Last night, BuzzFeed published the latest explosive story of powerful men committing acts of sexual abuse and harassment: Paul McLeod and Lissandra Villa reported that Democratic Representative John Conyers of Michigan “settled a wrongful dismissal complaint in 2015 with a former employee who alleged she was fired because she would not ‘succumb to [his] sexual advances.’” The journalists obtained documents which suggest that former staffers of Conyers, the longest-serving congressman, have accused him of having “repeatedly made sexual advances to female staff that included requests for sex acts, contacting and transporting other women with whom they believed Conyers was having affairs, caressing their hands sexually, and rubbing their legs and backs in public. Four people involved with the case verified the documents are authentic.”
At first it reads like just another shocking story of an abusive, powerful man — a story likely to make things more complicated for a Democratic Party already grappling with fallout from the accusations against Senator Al Franken.
But halfway through the lengthy story comes an eye-popping paragraph:
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.
What to make of this? It would be easy to attack the story on the basis of its source. This is similar to some of the arguments that circulated during the 2016 presidential campaign, when WikiLeaks was releasing materials clearly designed to harm Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party. Reporters should just stay away from those materials, argued some progressives, since they were clearly part of an influence effort by a less-than-ethically-sound organization.
That isn’t realistic for real-life journalists, of course; if a legitimately newsworthy document is just sitting there, you can’t ignore it. In fact, it can be actively damaging to do so. The WikiLeaks nightmare, in which ideologically motivated “citizen journalists” endlessly circulated misleading nuggets, taken out of context, showed that whatever the source of leaked documents, professional journalists have a crucial role to play in presenting them in an honest, accurate light. If they don’t, bad actors will step in and disseminate those documents on their own terms.
In this case, it’s clear that BuzzFeed and, yes, Cernovich, did the right thing. Cernovich could have done what he has all too often done: spread information about these alleged incidents in a distorted way. Had he simply published the documents online, for example, it’s likely that an exaggerated or error-ridden version of the story would have caught on. (Update: The Washington Post reports that there’s some evidence, in the form of deleted tweets, that Cernovich paid $10,000 to whoever handed the documents over to him. That story notes that while there’s a general proscription against journalists paying for information, at least in the non-tabloid American press, there’s no such rule against accepting information from someone else who paid for it.)
Instead, he found professional journalists to vet the documents, and the journalists in question didn’t simply accept the documents at face value, but rather did the reporting legwork to corroborate them. Now, as of this moment Conyers is denying that he harassed anyone, but it’s hard to imagine a situation in which BuzzFeed would get burned, given how many people it found who were able to vet the documents’ authenticity — including a named source involved in the awful-sounding process that led one of Conyers’s victim to a paltry settlement of about $27,000, partly in exchange for her silence. The fact that Cernovich shopped the documents to BuzzFeed as part of a broader goal of wanting to hurt Democrats certainly is part of the story here, and that does need to be taken into account. But it can’t be the start and end of things, given that the documents in question are legitimate and point to allegations of serious misconduct.
Still, though: It’s worth taking a moment, as HuffPost’s Ashley Feinberg did on Twitter, to reflect on just how bizarre and discomfiting it is that someone like Cernovich is gaining access to this sort of dirt, given his past behavior:
A couple years ago, the idea of Cernovich being involved in actual, news-breaking journalism would have come across as a bizarre joke. Until recently, he was a toxic manosphere figure who expressed skepticism about the existence of date rape, offered some very, very strange opinions about the bonding qualities of semen, and openly wrote about the sort of taking-one’s-penis-out behavior that is currently (finally) getting a lot of men into trouble.
More to the point, he is an admitted huckster. In a New Yorker profile by Andrew Marantz, Cernovich all but admitted that he simply makes stuff up in order to spark viral content and boost his own profile. And, as BuzzFeed noted, he helped spread a truly unhinged conspiracy theory that led to the discharge of a weapon in a pizzeria often frequented by children. Cernovich isn’t someone with a high regard for the concept of truth or journalistic objectivity.
But we’re well into an age in which anyone who can garner enough internet attention for a long enough period of time can accrue a certain kind of power — a notoriety that isn’t quite the same thing as legitimacy, but is close enough. Being particularly free with quotes for journalists, being shameless to the point of sociopathy, and refusing to hold a consistent line (except what you think your audience might want to hear) — these are strategies that can turn you into, if not a journalist, a player in the weird, new attention economy that drives the media industry. This kind of figure — part troll, part gatekeeper, part chaos agent, part source, part activist, and part ringleader — is fairly new, and journalists and readers alike haven’t quite figured out how to navigate a landscape in which people like Cernovich are given that kind of prominence. They’re going to need to develop some strategies quickly.