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Tucker Carlson's Capitol insurrection series promotes disproved conspiracy theories

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Tucker Carlson of Fox News is unveiling a three-part series he's calling "Patriot Purge." The third installment will be released tomorrow. The series promotes unproven and even disproved conspiracy theories about the January 6 siege of the U.S. Capitol by supporters of former President Donald Trump. NPR's David Folkenflik reports that the season comes at a perilous moment for the network.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Tucker Carlson strongly suggests without any real evidence that the January 6 takeover of the halls of Congress was not orchestrated by Trump supporters but by his opponents in Antifa or even the FBI.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PATRIOT PURGE")

TUCKER CARLSON: They've begun to fight a new enemy in a new war on terror - not, you should understand, a metaphorical war but an actual war, soldiers and paramilitary law enforcement guided by the world's most powerful intelligence agencies hunting down American citizens.

FOLKENFLIK: The series is running on Fox News' right-wing, subscriber-only streaming service Fox Nation. But it's being promoted on Fox News, including on Carlson's top-rated prime-time show. Carlson tells me the series proves news organizations were lying about the riot and its participants. He disputes headlines from NPR and others to discredit all mainstream reporting. And in the documentary, he relies on a rogues' gallery of conspiracy theorists. In "Patriot Purge," Carlson warns viewers just who is being targeted.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PATRIOT PURGE")

CARLSON: It is a purge aimed at legacy Americans.

FOLKENFLIK: Legacy Americans - part of language the Anti-Defamation League calls a dog whistle for white supremacy.

JARED HOLT: These kind of conspiracy theories about January 6 used to be relegated to weird blogs and, you know, known conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones out in the ether.

FOLKENFLIK: Jared Holt monitors extremism on social media for the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab. He believes Carlson is poisoning the well to discredit journalistic and law enforcement findings and to warp Republican politics.

HOLT: In a way, you don't need conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones to even exist if Tucker Carlson's going to do the job of the conspiracy theorist for them.

FOLKENFLIK: Fox, always conservative in inclination, is facing a dilemma. Fox has the largest audience in cable news, but its core remains loyal to Trump. Many viewers swore they wouldn't forgive Fox for being the first to call Arizona for Joe Biden. At the same time, Fox is facing multibillion-dollar defamation lawsuits from election tech companies for promoting Trump's lies that the 2020 election was rigged. And here's Fox once more, giving major time to unfounded conspiracy theories about a national crisis.

DANNAGAL YOUNG: Fox is in a very precarious spot. And I know that that doesn't seem right. It's like, no, they're super-powerful here. How is it precarious? They have created a monster.

FOLKENFLIK: University of Delaware Professor Dannagal Young studies political communications and extremism. Fox's CEO Suzanne Scott did not respond to my questions about Carlson's series. Young says Fox, once in the iron grip of the late chairman Roger Ailes, now lacks clear editorial leadership.

YOUNG: Now I feel like things are completely off the rails. So they tell Tucker that he's not allowed to engage in certain behaviors. He's going to get on his show and complain about his network and how that's censorship.

FOLKENFLIK: Young says Carlson would turn his audience against Fox.

YOUNG: He is basically going to mobilize his audience to do who knows what to Fox News.

FOLKENFLIK: For now, Young says, Carlson has made himself the defining figure of the network. Whatever rabbit hole Carlson chooses to explore, Fox and his viewers will follow.

David Folkenflik, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ROOTS OF ORCHIS' "ANOTHER BODY OF WATER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.