Tucker Carlson’s interview with Putin puts him back in the spotlight, for now

Last spring, it looked like Tucker Carlson might have reached the end of his fiery path through American media and politics.

Fox News canceled its top-rated show, depriving Mr. Carlson of his nightly prime-time platform. But that kept him under a contract worth more than $15 million a year, which barred him from taking a job with a rival.

Under the old rules of traditional media, Mr. Carlson would have been off-air and out of sight until after the 2024 election, when his contract expired. But Mr. Carlson is not your typical television star. And what was once normal in its industry is increasingly archaic, shattered by the new rules – or lack thereof – of the fractured world of online media.

By landing an exclusive interview with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin — published Thursday on the social network .

The two-hour interview gave him a megaphone before an American audience just as many congressional Republicans were working to block a vital lifeline of U.S. military aid to Ukraine.

It also helped achieve Mr. Carlson’s goal of regaining the limelight. For the first time since his defenestration from Fox, his name was again on the lips of major national and international figures, the kind of notoriety on which Mr. Carlson has long thrived.

Hillary Clinton, in an interview this week with MSNBC’s Alex Wagner, called him a “useful idiot” and Mr. Putin’s “puppy.”

Mr. Carlson gave Mr. Putin space for uninterrupted discussions over long-standing and decidedly one-sided grievances over Ukraine’s origins and independence movements. But Mr. Carlson sometimes pressed, much to Mr. Putin’s annoyance, why Russia was imprisoning Evan Gershkovich, the Wall Street Journal reporter, disputing Mr. Putin’s assertion that Mr. Gershkovich was a spy.

It remains to be seen whether the interview will improve Mr. Carlson’s position in the long term.

Mr. Putin’s interview will serve as an advertisement of sorts for his streaming site, which he founded in December and which costs subscribers $9 a month. Tucker Carlson Network is attempting to replicate the business model of other conservative figures like Megyn Kelly and Ben Shapiro, who have built standalone digital platforms outside of traditional media. Mr. Carlson is working with Red Seat Ventures, a company that counts Ms. Kelly, Bari Weiss and Nancy Grace among its clients, to manage advertising sales on the new platform.

So far, however, Mr. Carlson’s self-produced interviews on which he worked on Fox News.

His waning power appeared to be at least part of the reason Fox hadn’t done more to stop his new venture, even though Fox said it violated the terms of his contract. (Mr. Carlson’s lawyers argued that Fox initially breached his contract and that his online broadcast fell within his free speech rights.)

If Fox pursues action against Mr. Carlson, it could give him an opportunity to claim that his former overlords at “corporate media,” as he likes to call them, were trying to censor him. It’s exactly the kind of argument that speaks to Mr. Carlson’s fans, which feels like a political movement in its own right, giving Mr. Carlson leverage that few other television stars have.

It was this leverage that made Mr. Carlson such a boon to Mr. Trump — and to Mr. Putin — during his time at Fox News.

Mr. Carlson was the network’s most prominent proponent of pro-Russian arguments, including its assertion that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is a dictator the West is using to weaken Russia — a view he has reiterated reflected in his interview with Mr. Putin.

But his propaganda style also took him to the limits of cable television.

His involvement in Dominion Voting Systems’ $787 million defamation lawsuit against Fox — and the discovery before the trial of a text by Mr. Carlson conveying inflammatory views on violence and race — influenced his bosses company, Lachlan and Rupert Murdoch, in their decision to cut his show.

Mr. Musk moved quickly to make Mr. Carlson the first host of a long-form video show on X.

Mr. Musk completed his purchase of its cancellation last April. “Free speech is the foundation of a functioning democracy,” Mr. Musk told Mr. Carlson, who praised him for “restoring free speech on the Internet.”

At And Mr. Musk has shown no concern about content that might alienate advertisers. (X offered packages costing $300,000 for ads on four of Mr. Carlson’s videos, and up to $1.5 million for ads on 48 videos, according to internal documents obtained by The New York Times. )

Mr. Carlson pushed and ultimately exceeded the limits of what the Murdochs could allow on their network. It has not yet reached that limit for Mr. Musk, who has reinstated thousands of previously banned accounts promoting disinformation about health and elections, matching a rise in racist and anti-Semitic posts on the social network. On Thursday, Mr. Musk, the platform’s most followed user, shared Mr. Putin’s interview with his supporters.

Mr. Carlson’s show has featured guests, such as conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who have violated content moderation policies on many social media platforms, including Twitter, as X was known before Mr. Musk doesn’t buy it and eliminate most of these policies. .

Other guests included independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, each of whom received a favorable reception from Mr. Musk on X.

This common vision has sometimes extended to Ukraine and Russia. Mr. Musk angered Ukrainians by suggesting they negotiate peace, which they say amounts to allowing Mr. Putin to retain Ukrainian territory he conquered by bloody and illegal force.

And although Mr. Musk allowed Ukraine to use its Starlink satellite system for battlefield communications, he acknowledged blocking its use for a planned attack on Russia in the Black Sea last year. Mr. Putin, in turn, praised Mr. Musk as a “talented businessman.”

Mr. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, had similarly warm remarks about Mr. Carlson this week, saying that Mr. Putin had granted him an interview — which Mr. Carlson had been seeking ever since. from Fox – because Mr. Carlson “contrasted with the government’s position.” traditional Anglo-Saxon media.

Mr. Peskov denied Mr. Carlson’s false suggestion that he was the first Western media figure to interview Mr. Putin since his full-scale invasion of Ukraine two years ago, because the journalists had not didn’t bother to ask. Many Western media outlets have made these demands, including the Times.

But Mr. Peskov agrees with Mr. Carlson that traditional media “can’t even boast about trying to appear impartial.”

Russia has defined impartiality as respecting its official line, any deviation from which risks a resolutely censorious prison sentence. This flies in the face of traditional journalistic norms – norms Mr. Carlson doesn’t have to worry about at X.

The interview certainly seems to attract a wide audience. The test will be whether this will lead to more subscriptions and interest in his show in the future – and if not, how Mr. Carlson will attempt to outdo himself for his next splash.

Kate Conger reports contributed.