How lucky for the Fox News Channel that Ann Coulter’s planned speech at University of California Berkeley has been met with fierce resistance by protestors and cancellation: it’s a gift for the two shows wrapping up their first week in new time periods, Tucker Carlson Tonight and The Five. The Coulter controversy dovetails perfectly with something Fox News has long thrived on: what it perceives as the lunacy of the left — “political correctness run amuck,” as the channel’s former Prime Minister, Bill O’Reilly, used to call it.
This week, Tucker Carlson Tonight replaced The O’Reilly Factor at 8 p.m., with The Five moving into Carlson’s 9 p.m. slot. (Sean Hannity, the rabid chipmunk of conservatism, remains burrowed down in the 10 p.m. time period.) Carlson led off the week with what his producers probably hoped would be a ratings and news splash — an interview with Caitlyn Jenner — but Jenner is a singularly unreflective personality, and the segment dragged. Where the show has sparked to life is during Carlson’s nightly coverage of what he’s chosen to label “Campus Craziness.”
Carlson made the subject of Coulter his lead segment three nights in a row, culminating in an easy takedown of Aaron Hanlon, a college professor whose New Republic piece justifying a ban on Coulter is a small marvel of academic gobbledygook. Hanlon avoids the term censorship, preferring instead the term “no-platforming” — that is, declining to give objectionable speech a platform: “No-platforming may look like censorship from certain angles,” writes Hanlon, “but from others it’s a consequence of a challenging, never-ending process occurring at virtually all levels of the university: deciding what educational material to present to our students and what to leave out.” In other words: censorship.
I’ve reviewed Carlson’s show — a cross between a debate-club and Jeopardy! — before, here. At his best, Carlson is chipper and affable. At his worst, he is disgustingly cynical, as he was debating government arts funding with actor Tim Daly on Thursday night. Carlson’s assertion, which I assume he just pretended to believe to create some drama, is that the government should never fund the arts: that rich people should do it. As for The Five, it’s a squabble-fest featuring four conservatives and a liberal — depending on what night you tune in, either Bob Beckel or Juan Williams, but never both: Ye gods, two liberals on a Fox News show at the same time? America might implode! In the move to prime time, The Five has replaced meathead Eric Bolling (who will anchor a new 5 p.m. show whenever a producer tells him what it’s going to be) with Jesse Watters, who seems to think the brand of wiseguy smarm he brought to the “Watters World” segments on The O’Reilly Factor qualify him to play with the grown-ups. Alas for Jesse, he got into a spot of trouble during this debut week when he made a suggestive comment about Ivanka Trump. He’s now taking two nights off — he calls it “vacation”; I call it “a suspension” — because in the post-Factor era, Fox isn’t about to look like it’s countenancing sexual vulgarity or risking a break-up with the guy it’s engaged to, Donald Trump.
The sharpest coverage of Coulter’s morass on The Five came from Greg Gutfeld. I admire Gutfeld’s work ethic: He prepares entire monologues that he seems to have written down on cards, packed with jokes and wordplay. The content is complete reactionary hooey, but he labors to make it entertaining. He makes the rest of The Five look like slackers.
All of the outraged Fox chatterboxes in prime time have, of course, blown the subject of Coulter out of proportion, relegating coverage of — well, everything that’s going on relating to Donald Trump — to secondary status. Carlson devoted an eight-minute lead segment to the Coulter disgrace on Wednesday. The Five spent over 11 minutes at the top of its show on the same topic. Both shows made Berkeley their long-second-segment topic on Thursday. It’s overkill, but it doesn’t mean they’re not right in being appalled by the curtailing of Coulter’s speech. Coulter herself told Hannity on Wednesday that “Bill Maher, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders” have all defended her and condemned Berkeley’s actions, and you can bet that is the first and probably last time Maher, Warren, and Sanders will ever be mentioned in a positive light on Hannity.
As a free-speech absolutist who can remember the noble fights of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement led by Mario Savio, I want Coulter to make a fool of herself in front of as many disapproving people as possible. But I’m also not fooling myself: This Fox focus isn’t primarily about free speech; it’s about equating liberalism with violent radicalism. Meanwhile, Tucker Carlson Tonight and The Five have turned their first-week broadcasts into unlikely, overwrought battlegrounds for free speech that will probably only harden its die-hard viewers into believing that there’s a grand conspiracy to keep right-wing extremists silent.
Tucker Carlson Tonight airs weeknights at 8 p.m. on Fox News. The Five airs weeknights at 9 p.m. on Fox News.