Can a Pro-Trump Meme Maker Get a Real News Scoop? (2024)

Mike Cernovich’s Susan Rice “scoop”—publishing unverified information from one anonymous source—is hardly journalism in its highest form. But it’s not exactly fake news, either.PHOTOGRAPH BY MICHAEL CRAVOTTA

Last summer, I noticed that many of the most noxious and effective anti-Hillary Clinton memes on the Internet—that she had Parkinson’s, for example—could be traced back to one man in Southern California, a former lawyer and self-help author named Mike Cernovich. I called him on the phone. Cernovich maintained a blog called Danger and Play, and he was particularly good at attracting attention on platforms like Twitter and the video-streaming app Periscope. He described himself as an American nationalist and a “Pulitzer-worthy journalist,” and had adopted many of journalism’s linguistic tics—his “scoops” were attributed to an entity he called Cernovich Media. What, I asked him, was Cernovich Media, exactly? Was he renting office space, hiring reporters, filling out W-4 forms? He laughed. “It’s definitely just me, dude,” he said. “I run a lean operation. Come out and you’ll see it for yourself.”

It was lean, indeed. Cernovich didn’t own a car, much less a satellite truck or a video-editing suite. But he did have sources. The day I arrived in California, bombs exploded in New Jersey and New York City. Before I got any push notifications about the explosions, I’d heard about them from Cernovich, who was tweeting, blogging, and live-streaming the story from his kitchen table. “I’ve got a guy in Chelsea sending me videos of eyewitnesses on the street, texting me pictures of one of the pressure cookers right after it blew up,” he said. He posted those pictures, and others, on Twitter. (At the time, he had about a hundred thousand followers; now he has nearly two hundred and fifty thousand.) On his blog, he wrote, “The explosion took place on 6th Ave and 23rd, according to a journalist who reported his findings to Cernovich Media. Sources within FDNY report an IED exploded.” No one would mistake it for an Associated Press report; still, I was a reporter from New York City and, if Cernovich really did have a secret source within the fire department, that was one more secret source within the fire department than I had.

Did he really have such a source? Many of the things Cernovich wrote and said were demonstrably untrue, and even his accurate claims were sometimes founded more on intuition than on evidence. Soon after the bombs went off, for example, he asserted that the separate explosions would turn out to be connected. (Ahmad Rahami, who was charged with the bombings and has pleaded not guilty, is still awaiting trial, but, as of now, this prediction seems like it will be borne out.) At the same time, Cernovich also claimed that the nation’s biggest newspapers and TV networks—he called them the “hoaxing media” then, though he has now begun to call them “fake news”—were determined to turn a blind eye to Islamic terrorism, and that mainstream reporters were therefore “trying to cover up the NYC explosion, claiming it’s a ‘gas leak.’” This was implausible; the U.S. media is keen to report on terror attacks, and what Cernovich considered a cover-up was often, in fact, journalists attempting to verify a story before publishing it.

Still, while writing “Trolls for Trump,” my Profile of Cernovich for the magazine, I could feel myself wandering into an Aristotelian funhouse whenever I considered broader, definitional questions. Why couldn’t Cernovich Media be considered a “real” media organization? “Real” by whose definition? Hadn’t scrappy, unorthodox citizen-journalism techniques been legitimized by the Huffington Post, Facebook Live, and the events at Tahrir Square? Aren’t we all just walking media brands these days? “I feel pretty good about the reach I have,” Cernovich had told me. “Drudge still won’t link to me, though. I guess I have more work to do.”

Cernovich now seems to have anonymous sources in the White House, or close to it. On Sunday, he claims to have received a call from a source whose number was rendered untraceable by Signal, the encryption app. “When I get calls like that, I go, ‘Don’t tell me who you are; just tell me enough information that I know you’re legit,’” Cernovich told me this week. The source, he said, informed him that, according to White House logs, Susan Rice, while serving as President Obama’s national-security adviser, had requested that several American citizens, including some Trump associates, be “unmasked.” When intelligence analysts capture information about American citizens through incidental surveillance, the resulting intelligence reports redact the names of those citizens. “Unmasking” means requesting the citizens’ real names.

“So the source finishes saying what they want to say, and then I go, ‘Why are you leaking this to me now? What’s your angle? Who are you trying to get fired?’” Cernovich said. “The person answered my questions, I was convinced that the story checked out, and I published it.” That day, on the blogging platform Medium, Cernovich wrote a piece in the form of a straight-faced newspaper article, down to the public-domain photo of Rice looking crestfallen. He then proceeded to oversell the story on Twitter (“I just broke the biggest story of the year, nbd.”) and on Periscope (“If you knew the stuff that I knew, you would have post-traumatic stress disorder”). The White House, which has been trying to find justification for the President’s unfounded tweets accusing Obama of ordering a wiretap of Trump Tower, seized on the Susan Rice story. Kellyanne Conway linked to Cernovich’s Medium feed on Twitter; Donald Trump, Jr., wrote, “Congrats to @Cernovich for breaking the #SusanRice story. In a long gone time of unbiased journalism he’d win the Pulitzer, but not today!” And, after years of trying, Cernovich finally got his first link on the Drudge Report.

There is no evidence that Susan Rice’s actions violated precedent or the law. And publishing unverified information from a single anonymous source is hardly journalism in its highest form. But it’s not exactly fake news, either. “I’m sufficiently complex that there’s no one truth about me,” Cernovich once told me, back when I was sitting at his kitchen table. “Am I a ranting maniac on Twitter? Yeah, but I’m also a pretty mellow, married guy who’s into hiking and walking his dog. Is Sean Penn kind of a basic bitch? Sure, but he got the only interview with El Chapo. This is why the hoaxing media is so triggered by me. They can only keep saying, ‘Don’t listen to him; he’s not legit’ for so long. I’ll keep saying the opposite, and I’ll keep getting more views on Periscope.”

On Tuesday, a few minutes before he talked to me, he was interviewed via Skype by Alex Jones, the radio host and pro-Trump conspiracist. “We’re breaking these deep-state stories,” Cernovich told Jones. “That’s why people are coming to you and coming to me, because they want them out and they realize that the Susan Rice story—Bloomberg sat on it. The Washington Post sat on it. Nobody wanted to run it, because they knew this proof—this is bigger than Watergate.”

Before cutting to a commercial, Jones said, “We’ve got the guy that broke the Susan Rice information on with us right now. The gold standard in real news, Mike Cernovich.”

Can a Pro-Trump Meme Maker Get a Real News Scoop? (2024)
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