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Opinion Fox News doesn’t believe Tucker Carlson

Tucker Carlson poses in a Fox News Channel studio in New York on March 2, 2017. (Richard Drew/AP)
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In January 2013, the New York Times disclosed that its computer systems had been infiltrated by Chinese hackers. Before issuing its report, the Times worked with AT&T, hired a computer security firm and took other precautions. That process took several months.

When Fox News host Tucker Carlson suspects hacking, he works a bit more quickly. “Yesterday, we heard from a whistleblower within the U.S. government who reached out to warn us that the NSA, the National Security Agency, is monitoring our electronic communications and is planning to leak them in an attempt to take this show off the air,” said Carlson on his Monday night program.

Normally, Carlson would be “skeptical” of such a claim. But these circumstances are just too compelling: “The whistleblower, who is in a position to know, repeated back to us information about a story that we are working on that could have only come directly from my texts and emails. There’s no other possible source for that information. Period,” said Carlson. “The NSA captured that information without our knowledge and did it for political reasons. The Biden administration is spying on us. We have confirmed that.”

That’s an awful lot to confirm in one day — not only the fact of the monitoring, but the motive as well. Merely as a “formality,” Carlson’s show filed a FOIA request seeking “all information that the NSA and other agencies have gathered about this show.” Also contacted were the press offices at NSA and the FBI.

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In a testament to just how far the credibility of “Tucker Carlson Tonight” has cratered, press freedom groups did not rush to put out statements of support for the host. Moments after Carlson floated his allegations, we asked Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, if his organization had anything to say. “No comment from us on this one,” he replied.

Suzanne Nossel, CEO of free-expression group Pen America, issued this statement after we asked for the organization’s reaction. “Any claim that the National Security Agency is spying on an American media figure is a matter of serious concern. In this instance, the allegations have been made verbally on television, without the presentation of proof. Tucker Carlson’s record for veracity, as assessed by credible fact-checking sources, is poor. We will await further details and substantiation before passing judgment on whether this grave accusation is credible.”

Pen America may have to get in line. The Erik Wemple Blog started asking Fox News’s PR shop last night if the network has any statement on the matter. No response yet — and that’s uncharacteristic: Fox News spinmeisters are typically quick to knock down any anti-Carlson narrative gaining traction.

One possibility is that Carlson blindsided his bosses with this towering claim. The host has long boasted that he alone decides what he says on his show, and Fox News is getting a fresh taste of the perils associated with such liberties. If, indeed, Carlson received this tip on Sunday, he left little time to vet the information — including his “whistleblower” — consult with network lawyers and present the matter to his audience with the appropriate caveats and qualifiers, of which there were none.

As for the technicalities of Carlson’s allegations, a former FBI agent laid out the case:

If true, the surveillance of Carlson would be perhaps the most significant government intrusion into Fox News since the Obama administration, when it emerged that the Justice Department had identified reporter James Rosen as a possible co-conspirator in an Espionage Act violation as part of a leak investigation. That was an outrage, and Fox News spoke up about the matter. “We are outraged to learn today that James Rosen was named a criminal co-conspirator for simply doing his job as a reporter,” said the network in a statement. That sentiment was supported by network talent: “So, they are claiming that they got a case of espionage. So they want to find out where the leak came from. So, they seize not only James Rosen’s emails from his personal Gmail account, they go through his phone records and, you know, target him as quote, ‘an aider, abettor and co-conspirator,’” said host Sean Hannity.

As for Carlson’s story? Well, the network hasn’t issued a statement. And as Mediaite’s Colby Hall has reported, Fox News coverage has ignored the allegation from its franchise host. That’s quite a development, considering that Fox News likes nothing more than to recycle the cockamamie themes emerging from its prime-time hosts. Perhaps Carlson’s colleagues — just like the network’s lawyers in a previous situation— don’t believe him.

There’ll be no predicting where this story will go from here. In charging that the government was planning to “leak” communications to attack “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” the host was perhaps attempting to get ahead of an embarrassing news cycle or two. Or maybe he was just trolling his audience in search of more attention, better ratings and a hearty laugh with his program’s staffers.

Whatever the case, Carlson knows enough to choose his story lines carefully: As far-fetched as the NSA snooping story may be, it’ll be hard for anyone to prove it wrong. And that’s all the breathing room he needs.