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.”
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.”