You might remember Tucker Carlson as the bow-tie’ed cohost of Crossfire. That show ended after Jon Stewart’s appearance, when he asked Carlson to “stop hurting America” with the two-bit hackery he was passing off as “journalism” on CNN.
After leaving Crossfire, Carlson decided to start a website for serious conservative journalism. It has not gone well. He’s lost the bowtie, but he still hasn’t grown into his supposed profession. (…like the time he bought the domain name keitholbermann.com, then impersonated Olbermann in inquiries from reporters sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. Funny! Also awful! And probably illegal. And unquestionably unethical.) Carlson’s website, The Daily Caller, is an exercise in raw pageview-hunting that barely masquerades as journalism. It’s like the Drudge Report, but with reporters and no breaking news.
Take yesterday’s article, “Liberal Astroturf Group Offering $9 to $11 per hour to join its gun-control campaign.” The article is by “investigative journalist” Patrick Howley. Howley found evidence that Progressive USA Voters is “offering an hourly wage of between $9 to $11 to join its gun control campaign in Chicago.” He found this by reading reddit. Some poster on reddit labeled this “progressive group paying people to agree with them on gun control” or “astroturfing.”
It seems that what passes for “investigative journalism” at the Daily Caller is, y’know, Googling stuff.
Here’s the problem: this isn’t even astroturfing. It’s a normal canvassing gig.
“Astroturfing” is the practice of paying people to show up at public events and pretend that they’re volunteers who agree with you. Big companies will often hire people, give them a t-shirt, $20, and a sandwich, and ask them to take part in counter-demonstrations or fill up public hearings to show “public support” for the company’s position. The key feature that makes this astroturf is that people are pretending to be grassroots.
Progressive USA, by contrast, has made an endorsement in an Illinois Democratic primary. One candidate is endorsed by the NRA, another is endorsed by Michael Bloomberg/DailyKos/Progressive USA. The organization wants to hire canvassers as part-time staff to go door to door and talk with voters about the gun control issue. This is standard practice, as described by Rasmus Kleis Nielsen in Ground Wars. Electoral campaigns hire part-time staff. That staff doesn’t pretend to be grassroots volunteers. They just help the political group reach out and make contact with voters.
Howley doesn’t realize this because he’s paid not to realize it. The Daily Caller wants to reinforce conservative perceptions that liberals are mean cheaters who cheat all the time. That’ll attract pageviews, and that’s their business model. Lazy googling fits that narrative, where actual reporting would have unearthed this reddit thread as a non-story.
In the long run, conservatives would be a lot better off if they hired and trained actual journalists to do actual investigative journalism. They’d have a better-educated base, less inclined to vote for unelectable conspiracy–mongers in the primaries. They’d also be able to pursue real accountability among Democratic office-holders, instead of shouting “Solyndra! Fast and Furious! Benghazi!” on repeat. This is what Carlson promised he’d be doing when he launched the DailyCaller. But he’s just not up to the task.
The next generation of conservative journalists is being molded in the image of Tucker Carlson. They’re learning to be whiny, lazy, and momentarily profitable. Conservatives could do a lot better. But they’d have to try.