A couple of days after dropping what he considered the biggest news story of the year so far, Mike Cernovich added a theatrical flourish to his very good week. The pro-Trump writer live-streamed a “press conference” for his followers Tuesday, in which he repeated his long-running prediction that the “fake news media” was engaging in a coordinated campaign to take him out.
Cernovich said he had a choice between answering questions from “basic b-i-t-c-h-e-s in the media” and hanging out with his young daughter. He chose the latter: If the media were interested in him, they could get quotes on his terms. Later in the live-stream, Cernovich read out the names of some of the major news outlets that had requested interviews with him recently. BBC, Business Insider, New York magazine. He was going to turn them all down. “I’m going to talk to the people,” he said. “Why would I talk to liars and frauds?”
Cernovich’s big story was his report that former national security adviser Susan E. Rice had requested information on Americans connected to the Trump campaign who were mentioned in foreign surveillance intelligence reports. As my colleagues have explained, some Republicans reacted to the news — later confirmed by Bloomberg News — as if it were a “smoking gun” lending credibility to President Trump’s claim that the Obama White House illegally wiretapped Trump Tower.
Bloomberg’s report (along with The Washington Post’s own assessment of this ongoing story) found that the revelations contained no evidence that Rice had done anything illegal and did not help to prove Trump’s still unproven belief that he was illegally spied on by the previous administration — although they did raise some questions worth answering.
But the fact that major media outlets were telling a very different story from Cernovich’s, one that was much less nefarious and threw doubt on his conclusions, only helped the right-wing online agitator sell his findings to the only people who mattered, in his world: his very loyal readers. To them, there’s an expectation that the media will find fault with Cernovich’s reporting, which only makes them trust it more. It’s increasingly becoming clear that those readers include people in the White House and the Trump family.
— Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) April 4, 2017
— Kellyanne Conway (@KellyannePolls) April 3, 2017
Cernovich has been around the Internet for a while, first as a men’s rights self-help and fitness type and then as what the New Yorker called the “meme mastermind of the alt-right” as the Trump campaign emerged. He is often identified as part of the alt-right, a small, far-right movement that seeks a whites-only state, and he’s good at social media, particularly Twitter and Periscope (and, more recently, YouTube live-streaming), where he posts all the time. His story on Rice was posted to Medium, a sleekly designed and socially oriented blogging platform. Cernovich styles himself a journalist, one of the leading ones of the pro-Trump right. Cernovich has more than 200,000 followers on Twitter. He is on the Drudge Report’s blogroll.
Cernovich had previous mainstream moments for his role in promoting some of the more extreme theories that circulated on the pro-Trump Internet about the Clintons and their supporters. He accused the Clinton campaign and the media of colluding to cover up some sort of serious illness, inspiring the hashtag #HillarysHealth. People who believed this conspiracy said it should disqualify her from the presidency, even without evidence that it was true.
Media is in trash.
Sick Hillay finds a leaning stool replacement. What is up with her purple hand? Perfect picture. pic.twitter.com/bcylhonRNP
— Mike Cernovich (@Cernovich) September 5, 2016
After the election, Cernovich falsely accused a comedian who repeatedly mocked him online of being part of a secret pedophile ring — which itself is a running theme in Cernovich’s body of work. As his story on Rice spread into the mainstream media this week, this particular accusation, along with images of some of his more offensive tweets, circulated around liberal and Never Trump circles. Like this one:
Today we have a moment of silence for Trayvon Martin's rape victims.
He got got before he was able to rape anyone.
— Mike Cernovich (@Cernovich) February 5, 2016
Like the president he admires, its doubtful that Cernovich cares whether journalists or liberals point out his factual shortcomings, or dig through his old statements to find a history of racist or misogynist remarks. After all, the “grab them by the p—y” tape didn’t stop Trump from winning the White House. Cernovich thrives on attacks from the media because for him and his supporters, they only help to prove the assumption that he must be right about something.
Cernovich also thrives, in his own way, on the one thing that has thrown much of the mainstream media into a crisis lately: trust. Cernovich builds trust with his audience like any experienced Internet star does. Objectivity is less important than an impression of honesty. Cernovich is openly pro-Trump; his live streams are conversations with his most devoted readers. Like-minded online agitators aren’t his competition, they’re his allies, and vice versa. When he gives advice to people who want a career like his, it’s entirely about gaining followers, building an audience. For his readers, the impression is intimate and unmediated.
Over at Buzzfeed, Charlie Warzel has made a convincing case that the key to understanding Cernovich’s work is to see it as the building of a parallel universe that connects directly into the message of the Trump administration, rather than as a fringe reaction to perceived liberal bias in the media. It doesn’t exist to criticize media coverage of the president; it exists to bypass it. It’s become increasingly valuable to a White House that has characterized the mainstream media as the opposition to them and their supporters.
The claim that the media isn’t covering this Rice story and Trump’s wiretapping claims, or any of the many other stories that Cernovich has accused mainstream journalists of covering up, is often easily disproved. Many of these stories are being covered. But that sort of fact-check is a corrective that he and his followers tend to ignore. The issue is not that the media isn’t covering Rice; it’s that they are not covering it with outrage, as if it were the most important story of the year — which Cernovich has said he believes it to be.
In a recent “60 Minutes” segment, Scott Pelley sat down one on one with Cernovich to discuss fake news. Pelley clearly intended to debunk the many unproven and untrue claims Cernovich has circulated online, including his theories about Clinton’s health. Instead what happened was this:
That story got so much traction, it had to be denied not only by Clinton’s doctor, but by the National Parkinson’s Foundation. (2/2) pic.twitter.com/SLu19bN6Gr
— 60 Minutes (@60Minutes) March 27, 2017
Pelley was unprepared for Cernovich’s quick and complete rejection of the authority of reporting, campaign statements and expertise, which is probably exactly what Cernovich and his supporters were hoping for. The idea that establishment media is “scared” of people like Cernovich is a popular one among his supporters. That meme might be compelling, but I don’t think it’s right. What I think is more true is that many journalists don’t understand why any person would trust Cernovich — a Pizzagater! — over them.
At the end of 2016, the national media and many of Clinton’s supporters fell into a full-blown panic over “fake news,” which is a real problem on the Internet, one that the Intersect and others on the hoax beat have covered for quite some time. But the way in which the problem emerged made it easy to be co-opted. While it was true that a wave of fabricated, anti-Clinton stories were widely shared on the Internet in the weeks before the election, it was not proved that those stories had enough reach to sway the election. The pro-Trump Internet saw an opportunity and branded the growing fake news problem as “fake news” itself, beginning a meme that has now become a staple of the White House’s response to unfavorable media reports.
Cernovich is also good at this kind of reversal, and it’s not clear that the media has learned how to address it any better than it did when the term “fake news” was suddenly applied to them. The media may have facts on their side, but Cernovich and other pro-Trump journalists like him have loyal followers who no longer have any interest in hearing them.