When Tucker Carlson launched The Daily Caller in 2010, he told CJR that the site would produce serious journalism without fear or partisan favor—and that if it got something wrong, it would correct the mistake. “Our view is that people want reliable information they’re not getting other places,” he said at the time. “If that’s right-wing, the world has turned upside down. Moreover, you can assess the site by its content. If you think our news stories are inaccurate or unfair, say so and we’ll change it.”
On Tuesday, Carlson’s journalistic scruples were put to the test. The Washington Post reported that the Caller’s 2012 “scoop” about Democratic Senator Robert Menendez allegedly cavorting with *Dominican prostitutes—a story that had been largely discredited already (even the New York Post passed on the rumors)—may actually have been part of a plot by the Cuban government to smear Menendez, a longtime critic of the Castro regime. In other words, the Post story suggested, the Caller had been duped.
Carlson’s response? In a phone interview late Tuesday, the Caller’s editor in chief said that until someone could prove that what the Post reported was true, he would stand by his story. “We make plenty of mistakes and we cop to them,” Carlson said. “If it’s shown that we were wrong, I’d say it right away. It’d save me a lot of time. If [Menendez] can show that we are somehow agents of the Cuban government, then damn it, I’ll apologize.” He added that his reporters had attempted to verify the Cuban-plot claim.
Carlson’s response is telling not only because his publication seeks to be taken seriously in Washington, but also because of its adversarial stance toward traditional media. It’s a difficult line to toe for many new ventures—especially those at the far ends of the political spectrum—as they often define themselves not by what they are, but what they are not. Backed by $3 million from GOP donor Foster Friess, Carlson co-founded the Caller in 2010 with a former Dick Cheney aide. But he described his target audience simply as “people who are distrustful of conventional news organizations.”
Pitting oneself against the dreaded “MSM” has been a popular business strategy—on the right and the left—for at a least a decade. But producing and funding serious accountability journalism under such a banner has proven difficult. Tossing red meat to partisans, on the other hand, is a more winning strategy. On Tuesday, Carlson said his site is profitable and that Web traffic continues to spike upward.
The Menendez “scoop” isn’t the first instance in which the Caller has seemingly strayed from its stated journalistic mission. In 2011, the site reported that the Environmental Protection Agency was preparing to hire more than 230,000 new employees, which would amount to a mind-boggling 1,300-percent growth in its workforce. It did not walk back the claim, even when it was shown to be untrue. The next year, proving hyperbole plays online, it called President Barack Obama “a pioneering contributor to the national subprime real estate bubble.” Employees have tweeted racist and sexist remarks, for which the Caller has subsequently apologized.
This doesn’t mean that all the Caller’s journalism is suspect, but it does suggest that the site isn’t what Carlson said it would be. Matthew Boyle, the reporter who broke the Menendez story, did not respond to a request for comment. But in a post at his new home, Breitbart.com, he was quick to point out the Post’s use of unnamed sources in its criticism of his coverage—which, it should be noted, relied on two unnamed Dominican prostitutes.
Carlson agreed that the prostitution story has siphoned attention away from another, far more important issue involving Menendez, who allegedly interfered in a Medicare fraud investigation of a friend and donor. But when it comes to questions about the prostitute allegations, Carlson places the burden of proof on his critics’ shoulders. “We had two women, live people, on live camera, making allegations about something they experienced,” he said. “That’s a pretty compelling rationale for a story.”
By that logic, there are two stories based on anonymous sources, and thus there is no reason to assume that one is true and the other false without more evidence. Never mind that one story is from an outlet with a long history of intellectually honest journalism, and the other is not. Never mind that the Post caveated its report— “There was no indication that the information gathered by U.S. intelligence officials alleging Cuba’s role in the Menendez case had been fully investigated or proved,” it wrote—while the Caller did not.
Carlson said on Tuesday that his reporters are still on the story. Let’s see what they come up with. If anything Carlson said in 2010 about the Caller’s mission is to be believed, then he has a duty to defend its journalism with facts and clarity, or explain why he cannot.
*Correction: The original version said the prostitutes were Cuban.