Media

Does Breitbart Owe Its Rise to Liberal Journalists?

A stunning report exposes the site's ties to neo-Nazis—and unmasks Milo's many tipsters.

Photo Credit: @Kmeron for LeWeb13 Conference @Central Hall Westminster - London / Flickr

A recently released cache of email correspondence revealed direct collaboration between popular alt-right website Breitbart and purported white nationalists and neo-Nazis. While the revelations are damning, they are not entirely surprising to those who follow Breitbart’s editorial strategies. More shocking, perhaps, is that a number of purportedly liberal journalists have also secretly colluded with Breitbart over the years.

On October 5, Buzzfeed News published Joseph Bernstein’s exclusive report detailing emails and documents internal to Breitbart News staff which detailed the relationship between the right-wing sensationalist news site and the fringe elements that kept correspondence with its former tech editor, right-wing bomb-thrower Milo Yiannopoulos. 

As such, the revelations contained in Buzzfeed's report were damning on two different political axes: First, Buzzfeed refuted the notion that Breitbart was the “normal” news site it always claimed to be, by discovering more intentional connections to the white nationalist and neo-Nazi elements that the site and its lawyers persistently disavow. (As Buzzfeed wrote, “Yiannopoulos led the site in a coy dance around the movement’s nastier edges, writing stories that minimized the role of neo-Nazis and white nationalists.”) And second, the report suggested that some journalists had been “double-agents” for Yiannopoulos and his Breitbart cohort.

Buzzfeed reported that a number of purportedly liberal journalists sent Yiannopoulos story ideas, even asking the provocateur with an army of online trolls at his disposal to mock specific feminist figures. Since publication, those journalists have become the locus of a storm of controversy.

"Yiannopoulos had hidden helpers in the liberal media against which he and Bannon fought so uncompromisingly,” Buzzfeed wrote.

Breitbart has become a focus of sorts for its possible connections to hate groups in part because it looms so large within Trump’s inner circle; the president himself has described it in glowing terms. Yet rumors of overt connections to hate groups have dogged Breitbart for years. Politically, Breitbart has a very direct connection to President Trump and his acolytes: its executive chairman is former Trump strategist Steve Bannon. Likewise, Yiannopoulos’s reverence for Trump is so deep that he has been known to utter Plath-esque ululations of “Daddy” upon hearing the president’s name. New York Times reporters asked Trump about Breitbart when he was president-elect; at the time, Trump attempted to normalize the site. “Breitbart cover things, I mean like The New York Times covers things,” he told reporters. “Breitbart, first of all, is just a publication. And, you know, they cover stories like you [the Times] cover stories. Now, they are certainly a much more conservative paper, to put it mildly, than The New York Times. But Breitbart really is a news organization.”

While Breitbart claims to disavow connections to white nationalism or avowed Nazi movements, its content is often clearly written to appeal to those who might sympathize with said politics. Steeped in xenophobic and nationalist rhetoric, the site’s reporting and op-eds routinely scapegoat immigrantspoor peoplenon-whites and Muslims. Yet until Buzzfeed’s report, Breitbart News had done a half-decent job of hiding any overt hate speech — no swastikas, racist caricatures or author headshots donning white hoods — by masking politics in dog-whistles and the slippery slope of white identity politics. (The site includes a "Black Crime" tag). 

But Buzzfeed’s report refutes the claim that Breitbart has kept hate groups at arm’s length. “These new emails and documents [s]how that Breitbart does more than tolerate the most hate-filled, racist voices of the alt-right,” Buzzfeed wrote. “It thrives on them, fueling and being fueled by some of the most toxic beliefs on the political spectrum — and clearing the way for them to enter the American mainstream.”

Buzzfeed’s cache of documents and files that illustrated this connection included a video of Yiannopoulos performing karaoke in a Dallas bar while avowed white supremacist Richard B. Spencer raised his arm in a “sieg heil” salute; emails in which Yiannopoulos solicited input from Curtis Yarvin, a Silicon Valley programmer who gained infamy writing manifesti, under the pen name “Mencius Moldbug,” in which he calls for an authoritarian technocracy; and emails detailing Yiannopoulos’s efforts to get Andrew “Weev” Auernheimer, an administrator at neo-Nazi site The Daily Stormer, to come on Yiannopoulos’s podcast.

Yet perhaps most damning, both from a political and a journalistic ethics perspectives, were Yiannopoulos’s connections to Devin Saucier, who has been associated with assorted white nationalist and white power causes for years. As Buzzfeed detailed:

[Saucier] is associated with the Wolves of Vinland, a Virginia neo-pagan group that one reporter described as a “white power wolf cult,” one member of which pleaded guilty to setting fire to a historic black church. For the past several years, according to an observer of far-right movements, Saucier has worked as an assistant to Jared Taylor, possibly the most prominent white nationalist in America. According to emails obtained by BuzzFeed News, he edits and writes for Taylor’s magazine, American Renaissance, under a pseudonym.

In an October 2016 email, Milo Yiannopoulos described the 28-year-old Saucier as “my best friend.”

Saucier “clearly illustrates the direct connection between open white nationalists and their fellow travelers at Breitbart,” Buzzfeed writes, reporting that Yiannopoulos had been using Saucier “as a sounding board, intellectual guide, and editor,” and detailed multiple instances in which Yiannopoulos had asked Saucier for favors, readings, article ideas, or just to edit his work.

That Breitbart News would have connections to open white supremacists is revelatory but not entirely surprising. The site is beloved by the selfsame demographic; it is not too much of a mental leap. In a year characterized by the normalization of the far-right —  in an era in which the United States is helmed by a president who blamed the left after a Nazi killed a protester at a "Unite the Right" rally — how surprising is it that Breitbart kept company with those who broke norms that the president himself frequently broke?

What was more shocking about Buzzfeed’s report, however, was the inclusion of many journalists in Breitbart’s email trails — particularly journalists who had not been known to cavort with the right, much less toxic far-right figures like Milo. 

Yiannopoulos and his crew frequently smeared and exposed anyone they saw as ideological opponents — kind of like a Gawker for the far-right, yet far less concerned with messy things like “facts” and “journalistic integrity.”  To be an informant in Breitbart’s moral universe, or even to be seen to condone it, would be considered career suicide for most journalists, even those at more typically centrist or center-right outlets like Politico or the Wall Street Journal. 

Hence, the revelation that many journalists that have contributed to liberal, even far-left publications, may have aided Yiannopoulos’s mud-slinging and race-baiting was salacious indeed, sending waves through the hyperconnected media world.

The surprising journalistic connections to Yiannopoulos include David Auerbach, a tech critic who has contributed extensively to Slate and has been published in intellectual left magazines like n+1, Triple Canopy, and even the Nation, one of the most esteemed voices of the American left. Auerbach once wrote a longform piece of cultural criticism for Triple Canopy exploring how the politics of anonymous online forum culture (A-Culture, in his parlance) eventually evolved into the fusion of libertarianism and racist nationalism that we now associate with sites like 4chan, 8chan and Reddit in its prelapsarian days.

Though anonymity does not play directly into the majority of the discussions on forums associated with A-culture, it is responsible—along with the written nature of the discourse—for the characteristics that have emerged from those sites. . . . Anyone entering into an A-culture forum is likely to witness a nonstop barrage of obscenity, abuse, hostility, and epithets related to race, gender, and sexuality. Anyone objecting to this barrage will immediately attract a torrent of even greater abuse. These forums maintain an equilibrium of offense designed to drive away anyone who is not sympathetic to the general libertarian mindset.

This is not to say that the participants are not racist; the point is that there’s no way to know the views of the participants, even more given the self-referential irony in constant play. A-culture is hardly a utopia of free speech, but neither is it a fulcrum of hate speech. Yet the barrage inoculates against sincere, extreme hatred by making it harder for genuinely virulent views to stand out, homogenizing the group.

Ironically, Auerbach had predicted precisely the forces that would emerge to elevate Yiannopoulos to an international celebrity. Buzzfeed’s story cites screenshots from an email exchange between Auerbach and Yiannopoulos, in which Auerbach purportedly helped Yiannopoulos dig up dirt on a romantic interest of Anita Sarkeesian. Sarkeesian is a renowned writer and critic who has written extensive feminist critiques of popular video games, and who, along with game developer Zoë Quinn, became the subject of a tortuous and relentless misogynist smear campaign, colloquially known as “Gamergate.”

Yiannopoulos helped to popularize the Gamergate faux-conspiracy, and arguably made a name for himself as an outspoken anti-feminist thanks to his bullying of Quinn and Sarkeesian, which in turn helped to egg on trolls who issued death threats to the two women. In a 2014 Breitbart column entitled “Feminist Bullies Tearing the Video Game Industry Apart,” Yiannopoulos wrote that “an army of sociopathic feminist programmers and campaigners, abetted by achingly politically correct American tech bloggers, are terrorising the entire community – lying, bullying and manipulating their way around the internet for profit and attention.” In that column, Yiannopoulos called Quinn “an unpleasant and manipulative human being,” and mentioned a spurious rumor that Quinn was “planning to have herself beaten up at an upcoming conference,” as evidence of her devious nature. Yiannopoulos called out Sarkeesian too:

There is a platoon of irritants in the media whose talents are vanishingly slight, but who generate column inches by the thousand for victimising innocents and manipulating their way around an over-sensitive industry. Some of them, such as Anita Sarkeesian, have no discernible higher purpose in life, except to bother innocent games developers.

What makes Auerbach’s purported conversation with Yiannopoulos so curious is that Auerbach had previously defended Sarkeesian and Quinn, and called out the heartless mobs that had abused them. “Not just gaming, not just the Internet, but society itself has a sexism problem, a misogyny problem, a race problem, and a harassment problem,” Auerbach wrote then. Yiannopoulos would, seemingly, have been central to that problem.

Auerbach made his Twitter account private within hours of the Buzzfeed report being released, though several hours later, made it public again. In that span of time, Auerbach issued a number of statements in his defense via tweet. “Heads up: apparently Buzzfeed is about to tell some lies about me. I'm pretty small potatoes, so I smell either desperation or revenge,” he tweeted lated Thursday night. 

Shortly thereafter, Auerbach tweeted that he had “told [Buzzfeed editor Ariel Kaminer] that this stuff was untrue. He's currently trying to put words in my mouth.” Auerbach went on to speculate that “Buzzfeed might have it in for me because I criticized Buzzfeed chair Keith Lerer for hiring 4chan's founder.” “I also criticized Buzzfeed's business model in NYMag,” he added. “So yeah, they're probably pissed at me.”

“Inasmuch as the story concerns me, it is utter bullshit,” Auerbach wrote in an email to Salon. “My speculative hypothesis is that Buzzfeed is pursuing a vendetta against me for calling attention to their chairman and CEO's politically inconvenient past support of 4chan's founder and former owner Christopher Poole.”

Dan Lyons, another prominent tech journalist and a writer for the HBO comedy series “Silicon Valley,” was revealed in Buzzfeed’s report as having sent emails to Yiannopoulos in which they jointly mocked writer Amber Discko, a prominent feminist journalist and founder of Femsplain. Lyons purportedly “wonder[ed] about the birth sex of Zoë Quinn” with Yiannopoulos and “suggest[ed] a story about the public treatment of the venture capitalist Joe Lonsdale, who had been accused of sexual assault in a lawsuit that the plaintiff eventually dropped,” as Buzzfeed reported.

Like Auerbach, Lyons’s Twitter account disappeared for a few hours after the Buzzfeed story broke. Lyons later reactivated his account and issued multiple apologies, which combined read,

“I apologized earlier today directly to Amber Discko and Zoe Quinn, for those emails. I feel awful about them. I wish I could take them back. I apologized to Amber and Zoe, at length, before the Buzzfeed story came out. I didn't remember those emails. I felt sick when I saw them. The emails were each one line long. I feel awful. I made a mistake. That's what I told Amber and Zoe when I apologized to them. I don't know Amber or Zoe. I didn't remember those emails until [Buzzfeed] contacted me. When they did, I reached out to & apologized.”

Another surprising double-agent cited in Buzzfeed’s exclusive was Mitchell Sunderland. As a staff writer at Broadly, a Vice Magazine site with a pop feminism slant, Sunderland’s missives to Yiannopoulos belie the mission of his employer. According to Buzzfeed:

“Please mock this fat feminist,” Sunderland wrote to Yiannopoulos in May 2016, along with a link to an article by the New York Times columnist Lindy West, who frequently writes about fat acceptance. And while Sunderland was Broadly’s managing editor, he sent a Broadly video about the Satanic Temple and abortion rights to [former Yiannopoulos confidante] Tim Gionet with instructions to “do whatever with this on Breitbart. It’s insane.” The next day, Breitbart published an article titled “‘Satanic Temple’ Joins Planned Parenthood in Pro-Abortion Crusade.”

Sunderland has been quiet on Twitter since the story dropped, though his employer Vice told Buzzfeed that they were “shocked and disappointed” and “have begun a formal review into the matter." Meanwhile, a crusade of angry Tweeters called for Sunderland’s ouster, as The Stranger documented in detail.

Can we pick out any lessons from the seemingly traitorous actions of Yiannopoulos’s “helpers in the liberal media,” as Bernstein described them? It may be too early to tell — particularly as some claims are still disputed, for instance by Auerbach — yet, provided the allegations prove true, there are commonalities that hint at motive. For one, all three of the journalists outed were men, and all three sought to vent to Yiannopoulos about feminist critics that irked them. This suggests that some even powerful men who work within liberal circles may have felt inwardly threatened by feminism, or powerful women, or both. Evidently, they felt some solidarity with Yiannopoulos that allowed them to confide in him. Perhaps the pull of Yiannopoulos’s celebrity was alluring, or his aggressive edginess entertaining, or his ability to smash and ruin the lives of critics alluring.

Keith A. Spencer is a cover editor at Salon.

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