Remember Who Tucker Carlson Is

When a flagrantly unreliable narrator narrated his own story, people across the media spectrum responded as if he could be trusted. Why?

Tucker Carlson
Chip Somodevilla / Getty

About the author: David Frum is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of Trumpocalypse: Restoring American Democracy (2020). In 2001 and 2002, he was a speechwriter for President George W. Bush.

In November 2018, The Washington Post published a disturbing headline: “‘They Were Threatening Me and My Family’: Tucker Carlson’s Home Targeted by Protesters.”

The Post story quoted the prime-time Fox News host at length. “Someone started throwing himself against the front door and actually cracked the front door,” Carlson claimed. “It wasn’t a protest. It was a threat … They weren’t protesting anything specific that I had said. They weren’t asking me to change anything. They weren’t protesting a policy or advocating for legislation … They were threatening me and my family and telling me to leave my own neighborhood in the city that I grew up in.”

Even more alarming, according to the Post, “A woman was also overheard in one of the deleted videos saying she wanted to ‘bring a pipe bomb’ to his house, [Carlson] said.”

Other prestige media sources echoed the Post’s story. NBC headlined its article: “Antifa Group Chants Outside, Vandalizes Fox Commentator Tucker Carlson’s Home.” The CNN communications team, NPR’s Scott Simon, and the CBS late-night host Stephen Colbert all condemned the reported home invasion. “Fighting Tucker Carlson’s ideas is an American right. Targeting his home and terrorizing his family is an act of monstrous cowardice. Obviously don’t do this, but also, take no pleasure in it happening. Feeding monsters just makes more monsters,” Colbert wrote on Twitter.

Over the next week, further reporting cast significant doubt on Carlson’s version of events. The police report mentioned nothing about a cracked front door—and photographs showed the door entirely undamaged. The police report did not mention a pipe bomb, either. The writer Alan Pyke, who watched the event, published an account of a considerably less exciting incident that lasted only 10 minutes before the protesters departed. You can read that account here.

There’s an old saying in reporting: “If your mother says she loves you, check it.” Apparently there’s also a codicil: “But if one of America’s most notorious spreaders of conspiracy theories and racist fantasies says his home was attacked by violent agitators, print it.”

Why did Carlson’s exaggerations—if exaggerations is the right word—gain such instant credence? Carlson’s own lawyers have argued in court that he regularly speaks in ways that are “loose, figurative, or hyperbolic.” Carlson’s descriptions of events—including outright accusations of criminal conduct by named individuals “would not have been taken by reasonable listeners as factual pronouncements but simply as instances in which [people like Carlson] expressed their views over the air in the crude and hyperbolic manner that has, over the years, become their verbal stock in trade.”

Yet when this flagrantly unreliable narrator narrated his own story, people across the media spectrum responded as if his personal narratives could be relied upon. Again, why?

A story yesterday by The New York Times’ Ben Smith pulls back the curtain on part of the answer: One of America’s leading racial provocateurs is also one of the media world’s preferred sources of gossip from inside pro-Trump world. “I won’t talk here about any off-the-record conversations I may have had with him,” Smith writes. “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.’” Smith indicates that The Wall Street Journal’s Michael Bender and CNN’s Brian Stelter are two of those 16. And, despite Smith’s demurral, the story clearly conveys that he himself was a 17th.

As Smith makes clear, transactions between journalists and sources occur because they benefit both parties. Smith emphasizes one such benefit: protection. He quotes a “Washington journalist in [Carlson’s] orbit” as saying, “‘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.’”

One way to read the Ben Smith story is as a remorseful decision by one of the journalists who did business with Carlson to yank some of the protection bestowed by the transaction. But such transactions provide another benefit too, and this one cuts across the story Smith tells: Carlson’s “information” also buys him credulity. When reporters call Carlson for uncheckable anecdotes about his conversations with former President Trump, they make the following calculation: I know he regularly lies to his fans on television, but he would not lie to me on the telephone. 

The evidence of that November 2018 incident at Carlson’s D.C. house suggests that the calculation is radically wrong.

Almost two years later, Carlson again tried to score points by claiming that he was being endangered in his own home. The New York Times, he said on television, was planning to report his home address—with the deliberate intention of exposing his family to harm. “If one of my children gets hurt because of a story they wrote, they won’t consider it collateral damage. They know it’s the whole point of the exercise: to inflict pain on our family, to terrorize us, to control what we say. That’s the kind of people they are.” Then he named the supposed reporter of the supposed story on air, showing a photograph of that reporter, and also named a New York Times photographer and editor as accomplices to the paper’s hurtful plans.

The Times replied from its Twitter account that it had never intended to publish Carlson’s address(es)—and that Carlson had known that fact before he went to air. Carlson also knew that his fan base has a high propensity to harass and threaten people he names as his enemies. (He did not respond to a request for comment.)

And yet even now, reporters pretend they are in control of this dangerous game. They are not. People who turn to an untrustworthy narrator for fabulous anecdotes get … untrustworthy anecdotes. The door was not cracked. No one threatened Carlson with a pipe bomb. The Times did not plot to terrorize Carlson’s children. And the self-aggrandizing, self-exculpating story just dispensed to the journalist looking to add a splash of color to the otherwise sinister record? If you can’t check the story, check the source.