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Opinion Maine journalists under siege after false accusations from Fox News’s Tucker Carlson

Tucker Carlson speaks Monday night on his Fox News show. (Screengrab via Tucker Carlson/Twitter/Fox News)

Two freelance journalists in Maine have sustained abuse and threats after being named by Fox News host Tucker Carlson on Monday night as part of an effort by the New York Times to do “a story on the location of my family’s house.” On his namesake program, Carlson disclosed that the newspaper had “followed” him after he and his family left their Washington home on account of protesters and threatening letters. “Last week, the New York Times began working on a story about where my family and I live. As a matter of journalism, there is no conceivable justification for a story like that,” said the host, who summers in Maine and tapes his program from a remote studio in the state. “The paper is not alleging we’ve done anything wrong, and we haven’t. We pay our taxes. We like our neighbors. We’ve never had a dispute with anyone.”

He then proceeded to name the journalists working on the story: Murray Carpenter, who is based in Maine, and has filed stories for The Washington Post Magazine, NPR, the Times and others; and Maine-based photographer Tristan Spinski. As The Post’s Allyson Chiu pointed out, Carlson’s complaint about a pending story allegedly disclosing his location had precisely that effect on Carpenter, whose home address was posted online following the segment.

That intrusion was merely the beginning. In an interview with the Erik Wemple Blog, Spinski alleged that about an hour after the Carlson accusations, someone attempted to break into his Maine home while he and his wife were present. “It was like a booming sound, someone trying to get in,” says Spinski. “Our doors up until that segment aired had actually been unlocked.… When the segment aired, everything got locked and I’m glad it did because within an hour somebody was here.… We sort of put ourselves in the safest place we could away from the windows and called police and waited it out.” Chief Deputy Rand Maker of the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office couldn’t confirm or deny the office’s involvement, citing Maine law.

Carpenter said he had received thousands of emails stemming from Carlson’s Monday night monologue, most of which were some mix of abusive, threatening and hateful. Family members, he said, have received direct threats as well. Though no one has shown up at his doorstep, Carpenter notified local police about the harassment.

Sources at the Times told the Erik Wemple Blog that the online harassment was pervasive. Among those who were harassed, says one of those sources, were Times reporters who weren’t involved in the story. Other victims include people with similar names, such as those who had the misfortune of showing up in database searches. According to a Times source, some of the people on the receiving end contacted police, bewildered and unclear as to why they were being targeted.

The episode is remarkable for four reasons:

1) Carlson was inveighing against a story that wasn’t even close to publication. As Spinski tells the Erik Wemple Blog, he was planning to visit the town in which Carlson films his show on Tuesday morning, a day after Carlson’s segment. So Spinski hadn’t photographed anything yet. “The story would be about this community, this rural community in Maine that is very small, very rural and very kind of Americana and happens to be the location of this massively popular cable news show,” says Spinski.

2) Carlson managed to convince his audience that Carpenter-Spinski would dox him, while he knew there was no such plan. Though the host said that the Times would focus on the “location” of his home, he suggested something more concrete with his accusations against the two freelancers: “So how would Murray Carpenter and his photographer Tristan Spinski feel if we told you where they live? If we put pictures of their homes on the air?” he said. “What if we publicize the home address of every one of the soulless robot editors at the New York Times who assigned and managed this incitement to violence against my family?”

Sources at the Times, however, insist that assurances were made to Fox News in at least two separate conversations that the newspaper wouldn’t either publish Carlson’s address or photograph his home. Those assurances were delivered before Monday night’s segment on “Tucker Carlson Tonight.” A directive on Monday afternoon from a Times editor instructed Spinski and Carpenter not to photograph the residence.

According to a source at the paper, there was even a pledge that the story wouldn’t publish certain details about Carlson’s setup that had already been made public elsewhere. GQ and media outlets in Maine had reported many details about Carlson’s love of the Oxford County town where he has spent just about all his summers. That reporting includes the story of his purchase of an Oxford County garage — located “down the road” from his residence — to house his summertime “Tucker Carlson Tonight” studio.

3) Neither Carpenter nor Spinski specialized in the sort of reporting that would endanger Carlson’s family, or anyone’s family. With 25 years in the business, Carpenter in recent years has written about the evolution of the hard hat, feeding grounds for whales, a media bigwig in Maine, the movement of women into the lobster industry in Maine and mice brains. Yet Carlson, in one of those stunning fabrications of his, called Carpenter a “political activist.”

As for Spinski, sample this bit from his personal website: “Tristan earned his master’s degree in journalism from UC Berkeley, and much of his work examines the intersections between people and the landscape.” Point being, Spinski wouldn’t engage in a doxing expedition even if that’s what the Times had requested. “I’m not a paparazzi detail. I do not treat people that way,” says Spinski, who had no intention of photographing Carlson’s home. “The only thing I’ve ever stalked was a bird in West Africa and I didn’t find it,” he says, referring to a killer assignment in search of the grey-necked picathartes for Audubon magazine.

4) The preemptive strike against the Times came on the same day as a federal sexual harassment suit was filed against Fox News, one that included allegations against Carlson. The previous week, the host had attempted to talk his way out of a scandal over the racist scribblings on a hate site of the former top writer for “Tucker Carlson Tonight.” Never underestimate the distractive value of a slam against the Times.

In a statement, Carlson said, “Some of my children stay in the building the New York Times planned to photograph. The paper was aware of this, because I told them. They didn’t care. Their story, like the one you’re writing now, had nothing to do with covering the news. It was an attempt to intimidate and incite violence against my family for political reasons. It’s disgusting.” The building to which Carlson refers here is presumably the garage that he bought to house his remote studio. When a Maine newspaper reported on the host’s plans for the garage, he claimed the story violated his privacy. “I’m kind of bitter about it,” Carlson said of the Sun Journal’s work.

Steve Collins, who covered the story for the Sun Journal, told Poynter that Carlson harbored suspicions about his motives: “He repeatedly insisted that he was sure I was out to get him — just another Democrat doing a hit piece — but he listened respectfully to my take on it.”

Moving the discussion to the “building” represents an evolution in Carlson’s story, considering that on Monday he left his audience with the impression that the Times was after his residence. A Times spokesperson issued this statement about the “building”:

The Times had been speaking with Fox News communications staff about the article for several days, and had assured them we did not plan to photograph his residence or publish its address. It was only a few hours before the broadcast on Monday night that Carlson mentioned to us that some of his children sometimes stay in the studio in town where he broadcasts his show. At that point we had not photographed anything and were still engaged in discussions, internally and with Fox News communications staff, about the potential article.

Whatever the state of discussions, photos of the garage/building/studio have already appeared in the media.

Dean Baquet, executive editor of the Times, has spent a chunk of this week managing the dislocation caused by Carlson’s misleading segment. He told this blog:

He misled his viewers into believing we would publish his address when he was aware that we had no intention of doing so and when the network was specifically told we would not reveal his home. Many wrongly think that we did publish his address and even a picture of his house. It inspired the exact same kind of personal harassment against others which he so indignantly and falsely claimed to be a victim of himself. Hours after the broadcast someone attempted to break into the home of a photographer who doesn’t even know where Carlson lives and his followers have waged an attack on people who have nothing to do with the story. And if he has any honor and if Fox has any honor, they will admit they were wrong.

Based on Carlson’s broadcast, says Baquet, some folks messaged him in the belief that the Times had already published Carlson’s private information. He wrote back to some of the detractors, “some of whom, when I explained to them that we never ran a photograph or address, were stunned.” As for Spinski, Baquet noted, “this guy was about to do his job, he didn’t even get a chance to do his job.”

As this blog noted earlier this week, there’s a more-than-legitimate story regarding Carlson and Maine. His second-quarter ratings for 2020 stand as an industry record. To that massive cable audience, he began criticizing Maine Gov. Janet Mills (D) in the spring over what he considered her overreaching response to the coronavirus. On one of his programs, Carlson invited a Maine restaurateur — a pal of sorts — to outline his plan to defy the shutdown. Not only did Carlson wish him good luck, this stickler for privacy stood by as the man recited Mills’s cellphone number on air.

Carlson has rocketed up the cable-news ratings on the back of a populism that attacks the country’s “ruling class,” which includes, of course, everyone associated with the Times. It was in that spirit that Carlson unleashed his Monday night slam job. “So why is the New York Times doing a story on the location of my family’s house? Well, you know why? To hurt us. To injure my wife and kids so that I will shut up and stop disagreeing with them. They believe in force. We’ve learned that,” said Carlson.

Had the host confined his attack to the institution, or even to Baquet, then it would have been an unhinged, conspiratorial, but harmless rant. Yet Carlson bundled the whole thing with Spinski and Carpenter, who don’t run the Times, or even a section of the Times. They’re freelancers. They’re Mainers. “He’s pointing at the two weakest links in this power chain,” says Spinski. “It endangers the lives of journalists and from my perspective that seems to be the intention — to muffle and intimidate and provoke and incite violence. The threats I’m getting are as vile and scary and intimidating and violent as you can imagine.”

We asked Baquet if he’d asked Fox News to apologize. “I’m not sure I can remember many instances where Fox has said they made a mistake,” he said. “Maybe this will be the case.”

The jockeying for the post-Trump future of the Republican Party has started, says Post columnist Max Boot. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Johnathan Newton/Danielle Kunitz/The Washington Post)

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