Cernovich says he thinks “most journalism is activism.”
Photo: Mike Cernovich/Facebook
“I like to call myself that, because it really triggers people when I do,” Mike Cernovich said, his voice tinny but robust with wry satisfaction, when I asked if he thinks of himself a journalist. “People get angry,” he added. “I consider myself a writer, foremost — a nonfiction writer. And I write about whatever interests me, and lately, the drama of all the things happening in D.C. interests me. So, in that regard, I’m definitely a journalist in the sense that I am breaking news and writing news that other people don’t have.”
Had Cernovich said that a year ago, there would have been reason to laugh.
Back then, he was a men’s-rights activist and self-help guru beloved by the alt-right trolls populating social media with Pepe the Frog memes and anti-Semitic, racist, and misogynistic missives. His major contributions to the political discourse included run-of-the-mill pro-Trump propaganda, like labeling the presidential debates “rigged,” as well as more creative messaging, like perpetuating rumors that Hillary Clinton (who remains alive as of press time) was near death due to some unholy combination of Parkinson’s and syphilis. On his blog, Danger and Play, Cernovich promoted the conspiracy that would become known as Pizzagate, the story that prominent Democrats connected to Clinton were part of a child sex-trafficking operation headquartered in the basement of a Washington, D.C., pizza restaurant that does not have a basement. “There was a map to probably, probably child trafficking or something like that, probably the sex cult shit. That’s why it was coded,” he speculated on Periscope on November 4, 2016, after studying a leaked email to Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta that included a puzzling reference to a map. “These people are fucking sick, man.”
But Cernovich is taking a different, arguably savvier approach to expanding his profile and influence in Donald Trump’s America. He’s become less reflexively pro-Trump and denounced the alt-right, preferring the term “new right” while acknowledging that his ideology is a complex terrain that can mostly be defined as “a hybrid of populism and nationalism.” He’s distanced himself from Pizzagate, claiming in our discussion that he’s not responsible for how, in his words, “that thing went off the rails,” because “I never named a pizza parlor.” And he’s refocused himself on using his substantial platform — more than 325,000 Twitter followers, plus millions of viewers on Periscope and YouTube — to break news that mainstream journalists are forced to chase, confirm, and, increasingly, cite.
A question you hear often in Washington these days is Who, exactly, is talking to Mike Cernovich? Among the D.C. press corps there is a palpable curiosity about his sources inside the West Wing and on the National Security Council. In just the past few weeks he broke the news of Reince Priebus’s firing and was the first to report on and obtain a memo outlining Anthony Scaramucci’s White House press strategy.
“I’ve been playing a tighter game,” Cernovich told me. “People keep their distance and I respect that. But I think now that when I tweet things out and people actually go and chase down what I’m tweeting, especially with national security stuff, they find out that there is at least something there. Sometimes it might be an unconfirmed rumor, but I’m not sitting here thinking, ‘Oh, what can I write on Twitter that I made up in my mind?’ It is actual, real stuff that people are talking about within the intelligence community, or whatever people want to say. You have to earn credibility, you have to earn respect, you have to earn trust.”
But who is trusted these days, and who gets to be a Real Journalist? The president got elected after a campaign that was as much about rebranding the monolithic media as “fake news” as it was about rejecting his political opponent. According to a June 28 Gallup poll, only 27 percent of Americans have “a great deal” of confidence in newspapers. Television and digital news fared even worse. Yet the numbers are bleaker for the White House. According to an August 7 CNN poll, just 24 percent of Americans trust what they hear from officials, while 30 percent say they trust “nothing at all.” It makes sense, then, that personalities have become more popular than institutions, and that someone like Cernovich has found a grassroots audience for the information he collects that contributes to their shared beliefs about the world. The minor outrage when he was granted a pass to enter the White House briefing room missed the point entirely.
Cernovich explained a rather cinematic process by which he obtains his tips and information, like if Inspector Gadget, not Robert Redford, had walked into the dimly lit garage in All the President’s Men. “Most of the stuff I do is shadowy anyway: Meet people in parks, nobody brings a cell phone,” which is important, he said, “because deep state can detect — if you and I are in the same room, that’s all shown by a cell phone. They know right away who’s meeting. So, when you’re meeting with really top sources or whatever, you don’t want your cellphones to ever be within range of each other because that can be found. And all of that is being monitored, of course, but they’ll deny that — never, never spy on journalists. Bullshit! That’s all being monitored.”
We were having this conversation on what he called his “main number,” which is not the number his sources contact him on. That’s a device that “doesn’t have any association to me or my phone records or anything. So, if somebody found that phone, what’s the proof? And people are calling me from burner cell phones. And it’s all on Signal. So, good luck with that, people!”
He admitted, “My op-sec is fucking paranoid. When I tell people about it, at first they don’t believe it because it sounds so elaborate or whatever.”
His sources within the White House and the administration more broadly, he claimed, number in the “dozens.” He repeated himself for emphasis, “duhhhzenz.”
“A lot of people are afraid to lie to me,” he said, because they “know that if they lie to me and they burn me, that I would seek revenge. And I would seek revenge in a way that maybe a traditional journalist wouldn’t seek revenge.” He added that he would do so, “legally, lawfully, I wouldn’t break any laws or anything. I would start snooping around in that person’s life, man.”
Still, “bullshit tips” do fall into his lap. But his process for vetting a source tends to weed those out quickly. This amounts to asking the source to tell him information until he feels he’s heard enough to determine if they’re credible, something he says he does sometimes without even learning the person’s name.
Cernovich claims that on April 2 an anonymous source called him on Signal to tell him that former national security adviser Susan Rice had requested the disclosure of the identities of Americans — including many related to the Trump campaign and transition — in raw intelligence reports, a process known as “unmasking.” He wrote up the tip on Medium, and then watched as it took off on social media, with help from the Drudge Report, Kellyanne Conway, and Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son, who suggested that were the media not rigged, Cernovich would receive a Pulitzer Prize.
The press, however, didn’t give him much credit for his scoop. A single anonymous source does not typically meet the threshold for publishing news at most media outlets, for starters. And then there was the issue of taking Cernovich seriously at all, given that his earlier work included stuff like a video where a sickly muppet rendering of Clinton collapsed and rose from the dead repeatedly. So when Bloomberg View reported the same news on the morning of April 3, citing “U.S. officials familiar with the matter,” it was treated differently — with total legitimacy. The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, and the Washington Times, either unaware or dismissive of the fact that Cernovich was first, wrote that Bloomberg had broken the story. And when Cernovich was cited, by NBC for instance, it was typically within the context of stories that downplayed the newsworthiness of Rice’s actions — the implication being, if the Pizzagate loon is the one with the intel, perhaps the intel isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
But by late July, everything had changed, both in how Cernovich perceived the Trump White House, and in how the press perceived Cernovich.
At 3:29 p.m. on July 28, Cernovich took to Twitter to report that a “source close to POTUS” informed him, “Reince has been told he’s out.” The president himself would not announce the decision until 4:49 p.m., while sitting aboard Air Force One on a tarmac in Washington. And although other reporters would go on to say they’d heard rumors of the decision before it came down, Cernovich had the advantage of operating without the barrier of an editor or publisher or any other organizational structure that might inhibit speed — but also lower the odds of a fuck-up.
“The reason that I’m so fast at what I do is — I’m not saying that I’m getting stories that nobody else has — the difference is that if a tip goes out to five people, and I know that it’s a reliable source, I just tweet it out,” he told me. “If you’re at a respectable news organization, that would be considered irresponsible. So, me, I’m just like, ‘Oh. Sounds good. This is a vetted source. I’m rocking and rolling. Let’s get out and get the conversation going.’”
On August 2, when he reported the details of what he called “The Mooch Memo” — a document created by the erstwhile White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci before his firing, detailing his plans for a comms strategy — other reporters hurriedly confirmed the news and obtained their own copies of the document. CNN noted, “It was first published by right-wing media personality Mike Cernovich on Medium.” As did Slate, Newsweek, and the New York Daily News, among many others. After Cernovich reported last week that Scaramucci was planning to hold some kind of press event in the wake of his firing, Bloomberg backed up the rumor before CNN reported the specifics of the online town hall scheduled for last Friday (which Scaramucci eventually canceled).
“Would you want to go work in the Trump White House after what happened to Mooch today?” Cernovich asked his internet audience on July 31, after Scaramucci was fired. “If you say yes, you’re telling me that you don’t really have any options in life. You’re telling me that you’re desperate for power, or you don’t really have options in life. Otherwise, why in the world would you give up anything for the White House?”
Criticizing the president in terms like that is part of his evolution. “One way that I’ve changed is that if six months ago I had gotten a big story that would’ve hurt Trump, I probably wouldn’t break that story,” he said. “I would have given that story to somebody else to break. But now, I’d probably break that story.” He told me his decision to be “less pro-Trump than I was” is about trust, and his realization that although he has a political agenda, being truthful will necessarily mean disagreeing with the president sometimes. This means trust from the public and the rest of the media. “I want people to know, ‘Hey, if you’re reading my stuff, I do have an agenda. I do have a bias. But what you read is gonna be within the realm of truth,’” he explains. It also means trust from his sources, who believe he is acting genuinely, and, in a way, transparently.
He added, “I wouldn’t say all journalism is activism, but I would say most journalism is activism” — and he includes in that assessment his own work, the objective of which is “to get out stories that advance my view of the world.” Even with his shift toward a kind of professionalism, that worldview does still include what you might call conspiratorial beliefs, like that some all-powerful “they” installs pedophiles into elected office as a means of controlling their actions through blackmail.
Recently that has meant leading the charge against National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. To Cernovich and those of his new-right-whatever-we-are-calling-it-now ilk, McMaster is “a globalist warmonger” who stands in opposition to the Trump ethos — including the surgical removal of National Security Council officials allied with his predecessor, Michael Flynn, and the chief White House strategist, Steve Bannon (whom McMaster removed from the NSC principals’ committee earlier this year).
Cernovich’s reporting on the NSC has “concerned” McMaster, according to The Atlantic. During a meeting last month, The Atlantic reported, McMaster mentioned Cernovich by name. “‘He did bring it up and said, ‘This guy’s been targeting our people, he is posting personal information that has to have come from the inside,’” a source close to McMaster told the publication.
In our conversation, Cernovich elaborated on what he meant by reporting on things within “the realm of truth” by pointing to a rumor about McMaster’s personal life. Because this rumor is so pervasive, according to Cernovich, nobody would accuse him of making it up “out of thin air.” He said he believes it’s acceptable to report on a rumor “if it’s a reliable source,” because in that case, “I don’t consider it a rumor. I consider it true. If anything, that might be too tabloid, and I don’t have an issue with tabloid-style journalism at all.” He does have what he called “a platform rule” that amounts to: “If you’re nobody, I’m not gonna make you somebody.”
“I won’t do that kind of journalism,” he said, “But if you’re a public figure and you’re in the game in the way McMaster is, that’s a little bit different.” Even lower-level staffers, he said, could be saved by the platform rule, because at a certain point, it’s “just kind of fucking with a person’s life with no good reason. That’s bad karma.”