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'Off the rails': New Tucker Carlson project for Fox embraces conspiracy theories

Tucker Carlson, host of "Tucker Carlson Tonight," poses for photos in a Fox News Channel studio, in New York.
Tucker Carlson, host of "Tucker Carlson Tonight," poses for photos in a Fox News Channel studio, in New York.

Where Tucker Carlson goes, Fox News and its viewers follow.

The network's top host is now leading them to an examination of the violent Jan. 6 siege of the U.S. Capitol in a three-part series called Patriot Purge, which was released this week on the network's right-wing streaming service Fox Nation.

In the series, Carlson strongly suggests that the insurrection was not orchestrated by former President Donald Trump's fans but by his foes, including violent leftist antifa groups and even the FBI and other national security divisions. He plants the idea that the siege was a "false flag" operation to discredit Trump supporters.

Carlson is promoting the series on his own prime-time show on Fox News — which is the top-rated program in all of cable news — and on the popular Fox & Friends morning show.

"These kinds of conspiracy theories about Jan. 6 used to be relegated to weird blogs and known conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones," says Jared Holt, who monitors extremism on social media for the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab.

Holt argues Carlson is seeking to discredit news reports and court decisions about the siege.

"In a way, you don't need conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones to even exist if Tucker Carlson is going to do the job of conspiracy theorists for them," he says. Holt was among researchers who flagged concerning levels of heated rhetoric ahead of the protests that led to the siege.

Fox News is in a "precarious spot"

Paradoxically, Fox News finds itself at a perilous moment, despite being the nation's dominant cable news channel. Trump loyalists make up its core audience, and many viewers swore they wouldn't watch again after Fox became the first network to call Arizona for Joe Biden on election night 2020.

Some leading Fox hosts have wooed them back through a tight embrace of Trump's supporters and their causes, including those opposed to being vaccinated or wearing masks.

Yet embracing Trump's lies has also landed the network in court. Two election tech companies sued Fox, among other news outlets, for defamation in multi-billion-dollar claims. Those lawsuits arise from Fox hosts amplifying the lies of Trump and his allies that the 2020 elections were rigged against him.

Fox is vigorously disputing the allegations and defending itself against the suits. So the network is attempting to demonstrate its journalistic care and professionalism while also seeking to hold onto millions of viewers who have little interest in either.

"Fox is in a very precarious spot," says University of Delaware professor Dannagal Young, who studies political communications and extremism. "They have created a monster."

Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott and its top publicity executive did not respond to NPR's written questions about the Tucker Carlson series. The network had requested questions be submitted by email but has so far not responded.

The series relies on conspiracy theorists

In the series, Carlson relies on several conspiracy theorists to make his case.

Among those interviewed on camera is the editor of a site called Revolver News, which has propagated false claims about the election. The editor was a speechwriter at the Trump White House and was fired in 2018 for speaking at a conference alongside white nationalists.

Other sources include a reporter for Glenn Beck's The Blaze who entered House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office with rioters and called them "revolutionaries" in a social media post and a researcher for a right-wing center who concluded that antifa led the charge in disguise, based on rioters' body language. That claim has not been borne out.

In fact, one defendant charged in connection with the Capitol riot stated, according to court papers, "It was not Antifa at the Capitol. It was freedom loving Patriots who were DESPERATE to fight for the final hope of our Republic."

Shaky claims about two protesters who left government jobs

In the second episode, Carlson's film alleges that former Drug Enforcement Administration agent Mark Ibrahim lost his job with the DEA because he was outside the Capitol on Jan. 6. But Ibrahim was already leaving the agency, according to federal prosecutors who state that on the day of the riot, "IBRAHIM was a probationary employee of the DEA and had, several weeks prior to the events of January 6, 2021, given notice to the DEA of his intention to resign. On January 6, 2021, IBRAHIM was on personal leave from the DEA."

The film also claims that Ibrahim was arrested only because he was outside the building. Federal prosecutors allege that Ibrahim lied to federal investigators by telling agents that he did not expose his badge and gun while outside the Capitol. In fact, court documents include pictures of Ibrahim posing outside the Capitol with his badge and gun. Ibrahim also allegedly climbed on top of the Peace Monument and delivered a monologue, in an effort to promote his "Liberty Tavern" podcast.

Former Army Capt. Emily Rainey, who had been a psychological operations officer at Fort Bragg, N.C., said in the documentary series that the entire siege looked as though it could be a "false flag" operation run under subterfuge by people from federal agencies. She said she felt compelled to resign after her involvement in the pro-Trump rally came under scrutiny. As Fox News itself has reported, citing CBS News, Rainey had already resigned from her commission before traveling to D.C. for the protest, over an unrelated reprimand.

Critics say Carlson's advocacy of "legacy Americans" is racist

The series says the patriots being targeted are those who support Trump and calls them "legacy Americans." Such language has sparked objections from the Anti-Defamation League, among others, that Carlson is pushing a form of white supremacy.

Carlson also relies on people whose work would not pass muster at most news organizations, including Fox News, to compile the documentary project.

Along with Carlson's regular Fox producers, the series credits Scooter Downey, a right-wing filmmaker who recently worked with Mike Cernovich, past champion of unfounded theories against Hillary Clinton and her Democratic allies. In addition, the series licenses footage from "The Steal," a documentary project that traffics in lies about the 2020 presidential election.

In text exchanges with NPR for this story, Carlson accused the mainstream media of lying in concert with Democrats, saying his reporting showed there was no insurrection. And he pointed to coverage by NPR and other outlets in the immediate aftermath of the siege, as details were still emerging, to argue that the mainstream media intentionally exaggerated the deadliness of the rioters.

His series builds on rhetoric and interviews he has conducted on his show for months, accepting wholesale as true claims made by some of his past guests to fold them into a more sweeping narrative.

"They've begun to fight a new enemy in a new war on terror," Carlson warned his viewers in the first episode. "Not, you should understand, a metaphorical war, but an actual war, soldiers and paramilitary agencies hunting down American citizens."

Carlson is seeking to exonerate those Trump supporters accused of participating in the sacking of the U.S. Capitol. He calls them trespassers, at worst, and says the media has been lying about their acts and motivations.

Carlson uses real developments as springboards to groundless and sometimes disproven conclusions, against a backdrop of ominous music and incendiary footage. President Biden's administration has argued that domestic white supremacists pose a greater terrorist threat inside the U.S. than the Islamic State or al-Qaida. But his officials haven't said they intend to hold them in Guantanamo Bay-like conditions or torture them as National Guards did to Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, though both were visually invoked by the documentary.

'Things are completely off the rails'

"I don't see an endgame to what Tucker is doing other than violence on the part of his most passionate viewers," says the University of Delaware's Young, calling such viewers people "who are responding logically to what they have been told is going on in the world around them."

Young argues that Fox News' executive team no longer exercises effective control of what appears on its air. Former Fox News chairman Roger Ailes ran the network with an iron fist for two decades. He was fired in 2016 and given a $40 million severance package after being accused of sexual harassment and sexual assault by waves of female Fox News staffers. He died the following year.

In the recent past, Fox News has sharply fought back against claims there isn't strong editorial oversight of the network's shows by Scott, the CEO.

"Now I feel things are completely off the rails," Young says. "So [if] they tell Tucker that he's not allowed to engage in certain behaviors, he is going to get on his show and complain about his network ... and how that's censorship."

Young says Carlson would turn his audience against Fox: "He is basically going to mobilize his audience to do, who knows what to Fox News."

For now, Young says, Carlson has made himself the defining figure of the network — whatever rabbit hole Carlson chooses to explore, Fox and his viewers will follow.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.