In a campaign year that celebrated, and even rewarded, public loutishness and worse, the on-air dustup between Newsweek senior writer Kurt Eichenwald and Fox News personality Tucker Carlson—and especially the alarming aftermath—might have achieved a new low in America’s ongoing adventure in incivility.
Eichenwald and his wife, an internal medicine doctor, say he sustained a physically dangerous cyberattack by a Donald Trump supporter last Thursday night, after Eichenwald and Carlson tangled on television over the reporter’s tendentious tweets about the president-elect and his supporters.
The pugnacious journalist—who has filed court papers in his hometown of Dallas asking Twitter Inc. for identifying information about his alleged attacker, with an eye toward pressing criminal assault charges—spent much of the 2016 campaign tweeting insults at Trump and his social media acolytes while producing investigative exposes about the president-elect.
Thursday night’s attack came, both Eichenwalds say, from a Twitter user with the handle @jew_goldstein (an account that has since been suspended) a couple of hours after the Fox News host repeatedly asked the journalist for evidence to support his tweeted “belief” that the president-elect had been “institutionalized in a mental hospital for a nervous breakdown in 1990.”
“Was he in a mental hospital in 1990 or not?” Carlson demanded over and over. “It’s a really simple question.”
Eichenwald repeatedly didn’t answer, instead holding up to the camera a loose-leaf binder labeled “Tucker Carlson Falsehoods,” venting about CIA “patriots” who gave their lives for their country, and saying repeatedly, “You’re not fooling anyone.”
“This is a little nutty—I gotta be honest!” Carlson exclaimed, dissolving in laughter. “I think you’re humiliating yourself by your unwillingness to answer a simple question.”
Indeed, for nearly 10 minutes of airtime, the two participated in a televised trainwreck that turned viewers into rubberneckers slowing down to take in an accident scene. (Eichenwald—who refuses to watch the segment, saying it would be too painful, given the circumstances and his seizure—said he actually couldn’t discern Carlson’s repeated question in his earpiece, as he sat in a studio in Dallas while Carlson presided in Washington, D.C. “All I heard is that he was interrupting me,” Eichenwald said.)
“I don’t mean this in a cruel way, but I would have real concerns if I were one of your editors,” Carlson ended the segment. (Newsweek editor in chief Jim Impoco said he’s proud of Eichenwald’s work, adding that it was he who asked his writer to do the show: “I feel terrible about this.”) “I’m not calling anyone a liar,” Carlson went on, “but I am saying I’m concerned about your behavior on this show tonight.”
In the aftermath, Carlson provided a quote for this story: “I just hope Kurt gets the help he so clearly needs.”
“Jon Stewart was right,” Eichenwald shot back, referring to the Comedy Central star’s by-now legendary 2004 appearance on CNN’s Crossfire program, in which he told then-cohost Carlson: “You’re as big a dick on your show as you are on any show.”
In an interview with The Daily Beast on Monday, Eichenwald acknowledged that while he continues to pursue the mental hospital tip, he can’t, as yet, back up his claims about Trump. He said his incendiary tweet—which he deleted soon after posting it on Sept. 13—was intended both as a reporting tool, to “signal” a potential source and obtain that source’s cooperation, and as a subtle “joke,” although the humor was lost on many.
“My Twitter feed was probably 30 percent snarky jokes,” Eichenwald said, adding that this year, his community of followers has exploded from around 30,000 to around 231,000. “It grew so fast that I was getting all these new people who had no idea what I did with my Twitter feed… I actually came to this realization not too long ago. I now treat Twitter as being the equivalent of Newsweek—that I can’t put just anything in there. You gotta remember, up until that point, everyone ignored my Twitter feed.”
Eichenwald said his tweet about Trump and the mental hospital was an attempt to parody unsubstantiated right-wing allegations about Hillary Clinton’s health, especially by Fox News’s Sean Hannity (who speculated that she’d suffered a stroke, multiple sclerosis, or Parkinson’s Disease), and even Tucker Carlson, who once told The Daily Beast about Clinton’s persistent cough, “In the 19th century, it was a sign of consumption… She coughs like a romantic poet.”
“I was trying to be too clever,” Eichenwald said about his deleted tweet claiming Trump had been in a mental hospital. “I did not think anyone would look at that and see it as anything other than me doing a parody of Fox News.”
Eichenwald, 55, has written extensively about his struggle with epilepsy, a diagnosis he received at age 18, and his vulnerability to seizures.
It was his epilepsy that Eichenwald told NPR in 2007 was responsible for “significant memory lapses” that led to him forgetting to tell his then-New York Times editors about payments he had made to Justin Berry, the subject of an online child pornography exposé he had written for the paper.
Most recently, in October, he reported clicking the play button of a flashing strobe-light video of the white supremacist mascot Pepe the Frog, an “epileptogenic” image that could have triggered a seizure if he hadn’t immediately dropped his iPad on the floor.
“I write this knowing that it will spur more vile and violent online attacks on me,” he predicted in Newsweek.
On Thursday night, Eichenwald was sitting in front of his home computer in Dallas, he says, when he clicked on his Twitter notifications, only to be confronted by a flashing orange image with @jew_goldstein’s message: “YOU DESERVE A SEIZURE FOR YOUR POSTS.”
Dr. Theresa Eichenwald, the reporter’s wife of 26 years who has lived with his epilepsy since they started dating, said she first realized something was wrong when her husband called out to her.
“I heard him from the other room,” she told The Daily Beast. “I came in, and he was in his chair, slightly turned away from the flashing computer screen. He was incoherent.
“I knew right away what was going on. I quickly got the image off the screen. He did not have a grand mal seizure,” she added, citing the most serious form of epileptic seizure, which is characterized by severe muscle contractions and loss of consciousness, and can result in death. “He had a localized seizure. All you can do is make sure the person is safe and wait it out and tell him he’s OK. My response was more anger than anything else.”
Theresa Eichenwald said she was indeed the one who tweeted to @jew_goldstein on her husband’s account: “This is his wife, you caused a seizure. I have your information and have called the police to report the assault.”
A spokesperson for Twitter to declined to comment on the incident or Eichenwald’s legal pursuits, but referred to the company’s policy guidelines stating that “Twitter evaluates emergency disclosure requests on a case-by-case basis in compliance with relevant law (e.g., 18 U.S.C. § 2702(b)(8) and Section 8 Irish Data Protection 1988 and 2003). If we receive information that provides us with a good faith belief that there is an exigent emergency involving the danger of death or serious physical injury to a person, we may provide information necessary to prevent that harm, if we have it.”
Meanwhile, late Monday, Eichenwald took to Twitter to publish his filed legal motion and address his alleged attacker: “I’m coming for you, you son of a bitch.”