Conservative journalist and sometime TV pundit Tucker Carlson is not Keith Olbermann; he just plays him on the Internet. This past summer, Carlson’s website, The Daily Caller, purchased the URL keitholbermann.com and used the domain to host (generally unfavorable) Daily Caller articles about the liberal MSNBC host. Last week, after Keith Olbermann’s suspension from MSNBC over political donations, Philadelphia Daily News columnist Stu Bykofsky tried to email Olbermann at the domain name. Instead, he got a series of belligerent replies from someone pretending to be Olbermann.
Asked about the incident by Yahoo News, Carlson admitted to being behind the fake Olbermann prank. Given that Carlson seems to want to make his living as an actual journalist running an actual-journalism site, is writing fraudulent e-mails impersonating media personalities the sort of thing he should be doing? His answer: “Could you resist? It was just too funny. The flesh is weak.”
Here’s the funny part. The explanation—come on, it was just a joke!—was, curiously, the same kind of lighten-up-I’m-just-clownin’ answer you might have expected from Carlson’s nemesis, Jon Stewart.
Back in 2004, Stewart had a famous showdown with Carlson live on air, when Carlson was the host of CNN’s Crossfire. It was the midst of the Presidential campaign, and Carlson was needling Stewart for criticizing the other media while doing what Carlson considered a too-easy interview with John Kerry. Stewart came back with an on-air evisceration of Crossfire and similar cable-argument shows (“Hardball, or I’m Going to Kick Your Ass, or…”) which Stewart said were “hurting America.” When Carlson said that Stewart was much funnier on his own show, Stewart answered, “You’re as big a dick on your show as you are on any show.”
OK, so a blunt exchange of opinion there, and one in which you can see the roots of Stewart’s sanity rally last month. But the interview also yielded a frankly valid criticism of Stewart, that’s come up periodically since then: that he gets on his high horse and wants to be taken seriously, but, when challenged, retreats behind the claim that he’s just a comedian. (To Carlson’s slam against his Kerry interview, Stewart answered, “You’re on CNN. The show that leads into me is puppets making crank phone calls.”) Jim Treacher–a blogger who now writes for Carlson’s Daily Caller–came up with an apt name for this rhetorical move: the “Clown nose on, clown nose off” defense.
Carlson’s Fake Olbermann prank is not exactly the outrage of the century. But it’s not exactly an act of journalism, either. And Carlson’s explanation for it? Clown nose on!
There’s a coda to the whole saga, by the way. Joe Strupp, a reporter with the liberal media watchdog group Media Matters for America, sent Carlson an e-mail asking for response on the whole dustup. Reports Strupp, Carlson replied by cutting and pasting an entire pitch letter Strupp had sent Carlson looking for work with The Daily Caller after Strupp had been laid off from his previous job.
The message being… what exactly? That Strupp should take it easy on Carlson or be embarrassed by the public release of the application to the conservative site? That Strupp is a hypocrite for reporting an article that might not reflect well on a guy he once asked to hire him?
Nah, Carlson responded: “Lighten up, Joe. That’s my answer. Please quote me. Thanks.”
Uh-huh. Classy. Clown nose back on.