Last month, I wrote to Tucker Carlson to ask a question that was on my mind: “Did you get vaccinated?”
“When was the last time you had sex with your wife and under what condition?” He replied. “We can trade intimate details.”
Then we argued 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 might be asking, if you’re a New York Times reader, is this: Why are you exchanging text with Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who recently described The media at large as “creeping animals that don’t deserve respect”?
And if you’re a Tucker Carlson viewer, you might also be asking: How can the guy who tells you every night the media is lying, texting with the enemy?
The answer is one of Washington’s open secrets. Mr. Carlson, a proud traitor to the elite political class, spends his time when he is not denouncing liberal media business gossip. That Donald J. He is well-known for his sometimes unattractive stories about Trump and for Fox News’ coverage of internal politics (not to mention stories about Mr. I will not talk about any off-the-record interactions I had with him here. But 16 other reporters (none from The Times; it would put my colleagues in an awkward position if I asked them) told me in the background that he had been, as three of them put it, “a great source. “
“In Trump’s Washington, Tucker Carlson is a primary supersecret source,” writes media writer and Trump chronicler Michael Wolff in his the upcoming Collection of essays, “Very Famous.” Mr Wolfe, who thanked Mr Carlson in his acceptance of his 2018 book, “Fire and Fury”, explained, “I know this because I know what he has told me, and I am very, very good at his best- I can’t track down-to-be-true gossip through unsourced reports and as it emerges in often accepted wisdom.”
Mr Carlson was in a particularly good position to be a source about the Trump administration. His Fox platform, where he averaged three million viewers a night in May, made him critical of Mr Trump, a close follower of television ratings. He has a former reporter’s eye for detail and anecdote, and his comments can be traced back to Mr Trump’s chaotic courtroom and Fox’s strange stories of his own internal internal politics.
An upcoming book by Wall Street Journal reporter Michael Bender, “Frankly, We Won This Election: The Inside Story of How Trump Lost,” includes a moment in which Mr. Carlson sends Mr. Trump’s call to voicemail for the first time since the presidential debate, when he was criticized for repeatedly interrupting Joe Biden. When Mr. Trump ends In Reaching the Fox Host, the book describes, verbatim, an exchange between the two men, portraying Mr. Carlson in a flattering light. (“Everyone says I did a good job,” Mr. Trump told Mr. Carlson. “I don’t know who told you it was good,” says Mr. Carlson. “It was not good.”) Mr. Bender declined to comment on the sourcing that made him so Allowed to reconstruct a conversation with precision, only two people were aware of it.
And Brian Stelter, host of the CNN program “Trusted Source,” told me that “you can see Tucker’s fingerprints all over the hardcover” edition of his 2020 book.deceit”, which praises Fox News for amplifying Mr Trump’s lies. He said he “couldn’t stomach” speaking to Mr Carlson, who has become more stoic to the updated paperback version that has just been released.
Mr. Carlson was born into a world of insiders and story-shapers, and that makes no secret. His father was a reporter in Los Angeles and San Diego before Ronald Reagan appointed him director of Voice of America, and the son grew up with a generation of Washington’s elite journalists. “I have always been around people who have authority around the ruling class,” he said in 2018 interview. Sridhar Pappu, a former media writer for the New York Observer, recalled to me that when he first went to Washington in the early 2000s to cover a White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, it was Mr. Carlson who asked him, “Do you have an invitation for Tammy?” Referring to the annual brunch for Media Insiders co-hosted by the well-connected former MSNBC producer Tammy Haddad.
Mr Carlson has said he has turned against his fellow oligarchs since the 2008 financial crisis. His political transition also transformed his long-travelling career as a magazine writer and MSNBC conservative, and made him Fox’s premier tribune of the pro-Trump public.
But their decades-long Washington relationship has produced a tumultuous conversation between old friends of Mr. Carlson about what they really stand for, whether he is truly racist or whether he plays cynically on TV. Who knows, and what difference does it make anyway? Mr Carlson’s recent determinations include suggesting that the January 6 Capitol uprising was, in fact, instigated by the FBI and that children wearing masks is abuse. Recent Anti-Defamation League Called He was fired from Fox News for warning that Democrats are plotting to “replace” current voters with “more compliant voters from the Third World.” pentagon scolded her for a sexist riff on women in the military.
And then there are the views expressed by him on the media. “I can’t tell you how disgusted I am,” he told the Fox-owned sports media site. outkick in April. “The media are basically the bodyguards of the Praetorian Guard for the ruling class, Jeff Bezos. The opposite of what we should have. I really hate him for it, I’ll be honest.”
Mr. Carlson spends little time talking about his warm relationship with a generation of political and media journalists. To be fair, they don’t brag much about talking to him. The right wing does not want their champion to gossip with the lame media. And how do readers of such news outlets process the reality that journalists’ jobs involve developing relationships with people they may hate?
The double game is not new to Mr Carlson’s strain of American right-wing populism. In the 1950s, “no politician in America could understand better than Joe McCarthy how the press works and how to manipulate it,” McCarthy Biographer Larry Tye In his 2020 book “Damagog”. Mr Trump excelled in this as well. His exchange of access to favorable coverage prompted New York City greats columnist Jimmy Breslin to write in 1991 that “the man was buying up the entire news industry with one return phone call.”
daily business briefing
And Mr. Carlson’s comfortable space inside the Washington media, many of the reporters who cover him say some have shrugged off the coverage. It also served as a sort of insurance policy, he says, to marginalize him from the faux pas that ended the Fox career of his predecessor, Glenn Beck, which also attracted a vast audience with shady conspiracy theories. attracted.
“It is so unknown to the general public how much he plays on both sides,” wondered a reporter for a major publication who talks to Mr Carlson regularly.
Another Washington journalist in his class said he felt that Mr. Carlson benefited from his value to the media.
“If you open yourself up as a resource for mainstream media journalists, you don’t even need to ask them to be lenient,” the journalist said.
The nature of anonymous sources means you can’t usually tell where Mr. Carlson has been helpful, but he does sometimes make it clear on the record by saying what he said earlier. For example, last March, after stories about how he arrived at Mar-a-Lago to warn Trump about the seriousness of the COVID-19 threat, Carlson story told On the record in an interview with Vanity Fair’s Joe Hagen.
“I’ve known Tucker Carlson for 20 years,” Mr. Hagen wrote in an introduction to the interview, calling the Fox host “one of Washington’s most intelligent and dependably ruthless supervillains – even more so than on camera.” He also hinted at the essence of Mr Carlson’s less guarded comments: “A shrewd TV diplomat, he would not say that Trump is intimidated, vulnerable, politically doomed, in deep denial and surrounded by toddy and mediocrity.”
Mr. Carlson’s other defense against bad publicity is, of course, his willingness to use his platform as a weapon, and attack on individual journalists, setting off waves of oppression. When a freelance writer and photographer for The Times began working on an article about his studio in rural Maine last year, Mr. Carlson attacked both by name already on the air and one as a political activist. depicted as Eric Wemple The Washington Post called it an “astonishing creation”. According to Times media editor Jim Windolph, the planned article, a lightweight feature that was nowhere close to publication, became impossible to report following threats and a dangerous incident at the photographer’s home.
In a separate incident last February, a Politico reporter, Ben Schrekinger, inquired about commercials on Fox for a brand of laxative marketed by Purdue Pharma, which the company paid for. $2.8 billion civil settlement For its role in the opioid epidemic. (Mr. Carlson has slammed the company and other drugmakers for calling it a “tsunami” of opioid deaths and criticized politicians who take its money.) Before a story could be published, Mr. Carlson went on the offensive. moved, broadcasting a segment attacking Politico’s partnership with a Hong Kong newspaper, and they demanded that Mr Schrekinger answer for it. “How does Ben Schrekinger feel about working for a publication that makes money from Chinese state propaganda and political repression?” Mr. Carlson Asked.
The Purdue story, as it were, was never revealed. “We’ve never played or played a story based on what Tucker said about us,” said Politico editor-in-chief, Matthew Kaminsky.
Those attacks are one reason his fans love him and the journalists who don’t talk to him regularly hate him. However, at Fox, Mr. Carlson’s close ties with journalists have complicated his relationships with co-workers, with the boss and with the company’s feared (by Fox employees, at least) public relations chief, Irena Briganti.
Daily Beast reporter Maxwell Tani said, “Whenever there is a positive story about Tucker, some Fox executives believe they have a hand in it.”
Ms Briganti said it “wasn’t really surprising for anyone working in the media to talk 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 shrugged off the notion.
“I don’t know any gossip. I live in a city of 100 people,” he wrote, referring to his remote Maine life.
But Mr Wolfe writes in his forthcoming essay that Mr Carlson’s ubiquity as a source during the Trump years meant there was a downside to repeating his threads.
“To count the many times, after one’s conviction, I have asked, ‘Does this come from Tucker? Mr Wolfe writes. “And equally, I’m caught myself when I’ve shared a juicy detail: ‘So… you’re talking to Tucker.'”