Soraya Roberts | Longreads | March 2019 | 8 minutes (2,111 words)
In the past, the bow tie seemed to hold him together, kind of. Tucker Carlson had always been as red-faced and obstreperous as so many other conservative pundits, but he had never been known to be “cunty” or “faggot”-level offensive. Still, it wasn’t much of a shock earlier this week when progressive watchdog Media Matters unearthed him spouting slurs like that — a couple of racist remarks rounded out the misogyny and homophobia — during a series of appearances on Bubba the Love Sponge Clem’s radio show between 2006 and 2011. From Monday to Tuesday, after the first recordings surfaced, Tucker Carlson Tonight hemorrhaged almost half its advertisers.
That bow tie had been a flourish of propriety: a strip of cloth separating him from a loudmouth like Howard Stern, the “shock jock” who looks and acts like a dollar store rock star, grabbing his crotch for whoever will listen. But he dropped it the year he appeared on that radio show. It was Stern who hired Bubba the Love Sponge Clem (yes, that’s his legal name) in the mid-2000s to host a show on his second satellite radio channel, and it was on that show that Carlson crossed the line. That was where the shock jock and the political commentator proved that they were one and the same — the former played off conservatism, the latter played it up, but both relied on its foundation. “Well, you’re talking about God and illegals,” Carlson told Clem. “I thought we were just going to be talking about blow jobs.”
But what’s the difference, really? Blow jobs were once used for shock value. Now it’s “illegals.” The punch line being that neither one of them is transgressive in the end.
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No one used the words shock jock for Joe Pyne, the host of It’s Your Nickel (that’s a reference to pay phones, kids, and I’m including myself here) who pioneered in-your-face talk radio in the ’50s and went on to create TV’s The Joe Pyne Show, which sometimes devolved into actual physical altercations between him and guest. No one really knew what to make of him. His unconventional style — dressed-up to dress down “pinkos” and “women’s libbers” and riff on, rather than read, reports — was neither news nor entertainment. It seemed to be best described (well, The New York Times and Time both did anyway) as an “electronic peepshow.” The personality-free press of the time considered Walter Cronkite the most trusted man in America and Johnny Carson the funniest, but Pyne, with his syndicated show on more than 200 radio outlets, was the most Machiavellian. “When it comes to manipulating media,” Icons of Talk author Donna Halper told Smithsonian Magazine, “he was the father of them all.”
Pyne briefly descended from his soapbox in the mid-’60s — for a week’s “vacation” — after bringing a gun to his show during the Watts riots, suggesting the world wasn’t quite yet ready for his kind of conservative appeal. It took until the mid-’80s, when the FCC was no longer so hard-assed and political correctness was all the rage, for Howard Stern to turn the shock jock into a thing. The idea was that PC America was muting real America, and personalities like his were there to liberate our ids … usually on the way to work. “They were pushing the limits of what you could hear on the public airwaves,” TALKERS Magazine publisher Michael Harrison told Thrillist of mavericks like Pyne and Don Imus, who set the stage for Stern. “That was the key to the whole thing: that it was on the ‘sacred public airwaves.’”
Full disclosure: I have always hated Howard Stern. His banality offends me: “The closest I came to making love to a black woman was I masturbated to a picture of Aunt Jemima on a pancake box” — that’s the kind of joke he makes. It’s the sort of quip that leaves a dumb bro stuck in 1992 in stitches. To be offensive your words have to have power, and his … don’t. He swears a lot and cajoles his guests into talking about fucking and snorting and it’s all very Free Speech, Motherfuckers! He can be sexist and racist and classist, because, hey! He’s sexist about men too! He’s racist to everyone! He drags every class!
Sorry, I just fell asleep.
The rebellion is a pose, because at the heart of Stern and all the other shock jocks is conservatism — 2.1 kids, strong moral fiber. They can joke about fucking and inhaling, because they ostensibly aren’t doing either. So what positions itself against PC America, in fact, at its core, feeds into it — the conservatism is the rebellion. Knowing that, you can see how Don Imus calling the members of Rutgers’ women’s basketball team “nappy-headed hos” can happen as late as 2007 on his radio show Imus in the Morning (he was fired by CBS and NBC, then hired by ABC). As David Remnick wrote in The New Yorker 10 years before Imus’s offense, personalities like Stern and Mancow Muller and Opie and Anthony appeal to the “audience that feels put upon by a new set of rules — sexual harassment guidelines, the taboo against certain kinds of speech — and wants release, if only in the privacy of the drive to work.”
The audience meaning white heterosexual men. The shock jock industry itself is predominantly white men (Stern’s foil, Robin Quivers, is a black woman, but she has never been the star attraction). Which is not to say that women can’t be as “offensive,” it’s just that the people in charge of hiring them would prefer them to be barefoot and pregnant. There are shockingly few exceptions. Wendy Williams, who rode the wave of ’90s hip-hop and shamelessly confronted celebrities like Whitney Houston with tabloid gossip (she also had a bad habit of trying to out rappers) was christened by New York magazine in 2005 as the “shock jockette.” She was “the black Howard Stern” right down to the middle-class moralism. Other than Williams, the female media personalities who cause offense — Ann Coulter, Laura Ingraham — tend toward conservative commentary, presumably because the men on the top floor think they will be less likely to break a nail in those environs. “The complaints of Western feminists look like petty self-absorption when you line them up against human rights abuses in Third World military dictatorships,” is a thing Ingraham came up with — a misogynistic comment cloaked in doublespeak.
This genre of radio personality was dubbed by my colleague Ethan Chiel as the “outrage jock,” the political version of a culture and entertainment-aligned predecessor, who arose in the late 1980s after the FCC regulations on political talk became less clear. This is where a bow tie comes in handy. The outrage jocks market themselves as transgressive, but instead of fighting conservative America, they uphold it, a stance they brand subversive in a sea of progressive liberal media. Rush Limbaugh, who has the most popular talk radio show in America — 15.5 million listeners, according to Talk Magazine — was dubbed by National Review as the “Leader of the Opposition” back in the ’90s. “Rush took radio at a time when the norm was basically NPR. He comes into that church and blows it up,” radio host John Ziegler told The Washington Post in 2015. “Our presidential politics have become a kind of church. The media says, ‘You’re not allowed to say this, or this, or that, because we’re in church.’ People are sick of that.”
So: Stern 2.0, except instead of shouting about pussy, Limbaugh — not to mention Glenn Beck and Michael Savage — shouts about policy. You may remember him calling women’s rights activist Sandra Fluke a “slut” in 2012 for advocating for contraceptive insurance coverage. “She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception,” said the man who has been married four times. “She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex. What does that make us? We’re the pimps.”
Limbaugh needs a brushup on his sex work nomenclature, among other things. But if you want to talk about pimp: Janet Jackson’s nipple ultimately killed the shock jock. In case you aren’t old, it happened during a performance of “Rock Your Body” at the Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show in 2004, when Justin Timberlake tore off the right cup of Jackson’s bustier, exposing her breast. (Per Jackson, the red bra underneath the rubber was supposed to stay behind, but came away accidentally.) In response, more than 500,000 complaints, all of them from people presumably with nipples of their own, were reportedly lodged with the FCC. President Bush responded two years later by signing the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act, which raised the penalty for broadcasting “indecency” tenfold. With that, Howard Stern fucked off to satellite radio and the rest of the shock jocks kind of followed suit. Tucker Carlson was what was left behind.
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“Does she have a good body? No. Does she have a fat ass? Absolutely.” Tucker Carlson did not say that. That was Donald Trump in 2013 talking to Howard Stern about a pregnant Kim Kardashian in a radio show appearance that reemerged during his election campaign. On the same show, across almost two decades, the future president also agreed that his daughter was “a piece of ass” and dismissed flat-chested women and women over 35 (thank God). For all his work to divide the nation, Trump had a big hand in bringing shock and outrage jocks together, dissolving any sort of wall (!) between them. “If the political class is appalled by the notion that anything from the morass of ’90s shock-jock radio could become part of a presidential race,” wrote Virginia Heffernan in Politico in 2016, “it may be just as surprising to Stern’s fans, who proudly embraced the outsider-ness of a guy who couldn’t seem further from inside-the-Beltway political chatter.” TALKERS’s Harrison has called Trump “the first shock-politician.”
By the time Trump entered politics, shock jocks were no longer defining the culture and conservative commentators were filling the vacuum. They entered the mainstream on networks like Fox and the intellectual dark web via Ben Shapiro and Jordan Peterson and Dave Rubin. “The shock jocks weren’t defeated,” wrote Dan Jackson at Thrillist. “They went viral.” This is where Tucker Carlson fits in. He called his resurfaced xenophobic, misogynistic, and homophobic comments from Bubba the Love Sponge’s show (he described women as “extremely primitive,” supported child rapist Warren Jeffs, and compared the behavior of Muslims to animals) “naughty,” then equated contrition with betrayal. “We’ve always apologized when we’re wrong and will continue to do that,” he said on Tucker Carlson Tonight Monday. “That’s what decent people do; they apologize. But we will never bow to the mob.”
Almost 70 years after the first shock jock hit the air, Carlson was toeing the same party line as his predecessors. “They claim that they’re just entertainers and yet they deliver this toxic mix of pseudo journalism, misinformation, hate-filled speech, jokes,” Rory O’Connor, author of Shock Jocks: Hate Speech & Talk Radio, told The Guardian in 2009. “It’s all bound together so when it’s convenient for them to be entertainers they say, hey, it’s all just a joke. But when it’s not, they say they’re giving you information that you need.” Carlson’s comments were only shocking because they veered so sharply away from Beltway politics; with his regressive approach no longer couched in policy, they revealed him for the person he is. And even though advertisers have pulled out of his program, the notion that he could disappear like Stern is one from another time — conservatism is the status quo and there’s always room for it now, particularly when it masquerades as information rather than entertainment.
After Megyn Kelly left Fox, Tucker Carlson took her spot, and if Carlson were removed, a new version of him would sprout in his place. This whack-a-mole quality to outrage jocks extends, more troublingly, to their politics — if they are not outraged about one thing, they will immediately find another. They are as adaptive as comedians like Stern, use facts as props to play journalists like Cronkite, and influence voting and policy just as seriously. As Jon Stewart scolded Carlson and his cohost in 2004 on the CNN show Crossfire: “You’re doing theater, when you should be doing debate.” And without the FCC to shut them down for good, or at least out them as entertainers, the only hope is that their audience will realize that the most transgressive thing to do is to stop listening.
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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.