas, there is — and Tucker Carlson knows it. For him, the salacious content of Sinclair’s allegations is essentially irrelevant; if anything, it’s just icing on the cake, a good old-fashioned sex scandal to titillate the senses and besmirch the character of an especially revered elder statesman. The real story, the one that Carlson is not only offering this week but has also been selling in various forms for a decade, is that a cabal of elite power brokers have conspired for 15 years to deprive you — yes, you — of the knowledge that these allegations even exist. It’s the cultivation of what Matthew Teague calls “a conspiracy of knowing”, the sense of being offered a glimpse of the secrets that a faceless, nameless They aren’t telling you.

Even if Carlson doesn’t believe Sinclair, he does seem to believe this: that the allure of forbidden knowledge is so exciting that it renders moot any question of whether that knowledge is true. This is what Carlson’s critics miss when they condemn him for giving airtime to such a sordid, unverified story (even Elon Musk had doubts as to the newsworthiness of the interview), or point to it as further evidence of how far Tucker has fallen since his days at Fox. Carlson’s transformation from hacky pundit to tabloid bottom-feeder is a salacious bit of gossip in its own right, but is it the real story? Or is it about something bigger: power, and the question of who is in thrall to whom?

With the imprimatur of a Fox News primetime spot, Carlson could claim to be a bold truth-teller, the rare insider who would give it to you straight and make you feel lucky to get it. Without it, he’s just another guy trying to spin — and sell — a story. It’s a tale of audience capture as old as time; one minute you’re riding high as a media industry insider, the next you’re hawking virility supplements and shouting about gay frogs. Carlson isn’t quite there yet, but the altered symbiosis between him and his audience makes it all but inevitable. He isn’t doing this because it’s what he wants. He’s doing it because it’s what you want.

And in this, he’s not alone. In a world where a subscription-based model of journalism blurs the line between consumer and customer, entertainment takes precedence over information more often than not, and journalism evolves from a truth-seeking enterprise into a bias-stroking device. And as long as people believe that the news should make them feel good, and their enemies look bad — and as long as any attempt to inject truth or nuance is met with threats of revolt — we have a future full of many, many more Larry Sinclairs to look forward to.

Kat Rosenfield is an UnHerd columnist and co-host of the Feminine Chaos podcast. Her latest novel is You Must Remember This.