Last week, BuzzFeed published an exhaustive story by senior technology reporter Joseph Bernstein detailing how former Breitbart tech editor Milo Yiannopoulos “smuggled Nazi and white nationalist ideas into the mainstream.” In the 8,500-word narrative, Yiannopoulos is painted as a master of propaganda who almost got away with secretly courting white supremacists while publicly denouncing racism. Yiannopoulos’s emails show how, as Bernstein writes, he “led [Breitbart] in a coy dance around the [alt-right]’s nastier edges” while palling around with neo-Nazis and threatening to sue anyone who called him racist. But there's a glaring lack of context in recalling what, exactly, made Yiannopoulos the alt-right star he is today.
“Yiannopoulos’s star rose throughout 2016 thanks to a succession of controversial public appearances, social media conflagrations, Breitbart radio spots, television hits, and magazine profiles,” Bernstein writes. However, he notably omits here any mention of BuzzFeed’s bombastic alt-right coverage. In addition to chronicling Yiannopoulos’s ascendancy, Bernstein writes about his “hidden helpers in the liberal media,” journalists at mainstream publications who pitched him stories and, in Bernstein’s view, directly contributed to the alt-right’s rise.
On Twitter, Bernstein said he specifically reported on journalists “who helped Milo do his job,” meaning those who colluded with him or sent him tips and pitches via email. When reached for comment, Bernstein referred The Outline to Matt Mittenthal, the communications director at BuzzFeed. “The handful of people whose names we chose to publish were either actively helping Milo create content for Breitbart or, as we learned from their emails, presenting themselves to the public in a way that was deeply insincere. As any journalist knows, you cannot publish every name, document, and piece of information uncovered in the course of reporting; and frankly, this 8,500-word piece probably doesn't need to be any longer,” Mittenthal said in a statement. The problem, however, is bigger than ostensibly liberal journalists who are secretly friends with Yiannopoulos; it extends to reporters whose sideshow-esque coverage of the alt-right brought the movement into the mainstream.
In late 2015, before the term “alt-right” had entered the mainstream (white nationalist Richard Spencer reportedly coined it in 2008), Bernstein referred to Yiannopoulos and his acolytes as the “Chanterculture,” elevating them from a horde of GamerGate-era trolls to a countercultural movement in its own right. This particular piece is notable in its lack of criticism for the movement, treating it more as a novelty than a toxic and racist political wave. "You won’t find it on Facebook or here on BuzzFeed, but The Adventures of Christ Chan is shared daily on the chans,” wrote Bernstein, cheekily. “It’s not quite Star Wars, but it’s a start.”
In January 2016, Bernstein regurgitated a press release about Yiannopoulos’s scholarship for white men as if it were an earnest program and not a blatant publicity stunt. Two months later, he wrote about the #RegressiveLeft hashtag, which he said became “wildly popular among the alt-right.” In June 2017, Bernstein reviewed Yiannopoulos’s then-unreleased book Dangerous. Bernstein called the book “boring,” lamenting that “just as Yiannopoulos can’t manage to hold our attention, he struggles to make a case in the draft for himself as being particularly relevant in 2017.” Despite Yiannopoulos’s alleged irrelevance, however, Bernstein continued to write about him. Breitbart was clearly tickled by his review, calling it “invaluable,” and writing that Yiannopoulos “embraced BuzzFeed’s review as a badge of honor.”
“You won’t find glossy profiles of neo-Nazis on BuzzFeed News,” Mittenthal said regarding Bernstein’s alt-right coverage. But you will find unnecessary profiles of “Park Avenue’s ‘Dr. Redpill,’” a pro-Trump plastic surgeon.
BuzzFeed is by no means the only news outlet that has bought into the alt-right’s media circus at its own peril. Mother Jones infamously profiled white nationalist Richard Spencer in October 2016, describing him as an “articulate and well-dressed former football player with prom-king good looks.” Out magazine ran a hagiographic profile of Yiannopoulos a month earlier. Yiannopoulos “doesn’t care that you hate him,” writer Chadwick Moore — who later “came out” as conservative to the New York Post — declared. Moore let Yiannopoulos describe himself as a “nuanced character” without any pushback, and described Yiannopoulos as having a “gentle fatherly, or drag-motherly” side when interacting with his own staff. New York magazine has run largely complimentary profiles of both Kellyanne Conway ("a star”) and conspiracy theorist and men’s-rights activist Mike Cernovich (who allegedly “pivot[ed] from Pizzagate to not-so-fake news”). Vice has notably treated the alt-right as a sexy, if abhorrent countercultural movement ripe for exploitation, granting its leaders an unwarranted level of credulity. Following a recent interview with Mike Cernovich, Viceland correspondent Ben Makuch described him as “v smart,” “quite hospitable,” and “nice.”
hate him or love him he's v smart and watching him on periscope made me realize he was onto something the way he interacted with his ppl— Ben Makuch (@BMakuch) October 4, 2017
All of this raises the important question: How should the amorphous group of racist, sexist, attention-hungry zealots known as the alt-right be covered? The issue is no longer whether to cover the alt-right, but avoiding coverage that verges on hagiography or traffics in curiosity or outrage at the expense of substance or meaningful critique. If the kind of reporting and questioning Bernstein employed in his most recent piece was used in his earlier pieces, perhaps the site’s earlier toothless coverage wouldn’t have felt so much like it was a lens focusing in on a dumb subculture. When BuzzFeed and other outlets began their coverage of the alt-right, there was no way of knowing their presidential candidate would eventually be in the White House, making it easier to write them off as a silly, self-contained group of offensive memers. A lack of foresight isn’t an excuse. Even before Yiannopoulos and his fans were a political movement in their own right, they were serial harassers whose every movement didn’t need to be covered.
After all, Yiannopoulos didn’t “smuggle” Nazi ideology into the mainstream; he smuggled it onto Breitbart, a website that would not have been described as mainstream even two years ago and whose readership has largely abandoned it. Yiannopoulos didn’t need to smuggle alt-right ideology anywhere; the so-called liberal media was happy to do it for him. (Full disclosure: I’m not innocent, either. In October 2016, I wrote about the “alt-right art show” for Gothamist because I thought it was funny and stupid. See! Admitting your mistakes is easy!)
It’s easier to look outward — to look at Yiannopoulos’s email exchanges with white nationalists and sympathetic reporters — than to admit the propaganda is coming from inside the house. Without websites like BuzzFeed lapping up Yiannopoulos’s press releases, would Yiannopoulos’s vile propaganda have remained contained by the alt-right internet? It’s scary to think that it might have.