The Great Right Hype

Tucker Carlson and his Daily Caller
July 13, 2011

When Tucker Carlson took the stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February 2009, he opened by inviting the assembled to speak up should they disagree with what he was about to say. “Most speakers hate to be interrupted,” he began, setting up a cymbal-crasher for CPACers still smarting from the Clinton administration, “but I enjoy it, having spent about ten years in cable news getting interrupted and yelled at by a large bald man from Louisiana called James Carville.” The room guffawed. “It actually makes me uncomfortable if people don’t scream at me as I speak.”

About fourteen minutes later, Carlson must have been feeling very comfy indeed. He was arriving at the main point of his speech: that conservative journalists needed to reassess their priorities and seek new facts as aggressively as they produced blistering opinions. “Honestly, if you create a news organization whose primary objective is not to deliver accurate news, you will fail,” said Carlson in what sounded like the passing whoosh of a pointy dart, blogosphere-bound. “The New York Times is a liberal paper, but it is also…a paper that actually cares about accuracy. Conservatives need to build institutions that mirror those institutions.”

The mere mention of the Times raised dissenting boos. “The New York Times is twisted,” cried one woman above the din. But Carlson listened cordially, his pocket square unruffled, and eventually won the crowd back—“Why aren’t there twenty-five Fox Newses?” he asked. “There ought to be.” And then he got out what he had been trying to say: he was the one to answer the challenge he was setting.

A year after low ratings and a steepening leftways tilt threw him from the good ship MSNBC, Carlson was launching a website. It would combine the Times’s devotion to accuracy and shoe-leather truth-seeking with the right’s view of what that truth is. Other conservatives would hopefully follow. “They need to go out there and find what is happening,” Carlson said, “not just interpret things they hear in the mainstream media but gather the news themselves. That’s expensive, it’s difficult, and it is worth doing.”

He left the stage to applause.

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More than two years later, the website Carlson heralded is in full swing. The emphasis is still on that difficult and worthy one—gathering the news. And it is packaged in a way to give those CPAC hands a reason to keep clapping. With its conservative tone and story list, The Daily Caller reads more like a twenty-sixth Fox News than New York’s storied gray lady.

The Caller has carved out a cozy corner of the web in its short life. It’s a place for conservatives to read about the latest liberal scandal and the latest movements in the GOP presidential field. As a day-to-day chronicle of political Washington and as an ideological pot-stirrer, it matches peers like the online arms of the Washington Examiner and National Review, and web native reporters like Talking Points Memo. By simple virtue of trying, it bests pure aggregators like Matt Drudge. Its reporting surpasses what Andrew Breitbart has on offer.

But when The Daily Caller has reached for the big scoop, the results have been less impressive. Headline-grabbing exclusives—mostly intercepted e-mails and tweets and attacks on media rivals—have exploded across the web before fizzling under scrutiny. Sexed-up headlines burned above stories too twisted or bland to support them. Quotes were ripped out of context, corrections buried, and important disclosures dismissed. It’s a picture that sits uncomfortably alongside the vision laid out by Carlson at CPAC, one that has drummed up clicks but little respect.

Ask Carlson himself if he’s living up to the mission of a truth-seeking reporting house, and he gives a firm “yes.” Plenty in Washington would disagree.

Launched on January 11, 2010, The Daily Caller is a mash-up of Carlson’s nobler aspirations and the tabloid-style hit-bait common to websites from Politico to Gawker. There are clickable reams of original reporting, particularly from Capitol Hill. Since March 2010, the site has had a rotating spot in the White House press pool. But then there are the slideshows: “Creepiest Easter Bunnies” and galleries devoted to seemingly every young actress with a credit to her name. It all unspools in a spray of bold red headlines (“Barack Obama, ‘Killing Machine’?”) and striking headshots. While its founder may bridle at a comparison The Guardian once made—“the conservative answer to The Huffington Post”—it’s a superficially helpful one.

The Caller has had much to prove. Slapping down his gauntlet at CPAC, Carlson grazed the faces of conservatives under the impression they already were doing reporting. Blogger Michelle Malkin dismissed Carlson’s address as “uninformed sanctimony.” That Carlson had made his name as that guy in the bow tie sharing his opinions on CNN was particularly grating.

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.

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.”

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.

First, several of Strong’s pieces play what Klein, now at The Washington Post, calls a “shell-game,” with the most flagrant example being the story claiming the media plotted to “kill stories about Rev. Jeremiah Wright.” Ledes target the “media” and mainstream outlets, but go on to cite the more egregious comments of openly ideological writers from publications like The Nation. For the Wright story, Strong drew on comments made by Spencer Ackerman, then of the avowedly liberal Washington Independent, who suggested calling Obama’s critics racists in a listserv debate about the reverend.

Strong says via e-mail that when the Caller wrote reporters “participated in outpourings of anger”—as it did in the Wright story, naming Politico and Time—it was “because someone from that organization had chimed in during an outpouring of anger.” He does not define “chime in” though, and nowhere in the Wright story does he cite a specific Politico or Time reporter doing it. “When a reporter suggests leveling accusations of racism at random [people] to help a political candidate win an election,” Strong adds, “there is some guilt by association, even given the caveats of the listserv medium.” But consider that Weigel says that he sometimes has an inbox with 25,000 unread e-mails. Guilt by association with any of them would be difficult to prove.

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 keith@keitholbermann.com 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.

Is Tucker Carlson joking now? It’s hard to tell. He makes an obvious point when talking about his own writing that applies to writing about him: “Nobody is monochromatic.” That may be a trite platitude—it came in a long soliloquy on how he aged out of writing hit-jobs that this profiler took as a warning—but I remember the line when a man introduces himself to Carlson on the elevator by saying, “I told my mother I worked in the same building as you and she didn’t talk to me for a month.” Because to sit and listen to him for two hours, without the cameras, Carlson is more the guy you take home to mom than offend her with. Smart, funny, generous—he insists I take a square of the Nicorette he ceaselessly chews, even though I’ve never smoked—and a libertarian with far less truck for the GOP than you might expect.

But this is the Carlson who promised a site that would mimic one of the finest truth-telling enterprises in American journalism. And what he’s delivered hasn’t cleared the fog of bow ties and smarm that has allowed his critics to see him as what his good friend Labash describes as “the villain in a John Hughes movie.” Someone for whom the audience hisses on cue the moment he comes into frame.

Carlson isn’t going to let a hostile audience unnerve him. He is convinced that the Caller is a success, and says the failings in his career for which he has been much lampooned have been instrumental in making it one. “Success doesn’t force you into introspection,” he says. “It allows you to skate around the basic questions in life: What am I capable of? And more to the point, What am I incapable of? Only failure makes you answer those questions.”

Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.