Carlson has high expectations for the team, telling me he hopes every story on his site will someday be adjective-free—“they’re a lazy man’s verb.” But top of the list is to plug the rightward reporting hole that navel-gazing conservatives have long noted and watched grow as news has shifted from page to screen. Where the leading digital outlets to emerge on the Left in the last decade—Talking Points Memo, Think Progress, et al.—have emphasized investigation and complex information-moving infrastructures, the Right has focused on aggregation and opinion.
Jon Henke, a conservative political consultant and blogger, suggests that liberals built this muscle to counteract the supposed vast right-wing conspiracy. “Their estimation of the Right’s infrastructure was, at least in part, paranoia,” he notes, “but paranoia is a great strategist.” Dave Weigel, who covers the conservative beat for Slate, hits that same point: the Left built up to fight a phantom; now, with outlets like the Caller, “the phantom is starting to build itself.”
It will surprise some that Tucker Carlson is the man raising the hammer. Most recognize Carlson as the handsome goof who, with his waspish wave of chestnut hair, must surely have been lost on his way to Cape Cod when he stumbled into the CNN studios in the early 2000s. Or they recall the embarrassments: Jon Stewart calling him a “dick” or the disastrous shuffle-hobble that led to a first-round elimination on Dancing with the Stars in 2006. There is even half a season of an unaired game show Carlson hosted floating around with the unsettling title of Do You Trust Me? In a 2010 New Republic profile, Jason Zengerle wrote that journalists everywhere could console themselves in their darkest hours with this thought alone: “At least I’m not Tucker Carlson.”
What often gets lost in that parade of cheesy grins and cha-cha-chas are memories of features he penned for The Weekly Standard, Esquire, and famously, his brutal 1999 profile of George W. Bush in Talk. It’s a track record of good—great, even—reporting that draws praise from all sides. Breitbart says he “fell in love” with Carlson’s work at the Standard, describing a piece exposing the cluelessness of celebrities supporting death-row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal as “a howler.” Carlson’s Esquire editor Mark Warren describes him as “an exceptionally talented writer especially coming from Washington.”
After beginning his career at the Hoover Institution’s Policy Review, and a stint writing editorials for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Carlson was given room to write features at Bill Kristol’s Weekly Standard. There, from 1995 to 2000, he produced some of the era’s most interesting and offbeat conservative reporting. There was his dive into the Miami community where the Elian Gonzalez drama played out; and in 2000, a 4,600-word patchwork of his time amid the booze-soaked juvenilia of McCain’s first presidential campaign. In it, Carlson manages an arresting summation of one of our most overanalyzed politicians: “McCain can accuse a person of subverting democracy and grin as he says it, all without being phony or disingenuous. He can rant about the evils of the special interests as he cheerfully attempts to eat an éclair with a plastic spoon. I’ve seen him do it. John McCain is a happy warrior, maybe the only one in American politics.”
Carlson comfortably segued into TV. After many appearances—“If O. J. Simpson hadn’t murdered his wife, I probably wouldn’t be working in television,” he wrote in his book—he landed on a new weeknight CNN show, The Spin Room, in 2000. Co-hosted by Bill Press, it has been variously described as “cult” (by Press) and “the worst show in the history of television” (in Esquire; Salon settled for “the worst show in the history of CNN”). The Room stopped spinning after less than a year, and Carlson moved to Crossfire and then to MSNBC, where he hosted the network’s Tucker until 2008.
Through it all, he continued writing, picking up a 2004 National Magazine Award nomination for a trippy Esquire feature chronicling a peace mission to Liberia led by Al Sharpton. But by 2009, when he landed at his natural home, Fox News, impressions of Carlson as an unserious cable guy had calcified in some corners. New York Times TV critic Alessandra Stanley judged that Carlson, who had once seemed like “a brainy young contrarian a Junior Miss version of George Will”—had become by the mid-2000s a “George Will o’ the Wisp; his opinions are loud but ever more vaporous.”