Who Is Mike Cernovich?
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
There is a backstory to revelations about Democratic Congressman John Conyers. BuzzFeed first reported that the Michigan lawmaker reached a settlement for dismissing an employee who said he sexually harassed her. BuzzFeed based that story on documents, and the documents came through Mike Cernovich, a far-right, pro-Donald Trump activist who is better known for promoting fake scandals than real ones. Andrew Marantz profiled Cernovich for The New Yorker. He's also working on a book about far-right figures and is on the line from Brooklyn. Good morning.
ANDREW MARANTZ: Good morning. How's it going?
INSKEEP: OK. Who is Mike Cernovich?
MARANTZ: Well, more than a year ago, I sort of noticed that a lot of stories were coming from this one guy's Twitter feed, this one guy's Periscope. And I reached out to Mike Cernovich and asked if I could come see how his operation worked. And, you know, it was a very small operation, which - part of what interested me about him was that he, basically as one guy, was able to act as a media company. He could start hashtags trending. He could get his followers mobilized. He could push stories that he wanted to see out into the world and get them on...
INSKEEP: Including made-up stories, right? He's associated in some way with Pizzagate, this conspiracy theory about child trafficking or whatever in Washington that was totally fake.
MARANTZ: He tweeted to the hashtag #pizzagate, yeah. He didn't name the pizza parlor, but he alleged that there could be something to the story about child trafficking. So yeah, there's been a very interesting mix of what he's been willing to push. Sometimes it's legitimate, sometimes it's not. And it raises all these questions of, you know, is he a journalist? Is he a monger of, you know, conspiracy theories? What is he - you know, how do you identify him within this universe? It's been a tricky thing.
INSKEEP: Well, what did he do in the Conyers story exactly?
MARANTZ: Oh, so these documents came to him. There was a tweet that he put out a few days ago offering to pay money for documents that were related to the revelations that the Congressional Office of Compliance has been paying out these secret settlements for many years for sexual harassment allegations. And I - nobody knows whether he did pay, but there was a - you know, documents came to him that appeared to be legitimate - as far as anybody knows so far - that were about many, many allegations about Representative Conyers. And he sent those over to BuzzFeed. And apparently, you know, BuzzFeed checked them out and, you know, decided that they were real and reported them out and ran with them. So...
INSKEEP: Now, BuzzFeed says that they verified the documents a number of ways, including contacting the accuser who was at the heart of the case. But what does it mean that these apparently real documents came through this - I guess I don't want to say a fake source but a source known for fakery?
MARANTZ: Yeah. I mean - you know, so Cernovich says that he could have done this on his own but that he decided to partner with BuzzFeed so that the story would be taken more seriously. And there seems to be some, you know, credibility to that. I mean, the day after the BuzzFeed story came out, I believe it was six lawmakers signed on to this bipartisan bill to reform the system. It's doubtful that they would have done that if it had been branded a Cernovich story.
So that's one way of reading this, that he cared about the issue and wanted it to move forward. There's another way of seeing it that he wanted, you know, the story to be vetted so that he could be sure it was legitimate. It's not clear exactly what his motivation was, but it is clear that, you know, BuzzFeed smelled a story and wanted to pursue it and was willing to, you know, partner with a guy that has a mixed reputation.
INSKEEP: You said you've talked with him, right?
INSKEEP: Do you feel you understand broadly what he wants out of life or out of his career, what he's doing?
MARANTZ: (Laughter) Well, I think it's a mix. I mean, I think a lot of what he wants is to be seen as legitimate and to do legitimate news. I mean, I think - you know, he's gotten, you know, scoops before this. He seems to have a lot of sources in Washington. He definitely wants to be influential. I mean, I think it's kind of a mix that a lot of people have who are in media.
It's just that we live in this world now where you can do media in any number of ways. You can do it online. You can - you know, you don't have to be sitting in a bureau somewhere in order to make an impact. You know, he can just do it from his laptop.
INSKEEP: Mr. Marantz, thanks very much. Pleasure talking with you.
MARANTZ: Thank you.
INSKEEP: Andrew Marantz is a New Yorker staff writer and author of a forthcoming book about what's often known as the alt-right.
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this interview, the guest said activist Mike Cernovich did not mention the pizza parlor in question. In fact, Cernovich did mention Comet Ping Pong in his videos, and falsely suggested there were illicit activities in the basement.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.