This Ben Smith story appeared last night and sent a frisson of scandal through political Twitter. The most scathing populist on American television, Fox News’s golden boy, is gossiping with the dreaded MSM like a teenaged girl?
The same MSM he claims to hate and has been known to describe as lying “animals”?
It’s true, Smith insists. He spoke to no fewer than 16 reporters who confirmed it. If you want dirt on Washington, or Fox News, or even Trump, Carlson’s the guy to call, it seems.
The excitement that greeted the story online was due to an understandable but misguided impulse among politicos that exposing Tucker’s collaboration with “the enemy” might be the beginning of the end of his dominance on cable. Surely MAGA fans upon hearing of this will conclude that he’s a hypocrite, pounding the table every night about the elites conspiring against them before heading off to have beers with those same elites from the Times and WaPo. It’s his Lonesome Rhodes moment, when his supporters finally see what he really thinks of them.
That’s a naive view of how the GOP operates in a post-Trump era, though. If anything, I expect Carlson will discuss the story on air and pat himself on the back over it.
Mr. 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 J. Trump and for coverage of the internal politics of Fox News (not to mention stories about Mr. 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 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.”…
“It’s so unknown in the general public how much he plays both sides,” marveled one reporter for a prominent publication who speaks to Mr. Carlson regularly.
Michael Wolff in particular praised Carlson as a “primary supersecret source,” leaving one to wonder how much of his infamous book about Trump, “Fire and Fury,” came from things Tucker told him.
End of the road for Tuckermania on the right, then? Of course not. Let me try to predict how Carlson will spin Smith’s report: “Do I talk to the press? Of course I do. A lot. You’d have to be a fool not to talk to them. Given the way they smear people, especially conservatives, the only way to get them anywhere near the truth is to lead them there yourself.” He’ll portray his relationship with reporters as entirely transactional, something he does for the greater good while holding his nose. Trump did the same playing-both-sides thing for years, as Smith acknowledges, and not just with his relationships with the media. Remember that one of his liabilities initially in the 2016 primaries was his record of donating to Democratic politicians, including Hillary Clinton.
Sure I donated to her, Trump said. In a corrupt system like ours, you’ve gotta play the game to influence policy until you’re in a position to drain the swamp by changing the rules for the better. Tucker will make the same point about cultivating the media. He’s not an elitist masquerading as a populist in hopes of influencing his viewers, he’s a populist masquerading as an elitist in hopes of influencing the press.
Arguably, in fact, his cozy relationship with reporters is less a scandal for him than for them. “The story doesn’t expose Tucker as a hypocrite, it exposes those who pretend that he’s this radioactive racist as hypocrites,” tweeted Steve Krakauer. “He’s the same off-air and on-air. It’s the ‘on-air’ performance of those who play the boogeyman card that’s shown to be fake.” Smith mentioned that too, noting that reporters are unlikely to alienate a rich vein of political inside information by criticizing him harshly for his more dubious moments of commentary:
In the 1950s, “no politician in America understood better than Joe McCarthy how the press worked and how to manipulate it,” the McCarthy biographer Larry Tye wrote in his 2020 book “Demagogue.” Mr. Trump, too, excelled at it. His exchange of access for favorable 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 Mr. 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 marginalization that ended the Fox career of his predecessor, Glenn Beck, who also drew a huge audience with shadowy theories of elite conspiracy.
Reporters love a gossip, even one prone to idly wonder in front of an audience of millions whether the COVID vaccines have killed thousands. Is it a “Tucker scandal” if the media are using him as a source after his own employer claimed in court last year that you can’t trust him to state “actual facts,” or is it a media scandal?
Speaking of which, in a podcast interview he did this week, he said he won’t run for president in 2024. I’m not sure that’s an actual fact either.
I’ll leave you with one more bit from Smith’s piece:
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.
So that’s a yes, right?