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For Pre-Launch Event Buzz, Invite The Guy Who Called The Iraqi People ‘Semi-Literate Primitive Monkeys’

Semafor’s here to help with ‘the crisis of trust in news,’ so here’s Tucker Carlson sponsored by the Knight Foundation.

Three people on the bill for Semafor’s launch event on July 7.

On July 7, Semafor, the buzzy new news project from Ben Smith and Justin B. Smith, will undertake its first public act, if you don't count various waves of press announcements of varying degrees of specificity.

This debut will not be Semafor's actual launch or a publication, but an event, underwritten by the Knight Foundation, addressing the questions of "whether and how news can operate in a hyper-polarized landscape."

Attempting to shed light on these questions, in panels and one-on-one interviews, will be a small collection of some of the hottest names in news: Wesley Lowery, currently of CBS and formerly of the Washington Post; Taylor Lorenz of the Post; Gerald Seib, formerly of the Wall Street Journal; Femi Oke of Al Jazeera English; and John Harris of Politico.

Also, arguably the single most powerful advocate of white supremacist ideology in this country, Tucker Carlson.

The ways that Carlson uses his perch at Fox News to spread white replacement theory and miscellaneous racist, nativist patriarchal and anti-trans positions have by now been thoroughly documented many times over. The New York Times, just a few months ago, unleashed a comprehensive three-part epic analyzing Carlson's ascent, dissecting his modus operandi, and cataloging the steady diet of white patriarchal grievance he pumps out.

So why is Carlson invited to this party? And why is the Knight Foundation, which holds itself out as one of the most august bulwarks of responsible journalism and civil society, giving him a microphone?

I asked Jim Brady, the Knight Foundation's vice president for journalism, how putting the guy who tells white men that immigration is part of a conspiracy to steal the country from true Americans, on a Knight Foundation billing, squares with the foundation's stated belief in "equitable and inclusive communities." And if another one of Knight's articles of faith is that "informed citizenry is essential for representative democracy to function effectively," why was it hosting a guy who spews so much misinformation that a judge ruled in 2020 he is not a source of credible news?

Brady responded first that Knight didn't pick the slate of guests, Semafor did. But Knight stands by the decision, Brady said, citing the Foundation's third credo, a belief in "freedom of expression and in the values expressed in the First Amendment."

What constitutional mandates govern who you have to invite to your media launch parties, I wondered? "Open dialogue," Brady clarified. "Maybe 'freedom of speech' is a more exact term than I need to be using. But we don't like to be shutting down people's ability to be heard."

Is there anyone who Knight would not host in the name of open dialogue, I asked? "Yes, there's probably some limit to that, when you get into, you know, neo-Nazis or something like that," Brady said.

How does Brady distinguish between neo-Nazis who promulgate the great replacement theory and the Fox News host who does? "I'm not getting into that," he answered. "I'm not getting into trying to define what Tucker is, that’s not my job. The job is, we’re sponsoring the event because we think it’s going to be a good event."

Since Brady placed responsibility for the decision on Semafor, Hell Gate asked Ben Smith why Carlson was on the bill. "Are you asking me why I'd want to interview the most powerful figure in right-wing media?" he texted in response. "That doesn’t seem like a complicated question—would you not?"

Smith didn't seem concerned that inviting Carlson to a clubby launch event composed of media movers-and-shakers and hosted by the Knight Foundation would legitimize him as a respectable journalist. "A big part of our job is to ask powerful people tough questions—that’s what I want to do," Smith texted.

Not everyone involved in the Semafor event thinks this program is a good idea. "I'm kind of shocked that the Knight Foundation would be willing to host someone like Tucker Carlson," one participant told me.

Confrontation worked against Carlson once before, of course, when Crossfire was cancelled shortly after Jon Stewart went on the show to tell Carlson and his co-host that they were "hurting America." But Stewart's performance, which has perhaps been magnified in some people's memory, was also directed at a different target, an earlier iteration of Carlson when he was simply a hack among hacks. Would a similar performance stop Carson in his stride today? Unlikely.

A more apt comparison might be David Remnick's enthusiasm to interview Steve Bannon before the paying audience of a New Yorker festival, an idea that Remnick defended against growing blowback before ultimately buckling and pulling the invitation.

Another participant in the Semafor event also saw reason to second-guess the inclusion of Carlson, but cautioned that the true test of the decision would be the interview itself. "I'm not someone who says you never interview these people, but it has to be done well," the participant said. "There is a world where this is a confrontation of the bad actors in our profession, in our industry, in our ecosystem. If Ben pulls that off, I think it'll be a service. The issue is always in the execution."

A Zoom interview sandwiched into a busy program at a brand launch event is not, on the face of it, fertile ground for a productive cross-examination. But even under the best of circumstances, it is hard to imagine what Smith might accomplish by interviewing Carlson in July of 2022. The relative power of a suitably skeptical interview to stop fascism in its tracks, felt fresher in 2017. A thousand sumptuously-photographed profiles of alt-right goons down the road, it is less obvious than ever that scheduling interviews with the enemies of multi-racial democracy constitutes a righteous act of journalism.

Even if Smith did somehow badger Carlson into a dramatic confession that yes, he ordered the Code Red and also yes, he is an avowed white supremacist determined to pervert the news apparatus into an engine of hate and division—would it matter to Carlson's nativist fan base? Would it matter to the handful of advertisers like My Pillow who have stuck with him through every storm his poisonous rhetoric has kicked up over the last five years?

More to the point: Would it matter to Lachlan Murdoch, who has put Carlson on the air not just because he's popular, or only because he makes Fox money, but because he's promoting precisely the political agenda that Murdoch wants promulgated?

A kind of circular contradiction kept recurring in my conversations with people justifying the Semafor event: The interview is good because the way to confront dangerous ideas is through rigorous interrogation; but also, the interview is not worth getting upset over, because this is just a small part of a launch event that a tiny number of media insiders will ever see. Argument in the alternative can often produce a degree of seasickness, but this particular loop is clarifying, because it points to what's actually gross about this event. It doesn't ultimately matter to the people putting on this show whether the interview, when it finally takes place, constitutes a ringing blow for truth or democracy or if it's entirely unmemorable.

Carlson is the "most powerful person in right-wing media," as Smith puts it, and in interviewing him, Smith can draft on that power and notoriety, can borrow it for an afternoon and leverage it to his own purpose, the promotion of his new company, already funded to the tune of $25 million. Putting him on the same bill as Lorenz, a reporter Carlson has singled out for particular unpleasantness, only adds to the attraction. The people who don't like this move, who spill ink criticizing it, are only shining more attention on Smith and Semafor. Win-win!

The interview is an attraction, a performance, a party trick, an act of live journalism before an audience without a net. Semafor has invited a hateful demagogue to the party, and Smith is going to gamely fence with him, to applause.

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