Tucker Carlson, Vladimir Putin and a Hearing at the Kremlin

For decades, I’ve carried a small, yellowing scrap of paper in my wallet. It’s a one-inch clipping of newspaper filler – a time-honored Quote of the Day.

The quote, from Seneca the Younger – a Roman philosopher, who lived during the time of Christ – simply reads:

He, who decides a case without hearing the other side, though he decides justly, cannot be considered just.”

You may want to read those words again carefully, as I’ve done countless times since I discovered that quote when I was about 16. The inescapable truth of Seneca’s argument always struck a nerve with me. And it sure seems relevant, considering the backlash surrounding Tucker Carlson’s recent interview with Vladimir Putin.

Tucker Carlson and Vladimir Putin screenshot from YouTube.
Tucker Carlson and Vladimir Putin (screenshot from YouTube.)

As most probably know, Tucker Carlson traveled to Russia this week after secretly securing a one-on-one interview with Putin. His mission accomplished, he was loudly criticized – both before and after that fact – by individuals and outlets all across the fruited plain.

Would I have gone to Russia to speak with Putin? You bet I would! You could also bet that many of Carlson’s critics would have likewise jumped at the chance.

I should probably note, that I tried to get an overseas assignment when the war first broke out. But when I asked my boss about going to Ukraine, his immediate response was, “Why – do you want to get yourself killed???”

My boss wasn’t kidding, and it’s no laughing matter, when a journalist risks his or her life to follow a story.

One watchdog group (The International Federation of Journalists) says 94 journalists and media workers died while covering various conflicts in 2023. Credit Carlson for first, having the nerve to go to Russia, AND for trying to bring a detained journalist (Evan Gershkovich) back with him.

Was the interview groundbreaking? Not really, but it was incredibly important and enlightening, in both a positive and negative way. How could it not be, if you ask straightforward questions, then politely sit back and allow your subject an unfettered opportunity to have his say?

Tucker Carlson interview Vladimir Putin (YouTube screenshot)
Vladimir Putin (screenshot from YouTube)

I found it interesting, for example, that Putin carefully laid out his case for war by citing centuries worth of political and population deviations in the areas in and around Ukraine. He even offered Carlson a folio full of documents to verify a number of the claims he was making.

It was also interesting to hear Putin assert that Russia has always respected people of different backgrounds and religions who settled in their empire – this despite the fact that the word “Pogrom” has its origins in both the Russian and Yiddish languages.

There is more which may be gleaned by simply watching the entire Putin interview, as Carlson’s queries ranged from geopolitical realities to deeply personal reflections.

Please allow a quick, first-hand story which may help illustrate why I believe this Putin interview was so important.

Some years ago, while covering a WWII event in Reading, Pennsylvania, I spied a lone Soviet flag fluttering at the edge of a rather large Allied reenactor encampment. Venturing to that spot, I discovered a few dozen Russian-Americans dressed as soldiers from “The Great Patriotic War.”

Entering their camp, I was directed to an open sun shelter, where I was introduced to Nikolai Stepanovich Zaitsev – an aged man handsomely arrayed in a Soviet officer’s uniform. Zaitsev smiled at first, but when he learned I was a reporter, he cut me off with a wave of his hand.

Through an interpreter, Zaitsev bitterly exclaimed, “I do not trust journalists!” To which I replied, “Please tell the colonel I do not trust journalists either.”

My “shocking” retort caught the old soldier off guard, and then caused him to laugh. He looked at me squarely, then replied, “Tell this young man I will speak with him, but only on the condition that he promises to write word-for-word everything I say.”

And so I did – word-for-word. I ended up titling the piece “Soviet Veteran of WWII asks Why His Country’s History is Ignored.”

Soviet veteran Nikolai Zaitsev (right) shares his thoughts about war with reenactors at the 2016 MAAM WWII Weekend. (courtesy Svetlana Batrak)

When we ran the piece, my boss called and said, “Wow, what an interesting story! In 30 years in the newspaper business, I’ve never seen anything like this!” Neither had the Russians, who reprinted what I wrote word-for-word.

The story read in part:

With no Edward R. Murrow to broadcast from Moscow – the way reports filled the airwaves during the Battle of Britain – much of the fighting in eastern Europe became a mere footnote in America’s collective mind. When the war ended, American casualties numbered around 400,000. Soviet deaths are estimated to be in excess of twenty million people.

Do Americans know this? No! The reason most Americans don’t know is because it’s the journalists’ fault,” Zaitsev maintained.

What a stinging indictment of the Fourth Estate.

Even Tucker seemed surprised that – 80 years after Hitler’s death – the Russians remain wary of a Nazi presence on their border. He shouldn’t have been. “In excess of twenty million” deaths is deeply embedded in the Russian psyche, and serves as the historical asterisk to Putin’s “we were provoked by neo-Nazis” refrain.

Perhaps the real take-away from Carlson’s interview is: We finally have the other side of the story. Or at least enough of it, from Putin’s perspective, to inform our actions moving forward. Following Seneca’s argument, the entire world may now be in a position to justly view the intricacies of this heart-breaking conflict.

Will anyone’s mind be changed? We’ll have to wait and see. But if a lasting peace does come from anything Putin proffered, then Carlson’s hearing at the Kremlin was worth all of the tsuris.

That may not quench Tucker Carlson’s critics or garner him Pulitzer Prize-winning praise. But from a journalistic standpoint, you really can’t ask for anything more.

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