BuzzFeed slimes a 14-year-old girl in the name of internet safety
Around a week ago, we were going to write about a 14-year-old YouTuber named Soph. She’s funny, extremely articulate, and problematic as hell. We decided not to because of her age. Like is the case with Greta Thunberg or Desmond is Amazing, there is something weird about propping up children to deliver adult messages. However fascinating and strange the case of Soph is, she is still a kid.
We decided that signal boosting her in order to deliver a message regarding free speech would be much the same as the way Thunberg’s supporters use her for climate change activism and Desmond’s supporters use him for LGBT activism.
When Buzzfeed’s Joe Bernstein isn’t busy slandering PewDiePie or doxxing a 14-year-old girl for having edgy YouTube content, he writes the occasional profile. Recently, he set his sights on Andy Ngo—a prominent journalist who frequently gets in harm’s way as he documents the activities of Antifa. Ngo has been doing this work for a long time, and he’s good at it. He’s part of the new alt media that with backpack and bus pass goes after a story with nothing but cell phones, GoPros, and apps.
Bernstein travelled to Portland and managed to document the moments leading up to and after Antifa’s violent June 29th assault on Ngo. While conceding that the attack was unprovoked, and that Ngo was a helpless victim, he is hesitant to give Ngo the credit he deserves for his excellent journalism. Bernstein was fair at times (by Buzzfeed’s standards), but what’s striking about his article is that it reads like a last-minute rewrite done to accommodate for the inconvenient fact that Antifa brutally assaulted Ngo during the course of its writing.
Language that reveals Bernstein’s original bias still peppers the piece: “I was in talks to shadow him at the upcoming demonstration, which I thought might be a good way to illustrate how Ngo constructs an incendiary political narrative out of a narrow selection of facts.”
Bernstein suggests that Ngo lacks integrity where Antifa is concerned. Then real violence happened and Bernstein found out the facts didn’t support his supposition. To his credit, Bernstein tells the truth about the assault itself: “Nothing he did that day suggested that he planned or even secretly wanted to be assaulted, which has been a common enough refrain in the days since from some on the left. The attack was not provoked.”
But without missing a beat, he pivots to a position of typical Buzzfeed-style victim-blaming: “Ngo has been building to a dramatic confrontation with the Portland far left for months, his star rising along with the severity of the encounters.”
Bernstein writes almost apologetically about Ngo’s Antifa attackers, referring to them as a “leaderless activist group … that has been skillfully transmogrified by the conservative media into one of the gravest threats facing Americans in 2019—the rampant id of an already irrational left.” It’s almost as if an Antifa member didn’t firebomb a federal immigration facility just last week.
Bernstein is right to profile Ngo. This is a new kind of journalism that intones the old standards, but also has to create new ones. But he speaks of Ngo’s work in low key insults: “He is willing to make himself the story and to stream himself doing it. … I’m not even sure Ngo is a troll.” The fact that Bernstein is so obsessed with Ngo’s “star” status is very telling.
Bernstein talks about the Ngo attack footage like its akin to a wannabe it girl’s attention-grabbing sex tape as opposed to police evidence of a criminal assault. In new media, the journalist is as much a part of the story as the story itself.
No one is fooling themselves anymore into believing that there is true objectivity. The presence of a journalist while covering a story or event absolutely changes that story, it changes the behaviour of the actors in the story, and the individual journalist’s perspective colours the way the story is reported. The public is too smart to not know when their story is being told, and to get in on the action.
Journalists of the alt and new media aren’t fooling themselves into believing that they are separate entities, flies on proverbial walls, they know they’re as much a part of what they’re covering as the story itself. The best they can do is be as objective as possible with regard to their own perspective, and Ngo, even when bleeding and cut up, excels at observing the story, his place in it, and his perception. Bernstein minimizes Ngo’s freelance work by calling it “Uberized” and geared to “inflammatory content.”
Reporting is not the same beast as it was in the 20th Century. Newsrooms are consistently decimated. Writers get paid based on clicks. Freelance journalists go out there and do the work the mainstream media won’t do, and then are shamed for it. New media writers have to earn readers’ trust that the mainstream media has so casually tossed away. The reporter is both the conduit and the brand, and every word they write is their own, for which they alone are accountable.
Bernstein writes, “Since then, Ngo has maintained a running list on Twitter of alleged hate crimes that have turned out to be fabrications, exaggerations, or committed by minority groups against other minority groups. The entries in the list, which now run to well more than a hundred, have been retweeted hundreds of thousands of times.”
This seems to be a very dubious thing for a person purporting to be an objective journalist to point out. The goal of journalism should be to report truths, no matter how inconvenient. And in this current age of social panic, documenting hoaxes is vital work.
Bernstein goes on to describe Ngo’s methods as “unsafe, inimical to good journalism, and border on propagandistic,” but then adds: “he’s not a grifter.” Bernstein’s heartless rendering of Ngo’s ordeal and sliming of his professional work is maddening to behold. Especially since it’s rendered in such a glib tone.
What is the point of a journalist trying to take down another journalist? Bernstein doesn’t attack Ngo for errors, for misreporting, or for any professional reason, but merely because he doesn’t like his style or his presumed ideology.
As Claire Lehmann quite rightly points out, these kind of journalist-journalist hit pieces are likely to continue. It’s a symptom of the fact that the established outlets are rapidly dying. They don’t know what to do about it, or how to compete with the lean, hungry new outlets, so they attack. “As the media industry contracts, you will increasingly see journalists focusing their criticism on other journalists. Normal readers will increasingly switch off, leading to further contraction.”
If you want to take someone down, outshine them. There’s no call for this kind of professional discourtesy. But the old heads don’t feel a kinship with the new writers. And the new writers are too busy trying to stake a claim to reach out to the more established crowd.
Bernstein concludes with a confession:
If I’m being honest, I wasn’t only thinking about his safety. I was afraid of being the reporter who did not prevent Andy Ngo from being beaten. I was also, if I’m being really honest, afraid of being the reporter who prevented Andy Ngo from being beaten. I realized very clearly that anyone documenting the scene at that moment had the power to put me in any public context they wished to, had the power to change my life. I was aware how that would be good content, and how that might feel like violence.
It’s a stunning admission. It’s rhetorically clever because Bernstein is painting himself as a flawed and conflicted character. But it also reveals his cowardice, and his depressingly progressive tendency to equate language and narrative with actual violence.
Bernstein claims that he doesn’t want to be part of the story, but he’s aware of the fact that he has no control over it. He’s part of the story whether he wants to be or not. The time when there was a fourth wall between journalists and their subjects is gone. We’re all documenting, and we’re all documented.
In the end, Bernstein comes off jealous of Ngo’s journalistic acuity and popularity. His reporting on Ngo’s reporting is shallow and careerist. He dwells on Ngo’s rising star paragraph after paragraph in a way that suggests that he’s reflecting on his and his outlet’s fading limelight. It’s not a good look, but it is a look that Buzzfeed wears often these days.
BuzzFeed continues to litter the internet with trash reports and listicles since US President Donald Trump called it “a failing pile of garbage” for uncritically reporting on a fake dossier on Trump (paid for by his political opponents) back in 2017.
Shortly after the Notre Dame fire went viral online, BuzzFeed fake-news patrol journalists published an article—“Here Are The Hoaxes And Misinformation About The Notre Dame Fire”—claiming there was “zero evidence Muslims were responding to the fire with with ‘smiley faces.’” The article went on to say that Paul Joseph Watson, contributor to far-right conspiracy theorist website InfoWars, “tweeted a link to a video that claimed to show Muslim people celebrating the fire” and that the video “does not show what people on Facebook were reacting to.” The BuzzFeed journalists’ debunking of the alleged hoax concludes “there is no proof to back up this claim.”
Although InfoWars and Watson often carelessly publish conjecture and misinformation from social media, the video he cited was in fact a live feed of the Notre Dame burning from French media company Brut and there are now well over 2,000 smiley face reactions to the video.
After Watson made a response video ridiculing the fake news and misinformation in the BuzzFeed report on “hoaxes and misinformation,” the incorrect section of the article was reworked and an unclear correction issued at the bottom: “Paul Joseph Watson’s tweet showed the video where the Facebook reactions were posted. A previous version of the story said the source wasn’t clear.”
Yet the corrected version of the article still incorrectly says the video “purports to show positive reactions to a video of Notre Dame burning, implying that people with Arabic names are celebrating.” Anyone can take less than a minute to click on Brut’s video of Notre Dame burning and then click on the smiley face reactions to see that many of the people who chose that reaction have Arabic names.
The BuzzFeed journalists correctly concluded that “Facebook emojis on a video do not tell us anything about a group of people.” The smiley face emoticons were the minority of reactions to the video and Facebook has billions of users, so obviously a fraction of users will react grotesquely to bad news.
However, when it comes to right-wing extremism, these same BuzzFeed journalists have no problem over-generalizing an entire group of people.
In a joint ongoing investigation with the Toronto Star, BuzzFeed is looking into “political parties, third-party pressure groups, foreign powers, and individuals … influencing Canada’s political debate in the run-up to this fall’s federal election.” Thus, far their investigations have almost exclusively targeted far-right fringe groups when looking at domestic actors.
One report from the Toronto Star–BuzzFeed investigation was on Faith Goldy and white nationalist groups being banned from Facebook. The report quoted Evan Balgord, the executive director of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, an organization that discriminates by only looking into hate involving far-right, white extremist groups and individuals within Canada, instead of all individuals and groups promoting hate in Canada.
Coincidentally, the Trudeau government announced $7 million to divvy up between news monitors to “critically assess online news reporting.” It’s unclear whether BuzzFeed or the Toronto Star will be among the recipients to monitor the truth.
The Trudeau government is also waiting to give out most of $595 million to bail out political journalism after the election is completed.
Trudeau and his ministers have recently been repeating the talking point that white nationalism is a grave threat to Canada’s democracy.
Upon first glance, it looked like Fox News’ Tucker Carlson was going to be in trouble. A photo was circulating that featured him with a sex worker. Kate Aurthur, Chief Los Angeles Correspondent of BuzzFeed News shared the photo on Twitter in an attempt to shame and mob the conservative superstar.
One small problem though: the photo was completely innocent. It was simply an instance of a fan (who happens to be a sex worker) taking a photo with a celebrity she admires at a funeral of a mutual friend, Dennis Hof, who happened to own a legal brothel. Neither here nor there.
That she happens to be a sex worker should be of no consequence. That it was made an issue speaks to the fact that a progressive journalist believed that a man to whom she has ascribed a belief system would be shamed by being in this photo. She attempted to call out his hypocrisy, as journalists so often do. But the hypocrisy didn’t exist. Moreover, if Aurthur, as a good leftist, has no problem with sex work then why would she have an issue with someone else not being troubled by it either?
Christina Parreira, the sex worker featured in the photo, found a place to speak her truth in The Federalist, a conservative outlet long derided by the progressive left for mostly vacuous reasons. The fact that a sex worker had to set the record straight in The Federalist about a Twitter-based kink shaming hoax speaks to the change that has been happening throughout our media. Outlets that were once considered to be beacons of free expression are now more prudish and censorious than the outlets they critique.
It’s no surprise that the would-be shamer, Aurthur, works for Buzzfeed. Buzzfeed has increasingly become the go-to source for puritanical scolding. They are are also responsible for the blistering hot takes that Louis CK’s jokes were too edgy or that YouTuber PewDiePie was some sort of stealth Nazi. Playing gotcha with an outspoken talk show host and a fan he met at a friend’s funeral is even too low for Buzzfeed. Or at least it should be.
Perhaps Mitchell Sunderland, the person who snapped the Carlson pic, said it best when he tweeted: “If someone told me when I was a gay, liberal seventeen-year-old that in a decade liberal publications would be censoring people and shaming them for their sexualities and conservatives would be defending sex workers, I would never have believed you.”
Sunderland, the Penthouse Editor-at-Large, spoke to us briefly about this ridiculous situation: “The only thing the late, great Dennis Hof loved more than free press was exposing hypocrites. He would have lived for this saga.”
And because of the relentless hypocrisy and complete incoherence of this cultural moment, The Federalist is going to bat for a Vegas sex worker while Buzzfeed is engaged in the lowest form of kink shaming and finger wagging. We should applaud The Federalist providing space for Parreira to fight back against those who wanted to form a mob against her and Carlson.
We also reached out to Parreira who said, “This is the new culture war—when someone on the “liberal left” feels they have the moral superiority to trash someone in a photo at a funeral. The left is desperate right now, and it shows. Americans aren’t stupid, and the free thinkers will win the culture war.”
The leftist counter culture that had been effectively driving ideas forward for the past several decades has capitulated to its worst impulses. Instead of advocating for those individual freedoms that it believed would bring about change, it has opted instead for a forceful approach, to simply shouting “we’re right, listen up, do it our way.” This is neither an effective way to drive an egalitarian movement, nor to ensure that individual rights will be upheld.
The thing is, this should not be ideological; you don’t have to be liberal or conservative to care about free speech or to abhor censorship and smear campaigns. But it is more important than ever to be discerning and reject tribal allegiances.
Pay very close attention to where your basic freedoms are being defended and where your language and life choices are being policed. It doesn’t matter how you identify. We, the authors of this piece, are both liberals. But ask yourself this: who is looking out for your rights? There are people from all over the spectrum who care about your rights. But the people who don’t? They want you to believe it’s an either or choice. Buzzfeed has become a monolith of moralism. Everything is black and white to them. They will tell you what’s “okay” and what’s “not okay.”
This moralism is pushed forward without any basis upon which to make moral judgements. No religious moral framework grounds this fabrication, not even a political one. It is simply a knee-jerk reaction to an opposition that is perceived as the enemy more than it actually is.
Liberal values are no longer the domain of the left, and those who believe in liberal ideas, such as individual freedom, the protection of natural rights, the necessity of debate and reasoned discussion, and educational frameworks that are not indoctrination factories, are finding their way out of an illiberal, leftist milieu. Rubbing the sand from our eyes, and embracing no ideology is the new way forward. Finding truth amidst the vast outputs of fiction is not a task for the faint of heart, but one that must be engaged in.
When a woman takes a photo, and the woman turns out to be a sex worker, and the person she was in the photo with is then shamed by someone who is not against sex work, what sense does that make? We can’t hate Tucker Carlson for his family values and hate him for taking a photo with a sex worker. Both things can’t be bad.
Exiled liberals are increasingly turning to conservative and centrist venues like Reason, The Federalist, Quillette, and Areo to avoid the scolding and to be able to freely engage in an open exchange of ideas. The left is giving up its claim to liberalism, and the right seems ready, willing, and able to take up the gauntlet.