Tucker Carlson wasn’t always Tucker Carlson. Or maybe he was.
When I met the recently defenestrated Fox host in the late 1990s, he was stylizing himself as a facts-driven reporter who happened to work for the conservative Weekly Standard. His schtick was that he was a journalist, not an ideologue. Sure, he had right-of-center opinions, but he wanted to be known as a get-out-the-truth digger who reported on politics with panache and gonzo-ish attitude. He wore a bow tie. His most well-known article at that time was a 1999 profile of then-Gov. George W. Bush (R-Texas) for Tina Brown’s short-lived Talk magazine. It depicted Bush dropping multiple F-bombs and showed him mocking a plea for clemency from a murderer who while imprisoned had converted to Christianity and become a cause celebre for evangelicals. She was executed on Bush’s watch. (In those days, such profanity and disrespect were considered unbecoming for a presidential candidate, and this article prompted questions about Bush’s suitability for the White House—now a quaint notion.)
Carlson prided himself on a strategic use of nastiness in his journalism but insisted he was not a partisan hack in the tank for Republicans and right-wingers. He even feared being tagged a “wing-nut.” In an interview with Howard Kurtz, then the media reporter for the Washington Post, Carlson explained his creed, “You try not to distort the truth because someone you’re profiling you think is on the right side of abortion or trade or any other issue. That would be dishonest.” Bill Kristol, the founding editor of the Weekly Standard, praised his young star: “Some Republicans and conservatives think he’s a fellow conservative and he’ll give them a break. Tucker, to his credit, reports it like it is.” (Yes, Kristol, now a dedicated Never Trumper and foe of GOP authoritarianism, helped give us Carlson, as well as Sarah Palin.)
It all worked. Carlson was hailed by the punditry and rewarded with a gig on CNN. Eventually, he became a host of Crossfire, the network’s much-watched debate show. I occasionally filled in for the from-the-left cohost, Bill Press, and jousted on air with Carlson. While always a conservative, he was more ideologically independent than Pat Buchanan, another Crossfire host I once in a while battled with. Carlson was less interested than Buchanan in toeing the party line, and more focused on showing off his own smarts. His aim seemed to be boosting his image as an iconoclast, not leading the conservative movement. He went on to gigs at MSNBC and PBS.
Two decades later, I wonder if it was all a farce. Was Carlson playing a role that he believed would be warmly received by the Washington media establishment? After all, someone had to be the conservative journalist who conventional outlets and the DC establishment embraced? He came across as believing his own story. But what better way to sell it?
When I ask people who worked with and knew Carlson well what happened to him, mostly I get shrugs and puzzled looks. How did this fellow who professed to be an honest broker of truth become a racist demagogue and promoter of far-right disinformation and dangerous conspiracy theories? As evidence in the Dominion lawsuit revealed, there is no longer any question that Carlson sold his integrity. On air, he was a champion of Donald Trump and provided a platform for Trump’s Big Lie about the 2020 election. Off air, he told his colleagues that Trump was a liar and that he despised Trump. No media figure as prominent (and as well-paid) as Carlson has been shown to be such a cowardly hypocrite. From crusading journalist to con man—that’s quite the trip.
Carlsonologists might have different theories to explain his descent. But one clear turning point came in 2010 when he and Neil Patel (a former aide to Dick Cheney) created the Daily Caller website, which was funded by a prominent conservative and GOP funder named Foster Friess. Echoing his earlier self-description, Carlson insisted that the Daily Caller would not be an ideological endeavor and that it would concentrate on “breaking stories of importance.” But that was not what happened.
The Daily Caller was launched as the Tea Party—a movement of racist grievance, tribalism, and conspiracy theory—was gaining control of the GOP and the conservative world, and the site embodied the spirit of that spreading right-wing extremism. Though the Daily Caller occasionally published investigative articles that could easily have appeared elsewhere, it mostly became a conservative outlet that blasted liberal targets, often wielding conjecture and poorly sourced information. It ran false articles about climate change. It aired misleadingly edited hidden-camera videos filmed by right-wing activist James O’Keefe. One of its editors published racist and antisemitic articles under a pseudonym in white supremacist publications. Several prominent scoops it touted turned out to be wrong or overblown. Its White House correspondent shouted at President Barack Obama, “Why’d you favor foreigners over Americans?” The site ran sensationalized articles about supposed Bill and Hillary Clinton scandals that were debunked. It published what it described as a nude selfie of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. (It wasn’t.) The Daily Caller was what Carlson had claimed it wouldn’t be: a key participant in the alt-right echo chamber of reality distortion.
Columnist Mickey Kaus quit the Daily Caller after Carlson spiked a piece Kaus had written criticizing Fox’s coverage of immigration policy. (A great irony: Kaus was slamming Fox for not being tough enough on immigration and amnesty.) At the time, Carlson was a Fox contributor. Kaus revealed that Carlson had told him, “’We can’t trash Fox on the site. I work there.’” Soon after, Carlson began hosting his primetime weekday show on Rupert Murdoch’s network. So much for Carlson the great seeker of journalistic truth. He had become the type of media whore he had once deplored. (His 2003 book had been titled Politicians, Partisans & Parasites.)
The Daily Caller was a dependable media ally of Trump, pushing stories that boosted assorted Trump narratives and that assailed his critics. It was fully in sync with Carlson’s demagogic rhetoric on Fox. In June 2020, Carlson sold his stake in the Daily Caller. As Fox’s top loudmouth, he continued on his toxic course of amplifying noxious lies that encouraged right-wing authoritarianism and boosted Trump’s and the GOP’s war on democracy. In the run-up to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and afterward, he also functioned, wittingly or not, as a key ally of Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin’s disinformation campaign designed to weaken American support for Ukraine. (Remember this scoop I had—a Kremlin memo instructing Russian media to feature clips of Carlson?)
Back to the question at hand: What happened to Carlson? Perhaps nothing. Maybe from the start he was nothing but an opportunistic guy on the make. A Sammy Glick of the right. As a young reporter, he seized the opportunity to brand himself as a conservative journalist different from other right-wing scribes in the combative Age of Clinton. Years later, as that glow wore off (and his television career started slipping), he reinvented himself as an angry populist cheerleader of the Trumpish right. That’s where the audience and the big bucks were—and the influence. It’s possible that along the way he even convinced himself of some of what he was saying. But the likely explanation is that truth never mattered: It was all about status and money.
As I write, we don’t yet know all the details of what led Fox to toss cash-cow Carlson to the curb. But one thing is certain: It wasn’t for his perversion and poisoning of the national political discourse. That was his raison d’etre at Fox. He was no truth-teller. He was a pro-MAGA, for-mega-profit propagandist. Carlson’s personal journey is a tale of the Trump era. Like the GOP, he was already on the path to right-wing demagoguery before Trump oozed down that escalator. As those dark political winds grew stronger, he eagerly raised the sails and exploited the Trumpfication of the Republican Party and the conservative movement. But by ending up a Fox cast-off whose phoniness has been thoroughly exposed, Carlson has finally provided something of a public service. He has both emblemized and revealed the fundamental truth of the network: We distort, and we divide. No journalist could have done that better.