Journalism can make for strange bedfellows. Case in point: BuzzFeed and Mike Cernovich.
Cernovich — a controversial far-right figure who has promoted blatantly false conspiracy theories, such as the discredited “Pizzagate” hoax — was the source of a big BuzzFeed scoop Monday night. The popular news and features website reported that legendary liberal Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) made repeated sexual advances toward female staffers and secretly reached a financial settlement with one accuser. The story was based largely on documents and affidavits supplied by Cernovich to BuzzFeed’s reporters.
The BuzzFeed-Cernovich connection is odd, to say the least — something like Michael Moore dropping damning info about President Trump to Fox News. Even that doesn’t quite capture the jagged journalistic history of Cernovich, whom “60 Minutes” described earlier this year in a story about fake news as “a magnet for readers with a taste for stories with no basis in fact.”
The agreement between Cernovich and BuzzFeed appears to have come with a hidden facet: Cernovich acquired the congressional documents after offering to pay $10,000 for them.
The offer was made in a series of now-deleted tweets last week. “I will pay $10,000 for the details of these settlements. Cash or Bitcoin or check or whatever you want,” he tweeted.
Cernovich declined Tuesday to say whether he actually paid anyone; he also said he didn’t know whether BuzzFeed knew about his offer.
BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith said Tuesday he was not aware of the offer. A BuzzFeed spokesman said the site “would never pay for information,” adding, “We also aren’t going to discuss or engage in hypotheticals that could in any way shed light on the identity of sources.”
Mainstream news organizations like BuzzFeed consider paying sources an ethically dubious practice because it can induce sources to say more than they know and because it creates incentives for sources to engage in potentially criminal behavior to obtain information. But there is no prohibition on a news organization accepting information that a third party, such as Cernovich, has paid for.
In an interview earlier Tuesday, Smith said his site “carefully vetted” all the documents Cernovich first offered last week, just as it would a tip by any other source.
“We were extremely careful,” he said, noting that BuzzFeed ensured that the documents Cernovich provided weren’t forged or altered. They weren’t, Smith said.
While news organizations need to be wary of any tipster’s motives, Smith said, they can’t ignore newsworthy information, no matter the source.
“I’m not comparing this to Watergate,” he said, but he noted that Mark Felt — the senior FBI official who became the anonymous source known as Deep Throat — “had some very complicated and notorious motives” in talking to The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward.
Smith declined to say from whom and how Cernovich, a lawyer who lives in Southern California, got the information he passed on to BuzzFeed.
Cernovich, in an interview Tuesday, said it was more important for the story to be taken seriously than for him to “get the glory” by reporting it himself. Aware that his reputation could raise questions about the story’s credibility, he said, he decided to pass the documents to BuzzFeed.
“I knew Conyers would deny it if I broke it,” he said. “Everyone would call me fake news. . . . My thinking was: ‘Let’s keep our eye on the prize and not make this about me. Let’s make this the Harvey Weinstein story about Congress.’ I knew if I gave it to BuzzFeed, it would be bulletproof.”
He also declined to say who his source was.
Cernovich’s role is spelled out to BuzzFeed readers about halfway through the lengthy story. News organizations typically don’t reveal their sources on sensitive stories, but BuzzFeed did so in an effort to be “transparent,” Smith said. Cernovich said the publication assured him that he would be credited.
The story says: “The documents were first provided to BuzzFeed News by Mike Cernovich, the men’s rights figure turned pro-Trump media activist who propagated a number of false conspiracy theories including the ‘Pizzagate’ conspiracy. Cernovich said he gave the documents to BuzzFeed News for vetting and further reporting, and because he said if he published them himself, Democrats and congressional leaders would ‘try to discredit the story by attacking the messenger.’ He provided them without conditions. BuzzFeed News independently confirmed the authenticity of the documents with four people directly involved with the case, including the accuser.”
The “men’s rights” reference is to Cernovich’s advocacy of male “dominance” over women, as expressed through such essays as “Misogyny Gets You Laid” (since deleted) and tweets such as “date rape does not exist.” The New Yorker identified Cernovich as a champion of the “GamerGate” campaign, in which men, usually anonymously, viciously attacked women in the video-game industry. Cernovich has indicated that he has broken with the movement.
In addition to promoting the discredited Pizzagate story, Cernovich’s blog, Danger and Play, was active in spreading other false stories about Hillary Clinton during the presidential campaign last year. One headline on his site read, “Hillary Clinton has Parkinson’s disease, physician confirms.” As “60 Minutes” noted, the story was sourced to an anesthesiologist who had never met Clinton.
He also spread a baseless story about a government and media coverup of a second shooter in the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando in which 49 people were killed.
But Cernovich said his reporting and writing have evolved.
“During the campaign, I viewed myself as a political operative who viewed things as open warfare,” he said. “Someone asked me if I would have broken the ‘Access Hollywood’ tape [of Trump bragging about groping women] if I’d had it. Back then, I wouldn’t have. I definitely would now. Now I just want to call it straight.”
As Smith notes, Cernovich has in recent months broken several legitimate stories.
He was the first to report, for example, the news in July that White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus was about to be fired by Trump. He also was first to report in August on a memo written by erstwhile White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci outlining his press strategy.
Cernovich also first reported in April that former national security adviser Susan E. Rice had requested the “unmasking” of the identities of Americans, including some related to the Trump campaign and transition team, in classified intelligence reports. The revelation was celebrated by people in Trump’s orbit, including Donald Trump Jr., who suggested on Twitter that Cernovich should win a Pulitzer Prize for it.
But Cernovich has also been critical of administration officials, particularly national security adviser H.R. McMaster, whom Cernovich has called “a globalist warmonger” intent on regime change in Syria through an American military invasion.
As part of his journalistic transition, Cernovich said, he rejects a label frequently applied to him: alt-right, a description typically referring to a racist, misogynist worldview.
“I’m not alt-right,” he said Tuesday, offering “far right” or “conservative” as alternatives. “Those people are lunatics, and I’ve realized they’re lunatics.”