Last month I texted Tucker Carlson to ask him a question that was floating around in my head: “Have you got the vaccine?”
“When was the last time you had sex with your wife and in what position?” He replied. “We can exchange intimate details.”
Then we went back and forth about vaccines and he ended the conversation with a friendly invitation to return to his show. “Always a good time.”
One question you, as a New York Times reader, might ask yourself is why are you exchanging text with Tucker Carlson, the Fox News host who recently called the media broadly “twitching animals that deserve no respect.” ?
And if you’re a Tucker Carlson viewer, you might also be wondering: How can the guy who tells you every night that the media is lying text the enemy?
The answer is one of Washington’s open secrets. A proud traitor to the political elite, Mr. Carlson spends his time when he’s not denouncing the gossip of the liberal media. He’s the place to go for sometimes unflattering stories about Donald J. Trump and for coverage of Fox News’ domestic politics (not to mention stories about Mr. Carlson himself). I’m not going to talk about any secret conversations I had with him here. But 16 other journalists (none from the Times; it would put my colleagues in a strange position if I asked them) were telling me in the background that, as three of them put it, he was “a great source”.
“In Trump’s Washington Tucker Carlson is a primary super-secret source,” writes media author and Trump chronicler Michael Wolff in his upcoming collection of essays, “Too Famous”. Mr. Wolff, who thanked Mr. Carlson in recognition of his 2018 book “Fire and Fury”, stated, “I know this because I know what he told me and I can pursue his exquisite, for good-nothing -true gossip from reports without sources and as it often appears in accepted wisdom. “
Mr. Carlson was particularly well positioned to be a source for the Trump administration. His Fox platform, which he had a nightly average of three million viewers on May, made him an important man for Mr Trump, a close fan of television ratings. He has a former reporter’s eye for details and anecdotes, and his observations can be seen in the garish tales of Mr. Trump’s chaotic court and Fox’s own tumultuous domestic politics.
An upcoming book by Wall Street Journal reporter Michael Bender, “Honestly We Won This Election: The Inside Story of Trump Lost,” includes a moment when Mr. Carlson calls Mr. Trump’s voicemail after the first presidential election broadcast last fall when he was criticized for repeatedly interrupting Joe Biden. When Mr. Trump finally reaches the Fox host, the book literally describes an exchange between the two men that puts Mr. Carlson in a flattering light. (“Everyone says I did a good job,” says Mr. Trump to Mr. Carlson. “I don’t know who told you that was good,” says Mr. Carlson. “It was not good.”) Mr. Bender declined evenings to comment on the sources that enabled him to reconstruct a conversation so precisely that only two people were privy to it.
And Brian Stelter, the host of CNN’s Reliable Sources, told me that “You can see Tucker’s fingerprints all over the hardcover” of his 2020 book “Hoax,” which Fox News denounces for telling Mr. Trump’s falsehoods amplify. He said that he “couldn’t stand” talking to Mr. Carlson, who was getting tougher for the updated paperback version that was just released.
Mr. Carlson was born and made no secret of a world of insiders and storytellers. His father was a reporter in Los Angeles and San Diego before Ronald Reagan named him director of the Voice of America, and the son grew up with a generation of elite journalists in Washington. “I’ve always lived with people who exercise authority, in the ruling class,” he said in a 2018 interview. A former New York Observer media writer, Sridhar Pappu, reminded me that when Mr. Carlson first traveled to Washington in the early 2000s to cover the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, he asked, “Have You an invitation? to Tammy? ”refers to the annual brunch for media insiders co-hosted by Tammy Haddad, the well-connected former MSNBC producer.
Mr Carlson has said he turned against his fellow elites after the 2008 financial crisis. His political change also transformed his longtime journeyman magazine writer and MSNBC Conservative career, making him Fox’s leading tribune to the pro-Trump masses.
But his decades-long ties in Washington have led to a tiresome conversation among Mr. Carlson’s old friends about what he really stands for, whether he’s really a racist, or whether he’s playing you cynical on television. Who knows, and what does it matter anyway? Recent fixations on Mr. Carlson include the assumption that the January 6th riot was in fact an FBI-staged provocation and that the wearing of masks for children is abuse. The Anti-Defamation League recently called for Fox News to be fired for warning that the Democrats plan to “replace” the current electorate with “more obedient third world voters”. The Pentagon reprimanded him for a sexist riff on women in the military.
And then there are the views he has expressed through the media. “I just can’t stress how disgusted I am,” he told Fox’s own sports media site Outkick in April. “The media are basically the Praetorian Guard for the ruling class, the bodyguards for Jeff Bezos. That is the opposite of what we should have. I really hate her for that, to be honest. “
Mr. Carlson spends less time discussing his cordial relationships with a generation of political and media reporters. To be fair, they don’t brag about talking to him much either. Far-right extremists may not want their champion chatting to the Lamestream media. And how do readers of news outlets like this process the reality that reporters work is to build relationships with people they may despise?
The duplication is not new to Mr. Carlson’s American right-wing populism. In the 1950s, “No politician in America understood better than Joe McCarthy how the press works and how to manipulate it,” wrote McCarthy biographer Larry Tye in his 2020 book Demagogue. Mr. Trump also stood out in it from. His exchange of access to cheap news coverage led the great New York columnist Jimmy Breslin to write in 1991 that “the guy bought the entire news industry with one recall”.
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And Mr. Carlson’s comfortable spot in the Washington media, many of the reporters who cover him say, has weakened some of the coverage. It also served as a sort of insurance policy, they say, to protect him from the marginalization that ended the Fox career of his predecessor Glenn Beck, who also attracted huge audiences with shadowy elite conspiracy theories.
“It is so unknown to the public how much he plays both sides,” said a reporter from a prominent publication who speaks regularly to Mr. Carlson.
Another Washington journalist close to him said he believed Mr. Carlson had benefited from his media value.
“If you open yourself up as a resource to mainstream media reporters, you don’t even have to ask them to be gentle with you,” said the journalist.
The nature of anonymous sources means you usually can’t tell exactly where Mr. Carlson helped, but he does occasionally make it clear by saying on record what he officially said earlier. Following stories about how he rushed to Mar-a-Lago last March to warn Mr Trump of the seriousness of the Covid-19 threat, Mr Carlson recounted the story in an interview with Vanity Fair’s Joe Hagan.
“I’ve known Tucker Carlson for 20 years,” wrote Hagan in an introduction to the interview, calling the Fox host “one of the most intelligent and reliable observers in Washington – even more off-camera.” He also hinted at the content of Mr. Carlson’s less cautious observations: “A shrewd TV diplomat will not say that Trump is scared, weak, politically doomed, in deep denial and surrounded by toads and mediocrity.”
Mr. Carlson’s other defense against bad publicity, of course, is his willingness to use his platform as a weapon and attack individual reporters in order to create waves of harassment. When a freelance writer and photographer for The Times began working on an article about his studio in rural Maine last year, Mr. Carlson preemptively attacked the two by name in the air, referring to one as a political activist, The Die’s Erik Wemple The Washington Post called it a “numbing invention”. After threats and an ominous incident at the photographer’s house, it was impossible to cover the proposed article, which was far from being published, according to Times media editor Jim Windolf.
In a separate incident last February, a Politico reporter, Ben Schreckinger, filed inquiries about ads on Fox for a brand of laxatives marketed by Purdue Pharma, the company that has received civil severance payment of $ 2.8 billion for has paid for its role in the opioid epidemic. (Mr. Carlson impaled the company and other drug makers for a “tsunami” of opioid deaths and criticized politicians for taking their money.) Before a story could be published, Mr. Carlson went on the offensive, broadcasting a segment describing the partnership von Politico attacked with a Hong Kong newspaper, and he demanded that Mr. Schreckinger answer himself for it. “What does Ben Schreckinger think of working for a publication that makes money from Chinese state propaganda and political repression?” Asked Mr. Carlson.
The Purdue story as it was never appeared. Politico Editor-in-Chief Matthew Kaminski said, “We have never published or not published a story based on anything Tucker said about us.”
These attacks are one reason why his fans love him and the journalists who don’t speak to him regularly hate him. At Fox, however, Mr. Carlson’s close relationship with reporters has hampered his relationship with coworkers, bosses, and the feared (at least Fox employees) director of public relations, Irena Briganti.
“If there’s a positive story about Tucker, some Fox executives assume he was involved,” said Daily Beast reporter Maxwell Tani.
Ms. Briganti said it was “not really surprising to someone who works in the media to speak to the press”.
When I asked Mr. Carlson last week about his reputation as a source of gossip and insight into the Trump administration, he rejected the idea.
“I don’t know any gossip. I live in a town of 100 people, ”he wrote, referring to his remote life in Maine.
But Mr Wolff writes in his upcoming essay that Mr Carlson’s ubiquity as a source during the Trump years meant there was a downside to repeating his yarns.
“Too often to count them, I have asked about someone’s trust: ‘Is that from Tucker?’” Writes Mr Wolff. “And also, after sharing a juicy detail, I got caught: ‘So … you talked to Tucker.'”