On Monday, June 28th, Fox host Tucker Carlson dropped a bomb mid-show, announcing he’d been approached by a “whistleblower” who told him he was being spied on by the NSA.
“The National Security Agency is monitoring our electronic communications,” he said, “and is planning to leak them in an attempt to take this show off the air.”
The reaction was swift, mocking, and ferocious. “Carlson is sounding more and more like InfoWars host and notorious conspiracy theorist, Alex Jones,” chirped CNN media analyst Brian Stelter. Vox ripped Carlson as a “serial fabulist” whose claims were “evidence-free.” The Washington Post quipped that “in a testament to just how far the credibility of Tucker Carlson Tonight has cratered,” even groups like Pen America and the Reporters Committee on the Freedom of the Press were no-commenting the story, while CNN learned from its always-reliable “people familiar with the matter” that even Carlson’s bosses at Fox didn’t believe him.
None of this was surprising. A lot of media people despise Carlson. He may be Exhibit A in the n+2 epithet phenomenon that became standard math in the Trump era, i.e. if you thought he was an “asshole” in 2015 you jumped after Charlottesville straight past racist to white supremacist, and stayed there. He’s spoken of in newsrooms in hushed tones, like a mythical monster. The paranoid rumor that he’s running for president (he’s not) comes almost entirely from a handful of editors and producers who’ve convinced themselves it’s true, half out of anxiety and half subconscious desperation to find a click-generating replacement for Donald Trump.
The NSA story took a turn on the morning of July 7th last week, when Carlson went on Maria Bartiromo’s program. He said that it would shortly come out that the NSA “leaked the contents of my email to journalists,” claiming he knew this because one of them called him for comment. On cue, hours later, a piece came out in Axios, “Scoop: Tucker Carlson sought Putin interview at time of spying claim.”
In a flash, the gloating and non-denial denials that littered early coverage of this story (like the NSA’s meaningless insistence that Carlson was not a “target” of surveillance) dried up. They were instantly replaced by new, more tortured rhetoric, exemplified by an amazingly loathsome interview conducted by former Bush official Nicolle Wallace on MSNBC. The Wallace panel included rodentine former Robert Mueller team member Andrew Weissman, and another of the networks’ seemingly limitless pool of interchangeable ex-FBI stooge-commentators, Frank Figliuzzi.
Weissman denounced Carlson for sowing “distrust” in the intel community, which he said was “so anti-American.” Wallace, who we recall was MSNBC’s idea of a “crossover” voice to attract a younger demographic, agreed that Carlson had contributed to a “growing chorus of distrust in our country’s intelligence agencies.” Figliuzzi said the playbook of Carlson and the GOP was to “erode the public’s trust in their institutions.” Each made an identical point in the same words minus tiny, nervous variations, as if they were all trying to read the same statement off a moving teleprompter.
The scene was perfectly representative of what the erstwhile “liberal” press has become: collections of current and former enforcement types, masquerading as journalists, engaged in patriotic denunciations of critics and rote recitals of quasi-official statements.
Not that it matters to Carlson’s critics, but odds favor the NSA scandal being true. An extraordinarily rich recent history of illegal, politically-directed leaks has gone mostly uncovered, in another glaring recent press failure that itself is part of this story.
It’s admitted. Go back to December, 2015, and you’ll find a Wall Street Journal story by Adam Entous and Danny Yadron quoting senior government officials copping to the fact that the Obama White House reviewed intercepts of conversations between “U.S lawmakers and American-Jewish groups.”
The White House in that case was anxious to know what congressional opponents to Obama’s Iran deal were thinking, and peeked in the electronic cookie jar to get an advance preview at such “incidentally” collected info. This prompted what one official called an “Oh, shit” moment, when they realized that what they’d done might result in “the executive branch being accused of spying.”
After Obama left office, illegal leaks of classified intercepts became commonplace. Many, including the famed January, 2017 leak of conversations between Michael Flynn and Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak, were key elements of major, news-cycle-dominating bombshells. Others, like “Russian ambassador told Moscow that Kushner wanted secret communications channel with Kremlin,” or news that former National Security Adviser Susan Rice unmasked the identities of senior Trump officials in foreign intercepts, were openly violative of the prohibition against disclosing the existence of such surveillance, let alone the contents.
These leaks tended to go to the same small coterie of reporters at outlets like the Washington Post, New York Times, and CNN, and not one prompted blowback. This was a major forgotten element of the Reality Winner story. Winner, a relatively low-level contractor acting on her own, was caught, charged, and jailed with extraordinary speed after leaking an NSA document about Russian interference to the Intercept. But these dozens of similar violations by senior intelligence officials, mainly in leaks about Trump, went not just unpunished but un-investigated. As Winner’s lawyer, Titus Nichols, told me years ago, his client’s case was “about low-hanging fruit.”
The key issue in those cases was not even so much that someone in government might have been improperly accessing foreign surveillance intercepts — revelations to that effect have been a regular occurrence since the Bush years, with the FBI a serial violator — but that such intercepts were being leaked for public effect, with the enthusiastic cooperation of reporters, often in stories involving American citizens. They got away with it in the Trump years, because it was Trump, but the arrogance to think they can keep getting away with it by power-smearing everyone who objects is mind-blowing.
During Trump’s first run for president, I nearly lost my mind trying to explain to fellow reporters that he was succeeding in part because of us, that the prestige media’s ham-handed, hysterical, anti-intellectual approach to covering the Trump phenomenon was itself massively fueling it, making a case for establishment corruption and incompetence more eloquently than he could.
Something similar now is happening with the collapse of traditional media and the rise of Carlson, the current #1 voice on cable, who is rapidly stealing the audience MSNBC somehow believed it could corral with spokesgoons like Wallace. It seems impossible that Carlson’s haters don’t realize how easy they’ve made it for him, turning themselves into such caricatures of illiberalism that they’re practically handing him the top spot.
The inspiration for his current show seemingly came when Carlson watched his former colleagues among the GOP Brahmins make a show of reacting with horror to Trump’s arrival. These were people who had no problem wantonly bombing poor and mostly nonwhite countries all over the world, made a joke of the rule of law (and America’s reputation abroad) with policies like torture, rendition, and mass surveillance, and shamelessly whored themselves out to Wall Street even after the 2008 crash. Yet they pretended to severe moral anguish before Trump even took office.
Carlson grasped that the sudden piety of the Kristols and Max Boots and David Frenches was rooted in the same terror the Democratic Party nomenklatura felt at the possibility of a Bernie Sanders presidency in 2020, i.e. fear of a line-jumping outsider tearing away their hard-fought consultancies and sinecures.
“He was threatening their rice bowl,” Carlson says. “That’s all it was. I was like, ‘Fuck these people.’”
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