After PolitiFact published an article supposedly explaining “great replacement theory,” with Tucker Carlson as a key focus, PolitiFact published a preposterous piece on May 19, 2022 claiming Carlson feigned not knowing about “great replacement theory.”
Fox News host Tucker Carlson falsely claimed he was unfamiliar with the racist and antisemitic “great replacement theory” cited by the mass shooter in Buffalo, New York.
“You’ve heard a lot about the ‘great replacement theory’ recently,” Carlson said on his primetime show May 17. “It is everywhere in the last two days, and we are still not sure exactly what it is.”
PolitiFact labeled the story as an “article” and not a “fact check.” “Truth-O-Meter” ratings do not accompany articles, though of course this one directly accused Carlson of a falsehood. But we’ll see that PolitiFact fumbled its attempt to support its claim.
PolitiFact’s argument connecting Carlson to “great replacement theory” relies on equivocation. PolitiFact defines the theory as “an elaborate conspiracy” but easily connects Carlson’s descriptions of a simple and measurable process to “Great Replacement Theory,” or at least a core tenet of the theory. In like manner, wearing a certain style of mustache might make a person Hitler.
Objectively, proving dishonest intent presents fact checkers with a ponderous burden of proof. Indeed, its “Pants on Fire” rating notwithstanding, PolitiFact claims it does not accuse politicians of lying.
PolitiFact Editor-in-Chief Angie Drobnic Holan wrote in 2018, after noting its “Lie of the Year” counts as an exception:
(W)e avoid the word lie. That’s because of the tricky issue of claiming to know a person’s intention. Fact-checking is about precision in language — reporting what we know to be true or false as best we can tell. That can be straightforward, but intention is a grayer, less certain. How do we know that the person speaking knew it wasn’t true?
But when PolitiFact says Carlson feigned not knowing exactly what “Great Replacement Theory” means, it must know his mind to make that judgment. It must know Carlson knew exactly what it meant and knowingly pretended otherwise.
Holan correctly noted the difficulty that proof presents for fact checkers.
How Did PolitiFact Know Carlson Was Familiar with ‘Great Replacement Theory’?
PolitiFact relied for its evidence on a number of clips from “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” the show Carlson hosts on Fox News Channel.
“In political terms, this policy is called ‘the great replacement”
PolitiFact’s first clip of Carlson came from the Sept. 21, 2021 edition of his show. Carlson showed a clip of Vice President Joe Biden from 2015 telling an audience it was “not a bad thing” and “a source of our strength” that Americans descended from white Europeans would soon be a permanent minority in the United States.
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PolitiFact quoted Carlson’s description of the policy Biden described in the clip. We disagree with PolitiFact’s punctuation of the clip, so we added bold emphasis to aid our explanation for that disagreement:
“An unrelenting stream of immigration, but why?” Carlson said. “Well, Joe Biden just said it. To change the racial mix of the country. That’s the reason. To reduce the political power of people whose ancestors lived here, and dramatically increase the proportion of Americans newly arrived from the Third World … In political terms, this policy is called ‘the great replacement,’ the replacement of legacy Americans with more obedient people from far-away countries.”
The bold emphasis represents a precise quotation of Biden from the 2015 clip. PolitiFact should have rendered it “‘An unrelenting stream of immigration,’ but why?” Carlson pointed out that Biden explained “An unrelenting stream of immigration” as a path to the positive goal of making white European stock a permanent minority in the United States.
Was Carlson wrong about what Biden said? PolitiFact doesn’t say, for it merely tries to show Carlson’s familiarity with “great replacement theory.” But does Carlson’s description of “the great replacement” jibe with PolitiFact’s? To us, it looks like a stretch. Where’s the hidden conspiracy? Where’s the racism, other than Biden’s?
Note: We used C-SPAN tools to create a version of the Biden clip with more context.
“‘So Take Your Racist Replacement Theory …'”
PolitiFact told its readers its first example of Carson using “great replacement theory” was not an isolated example. PolitiFact offered two more supposed examples hotlinked in the sentence “That wasn’t an isolated mention.”
PolitiFact’s first link in that sentence comes from the April 21, 2021 edition of “Tucker Carlson Tonight.” It features Carlson quoting Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) tweeting, in response to a congressional Republican, “take your racist replacement theory and shove it.”
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In context, Rep. Lieu can only refer to the charge, as Carlson put it, that “Democrats are using mass immigration to change the country.” Are Democrats using mass immigration to change the country? PolitiFact doesn’t say. And PolitiFact still has no real evidence of Carlson’s supposed familiarity with “great replacement theory.” In this case, Carlson has familiarity with Lieu’s charge that saying Democrats want to use mass immigration to change the country is (racist) “replacement theory.” That’s it. That’s nothing.
“They Said We Were Espousing Something Called the ‘Great Replacement Theory'”
PolitiFact’s next example came from the August 13, 2021 “Tucker Carlson Tonight.”
This example resembles the former in that it finds Carlson noting others accuse him of “espousing” great replacement theory:
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If Carlson acknowledges that others accuse him of espousing “great replacement theory,” does that by itself show Carlson’s familiarity with that theory? No. But that, by itself, is PolitiFact’s evidence from this clip.
Three More Examples?
PolitiFact follows with a sentence loaded with three hotlinks that would supposedly build its case:
In 2021 alone, Carlson called the theory “a well-known racist fantasy”; claimed that “the very same Democrats who yell at you if you mention this brag in public about the ‘great replacement’”; and argued that “the ‘great replacement’ plan is working. It’s helping the Democratic Party.”
“‘A Well-known Racist Fantasy'”?
If Carlson assured his audience that “great replacement theory” counts as a well-known racist fantasy, that would appear to imply Carlson counts himself as one of those in-the-know about the well-known racist fantasy. That looks like PolitiFact’s argument in the paragraph above.
In fact, the context supports a different interpretation.
Carlson was reporting, again, that others were criticizing him for promoting what they counted as “a well-known racist fantasy.” So the line does not show Carlson’s familiarity with “great replacement theory.” Rather, it shows Carlson’s awareness that others accuse him of promoting that theory. Carlson’s intonation helps make clear the “well-known racist fantasy” phrasing comes from his critics. The critics see the theory as well-known, but Carlson does not necessarily see it that way.
Note this would-be additional evidence comes from the same segment as the clip above.
“Brag in Public About the ‘Great Replacement'”
This clip from PolitiFact’s set of three comes from July 19, 2021. That’s after the Rep. Lieu clip but before the others we’ve looked at so far. In the clip, Carlson notes the equivocation on replacement theory. He also notes criticizing immigration policy that accelerates demographic change can get the critic pilloried for peddling a racist theory. Democrats advocating the policies get a pass.
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Does the clip somehow show Carlson’s familiarity with the supposedly well-known racist theory? No. It shows once again Carlson’s awareness that others charge him with promoting a racist theory. And it shows he thinks his critics ignore the truth of his observation: Democrats’ policies on immigration encourage more immigration and therefore demographic change.
“The ‘Great Replacement’ Plan is Working”
PolitiFact cites the third Carlson clip saying Carlson said the “great replacement” plan is working. More accurately, Carlson said Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin said the plan was working. PolitiFact used a clip from Oct. 5, 2021 this time.
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We’ve had cases throughout 2021 where critics attacked Carlson for supposedly spreading a racist “great replacement theory,” where he either quotes the attack or responds to it. This case differs in that Carlson notes Rubin citing the same demographic shift he cites. Then Carlson suggests Rubin ought to receive the same criticism he receives. At the end he asks Rubin to “Let us know if it’s racist to read your column out loud.”
Why PolitiFact Failed to Prove its Point
PolitiFact failed to prove its point owing to its use of an equivocal argument. The fact checkers never offered sound evidence Carlson understood the theory as PolitiFact defined it.
PolitiFact should have seen the problem going in. Note how PolitiFact tried to frame one of Carlson’s supposed sins:
The Fox News host has repeatedly pointed to comments from Democrats acknowledging the fact that U.S. demographics are shifting — the suggestion being that recognizing the trend is the same as admitting to a conspiracy aimed at harming and replacing white people.
In the foregoing paragraph, PolitiFact stakes out its definition of “great replacement theory.” It’s a “conspiracy aimed at harming and replacing white people.” But, as noted above, Carlson alleges no conspiracy. He says Democrats admit their aim of increasing diversity (and electoral advantage) by decreasing the percentage of white people. One of the clips PolitiFact cited features then Vice President Biden saying as much. Is it a conspiracy if it’s freely admitted?
PolitiFact could argue that the Democratic Party’s immigration policies do not harm present-day citizens. It does not, however, perhaps recognizing that high levels of immigration increase demand for housing and resources, making them more expensive. And perhaps recognizing, as presidential candidate Bernie Sanders once did, that importing unskilled labor pulls wages down nationally.
PolitiFact does the opposite of what a fact checker should do. It simply dodges the issue of harm.
It’s also worth pointing out Carlson said he was “not sure exactly what it is.” PolitiFact acted as though Carlson said he had never heard of it. The fact checkers committed a straw man fallacy, camouflaged by equivocation.
What’s Racist About ‘Great Replacement Theory’?
Presumably PolitiFact wants readers to understand, without explaining it to them, that Democratic policies do not count as replacement theory because their policies are open, not conspiratorial, and do no harm. In that case PolitiFact only disagrees with Carlson on one out of two points, at least until PolitiFact addresses whether harm results. But what of the other negative aspect of replacement theory, racism? What makes the theory racist, other than Carlson’s advocacy? PolitiFact, again, doesn’t say.
The closest thing to an explanation we get from PolitiFact stems from its link to the Anti-Defamation League. The ADL was perhaps among the first charging Carlson with advocating replacement theory.
The ADL hosts a page dedicated to explaining replacement theory. As to why the theory is considered racist, that seems to come from racists incorporating it into their views about the threat other races represent to the survival of whites. Also, the ADL says the theory is “associated” with antisemitism.
Replacement theory per se would appear non-racist, unless we count the designs of those allegedly plotting to replace whites. It’s not racist to want one’s own race to avoid extinction, in other words. It could could as racist to assume a different race plots the destruction of whites, however, as with counting the plan as a Jewish plot.
PolitiFact succeeded in showing that Carlson has used the phrase “great replacement theory” at least once. But PolitiFact never succeeded in showing Carlson using the term as PolitiFact and other critics define it. The fact checkers showed nothing to contradict Carlson’s claim that he did not understand exactly what his critics meant by “Great Replacement Theory.”
Simply using a phrase a handful of times serves as one of the poorest possible proofs showing a particular understanding of the term. That’s about the total of PolitiFact’s evidence supporting its claim Carlson falsely said he did not really know “exactly” what his critics mean by it.
No fact checker worthy of the name would use that kind of evidence to judge a statement was deliberately false.
PolitiFact’s article does not count as fact-checking. It counts as poor editorializing.