The final moments of Tucker Carlson’s last Fox News broadcast are perfect. His studio desk is strewn with pizza boxes. Across from him is the delivery man who’d traveled from Pennsylvania to bring him his favorite slice: sausage and pineapple. “It is a disgusting order, but I have no shame,” Carlson says with this mouth full, grinning. He then turns to the camera to wrap the broadcast with one final lie—“We’ll be back on Monday”—and a plug for the Fox Nation docuseries Let Them Eat Bugs, which alleges that the environmental movement to eat insects is, somehow, part of a global conspiracy. That’s it: One of America’s most popular and influential cable news shows ends with its host sharing the frame with a massive bug dead on a plate.
It felt like this final, absurd moment was ripped straight from Infowars, the far-right conspiracy website founded by Alex Jones. The Infowars model revolves around constructing a durable, alternative reality based on grievance. It reduces the world to a battle between good and evil (the site’s tagline is “There’s a war on for your mind!”), using lies, conspiracy theories, and theatrics to incite fear in the audience while positioning the host as a noble crusader. And it relies on alternating between righteous indignation and a winking, farcical tone that helps obscure the show’s real political project: taking dangerous, hateful, and reality-defying ideologies from the fringe and projecting them into millions of households every weeknight.
Carlson’s show premiered just a few days after the 2016 elections, and was immediately focused on stoking a culture war. According to The New York Times, when his show was elevated to the 8 p.m. slot in 2017, the host had his producers begin looking for small, local news stories “that were sometimes ‘really weird’ and often inaccurate but tapped into viewers’ fears of a trampled-on American culture.” The decision to highlight niche stories—about refugees, petty crime, DACA recipients, college-campus activism, and companies going “woke”—night after night made viewers feel as if their way of life was under an unrelenting assault by mainstream media, the left, and big business. Carlson used such examples to construct a case for his audience in favor of the white-supremacist “Great Replacement” theory, much to the delight of the country’s most infamous bigots.
The Times described this tactic as creating “an apocalyptic worldview”—a strategy that few have perfected better than Jones. On his marathon daily broadcasts, Jones is famous for shuffling through mountains of printed-out news articles, cherry-picking random facts from local news stories—he was, for example, among the first media figures to campaign against drag-queen story hours—and either embellishing them or twisting them to fit into one of his long-running conspiracy theories. Similarly, the Infowars website is a hodgepodge of racist aggregated stories misrepresenting local reporting to trigger outrage. When the local news stories dried up, Jones sent his staffers out to manufacture controversies to stoke the apocalyptic flames for a hungry audience. In a tell-all essay, Joshua Owens, a former Infowars staffer who grew disillusioned with Jones’s lies, detailed the process of having to scramble to find controversies to report on and making news up when that failed.