Since The Smiths (Justin and Ben) first announced their joint media venture — targeted at the “200 million people who are college educated, who read in English, but who no one is really treating like an audience, but who talk to each other and talk to us,” and unfortunately not named “soup” — they have received a lot of media coverage. Much of this coverage came from Ben’s former employer, the New York Times; so much, in fact, that Politico’s magazine recently ran an opinion piece titled: “Memo to the New York Times: Enough with the Semafor Coverage.”
It makes sense then, that when the Smiths announced the lineup for their inaugural event, scheduled for early Thursday morning, it spawned its own news cycle. That was partly because they chose two headline-driving speakers: Tucker Carlson and Washington Post reporter Taylor Lorenz. The former choice, a frothing racist who has done more damage to boomer minds than early-onset dementia, was the target of the more potent uproar.
But for all the coverage, very few of the NYT’s’ 10 million-odd readers tuned in on Thursday. When I started watching, the Twitter livestream had about 300 viewers. The Youtube page had about 800. Those numbers grew some since then — largely because other blue-check journalists, likely the bulk of the viewers, angrily retweeted the links. But there’s a while to go before Semafor reaches those 200 million college-educated, English speakers that no one is treating like an audience.
That’s too bad, if only because people missed out on seeing the world’s most loathsome man cackling from inside an actual closet (Ben Smith’s opening words were: “Tucker, wow, nice closet”). But also because the back-and-forth was a neat case study in the pitfalls of interviewing villains like Carlson, and particularly while suffering the disease, to which many Times alums have succumbed, known as “both-sides brain.” Smith, I think, is an extremely good media reporter; but he has a terminal case.
There is, and must be, a way to engage with Tucker Carlson. He is not a fringe conspiracy figure that Smith is amorally “platforming.” He has a platform; he is one of the most powerful and dangerous men in media. But to do so, one has to confront Carlson as he is: a craven, sperm-obsessed racist; an existential phony who LARPs as a mouthpiece for the working class to disguise a background as elite and bourgeois as the liberal politicians he rails against; a nihilist who believes nothing, who values nothing, except whichever distorted stories will keep viewers tuning in at 8pm Eastern.
Jon Stewart’s famous Crossfire appearance from 2004 is a masterclass in this approach. Stewart knows what Carlson is and he treats him accordingly: he taunts, he laughs, he runs rhetorical circles around a man he knows to be nothing more than a whining bow-tie. Stewart, of course, is a performer. But he is also honest about where he stands. Consider his opening remarks:
I made a special effort to come on the show today because I have — privately, amongst my friends, and also in occasional newspapers and television shows — mentioned this show as being, uh, bad. And I felt that wasn’t fair, so I wanted to come here and tell you that it’s not so much that it’s bad, as it’s hurting America… Here’s what I wanted to tell you guys: Stop.
Smith has the same information as Stewart; in fact, he has 18 years of additional data and his former employer’s three-part exposé on Carlson’s charades at his disposal. He is clearly aware of Carlson’s record. He introduced the interview by listing some of the names the host has been called: “You spend a lot of time laughing at the labels that have been thrown at you,” he said, “— ‘racist,’ ‘white supremacist,’ ‘host of the most racist show in the history of cable television.’”
Smith failed to acknowledge, however, that the “labels” Carlson attracts are not just names, but factual descriptions of his words and actions. (“I’d rather not ask you about the labels,” Smith hedged, “but sort of give you an opportunity to talk about what you believe.”) This led him to another error: overlooking the fact that Carlson is a professional liar — which in turn, undermined what might have been a good, tough interview.
Consider Smith’s first question: “Do you believe white people are superior to other races?” That’s as pointed a question as someone can ask Carlson; maybe the only question anyone need ask him. But Smith always resists assuming anyone’s motives. In his earlier conversation with Lorenz, for example, he grilled her about using the term “bad faith” (“How do you know who’s in bad faith? How do you know what my faith is?”). But bad faith is precisely how Carlson was operating during the interview — which is why he answered Smith’s question with: “No, of course not.”
Smith had several great follow-ups. First, he re-phrased the question: “Let me just put the question in a different way — do you think that white people have some claim on America that other races do not?” When Carlson insisted, again, that he does not, Smith pulled up a clip of Carlson boosting “great replacement theory” — one of his favorite racist topics — in which he uses the term “legacy Americans.” Smith’s question: “What is a legacy American?” In response to the latter question, Carlson floundered.
It is good and satisfying to turn Carlson’s own words against him. But without calling his bluff, Smith was limited by Carlson’s own account of what he “believes.” If I wanted to see that, I would turn on FOX at 8 p.m. Eastern. It remains to be seen if Semafor, which is expected to launch sometime this year, wants to engage in a more honest type of journalism — a kind that would, at the very least, ask Carlson about his obsession with sperm — which at this point in our country’s history seems absolutely vital. If this interview is any indication, I’m keeping my expectations, like our national sperm count, low.