Last month, I texted Tucker Carlson to ask him a question that was on my mind: “Did you get vaccinated?”
“When was the last time you had sex with your wife and in what position?” 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 may be asking, if you are a New York Times reader, is: Why are you exchanging texts with Tucker Carlson, the Fox News host who recently described the media at large as “cringing animals who are not worthy of respect”?
And if you are a Tucker Carlson viewer, you may also be asking: How can the guy who tells you every night that the media is lying be texting with the enemy?
His observations can be detected in the lurid tales of Trump's chaotic court and Fox's own tumultuous internal politics
The answer is one of Washington's open secrets. Carlson, a proud traitor to the elite political class, spends his time when he's not denouncing the liberal media trading gossip with them. He's the go-to guy for sometimes-unflattering stories about Donald Trump and for coverage of the internal politics of Fox News (not to mention stories about Carlson himself).
I won’t talk here about any off-the-record conversations I may have had with him. But 16 other journalists (none from the New York Times; it would put my colleagues in a weird position if I asked them) told me on background that he has been, as three of them put it, “a great source”.
"In Trump's Washington, Tucker Carlson is a primary supersecret source," media writer and Trump chronicler Michael Wolff writes in his forthcoming collection of essays, Too Famous.
Wolff, who thanked Carlson in the acknowledgments of his 2018 book, Fire and Fury, explained, “I know this because I know what he has told me, and I can track his exquisite, too-good-not-to-be-true gossip through unsourced reports and as it often emerges into accepted wisdom.”
Eye for detail
Carlson was particularly well positioned to be a source about the Trump administration. His Fox platform, where in May he had a nightly average of 3 million viewers, made him someone who mattered to Trump, a close follower of television ratings. He has a former reporter’s eye for detail and anecdote, and his observations can be detected in the lurid tales of Trump’s chaotic court and Fox’s own tumultuous internal politics.
A coming book by Wall Street Journal reporter Michael Bender, Frankly, We Did Win This Election: The Inside Story of How Trump Lost, includes a moment in which Carlson sends Trump's calls to voicemail after the first presidential debate last autumn, when he was criticised for repeatedly interrupting Joe Biden.
When Trump finally reaches the Fox host, the book describes, verbatim, an exchange between the two men that casts Carlson in a flattering light. (“Everyone says I did a good job,” Trump tells Carlson. “I don’t know who told you that was good,” Carlson says. “It was not good.”) Bender declined to comment on the sourcing that allowed him to so precisely reconstruct a conversation only two people were privy to.
Carlson has said he turned against his fellow elites after the 2008 financial crisis
And Brian Stelter, the host of the CNN programme Reliable Sources, told me that "you can see Tucker's fingerprints all over the hardcover" edition of his 2020 book Hoax, which excoriates Fox News for amplifying Trump's falsehoods. He said that he "couldn't stomach" talking to Carlson, who has grown ever more hard line, for the updated paperback version that was just released.
Carlson was born to a world of insiders and story shapers, and makes no secret of it. 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 elite Washington journalists.
“I’ve always lived around people who are wielding authority, around the ruling class,” he said in a 2018 interview.
A former New York Observer media writer, Sridhar Pappu, recalled to me that when he first travelled to Washington to cover the White House Correspondents' Association dinner in the early 2000s, it was Carlson who asked him, "Do you have an invitation to Tammy's?" referring to the annual brunch for media insiders co-hosted by Tammy Haddad, the well-connected former MSNBC producer.
Carlson has said he turned against his fellow elites after the 2008 financial crisis. His political shift also transformed his long journeyman’s career as a magazine writer and MSNBC conservative, and made him Fox’s leading tribune of the pro-Trump masses.
But his decades of Washington relationships have produced a tiresome conversation among Carlson’s old friends about what he really stands for, whether he’s really a racist or whether he cynically plays one on TV. Who knows, and what does it matter anyway?
Carlson’s recent fixations include suggesting that the January 6th Capitol insurrection was, in fact, a provocation staged by the FBI and that making children wear masks is abuse.
Carlson's comfortable place inside Washington media, many of the reporters who cover him say, has taken the edge off some of the coverage
The Anti-Defamation League recently called for him to be fired from Fox News for warning that Democrats are plotting to “replace” the current electorate with “more obedient voters, from the Third World”. The Pentagon rebuked him for a sexist riff on women in the military.
And then there are his stated views on the media. "I just can't overstate how disgusted I am," he told the Fox-owned sports media site Outkick in April. "The media is basically Praetorian Guard for the ruling class, the bodyguards for Jeff Bezos. That's the opposite of what we should have. I really hate them for it, I'll be honest."
Carlson spends less time on air talking about his warm relationships with a generation of political and media reporters. To be fair, they don’t brag much about talking to him either. Right-wingers may not want their champion chattering with the lamestream media. And how do readers of news outlets like this one process the reality that reporters’ jobs include developing relationships with people they may despise?
The double game isn't new to Carlson's strain of American right-wing populism. In the 1950s, "no politician in America understood better than Joe McCarthy how the press worked and how to manipulate it" McCarthy biographer Larry Tye wrote in his 2020 book Demagogue.
Trump, too, excelled at it. His exchange of access for favourable coverage prompted the great New York City columnist Jimmy Breslin to write in 1991 that "the guy was buying the whole news industry with a return phone call."
And Carlson's comfortable place inside Washington media, many of the reporters who cover him say, has taken the edge off some of the coverage. It has also served as a kind of insurance policy, they say, protecting him from the marginalisation that ended the Fox career of his predecessor, Glenn Beck, who also drew a huge audience with shadowy theories of elite conspiracy.
"I don't know any gossip. I live in a town of 100 people," he texted, referring to his remote Maine life.
“It’s so unknown in the general public how much he plays both sides,” marvelled one reporter for a prominent publication who speaks to Carlson regularly. Another Washington journalist in his orbit said he thought Carlson benefitted from his value to the media.
“If you open yourself up as a resource to mainstream media reporters, you don’t even have to ask them to go soft on you,” the journalist said.
On the record
The nature of anonymous sources means that you usually can't quite tell where Carlson has been helpful, but he occasionally makes it clear by saying on the record what he had previously said off the record. Last March, for instance, after stories about how he had rushed to Mar-a-Lago to warn Trump of the seriousness of the Covid-19 threat, Carlson told the story on the record in an interview with Joe Hagan of Vanity Fair.
“I’ve known Tucker Carlson for 20 years,” Hagan wrote in an introduction to the interview, calling the Fox host “one of the most intelligent and reliably savage observers of Washington – even more so off camera.”
He also hinted at the substance of Carlson’s less guarded observations: “A canny TV diplomat, he won’t say Trump is terrified, weak, politically doomed, in deep denial and surrounded by toadies and mediocrities.”
When I asked Carlson last week about his reputation as a source of gossip and insight into the Trump administration, he dismissed the notion. "I don't know any gossip. I live in a town of 100 people," he texted, referring to his remote Maine life.
But Wolff writes in his forthcoming essay that Carlson’s ubiquity as a source during the Trump years meant there was a downside to repeating his yarns.
“Too many times to count, after someone’s confidence, I’ve asked, ‘Did that come from Tucker?’” Wolff writes. “And equally, after I’ve shared a juicy detail, I’ve been caught out myself: ‘So – you’ve been speaking to Tucker.’” – New York Times