Speaking on his Fox News program last week, Tucker Carlson went literary, channeling The Road with a dash of White Noise. After a train carrying thousands of gallons of dangerous chemicals derailed in the small town of East Palestine, Ohio, “those clouds of toxic smoke flew up and out and that toxic smoke almost immediately began killing animals,” he said. “Dead fish washed up on shore. As one hazardous material specialist put it, we basically nuked the town with chemicals.”
So far, we have a chilling and accurate description of the devastation that has followed the derailment of a Norfolk Southern train earlier this month. Residents have gotten sick. Pets have died. Fish are dying in poisonous water. Water deemed safe by authorities is shimmering, slick with chemicals. Carlson gets it right—a rarity, given the right-winger’s general disinterest in the environment, climate change, or, for that matter, the sort of government regulation that might have otherwise saved the day. (Carlson’s version of the quote from the aforementioned “hazardous material specialist” attests to this—the full quote is “we basically nuked the town with chemicals, so we could get a railroad open.”)
This being Carlson, however, we know that his fealty to the facts is likely to be short-lived. And sure enough, moments later, he gets to his actual point—the real reason why the derailment interests him. “So, then a representative from the EPA, the Environmental Protection Agency, arrived to restore calm. Yes, an EPA spokesman explained chemicals from the derailed train did enter the local watershed and yes, they did kill fish, but the drinking water supply remains totally safe.” Why did they do this? Carlson reckons that since the crash can’t be directly attributed to climate change, the EPA simply doesn’t care enough to put in the effort. More darkly, he suggests that East Palestine is getting the short shrift because the town voted for Trump. In other words, the EPA doesn’t care about white people.
The following day, Carlson made it explicit. “East Palestine is overwhelmingly white and it’s politically conservative,” he said. That shouldn’t be relevant but as you’re about to hear, it very much is.” He later continued, “Imagine if this happened in, well, the favored cities of Philadelphia and Detroit … in both cases, had it affected the rich or the favored poor, it would be the lead of every news channel in the world. But it happened to the poor, benighted town of East Palestine, Ohio, whose people are forgotten and, in the view of the people who lead this country, forgettable.” He was hardly alone on Fox News. His Fox News colleague Jesse Watters piled on, joking—to the extent that anything that Watters says can be described as a “joke”—that the EPA was “spilling toxic chemicals on poor white people in Ohio” as a way to fight racism. Brian Kilmeade took a break from writing dubious history books to “just ask questions” about whether politics was behind the slow response. “You just hope this has nothing to do with the fact that Ohio is a red state,” he mused.
Fox—and the right-wing media more generally—has seized on the disaster in East Palestine, using an initial slow response and lack of cable news coverage as evidence that something terrible and conspiratorial was happening. In their telling, the EPA and the federal government would have surely been more responsive if the derailment had happened in a more diverse area and that the agencies were more intent on fighting “wokeism” than they were on helping people. It’s a perfect storm that has led to Donald Trump—a man whose own deregulation policies helped lead directly to the derailment—announcing a campaign event in East Palestine.
It’s a shameless and cynical exercise from a group that has relentlessly pushed for more deregulation, regardless of potential consequences. Trump, as Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Will Bunch observed over the weekend, killed a 2015 rule “that would have required freight trains to upgrade the current braking technology that was developed in the 19th century for state-of-the-art electronic systems. In killing the rule, Trump bought the argument from lobbyists for Norfolk Southern and the rail industry that the upgrade would have cost them $3 billion—six times what the Obama administration found it would cost.”
For the right-wing media, there is, as always, a cynical attempt at inversion. They are trying to turn this into their Flint water crisis, their example of critical race theory or systemic discrimination. It’s a crisis narrative that Fox knows will work with its older, whiter audience: Democrats not only don’t care about them, they want them to die; they are so focused on fighting made-up discrimination that they can’t deal with a real crisis.
It’s a particularly galling narrative because we have a wealth of evidence that Fox News hosts don’t actually believe the things they tell their viewers. Late last week, a trove of Fox News texts, related to Dominion Voting Systems’ lawsuit against the company, was publicly released. These missives from hosts and staff members showed that no one on staff actually deemed the plethora of mad nonsense that Donald Trump and his supporters were saying about the 2020 election to be credible. “It’s a hard needle to thread, but I really think many on our side are being reckless demagogues right now,” texted one of Carlson’s producers to the host. Carlson concurred: “What [Trump]’s good at is destroying things,” he replied. “He’s the undisputed world champion of that. He could easily destroy us if we play it wrong.”
And yet, the network’s top employees were also terrified to tell their audience the truth, worried as they were about the threat of competitors like Newsmax. And so, to keep their own gravy train from derailing, they lied and fed their audience the narrative they craved: The election was stolen, Biden was illegitimate, their country was being destroyed in front of their eyes.
Today, Newsmax doesn’t rate as a threat anymore, but Fox’s commitment to the truth is unchanged even with these diminished threats to their hegemony. Events like the derailment in East Palestine are opportunities to advance a cynical narrative in the most contemptuous possible way. There is no real effort to do any work to interrogate what actually happened in East Palestine and certainly no interest in the various intrigues that sprout up when the story is subjected to a deeper examination. And naturally, there is no material effort being made to push for actual reforms beyond reaching for phantasmic race-based culprits—and there’s certainly no interest in doing anything that might either hurt the profits of Norfolk Southern or clean up the environment. The narrative they are pushing has only one remedy: end wokeness and the Democratic Party. None of this will help forestall the next small town from facing a similar calamity, which is precisely the point.