Early on, in March 2010, the Caller delivered a scoop that had promise and impact: sources said Michael Steele, then chair of the Republican National Committee, considered using party funds to buy a private plane. More sensationally, filings showed Steele authorized a $1,946.25 payment for an evening at a bondage-themed nightclub.
Yet the Caller’s first story on the filings incorrectly implied Steele himself had been behind the velvet rope, in the presence of topless performers simulating lesbian sex. That off note hinted at what was to come: a series of splashy stories that, when examined, produced more skepticism than pick-up, and caused new hecklers to raise their voices. A Caller report accusing National Review of prearranging a glowing editorial for the GOP ignited more headlines about the ensuing intramural scuffle than the supposed scoop itself. A planned exposé suggesting plagiarism in Jane Mayer’s detail-rich New Yorker investigation on the Koch brothers was killed for lack of evidence—a New York Post media column crowed “Smear Disappears.” Carlson drew clicks with an extended series on “Journolist”—the e-mail listserv of mostly liberal journalists and academics that the Caller claimed were scheming to protect candidate Obama—but the controversial reports left many prominent Washington press types, Left and Right, cold.
As face and founder, Carlson bore the brunt of his website’s criticisms. Was he out to create a legitimate news site, as he had said? Or was he just another right-wing attack dog? Was this really serious reporting? The verdict was especially harsh from some in the Washington press corps. A number I spoke to said the project appeared to be dissolving under the pressure to perform. “Nobody ever says, ‘Oh my God, did you see that thing in the Caller?’ ” one well-placed Washington journalist told me. “Nobody feels like they need to read it.”
That talk might unnerve some budding Washington web impresarios, but not the man comforted by dissent. Sitting before me, his pocket square still wrinkle-free and his TV-thickened skin unscarred, he seems quite comfy indeed. “I care very deeply about what a small group of people think and I try not to pay a huge amount of attention to the rest,” he says. “It works for me.”
We meet in early April at the Palm—“In Washington, everybody eats at the Palm,” Carlson once wrote in The New York Times. The forty-two-year-old is a bright spot in the restaurant’s beige and gray crowd. Plumper now than when he was TV’s conservative fresh face, he’s wearing what’s become his uniform since he ditched the once ubiquitous bow tie almost a decade ago: blue shirt, navy blazer, loose khakis, brown loafers, pocket square, and today, a salmon-colored bird-dog tie. He’s ravenous, he says, and his hunger gives this interviewer hope. In his 2003 book, Politicians, Partisans, and Parasites, Carlson wrote, “If there’s an iron law of journalism, it’s that cautious people don’t do interviews with their mouths full. Reckless people do.”
It was at the Palm, just before the 2008 election, that the idea for The Daily Caller was born. Carlson had been “canned,” as he puts it, by MSNBC and was dining with his good friend Neil Patel. Patel, Carlson’s roommate from Trinity College, would also be looking for work soon: he was Vice President Cheney’s primary advisor on domestic and economic policy. At dinner, Patel told Carlson he’d been thinking about starting a website. “Nobody had figured out the news business model yet,” Patel says. “The Huffington Post had clearly discovered it for the liberal audience,” and that left a gap on the Right.
They drew up a business plan and nabbed a $3 million investment from big-time Wyoming GOP donor Foster Friess. Carlson quickly put the money where his mouth had been at CPAC. They leased offices near Dupont Circle, hired an ad team, and began collecting reporters. They wooed Guardian Washington editor Megan Mulligan and installed her as executive editor. Next came a stream of pressmen from around the capital and big-name columnists like Carlson’s friend, Matt Labash, the witty star writer of The Weekly Standard. He continued adding after launch: Mickey Kaus, Matt Lewis, and even conservative activist (and Supreme Court spouse) Ginni Thomas. As of June, the Caller had thirty-two editorial staffers, including Carlson, the editor, and seven on the business side, including Patel, the publisher.