The Whataboutism Gambit: Tucker Carlson and the Deflection of Shame

The Fox News host and his defenders know his comments are indefensible, so they are trying to change the subject.

Tucker Carlson has found a predictable defense for the racist, sexist, misogynistic comments he made on Bubba the Love Sponge’s radio show that were dug up by Media Matters. Call it The Whataboutism Gambit.

Facing pressure from advocates and advertisers, who seem to be abandoning his primetime Fox News show fast enough to make Carlson’s once-omnipresent bowtie spin like an old vaudeville gag, Carlson and his right-wing defenders have resorted to hollering “But whatabout the racists and sexist on the left????” It is an old and cheap stunt, the rhetorical version of the look-over-there trick.

The Whataboutism Gambit is also a classic Fox News move. It involves going on the attack instead of trying to defend yourself on the merits. Donald Trump pulls it all the time himself. Roger Ailes used to love it. The hosts of the network that is his legacy have learned well.

Thus anyone who has watched Carlson’s show this week has been treated to a slew of insults and deflections from the flailing Carlson. For example, he attacked Angelo Carusone, president of Media Matters, over some blog posts Carusone wrote in 2005 that employed some deeply offensive language about gays, Jews, and transgender people. Carlson also tried trolling Chris Hayes by suggesting the MSNBC host is racist, antisemitic and homophobic by proxy because he recently hosted Carusone for an interview and didn’t question him about his old blog.

For the record, if Carlson or anyone on his show wanted to know how Hayes feels about this issue, they could have just looked at his Twitter feed, where he has expressed “wariness” about digging up past statements in order to get someone fired. Maybe that’s why he didn’t question Carusone about his own writing. Or maybe it is irrelevant to anything Tucker Carlson told Bubba the Love Sponge.

Carlson has also been invoking an old right-wing bogeyman by calling Media Matters “a George Soros-funded lobbying organization whose sole mission is to punish critics of the Democratic Party.” Never mind that George Soros hasn’t funded Media Matters for years. Or that, to engage in the Whataboutism Gambit myself, the Carlson-founded Daily Caller relies on billionaires to keep its own doors open, having been started with funding from Foster Friess and now being kept alive by the Koch brothers.

The Koch brothers’ funding of the Caller is particularly shady. According to SourceWatch, most of the journalists who work there are actually employed by the Daily Caller News Foundation, a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) nonprofit which seems to exist mostly to feed content to the for-profit Daily Caller.

Read that again, then watch Carlson this week calling for the IRS to investigate Media Matters. It is a classic Whataboutism Gambit, which involves IMAX-level projection.

Other figures from right-wing media outlets have tried to neutralize the Carlson tapes by saying that Media Matters is one of the “more powerful Leftist orgs in America.” Which may or may not be true, but is also, like Hayes not insulting Carusone, totally irrelevant to Carlson’s statements to Bubba the Love Sponge.

But so long as we’re here, let us compare Angelo Carusone’s work since he wrote those blog posts from 2005. Carusone now runs an organization that actually tracks conservative outlets and media figures that traffic in antisemitic, anti-gay, racist attacks. Even if you want to hold his past words against him or don’t buy his excuse that he was trying to do a parody of a right-wing blowhard, his current job is a 180-degree turn from those attitudes. The admittedly gross attitudes of his blog do not seem to guide Media Matters’ coverage in any way.

Or take the case of Joy-Ann Reid, who conservatives brought up in this article at The Wrap as an example of how Media Matters goes easy on leftists. Last year, researchers dug up some old blog posts from Reid in which she made some homophobic comments. She apologized for some of those remarks, though when more of them emerged, she came up with the silly defense that someone had hacked her ten-year-old and long-dormant blog to plant the stories.

But the point is the same as with Carusone: Reid’s work today does not traffic in homophobia. Whatever one thinks of her writing from ten years ago — and some of it was quite awful — it is not reflected in the work she does today.

But Carlson’s old comments to Bubba the Love Sponge are relevant for one simple reason: he still espouses that level of racism on his show today. If anything, he has perhaps become even worse, spouting outright white nationalist rhetoric to his audiences every night. He has railed inaccurately against the alleged plight of white farmers in South Africa having their land taken away by the government just because they are white and said that immigrants make America “poorer and dirtier.” He defended Rep. Steve King (R-IA) for saying he didn’t understand why “white nationalism” is considered an offensive term, even while House Republicans were stripping King of his committee assignments and calling for him to resign from Congress over his comments.

As Madeline Peltz, the Media Matters researcher who dug up the old Bubba the Love Sponge tapes put it in an interview with The Washington Post, Carlson is trying to “thread the needle of mainstreaming overt white nationalism” through his show. With “one of the largest platforms in media, he frequently portrays himself as a victim. And that’s a long tactic of white nationalists, going back all the way to the civil rights struggle in the South,” she told the paper.

There is a reason Carlson is the most popular television host among America’s neo-Nazis, and it’s not because they like his outfits.

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Gary Legum has written about politics and culture for Independent Journal Review, Salon, The Daily Beast, Wonkette, AlterNet and McSweeney's, among others. He currently lives in his native state of Virginia.

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