Talking Points

Is Tucker Carlson the right's Jon Stewart?

Why is there no right-wing Jon Stewart? Around the time the erstwhile Daily Show host ceded his seat in 2015, you may recall this was a much-considered topic. Conservative Daily Show knockoffs don't have a good track record — the best-known may be The 1/2 Hour News Hour, a short-lived program that owes nearly all its fame to its frequent citation as an example of the failings of the right-wing Stewart shtick.

I haven't thought about that question in years, but a snippet of a Monday Atlantic piece about vaccine acceptance by fans of Fox News pundit Tucker Carlson first reminded me, then reframed the question: What if the right-wing Jon Stewart is already here? What if it's Carlson?

Most of the vaccinated Tucker viewers see the show primarily as a form of entertainment. They like that Carlson veers offbeat, like the time he claimed the National Security Agency spied on him, and that he sticks it to the libs a little. They find other media commentators condescending. Where liberals see an angry, deluded racist, conservatives see a politically incorrect Jon Stewart. These Carlson fans don't look to him as a source of genuine vaccine information, but as a funny id who stirs things up. [The Atlantic]

The obvious objection here is that Carlson presents himself as a serious political commentator while Stewart always insisted — most famously, to Carlson himself on Crossfire — he was merely a comedian. I find that objection pretty compelling, honestly, but here are three things that give me pause.

First, there's what happened when push came to (legal) shove. While defending Carlson against a defamation suit, Fox lawyers described his show as entertainment in which the "general tenor" indicates to viewers they're hearing "non-literal commentary," not "actual facts."

Second, in its fully realized form, c. 2010-2015, Stewart's Daily Show never dispensed with the crude and juvenile comedy, but polling showed millions of viewers took him quite seriously as a pundit and news source. In 2004, on Crossfire, Stewart's protest about his role was credible, but by the end, he was simultaneously comedian and serious commentator.

Third, consider the Atlantic quote itself. I've no doubt many of Carlson's viewers see him wholly as a straight news man, our time's Walter Cronkite or whatever. But some subset looks at him and sees their side's Jon Stewart. And as humor is in the eye of the beholder, maybe they're right.