Tucker Carlson's Olbermann E-mail Fabrication: 'Silly And Probably Stupid'

Blog ››› ››› JOE STRUPP

The recent fake e-mail to a reporter from Tucker Carlson claiming to be Keith Olbermann drew complaints and criticism from journalism veterans and news ethicists, with one calling it "silly and probably stupid."

Carlson, a former CNN and MSNBC commentator who currently appears on Fox News, earlier this week pretended to be Olbermann in response to a Philadelphia Daily News writer's request for comment.

Daily News scribe Stu Bykofsky incorrectly thought he was reaching out to Olbermann when he e-mailed keith@keitholbermann.com to seek comment on Olbermann's recent suspension.

In reality, his request for comment went to Carlson, who had set up the phony e-mail last summer as some sort of joke.

Asked by Media Matters via e-mail today to comment on the situation, Carlson sent me a note that said, "Lighten up, Joe."

Others were not so dismissive, declaring the move an ethical problem.

"What he did seems silly and probably stupid," said Bob Steele, a top ethics expert from The Poynter Institute. "It is a silly thing to do, but a serious issue. It raises the whole question of journalistic independence and standards no matter who the journalist is or the news agency."

He added, "If he was intentionally being deceptive and deceived someone else it raises an ethical issue."

Kevin Smith, chair of the ethics committee of the Society of Professional Journalists, offered a similar view.

"I have no idea what Carlson was thinking, apparently he wasn't," Smith told me. "This is more bizarre than it needs to be. It shows you when you play fast and loose with ethics it just gets impossible. A lot of blunders and stupidity are on display here."

Smith added: "I used to watch Tucker Carlson and he was a respectable individual - I don't know what his thought was ... he is fabricating news. That is unprofessional, unethical and completely unnecessary."

Christine Montgomery, president of the Online News Association, called Carlson's actions "stupid and wrong."

"I can't imagine what he was thinking," she added. "It is not a nice thing to do. There is a journalistic lesson here: check and check again."

For George Harmon, former chairman of the newspaper program at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, Carlson's actions mean he gives up journalistic protection in the future.

"I don't think you do that and claim to have all of the protections legitimate journalists deserve. That violates all of the rules," he said. "I don't think that fits into our profession as we know it."

At least two attorneys said there could be a basis for legal action by Olbermann.

"Olbermann could [take action] because it would be putting him in a false light," said Paul Kleven, a defamation attorney based in Berkeley, Calif. "It would be a tough one, but it did fool a reporter. He would still have a claim that it was out there and caused damage to his reputation before it got corrected."

Sandy Baron, executive director of the Media Law Resource Center, also saw a possible case, but with less likelihood of success: "Theoretically, one could imagine the possibility of a libel claim. That is the issue to be looking at, if a defamation was created. That would be the issue. I guess a possibility of misappropriation or right of publicity, they both go to the use of someone's name. But I think it is a real big stretch."

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