When Tucker Carlson took the stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February 2009, he opened by inviting the assembled to speak up should they disagree with what he was about to say. “Most speakers hate to be interrupted,” he began, setting up a cymbal-crasher for CPACers still smarting from the Clinton administration, “but I enjoy it, having spent about ten years in cable news getting interrupted and yelled at by a large bald man from Louisiana called James Carville.” The room guffawed. “It actually makes me uncomfortable if people don’t scream at me as I speak.”
About fourteen minutes later, Carlson must have been feeling very comfy indeed. He was arriving at the main point of his speech: that conservative journalists needed to reassess their priorities and seek new facts as aggressively as they produced blistering opinions. “Honestly, if you create a news organization whose primary objective is not to deliver accurate news, you will fail,” said Carlson in what sounded like the passing whoosh of a pointy dart, blogosphere-bound. “The New York Times is a liberal paper, but it is also
a paper that actually cares about accuracy. Conservatives need to build institutions that mirror those institutions.”
The mere mention of the Times raised dissenting boos. “The New York Times is twisted,” cried one woman above the din. But Carlson listened cordially, his pocket square unruffled, and eventually won the crowd back—“Why aren’t there twenty-five Fox Newses?” he asked. “There ought to be.” And then he got out what he had been trying to say: he was the one to answer the challenge he was setting.
A year after low ratings and a steepening leftways tilt threw him from the good ship MSNBC, Carlson was launching a website. It would combine the Times’s devotion to accuracy and shoe-leather truth-seeking with the right’s view of what that truth is. Other conservatives would hopefully follow. “They need to go out there and find what is happening,” Carlson said, “not just interpret things they hear in the mainstream media but gather the news themselves. That’s expensive, it’s difficult, and it is worth doing.”
He left the stage to applause.
More than two years later, the website Carlson heralded is in full swing. The emphasis is still on that difficult and worthy one—gathering the news. And it is packaged in a way to give those CPAC hands a reason to keep clapping. With its conservative tone and story list, The Daily Caller reads more like a twenty-sixth Fox News than New York’s storied gray lady.
The Caller has carved out a cozy corner of the web in its short life. It’s a place for conservatives to read about the latest liberal scandal and the latest movements in the GOP presidential field. As a day-to-day chronicle of political Washington and as an ideological pot-stirrer, it matches peers like the online arms of the Washington Examiner and National Review, and web native reporters like Talking Points Memo. By simple virtue of trying, it bests pure aggregators like Matt Drudge. Its reporting surpasses what Andrew Breitbart has on offer.
But when The Daily Caller has reached for the big scoop, the results have been less impressive. Headline-grabbing exclusives—mostly intercepted e-mails and tweets and attacks on media rivals—have exploded across the web before fizzling under scrutiny. Sexed-up headlines burned above stories too twisted or bland to support them. Quotes were ripped out of context, corrections buried, and important disclosures dismissed. It’s a picture that sits uncomfortably alongside the vision laid out by Carlson at CPAC, one that has drummed up clicks but little respect.
Ask Carlson himself if he’s living up to the mission of a truth-seeking reporting house, and he gives a firm “yes.” Plenty in Washington would disagree.
Launched on January 11, 2010, The Daily Caller is a mash-up of Carlson’s nobler aspirations and the tabloid-style hit-bait common to websites from Politico to Gawker. There are clickable reams of original reporting, particularly from Capitol Hill. Since March 2010, the site has had a rotating spot in the White House press pool. But then there are the slideshows: “Creepiest Easter Bunnies” and galleries devoted to seemingly every young actress with a credit to her name. It all unspools in a spray of bold red headlines (“Barack Obama, ‘Killing Machine’?”) and striking headshots. While its founder may bridle at a comparison The Guardian once made—“the conservative answer to The Huffington Post”—it’s a superficially helpful one.
The Caller has had much to prove. Slapping down his gauntlet at CPAC, Carlson grazed the faces of conservatives under the impression they already were doing reporting. Blogger Michelle Malkin dismissed Carlson’s address as “uninformed sanctimony.” That Carlson had made his name as that guy in the bow tie sharing his opinions on CNN was particularly grating.