Tucker Carlson dismantled the 9/11 truther with elegance and ease, gracefully tearing apart his opponent, demanding evidence and exposing the holes in his argument in their radio showdown a decade ago. But one of his central gripes was that the conspiracy theorist he was debating was really just a poor storyteller.
It’s “one of the things that annoys me about truthers. Get to the point, you know, make your case. Instead, they start indirectly by raising what they think are highly significant questions. Like, What’s the temperature at which steel melts? Has a building ever collapsed in that way? Has anybody ever seen a building fall like that?” Carlson said on the radio program “Dangerous Conversations” hosted by 9/11 truther Scott Ledger.
“It's like, OK, what's your point? And the point always is that there is a conspiracy of Americans using tax dollars. Usually working for agencies, they know nothing about like the CIA or NSA or one of the alphabet soup intelligence agencies who, for reasons that are never quite clear, brought about 9/11,” Carlson said.
Ledger, one of many so-called 9/11 truthers who touted a discredited accusation that the U.S. government had planned and executed the Sept. 11 attacks, pushed back, saying there was plenty of evidence. He had a raft of witnesses who said they saw firsthand a conspiracy of the U.S. intelligence agencies to launch the attacks. But as Tucker pressed him to sharpen the argument and get to the point, Ledger stumbled and ran in rhetorical circles.
Ten years later, Carlson has built a powerful new “truther” movement, one which denies the court-tested evidence of an attack on the Capitol by Trump supporters and replaces it instead with a shadowy tale which alleges a “deep state” within the U.S. government launched a “false flag” attack on itself.
"They’ve begun to fight a new enemy in a new war on terror," Carlson says in the film series, which Politifact dubbed “full of falsehoods.” “Not, you should understand, a metaphorical war, but an actual war. Soldiers and paramilitary law enforcement, guided by the world’s most powerful intelligence agencies, hunting down American citizens, purging them from society, and throwing some of them into solitary confinement."
Carlson’s “Patriot Purge” series was online only, via the new Fox streaming service Fox Nation, however it incorporated many of the same storylines, topics and guests he featured on his top-rated cable show throughout the year.
“What happened to Tucker?” Has been the Washington-cocktail circuit question of the year among longstanding journalists and political operatives who remember the man who dared to tell a crowd of conservative activists in 2009 that they should live up to better standards of accuracy in order to push their cause.
How Carlson went from a skeptic of a conspiracy theory to endorsing his own may be a mystery to some, but some of his former colleagues offer a blunt answer: He’s getting fabulously wealthy by winning at the cable news game. Winning requires weaving fantastical tales to keep viewers tuned in amid a wilderness of competing media outlets and platforms, said Carl Cameron, former chief political correspondent for Fox News and co-founder of the news operation Front Page Live.
“He was a hail fellow well met at gatherings of journalists. And his sparring with people was understood to be just that. Now with a show where he’s not sparring, he’s taking his opinions and trying to essentially gaslight his audience,” Cameron said.
In Ledger’s 9/11 story, the al Qaeda terrorists were the “patsies” who took the fall for the CIA and “deep state.” In Carlson’s 1/6 story, it’s decent Americans who happened to be at the Capitol on Jan. 6 being set up to take the fall for the “deep state,” but Carlson’s storytelling skills coupled with the power of the most-watched cable show in the country has made it a key narrative for millions of Americans.
Unlike the fringe 9/11 truther movement, Carlson’s tale (spun in conjunction with Trump, Steve Bannon and other leaders in the effort to throw out the 2020 election results) has gripped a sizable minority of the country. Almost one-third of Americans believe the false story pushed by Carlson and others, which claims that the leftist antifa network or federal agents were secretly responsible for the attack on the Capitol, according to an NPR/IPSOS poll released this week.
On the night of Jan. 6, just hours after the attackers breached the Capitol, amid the swirl of chaos and confusion, Carlson used his show to do two things: denounce the violence and demand that the voices of the attackers be heard. He also teased the martyrdom of Ashli Babbitt, the Trump protester who was shot dead as she tried to jump through a broken window leading to the House chamber.
The rioters got within 2 doors of Vice President Mike Pence's office. See how in this 3D explainer from Yahoo Immersive.
Throughout the year, Carlson claimed that the U.S. was already falling into an “authoritarian state” under the Biden presidency and that Attorney General Merrick Garland was rounding up good Americans and treating them like terrorists.
He pulled it all together into his Jan. 6 special, “Patriot Purge”, weaving a dark tale accusing the government of treating its own citizens like al-Qaida terrorists. But instead of directly saying it, Carlson masterfully insinuates it through selected interviews with organizers of the Jan. 6 rally which morphed into the attack.
“He provided the narrative for ‘Patriot Purge’ in the summer and then continued through the fall,” said Jennifer Mercieca, a professor of communication at Texas A&M University and expert on political rhetoric and disinformation.
“He isn’t going to allow the right to be portrayed as domestic terrorists,” she said. “They have told themselves a story that says, ‘We are American exceptionalism personified and we are the best of America. And they hate us for that and we are standing up for our rights. They are calling us terrorists and now they are trying to purge us.’”
One disinformation expert argues that Carlson’s show and the resulting Jan. 6 online special follows the rhetorical stylings of autocrats in Eastern Europe.
It’s the classic Russian strategy of “lozhnaya informatsiya”, which translates as “false information with a purpose”, said Trygve Olson, a consultant with the conservative anti-Trump group the Lincoln Project.
In a presentation that has fanned through Washington, Olson, who worked on democracy-building efforts in Eastern Europe with the International Republican Institute, describes how false stories take root and flourish.
In the case of Jan. 6, Olson says allegations of voter fraud have been around in Republican circles for decades. Trump then nourished them in 2020, and on Jan. 6 they blossomed as hundreds of angry rioters attempted to overthrow the election results.
“The language of extremism has become the language of the Republican Party,” Olson said.
Carlson declined multiple requests to be interviewed for this story. He also declined to comment on a previous Yahoo News article that examined the factual basis for the claims made in Carlson's Jan. 6 documentary.
Emails sent to his Fox News account, two calls to his phone and a trio of text messages went unanswered. A Fox News spokesman declined comment for this piece, but pointed to a series of stories where Carlson has taken unpopular stances but has been proven correct later, such as the Kyle Rittenhouse shooting of demonstrators and rioters in Kenosha, Wis.
No less than Politifact removed a 2020 fact-check post on Carlson — criticizing him for having on a guest who claimed that COVID-19 came from a lab in Wuhan, China — after more experts came forward in 2021 saying it was indeed possible the virus originated there.
And Carlson, who spent the start of the Trump administration repeating then-President Trump’s claims that the investigation into possible collusion between his campaign and Russian operatives was a hoax, took a victory lap after large portions of the Steele dossier were discredited.
That Carlson has been in some cases right doesn’t mean his theory of Jan. 6, which alleges a vast conspiracy to frame Trump supporters, is also correct.
A centerpiece of his Jan. 6 counter-narrative is that the FBI instigated the violence as part of a “false flag” operation to entrap Trump supporters. Carlson leans heavily on a New York Times report that an FBI informant was leaking details of the attack to the bureau.
He doesn’t explain or present evidence, however, that the informant was instigating the attack.
And one person who Carlson and prominent Jan. 6 defense lawyer Joseph McBride accused of being an undercover law enforcement officer, turned out to be the “Rally Runner” from St. Louis Cardinals’ baseball games, notable for the red face paint he wears as he runs through Busch Stadium at games. He also stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6.
While it might be theoretically possible that the “Rally Runner” is an undercover cop as well, neither Carlson nor McBride presented any evidence to back up their claim.
After Carlson’s special aired, Republican chatter in Washington focused around the idea that Carlson was trying to get himself fired, stemming in part from apprehension at Fox News for spreading Trump’s claims that the election was stolen amid an ongoing lawsuit from Dominion. The counterpoint to that chatter comes from a defamation suit that Karen McDougal, the former Playboy Playmate who said she slept with Trump, filed against Carlson in 2018: a federal judge tossed the case, accepting Fox’s argument that no serious person takes Carlson’s musings as fact.
Inside Fox News, senior-most talent lodged complaints with Fox News executives about Carlson’s series, according to an NPR report in November. Even for an opinion show which routinely falls down the rabbit hole into wild conspiracy theories, this felt like too much. But Carlson remains the most-watched cable news host, with an impressive 3.7 million viewers.
Instead it was Chris Wallace, the widely respected newsman, who left the station abruptly for archrival CNN about six weeks after Carlson’s “Patriot Purge” launched. And Carlson continues to dominate the cable ratings from his perch atop Fox News.
Photo Illustration: Yahoo! News; Photos: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images, Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty Images, Win McNamee/Getty Images, Brent Stirton/Getty Images, Win McNamee/Getty Images)