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Tucker Carlson's Pathetic Descent Into Gutter of Hackdom

Once a promising young magazine writer, the Daily Caller pundit has come to epitomize the worst about right-wing media.

Alex Pareene's annual Hack List is so popular -- and useful -- we thought we should spread it out over the year. This is the first in a regular feature taking a deeper look at our media's most pernicious hacks, which we'll rank in order at year's end.

In many ways Tucker Carlson’s a better symbol of the pathetic state of what passes for conservative journalism than even Glenn Beck or the late Andrew Breitbart, to name two of his contemporaries with a much larger following. Glenn Beck started as a no-account shock jock and is now a no-account Internet show host. Breitbart at least went from Drudge lackey to successful right-wing media mogul. Carlson, though, began his career in the most respectable fashion possible and has spent the ensuing decades gradually lowering himself into the gutter. His story illustrates why we can’t have a responsible or at least slightly less hysterical conservative media.

The Daily Caller, the site he launched with a promise to offer a new model for conservative journalism, is primarily a catalog of sleazy traffic-baiting aggregated Web garbage (“Top 10: Most beautiful ‘most beautiful’ women [SLIDESHOW]“), ancient relics of online commentary with nowhere else left to publish (Ann Coulter, Mickey Kaus), and overblown scandal-mongering headlines that promise much more than they can deliver. In other words it is like a mean-spirited parody of a conservative version of the pre-AOL Huffington Post, with a healthy dose, recently, of attention-grabbing race baiting. This is not the sort of thing Carlson used to be known for.

Raised in WASP-y boarding school privilege to a prominent Republican family (mom was heiress to a frozen-dinner fortune, dad an anchorman and eventually media executive), Carlson was never going to want for work in the conservative media world. But initially, at least, he worked hard. He began as an assistant editor at Policy Review, the sober conservative intellectual policy journal published then by the Heritage Foundation. There he wrote mostly ponderous pieces on popular intellectual conservative trends of the early 1990s:  Chuck Colson’s prison fellowship program, the growing market for  rent-a-cops to supplant the public police, etc.

Soon Carlson was writing long, reported pieces, many of them very good, for the Weekly Standard. More sharp magazine journalism appeared in Tina Brown’s Talk magazine, the Atlantic and Esquire. (He even won a National Magazine Award for a 2003 Esquire story in which he traveled to Liberia with the Rev. Al Sharpton, toward whom Carlson is remarkably sympathetic.) In the early 2000s, he had  a political column at New York Magazine. This is the sort of career most young political journalists and would-be commentators would kill for.

His politics were undisguised, but his work was honest, and sometimes pretty funny. Carlson seemed to subscribe to a form of conservatism — moneyed and cheerfully elitist, the sort practiced by people for whom policy journals actually matter — that was gradually going out of favor in the Republican Party but that is always welcome in the “liberal media.”

There were warning signs, of course. Like every other raging asshole who goes into journalism, Carlson  idolized Hunter Thompson (that piece has the classic “I did a lot of really cool drugs once and it was no biggie” anecdote beloved of sad “rebel” libertarian poseurs). He repeated the same stale stereotypes masquerading as clever observations ( NPR listeners driving Volvos turn up with some frequency in his writing going back to the 1990s). But what really destroyed Tucker Carlson, respected magazine journalist, was TV. TV exposed him as glib, smug and not nearly as clever as he thought he was. (Maybe it exposed how well edited he’d been for so many years.)

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