Photo by Sander Sammy on Unsplash

‘Useful Idiot’ Carlson Genuflects To Putin For Disgraceful Scoop

Phil Garber
6 min readFeb 8, 2024

--

Russian President Vladimir Putin has for many years refused to give interviews to independent Russian journalists and has spoken only to those working for state and pro-Kremlin media.

In the first interview with western media since Russia invaded Ukraine two years ago, Putin met recently with Tucker Carlson, the former Fox personality, pundit and trump sycophant who has been a strong voice against U.S. funding for Ukraine in its war to stop Russian aggression.

There are words for people like Carlson. In English, they are “useful idiots,” in German they are known as “Putinversteher” while the Russian word for them is “Vatnik.”

A useful idiot is a person perceived as propagandizing for a bad cause led by a ruthless source and who is cynically being used by the cause’s leaders. The term was often used during the Cold War to describe non-communists regarded as susceptible to communist propaganda and psychological manipulation.

A Putinversteher translates in German to “Putin understander,” a pejorative referring to politicians or pundits who have empathy for Putin. The vatnik is a Russian phrase for a steadfast follower or propaganda from the Russian government.

Dictators like Putin and dictators-in-waiting, like trump, have always demanded tight controls over interviews with journalists and only when the journalists agrees not to report the subject in a negative light. It is an old story that is tinged with opportunism and sometimes, naivety. A Dec. 13, 2016, story in The Smithsonian Magazine explored how journalists in the 1920s and 1930s should cover the rise of fascists and dictators.

“How to cover the rise of a political leader who’s left a paper trail of anti-constitutionalism, racism and the encouragement of violence? Does the press take the position that its subject acts outside the norms of society? Or does it take the position that someone who wins a fair election is by definition “normal,” because his leadership reflects the will of the people?”

The questions are relevant today in trump’s quest for a return to power. They were the same questions “that confronted the U.S. press after the ascendance of fascist leaders in Italy and Germany in the 1920s and 1930s,” the magazine reported.

Carlson should heed the lessons of the award-winning journalist, Dorothy Thompson, who was among the first to interview Adolf Hitler, leader of the fledgling Nazi Party that lost in its first effort to run in the national parliamentary elections of 1928. At the time, Thompson judged Hitler a man of “startling insignificance.” She realized her monumental misjudgment by 1935 when she penned words as relevant today as they were then.

“No people ever recognize their dictator in advance. He never stands for election on the platform of dictatorship. He always represents himself as the instrument [of] the Incorporated National Will. When our dictator turns up you can depend on it that he will be one of the boys, and he will stand for everything traditionally American,” Thompson wrote.

Carlson’s “interview” with Putin has not yet aired. It is the former Fox commentator’s latest conversation with a tyrant, having held favorable interviews with Hungarian autocrat Viktor Orbán and Argentina’s far-right president Javier Milei.

Carlson announced the Putin interview in a video posted on “X” when he claimed that western media is “corrupt” for “fawning” in interviews with Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky.

“By any actual reality-based measure, Vladimir Putin is not losing the war in Ukraine. He is winning the war in Ukraine and Joe Biden looks at that and says we won’t stop until you proffer an unconditional surrender,” Carlson claimed in August 2022, shortly before a Ukrainian counteroffensive liberated much of the north east Kharkiv region.

Trump has praised Putin’s aggression as “genius” and called the Russian leader “very savvy.” Congress also has delayed further military funding for Ukraine after trump demanded that lawmakers defeat a plan to link southern border protection with providing billions to Ukraine.

Carlson has claimed that western politicians and media outlets have promoted Zelensky “like he’s a new consumer brand.” Carlson said, “not a single Western journalist has bothered to interview the president of the other country involved in this conflict: Vladimir Putin.”

Other journalists have tried to schedule interviews with Putin but all have been rejected until Carlson. Since early 2022, the Kremlin has shut down or driven out all independent media organizations while reporters, activists and ordinary citizens who have spoken against the war have been arrested and some given lengthy prison sentences. Two examples of such oppression are Evan Gershkovich and Alsu Kurmasheva. Gershkovich of the Wall Street Journal remains in a Russian prison after his arrest in March 2023 on charges of espionage. Kurmasheva, a journalist with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, has been held on charges of failing to register as a foreign agent.

Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, said Carlson was chosen for the interview because he “has a position that is different from the rest” of Western media.

Carlson has company in his pandering to power.

In the 1920s and 1930s, Walter Duranty, a New York Times reporter, had an exclusive entrée and was able to pass Soviet censorship and Josef Stalin’s propaganda machine. Duranty won a Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for a series of reports about the progress of the Soviet Union in modernizing and improving the state.

In return for a relatively open door to Stalin, Duranty was complicit in not reporting the truth about the Great Famine of 1930–33 that struck certain parts of the USSR after agriculture was forcibly and rapidly “collectivized.” His reports claimed “there is no famine or actual starvation nor is there likely to be” and “any report of a famine in Russia is today an exaggeration or malignant propaganda.” Duranty rationalized Stalin’s extermination of the kulak class through wholesale slaughter and state-imposed starvation. In Ukraine, the region most affected, the state-sponsored disaster that claimed millions of lives from starvation is today known as the Holodomor.”

Duranty praised Stalin for his imposition of internal passports ‘’to purge [cities] of undesirable elements.’’ He supported the show trials of 1928, 1934 and 1936 as “gospel truths” along with the resulting executions. Duranty excused such brutal and deadly excesses with the phrase, ‘’You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.’’

Like Carlson is to Putin, Duranty was a willing sop for Stalin and was known by his colleagues as Stalin’s “apologist.” Joseph Alsop, the famed journalist and syndicated newspaper columnist, called Duranty a ‘’fashionable prostitute’’ at the service of the Bolsheviks, and the British writer Malcolm Muggeridge said Duranty was ‘’the greatest liar of any journalist I have met in fifty years of journalism.’’

Duranty was the Times’s Moscow bureau chief from 1922 to 1936 and he used his influence to shape American attitudes toward the Soviet Union in its early years. He is credited with successfully pressing Franklin D. Roosevelt to open diplomatic relations with Moscow.

Duranty was dismissed as Moscow bureau chief in 1936 and was fired by the Times in 1940. At the time of his death, Duranty was penniless and a near alcoholic. Despite international criticism of Duranty, the Pulitzer Board refused in 2003 to revoke the award because, “there was not clear and convincing evidence of deliberate deception, the relevant standard in this case.”

The Associated Press paid the cost of gaining access to a dictator in the 1930s when it agreed not to undermine the strength of the Hitler regime. The Associated Press news agency guaranteed its biggest and most exclusive scoops and major profits when it entered a formal cooperation with the Hitler regime in the 1930s, supplying American newspapers with material directly produced and selected by the Nazi propaganda ministry, archive material unearthed by a German historian has revealed.

When the Nazi party seized power in Germany in 1933, it quickly banned much of the international and national press. The Associated Press was the only western news agency allowed to stay open in Hitler’s Germany, continuing to operate until the U.S. entered the war in 1941.

Under an agreement with the Reich, the Associated Press promised not to publish any material “calculated to weaken the strength of the Reich abroad or at home.” The news agency also agreed to only hire reporters who also worked for the Nazi party’s propaganda division.

George Ward Price was a journalist for the British newspaper, the Daily Mail. In the 1930s, Price had several interviews with Hitler and Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. Whether because of some tacit agreement or otherwise, Price wrote in favor of fascism and downplayed reports of Nazi persecution. In some quarters, he was referred to as “the lackey of Mussolini, Hitler and Rothermere.”

--

--

Phil Garber

Journalist for 40 years and now a creative writer