Tucker Carlson's downward spiral

Once a promising young magazine writer, the bow-tied Daily Caller pundit has come to epitomize right-wing hackdom

Published April 26, 2012 3:00PM (EDT)

     (Benjamin Wheelock)
(Benjamin Wheelock)

Alex Pareene's annual Hack List is so popular -- and useful -- we thought we should spread it out over the year. This is the first in a regular feature taking a deeper look at our media's most pernicious hacks, which we'll rank in order at year's end.

In many ways Tucker Carlson's a better symbol of the pathetic state of what passes for conservative journalism than even Glenn Beck or the late Andrew Breitbart, to name two of his contemporaries with a much larger following. Glenn Beck started as a no-account shock jock and is now a no-account Internet show host. Breitbart at least went from Drudge lackey to successful right-wing media mogul. Carlson, though, began his career in the most respectable fashion possible and has spent the ensuing decades gradually lowering himself into the gutter. His story illustrates why we can't have a responsible or at least slightly less hysterical conservative media.

The Daily Caller, the site he launched with a promise to offer a new model for conservative journalism, is primarily a catalog of sleazy traffic-baiting aggregated Web garbage ("Top 10: Most beautiful ‘most beautiful’ women [SLIDESHOW]"), ancient relics of online commentary with nowhere else left to publish (Ann Coulter, Mickey Kaus), and overblown scandal-mongering headlines that promise much more than they can deliver. In other words it is like a mean-spirited parody of a conservative version of the pre-AOL Huffington Post, with a healthy dose, recently, of attention-grabbing race baiting. This is not the sort of thing Carlson used to be known for.

Raised in WASP-y boarding school privilege to a prominent Republican family (mom was heiress to a frozen-dinner fortune, dad an anchorman and eventually media executive), Carlson was never going to want for work in the conservative media world. But initially, at least, he worked hard. He began as an assistant editor at Policy Review, the sober conservative intellectual policy journal published then by the Heritage Foundation. There he wrote mostly ponderous pieces on popular intellectual conservative trends of the early 1990s: Chuck Colson's prison fellowship program, the growing market for rent-a-cops to supplant the public police, etc.

Soon Carlson was writing long, reported pieces, many of them very good, for the Weekly Standard. More sharp magazine journalism appeared in Tina Brown's Talk magazine, the Atlantic and Esquire. (He even won a National Magazine Award for a 2003 Esquire story in which he traveled to Liberia with the Rev. Al Sharpton, toward whom Carlson is remarkably sympathetic.) In the early 2000s, he had a political column at New York Magazine. This is the sort of career most young political journalists and would-be commentators would kill for.

His politics were undisguised, but his work was honest, and sometimes pretty funny. Carlson seemed to subscribe to a form of conservatism -- moneyed and cheerfully elitist, the sort practiced by people for whom policy journals actually matter -- that was gradually going out of favor in the Republican Party but that is always welcome in the "liberal media."

There were warning signs, of course. Like every other raging asshole who goes into journalism, Carlson idolized Hunter Thompson (that piece has the classic "I did a lot of really cool drugs once and it was no biggie" anecdote beloved of sad "rebel" libertarian poseurs). He repeated the same stale stereotypes masquerading as clever observations (NPR listeners driving Volvos turn up with some frequency in his writing going back to the 1990s). But what really destroyed Tucker Carlson, respected magazine journalist, was TV. TV exposed him as glib, smug and not nearly as clever as he thought he was. (Maybe it exposed how well edited he'd been for so many years.)

It began with O.J. Simpson, whose murder trial helped launch the career of so many other worthless media figures. In 1994 and 1995, anyone who'd ever written more than a paragraph for money was asked to appear on television to address the Simpson trial at least once. Some then simply never went away. Carlson became a CNN regular (he has joked, “If O.J. Simpson hadn’t murdered his wife, I probably wouldn’t be working in television"), and after he proved quite adept at treating the Lewinsky affair with the mock importance that cable news demanded, they finally hired him to co-host a show in 2000. The show was called "The Spin Room," and Carlson hosted it with genial liberal Bill Press. The show was terrible and everyone hated it. The hosts devoted an inordinate amount of airtime to reading their own hate mail.

But Carlson was perfect for CNN. He had a TV-ready personal style -- Ivy League blazers and bow ties and his "fratty side part" -- and a cheerful willingness to say dumb, outrageous stuff with an eminently punchable smirk. He embodied perfectly the CNN version of politics, which is two buddies joshing each other about things they clearly know to be utterly irrelevant. Carlson rooted for "Team Republican," and his job was to trash-talk with fans of "Team Democrat." After "Spin Room" was unceremoniously canceled, they sent Tucker to one of the many interchangeable shows it was modeled after: "Crossfire."

The more you're on TV, the dumber you get, to paraphrase "Repo Man." Carlson largely stopped interacting with people outside the Beltway politico-media bubble for stories, and his formerly occasional forays into lazy, glib generalities became just about all he was capable of. But at least Paul Begala and James Carville and even Ann Coulter can be funny -- sometimes even witty -- in their sports talk radio call-in show "political debates." Carlson's idea of a laugh is fratty sexism and pervasive gay panic. Like most other crappy pundits he has a blithe disregard for accuracy, especially when the truth gets in the way of scoring some asinine political point. This vintage Media Matters catalog of his various distortions captures Carlson's TV style nicely. Especially fun to recall are his many strong arguments in favor of invading Iraq, like: "I want to know what are the Pope's plans to liberate the Iraqi people."

Carlson eventually decided he didn't actually support the war, because his job isn't to actually believe the shit he says on TV. ("I have no time for political hacks who say things they don't believe because they get paid to," he said in 2003. "So there you have it: cross-dressing and abortion, two great Democratic values that go great together," he also said in 2003.) Now, of course, he's called for Iran to be "annihilated," then protested that he shouldn't have been taken at his word when he called for Iran to be annihilated.

In 2004, Jon Stewart made his famed "Crossfire" appearance in which he declared the show bad for America and its hosts partisan hacks. This criticism was always flawed, because it operated from the premise that CNN cared whether or not its programming was bad for America and its personalities hacks, but the Stewart appearance struck a chord with everyone who followed politics because they actually cared about the real-world implications of politics, and not because they enjoyed watching two assholes yell at each other. Stewart basically burned Carlson about as badly as anyone has been burned on television in a long time (Carlson: "You're more fun on your show." Stewart: "You're as big a dick on your show as you are on any show."), and when CNN canceled "Crossfire" three months later, everyone assumed that the network had been shamed.

Carlson tumbled down the cable news ladder to MSNBC, which, as ever, was making its programming decisions based on throwing shit at the wall and seeing what more than 10 people would watch. Carlson said he quit CNN -- tendered his resignation months before Stewart's appearance, even! -- because he was sick of the dumb partisan game. Carlson does this a lot: Says he's sick of some stupid and awful trend in political punditry that he himself is partly responsible for. After the launch of "Tucker," in mid-2005, Carlson attempted to reinvent himself: He took off his bow tie (and launched a blog at MSNBC called "Untied"), began claiming to be a cool libertarian and not a gross "Republican," turned completely orange, and did his infamous and deeply humiliating turn on "Dancing With the Stars." (He was voted off first.)

No one watched "Tucker." Cool, no-tie Tucker was just as loathed by TV viewers as prep school prick club-tie Tucker had been. The show dragged on, regardless, until it was canceled to make way for an election show in early 2008. A year later, Fox News picked Carlson up to be a random utility panelist, which was slightly surprising, as Carlson had frequently expressed a rather low opinion of Fox, but he had also expressed low opinions of CNN and MSNBC and the entire enterprise of cable news itself at various points, and yet he never failed to cash their checks.

If you chose to ever take him at his word, it would be frustrating that Carlson recognizes and says outright that cable news political debates are atrocious and pointless, and that conservative media is worthless propaganda, and yet he spends his time crafting idiotic conservative propaganda and participating in inane Fox panel discussions. In 2009, Carlson was booed at CPAC for stating that the New York Times produces actual journalism and is dedicated to accuracy while most conservative media outlets just print whatever bullshit they think will win their side some points. He called for a better conservative media, dedicated to accuracy and enterprising reporting instead of lazy punditry. The next year, he gave America the Daily Caller, which began as simply boring and eventually grew into being awful.

Carlson's Daily Caller was supposed to be a home for edgy, independent voices and serious, well-reported journalism from a conservative perspective. No one actually wants that -- if they did, it would exist, right? -- because the online right-wing audience simply wants to be told reassuring and outrageous lies. Carlson ran up against that reality early on. The Caller's traffic was abysmal. So they went hard on sensationalism and stunts. Some of the stunts were fun (trolling Keith Olbermann by buying KeithOlbermann.com). The sensationalism was ridiculous. It began when someone leaked the Caller a trove of emails from JournoList, the private listserv that various liberal and centrist reporters had belonged to, and the Caller chose to very clearly and purposefully misrepresent those emails in an attempt to gin up outrage about the vast liberal media bias conspiracy. The stories proclaimed that liberals were engaged in a vast and secret conspiracy. Carlson himself acknowledged that the emails were "banal" in his attempt to deflect the criticism his publication's "reporting" was receiving. Screaming headlines were outright distortions, completely unsupported by the contents of the story, in what would quickly become a Daily Caller tradition. The stories were full of obvious and malicious omissions and misrepresentations. Carlson didn't give a shit. Traffic grew.

Thus far, the Caller has published uncorrected Birther conspiracies based on obvious hoaxes, bizarre nonsense blaming Michelle Obama for pedestrian deaths, and an opinion piece in which a weird old man said gay people were too gross to serve in the military, but that lesbians should be allowed so that men could forcibly convert them to heterosexuality. The Caller took some crappy James O'Keefe sting video that was too sketchy and overblown even for Andrew Breitbart. A Glenn Beck website, the Blaze, memorably ripped the misleading video apart. (The sting was aimed at NPR, which Republicans were attempting to defund. Carlson's father, Richard, was the president of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting from 1992 to 1997. He was brought on to essentially protect the CPB from Republican defunding attacks. He was also basically thought by all to be a vindictive bully.)

Here's how dedicated Carlson is to producing quality journalism: He hired, as his executive editor, a former strategist for Berman and Co., the "communications firm" that specializes in the creation of shadowy front groups and biased "research" for their clients in major industries. A man whose job was to deceive journalists on behalf of corporations, as editor. He hired Ginni Thomas -- the wife of Clarence Thomas, major Tea Party figure and complete weirdo -- as a special correspondent, mere months after Thomas had explicitly lied to a Caller reporter.

Carlson is now engaged in giving the people -- the idiotic, angry, paranoid people -- what they want, which became incredibly apparent once the Caller began tackling the Trayvon Martin tragedy by launching a campaign to prove that Martin had been a thug. It was barrel-scraping racist garbage. Martin's Twitter feed and social media presence were cherry-picked to make him seem scary because he engaged in adolescent macho posturing. It was convincing proof that Martin wasn't as "innocent" as he seemed, if your definition of "innocence" is "not young, black and male." Asinine race-related trolling is now a major Caller beat, naturally, because, again, it's good for traffic. I don't think Carlson is remotely as racist as he is sexist and homophobic, which just makes it even grosser that he's willing to exploit conservative racism for fun and profit.

Some particular low lights from an increasingly regrettable career: The time Carlson said he beat up some gay guy who tried to be gay all over him because Carlson is deathly afraid of gay people and the prospect of anyone ever thinking he is gay. The time he got a video store employee fired, and threatened to "destroy" him, for mentioning that Tucker Carlson rented a video from his store. His remarkably stupid and creepy interview with Elle in which he embodied every repulsive fratty asshole stereotype imaginable ("One area of liberal phenomenon I support is female bi-sexuality," "Most of the time you can beat a woman in an argument." And on and on.) And the fact that his full name is Tucker Swanson McNear Carlson, and that his brother's name is Buckley Swanson Peck Carlson.

By Alex Pareene

Alex Pareene writes about politics for Salon and is the author of "The Rude Guide to Mitt." Email him at apareene@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @pareene

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