Tucker's excellent adventure

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 11, 2010; 9:52 AM

"We need a roundup of the weirdness," Tucker Carlson shouted, walking past a row of young staffers hunched over laptops on the sort of cheap-looking teak tables that scream startup venture.

The Fox News commentator launches his new Web site, the Daily Caller, on Monday. His partner is Neil Patel, a former Dick Cheney aide. His opinion editor is Moira Bagley, who spent 2008 as the Republican National Committee's press secretary. And his $3 million in funding comes from Wyoming financier Foster Friess, a big-time GOP donor.

But Carlson insists this won't be a right-wing site: "I don't feel guilty about or ashamed in any way of saying we'll cover the people in power," he says, dismissing the capital's Republicans as "totally powerless."

"Our goal is not to get Republicans elected. Our goal is to explain what your government is doing. We're not going to suck up to people in power, the way so many have. There's been an enormous amount of throne-sniffing," he says, a sly grin beneath the mop of brown hair. "It's disgusting."

When he announced the Daily Caller last spring, Carlson was more explicit about its ideology, telling Human Events the site would be "opposed to what's going on" under President Obama -- "a radical increase in federal power. . . . a version of socialism."

Whatever its eventual coloration, Carlson faces a daunting challenge. Does the post-HuffPost world really need yet another political Web site?

Carlson, who started out as a Weekly Standard writer before becoming a cable pundit, says the site will be distinguished by original reporting, including his own. "One reason there isn't more reporting online is that it's really expensive," he says.

Beyond the 21-person staff at the office, a stone's throw from the White House, Carlson plans to attract top freelancers by offering them a share of ad revenue based on the traffic they draw. (The Chamber of Commerce and National Mining Association have already signed on as sponsors.) With mounting newspaper layoffs, "there are a lot of unemployed or semi-idled journalists out there who have experience that is amazing."

The Caller has tapped a number of down-the-middle journalists, including executive editor Megan Mulligan, who was the Guardian's Washington editor. Conservative politics "is not my thing," she says. "They knew what my background is." Mulligan says she signed up because of Carlson's open-mindedness: "He doesn't mind if people disagree with him. He's kind of his own man."

Carlson and Patel, who were roommates at Hartford's Trinity College, hatched their scheme over dinner at the Palm after the 2008 election. They spent months pitching venture capital firms.

Patel, who was nominated by the Bush White House to run the National Telecommunications and Information Administration -- he was never confirmed -- has a home in Jackson Hole, where Friess is based, and a friend arranged a meeting in September. Friess, an investment magnate and a Christian philanthropist, has donated $689,000 to Republican organizations and the Bush presidential campaigns over the past decade.

When they met for lunch, Carlson and Patel had funding offers from two sets of venture capitalists, in Washington and Boston, who wanted to serve on various management committees. Before they finished their salad, they exchanged looks of amazement as Friess offered to match the $3 million, but without the bureaucracy. Two days later, they had a deal.

Why would Friess insist that he didn't even want to serve on the company's board? "He's eccentric," Patel says.

Friess, who has gone hunting with Cheney, is a man of many opinions. He has sent out fundraising letters to fight the Democrats' health-care legislation, calls much of the information on global warming "distorted and manipulated," and says "the American public is oblivious to the fact that we are at war and that just playing defense is a disastrous course to take."

As for his new partners, Friess says by e-mail: "Tucker and Neil present a huge opportunity to re-introduce civility to our political discourse. They are mature, sensible men who are very thoughtful and experienced with pleasant senses of humor and do not take themselves too seriously. They want to make a contribution to the dialogue that occurs in our country that has become too antagonistic, nasty and hostile. . . .

"You don't have to be around them very long to sense that they are hard working, committed American Patriots who love this country."

Although the site has lined up such sponsors as the Chamber of Commerce and the National Mining Association, the business model does not extend to paying for opinion pieces. Bagley says she is soliciting contributors "from Tucker's Rolodex" and her own. But Carlson disputes the notion that the commentary will lean right.

"We're not enforcing any kind of ideological orthodoxy on anyone," Carlson says.

"It's boring," Patel agrees.

The focus will be on the White House and Congress; early stories will examine Medicare fraud and wasteful stimulus projects, along with a Carlson piece on the latest White House party-crasher, Carlos Allen. But the Caller also plans to feature culture, sports and a humorous advice column by Standard writer Matt Labash. Carlson says such potential Web rivals as Politico's top editors, Tina Brown and Arianna Huffington have been generous in offering advice. Huffington has written a piece for the Caller about the Web helping to break the mainstream media's tendency to view issues through a left/right lens.

The buzz factor is crucial in trying to break through the static. The site has hired a media strategist, Becca Glover Watkins, who persuaded Carlson to join Twitter and leaked to Fishbowl DC that Tuesday's launch party will be held at the home of her sister, Republican lobbyist Juleanna Glover.

At 40, Carlson retains his boyish enthusiasm and preppy look (though he tossed the bow ties years ago). The other day he padded around the downtown office in a navy blazer, green striped tie, tan slacks and battered moccasins. But he seems more measured than when he was trading insults with Jon Stewart on "Crossfire." Carlson, who once bragged of being soused during a radio interview, gave up alcohol seven years ago.

Although he will still pontificate on Fox, Carlson says the Web site is no sideline. "I wake up at 5:30 obsessing over it," he says. "Whatever my many faults, this is something I'm totally committed to."

In the trenches

With the explosion of media outlets, where is the reporting -- the actual unearthing of new facts -- coming from these days?

If a study of how news is made in Baltimore is any indication, the answer is: 95 percent from the old media, mostly newspapers.

The Project for Excellence in Journalism examined 53 outlets that regularly cover Baltimore over the course of one week last July. In looking at six major news stories, the group found that 83 percent of them -- in print, television, radio, blogs and Web sites -- were essentially repetitive. "Much of the 'news' people receive contains no original reporting," the study says. "Fully eight out of 10 stories studied simply repeated or repackaged previously published information."

Among the remaining stories that advanced the ball, 61 percent came from newspapers -- from the Baltimore Sun to specialty publications -- followed by 28 percent from local TV stations and 7 percent from radio. Twitter and local Web sites "played only a limited role: mainly an alert system and a way to disseminate stories from other places." One exception: a story noticed by a local blog involving a state plan to put listening devices on buses to deter crime, which was quickly dropped after the report on Maryland Politics Watch.

Still, newspapers aren't what they used to be. In covering budget cuts ordered by Gov. Martin O'Malley, the Sun carried seven articles -- compared with 49 during a similar round of cutbacks in 1991. The Washington Post ran four pieces, compared with 12 during the earlier cutbacks. One sign of the times: A Sun correspondent first reported the shooting of two police officers on his Twitter feed.

More Tucker

From the debut edition, here's part of his piece on the alleged third White House partycrasher:

"It isn't easy to get straight answers to questions about Carlos Allen. Consider, for example, the matter of what he does for a living. After talking to eight separate people who know him, and speaking to Allen himself three times briefly on the phone, I still can only guess.

"Records indicate that at one point Allen ran (or said he ran) something called AFS Mortgage, which is listed in a federal directory as eligible for set-asides as 'Black American Owned.' He told one associate that the business went under in the recent mortgage crisis, causing him to lose $9 million.

"Another press release posted on the Web describes Allen as a successful clothing designer. 'Whenever Carlos Allen's marvelous creations are on display, a mist of wonder hangs in the air,' it announces. 'Some of the most beautiful people in the world have shined in Carlos Allen's Hush Clothing Designs.' The release describes Allen as 'dividing his time between D.C., Atlanta and New York courting the muse in the fabric of beauty of France, Italy and California to the every day delight of people everywhere.' "

Campaign confidential

Some tidbits from the much-buzzed-about Mark Halperin/John Heilemann campaign book, "Game Change":

"The relationship between Barack Obama and Joe Biden grew so strained during the 2008 campaign, according to a new book, that the two rarely spoke and aides not only kept Biden off internal conference calls but refused to even tell him they existed.

"Instead, a separate campaign call was regularly scheduled between the then-Delaware senator and two of Obama's top campaign aides -- 'so that they could keep a tight rein on him,' write journalists Mark Halperin and John Heilemann in 'Game Change,' a long-awaited account of the 2008 campaign. . . .

"In lobbying the late Sen. Edward Kennedy to endorse his wife, former President Clinton angered the liberal icon by belittling Obama. Telling a friend about the conversation, Kennedy recalled Clinton had said 'a few years ago, this guy would have been getting us coffee,' the authors paraphrase."

Winning ugly?

Peggy Noonan says the Obama team is in danger of winning a "catastrophic victory" on health care:

"I am wondering if the Obama administration thinks it vaguely dishonorable to be popular. If you mention to Obama staffers that they really have to be concerned about the polls, they look at you with a certain . . . not disdain but patience, as if you don't understand the purpose of politics. That purpose, they believe, is to move the governed toward greater justice. Just so, but in democracy you do this by garnering and galvanizing public support. But they think it's weaselly to be well thought of. . .

"If Mr. Obama is extremely lucky -- and we're not sure he's a lucky man anymore -- he will get a Republican Congress in 2010, and they will do for him what Newt Gingrich did for Bill Clinton: right his ship, give him a foil, guide him while allowing him to look as if he's resisting, bend him while allowing him to look strong. . . .

"Which gets us to the Republicans. The question isn't whether they'll win seats in the House and Senate this year, and the question isn't even how many. The question is whether the party will be worthy of victory, whether it learned from its losses in 2006 and '08, whether it deserves leadership. Whether Republicans are a worthy alternative. Whether, in short, they are serious."

Minority parties, of course, have the luxury of not having to pass anything.

Is the GOP more worried about so-called socialism than terrorism? The Daily Beast's John Avlon thinks so:

"In the aftermath of the thwarted Christmas bombing, Republicans have been getting their spikes on for a game that I'd hoped would be retired after the Bush administration: terrorism righteousness as a partisan football.

"But conservative congressional candidate Allen Quist from Minnesota somehow screwed up the playbook. At a recent campaign stop, he proclaimed that 'every generation has to fight for freedom'--but that "terrorism" wasn't 'the big battle.' No, 'the big battle is in D.C., with the radicals. They aren't liberals, they're radicals. Obama, Pelosi. . . . they're not liberals, they're radicals. They are destroying our country.' . . .

"These folks aren't making mistakes; they are saying what they really believe. Terrorism is a serious but distant threat to them -- but the far more clear and present danger is the subversion of our culture through liberal legislation or lifestyles."

Not all Republicans, needless to say, are taking that tack.

Battling his demons

Howard Stern fans will undoubtedly be upset to hear that his sidekick Artie Lange, who has wrestled on the air with his drug addiction and other problems, has been hospitalized after a suicide attempt. Howard is outraged by the leak:

"I would love to know who the scumbag is who releases that to the press, because this is a private matter. I don't know what to say. I work with Artie, I love Artie. Everyone has their demons, including myself, but he's wrestling with some serious stuff. . . . When I heard the news it was too much to bear."

Lack of disclosure

At Firedoglake, Marcy Wheeler reveals more of the résumé of an academic who's been quoted by the NYT, WP and lots of other news outlets:

"MIT health economist Jonathan Gruber has been the go-to source that all the health care bill apologists point to to defend otherwise dubious arguments. But he has consistently failed to disclose that he has had a sole-source contract with the Department of Health and Human Services since June 19, 2009 to consult on the 'President's health reform proposal.'

"He is one source for the claim that the excise tax will result in raises for workers (though his underlying study is in-apt to the excise tax question). He is the basis for the argument that the Senate bill reduces families' risk--even if it remains totally unaffordable. Even Politico stenographer Mike Allen points to Gruber's research.

"But none of the references to Gruber I've seen have revealed that Gruber has a $297,600 contract with HHS."

Apparently he failed to tell the reporters about that little detail.

Footnote: Speaking of disclosure, ombudsman Andrew Alexander spanks The Washington Post for its handling of a story by the Pete Peterson-funded Fiscal Times:

"The story quoted the head of the Concord Coalition, 'a nonpartisan group that advocates entitlement reform and balanced budgets.' It failed to divulge that the group receives funding from the Peter G. Peterson Foundation. . . .

"The story also cited data from a study by the Peterson-Pew Commission on Budget Reform, again failing to note that it was the same Peterson who is behind the Fiscal Times. . . . Finally, the story also was not sufficiently balanced with the views of those opposed to a fast-track commission."

Not an impressive performance.

Howard Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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