After BuzzFeed News’s exclusive about a wrongful dismissal complaint against Michigan Representative John Conyers was published earlier this week, a paragraph halfway through the article created buzz for a different reason.
The documents, which detailed allegations that the powerful House Democrat made sexual advances towards female staffers, were given to BuzzFeed News by notorious “new media” personality Mike Cernovich, who wanted them published but feared Democrats and congressional leaders would “try to discredit the story by attacking the messenger.”
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“By going to the media, my reasoning went, the information gets out,” Cernovich wrote in a post on Medium explaining his decision. “This is how to hold Congress accountable, and demand they unseal their hidden record of sexual abuse.”
It’s a markedly cooperative interaction with the media for Cernovich, a 40-year-old lawyer, author, and conspiracy theorist who has made jousting with the mainstream media a central plank of his online persona. His name is usually followed by qualifiers like “who falsely spread Hillary Clinton has Parkinson’s.” The BuzzFeed News story refers to him as “the men’s rights figure turned pro-Trump media activist who propagated a number of false conspiracy theories including the ‘Pizzagate’ conspiracy.”
In his Medium post, “Why I Tipped Off BuzzFeed to the Biggest Story of the Year,” Cernovich writes that he knew the outlet would work to confirm and report on the documents, and unlike other outlets, he doesn’t have outstanding beef with it.
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He tracks individual reporters on Twitter who, in his eyes, keep things honest, like The Atlantic’s Rosie Gray (who “plays it straight”), New York magazine’s Olivia Nuzzi (“a great writer; has an absurdist Twitter”), and BuzzFeed News’s Charlie Warzel (“writes intelligently about new media”).
Appearing on the publisher’s Tuesday morning Twitter show AM to DM, BuzzFeed Editor in Chief Ben Smith said the information in the documents was independently confirmed by his reporters and that Cernovich has a history of both questionable reports and legitimate scoops.
“Sourcing in this business is always messier and more complicated than people think,” Smith said on the show. (Conyers on Tuesday denied the allegations of sexual harassment in the report, but acknowledged the existence of the settlement.)
“Sourcing in this business is always messier and more complicated than people think,” said BuzzFeed Editor in Chief Ben Smith.
The messiness of the reporting process is part of why Cernovich said in a recent phone interview with me he finds it fascinating that anyone would say he’s the one exploiting misunderstandings people have about the media.
“I’m thinking, ‘Wow! If only these media outlets had platforms like TV shows and papers and websites where they could explain the journalistic process,” he said, using a tone reminiscent of a guest on any cable network. “Why don’t you let the public know what’s going on?”
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In the wake of the BuzzFeed scoop, other journalists were raising eyebrows at the cooperation with Cernovich, given his embrace of earlier falsehoods.
Jesse Singal writes in New York’s Select All that this story shows journalists and readers haven’t yet figured out what to do with someone like Cernovich, who is “part troll, part gatekeeper, part chaos agent, part source, part activist, and part ringleader.”
On Twitter, several journalists expressed mixed reactions to Cernovich’s role in the story:
both the conyers shit is awful and disgusting and we should be extremely concerned that someone in a position of power is feeding information to a guy whose trademark is framing his enemies as pedophiles https://t.co/naR4ZGxdqj
— Ashley Feinberg (@ashleyfeinberg) November 21, 2017
Cernovich was not a reporter, but a source. And a shady one. Buzzfeed did the right thing & I'm not at all questioning the reporting. But a potential secondary story is the motivation of him and his sources. https://t.co/quPrsrmtRx
— Bill Scher (@billscher) November 21, 2017
Whoever gave the stuff to Cernovich could have gone directly to Buzzfeed, or any other news org. That they went to him says everything about motive. Good that it's out, but what DIDN'T come out.
— Clara Jeffery (@ClaraJeffery) November 21, 2017
Sending documents to BuzzFeed News is antithetical to the shoot first, ask questions later approach many in the new media have adopted. And it’s an evolution—though not quite a pivot—from a not-too-distant version of Cernovich. “A year and a half ago, I would have published the [men in media sexual harassment] list,” he said. “There’s no maybe about it, I would have published it.” (Cernovich, in fact, did name two of the men on the list, but didn’t publish the whole thing.)
In his Medium post detailing his rationale for sending the story to BuzzFeed News, Cernovich wrote that he set his ego aside for the “greater good” to get the information out.
“I’m pro-journalism because I think my ideas are right,” he said. “That’s why I critique the media—I don’t have fear of the truth getting out there.”
ICYMI: A new threat? Hackers ruin a team of journalists in an unexpected wayStephen Fowler is the politics reporter at Georgia Public Broadcasting in Atlanta, where he covers local, state, and local-around-the-state stories. His work has appeared on NPR’s national newscasts, Morning Edition and All Things Considered, Here & Now, Marketplace, and ProPublica. You can find him on Twitter @stphnfwlr.