White House reporting through the Gateway Pundit looking glass

(L to R) Gateway Pundit reporter Lucian Wintrich, Sputnik staffer Andrew Feinberg, Ami reporter Jake Turx, and Columbia Journalism School Professor Ari Goldman . Photo by Natasha Frost‏, via Twitter

It was 20 minutes past 1 pm on Monday when Lucian Wintrich, Gateway Pundit’s White House correspondent, strolled into the Columbia Journalism School, coffee in hand, trailed by a few men in dark trench coats. They wove through several dozen onlookers packed into the first-floor student center, where a panel discussion with the bespectacled reporter on the billing had already begun.

Just after the late arrival took his seat, and the event’s moderator introduced him by mentioning his prominent appearance in a recent New Yorker feature, he let out a proclamation that was met with silence by a roomful of soon-to-be journalism school graduates: “The New Yorker is fake news!” Wintrich’s acolytes, who had plopped into the first row of the audience, donned bright red caps emblazoned with “45” and other pro-Trump stitching.

Given a chance to make a case for legitimacy as a journalist, or offer a fresh perspective to students headed for newsrooms, the White House “reporter” who has never asked a question in a briefing resorted instead to awkward and humorless performance art.

The 90-minute event was billed as an introduction to the Trump era’s “new White House correspondents”— alternative media types who never before had access to the Brady Press Briefing Room and who now are part of the culture war waging inside of it. Wintrich and his co-panelists, rookie White House reporters from the Russian news service Sputnik and Orthodox Jewish weekly Ami Magazine, spent much of the discussion casually throwing shade on mainstream competitors who far outmatch them. It played out as a surreal twist on the gag about three men walking into a bar.

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Jake Turx, the Ami reporter whom Trump told to sit during a news conference question about anti-Semitism, opened the event with his preferred epitaph: Here lies Jake Turx. President Trump once called him a liar & told him to sit. He lies still, never to sit again. “We interact with the president,” Turx said sheepishly, adding that he didn’t think Trump dislikes Jews as many have speculated. “We bump into him in the hallways.”

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Andrew Feinberg, the Sputnik staffer who’s previously written for The Hill, sprinkled in a few dull jokes about how he didn’t have a reputation to ruin when he joined the Kremlin-backed propaganda arm. “I don’t actually speak Russian,” he said, “for the record.”

Wintrich played the ringleader of his own one-man circus. He boasted of his big recent scoop, a supposed run-in with Malia Obama at a Manhattan club, where the underage former first daughter allegedly accosted him. “As a black belt, according to the American Taekwondo Association, I will never refuse a fight,” Wintrich said. The event moderator, Columbia Journalism School Professor Ari Goldman, pushed back that Wintrich’s culminating report, which included a picture of a woman’s shoulder, wasn’t matched by other news organizations.

“It was picked up by every major gossip site, thank you very much,” Wintrich said. “That picture of Malia Obama’s shoulder was shared over 100,000 times. That’s why I’m a good reporter. I will publish those Malia Obama shoulder pics. Whatever pics sort of enter into my peripheral, I will publish.”

 

Wintrich went on to call Fox News Radio’s Jon Decker, a two-decade veteran of the White House press corps who recently confronted Wintrich in the briefing room, a “Nazi homophobe.” The American Urban Radio Network’s April Ryan, he said, is a “race-baiter.” The White House novice added of the latter Washington veteran, who on Monday inked a deal to become an on-air analyst for CNN: “I don’t know what she does.”

Despite the bravery required to level such insults without their targets present, Wintrich was defensive about his site, Gateway Pundit, which mostly aggregates alt-right catnip and frequently traffics in conspiracy and innuendo. He castigated mainstream White House reporters for questions he described as “humorously coordinated, like a synchronized swim.” But he admitted that he himself hasn’t asked a question during a briefing. “I’m feeling out the room,” he said.

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When I asked Wintrich during the audience Q&A to lay out the affirmative case for taking Gateway Pundit seriously, he fell back on the whataboutism that’s typical of rightwing websites: Could I answer such a question about The New York Times? After I pressed him more about whether he cared about publishing information that was untrue, he paused. “Obviously,” Wintrich said, “because I’m a reporter, if I published something untrue I’d be embarrassed.”

It was a peculiar answer. Just minutes before, when Wintrich was asked to elaborate on his reaction to The New Yorker piece with which he was introduced to Monday’s event, he gave a much different take. The outlet that he had labeled as “fake news” roughly an hour before had run a piece that Wintrich viewed favorably. Its writer, Wintrich added, was both “delightful” and “extremely honest.”

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David Uberti is a CJR staff writer and senior Delacorte fellow. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti.