They report on the pro-Trump media, a.k.a. “the fever swamp.”
This week on Recode Media, CNN’s Oliver Darcy and BuzzFeed’s Charlie Warzel talk with Recode’s Peter Kafka about how they report on the many facets of the far-right media, which has exploded in prominence thanks to President Trump. They talk about how ideas, memes and conspiracy theories that originate online can bubble up to more traditional conservative outlets — or even the White House.
You can read some of the highlights from the interview here, or listen to it in the audio player above. Below, we’ve provided a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
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Charlie Warzel: Yes.
Oliver Darcy: Yep, affirmative.
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OD: No smells.
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OD: I bet you could send them back.
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This is Recode Media with Peter Kafka. That’s me, I’m part of the Vox Media podcast network. Here today I have two guests. Charlie Warzel from BuzzFeed, Oliver Darcy from CNN. Why do I have two of you here today, guys?
OD: That’s a good question.
You both cover?
OD: The pro-Trump media.
Pro-Trump, is that the way to say it? I was trying to find a slick way of describing what you guys do. Pro-Trump media, you cover the pro-Trump media, right?
That’s the best way of putting it?
CW: Sometimes I just say “the fever swamp” and let people associate how they want with that.
We’ll formally introduce you so people can track which voice is which. Charlie, say hello.
CW: Hey, I’m Charlie.
CW: From BuzzFeed.
OD: And this is Oliver from CNN.
Okay, you guys sound slightly different, right? So people can track it.
OD: Little bit.
I’ll occasionally prompt you by name, too. You guys both cover the pro-Trump media, you both sort of specialize, I think, specifically in the internet version of it, right?
CW: Yeah, I think, personally, I sort of came from being a tech reporter and covering a lot of the big platforms and the cultural changes of the internet, and the pro-Trump movement kind of grew out of a lot of those platforms and is sort of weaponized by them. So that’s kind of how I got into it. The internet version, to me, is sort of more my fluency.
CW: I think it’s more interesting than the legacy.
So you guys are covering people like InfoWars, Alex Jones.
CW: Yes. It’s important to …
Gateway Pundit. Oliver, you came out of that world, right? You were at The Blaze.
OD: I worked at The Blaze for, yes, a few years.
Which is, that’s a digital and to the right.
OD: Well, let’s be clear, The Blaze is no InfoWars or Breitbart, it’s more of a conventional and it was more of a conventional right-leaning website, but real quick, I want to make a point. You said that we cover the internet and I think I cover particularly the whole thing as a whole. Ed Hannity is important, and Mark Levin, and Rush Limbaugh, but what’s important about the internet is that, that seems to be where a lot of these guys get their talking points and where the narratives emerge first.
So, if you pay attention to what’s going on, for instance, on the Donald sub-Reddit, you can maybe see that later, two or three days, on Sean Hannity’s Fox News primetime show.
That’s a section of Reddit devoted to people who like Donald Trump.
OD: Yes. It’s a very, very active Reddit, as well.
Great. So, you guys have guided me to a place I wanted to get to, which is sketching out the difference between the internet version of Pro-Trump media and traditional conservative media. Conservative radio’s been around for a very, very long time, Fox News has been around for a couple decades. I think until really the last couple years if people were describing conservative media, the internet wouldn’t have crossed their mind, at least for most people. I think really until last year, people were sort of unaware that there was this big, thriving conservative movement online, and then specifically a pro-Trump movement online. Oliver, I just want to start where you left off there. You think that the internet is leading TV and radio, it’s less of a symbiosis. These guys start and then it eventually bubbles up to other mediums?
OD: Right. I think a lot of narratives are maybe tested on … It’s like trial balloons and it’s tested to see how it works with the base. If things start really taking hold, that’s when you see it sort of bubble up to the surface and then you get it. You’ll maybe see it on a radio show and then it’ll eventually, I think it takes some time, but get to primetime on Fox News. That said, sometimes Sean Hannity will say something that ends up going reverse and then you have Dan Scavino tweet it, and then the president sees it.
So, it moves both ways. Because my conception of how conservative media worked for a long time was, the party, the White House, whoever’s leading the head of the conservative political movement, has an idea and it is disseminated literally through talking points, through conservative radio, through Fox. I get the sense, reading what you guys do — and you guys are great, which is why I have you on here — is that a lot of this stuff is sort of bubbling up from the internet and there may not be anyone directing it very often.
CW: The interesting part about this, to me, we at BuzzFeed, especially on this tech team where I kind of came out from, we were always monitoring the weird areas of the internet.
You guys spend a lot of time mining Reddit. I mean, you literally got stories out of Reddit, for a very long time that was sort of the bulk of BuzzFeed.
CW: That is like the old …
The old BuzzFeed.
CW: The old nugget of BuzzFeed. Just monitoring lots of these different platforms and seeing how they’re being shaped. One of them was 4chan, which is this sort of no-rules message board that has everything, including an active political segment. Which is mostly just a lot of racist, xenophobic, anti-semitic stuff, but this message board and a lot of these other sort of message-board-type communities on the internet, really sort of adopted in late 2015 around the time when Trump came down the escalator at Trump Tower. They really just … It was something amazing to watch them co-opt this guy. He started becoming the main meme out of places like 4chan and a lot of these places, and on Reddit.
So, the far right, and then we can discuss the labels, but for now, broadly, the far-right version of the internet embraced Donald Trump early on.
CW: Yeah, I mean …
When announced … But prior to that, they weren’t really interested in him, right?
CW: Exactly, but I think they weren’t necessarily … 4chan wasn’t a far-right space. 4chan was just this chaotic sort of anti-establishment, but also …
Jokestery for the lulz.
OD: Really politically incorrect.
Really politically incorrect.
CW: Deeply politically incorrect. It was sort of just, anti-authority in any kind of way and causing chaos, and trolling, and they embraced him. What’s interesting is this community sort of found Donald Trump and Trump changed how that … Those groups are now way more politically active and engaged than they used to be. They used to just sort of be these awful spaces with young kids pranking people.
Do you think he politicized them or do you think the people who were interested in Donald Trump and the internet went there and people who weren’t, left there, and that sort of sorted itself out?
CW: It’s always hard to know, but I think in the same way that so many people, just normal people in the world, are paying more attention to politics now because Trump is such an interesting character, I think the same thing happened there. This presidency has politicized and the campaign has politicized everything.
Yeah, we do politics on this podcast every week, yeah.
OD: As Breitbart said, I think Andrew Breitbart when he was alive, “Politics is downstream from culture.” I think that the culture of 4chan and some of these other places on the internet maybe gave way to some of the politics that we see today.
So, that sort of jokey, cynical/LOL nothing matters, that sort of philosophy …
OD: Right. I think the underlying … Well, one of the underlying philosophies is being anonymous on the internet gave some of these people the freedom, they thought, to say whatever they really thought about a topic versus having a name attached to it, having your face attached to it. So, on 4chan, you see these incredibly politically incorrect discussions going on and I think they really latched onto Trump because he would go out in public and he would say something incredibly politically incorrect.
And they were entertained by that.
OD: I think they were entertained by it, but they also saw it like this guy is the real-life version, almost, of someone from 4chan.
And he’s saying it on camera with his name.
OD: Yeah, and he’s doing it on debate stages, and he’s doing it to news anchors, and he doesn’t seem to care, like they don’t seem to care. The only difference is, of course, this is real life versus on the internet.
It is real life. First of all, I want to sketch out that universe of online pro-Trump media. I think InfoWars, I think Breitbart is sort of the loudest, to me, most influential voice, who else?
CW: Oliver’s …
OD: Charlie knows what I’m going to say. The Drudge Report, Matt Drudge.
I’m thinking of him as older, but okay. That’s fine.
OD: Sure. Yeah.
But he’s online.
OD: To me, he’s sort of like the nucleus, the soul system.
Right. He also differs, right, from a lot of the rest of pro-Trump media, like he’ll take a different tack.
OD: One of those things, too, just to be clear here as we talk about this, is the pro-Trump media, while they uniformly do support Trump, they often have competing interests as the people of the factions in the White House could have competing interests. So, it gets a little tricky when we’re talking about them because, yeah, Drudge and Breitbart both support Trump, they also support different wings in the White House.
Drudge right now seems to be in the anti-Bannon camp.
OD: Yes, he’s in the pro-Kushner, pro-Ivanka Trump camp, and Breitbart’s obviously in the pro Steve Bannon camp.
Right. Let’s keep going and sketch out the rest of the universe of people who aren’t … Again, one of the reasons I have you guys here is you guys spend all your time looking at this stuff, writing about it, and maybe it’s that I’m lazy, maybe it’s that I have a limited tolerance for it, but I appreciate the fact that you’re doing this because I don’t want to. In fact, Charlie does a weekly newsletter, right? Semi-weekly newsletter?
CW: Yeah. In the summer, it’s a little less. It’s InfoWarzel, which is …
Where I just sort of think you going through the muck and summarizing it for me and that way my hands are less dirty.
CW: Yeah, a lot of times it’s a great way to … So much happens in this world on a daily basis. Oliver and I talk a lot, that back channel, just about the taxing nature of trying to keep up with it because part of the tactic that all these people use is the second they get backed into a corner or the fire that they have ignited somewhere is getting put out by rational logic or common sense, they light another one.
CW: Run away and say, “Hey, look, there’s a huge fire.”
“Look at that dumpster fire.”
Let’s keep sketching out the universe. There’s the granddaddy, which is Matt Drudge, still around, InfoWars, Gateway Pundit, who else do you guys pay attention to?
CW: Then there’s this universe of non-publications. So, you have Mike Cernovich who is sort of a … He’s one of the narrative setters, sort of like the hashtag generator.
This is someone who lives pretty much entirely on Twitter.
Right? There’s no publication …
CW: No. Yes. Has a medium blog, is sponsored by Patreon and all sort of crowdfunding kind of things. He’s a former, I guess, men’s rights, self-help blogger.
Before that, a legal blogger.
CW: Yeah. Yeah. It’s really sort of fascinating where a lot of these people come from. You have …
But again, you find him primarily on Twitter, right?
CW: You find him primarily on Twitter.
That’s his medium. It’s where he hangs out.
CW: Yeah, probably sends like 120 tweets a day.
And there are a bunch of people like him now, right?
CW: Yeah. You have Jack Posobiec who was in the military, though his record is under dispute at the moment, and he was like a “Game of Thrones” blogger, like a year and a half ago, and just been a longtime fan of Trump and came out through that. He’s sort of the protégé of Roger Stone, who’s another person in this universe, the longtime lobbyist and …
CW: … dirty trickster, great Netflix documentary on him. These people … There’s a lot of these individual actors, essentially.
How many folks are you guys sort of keeping track of on a daily basis?
OD: That’s difficult to say.
What’s your universe? Is it a core dozen publications and people? Is it 100?
CW: The thing about this group is, and it’s a point I want to make is, that it’s not as organized as people think it is, and yet everyone sort of knows their role. So, when something happens, it’s actually very easy to sort of keep tabs on it because everyone’s monitoring everyone else and amplifying everyone else all the time. So, you see all the things you need to see. I have a Twitter list with probably like 40 people and Breitbart, and some publications, things like that. The narrative’s just … Other than what it does to you mentally keeping up with it, it’s actually incredibly easy to see what’s going on.
Because it’s repetitive and everyone literally retweets each other and it sort of coalesces.
This is sort of the thing I keep coming back to: It seems like a lot of this stuff happens organically rather than someone saying, “This is the message, follow this message.” That it sort of bubbles up because someone tried something, and it picks up, and people go from there.
OD: A lot of it does happen, too, on Reddit and the Donald sub-Reddit, and then also on places like 4chan. So, that’s a large part of the universe and we … Maybe most people don’t pay attention to it, but I think that’s where a lot of these more established personalities get their ideas from and get their memes from. There’s even some speculation that Dan Scavino at the White House, who manages Donald Trump’s social media, is looking at the Donald sub-Reddit and finding memes and stuff, and posting it to the president’s account.
Right, because the president sends some of his own tweets or has someone send them, or … We’re still not sure whether he’s actually doing the typing, but clearly like when he’s posting a meme or a photograph, I don’t think he knows how to do that, right?
He’s certainly not scouring Reddit, right? So, that’s coming from there. Along with those things, beyond the fact that this stuff, you guys argue, bubbles up to Hannity, bubbles up to radio, have you tried to quantify the audience that these guys have and how that compares to traditional conservative media, to Fox News?
CW: This is sort of the existential question for me of covering all this, it’s like what am I looking at in terms of scale? It’s so hard to know. I’ve done a lot of reporting around Alex Jones and InfoWars and you have the cast stats and things like that, but who knows? Because his platform …
That’s how many people are visiting his site.
CW: His website, yeah. Then you have, his YouTube page has just about two million subscribers, you have all the offshoot kind of garbage sites that repost his YouTube videos, you have the Periscope things, you have Facebook and Facebook Live, you have his Twitter account. You have the radio show on Terrestrial Radio, which has a whole bunch of stations, and then the pirate stations. So, it’s impossible to know, yet he makes a ton of money off of these supplements, so ostensibly his audience is big.
He sells diet pills and …
CW: He sells all kind of vitamins, and minerals, and B12.
CW: BuzzFeed. Me.
OD: Charlie did that.
No, no, but there was another one that explained the business.
CW: New York Magazine.
It’s not through advertising, it’s selling this stuff, and you went and actually looked at the stuff.
CW: Yeah. Yeah. We went and took all the products to a lab and found that they’re actually safe for you.
It’s the same stuff you would get at GNC and a lot of it’s the same stuff Gwyneth Paltrow sells.
CW: At about three to fives times markup.
Well, sure, if it’s got special Alex Jones power on it.
CW: Yeah, exactly. InfoWars is running a BuzzFeed sale, by the way.
This is one the questions I always ask and I’m glad to hear that you’re asking yourself, how big is this audience?
You were listing all those different outlets, obviously, presumably a lot of those people are visiting him on YouTube, and on Facebook, and on the radio, so you can’t add up that total audience.
CW: Right. When you talk to somebody like this guy Mike Cernovich and you kind of try to get a sense, those people will say, “Well, look at Donald Trump’s approval rating right now.” If it’s, say, whatever, 30 percent or something like that, 30 percent of voting Americans are my audience, too. They will say that. You can’t dismiss it, go to a Trump rally and see all the InfoWars shirts, there’s a lot of them, but it’s impossible to know, for me, and I struggle with that every day, covering it.
OD: When I’m looking at these guys, it’s like Charlie says, impossible to really know the size of the audience. If we’re talking about the internet sort of personalities, I’m looking at how much influence they have. Yeah, Mike Cernovich has a few hundred thousand followers on Twitter, but if he sets a narrative that ends up in the microphone of Rush Limbaugh, then he’s reaching a lot of people. He’s reaching, I don’t know how many stations, 500 plus radio stations across the country, millions of listeners. If it’s on Hannity’s primetime Fox News show, or ends up on Tucker Carlson’s “Tonight,” then he’s reaching a much larger audience than just his Twitter account.
Do you guys ever think about whether or not you’re overestimating the influence and/or building up these guys more than they would … Giving them a broader audience than they would normally have? You both work at very big platforms, CNN and BuzzFeed reach a lot of people, that by telling people, “This is what Mike Cernovich thinks,” that you’re actually sort of helping him out and building him up?
CW: So, I think probably when this argument sort of reared its head the most was when Alex Jones and Megyn Kelly did their primetime interview on NBC back in, I think …
It seems like years ago.
CW: May or June. Yes.
CW: Some time ago. Everyone was outraged by the fact that she would give his conspiracy theorist … Speculated before the Sandy Hook shooting, the tragedy was a conspiracy. Anyway, people were like, “You can’t give this guy a platform, he’s awful.” I think about a lot with my own work, but at the same time …
Because you’re in contact with him all the time.
Many of these people, right?
I want to talk to you about that stuff later, but you’re covering them day in, day out, as if they are … The same way that someone writes about CNN and BuzzFeed.
CW: Sure. My argument for this is that, first of all, completely ignoring voices that you don’t like or dismissing them as garbage and as not serious, that doesn’t tend to work out very well.
Well, that’s not a good argument, right?
The argument isn’t whether we find them odious, we can have a discussion about that, it’s are you guys overestimating their influence and/or increasing their influence by focusing on them instead of Fox News or instead of Rush Limbaugh?
OD: Sure. If we ignored them, which we could do, that doesn’t mean that Sean Hannity’s going to ignore them, that doesn’t mean that Matt Drudge will ignore these things, and this universe will go on pretty fine without us. The only difference will be that no one will know what’s going on and they won’t see really how the sausage is made. I think that if you go … Journalism, for me at least, has always been, you shine light on places and if there’s something bad going on, then people take action. So, I don’t see why that would necessarily be too different here. I think, of course, you want to make sure that when you’re covering these guys you’re being both fair to them, but also critical. Like when I write about Mike Cernovich, I always point out, Mike Cernovich, who peddles baseless conspiracy theories, and who is far right, and on the fringe of politics. One, I think you have to give the audience credit that when they see something that they think is on the fringe, that they’ll recognize that’s on the fringe and maybe should be taken with a grain of salt, to say the least.
But you guys do … There’s a line, right? Like up until this weekend, not a lot of folks were spending time writing about Nazis, right? Now we’re suddenly engaged in a debate about Nazis, but we would have said, “Well, that’s super fringe, we’re not going spend much time on that.”
CW: I think, though, that it makes sense to cover … Well, we kind of cover more than anything else from what I … I don’t want to tell you what you do, Oliver, but I feel like it’s the process, it’s the, how does X get from the Donald to wherever and how are they doing it? What’s the method of amplification? It’s not so much that we’re amplifying their message, it’s more, whatever it is that you’re seeing, why is everyone talking about this Seth Rich DNC conspiracy? Well, the reason we’re talking about it, not really what it is as much as why we’re talking about it, why it’s a thing, why people are upset, is because it happened this way and here’s the steps.
I think that that is really important because more than anything else, I want people to know that these people are really savvy, in the same way that CNN’s digital department can be savvy, or BuzzFeed’s. They understand how to use all these tools that are available to everyone and really push them to their advantage, and get people to pay attention to them. I think that that’s important that people give them that credit so that they taken them seriously, and either … Do whatever. They just need to have that information, I think.
Speaking of process, one way this show works is people listen to this and they listen to our fine advertisers, and then they come back and listen to more of this. So, we’re going to hear from one of our fine advertisers right now.
We’re back here with Charlie Warzel from BuzzFeed, Oliver Darcy from CNN. This is great, guys, I’ve been trying to put this together for a while, so thank you. Charlie’s fresh in from Montana …
CW: That’s right.
… So we’re especially honored to have him here. I want to talk about how you do your work, but I still want to talk about the right-wing pro-Trump media and how it works first. What is the relationship between Donald Trump and the pro-Trump digital media? Donald Trump is someone who famously doesn’t participate in the digital world. Every profile you ever read about him says he does not use email, doesn’t have a computer at his desk. We know he has a phone, we know he can hit a retweet button, I guess, but my impression is he’s not reading any of the stuff that you guys are covering, at least not in the native form, is that right?
OD: I think it’s tricky. This week he did retweet Jack Posobiec, I can’t pronounce his name, and he retweeted him, so …
Do you assume that that actually was Donald Trump retweeting it or someone retweeting on behalf of him?
OD: Honestly, I couldn’t tell you. It could be someone else retweeting on his behalf, it could be him scrolling through his feed.
He’ll say, “I read this on the internet,” but he’s not sitting with a browser going through …
CW: I can tell you firsthand, from a conversation with Jack, that Jack doesn’t know how it happened.
CW: Yeah. This is the big mystery, is what is Donald Trump’s actual media diet. Other than the cable stuff, are people printing out InfoWars things for him?
That seems to be the case, right? It’s been reported that people are giving him printouts of stuff.
CW: There seems to be that, but it’s also what are those printouts? There was a story a long time ago that a copy of an article from notorious troll Chuck Johnson’s website, which is journalistically very dubious, called Got News, that a printout of an article from there showed up on his desk. I haven’t heard a lot of stories like that, like Mike Cernovich’s Medium posts are showing up and things like that, but you don’t know.
OD: He seems to have some sort of sourcing inside the National Security Council, or at least did, he was getting a lot of these …
Right, but that’s a different question, right?
That’s people who work for Trump and are in different corners of the Trump universe, giving information to him. I’m think of just how the president views this. My impression is, he spends all his time watching TV and when he’s not watching TV, he’s looking at the New York Times and a few other outlets, the New York Post, that he considers a big deal. My gut is that he could not pronounce Mike Cernovich’s name or wouldn’t know who he is, or any other folks you’re talking about. Do they care that he may or may not be seeing any of this happening?
OD: I don’t know. I think he might pay … You have to keep in mind that Trump is very good with media, he’s known the media landscape for a long time. If he’s so good at navigating the tabloid media, I don’t see why he wouldn’t also have a rough sketch in his mind of who these players are on the internet.
He might not interact with them like he interacts with Sean Hannity, but I don’t know, something tells me that if you said Mike Cernovich’s name, he might actually know who that is. Like, “This guy on the internet who really likes me.” He met with Baked Alaska, who’s a character that was actually at Charlottesville.
Baked Alaska’s a person? It’s a man?
OD: Yeah, he’s a person, he worked at BuzzFeed actually, at one point in time.
CW: On the video side.
OD: Yes, on the video side of things, of social media. He met with him, and during the RNC convention there’s a photo of him signing a tattoo on his arm. We don’t know how much time they spent together, Baked Alaska probably plays it up a bit much saying that they had a good chat, but there is …
It was the same thing with Kanye West, right?
And he’s not listening to Kanye West, he just knows that Kanye West is a famous person.
OD: Sure. Well, great friends, apparently. I don’t know, it’s impossible to say. I think, also, one of the things about the pro-Trump media and the way this world works is there tends to be bubbling up and it ends up on higher platforms. There’s also the ability for it to go, like Charlie just said, from a really fringe website and just leap over everything to the president’s desk.
OD: Or from Dan Scavino who goes directly to the Reddits and then you see it maybe on Fox.
I get the impression that there’s two different funnels here. One is sort of the memes bubble up and then maybe they get to Hannity, and then they go up to him that way, and so he thinks he’s getting it from Hannity and Fox News. Another is that it goes up to his social media director and he never really sees that stuff.
Every interaction I’ve ever heard about with Donald Trump and read about with Donald Trump, people I know who’ve interacted with him, is him reading something they wrote in a magazine, like Fortune or Forbes, and then circling it with the marker and sending it back. Or calling up people he knows because they represent big traditional media organizations and that’s what he responds to, that’s why he still talks to Maggie Haberman all the time, even though he hates the New York Times supposedly because he really responds to the New York Times.
I get that he’s talked to Alex Jones at InfoWars, but it seems like for a lot of this stuff, it would be difficult for him to explain why any of these sites or Twitter feeds matter.
CW: Yes. We don’t know, but the other thing that I think is important about this is I’m not so certain from talking to these people, like sure, they’d love it if Donald Trump, they were the first site or Twitter feed that Donald Trump checked every day, but I also think that it’s less about that. One of the defining characteristics for me about the pro-Trump media is it’s not actually all that concerned with politics a lot of the time. It’s not really concerned with policy, like there’s not a lot of policy debate. There’s really no substantive debate. It’s about narratives and it’s about the media. It is about the different medium that all these messages go through and about setting agendas in terms of conversations that you have. It’s more about playing with the media to get influence. I think they are less interested in whether Donald Trump is listening to their message and amplifying it, and more interested that they have tons of devoted fans and listeners.
That they have influence. Period.
CW: Yeah, that they’re getting retweets.
OD: It’s about trolling and doing things that break conventions, and tradition, and the way things are supposed to be run. They like blowing past those walls, I think that’s something they enjoy a lot.
There’s a lot of discussion about these guys wanting to destroy media. Again, people like Bannon and Breitbart will express that explicitly. You guys tease this out a lot in your reporting. Do think that they really want to destroy the New York Times or do they just want to have fame? If they get that through destroying the New York Times or saying they’re destroying the New York Times, that’s one way to accomplish it?
OD: I personally don’t … I don’t know if they care. They would love to do it, probably, because that would be a traditional paper and outlet, and it’s now gone, but whether they actually care, I don’t know. Charlie, what do you think?
CW: I think if they …
OD: It’s like a medal for them, like when you think of video games like, “Yeah, we got the New York Times, now it’s on to something else.” I don’t know if …
CW: I think they stand to gain incredibly from the loss of the … The idea is, the warping of reality, creating a second reality, a second media narrative, I think it’s in order to continue to gain the influence and the power.
It seems like they really respond to being validated by the New York Times. I read a big profile of Cernovich in the New Yorker right before the election.
CW: Yeah, they love that.
I’m sure that if any of these guys … CNN, do you guys offer these folks platforms?
Do you actively not invite …
OD: No, we’re not going to have Mike Cernovich on air.
Why not? You have Jeffrey Lord on air.
OD: You would have to ask someone over there, but I don’t think we’re going to give Mike Cernovich a platform that would … We cover him, but I don’t think you’re going to see him on a panel offering up his analysis on the day’s events.
Yeah. I guess that’s a separate discussion about why you don’t do it, but do you think that if you did, he would leap at the chance to come out on CNN?
OD: Yeah, of course he would.
OD: But just to kind of reset here maybe a little bit, I think we’re focusing a lot on maybe the characters like Mike Cernovich and those guys, but there’s also the whole other more mainstream pro-Trump media, the Breitbarts and the Matt Drudges, who are vastly influential and big players in this. I’m not sure that they often align … They have similar interests, but they often, too, seem to be kind of different.
So, explain how they’re different.
OD: In different ways. I think Mike Cernovich is mostly interested … Mike Cernovich, for instance, he doesn’t really, like Charlie was saying, care about policy. He supports, or at least like traditional conservative policy, he supports universal basic income. That’s something that most conservatives or people on the right would say, “We don’t support that.” So, he’s more interested in narratives and stuff. I think when you look at the more conventional pro-Trump media, they actually might care about policy a little more. Like Steve Bannon, I think, is convinced that if he can push his policy through Congress and into the president’s desk …
Steve Bannon has an ideology.
OD: Yes, he has an ideology that he wants to …
The ideology reflected in Breitbart.
OD: Exactly. I think that when you look at Breitbart, they’re a little more interested in pushing that ideology and getting policy actually maybe done. Same with Drudge, Drudge really wants Obamacare repealed. He really wants tax reform done. So, when we’re looking at the pro-Trump media, I think we have to keep that in mind: That while they are on the same side, maybe different things motivate them.
Do you draw ideological distinctions between these guys and traditional conservative media? Between Fox News ideology, between a Rush Limbaugh ideology, between what used to be Glenn Beck’s ideology?
OD: It’s so difficult to put them all in one camp. I think the camp I just put it in maybe is the best, that the internet sort of personalities and the fever swamp on Reddit and 4chan, and then maybe just put everyone else in the other category. Because when you get into individual … Like Rush Limbaugh, what motivates him is probably a lot different than what motivates Glenn Beck, who’s actually anti-Trump, and what motivates Sean Hannity. They have their own media ecosystem of their own, so I wouldn’t want to put them all in the same category. I would say that maybe if had to just generalize and paint with a broad brush, they’re all more interested in the ideology part of it than the trolling part, and the other part’s interested in trolling. I think that’s best, maybe. Charlie, what do you think?
CW: I think that that’s true. There is just a legit … You might …
You’re describing a world where the Twitter guys like the circus, or pick whatever metaphor you want.
They like seeing things go boom.
If they can press the plunger on the TNT box, even better. Whereas the Bannons, the Breitbarts of the world, want to actually get something done.
CW: I think that that’s true. I think actually, a really interesting example of the dual nature of this stuff, happens in Breitbart. Oliver, your reporting has sort of been definitive on this, I think, to some degree. There are kind of warring factions between pressing the button and blowing up the system and also governing effectively, showing that Trump can succeed in Washington. So, I think even in institutions like Breitbart, you have that sort of duality. I would say the publications, obviously, are more interested in ideology than the fever swamp.
So, for a long time the internet was sort of the JV team of media, whether you were talking about there’d be a magazine and then there’d be a magazine’s website, or there’d be someone who was famous on Myspace or YouTube but didn’t have a record contract. A lot of folks thought about the track where people sort of move up into traditional media, you’d get a record deal, you’d get to the print version of the magazine. Do the internet folks that you’re covering aspire to more mainstream outlets and platforms? Or do they want to stay where they are on Twitter, on the internet?
OD: I think, of course, they want the largest platform they can get their hands on. I think, though, that they’ve realized, like Mike Cernovich knows that he’s not going to be hosting a show on Fox News. He won’t be even allowed, I think, as a guest on Fox News.
Again, I’m trying to understand what prevents him from being on Fox News or CNN. He’s not disfigured, right?
OD: No. He does do a lot of Periscopes and he’s pretty good at that, being on camera. I think that, like we were talking earlier, there’s a conscious editorial decision to not amplify things and give these guys unchecked … Like giving them unchecked power or a platform where they can just say something and mislead an audience. I think we are also saying we’re covering them and how a tweet from Cernovich might end up on the president’s desk or …
So, we’ll take CNN because you’re in a position why you can explain why your employer will or won’t put them on the air, but why do you think he wouldn’t be on Fox at some point if you he got asked?
OD: He was on Fox once. He was on Red Eye, I believe, and then there was controversy because Mike Cernovich has said some very controversial things in the past, and still in the present. So, Fox, I think, came out with a statement, if I remember correctly, and said that he won’t be invited back on.
I guess here we point out that Fox itself is going through a change. It’s sort of in turmoil, both because of HR issues and also because James Murdoch is one of the people who’s running 21st Century Fox. We’re recording this on Friday; las night, Murdoch made noise by saying he’s definitely anti-Nazi.
Which in August 2017 is a position you need to take. It’s a little unsure about where it wants to go.
CW: They will all tell you, “We don’t want to be on the traditional stuff,” and this is sort of more of the internet personalities, they will say that. Also, Mike Cernovich will tell you definitively that he has pivoted away from trolling. He’s a little less of a fire starter than he used to be, but he does have this dogged past of saying …
Right, that was 2016.
CW: Yeah, exactly. They really do think that they can get a reset all the time. I see some of these individuals maybe positioning themselves to, at some point, have their past a little more forgotten and to forget that world a little, but I think they constantly kind of shoot themselves in … If that’s their goal, they constantly shoot themselves in the foot.
CW: Their reflex is sort of like the president’s, to sort of go after a conspiracy theory. If there’s some good conspiracy bait, they’re going to take it. That obviously doesn’t bode so well for getting your invite on “Fox and Friends.”
First thought, best thought, you put it out on the internet and then deal with it later.
CW: Oh yeah, it’s definitely a shoot first.
OD: I think they can’t help it either, it’s like they just see it and they …
OD: They might know that it’s going to be bad for maybe future aspirations, but when it’s right there, they just cannot help themselves.
I’m trying to figure out a good segue to the fact that we’ve got another spot from an advertiser, but we want to hear from another one of our fine advertisers, so hang on, we’ll be right back with Oliver and Charlie.
Thanks Kara. Back here with Charlie Warzel, Oliver Darcy, BuzzFeed, CNN. I want to talk … I keep wanting to say alt-right, but these guys don’t even like the word alt-right, or some of them don’t like the word alt-right anymore.
CW: Yeah, it’s a …
I’m not even going to get into that distinction, it seems like —
Weird identity politics for conservatives.
CW: It could take a while to …
I want to talk to you about how you do your job. Again, you work at CNN and BuzzFeed, these are two platforms reviled by many people you’re writing about. CNN in particular, you guys have been in the crosshairs for a long time.
OD: Taking some heat.
I thought at the beginning of this administration that BuzzFeed would get a lot more grief after you guys published the dossier, wrote a whole story about it, seems to have gone away. When you go talk to people at Breitbart, to the Mike Cernovichs of the world, how do you think about how you are interacting with them and how do they respond when you reach out to them? It seems like you’re getting plenty of access.
OD: Yeah. I think, well, one, I worked at the Blaze, which is a traditionally conservative news website, and it’s changed a little since I left, but I think that I knew a lot of people ahead of time, before I started even covering this sort of thing. So that helped build a layer of trust, which has been very helpful. Also, these guys, they want, as Charlie was saying, as much as they say they despite traditional media, they really do like being covered by traditional media, even if it’s not in glowing terms. Even if we say, “Mike Cernovich is a conspiracy theorist and a far right guy on the fringe,” he still wants to be covered. It’s tricky, I don’t want to say it’s not difficult, but it might be a little less … It’s not like if I reach out to someone they immediately hang up the phone and start yelling at me. They usually do pick up and they usually do answer.
CW: I sort of use the polarization of a space like Twitter to the advantage. My whole sort of mode of working with these people is, “You’re going to get a fair shake and I’m not going to call you a Nazi if you’re not a Nazi.” I really think labeling with this group is so incredibly important to them. You can say, so-and-so peddles conspiracies, show that they have, and they’ll be okay with that. They’ve done that, they understand that, they sort of know what they are and what they’re doing. Because people are throwing … This is sort of before Charlottesville, but there was a reflexive sort of thing on the far-left on Twitter to just call everyone who you disagreed with you a fascist of some kind. They feel cornered by that for whatever reason and …
So, if you just called them a person instead of a fascist, or a reporter, or a commentator, they respond to that.
CW: Yeah. I think they just … It’s like any reporting, you give somebody a tough but fair shake and they’ll nod their head and say, “Okay.”
This is actually one of the notes I’ve taken, I was looking at one of your stories you did, Charlie, recently, where Chuck Johnson figured prominently in it, but you refer to him … You were both writing about him and interviewing him in the story, clearly got information from him, and you describe him as a former freelance journalist. When I read that, I sort of came up short and like, “Oh, I guess technically he wrote things and considered himself a journalist, and was a freelancer,” but everyone refers to him as a troll. Earlier in this discussion, you referred to him as a troll, so it seems like you’re consciously saying, “I’m going to make sure that when I write about him, I’m going to label him in a way that he can’t take offense at, and that allows me to keep doing my job.”
CW: To some degree. I actually don’t know which story, I refer to him in a number of them, and I often, every time I’m writing a story, I go back to the last way that I referred to those people.
You know what it was? It was about the Google guy. God, that’s last week’s controversy.
CW: It’s insane.
The Google engineer and how he became a cause celeb for the alt-right, conservative, pro-Trump media, and Chuck Johnson’s role in it. That was the story.
CW: Yeah. These descriptions are often … They go through edits and things like that, but they’re often absolutely tortured. A freelance former journalist turned troll turned behind the scenes influencer. It’s like, yeah, I think that my goal is to give these people a fair shake in the sense … Like a tough but fair … I will never paint them in the view that they want to be seen as, but I think that there’s a lot that you can use to your advantage not bringing your own sort of ideology and view of who they are or playing into sort of the controversy that they create. I say what their job title is. Mike Cernovich is a great example of this. Nobody wants to call him a reporter and I agree with that, he journalistically has a lot of … He’s put a lot of misinformation and conspiracies out there. He also scooped Reince Priebus’ firing, he’s …
Right. There was a whole debate about, does this count as a scoop because maybe he’s not a journalist and he’s just a mouthpiece for a member.
CW: Sure, but he’s clearly shown that he can cultivate sources in the highest levels of the government and puts things out there.
CW: So, to some degree, he fits the bill of reporter. So, reporter and sometimes conspiracy theorist. That’s weird, but it’s also the truth. I don’t know.
OD: I’ll quickly say something, too: When we’re talking about giving these guys a tough but fair shake, it’s not to say that they don’t get really mad sometimes. I just had an experience this week, speaking of Charles Johnson, I was doing a story about how he misidentified the Charlottesville driver and tried saying it was some sort of far-left person. I asked him for comment, he wrote me an email giving me comment, found my story with his comment in it, and then he tried to retroactively declare it off the record. I told him I can’t do that, you said the thing, if you have anything else you’d like to add, I can include it. He sent me a very threatening email saying that if I don’t take it out, [take it] back, then it’s going to end my career at CNN because he’s going to do whatever it takes to get me fired. He’s warned me not to make him an enemy and a number of other things.
You don’t seem nervous.
OD: Well, we published the story and then we published his threats. He sent me an email afterward saying, “You made your choice.” Well, we’re not … When we cover these guys, we’re going to give you a fair shake or we’re going to give him a fair shake, but that’s not to say that they’re not going to be held to high standards or the standards we’d hold anyone else to.
If he doesn’t want … It’s not like I was getting curtailed information from him, but if I ever go back to him or needed to go back to him, I guess maybe he’s not going to talk anymore, but so be it. If you aren’t happy with getting a fair shake, then there’s not much I can do for you, but I’m not also going to just … I think that there is a tendency in some places just to just dismiss these guys and call them a whole bunch of names. I think I’m more interested in showing people what they’re doing than calling them names.
Let me circle back to one of the things that we started with, which is Matt Drudge, you said he’s the most influential person in this sphere. He’s decidedly not of this era, right? Twenty-plus years of doing this, he’s a link aggregator, he ascended at the same time that AOL and Yahoo were really important on the internet. Why is he still as influential as he is?
OD: In many ways, he innovated the space, the internet. He actually, in his famous speech before the National Press Club, said that he envisioned one day when anyone with a cellphone, basically, or with the internet, could be a reporter. In some cases, if you look at what’s happened today, you see that with the rise of some of these internet personalities. I think, A) he innovated the space. B) His website has been a constant and it’s positioned well between the conventional media, because Fox News, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, they check this website frequently, but also …
It’s powerful because it’s powerful.
OD: Right. It’s also on the internet. So, he’s kind of positioned in the center of things and I think that’s a very unique position. He gets a ton of traffic, like an enormous amount of traffic. Also, he’s checked by influencers. So, I think when I think of the whole universe, I always think of him as the center and the sun maybe in their ..
Usually people don’t have that kind of long run, especially on the internet, which sort of chews through these people. There aren’t a lot of other 20-year-old internet personalities, people who have been internet personalities for 20 years, that we’re paying attention to.
CW: The way I look at the Drudge Report is slightly different, but it’s also incredibly influential. I see the sort of pro-Trump internet, let’s say, not Hannity and whatever, but the pro-Trump internet as only having certain gateways to get through to the mainstream. Twitter is a good one. Look at former Breitbart troll and staffer, Milo Yiannopoulos was banned from Twitter, Chuck Johnson was banned from Twitter. They have a hard time getting through to the mainstream.
So, that ban has been meaningful for both of them?
CW: Very meaningful, because Twitter is one of those portals. Drudge is another one of those portals. You get on Drudge and that’s the way to hop into wherever. You are going to be on Fox if you’re the splash on Drudge, you are going to attract all these mainstream journalists, people who don’t dive in as Oliver and I do into the weirder areas. It’s insanely important in terms of how that narrative jumps. It’s probably the only, other than Twitter, truly guaranteed way.
OD: Right, and before Twitter it was the only, really, way to make it your leap into the mainstream.
Right. It’s still amazing, the Monica Lewinsky broke through with that story, so 1998? ’99?
OD: You have to give credit to him for seeing … I think he was one of the few people back then to see what the internet could be and how powerful it could be. He hasn’t changed his website, it’s the exact same format. He actually went … The only thing that’s changed recently is he made all his photos black and white, and kind of dialed it back from another era. So, I don’t know, I’m immensely fascinated by the Drudge Report.
CW: Actually, the Lewinsky thing’s really interesting to me because I believe, I could be wrong, but Mike Isikoff …
CW: Yeah, at Newsweek at the time, had the story and there was whatever sort of behind, editor machinations, whatever, and Drudge broke it …
Drudge brought it out.
CW: Right. So that kind of …
So, “Newsweek may or may not write this story, here’s what it’s about.”
CW: Yeah. That ethos, that sort of shoot first, publish first, stir the pot, deal with the consequences later .
That’s where we are now.
CW: That’s very much where we are now.
Everyone’s doing it.
OD: They’re scooping the mainstream media.
CW: Yeah, everyone’s doing it, but there was something about it that had … There was no conscience with Drudge. It’s just like, I’m an internet website, whatever, and that’s sort of where we are with the pro-Trump media now.
OD: Speaking of Matt Drudge, he just tweeted, “Bannon had one hell of a run.” Don’t know what that means, but …
Okay, so we’re recording this on a Friday, presumably when this episode drops in six days, we’ll know.
Very last question, quick question, I can see Oliver’s not unplugging. How do you guys unplug? Or do you unplug? Are you on 24/7? Are you checking the phone before you go to bed, when you wake up?
CW: Not here to complain about the work, but …
CW: … it’s really, really hard right now and it feels, too, it’s all about context. It’s all about knowing what happened before it. Every outrage builds on itself and the pressure just keeps mounting, and then things pop off and explode.
Do you get weekends off? Because that’s when Charlottesville happened.
CW: Sure. Also, part of the thing is these, especially these pro-Trump internet personalities, realize that weekends are a great time, there’s tons of people who are all looking at their phones, they can get bigger audiences, they can control the news cycle on the weekends a lot more. It’s more important, I think, that you have to be involved in understanding and watching every controversy play out and seeing how that builds on the next one, and all that context is so important. So, yeah, it’s just really hard, but ask anyone who covers the White House, it’s the same thing.
Yeah, that’s insane right now. Oliver, do you have an outlet? Or do you have an off switch?
OD: No, I’m trying to think of the last-
I was asking you how you turn off and then you’re tweeting.
OD: Yeah. I’m trying to think of the last … I was thinking, actually, when I got in here, “I’m going to be off the internet for two hours, so hopefully nothing happens,” which I’m sure something has happened. I don’t know, it’s very difficult if not impossible, if you want to effectively cover media in 2017.
I don’t know man, I took Twitter off my phone.
OD: I forgot what year it is.
… for a month, went okay. It’s still off now, but now I’m just checking it on mobile web, so it’s …
OD: Yeah, so now you’re experiencing worse.
Yeah, it’s terrible. I’m going to let you guys get back to your Twitter and your internet. Thank you for your time, I’ve been wanting to do this for a while. I’d like to keep talking for another hour if we could, but we’ll have you back in a while and we’ll see how things have changed or not changed.