Fox News host Tucker Carlson was upset about some Twitter traffic. Various New York Times journalists, he felt, had crossed the line from reporting into advocacy with an assortment of recent tweets, and in a Dec. 2 segment of “Tucker Carlson Tonight” he unloaded on Liz Spayd, the public editor of the New York Times.
“Now, these are not opinion columnists,” said Carlson. “These are Michael Barbaro, for example — a straightforward news reporter. Here’s one, this is Nov. 15. ‘Pardon me for asking, but what qualifies Jared Kushner to have a sit at the presidential table?’ Huh. Here’s Eric Lipton, another reporter. ‘White House as QVC. It has started.’ Here’s Peter Baker. ‘For a new president from reality television, a cabinet selection that resembles a pageant.’ Liam Stack and I’m quoting now, ‘The electoral college was meant to stop men like Trump from taking office.’ ”
As the conversation wore on, Carlson’s self-awareness wore off. “Where are the editors here?” he asked Spayd. “I mean, if my — you know, if I was the New York Times and my editors were tweeting crap like that, I would say you stop that right now or I’m firing you. Why don’t they do that?”
A similar question might be posed to Carlson, who served as the top editor at the Daily Caller before landing in prime time with Fox News, where “Tucker Carlson Tonight” launched on Nov. 14. At Carlson’s Daily Caller, consequences for bad journalism and general misconduct were rare. Disgraceful examples are almost as easy to cherry-pick as nasty thoughts on social media. So why not start with a tweet? Back in 2013, the Daily Caller Twitter account carried this message:
As The Post’s Jonathan Capehart pointed out, “HNIC” is an acronym that stands for “Head N––––r in charge.” “Not funny, just ignorant,” noted former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele. Confronted about the tweet, Carlson mixed attack and retreat: “I realize it’s habit on the Left to hunt for racists under every bed, but you won’t find one here. The employee who wrote it was making a reference to his favorite hip hop song,” wrote Carlson to Capehart. “Not everyone understood the allusion (including me), and — even worse — there was a typo in the tweet. So we deleted it.”
Two years later, a bizarre turn of events broadcast the misogyny in the ranks of the Daily Caller. As recounted here, in March 2015 Daily Caller staffers got into a spat with Amy Spitalnick, then a spokeswoman for New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, over a story that had run on the site. Angry at the tone with which Spitalnick had requested a correction, Carlson sent her an email scolding her for her manners. “Outside of New York City, adults generally write polite, cheerful emails to one another, even when asking for corrections. Something to keep in mind the next time you communicate with people who don’t live on your island,” wrote Carlson.
For whatever reason, Buckley Carlson, brother of the site’s top editor, got looped in on correspondence. He wrote a brushback email that runs afoul of Post decency standards in virtually every clause:
Great response. Whiny little self-righteous b[—-]. “Appalling?”
And with such an ironic name, too… Spitalnick? Ironic because you just know she has extreme d[—]-fright; no chance has this girl ever had a pearl necklace. [Synonym for sperm]neck? I don’t think so. More like [unspeakable].
That message made it to Spitalnick, and BuzzFeed reported Tucker Carlson’s take on the whole thing. “I just talked to my brother about his response, and he assures me he meant it in the nicest way.”
A year and a half later, Spitalnick, now the press secretary for the New York attorney general, tells this blog that she hasn’t received an apology.
Again, no consequences.
Neither of the foregoing circumstances compares with perhaps the most famous Daily Caller atrocity of Carlson’s tenure. That would be the 2011 story alleging that the Environmental Protection Agency was seeking to hire 230,000 “new bureaucrats” to implement greenhouse gas regulations. Actually, the EPA was seeking to avoid hiring “new bureaucrats” by phasing in “statutory thresholds” as a way of staving off a nearly fourteen-fold boost in the agency’s workforce. Despite widespread debunking, the Daily Caller has never corrected the story, which stands as a reminder that fake news predates the current craze.
Yet again, no consequences.
A foundational scoop for the Daily Caller shook up Beltway journalism. In the summer of 2010, just months after its launch, the site went after Journolist, a digital discussion group among some 400 Washington journalists headed by Ezra Klein, then of The Post. Though other outlets had written about Journolist — which had been launched in 2007 while Klein was at a previous employer — the Daily Caller got deep access to archives that launched a series of stories exposing the opinions of the Journolist members. The lesson to draw? “Conservative critics of Washington’s journalistic establishment have long charged the media with a striking liberal bias. But those critics have also said the problem was mostly unintentional, the result of a press corps made up mostly of Democratic-leaning scribes,” notes Jonathan Strong in a July 25, 2010, piece. “Yet Journolist’s discussions show an influential left-wing faction of the media participating in a far more intentional sort of liberal bias.”
Journolist had rules: No government employees, no media reporters and no conservatives. On May 25, 2010, Carlson asked Klein via email whether he could join; Klein checked with other listserv members and responded in the negative. So people wondered: Who had leaked Journolist conversations to the Daily Caller?
No one, as it turns out. According to two knowledgeable sources, the Daily Caller impersonated an Arkansas writer to get onto Journolist. The site disguised itself as one Max Brantley, the influential Arkansas political reporter. A few years back, when the Erik Wemple Blog first got a tip about this story, we asked Klein whether he’d ever received a Journolist request from anyone doing business as “Max Brantley.” Klein passed along this email:
At the time, Klein no longer had all his records from Journolist, so he cannot say with certainty that he connected “Max Brantley” to the group. “I assume I added him,” he noted.
Contacted on the matter, Brantley replied, “I didn’t write that e-mail. I never had a Yahoo account with that e-mail address. I set up a Yahoo account once years ago, based on a variation of my name, for its news tickler, but never used it for e-mail.” Regarding Carlson, Brantley said that he’d crossed paths with him years ago when Carlson was working for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Media ethicists frown on journalists who fail to disclose their name and affiliation when seeking information.
In a brief phone conversation, Strong said of the Daily Caller’s Journolist procurement strategy, “I’ve never talked about any of that and don’t want to now either.”
Fox News and Carlson didn’t answer requests for comment for this story.
For those who cannot fathom how Tucker Carlson, on Fox News, could possibly get away with scolding the public editor of the New York Times on journalistic practices, there’s more to bite into. Consider that Carlson, as head of the Daily Caller, killed a piece critical of Fox News. The reason? Carlson drew a paycheck from Fox News, then as a co-host of the weekend “Fox & Friends.” “I have two rules,” said Carlson at the time. “One is you can’t criticize the families of the people who work here. And the other rule is you can’t go after Fox. Only for one reason, not because they’re conservative or we agree with them [or] because they’re doing the Lord’s work. Nothing like that. It’s because I work there, I’m an anchor on Fox.”
So: Media critic Tucker Carlson muzzled his employees for the sake of his television future.
What happened to the Tucker Carlson of yore? On his way to Fox News prime-time stardom, Carlson once put together a sterling record as a magazine reporter, a good chunk of it on display at the Weekly Standard. This fellow can write, whether the topic is how a Fleet Street tabloid construed his words or the trials of Al Gore or international parenting norms. That’s not all, either. Carlson turned in a historic and prescient profile of George W. Bush for Talk Magazine in 1999. And please read this November 2003 Carlson account of a trip to Africa with the Rev. Al Sharpton. Example: “As a rule, the civil-rights establishment is not punctual,” writes Carlson. “But even by the standards of the chronically late, Sharpton is chronically late. Like all politicians, he tends to schedule an impossible number of events in a single day. But that’s only part of the problem. Habit accounts for the rest. After spending so many years on the road, with so little cash, so far from the edge of respectability, Sharpton has lost the ability to travel like a legitimate person. In Sharpton’s world, itineraries are merely suggestions.”
Somewhere along the line, this excellent prose stylist was ruined by cable news and the clickbait imperatives of running a conservative website. He’s a veteran of the legendary CNN show “Crossfire” and was present for that time when “The Daily Show” host Jon Stewart blasted the program for contributing to the country’s undoing — an attack that included calling Carlson a “d–––.” “I am a d–––,” Carlson commented for a recently published oral history of “The Daily Show.” “I think that’s fair. I’m a total prick. I don’t think I’m a d––– in my personal relationships, but I was hosting a debate show. So, yeah that didn’t bother me.”
That’s Carlson’s TV-prone style — lots of quips, wry observations and an eagle eye for irony. As moderator of “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” he brings energy, combativeness and a dramatist’s instinct to the role. In quizzing Matt Cooper of Newsweek about its embarrassing “Madam President” commemorative issue, “I mean, it’s not even — it’s breathless. It’s not even hate graphic. It’s pornographic. It’s Soviet in his devotion to Hillary Clinton. How — who wrote this?” asked Carlson. In pressing former Bernie Sanders campaign adviser Chuck Rocha on the Mike Pence-“Hamilton” ruckus, Carlson reacted with a sneer to his expressed interest in a ticket to the show: “Right. Of course, you do. Everybody does in your world.” And in rebutting the position of a professor who faulted the electoral college for skipping over important states, Carlson ripped away:
CARLSON: So you are saying that like sophisticated affluent, coastal culture doesn’t get enough attention in our society? Is that what you’re saying?
PROFESSOR: Not in the election.
CARLSON: Not in the election, okay. So we’re just not paying enough attention to Barbra Streisand and her friends?
The Erik Wemple Blog itself has felt the sting of Carlson’s tongue. He once called us a “total mediocrity and a moron and kind of a creepy, finger-sniffer-type character.” Tough but fair.
A passion for saltiness may explain why “Tucker Carlson Tonight” has vastly exceeded the ratings performance of its predecessor — the horrible “On the Record” with Greta Van Susteren — in the all-important 25-54 demographic. Some of the credit here belongs to Carlson and his gift for extemporaneous verbal battle; some of it, too, belongs to Roger Ailes, the now-disgraced and now-former Fox News chief who dialed his network into possibly the most loyal audience in the history of media.
Carlson’s ascension marks a significant moment for a network whose longtime boss, Ailes, left the network in midsummer amid a sexual harassment scandal. (Ailes has denied the allegations against him.) The departure gave hope to certain critics that a change in programming philosophy may well take root at Fox News. Writing in the Huffington Post, Ryan Grim posited that famously moderate anchor Shepard Smith may well be the “future” of Fox News. Politico’s Jack Shafer urged a network-wide turn toward “conscientious journalists” like Megyn Kelly and Chris Wallace. Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal had a similar thought:
A thought for Fox News as it emerges from a rough year: More F&B anchors in the mold of Chris Wallace. Fewer in the mold of you-know-who.
— Bret Stephens (@StephensWSJ) October 20, 2016
Then Fox News turned around and elevated Carlson, sponsor of a great deal of vile, baseless and tendentious reporting at the Daily Caller. Not only that: Fox News, stung by a scandal involving its treatment of women, turned around and elevated a man whose site had built a sorry record on gender issues. So much for those prescriptions.
At a time when blasting the mainstream media has become more mainstream than ever — thanks to the president-elect’s Twitter account — Fox News now has an exposed flank in its prime-time hours. There’s Carlson at 7 p.m., with his history at the Daily Caller; there’s Bill O’Reilly at 8 p.m., with the 2015 scandal over all of his exaggerations and falsehoods relating to his reportorial past; and there’s Sean Hannity at 10 p.m., who was forced to concede he’s no journalist in light of his activism on behalf of Trump. None of these men can credibly cast judgment on other media outlets; all of them will continue to do so.