In a cringeworthy interview with Vladimir Putin, Tucker Carlson failed to challenge the Russian president’s false claims about the war in Ukraine, providing a platform for propaganda. While Carlson’s questions shed light on Putin’s historical delusions, he neglected critical issues such as war crimes and human rights abuses. The interview showcased the dangers of irresponsible journalism, as Carlson, unlike Russian journalists facing real risks, failed to hold Putin accountable for his actions. The encounter underscored the importance of discerning truth amid political narratives and propaganda.
Sign up for your early morning brew of the BizNews Insider to keep you up to speed with the content that matters. The newsletter will land in your inbox at 5:30am weekdays. Register here.
By Marc Champion
Tucker Carlson’s interview with Vladimir Putin was in some ways as cringeworthy as many feared it would be. Carlson lobbed questions to help the Russian president serve up his usual string of half-truths and outright falsehoods about the war in Ukraine, and then failed to challenge any of them. This was a gift for Putin, a safe platform from which to gaslight Americans into believing that they bear responsibility for his brutal invasion.
Yet for the vast majority of viewers who will be unfamiliar with the obsessions that drove Putin to go to war, Carlson also did a real public service. Asked why, when he invaded, he believed the US was readying a surprise attack, Putin didn’t bother to answer. Instead, he gave a rambling lecture on Russia-Ukraine history, starting from 862 AD. Carlson kept asking why all this was relevant, but Putin was explaining that he invaded out of the apparently sincere belief that he’s retaking lands that rightfully belong to Russia.
To anyone who closely follows Putin or the war — and judging by his reaction, that doesn’t include Carlson — there was nothing new here. Putin’s historical rants on Ukraine’s supposedly artificial construction are all too familiar. He wrote a 5,000-plus word essay on the subject back in 2021 as he prepared for the conflict, and made his officers read it. As history it is largely fictional. Yet his belief in it is essential to understanding why he tried to take Kyiv, which, contrary to the firm belief of its 3.6 million inhabitants, he sees as part of the Russian nation. Resentment over NATO’s expansion played a part for sure, but it was a supporting role.
For an idea of just how twisted Putin’s historical analyses are, consider what he said on the better-known period around World War II. Here, the important claim he wanted to make was that Poland was collaborating with Adolf Hitler when he invaded Warsaw in 1939. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union — which actually signed a pact with Hitler that same year to partition Poland between them, and agreed not to join Britain and France in fighting Germany — somehow didn’t collaborate. Go figure. Russia joined the war when Hitler broke the deal and marched on Moscow, two years later.
Luckily for Putin, though, Carlson was there to keep dragging him back on-message; namely, that Russia is the victim of Western aggression and had no choice but to invade another country. Putin said he was forced to try to “stop the war” by attacking — that isn’t a typo — because, variously: Ukraine declared it was abandoning the Minsk agreements, which had ended an earlier bout of fighting in 2014-2015 (partly true); because NATO was building military bases in Ukraine from which to attack Russia (pure invention); because Ukraine was planning to attack Russian-occupied areas of the Donbas region (disinformation again); or because the country, with a Jewish president and fewer ultra-right legislators than Russia, was being taken over by neo-Nazis.
Carlson — whether because he was uninformed or was at the Kremlin precisely to promote these kinds of fabrications — did nothing to challenge Putin’s false claims. A full fact check of their interview would take several columns. But suffice to say that only once, when Putin said the jailed Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich was a spy, did Carlson — to his credit — push back.
If those who watch the interview grasp the unhinged nature of Putin’s historical ramblings, then the circus will have been worth airing. They should, though, be deeply wary of all his self-serving claims about wanting to make peace, just as soon as the US stops arming Ukraine. (It already did, by default, and the response has been more Russian advances.) They should bear in mind always that, as Putin noted, he is a former career KGB agent. Dissembling is tradecraft for him, not something to be ashamed of.
This wasn’t an interview that any journalist should take pride in. Not because Carlson had no business talking to Putin, but because he failed to do his job having landed the interview. Not once did he ask Putin about the massacres his troops executed in Bucha, outside Kyiv, or elsewhere. Nor did he inquire about the documented kidnappings and other abuses of Ukrainians in occupied territories.
I have no idea what Carlson really believes or thinks his job is; he seems deeply cynical. But he should think about what might have happened were he a Russian journalist, returning to Moscow, after interviewing Volodymyr Zelenskiy so the Ukrainian president could “get the truth out” to Russians. First, they wouldn’t have seen the show. Putin, who controls all mass media and censors the web, would ensure its suppression. Second, journalist “Carlsonov” would either be in custody or wondering how the intelligence agencies would choose to kill him.
Carlson, the American, can breathe easy of course. He isn’t at risk going home. But he is an affront to genuine reporters in Putin’s Russia, who have needed real courage. My friend and one-time neighbor while living outside Moscow, Yuri Shchekochikhin, died suddenly in 2003 from a poison that peeled off his skin before stopping his vital organs. He was investigating a corruption case among law enforcement and had even asked Putin to look into it. Shchekochikhin is one of 43 journalists murdered in Russia since Putin came to power in 2000, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. Thirty-nine are in jail, says Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based nonprofit. Gershkovich is one of them.
The truest thing Carlson said came beforehand, in the teaser clip that explained why he went to Russia to see Putin. Though he meant to denigrate other journalists, his words described his own work perfectly: “That’s not journalism. It’s government propaganda, propaganda of the ugliest kind, the kind that kills people.”
- Vladimir Putin accuses Wagner Group leaders of betraying Russia
- 🔒 Boardroom Talk – $20m pa Tucker Carlson’s firing shouldn’t be a surprise. Murdoch acted rationally
- 🔒 FT – Pretoria’s support underscores Moscow’s propaganda success
© 2024 Bloomberg L.P.