PROPAGANDAHow You Can Tell Propaganda from Journalism − Let’s Look at Tucker Carlson’s Visit to Russia

By Michael J. Socolow

Published 23 February 2024

In the 1930s, the New York Times’s Moscow bureau chief Walter Duranty wrote glowing reports about the achievements of the Soviet state while ignoring the Stalin dictatorship’s starvation of millions of Ukrainians. These days, conservative TV personality and former Fox News star Tucker Carlson is providing Vladimir Putin and his regime propaganda services similar to those Duranty offered Stalin – except that Carlson goes farther: narrating a series of reports extolling the glories of Russian society, culture, and governance under Putin, Carlson said that these achievements “radicalized” him “against our American leaders.”

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.