Why Russian TV isn’t Tucker Carlson’s dream job

Leonid Bershidsky
Bloomberg Opinion (TNS)

Has this ever happened to any leading U.S. television personality? Less than 24 hours after being ditched by Fox News, TV host Tucker Carlson had job offers from two different Russian propaganda outlets:

“We’ll happily offer you a job if you wish to carry on as presenter and host,” Vladimir Solovyov, a prime-time host on state-owned Channel One, wrote on his Telegram channel. “Tucker, come join us. You don’t have to be afraid of taking the piss out of Biden here.”

The RT propaganda channel, for its part, tweeted an invitation for Carlson to join and “question more.”

Tucker Carlson speaks during the Mathias Corvinus Collegium Feszt on Aug. 7, 2021, in Esztergom, Hungary. (Janos Kummer/Getty Images/TNS)

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Although the Kremlin’s pockets are deep enough to provide Carlson with a princely lifestyle, I can’t see him accepting either offer. As much as he seemed to push Vladimir Putin’s agenda to Americans, he was in fact only using it to hit his U.S. political opponents where it hurt. He can keep playing that domestic game profitably wherever he washes up.

But the collateral damage he has inflicted on Ukraine is both real and insidious. The knee-jerk reaction of Carlson’s opponents has been to dismiss him as a pro-Kremlin stooge. In so doing, they also shrug off the responsibility to counter his rhetorical bombshells and address the questions and concerns that his audience increasingly has about U.S. support for Ukraine. As the war drags on, this contest for American public opinion will become even more critical to its outcome.

The Russian propaganda apparatus has long treated Carlson — used him — as one of its own. The GDELT Project, a big data initiative supported by some major tech companies and educational institutions, recently scanned 321 editions of Russian state TV’s “60 Minutes” program (a top political broadcast) and found images of Carlson in 89, or 28%, of them. “As much as 0.13% of the total airtime of one of Russia's biggest television news series over the past year has consisted of clips of a single American news personality being used to advance Russia’s narratives to its population,” GDELT reported.

Carlson’s messages — that no one but the U.S. had any reason to blow up Russia’s gas pipelines to Germany last fall, that Ukraine, by any quantitative measure, was losing its war against Russia, that the U.S. was directly involved in the war on the side of one of Europe’s most corrupt countries, that Americans had no quarrel with Putin and no reason to send billions to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, that clown who dresses like “the manager of a strip club” — could have been written by Solovyov, RT editor Margarita Simonyan or “60 Minutes” hosts Olga Skabeyeva and Yevgeny Popov. Not that it would matter to Carlson if they had: He enjoys putting them out there because he knows they will provoke emotional outbursts from Democrats.

On an especially infamous show in 2019, long before Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Carlson declared he was “rooting for” Russia, only to add that he was just kidding: “I’m only rooting for America — mocking the obsession with Russia many on the left have. Ha!”

Carlson appears to have discovered the Russia trigger during the Trump-Russia saga that followed Donald Trump’s election in 2016. He hasn’t taken his finger off it since, even as Democrats denounce him as a “Kremlin propagandist” and the content of his broadcasts as “Russian talking points.”

Yet the fact remains that he raises legitimate questions that demand substantive answers. “Why is it disloyal to side with Russia but loyal to side with Ukraine?” Carlson asked in one interview. Other man-on-the-street questions come easily to mind: What does an ordinary American gain when her country spends tens of billions of dollars on aid to Ukraine? Who is actually winning on the ground? Who actually needed to blow up those pipelines and why?

The answer to all of them isn’t "Shut up, Kremlin stooge.” Nor is it “Ukrainians are fighting for freedom and that’s why you have to support them against an evil dictator.” The real answers to these seemingly simple questions are complex. They require explaining what exactly is wrong with Putin’s Russia, and why Ukrainians are willing to take up arms not to end up as part of it, from the point of view of an ordinary person, not a journalist or a policy wonk. But they also require making a clear connection between what Ukrainians want and what Americans can gain by helping them. What’s needed is the view from below, a view unshackled by any kind of ideology, often a cynical, cui prodest view — one that involves assessing the comparative costs and benefits to ordinary Westerners of a Ukrainian and a Russian victory.

As someone with roots and lived experience in both Russia and Ukraine, I am deeply invested in what’s going on between the two countries, and I’ve let my gut feeling answer many of the pertinent “simple” questions for myself. I know plenty of Germans and Americans, though, who struggle for answers because of a lack of a personal connection. According to a poll taken earlier this year, a narrow majority of Americans are either opposed or indifferent to supplying Ukraine with weapons. To go along with determinedly pro-Ukrainian government policies, they need the costs and benefits talked through calmly and dispassionately.

Eye rolls, labels, exasperated invocations of common sense and accepted wisdom — Carlson has enjoyed provoking all of these reactions, which can only irritate the ordinary person who encounters condescension instead of answers. Carlson has been fact-checked and proven wrong, questioned about his loyalties and straight-up called a Russian stooge, but he could still cling to the claim that he is questioning, on behalf of an ordinary person, what looks and feels like an ideology-driven government policy. Until his establishment opponents do a better job of addressing ordinary Americans’ questions about the war, he can keep acting out this charade on any U.S.-based forum, be that a podcast, a show on one of the pro-Trump internet TV channels, or talk radio.

The one place Carlson cannot keep waving the red rag of Russia in the face of his snorting political opponents is Russian propaganda TV — ordinary Americans do not watch it. So wherever he ends up, it won’t be there.

— Leonid Bershidsky, formerly Bloomberg Opinion’s Europe columnist, is a member of the Bloomberg News Automation Team. He recently published Russian translations of George Orwell’s “1984” and Franz Kafka’s “The Trial.”