In June, former Fox News Channel star Tucker Carlson debuted his new show on Twitter. After praising the fact that there are “no gatekeepers” on the platform, Carlson proceeded to demonstrate precisely why gatekeepers are often needed in broadcast news. During a 10-minute monologue in which he promised to inform viewers about “what they’re not telling you,” he managed to promote questionable conspiracy theories, invoke hateful anti-Semitic stereotypes about the leader of Ukraine, and serve up homophobic insinuations about elected officials. It’s as if Father Coughlin and QAnon had a baby who grew up to be an influencer with a popular YouTube channel.
When we look back on the media landscape many decades hence, this might serve as the moment when all media became social media.
Media theorist Marshall McLuhan’s familiar trope, “the medium is the message,” explains one part of this. Consumers of news in the 21st century, habituated to a steady stream of constantly updated information on social media, have honed ever-shortening attention spans. They are no longer willing to participate in the appointment-style television viewing of the old days of nightly news, and those who do often have their flat screen on in the background while they scroll their feeds on their phones or laptop computers.
Instead, people get their news online in microdoses throughout the day, sometimes leavened by a quick visit to a linked story to read the original reporting but more often gleaning as much as they want from a headline or a tweet or a short post. “Smart brevity” is the mantra of the online news site Axios, which issues most of its news in easily digestible bullet points that are perfect for sharing in Tweet form. Pew Research Center found that nearly half of U.S. adults report getting their news from social media “often” or “sometimes,” mostly from Facebook. A smaller percentage gets its information from YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram, though Twitter promotes a particularly engaged culture of news consumption. Although it is used only by 23 percent of U.S. adults, “more than half of those users get news on the site regularly.”
This constant stream of information renders one media outlet nearly indistinguishable from another in consumers’ minds except perhaps for the particular media’s partisan or tribal branding. The overall effect for consumers is that the news is digital and atmospheric rather than coming from a particular voice. This has resulted in declining audience loyalty to individual news-gathering institutions and greater engagement with the social-media platforms that serve up information like a hyperactive Associated Press—a 21st-century wire service with memes.
This unsettled media landscape is part of a much larger 40-year story about the collapse of gatekeepers, with new media such as cable news, the Internet, and now social platforms each playing a part in upending both the old order and each iteration of the new order that preceded it. Much of this was a welcome democratization of an industry that had grown insular, sanctimonious, and unaccountable in its behavior. When a Power Line commenter successfully exposed the fact that CBS News icon Dan Rather had aired a story on 60 Minutes just before the 2004 election that lied about President George W. Bush’s service in the Texas National Guard, based on falsified documents that Rather had failed to verify, it heralded a new world of citizen-sponsored fact-checking of institutions. It also spelled the end of Rather, who, along with his producer, was fired from CBS News.
The legacy broadcast networks—NBC, CBS, ABC—have struggled with these transformations for decades, so much so that when traditional news shows such as Meet the Press perennially switch out their hosts or refresh their formats, it is no longer a major story. If a Chuck Todd falls in the media forest, does anyone hear him?
Meanwhile, the former upstarts of the media world—cable news networks—are also feeling the impact of the seismic shifts wrought by social media. NBC’s scrappy cable cousin MSNBC has experienced year-over-year declines in viewership, and it ranks last among its cable-news peers. Fox News has also seen ratings plunge in the past year. The leaders of corporate media institutions find themselves constantly responding to the missteps of their own journalists, who were early adopters of social-media platforms like Twitter and now use them gleefully to reveal their partisan biases and obnoxious personalities, both of which undermine trust in the media as much as any silly corporate rebranding scheme does. The public doesn’t need to watch Meet the Press one hour on Sundays; we can meet them—and respond to them in real time—on Twitter every day.
Even the OG of cable-television news networks is struggling. In June, recently installed CNN chief Chris Licht was unceremoniously dumped by the network after attempting to drag it back toward the center following years spent as a reliable organ of anti-Trump sentiment under its old head, Jeff Zucker. In a damning profile of Licht in the Atlantic, Tim Alberta claimed Licht “had accepted the position with ambitions to rehabilitate the entire news industry, telling his peers that Trump had broken the mainstream media and that his goal was to do nothing less than ‘save journalism.’”
As Tucker’s Twitter debut suggests, the problem might not be that Licht was the wrong man for the job of creating a “new CNN,” but rather that corporate cable news itself might be beyond saving. Media limps along less as a healthy Fourth Estate than a weakened host upon which a parasitic social media now feeds. Despite recent attempts to market themselves as kinder, gentler platforms for communication than in years past, social-media companies continue to reward extreme behavior over thoughtful debate. Tucker Carlson is the crystallization of these trends, from the Unabomber-cabin-style vibes of his “Tucker on Twitter” set, to the ratio of opinion and conspiracy-mongering to actual reporting, to the brevity and quality of the finished product.
If this is the new media, it is lonely, paranoid, and devoid of serious content. Carlson hosted no guests; he just launched into a monologue, one that reveled in the worst forms of prejudice. He called Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, who is Jewish, “shifty, dead-eyed” and “sweaty and ratlike” and claimed he is “a persecutor of Christians,” for example, and engaged in wild speculation and rank punditry about geopolitical events based on little more than personal hunches.
If “every technology has its own ground rules,” as McLuhan argued in 1965, then social media’s rule for news is replacing the old order’s ground rules and slogan—“All the news that’s fit to print” and “the most trusted name in news”—with something more sinister. As Carlson, long a well-paid creature of corporate media but now broadcasting from his makeshift home-office studio like someone’s crazy uncle, put it: “They’ll make you be quiet. Trust us.” Eighty million people and counting watched. Whether or not Carlson’s viewers trust him, he is not in the business of spreading news. He’s in the far more popular business of spreading nihilism.
Photo: Gage Skidmore
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