Regardless of its journalistic quality, the Caller has been more of a ratings success than any of Carlson’s TV shows. According to figures provided by the site, it drew 550,000 unique visitors in its first month. By this March it had 2 million-plus. Page views have gone from 3.2 million to 11.1 million in the same period. Those figures are modest by Huffington Post standards—35.6 million unique visitors in May, according to comScore—and the Caller has yet to turn a profit. But the fledgling site with a small staff is the 780th most visited website in the US, according to June ratings from Quantcast, putting it ahead of big names like Vanity Fair and National Review.
What’s driving the clicks? That depends who you ask. To the Caller’s fans, Carlson’s site is a hero, sticking it to the Left, yes, but also digging into the Tea Party/establishment schism on the Right. Want to know what establishment GOP candidate Jon Huntsman thinks of Obama? The Caller uncovered the loving letters that may sway your vote. Carlson says the original reports—which make up 70 to 80 percent of homepage stories—“get multiples of the traffic of an aggregated story.”
But there are those who see Carlson’s latest product very differently. Markos Moulitsas, founder of the liberal site Daily-Kos, wrote in an e-mail: “Given that much of the site’s growth has come from gimmicks like hiring Ginni Thomas, I’d say their traffic growth has come from the same kind of ideological stunts that have driven Andrew Breitbart’s growth.” Following the Caller’s accusation that National Review had “prearranged” its positive editorial on the GOP’s Pledge to America—in fact, it had simply been leaked a copy of the pledge and told Republicans it liked it—The New Republic’s Jonathan Chait wrote that “the DC’s ‘reporting’ should be viewed more as a marketing strategy for itself than actual journalism.”
That “marketing strategy” might include this March’s publication of James O’Keefe’s undercover video showing an NPR fundraiser deriding Republicans and bragging that the network could survive without government funds. The blow was undercut when The Blaze—yes, Glenn Beck’s website—watched the raw tapes and proved the video the Caller posted was misleadingly edited. Was Carlson endorsing deceptive reporting? The Caller did not produce the video, only reported on it, he says. And allowing for the fact that the site was the first media outlet to disseminate the video—and was richly rewarded for its efforts with web traffic—this is technically true. Carlson also insists the editing did not change the video’s substance. “Having been around a lot of stories, packages, and documentaries as they’re being made, I can tell you it was a very brave thing of O’Keefe to release the entire video. When was the last time you saw Dateline NBC do that?”
But for marketing buzz—and ethical conundrums—it’s hard to go past the Caller’s Journolist series. The nominally off-the-record Google Groups forum featured over four hundred left-leaning journalists, wonks, and academics, talking everything from caucuses to basketball brackets, and had been the subject of whispers since Ezra Klein, then blogging for The American Prospect, started it in early 2007. It was perhaps inevitable that it would leak and, last June, media gossip site FishbowlDC published e-mails from Weigel, then a Washington Post blogger, to the listserv. Among other things, the Post’s man on the conservative beat had called Ron Paul supporters “Paultard Tea Party people.” Weigel resigned from the Post; Klein disbanded the listserv.
Daily Caller reporter Jonathan Strong got hold of the archive around this time and began sorting through it. In July, The Caller published an enfilade of Journolist pieces claiming left-wing journalists had colluded to get Obama elected. Headlines included: “Documents show media plotting to kill stories about Rev. Jeremiah Wright” and “The Fix was in: Journolist e-mails reveal how the liberal media shaped the 2008 election.” A then-unprecedented 1.35 million unique visitors loaded the Caller that month.
At first glance, the Journolist stories fit precisely the mold Carlson had set at CPAC, a sharp right hook to the mainstream media thrown with reportorial heft. But as the series rolled out, it looked more like the Caller was swinging at air. Those on the exposed list cried foul; the series lacked any semblance of context, critics said, and omitted vital information. Sour grapes? Possibly. But the offended Journolisters had a point.