Your typical daily television newscast usually begins with the most important news story of the day, a segment called the “lead.” It’s a story that deserves careful attention and thorough reporting, like an international emergency or a natural disaster. A rundown of decreasingly salient headlines might follow thereafter, but it’s all news that might be helpful or illuminating to the average viewer.
A newscast typically ends with a much more frivolous story than the lead. That’s the “kicker” — a lighthearted mention of some benign piece of information. For instance, news anchors might go gaga over a local aquarium’s newly-adopted otter, or they might deliver a zesty quip about a new study on psychology. The kicker is meant to rebuild our sense that the world ain’t so bad after all, even after all those international emergencies and natural disasters — a nice, fluffy dessert, following four heavy courses of hard news.
A lot of newscasts rightfully placed the story about President Donald Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen, getting raided by the FBI in their lead spot on Monday. But Fox News host Tucker Carlson, a pro-Trump conservative who tragically lost his bow tie in the great “Crossfire” wars of the early 21st century, evidently felt no pressing urge to cover the latest development in an expanding presidential scandal involving prior dealings with Russian oligarchs, a foreign plot to sway the 2016 election, looming charges of obstruction of justice, and an alleged extramarital affair with a porn star. Instead, he led his Monday evening broadcast with a mockingly dismissive 20-minute assessment of the escalating situation in Syria, before eventually forcing in a mention of the unfolding Trump-Cohen drama, packaged as a snarky finger-wag at CNN for interrupting a live feed of Nikki Haley’s speech to the United Nations.
But it was the Tucker Carlson Tonight kicker that earned the derision of social media and late night comedians alike. “You know the official story about pandas: they’re cute and adorably helpless, which is why they’re almost extinct,” Carlson began. “But like a lot of what we hear, that’s a lie.” Carlson then delivered a brief, truly bizarre report on the violent promiscuity of the wild panda. Referencing the panda’s apparently voracious sexual appetite, he proclaimed the furry beast “a secret stud with a taste for flesh.”
“Pandas, it turns out, could easily kill you if they felt like it,” he warns, ominously adding, “Thank God they don’t.”
The right-wing pundit’s source material for the segment was a Wall Street Journal essay from zoologist Lucy Cooke), who seemed surprised to hear her words come out of Tucker Carlson’s mouth. Unfortunately for Cooke, an article about panda sex is perfect fodder for newscast kickers: it’s interesting and a little cheeky while still being informative. Doubly unfortunate is what happens to a fun kicker after an hour of Carlson’s cynical, sarcastic, and downright mean style of angry anti-news: it feels less like a sweet morsel at the end of a hearty meal and more like a spiteful lunchroom bully taking your pudding and smashing it over your head for his own deranged amusement.
On a day of potentially historic developments, Carlson spent an entire hour riling himself and his viewers up about a number of hyped-up threats and affronts. To end his show ranting about killer fuck-pandas in the same vitriolic tone he just used to rail against war-mongering senators, addictive smartphones, and migrants with knives — while expecting us to detect the playful twinkle in his eye — is bordering on insane. Carlson’s problem isn’t that he’s afraid of pandas; it’s that he doesn’t know his kickers from his leads — and doesn’t know when to just chill out, like this guy.