Back in September 2009, an international debate engulfed Oscar-winning director Roman Polanski, who’d just been arrested in Switzerland in connection with some unfinished business in the United States. Thirty-two years previously, Polanski had pleaded guilty to unlawful intercourse with a 13-year-old girl. Original charges in the case included sodomy, drugging and rape. Polanski managed to flee the country before sentencing.
Certain artistic elites saw overkill in the effort to punish Polanski for a three-decade-old crime. Then-French culture minister Frédéric Mitterrand, for example, lamented that Polanski was “thrown to the lions for an ancient story, imprisoned while travelling to an event that was intending to honour him: caught, in short, in a trap.”
Sam Seder, host of the “Majority Report” podcast and commentator, figured he’d express his feelings about this strain of thought:
For about eight years, that tweet just sat there. Then, on Nov. 28, 2017, Seder, an MSNBC contributor, was coming out of the subway in New York. He saw that it had been retweeted a couple of times, apparently by folks looking to make mischief. Not wanting any hassle, he deleted the tweet.
Hassle was coming, however. About an hour later, Seder got a call from Errol Cockfield, senior vice president of communications at MSNBC. Do you know who Mike Cernovich is, Seder was asked on the call. Of course: Cernovich describes himself as a “journalist, documentary filmmaker and best-selling author of Gorilla Mindset.” Others, however, know him as an advocate of the Pizzagate conspiracy — in which a D.C. restaurant served as a pedophilia hub; not — and the generator of vile tweets on the topic of women and rape. “By the media’s standards, Sam Seder has Tweeted out something far worse than even my most sarcastic or satirical Tweet. And the media won’t say anything, because Sam Seder is one of them,” wrote Cernovich on Medium in a blast at Seder.
In response, Seder tells the Erik Wemple Blog, he sent Cockfield an email explaining the situation:
I believe this tweet was posted when Polanski was seeking to return to the US. I wrote that tweet out of disgust with those who were excusing or were seeking to advocate forgiveness for Polanski’s actions which caused him to flee the US. I was appalled that anyone would diminish the seriousness of rape, particularly of a child by citing the perpetrator’s artistic contributions. Obviously, I would not wish any harm of my daughter or any other person.
I am confident that other tweets from that time will reflect my disgust in a less satirical tone.
FYI I was a professional comedy actor and writer through the 90’s and oughts, having written and directed satirical film and television in addition to pilots for NBC, HBO, Fox, Universal, CBS and AMC.
I deleted the tweet on my commute today after noticing that right wing twitterer’s who don’t follow me had retweeted a tweet of mine from ’09.
Today’s my birthday!
Seder, indeed, provided other tweets supporting his point that the tweet in Cernovich’s post was a condemnation of Polanski, albeit a provocative one. On his “Majority Report” podcast, Seder said he was facing a “smear” that relied on the “willful misinterpretation” of the long-ago tweet.
On Nov. 29, Cockfield left a message on Seder’s voicemail indicating that the network was ending its relationship with him. When Seder got Cockfield on the line a bit later, he argued that the decision was a mistake and pressed for reconsideration. “You guys are going to be the story,” Seder warned him. If they were going to fire him, Seder wanted an email stating as much. That email never came, says Seder, leading him to believe that this status was still undecided.
On Sunday, Seder received a note from Jon Levine of The Wrap informing him of a pending story about how MSNBC is preparing to cut ties with him. Armed with that intelligence, Seder texted Cockfield with an inquiry about his status at MSNBC. Cockfield responded: “I was hoping to have an update today Sam but I will not be able to provide one. I’ll circle back when I have more information but I don’t have an ETA on that right now. I’ll do my best. My apologies. In the interim please refrain from engaging press on this if they reach out and feel free to direct them to me.”
Later, Cockfield wrote again, telling Seder about the imminent story in The Wrap. “We’ve told them the facts: you have a pay per appearance relationship with us; you have no scheduled appearances; and your contract is ending in February.”
“Good working with you Errol!” wrote Seder in response.
On Monday, Levine posted his story: “MSNBC to Cut Ties With Sam Seder After Roman Polanski Rape Joke (Exclusive).” The mechanics of MSNBC’s action are relevant to the case: Unlike with other contributors, who are paid on a continuing basis, Seder’s contract stipulates that he gets paid only on a per-appearance basis, according to a company spokesman. That contract ends in February and won’t be renewed — a decision that MSNBC reached after the Polanski tweet roared to life eight years after birth.
Over the course of just one week, one of the leading names in the U.S. news business took personnel cues from Pizzagate Inc. An MSNBC source defends the move, however: “It gives us pause when we see alt right figures whipping up attention about our action but the reality is Seder made a rape joke.”
That “rape joke” — actually an edgy condemnation of rape — had been kicking around on the Internet for eight years. Had MSNBC really found the tweet problematic, perhaps it would have brought it to the attention of Seder by, say, 2012? By his own account, Seder has been appearing on MSNBC for more than a decade. Here, for instance, is a transcript of his appearance on a January 2005 edition of “Scarborough Country.” For the past two or three years, Seder says, he has been a paid contributor to MSNBC.
In spite of that 2009 tweet!
Chris Hayes, an MSNBC host, tweeted:
Also, I reiterate my longstanding position that people shouldn't be fired for a tweet, *particularly* one that is obviously being read in manifestly bad faith.
— Chris Hayes (@chrislhayes) December 4, 2017
According to Seder, he and MSNBC management never had a serious discussion about the tweet, what it meant and whether it posed a problem for MSNBC social-media standards. “If there was any conversation about the tweet,” says Seder, “it had nothing to do with substance. It was, ‘This is blowing up.'” And from what Seder can tell, his position with the network didn’t much concern the company’s top managers. “I only spoke to the PR guy and they only fired me after there was an imminent story,” says Seder. An MSNBC spokesman responds that the company requested Seder’s written defense of his tweet, and then considered that defense in reaching its decision on the contract renewal.
Seder’s conclusion: “I think they’re afraid of those people.”
UPDATE 2 p.m.: In an interview with the Erik Wemple Blog, Cernovich scorned the idea that he was the bad guy in this episode. “That’s a conspiracy theory,” he says. “It’s a bad look and that’s what they want to make it about it rather than just say, ‘Damn, that’s a bad tweet.’ ”
Speaking to the tweet itself, Cernovich said, “Don’t use your own daughter being raped as a subject of satire.”
A group of Cernovich researchers dug up the Seder tweet. “I have a team of people sort of like KFILE,” says Cernovich, referring to Andrew Kaczynski’s unit of online sleuths at CNN. “There needs to be a right-wing KFILE.”