Here’s a sampling of Caller headlines from the day I interviewed him:
OBAMA CAMPAIGN RESORTS TO TRUTH TELLING
OBAMA TURNS AWAY LITTLE GIRL WITH ASPERGER’S
ANTI_ROMNEY DNC BUS BLOCKS FOOD TRUCK’S PARKING SPOT
MARK LEVIN ASKS WHY OBAMA IS FIXATED ON CONTRACEPTION OVER CANCER, DIABETES AND HEART DISEASE
NEW URBAN DICTIONARY ENTRY PEGS HARRY REID AS CHILD MOLESTER
The first is a story by Munro reporting that the Obama campaign acknowledged that an anti-Romney ad was misleading. The Asperger’s headline is a tongue-in-cheek blog post by the pseudonymous Jim Treacher, whose scorn for Obama and everyone associated with him is limitless. Read the food-truck story and you learn that the facts contradict the headline. And as we all know, Obama doesn’t care if his fellow Americans succumb to leukemia as long as they can have lots of consequence-free sex.
But the worst story of the day, and one of the worst stories published by the Caller—or, honestly, by any news organization ever—was the Harry Reid/child-molester story. It’s by Martosko, who, along with editing much of what shows up on the Caller, also churns out his own copy. Before joining the Caller, he worked for the Center for Consumer Freedom, an industry-supported nonprofit that has argued, for instance, that mercury in tuna might not be so bad for you and that smoking bans infringe on personal freedom. Martosko came to Carlson, whom he didn’t know well, asking for career advice. Carlson did him one better and gave him a job.
“I hired Martosko because he’s smart and aggressive, the two qualities I care about most in new hires,” Carlson says. “You can teach journalism. Despite lots of effort to pretend otherwise, it’s not that complicated. Look at the people who do it.”
Martosko reported that someone had added a definition to the website Urban Dictionary implying that Harry Reid molests children. The article ends with the following line: “Reid spokesman Adam Jentleson has not responded to The Daily Caller’s request, first made August 4, for confirmation or denial about whether the Senate Majority Leader is in fact a pederast.” Martosko doesn’t mention the multiple definitions of his boss, Tucker Carlson, on Urban Dictionary, including “bowtie wearing pussy” and another definition too obscene and bizarre to print. I could pretend that this was somehow meaningful or call Carlson to ask him to confirm or deny, but that would make me a terrible journalist.
The Daily Caller has an entire section devoted to firearms. Carlson has been a vocal supporter of Second Amendment rights, once telling an audience that he was “literally in the process of stockpiling weapons.” This is another instance in which it’s hard to tell if he was being serious, but this fall the website was giving away one 9-millimeter handgun a week to readers. The site’s Guns and Gear section contains press releases from the NRA. Usually reporters are attacked for doing little more than rewriting press releases. Here they didn’t even go to the trouble.
Unlike Arianna Huffington, who blogs regularly for her Huffington Post, Tucker Carlson’s byline is a rarity at the Caller. But in October Carlson wrote what was billed as a campaign-altering exclusive. It was rolled out in coordination with The Sean Hannity Show and the Drudge Report, both of which promoted it as the biggest revelation ever. What kind of bombshell merited this buildup?
Turns out it was a 2007 video of Barack Obama speaking to a group of black ministers, praising his former pastor Jeremiah Wright and complaining that the federal government hadn’t done enough for victims of Hurricane Katrina. The speech had been reported before, including by Carlson on his MSNBC show. What made it new, Carlson wrote, were the sections in which Obama veered from his prepared remarks in a “racially charged and at times angry” manner. Carlson also called Obama’s accent “phony.”
The putative game-changer immediately vanished from the national conversation, thanks in part to Mitt Romney’s genuinely game-changing debate performance. Carlson and the Caller were ridiculed. The video wasn’t damaging enough to warrant a White House rebuttal. Even the Romney campaign wanted no part of it.
If the purpose was to make Obama’s controversial pastor a liability once again, to portray the President as a race-baiting fraud, it was a bust. But it did get attention, as evidenced by the 10,000-plus comments on Carlson’s article. Even those who read the story just to jeer helped make it a success. A click is a click.
A few weeks later, the Drudge Report trumpeted a forthcoming Caller story with the headline sex scandal to hit campaign. It turned out to be a puzzlingly brief article by Matthew Boyle in which he reported that two prostitutes in the Dominican Republic said they’d had sex with Bob Menendez, the Democratic senator from New Jersey, and that he hadn’t fully paid the bill for their services. (A Menendez spokeswoman told the Caller the allegations were “completely false.”) Like the dated Reverend Wright scoop, the story generated momentary buzz for the Caller but fizzled almost instantly, hardly justifying Drudge’s dramatic all-caps treatment.
The Caller doesn’t always live up to Carlson’s standards. “There are days when I’m distressed, where we’ve fallen far short of what I want,” he says. His critique, though, isn’t what you might expect. He’s most concerned when stories are boring, and he sees tabloids such as the Daily Mail and the New York Post as models.
The Caller remains a work in progress, he says, comparing it to a house under construction. The roof is finished, the walls are up, but there’s much left to be done. Still, it’s no longer in danger of collapse. “It’s tight against the wind,” he says.
The numbers back that up. The Caller averages 8 million unique visitors a month, which is the metric Carlson tracks most closely. The site was profitable for the first time in the second quarter of 2012, not bad for a publication just two years old.
When Carlson enters the Caller’s office, no one leaps to attention. He seems more buddy than boss. One young reporter keeps her feet up on the desk. The flat-screen on the wall is tuned to Fox News.
Carlson’s corner office is dominated by a beat-up old desk he bought for $150. It’s clear except for an iPad on a stand and a full-size keyboard. There are photos of his family and his dogs around the office, a shot of a much-younger Carlson and his buddies sitting on their motorcycles, a grip-and-grin with Jerry Garcia. The Grateful Dead is a leitmotif: A framed tour poster adorns the newsroom.
While Carlson delegates much of the editing, he’s more than a figurehead. He attends the Caller’s 2:30 pm editorial meeting when he’s not off giving a paid lecture. Late in the evening, around 11, he selects the lead story for the next day. But while the Caller is often the first thing he thinks of in the morning, it’s not the first thing he reads. That would be the New York Times obituaries, which he peruses on his phone before getting out of bed. For a guy who hates to be idle, it’s a reminder that the clock is always ticking. Carlson’s own obit will include the requisite references to bow ties along with a lengthy list of print and television gigs.
If the obit writer is feeling cheeky, he or she might also mention his brief 2006 appearance on Dancing With the Stars, in which he gamely attempted to appear graceful. A judge on that show, while panning his performance, conceded the following: “You looked like you had the best time on the dance floor.”
This article appears in the December 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.