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Tucker Carlson’s plan for Fridays: cartwheel through a minefield

Originally published in Current, Nov. 17, 2003
By Karen Everhart

Crossfire co-host Tucker Carlson will anchor a new weekly series intended to bring more conservative voices to PBS's public affairs lineup.

WETA in Washington, D.C., will produce the yet-to-be-titled series for launch next June. The half-hour show will be driven by news events and topics that interest Carlson, a print journalist who debates for the right on CNN's Crossfire.

Carlson said his interest in the PBS show stemmed mainly from his dealings with execs at WETA and CPB. "Whenever you have the chance to work with smart, friendly people, you take it," he said. He also liked their assurances that "I can say whatever I want and I don't have to be a phony."

"My key mantra is to let Tucker be Tucker," said Jeff Bieber, WETA executive producer. "He is not some shrill stereotype. He really is smart and engaging and that will really come out in the show."

Carlson describes himself as a conservative libertarian, but he doesn't toe the Republican Party line, and he's not afraid to offend conservatives. He said he once poured a Bloody Mary on Republican strategist Grover Norquist and poked fun at the politics of Sen. John McCain while covering the latter's 2000 bid for the Republican presidential nomination.
"I don't care what anybody thinks," Carlson said, especially "professional uptight conservative types" who try to enforce thought control.

Carlson hopes his PBS show will distinguish itself by booking provocative, irreverent guests. "Avoid boring, conventional people like death is what we are going to do," he said. "I'd rather have someone with a facial twitch with something interesting to say than the prettiest former federal prosecutor in all of Los Angeles."

Because of the show's bare-bones budget, it will be a standard public affairs mix of interviews and panel discussions, said Bieber. The pilot, produced at WETA this summer, included an interview with conservative flamethrower Ann Coulter, a panel discussion with guests of various political persuasions, and a Carlson commentary about government regulation of trans fats in foods ("keep your hands off my snack foods").

PBS announced last week that it green-lighted the series. WETA still has to fill out its budget, supplementing money from PBS and CPB, according to Bieber.

The announcement culminated PBS's fast-track campaign to develop a new Friday night series (earlier story). PBS originally aimed to expand its public affairs block on Fridays with a show that provided political balance for Now with Bill Moyers, according to producers who talked with PBS execs about the concept. The Carlson show survived a competition with several other proposals, including an adaptation of the public radio show Left, Right and Center from KCRW in Santa Monica.

Conservatives have complained vociferously about liberal bias in Moyers' show, particularly in his hard-hitting commentaries (earlier story).

"I feel like it's a minefield waiting for me to do cartwheels through it," Carlson said in response to reports that his show will be a right-wing antidote to a left-leaning PBS.
"I don't think I'm there to balance out anybody--I'm there to do a good show," Carlson said. He pledged not to use the series as his "personal editorial page" or as a pulpit. "People don't want to hear me preach."

Carlson's previous connection to public broadcasting was through his father, Richard, who was CPB president from 1992 to 1997. Richard Carlson is now vice chairman of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, an anti-terrorism think tank.

The advent of Tucker Carlson's program isn't likely to end conservative activists' complaints about PBS.

"I don't think you can balance PBS with one show when we find liberal bias on many shows," said Tim Graham, director of media analysis for the conservative Media Research Center, in Alexandria, Va. Graham said it's too early to say whether Carlson's show will satisfy conservatives.

PBS offers airtime to conservatives who tend to be "restrained and moderate" in expressing themselves, Graham said. William F. Buckley Jr., the conservative pundit whose talk show Firing Line aired on public TV for more than three decades, was "intellectual to the point where people didn't understand what he said," Graham noted. PBS's financial commitment to conservative-themed series, such as the now-defunct National Desk, tends to wane over time, he added.

"I wouldn't say I'm happy now," Graham commented. "My skepticism is warranted, given what I've seen over the decades."

Web page posted Nov. 17, 2003
Current: the newspaper about public TV and radio
in the United States
Current Publishing Committee, Takoma Park, Md.

Tucker Carlson in red bowtie


Carlson's dad, Richard, quits the CPB presidency after clashes with his board's then-Democratic majority, 1997.

PBS shops for programs to balance Moyers on Friday nights, 2003.

CPB calls for more attention to balance and fairness, 2003.


A CPB Board member testifies that the board needs more authority to penalize public broadcasters for imbalanced programs, 2003.


CNN's bio of Carlson.

Carlson interviewed on

His tiff with Fox News, 2003.