Prostitutes! A Democratic senator from New Jersey! And now The Washington Post!
It might not get any better than this for Tucker Carlson and his scrappy Web site, the Daily Caller.
“Oh, it’s a very good day,” exulted Carlson, the Caller’s co-founder and editor in chief, on Tuesday. “It’s a good day because it’s an interesting day.”
“Interesting,” in this case, because Carlson once again was in the middle of a heaping helping of controversy, a place where he seems quite comfortable. This time, he and his site — known as the DC — were on one side of a media crossfire over the Caller’s reporting on Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.).
Last fall, the Daily Caller was alone in reporting that Menendez had paid two prostitutes in the Dominican Republic for their services. The story included videotaped interviews with the women but was not independently confirmed. Other online and mainstream media organizations — including The Post — eventually followed the Daily Caller’s lead, reporting the allegation as well as Menendez’s vehement denial.
Late Monday, The Post published an article in which a Dominican woman said she was paid to make the claims against Menendez, challenging the Daily Caller’s account. The Post based its story on court documents and two people briefed on the woman’s claims.
Carlson and the Daily Caller shot back, asserting that it was The Post that got its facts wrong.
ABC News also added details that cast doubt on the Daily Caller’s reporting, such as the assertion that one of Menendez’s original accusers apparently used a false name.
In the face of withering criticism of his site’s reporting, Carlson is unbowed. “I’m not seeking their approval,” he says of detractors. “Why should I care if a bunch of losers on Twitter don’t like it?”
The put-up-your-dukes attitude has made the Daily Caller a rising star among the new Washington media, particularly the conservative kind. Although Carlson, 43, eschews that label — he says the Caller is “practicing pretty traditional journalism” — many of its biggest hits have been aimed at liberal targets. One of its first attention-grabbing stories was its reporting in 2010 on Journolist, an e-mail group started by Post blogger Ezra Klein in which reporters privately trashed various politicians, most of them conservative.
The outfit again caused a stir when its White House reporter, Neil Munro, interrupted President Obama’s remarks about immigration last year. “Why’d you favor foreigners over Americans?” Munro yelled at the president. The White House complained; Carlson shrugged it off, likening Munro’s behavior to former ABC News reporter Sam Donaldson’s questioning of presidents.
But other Caller “scoops” have fizzled. Carlson went on Fox News last year to hype a 2007 video of Obama praising his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and suggesting that the federal government had shortchanged African American victims of Hurricane Katrina. Despite build-up for the video from the Drudge Report and Fox’s Sean Hannity, it caused barely a ripple. Most of its content had been reported on before — by, among others, Carlson.
Like the liberal Huffington Post, the Caller’s political reporting lives side by side with some lowbrow “entertainment” content. “Ashley Judd, potential U.S. Senate candidate, sure has done a lot of on-screen nudity,” one story noted Tuesday, spelling out the actress’s work in the buff.
Last year, it came in for criticism after Mark Judge wrote a column about having his bike stolen in the District. “As sure as it took the D.C. cops forever to get to the parking lot to file a report, I knew that the odds were very high that a black person had taken my bike,” Judge wrote, without any supporting evidence.
But the site also recorded a solid scoop by revealing excessive spending by the Republican National Committee under then-chief Michael Steele, including $2,000 at a bondage-themed club in Los Angeles.
Prompted by what he saw as the liberal slant of news reporting during the 2008 election, Carlson started the Caller three years ago with Neil Patel, his college roommate and a former adviser to Vice President Richard B. Cheney. They were bankrolled by Foster Friess, a supporter of conservative causes and candidates, including Rick Santorum’s failed bid for the GOP presidential nomination.
Friess has already gotten a return on his $3 million investment; Carlson said the Caller began turning a small profit last year. In January, it attracted 6.3 million unique visitors, according to internal figures, a number Carlson says rivals such traditional news sources as the Boston Globe and the Miami Herald.
Before starting the Caller, the formerly bow-tied Carlson (he doesn’t wear them on TV any longer) had the distinction of achieving a pundit grand slam, hosting or co-hosting chat shows at one time or another on CNN, MSNBC, Fox and PBS. His most famous moment as a talking head may have been his interview with “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart on CNN’s “Crossfire” in 2004; Stewart turned the tables on Carlson and co-host Paul Begala, arguing that programs such as “Crossfire” were “hurting America.” The confrontation became a viral video.
“It’s obviously easier and cheaper to aggregate content,” Carlson says. “We could surf the Web for content and synopsize that. It’s much more expensive to hire people and give them health care. We have a choice between aggregation and trying to build a news organization. We’ve chosen to build a news organization.”
The Caller has a staff of 47. It keeps costs down by hiring younger reporters and scrimping on extras (“We don’t buy anyone pens,” Carlson says proudly).Like HuffPost, it also relies on outside contributors. Among them: Ginni Thomas, a conservative commentator and the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
“I think there have been some growing pains,” said Jon Ward, a former Caller reporter who now works for HuffPost. “They’re still trying to balance what every Web outlet needs, which is page views, with quality journalism.”