Other journalists were quoted completely out of context. In a Caller story about a Journolist discussion on whether Fox News should be censored, Time White House correspondent Michael Scherer was quoted writing “I agree” following a paragraph outlining a suggestion the US needed tougher libel laws. Scherer told Politico that he had actually been agreeing with an e-mail not cited in Strong’s story and was arguing against further media restrictions. (Only later in the original story, far from the “I agree” quote, were Scherer’s true concerns acknowledged.) The Caller updated the story, with no acknowledgment that text had been changed, adding this: “Time’s Scherer, who had seemed to express support for increased regulation at Fox, suddenly appeared to have qualms. ” “Seemed” appears to suggest they couldn’t let the falsehood go.
The series also left something many readers would have found relevant unsaid: Carlson himself had asked Klein to join the list—members rejected the idea—and Caller reporter Gautham Nagesh, who had left the site in April, just before the series, had been on Journolist.
Carlson has answers for his critics. Why didn’t he publish the entire archive, as some reporters on the Left and Right had demanded? “A fair criticism,” he admits, before insisting the petty bitchiness of some comments would have been too embarrassing and too banal. “Trust me, we could have written a lot more Journolist stories.” Why not publish an opener that explained the fragmented nature of a listserv more fully? “You don’t lead the paper with all the people who didn’t commit crimes that day.” Why not mention Nagesh? “Our employee on Journolist was long gone before I discovered what Journolist was. That’s true.”
Truth-y. Michael Calderone’s widely read Politico story unmasking details of Journolist ran about a year before Nagesh’s departure. And Strong claims that Nagesh’s participation was widely known in the newsroom, and that “the whole reason” the Caller pursued the story was because Nagesh “spent hours talking about how scandalized he was by Journolist and what people said on it.” Tucker insists he was not a part of these conversations; Nagesh, now with The Hill, declines to comment.
The series may have lost Carlson the trust of Beltway types. “I’ve never dealt with someone who was quite so opportunistically mendacious as Carlson was here,” says Klein. But it may have strengthened Carlson’s connection with another audience: the Tea Party types who applaud the site’s anti-establishment tone. “The establishment never gave us any help,” vamps Carlson, who, alongside Cheney’s former senior aide, built the Caller with support from that big-time GOP donor. “I’ve never been all that pro-establishment in any context really.”
The Journolist coverage was a story tailor-made for that distrustful grassroots corner of the conservative movement, elements of which hooted Carlson’s CPAC speech: yes, the media are twisted, the stories said, and here’s your twisted proof.
When Keith Olbermann was briefly suspended from MSNBC last year for donating to Democratic campaigns, Stu Bykofsky, a columnist for Philadelphia Daily News, sent an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org seeking comment. Bykofsky was unaware that months before, Carlson had bought Olbermann’s domain name, and with it the e-mail address, on a lark. Carlson, playing the part of Olbermann, got into a testy back-and-forth—“Dear Stu, since you’re obviously a moron ”—that was published on Philadelphia gossip site Phawker.
“I just couldn’t help it,” says Carlson. “I think it’s important to do things every once in a while purely because they amuse you.”
The lure of the prank has been strong throughout Carlson’s career. Some of his best pieces carry a joker’s sensibility: in an elegy for Hunter S. Thompson he describes collecting his Fear and Loathing stash and smoking, snorting, and swallowing his way through it before heading to college. The Spin Room was one big joke on more earnest cable news fare. Off screen, his early form letter response to nasty mail at CNN was a brief “fuck you”; when Politico’s Ben Smith wrote that the Caller was “struggling,” Carlson sent a similar note. “I’m all for pith,” he tells me. Journolisters will chuckle—or recoil—to hear he almost named his site Punji Stick, after the sharpened bamboo spears the Viet Cong deployed in mantraps.