Ever since President Donald Trump hired then-Breitbart.com chief executive Stephen Bannon to run his presidential campaign, the press has been struggling to comprehend the “alt-right” movement that his website helped promote. While many journalists have done yeoman’s work catching up on the assortment of white nationalists, misogynists, and conspiracy theorists behind this new wave of fringe media outlets, they’ve been less effective in learning about the tactics those figures use to manipulate the press. That failing was evident over the weekend, as major news outlets reported on Friday night’s “alt-right” interruption of a performance of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.
That controversy, which triggered stories by The Associated Press, CNN, MSNBC, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications, demonstrated that the news judgment of mainstream news outlets has yet to adjust to the new reality. And it is a sad reminder that the “alt-right’s” greatest strength is its ability to exploit the media for its own ends.
Conservative criticism of the Public Theater’s production of Julius Caesar in New York’s Central Park, which debuted in late May and concluded Sunday night, hit the public consciousness on June 11 after it came under attack from Fox News. In an appearance on the weekend edition of the network’s Fox & Friends morning show, TownHall.com Political Editor Guy Benson denounced the play for placing a Trump look-alike in the titular role of the Roman leader who is assassinated onstage.
As other conservative media figures and Trump’s own sons joined the chorus, Delta and Bank of America ended their corporate sponsorship of the production. And after a gunman targeted Republican members of Congress practicing on a baseball field last week, wounding Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA), right-wing commentators linked the attack to the play.
These arguments are foolish and made in bad faith. Caesar’s assassination is not glamorized in the production -- indeed, the message of the play is that misguided political violence will inevitably breed disastrous consequences. “Likening Shakespeare’s monarchs and politicians to real-life figures is a long-standing performance practice, seized by directors with sometimes illuminating, sometimes boneheaded results,” Slate’s Issac Butler noted after the initial complaints, pointing out that performances of Julius Caesar have featured then-President Barack Obama in the titular role without incident.
The controversy culminated in a “protest” at Friday night’s performance, when the production was interrupted for roughly a minute when the “alt-right” online outlet Rebel Media’s Laura Loomer stormed the stage, shouting, “Do you want Trump to be assassinated?” She was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct and criminal trespass. Jack Posobiec, another “alt-right” figure, also interrupted the performance, yelling, “The blood of Steve Scalise is on your hands” and comparing the audience to the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels before being removed from the theater. Posobiec taped the disturbance and posted it on Twitter, where it quickly circulated.
Why did they do it? The incident has the hallmarks of a grift: The disturbances came after “alt-right” personality Mike Cernovich offered a $1,000 bounty to anyone who successfully interrupted the performance, and Loomer is seeking to crowdfund $25,000, supposedly for her legal defense.
It’s not unusual for protesters to use civil disobedience to garner media attention for their cause. But this “protest” had no real aim other than the aggrandizement of its participants. It had all the moral force of a pair of drunken assholes running onto the field to halt a baseball game, and deserved a similar degree of attention from the media. Instead, mainstream reporters have been transfixed by the story, generating reams of coverage that bolster the profiles of Posobiec and Loomer. For the cost of a ticket, they were able to troll the public with their nonsense claims, with mainstream outlets regurgitating their trolling at the top of their stories and burying the reasons not to believe them.
This manipulation of the mainstream press by subversive elements who don’t play by the traditional rules of journalism should be an ongoing concern. We’ve seen the press fall for these efforts time and time again -- indeed, NBC News spent most of last week getting outmaneuvered at every turn by Infowars chief Alex Jones.
Mainstream reporters rightfully feel compelled to cover the rising tide of fringe-right outlets because of their close ties to the president, and the manner in which their seemingly-absurd conspiracy theories have translated into harassment. Their claims about a pedophile ring operating out of a Washington, D.C., pizza parlor led to gunfire at the restaurant; Seth Rich’s family was hassled following their allegations that the murdered Democratic staffer was actually bumped off by Hillary Clinton’s campaign; their lies that the Sandy Hook Elementary School was a hoax turn the lives of the victims’ parents into waking nightmares.
But the pro-Trump fringe has become adept at taking advantage of those inclinations to increase its own influence. As they come under more scrutiny, these “alt-right” figures are learning how to gin up grievances, manufacture new controversies, and troll the press to garner attention and make money.
Reporters need to show better news judgment when they engage with the “alt-right.” When the movement’s media personalities are stirring controversies that have a real impact on people’s lives, they have earned national attention.
But when the “alt-right” personalities are deliberately screwing with journalists to bolster their own profiles, the best thing journalists can do for their readers is refuse to play their game.