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?
The answer is one of Washington’s open secrets. 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.”
“In Trump’s Washington, Tucker Carlson is a primary supersecret source,” the media writer and Trump chronicler Michael Wolff writes in his forthcoming collection of essays, “Too Famous.” Mr. Wolff, who thanked Mr. 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.”
Mr. 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 three million viewers, made him someone who mattered to Mr. 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 Mr. Trump’s chaotic court and Fox’s own tumultuous internal politics.
A coming book by the Wall Street Journal reporter Michael Bender, “Frankly, We Did Win This Election: The Inside Story of How Trump Lost,” includes a moment in which Mr. Carlson sends Mr. Trump’s calls to voice mail after the first presidential debate last fall, when he was criticized for repeatedly interrupting Joe Biden. When Mr. Trump finally reaches the Fox host, the book describes, verbatim, an exchange between the two men that casts Mr. Carlson in a flattering light. (“Everyone says I did a good job,” Mr. Trump tells Mr. Carlson. “I don’t know who told you that was good,” Mr. Carlson says. “It was not good.”) Mr. Bender declined to comment on the sourcing that allowed him to so precisely reconstruct a conversation only two people were privy to.
And Brian Stelter, the host of the CNN program “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 Mr. Trump’s falsehoods. He said that he “couldn’t stomach” talking to Mr. Carlson, who has grown ever more hard-line, for the updated paperback version that was just released.
Mr. 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 the 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 traveled to Washington to cover the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in the early 2000s, it was Mr. 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.
Mr. 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 Mr. 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? Mr. Carlson’s recent fixations include suggesting that the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection was, in fact, a provocation staged by the F.B.I. and that making children wear masks is abuse. 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.”
Mr. 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 Mr. 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,” 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.”
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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.
“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.
Another Washington journalist in his orbit said he thought Mr. Carlson benefited 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.
The nature of anonymous sources means that you usually can’t quite tell where Mr. 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 Mr. Trump of the seriousness of the Covid-19 threat, Mr. Carlson told the story on the record in an interview with Joe Hagan of Vanity Fair.
“I’ve known Tucker Carlson for 20 years,” Mr. 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 Mr. 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.”
Mr. Carlson’s other defense against bad publicity, of course, is his willingness to use his platform as a weapon, and to attack individual reporters, setting off waves of harassment. When a freelance writer and photographer for The Times began working on an article about his studio in rural Maine last year, Mr. Carlson pre-emptively attacked the two by name on the air and characterized one as a political activist, which Erik Wemple of The Washington Post called a “stunning fabrication.” The planned article, a light feature that was nowhere close to publication, became impossible to report, after threats and a menacing incident at the photographer’s house, according to The Times’s media editor, Jim Windolf.
In a separate incident last February, a Politico reporter, Ben Schreckinger, made inquiries about advertisements on Fox for a brand of laxative marketed by Purdue Pharma, the company that paid a $2.8 billion civil settlement for its role in the opioid epidemic. (Mr. Carlson has skewered the company and other drug makers for what he calls a “tsunami” of opioid deaths and has criticized politicians who take its money.) Before any story could be published, Mr. Carlson went on the offensive, airing a segment attacking Politico’s partnership with a Hong Kong newspaper, and he demanded that Mr. Schreckinger answer for it. “How does Ben Schreckinger feel about working for a publication that makes money from Chinese state propaganda and political repression?” Mr. Carlson asked.
The Purdue story, such as it was, never appeared. Politico’s editor in chief, Matthew Kaminski, said, “We’ve never run or not run a story based on anything Tucker has said about us.”
Those attacks are one reason his fans love him and the journalists who don’t regularly talk to him loathe him. At Fox, however, Mr. Carlson’s close relationship with reporters has complicated his relationship with colleagues, with bosses and with the company’s feared (by Fox employees, at least) head of public relations, Irena Briganti.
“Whenever there’s a positive story about Tucker, some Fox executives assume he’s had a hand in it,” said the Daily Beast reporter Maxwell Tani.
Ms. Briganti said it was “not really surprising for anyone who works in media to talk to the press.”
When I asked Mr. 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 Mr. Wolff writes in his forthcoming essay that Mr. 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?’” Mr. Wolff writes. “And equally, after I’ve shared a juicy detail, I’ve been caught out myself: ‘So … you’ve been speaking to Tucker.’”