The beat reporter behind BuzzFeed’s blockbuster alt-right investigation

Supporters for and against a Confederate memorial monument face off on August 26, 2017 in Knoxville, Tennessee. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Joseph Bernstein’s deep investigation of the inner workings of the alt-right, published October 5, was a groundbreaking look at how former Breitbart figurehead Milo Yiannopoulos, with the help of Steve Bannon, imported white nationalist and neo-Nazi ideas into mainstream political discourse. Relying primarily on a trove of emails he acquired from an undisclosed source, Bernstein, a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News, reconstructed the behind-the-scenes process by which Yiannopoulos solicited editorial advice from radical right-wing ideologues like Curtis Yarvin, who goes by Mencius Moldbug, and Andrew “Weev” Auernheimer, an infamous hacker associated with The Daily Stormer.

The 8,500-word article, which MSNBC’s Chris Hayes praised as “one of the best reported pieces of the year,” was the result of months of research, collation, corroboration, and legal scrutiny. But Bernstein’s heaping scoop—the envy, it seemed, of every political journalist on Twitter—didn’t emerge out of nowhere. It was the culmination of years of reporting and source-building on a beat that few thought much about until Donald Trump won the presidential election, plotting a now-visible line from Breitbart News, and beyond, to the White House.

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Bernstein, 32, is hardly the first reporter to cover online radicalism and its many manifestations. But he was, according to those who diligently follow such coverage, one of the first to take seriously the growing online reactionary movement known as the alt-right. His prescience has paid dividends, particularly as he’s pursued Yiannopoulos, one of the most high-profile and inflammatory of alt-right figures, and the mysterious social and financial infrastructures that support Yiannopoulos and his ilk.

“I think he saw, more clearly than any other reporter on the beat, what an important culture it was,” said Ben Smith, BuzzFeed’s editor in chief.

Bernstein has, in story after story, served as Yiannopoulos’s most dedicated bête noire. In recent months, for instance, he reviewed a leaked manuscript of Yiannopoulos’s much-hyped memoir (“awful”), and published documents that connected the young conservative star with Robert and Rebekah Mercer, the reclusive billionaire benefactors of the radical right who have invested heavily in Breitbart.

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“With Milo, it was pretty clear to everyone that the Mercers were probably involved somehow,” said Will Sommer, an editor for The Hill who writes a weekly newsletter on the conservative media apparatus. “The difference is that Joe got the documents that proved it.”

Bernstein didn’t see the beat coming when he joined BuzzFeed as a gaming reporter in 2013, fresh from stints at Kill Screen Media and Popular Science. “I thought the internet was for addled teenagers, and I was really kind of snobby about the whole thing,” he told me recently at a café near BuzzFeed’s offices in lower Manhattan. “I was disabused of that.”

What disabused him was Gamergate, the vicious online harassment campaign perpetrated by misogynistic trolls against female video game designers. When Bernstein emerged from reporting on the controversy, he saw a new digital battlefield laid out before him. It was populated by a loose coalition of mostly white, male, internet-savvy reactionaries who had, out of some angry sense of disenfranchisement, created their own online insurgency, ready to feed into a broader political phenomenon such as, say, the Trump movement—which is exactly what happened.

Bernstein drafted a beat memo, shifted focus, and went to work. “It wasn’t a beat when he started doing it,” said Charlie Warzel, a BuzzFeed reporter who often writes about the pro-Trump media and has worked with Bernstein for years. “It was more like internet awfulness.”

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IN ONE OF THE FIRST stories on his new beat, Bernstein investigated one of the alt-right’s most jarring cultural talismans, an anti-Semitic caricature that is popular on imageboard sites like 4chan, originally drawn by a cartoonist pseudonymously referred to as A. Wyatt Mann (sound it out). “A lot of people were kind of like, ‘What is he doing? This is weird,’” Warzel remembered of Bernstein’s coverage at the time.

By the end of 2015, though, Bernstein had distilled his reporting into a long, cogent analysis of the state of online extremism, concluding “that various reactionary forces” had “coalesced into a larger, coherent counterculture,” which he dubbed the “Chanterculture.” Though it seems obvious now, Bernstein’s piece was, in many ways, a kind of blueprint for the coming year.

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Since then, Bernstein has worked to map out a rough dramatis personae of the Chanterculture—a term, unlike the movement, that hasn’t really caught on—decoding its memes, examining its platforms and interviewing a number of seemingly obscure figures like Jeff Giesea, a Trump-supporting meme maven who worked for Peter Thiel, and the alt-right connected comedian Sam Hyde, who recorded his phone conversation with Bernstein and put it online.

That exchange is typical of Bernstein’s challenges as he reports on subjects who are, for the most part, intensely distrustful of the media and view communication with journalists as a kind of game. Though he says he hasn’t been successfully duped by anyone, Bernstein, who is Jewish, does regularly receive hate mail, both hand-written and digital, at home and at work. His relatives have been doxed, meaning their personal information was published online. And he has seen at least one troubling meme, of his late father, Michael Bernstein, placed inside a gas chamber.

Senior Technology Reporter at BuzzFeed Joseph Bernstein. Photo by Katie Notopoulos.

His father was a lawyer for the Department of Justice whose job was to find and deport Nazi war criminals. He died in the Lockerbie bombing nearly 30 years ago on his way home from Vienna, where he had convinced the Austrian government to readmit Nazi perpetrators who immigrated to the United States in the 1950s.

Eli Rosenbaum, the former director of the Office of Special Investigations, the now-defunct unit tasked with identifying Nazis in the country, describes Michael Bernstein as a meticulous prosecutor who logged countless hours at the office poring over documents and at one point eliciting a confession, which had never been accomplished before. “What I remember are his memos—his briefs were written at the highest level,” Rosenbaum told me in a phone interview. “I’m not totally surprised that Joe’s doing what he’s doing.”

But Joseph Bernstein, who grew up in Bethesda, Maryland—a stone’s throw from Comet Ping Pong, the target of the online Pizzagate conspiracy theory—tells me there isn’t much of a connection to be made there. “He had to convince a government or a judge, and I just have to convince my editors,” Bernstein said of his father. “I think my mother being a therapist, and my interest in what makes people tick and why they do what they do, has as much to do with what I do as my dad.”

I actually think calling them Nazis, beyond not being precise, gives them a very easy way to dismiss our reporting.

Another reason Bernstein dislikes the comparison with his father is that he doesn’t believe all of the people he covers are necessarily Nazis, nor does he think it’s productive to label them as such. “I don’t like it when people are just like, ‘Look what the Nazis are doing!’ I just don’t think it’s helpful,” Bernstein said. “What we have that they don’t is precision in our language,” he went on, “and I actually think calling them Nazis, beyond not being precise, gives them a very easy way to dismiss our reporting.”

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DISMISSIVENESS HAS COME from both sides of the aisle, as some left-leaning critics have argued that coverage of the alt-right lends itself to a kind of false equivalence that gives the movement more credibility and exposure than necessary. In a recent piece for The Outline, Gaby Del Valle argued that Bernstein’s early coverage of the alt-right was too credulous, and presented the movement as just another “dumb subculture.” She cited one piece in particular, on a college scholarship fund for white men spearheaded by Milo Yiannopoulos. Bernstein, Del Valle wrote, had “regurgitated a press release” as if Yiannopoulos’s scholarship “were an earnest program and not a blatant publicity stunt.”

“I certainly have made missteps and reported stories like that, which in retrospect I’m not super happy about,” Bernstein told me. But he hastens to add that such beat sweeteners have allowed him to develop sources and pursue tips, which have led, he says, to some of his most memorable scoops.

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Bernstein doesn’t discount the possibility that the media may have played a part in the creation of the alt-right, just as it played a part, he believes, in the creation of Trump. But blaming the media for the alt-right, he thinks, gives the media too much credit and ignores the reasons that so many young, disenchanted white men are lured into reactionary culture in the first place. “I mean, they tapped into something deep and abiding,” he says.

Ultimately, Bernstein isn’t as interested in quibbling over chicken-or-egg questions as he is in examining how the alt-right thrives, laying bare its spinning cogs. Several journalists from other outlets have staked their claims on that territory, as well, including Rosie Gray of The Atlantic, Oliver Darcy of CNN, and Andrew Marantz of The New Yorker, all of whom have produced memorable reporting on the alt-right.

But Bernstein remains uniquely sourced, and as the movement mutates, he hopes to explore, among other things, how the alt-right’s foot soldiers are emerging from behind the screen to materialize in public spaces, as in Charlottesville and Queens, where right-wing trolls disrupted Shia LaBeouf’s video art installation “He Will Not Divide Us,” the fallout from which Bernstein has already examined in depth.

“We’re starting to see the way the power structure has tapped into this culture of internet conservative antagonism,” Bernstein told me. “I think we’re still mapping this, and I think there is more to be mapped. But it’s important to know.”

Bernstein hasn’t tired of covering the alt-right at all, it seems, even though he’s been crawling around in the digital muck for years now.

“I have a high personal tolerance for shit,” he said.

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Matthew Kassel is a writer living in Brooklyn. His work has been published by The Wall Street Journal, The Village Voice, and Cosmopolitan, among other publications.