If you’re a journalist, chances are you’ve had some pretty low moments in the last few years, as your industry has imploded all around you. But, in your darkest hours, you were always able to console yourself with one thought: At least I’m not Tucker Carlson.
Just consider his bad run. It started in October 2004, when Jon Stewart went on CNN’s “Crossfire,” co-hosted by Carlson, and accused the show of “hurting America,” while making fun of Carlson’s trademark bow tie and calling him a “dick”--all to the laughter and applause of the studio audience. A few months later, Carlson left CNN and “Crossfire” was canceled. He resurfaced on msnbc, where, now sans bow tie, he hosted his own show; but the new neckwear didn’t seem to make a difference, and, after three time slots (late night, late afternoon, and early evening) and two names (“The Situation With Tucker Carlson” and “Tucker”), his program was canceled before it reached its third birthday. Adding insult to injury, according to Carlson, the entourages of two of “Tucker”’s final guests, Marion Barry and Al Sharpton, made off with the champagne that he had ordered to commemorate the last show.
But there may have been no lower moment for Carlson than the one he experienced in September 2006, when he became a contestant on the reality-TV show “Dancing With the Stars.” His friends and colleagues begged him not to do the show. It’s career suicide, they told him. You run the risk of becoming another Jerry Springer. But Carlson ignored their advice, and, in the weeks leading up to the show, he practiced four hours a day with his professional dance partner--only taking a break to go to Lebanon to cover the Israel-Hezbollah war. And then, after all that, Carlson lasted only one episode--becoming the first contestant to be eliminated, five episodes before Springer himself was cut from the show.
More than three years later, Carlson is still defending his “Dancing With the Stars” turn, if not his dancing ability. “Oh, I loved it,” he insists, professing that his recent trajectory has not bothered him in the slightest. “I never take the long view on my own career. I don’t even know that I have a career or have ever had one--and I’m not sure I would ever want one.”
It’s a Tuesday morning in mid-January, and he’s sitting in his office at his new professional home, a D.C.-based website called The Daily Caller, which, at that moment, is just a little more than 24 hours old. The brainchild of Carlson and his old Trinity College roommate, a former Dick Cheney aide named Neil Patel, The Daily Caller boasts 21 employees, $3 million in financing from a conservative businessman, and, according to Carlson, the straightforward mission of publishing “stories that add to the sum total of known facts about politics and government.”
If that sounds like a fairly traditional journalistic enterprise, it is. And that’s because Carlson is, at heart, a fairly traditional journalist--and an excellent one at that. It may be hard to remember now, staring back through the thick haze of cable-news smackdowns, but, before Carlson embarked on a TV career--and, at various points, even during that TV career--he was a great writer and reporter. His 1999 profile of George W. Bush for Tina Brown’s short-lived Talk painted a portrait of the then-Texas governor--stubborn, profane, callow--that should have told voters everything they needed to know about why he would be such a terrible president. The piece he wrote for Esquire about traveling to Africa with Sharpton, Cornel West, and other civil rights activists was at once viciously hilarious and bracingly humane, like David Foster Wallace’s or Michael Lewis’s best reportage. At The Weekly Standard, where he worked for much of the 1990s, he was one of the rare writers less consumed with scoring political points than producing quality journalism.
Which is what was so painful about Carlson’s recent travails--if not for him, then for those who admired his writing and reporting. Indeed, the very qualities that made him such a good print journalist are what made him such a lousy TV one. Although he is undoubtedly a conservative, his conservatism is of the libertarian (and therefore frequently unpredictable) variety. This has often led him to be out of sync with more lockstep conservative commentators--whether on the Iraq war (which, after initially supporting, he turned against one year after the invasion) or gay marriage (which he favors). And his almost preternaturally good nature was often no match for the paranoia and bombast of other cable-news talkers. In a medium that rewards extreme opinions and partisan allegiances, Carlson was an increasingly bad fit.
Worst of all, Carlson’s TV career prevented him from doing the sort of journalism he does so well. “You either can’t travel because you’re tied to a show, or, when you do travel, you’re accompanied by a huge entourage of people and a lot of gear,” he says. “The process of making TV requires you to be in one place and plan every movement.”
Thankfully, those days are over. Carlson is keeping a foot in the TV world, with a contract to serve as a commentator on Fox News (the network that, back when he was working at CNN, he deemed “a mean, sick group of people”). But his primary job will be as editor of The Daily Caller, which he envisions becoming a right-leaning Huffington Post. To that end, he has striven for a mix of articles, ranging from blanket coverage of Scott Brown’s election in Massachusetts to a Golden Globe fashion report written by notorious Republican dirty-trickster (and notorious dandy) Roger Stone. Most promising, Carlson intends to use the site for long-form writing of his own.
His one feature-length effort so far, an investigation into the third alleged White House gate-crasher, Carlos Allen, reminded him of why he got into journalism in the first place. “I interviewed a lot of people. I was talking to a friend of mine who said, ‘Oh, you’ve got to talk to this guy,’ so I called him and he said, ‘Come over to my house,’ and I went over to his house, and it was a completely bizarre scene. It was totally off-the-record, so I can’t quite describe it, but he had a very unconventional living situation, let me just put it that way, and I spent a couple hours in the guy’s bedroom. It was so interesting. The point is, I really miss that.”
In a speech he gave at last year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, Carlson pleaded with conservative journalists to forsake punditry in favor of reporting and, taking The New York Times as a model, “to go out there and find what is happening ... not just interpret things they hear in the mainstream media, but gather news themselves.” Although that plea was met with a chorus of boos, Carlson holds out hope that conservatives will come around to his point of view--and that he won’t have to compromise his site’s standards too much to lure readers. Sitting in his office as he chomps on a piece of Nicorette, he confesses his biggest fear: “You could wind up with a page only about porn, executions, and Sarah Palin every day.”
Jason Zengerle is a senior editor at the New Republic.