How you can tell propaganda from journalism − let’s look at Tucker Carlson’s visit to Russia

Tucker Carlson at a Moscow grocery store, praising the bread. Screenshot, Tucker Carlson Network

Michael J. Socolow, University of Maine

Tucker Carlson, the conservative former cable TV news pundit, recently traveled to Moscow to interview Russian dictator Vladimir Putin for his Tucker Carlson Network, known as TCN.

The two-hour interview itself proved dull. Even Putin found Carlson’s soft questioning “disappointing.” Very little from the interview was newsworthy.

Other videos Carlson produced while in Russia, however, seemed to spark far more significant commentary. Carlson marveled at the beauty of the Moscow subway and seemed awed by the cheap prices in a Russian supermarket. He found the faux McDonald’s – rebranded “Tasty-period” – cheeseburgers delicious.

As a scholar of broadcast propaganda, I believe Carlson’s work provides an opportunity for public education in distinguishing between propaganda and journalism. Some Americans, primarily Carlson’s fans, will view the videos as accurate reportage. Others, primarily Carlson’s detractors, will reject them as mendacious propaganda.

But closely considering these categories, and evaluating Carlson’s work in context, might deepen public understanding of the distinction between journalism and propaganda in the American context.

Promoting authoritarians

Carlson’s ability to secure the Putin interview was commendable. Interviewing dictators – even the most murderous ones, such as Cambodia’s Pol Pot – can represent a significant journalistic achievement.

Yet, Carlson’s listless approach to the Russian dictator, who droned on endlessly, proved a wasted opportunity. Despite Carlson’s passivity, the interview did, in fact, reveal aspects of Putin’s intentions likely unknown to many Americans. For example, Putin blamed Poland for provoking Hitler’s attack on the country in 1939, which sparked World War II – a statement at odds with the facts. He also seemed to signal his desire to attack Poland, or another neighbor, in the near future. Had Carlson’s trip concluded with the interview, it might have been judged journalistically worthwhile.

Yet, that’s not what Carlson did.

Producing a travelogue, Carlson toured Moscow and made videos extolling the glories of Russian society, culture and governance. The Moscow subway impressed him, while the low prices in a Russian supermarket “radicalized” him “against our American leaders.”

‘Classic case of propaganda’

There are numerous ways to evaluate the truthfulness of Carlson’s reports.

For example, if things are as copacetic in Russia as Carlson claims, then emigration out of the country should be minimal, or at least normal. Yet, since the 2022 Ukraine war mobilization, Russians have fled their country in historically high numbers.

Even those cheap supermarket prices Carlson loved are a mirage. They exist only through subsidies, and with Russia’s continued devaluation of the ruble in 2024, combined with a planned huge increase in military spending, Russia’s government continues to make every Russian poorer to fund its war.

In other words, what’s cheap to Carlson is expensive and getting more expensive for almost all Russians. This trend will continue in 2024, as Putin recently projected Russia’s inflation rate to be 8% in 2024 – more than double the projection for the United States. In fact, a Russian citizen complained directly to Putin in December 2023 about the price of eggs, and Putin uncharacteristically apologized.

But research shows that fact-checking Carlson’s claims is not likely to change many people’s opinions. We know most people don’t appreciate being told their preferred information is inaccurate, and when untruthful reports accord with their perception of reality, they’ll believe them.

Instead of categorizing Carlson’s Russia videos as “reporting,” “journalism,” “information” or “fake news,” we could define it instead as a classic case of propaganda.

Screenshot of a headline that says 'Tucker Carlson: Moscow ‘so much nicer than any city in my country’'
A headline from The Hill about Carlson’s Moscow visit. Screenshot, The Hill

‘Emotionally potent oversimplifications’

Propaganda is communication designed to bypass critical and rational examination in order to provoke intended emotional, attitudinal or behavioral responses from an audience.

Public understanding of propaganda usually links it to lying, but that’s not quite correct. While some propaganda is mendacious, the most effective propaganda will interlace carefully selected verifiable facts with emotional appeals.

For an average American, those Russian supermarket prices really were cheap. But that’s a selected truth presented without context essential for understanding.

Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once described propaganda in a democracy as “emotionally potent oversimplifications” peddled to the masses, and that’s precisely what Carlson’s videos seem to provide.

That Carlson has evolved into a propagandist is not surprising. In 2022, The New York Times analyzed his Fox News broadcasts between 2016 and 2021. The paper concluded that Carlson’s program became far less interested in rational dialogue and critical exchange – by interviewing people who disagreed with him – as it evolved into a monologue-driven format in which Carlson preached often factually dubious assertions to his audience.

At one time, early in his career, Carlson demonstrated significant journalistic talent, especially in magazine feature writing. But his dedication to accuracy – and even basic truth-telling – was exposed as a sham when his texts from the Dominion voting machine lawsuit were revealed and illustrated his mendacity.

Distinguishing between Gershkovich and Carlson

Carlson is not the first American reporter to travel to a foreign dictatorship and produce propaganda in the guise of journalism.

The New York Times’ Walter Duranty infamously ignored the Stalin dictatorship’s horrific starvation of millions of Ukrainians in the 1930s. The Times’ Berlin correspondent Guido Enderis specialized in “puffy profiles of leading Nazis” while whitewashing the regime’s more evil aspects in the mid-1930s.

More recently, correspondent Peter Arnett was fired from NBC News for appearing on state-controlled Iraqi TV in 2003 and praising the success of “Iraqi resistance” at the outset of the U.S.-Iraq war. Although Arnett’s comments did not originally appear on NBC, they were rebroadcast widely.

But what makes Carlson’s actions particularly galling to some was that his propaganda appeared while Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich remains imprisoned by Putin’s regime for alleged spying, but which was really accurate reporting from Russia. When Carlson questioned Putin about Gershkovich, the dictator replied that a prisoner exchange might be negotiated.

Ultimately, the distinction between journalism and propaganda is the difference between Gershkovich and Carlson.

Gershkovich sits in a Russian prison for investigating the truth about Putin’s Russia in service to the American public and his employer. Carlson flies around the world praising authoritarian leaders such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban, while “rooting” for dictators like Vladimir Putin when they attack their neighbors. “Why shouldn’t I root for Russia? Which I am,” he said in 2019 about the Ukraine-Russian conflict.

To expose abusive governmental power and hold it accountable “to the opinions of mankind” is literally written in America’s Declaration of Independence. To travel abroad praising dictatorships for their subways and cheeseburgers while ignoring their murderousness, and to return “radicalized … against our leaders” because foreign supermarket prices are low, is certainly not journalism. It is propaganda.

Carlson’s videos may have one beneficial result: If enough Americans learn from them how to detect propaganda and distinguish it from ethical and professional reporting, then perhaps Carlson unintentionally provided a valuable media literacy service to the nation.

Michael J. Socolow, Professor of Communication and Journalism, University of Maine

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.