MSNBC, Cernovich, and journalism’s struggle with new-media antagonists

Sam Seder in 2010. (Photo by Riccardo S. Savi/WireImage)

Efforts to discredit mainstream journalism, whether through undercover videos or bad-faith social media campaigns, have become a facet of life in 2017. But MSNBC’s surprising reversal of a decision earlier this week to fire a contributor shows that news organizations may finally be adapting to a world in which adversaries, particularly on the right, use an array of tactics for which traditional newsrooms have proven woefully unprepared.

The latest skirmish in this battle has its roots in the fall of 2009. In the midst of a bubbling controversy over whether director Roman Polanski’s artistic talent at all mitigated the fact that he had pleaded guilty to drugging and sodomizing a 13-year-old girl in 1977, podcast host and MSNBC contributor Sam Seder fired off a tweet satirizing those who defended Polanski’s actions. “Don’t care re Polanski, but I hope if my daughter is ever raped it is by an older truly talented man w/a great sense of mise en scene,” Seder wrote.

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That comment didn’t draw attention until last week, when Mike Cernovich retweeted it and encouraged his followers to contact MSNBC to complain. Cernovich, a pro-Trump media figure who helped popularize the entirely fabricated “pizzagate” conspiracy theory, has seen his profile rise in the past year thanks to a handful of legitimate scoops. Seder deleted the tweet, but Cernovich’s campaign had already taken off, and on Monday, The Wrap’s Jon Levine reported that MSNBC had severed ties with Seder.

For most of this week, it seemed the bad-faith attack had worked. Seder was out, and Cernovich was crowing to CNN about his team of researchers digging into the online histories of other journalists. But on Thursday morning, The Intercept reported that MSNBC had reversed course; Seder would be offered his contributor job back. “Sometimes you just get one wrong,” MSNBC President Phil Griffin said in a statement.

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“I’m really happy, obviously, to go back on the air,” Seder tells CJR. “But more importantly, I hope it’s an indication that, broadly speaking, media outlets are going to be more supportive to their journalists. This is a media-wide problem.” Acknowledging that there’s a certain level of fear among journalists about being target by malicious actors, he adds, “to see this pushback against a smear-merchant like Cernovich is heartening to a lot of people.”

We’ve yet to see whether MSNBC’s reversal marks a turning point in the press’s understanding of its new-media antagonists. The past year hasn’t provided much in the way of hope. The examples are numerous of traditional news outlets failing to understand the forces that wish to discredit and destroy them, largely due to a lack of sophisticated understanding of the online worlds from which these attacks emerge.

In March, Cernovich launched a campaign against New York Times reporter Sopan Deb over a satirical tweet that earned Deb a rebuke from Times Public Editor Liz Spayd. Spayd failed to recognize that the complaints flooding her inbox were part of a harassment crusade designed to reflect poorly on the paper.

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Later that month, 60 Minutes’s Scott Pelley interviewed Cernovich in a segment that was widely criticized for providing a platform for his conspiracy theories. BuzzFeed’s Charlie Warzel argued that the interview showed “how unprepared the mainstream media is for pro-Trump media.” Similarly, Megyn Kelly faced a backlash for her decision to sit down with Alex Jones for her Sunday evening show on NBC, forcing the network to overhaul the segment before it aired.

The actions of figures like Cernovich are an outgrowth of the sort of anti-media approach that stretches from Fox News’s Sean Hannity, through Breitbart, to figures like Infowars’s Alex Jones. They are part of what McKay Coppins, in a piece for CJR, called “a scorched-earth assault on America’s journalistic institutions.”

So, in an environment in which right-wing media figures want “the full destruction and elimination of the entire mainstream media,” how can newsroom leaders adapt? BuzzFeed Editor in Chief Ben Smith says that journalists must be open to criticism, even from those who provide it in the harshest terms, but that “anybody running a newsroom right now has to know that there are people out there acting in bad faith.” The Seder incident, he says, was one of those examples. “In this case it was a campaign geared at tricking people into misinterpreting a tweet.”

Smith also acknowledged social media provides journalists ample opportunities to say something actually offensive. “Sometimes reporters and editors say stupid stuff, and you have to eat it and apologize,” he tells CJR. “As an editor, I don’t think you can always have a one-strike rule.”

Whatever social media policies organizations adopt, it’s clear that they need individuals in the decision-making process who are well versed in the current internet landscape and the tactics of critics who are not acting in good faith. Based on his experience over the past week, Seder argues that newsrooms also need to be willing to, “[give] the benefit of the doubt to your own people, particularly in this environment.” The heightened focus on journalists by bad actors in the field means, he says, “you can’t avoid controversy. If you get snared in it, you can really only pick sides.”

Cernovich, for his part, isn’t backing down. In a direct message, he tells CJR he is “thrilled” by MSNBC’s decision to rehire Seder. “It’s a game changer,” he writes. “The media has said old Tweets are off limits.” On Twitter, he added, “we want msnbc to hire Sam Seder, so we can trot out your hypocrisy next time they are outraged over a tweet.”

Just as the recent Washington Post exposé of James O’Keefe’s disingenuous tactics brought home to journalists the reality of the forces aiming to entrap them, Seder’s saga provides an opportunity for newsrooms to examine the tactics of their new-media adversaries and, hopefully, follow MSNBC’s lead in learning from its mistakes.

Seder says that, as difficult as the past week has been, he hopes some good comes of it. “I have to believe that it’s gonna help,” he says. “MSNBC was under pressure, but anyway you slice it, what they did in basically saying ‘we got this one wrong’ took a certain amount of strength. I hope both the backlash and the strength that MSNBC exhibited help other media outlets to follow suit.”

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Pete Vernon is a CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.