The Tucker Carlson Tapes
On January 6, 2021, the entire United States was left in shock as images of right-wing extremist Donald Trump supporters raiding Capitol Hill flooded every television network across the nation. Over 10,000 rioters, largely outnumbering Capitol officers, swarmed the Capitol after “messaging” from Trump himself, where he urged his supporters to protest the 2020 American presidential election. The instance resulted in the arrest of approximately 1000 rioters and the death of five people. The insurrection is considered an act of domestic terrorism by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Due to its intensity and disruptive nature, the events that took place on Capitol Hill that day have become an extremely relevant subject. News networks and citizens alike want to see the footage of the rioters to truly understand what happened during the attacks. However, the initial public release of tapes of the insurrection on March 6, 2023, immediately sparked controversy.
Footage of the insurrection is widely known as the “January 6 tapes”, as the date itself has become a marking in the nation’s history and has been widely sought after due to the controversies it has sparked. On March 12, 2023, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) announced that he would “slowly roll out” the January 6 tapes in order to maintain transparency with all constituents across the nation. However, Tucker Carlson, a conservative television host on Fox News, was allowed early access to these tapes and had the opportunity to air them on the Fox News channel prior to other networks. Carlson’s access and portrayal of the tapes and untrustworthy status have led both Democrats and Republicans to express contempt. Senator Kevin Cramer (R-ND), who has shown previous support for Donald Trump, stated that Carlson’s narrative of the insurrection is “just a lie.” Even prior to Carlson releasing January 6 footage, Representative Bennie Thompson (D-MS) warned against the security footage being given to the infamous Fox News host. The insurrection was alarming for almost all Americans when it occurred, and the mishandling of information about the event led to further outrage from the American public.
Tucker Carlson has had a history of controversy throughout his time as a television host, as he has been accused of anti-immigrant, racist, and sexist comments on air. Although viewers have complained about being offended by his actions and comments, Carlson remains a prime symbol of the Fox News Network on the program “Tucker Carlson Tonight.” In September 2020, Carlson was brought to court on account of slander by Karen McDougal, a model who Carlson accused of extorting President Donald Trump on his program. McDougal had claimed to have been defamed by Carlson’s statements. The case was dismissed because of an inability to consider Carlson’s statements as facts rather than personal opinions, as the information shared on the news channel is undoubtedly politically biased and largely unreliable. Fox News has been repeatedly shamed for feeding its largely homogenous audience incorrect and biased information and, therefore, greatly affecting public opinion on important political issues.
The footage that Carlson aired on March 6, 2023, included sharing carefully selected clips of the attack, including images of rioter Jacob Chansley, also known as “QAnon Shaman,” and Brian Sicknick, an officer who suffered a stroke and died the day following. Although the examiner determined that Officer Sicknick died of natural causes, he is thought to have been one of five casualties of the insurrection. The footage of Chansley is relatively calm, showing him walking through the capitol without much resistance. Viewers are unable to tell if officers are conversing with the rioter, as the videos are muted and therefore lack context. It is unclear whether the absence of audio is a safety precaution or a result of Fox News’ editing. Although Chansley was sentenced to 41 months in prison for his participation in the insurrection, Carlson claimed the tapes show “peaceful chaos.”
Carlson also attempted to disregard claims that Officer Sicknick died because of the attacks, claiming the officer looked “healthy and vigorous” on the tapes. Family members of Sicknick spoke out about the insensitive remarks, saying that comments like Carlson’s reopen the wound of losing a loved one to the traumatic event.
Security has also been a major concern in releasing video footage. It is possible that the tapes could expose camera positioning and details that could undermine the security of the Capitol. Since the insurrection was a blatant instance of a security breach, this matter is especially relevant to Democrats and Republicans alike. Carlson claimed to have checked with the Capitol before airing and was only required to blur the details of a single interior door. However, USCP attorney Tad DiBiase said that Carlson aired dozens of clips that were not approved by anyone from the Capitol Police.
Senators and Representatives have criticized both Carlson’s access to the security footage and how he framed the attacks to his loyal fanbase. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) criticized Carlson for supporting conspiracies about the insurrection. He also blamed McCarthy for his actions, saying his role in the matter also promoted the false idea that the Capitol attack was not violent. Senator Kevin Cramer (R-ND) and Senator Thom Tillis (R-NC) both publicly shared that they felt as though Carlson’s representation of the event was inaccurate.
During an interview on "Sunday Morning Futures with Maria Bartiromo," Senator McCarthy stood by his decision to allow Carlson access to the tapes and denied any wrongdoing. This statement is in response to a backlash from political parties and media organizations. He claims that he did not “give” the tapes but rather permitted access, as he will continue to do with other networks. Although McCarthy claims he has a dedication to transparency, no other news stations have claimed to have had access to or have aired the tapes.
McCarthy also compared the insurrection to Black Lives Matters protests when defending his decision to release the tapes to Fox News, a common attempt used by Republicans to misrepresent the activism sparked by the death of George Floyd, who was a victim of police brutality. Although many Republicans initially condemned the aggressive behavior from the capitol riots, many have turned towards this false equivalency as an alternative to blaming Donald Trump or his conservative supporters for inciting these riots. This idea was also popularized when Carlson shared the same opinion on the BLM protests on Fox News. When McCarthy was asked if he agreed with Carlson’s controversial opinion of the insurrection, McCarthy failed to provide an adequate response.
Media organizations and politicians have released statements expressing discontent with Tucker Carlson being the only news outlet to gain access to these controversial tapes documenting a pivotal event in the nation’s history. Through his inaccurate portrayal and opinion of the insurrection, Carlson has managed to catalyze even greater distress across the nation due to the events that took place on January 6, 2021. However, McCarthy allowing access to the tapes to Fox News allows the organization to be fully capable of spreading purposefully selected information in any manner, and there is no alternative news source to consult. Along with Fox News’ history of spreading disinformation, McCarthy’s decision can contribute to an altering of the public’s perception of the insurrection.
A collection of media outlets, including CBS News, CNN, Politico, ProPublica, ABC, Axios, Advance, Scripps, the Los Angeles Times, and Gannett, have sent out a letter demanding access to the January 6 tapes due to fear of the Carlson inaccurate narrative impacting public perception of the event. Although parties seem split on the matter itself, the concern for propaganda media oversees any partisanship in this problematic situation.