The pro-Trump “Upside-Down” media is working hard to go mainstream, and it's doing so with help of a powerful ally: the White House.
On a Monday jammed with political news, one of the biggest stories on Twitter — especially in conservative circles — was a report that former Obama national security adviser Susan Rice requested to unmask the identities of Trump associates. The story — a sourced piece of reporting attributed to a well-placed government official — didn’t come from the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal. It was written by new right blogger, motivational author, and self-described semi-troll Mike Cernovich, who claimed that the New York Times and other mainstream media outlets sat on the story “to protect the reputation of former President Barack Obama” (an allegation the Times called “100 percent false”).
Cernovich’s report, published late Sunday, was later confirmed Monday by Bloomberg. Written by Eli Lake, the Bloomberg piece offered no credit to Cernovich, but it didn’t matter. The pro-Trump internet exploded with praise for the blogger, who previously propagated the Comet Pizza Pizzagate rumors and championed accusations that Hillary Clinton had Parkinson’s disease. Among his peers, Cernovich’s scoop was viewed as perhaps the highest-profile win yet for an insurgent new media group that’s built its own ecosystem to tell Donald Trump’s story.
And yet it’s still unclear who’s telling that story. While the salaciousness of Cernovich’s scoop is debated in the mainstream press, the piece itself is helping to advance the Trump White House’s narrative of Obama administration surveillance —so much so that some in the mainstream were quick to speculate that Cernovich, who’s known more for incendiary commentary than big scoops and doesn’t particularly hew to standard journalistic rules of reporting, was tipped off by the White House.
For the right’s new media ecosystem, “a new era of access journalism may just be beginning,” I wrote earlier this year. But just 70 or so days into the Trump presidency, it appears that relationship is actually a bit more nuanced. In the blogging era, the political press largely took its editorial lead from the front page of Drudge. But in 2017 it’s found a new assignment editor: President Donald Trump, who offers the appeal of not just page views but a gravitational pull of sorts — a kind of power few publications can possibly provide. As such, Cernovich’s scoop hints at the contours of a symbiotic relationship that — though long present in political media — is sophisticated, self-perpetuating, and possibly aimed at discrediting its mainstream counterpart.
If the White House were to attempt to elevate and mainstream an insurgent media member, it might look a lot like Cernovich’s rise over the past week: Find an intelligent, charismatic, and articulate personality with a niche, pro-Trump following who can handle the spotlight (see Cernovich’s news-making appearance and “owning” of Scott Pelley on 60 Minutes a little over a week ago). Talk him up a little from inside the White House (senior adviser to the President Kelllyanne Conway tweeted Cernovich’s full transcript of the 60 Minutes interview with the caption “A must-see ratings bonanza”). Provide that person with some information designed to give the president a big win in the day’s news cycle, top Drudge, and advance his narrative. Hail the insurgent personality as a journalistic powerhouse (like Donald Trump Jr.’s tweet today suggesting that Cernovich win the Pulitzer Prize for his intrepid reporting).
It’s entirely possible that the tip that lead to Cernovich’s story may not have come from inside the White House. And it could be that those tweets from Conway and Donald Trump Jr. were merely coincidental. There is, however, precedent for this behavior from the president and his sphere. Throughout his campaign, Trump used his Twitter account to tacitly endorse individuals and ideas. It’s a practice he’s continued during his administration. Two weeks ago, as the House health care bill was imploding in real time, the president retweeted two successive tweets from online radio host and Twitter pundit Bill Mitchell, who remains one of Trump’s most devout supporters. The retweets seemed a small nod of reward for Mitchell’s unrelenting positivity. Across Twitter, pro-Trumpers and mainstream journalists alike heralded them as an endorsement for Mitchell, whose Twitter following spiked as a result.
In a sense, this elevation of the pro-Trump media is all going as planned for individuals like Mitchell. In January, Mitchell told me that the presence of a group eager to follow Trump’s assignments and spread his message would create a new paradigm. “The CNNs, MSNBCs, and the Reuters of the world who felt in control for so long? They might not get an answer to a question for a long time, and that will cause big media to come to him on his terms,” Mitchell said.
Seventy days later, that dynamic appears to be playing out on Twitter; It’s keeping Trump’s narratives in the news cycle, while adding a veneer of credibility among his base. The message to the sympathetic arm of the press corps is clear: Stick to the message, advance the story, and rewards will follow.
It’s just the beginning of a whole new era of access journalism. And it’s one that’s intensely loyal to Trump. As Cernovich put it to me back in January: “I’m biased, but honest. I’m not in the business of smearing Trump, so don’t come to me for that — I won’t be the guy to provide Trump criticism.”