The bloodshed had barely ended in Parkland, Fla., last week when the Gateway Pundit added its own unique take on the students who had quickly become media-friendly gun-control advocates.
“EXPOSED,” read its headline. “School Shooting Survivor Turned Activist David Hogg’s Father in FBI, Appears To Have Been Coached On Anti-Trump Lines.” It later doubled down, asserting — without any evidence to support it — that operatives linked to liberal billionaire George Soros had “selected anti-Trump kids to be the face” of the massacre.
The stories helped spread a debunked conspiracy theory about the students being paid “crisis actors.” This was a few days after the site initially claimed that the suspected shooter was “a registered Democrat.” A few hours later, it realized it had zeroed in on the wrong Nikolas Cruz but soft-pedaled its correction, merely amending its story to say he wasn’t a Democrat, as “some sources had reported” — a group that seemed to include news sites that had cited Gateway Pundit’s story.
Gateway Pundit didn’t stop there. Reporter Lucian Wintrich, who wrote the Parkland stories, took to Twitter to denounce the protesting students as “little pricks.”
The take-no-prisoners approach — not to mention the conspiratorial tone and dubious assertions — has been the trademark of Gateway Pundit since its founding by a former corporate executive named Jim Hoft in 2004. Despite this, its influence has grown both among the fringe right and more mainstream conservatives. In 2016, it championed Donald Trump’s candidacy; Wintrich eventually received White House press credentials in the new Trump administration.
Hoft — who declined an in-person interview and only responded briefly to questions via email — rejected the label often applied to his creation: far right. The term, he said, is “used by Democrats and far left media to smear anyone who opposes the leftist narrative.”
He also dismissed the idea that his site has spread falsehoods. “Our track record is comparable or better than mainstream media,” he wrote. For example? “We didn’t fall for the false Trump-Russia collusion scandal.”
Yet even some Trump supporters have found Hoft and TGP, as it sometimes calls itself, a bit too hot to handle. Hoft, 56, was set to appear this week on a panel at the Conservative Political Action Conference convention outside Washington when the panel’s sponsor, the American Principles Project, objected to his presence because of TGP’s posts on the Florida students.
The removal of Hoft had an ironic undertone; the theme of the panel was “the suppression of conservative views on social media.”
Hoft says he found the sponsor’s demand that he be sidelined “outrageous.” He added, “They smeared me worse than liberal haters.”
And yet Gateway Pundit — the name refers to Hoft’s home base, St. Louis — has a track record of stirring up controversy and generating clicks with a number of stories that quickly fell apart.
TGP misidentified the shooter at a Las Vegas concert in October in which 58 people were shot to death. The post, written by Hoft’s twin brother, Joe, carried the headline, “Las Vegas Shooter Reportedly a Democrat Who Liked Rachel Maddow, MoveOn.org and Associated with Anti-Trump Army” — details gleaned from the Facebook page of a man whom, it turned out, had no connection to the shooting whatsoever. Hoft says the story was only on its site for a few minutes before it was removed and that a liberal watchdog group “caught the mistake and spread it around to liberal media where it made headlines for days.”
Gateway was also among a handful of right-leaning sites that incorrectly identified a Michigan man as the driver of the car that killed a woman who was protesting a neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville in August. Although Hoft pulled the story after only a few minutes, the man and his father have filed a defamation suit, naming Jim Hoft among the defendants.
When The Washington Post reported allegations in early November that Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore had molested a 14-year-old girl in the late 1970s, Gateway Pundit quickly took up Moore’s defense. It seized upon a single tweet from an obscure, unverified account that claimed, without evidence, that the newspaper had paid his accusers for their recollections. It hadn’t.
What distinguishes Gateway from other right-leaning sites such as Breitbart.com is that “the bar for what they’ll publish is just lower,” said Will Sommer, an editor for the Hill newspaper who edits Right Richter, a blog about conservative media. Even so, he said, it is relatively more respectable than the conspiracy-peddling site Infowars, which increases TGP’s influence among other conservative sites.
“By this point,” Sommer said, “plenty of people know not to take an Infowars story at face value. But Gateway Pundit doesn’t have that similar reputation for publishing bogus stories, even though they should.”
In fact, beyond its direct reach — it attracted 2.75 million unique visitors in January, according to the tracking firm ComScore — TGP is an influential part of an “insulated” right-wing media ecosystem of sites that rely almost exclusively on each other for web traffic and sourcing, according to a study led by Harvard law professor and Internet scholar Yochai Benkler.
During the 2016 campaign, the site was among the most frequently shared media sources on Twitter and Facebook among Trump followers, far more than mainstream news outlets, the study found. Although somewhat less influential than Breitbart or Fox News, it was among a group that includes the Daily Caller, the Washington Examiner and Infowars.
This interconnected web of news outlets was able to intensify Trump’s campaign themes and agenda — his immigration proposals and his attacks on Hillary Clinton generally — and helped push them further into public discussions, the study said.
“What we find in our data is a network of mutually-reinforcing hyper-partisan sites that revive what Richard Hofstadter called ‘the paranoid style in American politics,’ combining decontextualized truths, repeated falsehoods, and leaps of logic to create a fundamentally misleading view of the world,” the study’s authors wrote. “By repetition, variation, and circulation through many associated sites, the network of sites make their claims familiar to readers, and this fluency with the core narrative gives credence to the incredible.” The Harvard study accorded special status to Gateway Pundit, saying it was “in a class of its own.”
Indeed, Wintrich’s controversial post about David Hogg — the Parkland student activist who is indeed the son of a retired FBI agent but scoffs at the notion he needed coaching to express his opinion — quickly made its way through the conservative media ecosystem after it was published by Gateway. One America News Network, a conservative cable TV channel, picked it up, and Gateway’s video of Hogg became a top post on a Reddit channel devoted to Trump. True Pundit, a hyperpartisan site, also did a version of it.
Despite the criticism of the story, Hoft stands by it and Wintrich. “Let your readers decide if it is accurate or not,” he said.
Such reporting, Hoft asserts, is the kind that will enable Gateway Pundit to someday earn a new title: “America’s favorite news website.”