BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield. As the light shines on abusers in Congress and the boardroom, there are, of course, those who seek to exploit the significance of this moment for their own less-than-idealistic ends. Take the tale of Sam Seder, longtime MSNBC contributor, lefty pundit and comic, this week fired over an eight-year-old tweet that supposedly made light of child rape. Except that it didn’t do that at all. It did exactly the opposite. But MSNBC immediately caved into pressure exerted, with malice of forethought, by the alt-right troll Mike Cernovich. We’ll get to that guy in a moment but first, Sam, welcome to On the Media.
SAM SEDER: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.
BOB GARFIELD: I want to begin with the tweet. This was in 2009. It concerned film director Roman Polanski who was being prosecuted for the rape of a 13-year-old girl. But among the admirers of his masterpieces, like Chinatown, he had defenders, and you smelled moral relativism or some hypocrisy. Do you want to retweet yourself or shall I?
SAM SEDER: I’m happy to do it. I have no compunction about it the first time so I’ll do it a second time. If I remember correctly, it was, “Don't care re Polanski, but if my daughter is ever raped, I hope it’s by an older truly talented man w/a great sense of mise en scene.”
BOB GARFIELD: Now, Mother Jones, the liberal magazine, wrote, “Thanks to the demands of a lunatic conservative, they (meaning MSNBC) cut off Sam Seder for a single lame joke made on Twitter in 2009.” I disagree. It was not a lame joke. It was raw and transgressive, in a sort of Sarah Silverman way, but it was perfectly constructed satire. Do you have any regrets about making this particular joke to satirize Polanski's defenders?
SAM SEDER: No, I have no regrets about it at all. I think it expressed the outrage I felt, that there were people willing to forgive Roman Polanski's rape conviction simply because he was an exceptional filmmaker. I found that appalling.
BOB GARFIELD: Did it make any kind of stink when you typed it?
SAM SEDER: To be honest with you, I don't remember but I doubt it.
BOB GARFIELD: Flash forward to a week ago. You’re on your way to your birthday party. What happened?
SAM SEDER: Well, I had gotten off the subway and I had noticed on my Twitter notifications that two people, or ostensibly people, had retweeted this tweet from 2009. At the time, it just occurred to me, I -- my tweets are not going into the Smithsonian. I can just delete it and go to my birthday party because who cares. Had I known that it was Mike Cernovich who was orchestrating a smear campaign, I would have pinned it at the top of my Twitter feed.
BOB GARFIELD: How long did it take you to figure out what exactly was going on?
SAM SEDER: About an hour. I was going down to the supermarket to get some paper plates for that same birthday dinner and I got a call from the PR department at MSNBC.
BOB GARFIELD: I gather that MSNBC didn’t say, oh man, Sam, [LAUGHS] they’re playing some sort of dirty trick on you and they are posting something you once wrote entirely out of context and making it seem like you’re indifferent to the rape of your own child, and I promise you we’ve got your back.
SAM SEDER: No. Are you aware of who Mike Cernovich is? Yes? Do you know that he is retweeting your tweet? I said, no. And he said, you, you wrote it? And I said, yes, why wouldn’t I?
BOB GARFIELD: And you went to your party and you blew out the candles and everything came out perfectly, except that at MSNBC things were going on. As you reconstruct it, what was going on?
SAM SEDER: Well, you know, it’s hard for me to know, I mean, because I wasn’t privy to any of it. Each of my advertisers on my podcast who were listed on my sponsor page had received one email suggesting that they were a rape victim and that this advertiser was supporting a pro-rape proponent, I guess. Over the course of the week, MSNBC appeared to have fired me. And the tick-tock is pretty convoluted but I think there wasn't discussed at the tweet. There was fear of the alt-right ginning up a controversy.
My feeling was, like, you’re making the controversy. These people are very marginal people and, more importantly, they’re clearly misrepresenting what I wrote and you must surely see that.
BOB GARFIELD: Did they ever give you a justification or even a rationale for their decision?
SAM SEDER: No, and I understand why I lost some advertisers over this, because if you’re a company that sells soap you don't have the expertise to make an assessment about a controversy. It’s not your job, it’s not your responsibility. But if you’re a media company who the public relies on to report the reality of the world and you can't make an assessment about this, when, on one side, it’s someone who's worked with you for years, where the English is very clear, where I have a very long public record, versus someone who is a known professional smearer, who, himself, was charged with rape and pled down to a misdemeanor assault, who has a documented record of denying the existence of date rape, who has shown himself to be white supremacist-friendly, and I’m understating that, if you, as a media organization, cannot make this assessment, then it's all “fake news.”
BOB GARFIELD: Sam, thanks very much.
SAM SEDER: My pleasure.
BOB GARFIELD: Sam Seder is the host of the Majority Report podcast and a contributor to MSNBC.
I say “contributor,” not “former contributor” because the morning after Seder and I spoke, MSNBC came around to his way of thinking, admitted its error and rescinded the firing, which was as courageous as its original impulse was cowardly. But what of the bully who picked the fight, Mike Cernovich, the alt-right meme fabricator who invented scandal where none actually existed?
MIKE CERNOVICH: Let’s just talk about how the media covers up pedophilia comments, rape comments and sexual harassment. So that tweet was actually posted by Sam Seder of MSNBC. So NBC has refused to comment, so it is time now to contact NBC advertisers.
BOB GARFIELD: Cernovich entered the online scene as a so-called “men's rights activist” whose writing combines antifeminist bile with alpha male self-actualization, including instructions for predatory conquest of women. But in the Trump era, he’s expanded his social media portfolio to ginning up outrage against perceived enemies, often by floating grotesque conspiracy theories and sliming liberal politicians and media figures. He was, for example, a vocal promoter of Pizzagate, the fake story last year of a child prostitution ring supposedly run by Hillary Clinton and other degenerate Democrats.
MIKE CERNOVICH: Pizzagate is real. There are pedophiles at the highest level of media, Hollywood and in government. Pedophilia goes all the way to Congress, all the way to the White House.
BOB GARFIELD: This wasn’t an outlier accusation. Pedophilia is his go-to slur.
MIKE CERNOVICH: This could be an actual pedophile ring. They’re all connected to this guy. His Twitter handle is
V-I-C B-E-R-G-E-R (@VicBerger).
MIKE CERNOVICH: What’s the real way that you become big-time famous in Hollywood? You have to molest children on camera and then they own you for the rest of your career.
MIKE CERNOVICH: Mitt Romney is pro-pedophile. I’ve never heard Mitt Romney diss about pedophilia.
BOB GARFIELD: All of that to say he’s a troll and, as of the last few weeks, a troll who is starting to get results. Just before the dirty trick against Seder, he unearthed legitimate details of sexual misconduct by Democratic Congressman John Conyers and gave them to BuzzFeed. That was an outlier. Cernovich had the goods and Conyers is now stepping down.
Now Cernovich hopes to leverage his success on a hundred-some Sam Seders of the world.
His object, Cernovich says, is to show up the liberal media for its hypocrisy. If reporters can dig through the Twitter feeds of alt-righters and Trump supporters and damage them with their own words, then turnabout is fair play. If CNN pundit and Trump defender Jeffrey Lord can get fired for tweeting Heil Hitler and the satire explanation doesn’t get him off the hook, then 100 lefties are going down.
It is only with trepidation that we decided to give this guy a platform but he has trolled his way into relevance. So we thought that at least we should try to get inside his head, beginning with just his basic methodology.
BOB GARFIELD: When you accused the New York Magazine writer of sexual predation, you said, quote, “I can get that on page 1 of Google in due time.” How is that accomplished?
MIKE CERNOVICH: Basic search engine optimization, graphics design, creating compelling content that people want to like and share and getting the best results. The same way, if you’re at NPR, when you name this podcast you’re going to put in the URL Sam Seder-Mike Cernovich-MSNBC-whatever because you want that to show up when people search for this whole brouhaha.
BOB GARFIELD: And, of course, knowing your audience, you knew this would be the quintessential “red meat” to the base.
MIKE CERNOVICH: Well, I mean, red meat, the way you’re characterizing it, I would say that when KFILE goes through the tweets of social media posts of people --
BOB GARFIELD: That’s CNN’s Andrew Kaczynski.
MIKE CERNOVICH: -- or tries to track down a anonymous Reddit user who created a gif, I wonder would you call that “red meat” for the liberal base, right? Let’s end this callout culture. Let’s end this, oh, you’re a bad guy and I’m gonna try to find some -- you tweetin’ something someday and define your entire identity around that. Let’s end that. But I’m not gonna unilaterally disarm. I’m gonna say, fine, let’s all agree to not be jerks but if one side is gonna be a jerk, then everybody has to be a jerk.
BOB GARFIELD: And with Sam Seder, you saw the Polanski tweet and said, bingo! Do you remember your actual thought at the moment you ran across it?
MIKE CERNOVICH: I was elated, thrilled with the person who found it and, in fact, I gave a bonus to the person who found it.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, you are many things but not stupid. You, obviously, understand that Sam Seder’s tweet was not so much a joke as just plain irony, satire, that he was neither defending Roman Polanski or shrugging at his daughter’s rape. You knew that absolutely because there’s absolutely no other way to read it. But you saw opportunity knocking, right?
MIKE CERNOVICH: That’s your interpretation, which I disavow because Meryl Streep stood up and applauded Roman Polanski, has called him a god. A number of people have called him a god and said he’s an amazing man.
BOB GARFIELD: Hold it, hold it!
MIKE CERNOVICH: And then --
BOB GARFIELD: Meryl Streep has nothing to do with this question. The question is --
MIKE CERNOVICH: Oh sure, it does. It’s the culture, the debate culture.
BOB GARFIELD: Was there any doubt in your -- was there any doubt in your mind that Sam Seder was ridiculing those who would be forgiving of a child rapist because of his artistic achievements? Was there any doubt in your mind?
MIKE CERNOVICH: That -- oh, much doubt. That’s not -- that’s why I emailed him for comment and asked, what the hell is this? And they didn’t want to employ my comment.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, I don’t believe you. I, I think you’re lying to me.
MIKE CERNOVICH: I, I don’t -- you don’t have to believe me or, you know, not. That’s, that’s your thing. But do people believe that I really think people should go rape people? The media says, oh, Cernovich plants, you know, people should go out and rape. Well, if the media is gonna say that about me, then how dare anybody in the media say they think I’m lying. How dare people in the media who call everybody Nazis still lie and say I’m alt-right, say I’m a white supremacist, say I’m this? How dare anybody in the media ever call me a liar, when they lie about people on the right every day? So enjoy the new world where people are gonna mischaracterize you.
BOB GARFIELD: Let me give you an example of a published statement that is indicting on its face, that is not open for other interpretation, that is smoking gun evidence of depravity, and it concerns what to do the day after you have date raped someone, quote, “Sometimes --
MIKE CERNOVICH: Hold on, see, now you’re lying. No, I’ve never said “date rape.” I’ve said definitely there are many false rape accusations today.
BOB GARFIELD: Hold it. Hold it, hold it.
MIKE CERNOVICH: No, you’re lying now.
BOB GARFIELD: Let me, let me --
MIKE CERNOVICH: You’re lying!
BOB GARFIELD: Mike --
MIKE CERNOVICH: If you think you’re gonna lie -- no!
BOB GARFIELD: Let me read you the quote.
MIKE CERNOVICH: No, you’re lying!
BOB GARFIELD: Let me read you the quote.
MIKE CERNOVICH: You are lying right now.
BOB GARFIELD: Mike, Mike, let me read you the quote.
MIKE CERNOVICH: You’re not gonna lie and mischaracterize what I’ve said.
BOB GARFIELD: “Sometimes --
MIKE CERNOVICH: Let’s [ ? ] that right now. You’re not running
[ ? ]
BOB GARFIELD: I’m not going to mis -- mischaracterize anything.
MIKE CERNOVICH: If you want to have a real conversation we can. If you want to play little games and lie --
BOB GARFIELD: Mike, I’m going to read you a direct quote.
MIKE CERNOVICH: -- then we’re not gonna stand up for that.
BOB GARFIELD: Mike, I’m gonna read you a direct quote.
MIKE CERNOVICH: You’re a fraud, you’re a fraud. This call is over.
BOB GARFIELD: M --
MIKE CERNOVICH: I’m gonna post the audio, obviously, because we both recorded.
BOB GARFIELD: Mike, I’m going to read you a direct quote.
MIKE CERNOVICH: So you’re a fraud. You’re a liar. So this is over.
BOB GARFIELD: “Sometimes you should take a whore out to breakfast. If you’re seen in public the morning after, she’s going to have a horrible time having you prosecuted for rape.”
[SOUND OF PHONE HANGUP]
Oh, we need an explanation here. I did slightly mischaracterize him. In his field guides for men trying to get laid, he never describes his methods as “date rape” because he claims there is no such thing. The passage I was quoting is one in which he suggests tactics for men to inoculate themselves against dangerous accusations. One of the pieces of advice, once again, is, “Sometimes you should take the whore out to breakfast. If you’re seen in public the morning after, she’s going to have a horrible time having you prosecuted for rape.” And he goes on, quote, “If a chick calls you the next day, keep in mind she may be recording the conversation or the police may be monitoring it.” “And if the police call,” he says, “don’t answer the phone.”
Well, duh! Cernovich has written of his fetish for choking the women he’s having sex with, the kind of detail that could be so blown out of proportion. I mention this now because of the questions I never got a chance to ask, such as, why so many of his accusations, whether about Roman Polanski or Pizzagate or liberal media targets, are about sexual predation, why the obsession? Has he been a victim? He was once, himself, prosecuted for rape, which was pled down to misdemeanor battery. Does he blame that on political correctness?
I would have observed that in the psychology and criminology literature on rape, the consensus is that it’s less a sexual act than a power trip. The thrill is from imposing power on someone else. Is his online violence really about hypocrisy and politics or is he just a serial choker of truth? And I would have asked him how much he’s grooving on all the attention, no matter how he's earned it, although he had actually answered that question in his live Periscope feed moments before our conversation.
MIKE CERNOVICH: How can they ever call out our tweets now, right? They can’t. And I got more fame, so Mike Cernovich, who’s already a household name, is more of a household name. Mike Cernovich has now been set up as a foil to the entire media establishment.
BOB GARFIELD: Later, within seconds of hanging up on us, he was back on Periscope ranting about -- me. He thinks this is an NPR show. It isn’t but you’ll get the drift.
MIKE CERNOVICH: And we’re back. Mike Cernovich, cernovich.com. NPR, I caught them in the act trying to commit fraud, journalistic fraud. This is why you always tape record the conversations, so, you know, ‘cause they recorded me and I told them I was gonna be recording, obviously. So I ended the call.
BOB GARFIELD: Mike Cernovich played that hang-up sequence over and over and later on his podcast and on Facebook and on Twitter, which is how memes are made. He claimed victory over the corrupt liberal media because Mike Cernovich is famous and powerful and knows how all this works, and who could be so naïve to confront Mike Cernovich?
We shall have that answer, I suppose. We placed the call to get inside his head, and now we are there. So stay tuned. [MUSIC UP & UNDER] I have 2500 tweets that are about to get the attention they so literally deserve. I just hope there’s nothing in there making me shamefully and undeniably -- to pizza.