Tucker Carlson talks during a panel, gesturing with his hand.

New York Times Details the Cozy “Open Secret” Relationship Between Tucker Carlson & the Media He Claims To Despise

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According to a new report from the New York Times, Tucker Carlson—one of the most vocal and vicious critics of the “liberal mainstream media”—is also one of that same media’s most frequent anonymous sources.

The Times’s Ben Smith says that Carlson hasn’t just acted as a frequent source for him but for more than a dozen other journalists he spoke with:

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.”

Anonymous sources have long been a part of political journalism. Sources often insist on anonymity when they fear retaliation, which was an especially reasonable fear for those working in or close to Donald Trump’s administration, since Trump was known for lashing out publicly at anyone who showed him anything less than complete obsequious sycophancy.

Sources can also use the cloak of anonymity to push stories that make themselves look good. When Trump saw an unflattering story that cited an anonymous source, he would publicly insist that “anonymous” meant “made up,” trying (and often succeeding) to convince his supporters that this was just another dishonest trick from the “fake news media.” But not only would Trump praise stories using anonymous sources when they were favorable to him or supporting one of his agendas, he’s also famous for acting as his own anonymous source, frequently giving tips to media outlets during his career in real estate.

For Carlson, acting as an anonymous source means he gets to play both sides: issuing the constant attacks on the media that his viewers love seeing from him while also getting to act as a power player within that same media. He also gets to plant stories that cast him as a political heavyweight with influence over Trump while he was in office.

While he claims to despise the media it’s also been long clear that he craves to be seen as an important player in this industry he was born into, with his reporter-turned-political official father. So Carlson’s hypocrisy isn’t surprising but it is still embarrassing for him. (Or it would be if Carlson were capable of embarrassment, which has yet to be seen.)

But it’s also not a great look for Smith, the New York Times, or any of the reputable outlets that use him as a source.

As Pajiba’s Dustin Rowles writes in his analysis, “Ben Smith might have thought he was pulling a fast one over on Tucker Carlson by revealing that he is a frequent source for mainstream publications, but he’s hurt his reputation and that of mainstream publications just as much as Tucker Carlson’s.”

He goes on to say:

Telling us something “on background” or as an “anonymous source” does not make Tucker Carlson more credible, especially when — as the piece itself notes — Carlson’s information is usually self-serving. It also suggests, implicitly, that Carlson doesn’t believe any of the bullshit he sells on Fox News every night. He co-opts conspiracy theories to enrich himself. That’s it. Obviously, he’s not the only one.

Granted, this is the way politics works and probably has for decades. I mean, everyone knew that “John Barron” was the alter-ego of Donald Trump, but did that stop them from quoting John Barron? Probably not, if it sold papers/generated clicks. Hell, Politico seems to operate almost exclusively as a clearinghouse for politicians to boost their own profiles and/or smear an opponent. Accuracy? Truth? Who cares!

To his credit, Smith clearly knows how icky this kind of cozy relationship looks (and is), and how it can genuinely undercut the integrity of some of these trusted outlets. Carlson’s “comfortable place inside Washington media” acts as a sort of “insurance policy,” he writes, and “has taken the edge off some of the coverage” of Carlson’s hateful Fox News schtick. I suppose that’s just one of the reasons why watching MSNBC’s Joy Reid tear Carlson to shreds is so satisfying.

Smith writes:

“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.

We always love a good laugh at Tucker Carlson’s expense around here but this story is a big “no winners here” situation.

(via New York Times, image: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

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Vivian Kane
Vivian Kane (she/her) is the Senior News Editor at The Mary Sue, where she's been writing about politics and entertainment (and all the ways in which the two overlap) since the dark days of late 2016. Born in San Francisco and radicalized in Los Angeles, she now lives in Kansas City, Missouri, where she gets to put her MFA to use covering the local theatre scene. She is the co-owner of The Pitch, Kansas City’s alt news and culture magazine, alongside her husband, Brock Wilbur, with whom she also shares many cats.