CNN’s New Day downplays The Proud Boys’ links to white nationalists

With Trump telling the group to “stand by,” media must recognize it as a serious threat

Mainstream media are still figuring out how to handle the neo-fascist Proud Boys street gang, with the group and its allies now celebrating President Donald Trump’s call at Tuesday night’s debate for them to “stand back and stand by.” And with a segment from correspondent Elle Reeve on Wednesday morning’s edition of CNN’s New Day, the cable network was not off to a good start.

“But unlike a lot of groups that arose during the Trump era, like the alt-right, they're not explicitly white supremacists,” Reeve said. “They say they want to support Western civilization, but they're not out there posting swastikas. But that said, a group doesn't have to be neo-Nazi to be dangerous.”

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Citation From the September 30, 2020, edition of CNN’s New Day

In fact, the Proud Boys is a far-right organization with links to white supremacist movements, including the violent “Unite the Right” white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. And as with other media reports on the Proud Boys and allied organizations that simply parrot their claims of “patriotism,” Reeve’s segment gave an extended mouthpiece to the group — especially by reporting from an actual Proud Boys rally in Portland, Oregon, and interviewing its leader and members — even if CNN had intended for the piece to be critical.

And in the next hour, CNN correspondent Sara Sidner said: “Look, we should be really clear that the Proud Boys do not consider themselves a white supremacist group —tThey have members from many different ethnicities. That doesn't mean that they have not wreaked havoc. They're more like a political fight club, if you will, than a white supremacist group, and have distanced themselves.”

CNN anchor Alisyn Camerota later added: “This is really helpful, Sara, because I thought the ADL had designated them a white supremacist group, but you’re saying they're more just like a fight club?”

In fact, the Anti-Defamation League’s blog post on Trump’s comments last night says: “Additionally, Some Proud Boys members espouse white supremacist and antisemitic ideologies and/or engage with white supremacist groups.”

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Citation From the September 30, 2020, edition of CNN’s New Day

The fundamental problem remains that pieces like these treat the Proud Boys as a minor curiosity, rather than the “foot soldiers” for the right that its founder Gavin McInnes described it as being.

As Media Matters previously explained regarding an NBC News piece on the Proud Boys from 2017:

By presenting the group as a solution to the loneliness of men who feel targeted by what one called a “mainstream societal attack,” [the reporter] inadvertently validated their grievances while failing to give her audience the full picture of what the boys stand for.


While McInnes has attempted to disassociate from that crowd, a member of the Proud Boys, Jason Kessler, was behind the “Unite the Right” rally held in August. Kessler described Heather Heyer, the counter-protester who died after a rally participant rammed a car into a crowd, as a “fat, disgusting Communist.” On This American Life, NPR producer Zoe Chace reported that a Proud Boys Facebook page was ripe with racial slurs. The Hill’s Will Sommer tweeted a photo that seems to be from one of the groups’ pages showing an armed group of Proud Boys in the aftermath of the Harvey hurricane in Houston, TX, declaring themselves to be “the anti looting patrol.” The idea that there was widespread looting after Harvey was a false, racist narrative that right-wing media and fake Twitter accounts spread widely. Sommer also pointed out that Proud Boy Kyle Chapman, founder of FOAK and known on the internet as Based Stickman, has tweeted white supremacist tropes on occasion. As documented by SPLC, Chapman “rose to fame on a wave of enthusiasm from the Alt-Right after a video of him breaking a wooden stick over the head of an antifascist protester at a ‘March 4 Trump’ rally in Berkeley, California, last March went viral.”

Relatedly, NBC News reporter Ben Collins points out today that a Proud Boys group is sharing a meme of the Kenosha shooter.

Media Matters president Angelo Carusone explained in 2018 how the Proud Boys serve as a gateway between the men's rights movement and white nationalists:

Angelo Carusone and Sam Seder discuss how the Proud Boys serve as a gateway between the men's rights movement and white nationalists

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Citation From the October 19 edition of Ring of Fire Radio with Sam Seder and Mike Papantonio

SAM SEDER [host]: Welcome back to Ring of Fire Radio, I'm Sam Seder. Last weekend, the far right group the Proud Boys made headlines when they violently attacked protesters in Manhattan. Here to tell us about this group of self-described western chauvinists Angelo Carusone, the president of Media Matters. So Angelo let's just start with who are the Proud Boys?

ANGELO CARUSONE [President, Media Matters]: They are a probably the most well organized part of the men's rights movement. And so basically the Proud Boys are as they would describe themselves as western chauvinists and that's just to put it simply. They have chapters. They do meetings. They're not just sort of like participants in online forums like I think a lot of the men's rights movements are they actually do stuff in public, as we are now seeing.

SEDER: OK. Wait a sec -- we gotta get, go a little broader on that because I just think that the everything you just said probably strikes normal people as being absolutely bizarre. We have a group of adult males who are in their 20s 30s. Their leader, I think is late 40s. Gavin McInnes, we'll get to him in a moment. And they all wear Fred Perry collared shirts and they're in a basically He-Man women-hater-non western civilization hater group. It's like a youth group, but for theoretically grown men.

CARUSONE: That's right. And they consider themselves to be sort of like a fraternal order. They have levels of participation -- so [[like]] the first level is actually, you actually have to identify yourself officially as a Proud Boy. And you have to make that a publicly known statement; it's not something that you shy away from. You have to actually explicitly say that, identify that in some of your either your public communications or on your social media profiles. You have to make it known. The second level is when things start to get a little stranger. You have to commit to giving up masturbation. It's a really important part of moving through the ranks, and it's something that they insist people commit to as they sort of go through it, and then they apply -- as a part of that initiation, what happens is is that you get beat up by other Proud Boy members of higher rank while you list your five favorite cereals. And then the third part of it is when you actually get a tattoo, a marking, and --

SEDER: Wait, Angelo, you're saying these things like they're not absolutely bizarre. You've got to get beat up while you're saying your five favorite breakfast cereals.

CARUSONE: Yeah, and it's a real thing. These are places that have -- these are -- they are pretty well-organized group, but they've been growing pretty steadily the last couple of years because they're tapping into this sort of energy that sort of percolates within the larger anti-PC men's rights movement. And so it's just like a funnel -- you sort of start with big picture kind of stuff and then you slowly recruit people and work them down. The fourth level is where it gets scary, though, and sort of -- what goes from being weird to sort of scary is that actually the highest level of being a Proud Boy is when you commit violence for the cause. That's how they describe it. And it is the most honored thing you can do. And you are recognized as such when you get to that level. And what we saw on Friday in New York City, it wasn't just that it was an outlier or a random example of the Proud Boys sort of getting into a scuffle; what they had was a moment where some of them could commit violence to the cause and sort of earn that badge of honor and that distinction, and it's intentional. And when Gavin McInnes founded it, he described it very proudly as a gang. He really believes that there needs to be sort of a pro-violence movement at the tip of the spear for the larger men's rights and anti-PC movement and he's pretty unabashed about the fact that violence is a necessary and effective tool. And that's kind of where the sort of the culture part of it comes in -- right? -- that when you're sort of moving people through those levels a part of that is actually to indoctrinate and to get people comfortable, just like any gang, with increasing levels of activity. So it goes from being sort of strange and weird to starting to create those moments of hazing and more intense camaraderie to outwardly conditioning people and incentivizing acts of violence.

SEDER: If you know, what is this all about where they don't masturbate, and how do they -- I mean, we'll get on to the more serious aspects of it, but it's -- people should know this is a very bizarre group. And I happen to have known Gavin McInnes socially years ago. We will talk about that in a moment. But what is the theory behind telling the members of this gang that you're not allowed to masturbate. And how do they regulate that?

CARUSONE: I think it's an honor system. And I think that's really a part of it. The theory behind that I think is partly connected to a few things. One is that there is this it's gay to touch yourself, a little bit -- a little feminizing or beta. This is according to sort of their tenants --that there's this this hyper-masculinity associated with being a Proud Boy, which seems strange given the name, but and that even doing that act alone is somehow a part of it. The deeper piece, though, is less about their hyper-masculine approach and actually more about creating a shared sacrifice and to incentivize more group activities. The idea is that when somebody moves to that level of commitment it's actually coincides with a hazing experience, and a piece of that is actually that you know you're sort of bonding a little bit more with with the group and it's like a gang -- right? -- the idea is to really tether you more to a community in a weird way than to yourself. And so as a part of that, presumably and as it typically is the case, you actually spend more time at Proud Boy meetings and with other Proud Boys and you sort of move deeper into this organization.

SEDER: Now you refer to this gang as being centered around the men's rights movement and western chauvinism. Why do you not use the term white supremacist?

CARUSONE: I think that that's too easy and too simple and I actually think that it's not because I don't think that they ... -- it's not because I don't think that race is a big piece of their organizing principle. But it's just too simple and I think these days the sort of knee jerk reaction oftentimes is when these things break into the public is because we think about this kind of activity in the past typically associated with white nationalists or white supremacists and because that's often our frame of reference, that's immediately where we go to when we see groups like this, because it feels very similar. And there is no doubt that bigotry and racism and and very much anti-LGBT discrimination are part of their brand. But it's bigger than that,and it isn't purely limited -- their organizing principle is not around race. In fact, as evidence of that actually at Proud Boy meetings is where actual white nationalist organizations will try to find recruits because there tends to be very intense alignment. But it isn't the sole, their organizing principle and so ... I think it's just a little misleading. And they have -- there are people of color that are part of the Proud Boy community. And so when we say that they are a white nationalist group and then they're like -- it actually makes it harder to get to what they're really organizing around. And that's the part that scares me, because they are much more appealing than, say, the white nationalists are. When you look at Charlottesville, what you saw on display at Charlottesville -- not the night of the tiki torches, but on that Saturday when there were all those people there -- one of the ways that so many came together was that Proud Boy chapters had actually activated themselves as well as other men's rights organizations to say go out and protest political correctness. And so there is something much more appealing and broad about that than simply you know white genocide and you know white culture is dying and being destroye. And so I think it's important to be aware of that.

SEDER: All right. Well Angelo, we're going to take a break. When we come back, I want to talk a little bit more about how they see themselves in terms of these shock troops for the conservative movement that you call -- that, I think we could say they're white supremacist-friendly, right? They're allies of these folks. And then let's talk about Gavin McInnes. I have some personal experience with this guy. We shared some former friends, former friends of his. Because in many ways this is a cautionary tale. It's sometimes it's very hard to watch your friends get super wealthy when you just get a little bit wealthy and if you have the right sort of I guess emotional problems it will turn into something like this. We will talk more about that when we return. I'm Sam Seder. This is Ring of Fire Radio. ...

So Angelo, we're talking about this group and I need to catch people up because it's gonna sound like we're making this up. There is a group, it's a gang essentially, they are organized around the principle of western chauvinism and male rights. Instead of going into the woods and doing drumming parties, what they do is they basically beat up other people. They play their version of a real life knockout game. They tell each other that they're not allowed to masturbate and they dress up in tennis gear. And this is a gang that has chapters around the country. It was formed by a man named Gavin McInnes. Gavin McInnes was one of the original founders of Vice magazine. He was forced out because people find him difficult to get along with on a personal level and he was paid out I think a couple million dollars. But his friends went on to make hundreds of millions of dollars. And ever since then he has had one failed attempt after another to rekindle some of that magic. He's tried to be a Fox News contributor. I happen to know that he would have to take a couple of drinks before you would go on because he was very nervous. And I think that ultimately probably closed off that route. And so here he is now trying to ... rebrand himself as this, I don't know, would you call it a brownshirt? I mean, where do they see themselves within, they just see themselves as the shock troops for whom?

CARUSONE: They would say -- I mean, I think the best example of that is ... the parts that commit violence are actually oftentimes they themselves refer to them as the Fraternal Order of the Alt-Knights. And so I think that that answers the question of for whom -- they would see it as defenders of, you know, if you asked them who they're really advocating for, they would say western civilization, western principles,which sort of gets back to that whole idea about are they white nationalist or not. Obviously implicit within that is a part of is so much -- is tied so much to white identity. But they would say that they are there to be shock troops for the alt-right, for this new movement that is anti-political correctness, pro-libertarian, pro-freedom, and that is honestly what they would describe it as. Andthere are a lot of doublespeak. I mean, today and over the last couple of days, Gavin's, on his own personal program, has constantly referred to them as peacekeepers, as keepers of the peace, as people that are out there to actually prevent violence, even though it's very explicit within their organizing principles that they commit violence. So it's hard to really decipher. You have to just look at what they stand for and what they advocate for, which is essentially male chauvinism; male supremacy is a very big important part of that. They really do believe that and that carries with it a lot of ideas and notions that are very much aligned with the right wing.

SEDER: So let's be clear about this event that took place earlier this week in New York. The New York Republican Metropolitan Club had an event that Gavin hosted to celebrate the assassination of a Japanese socialist figure, I believe from the 1950s. Gavin McInnes came there with a big sword to do sort of like a production about it during the day and we should be clear about this. There were protests. There was some vandalism. This is during the day. By the end of the evening, the protests have broken up and people were walking away. Three people who were not involved in the protest were jumped by 30 of these Proud Boys. There's a lot of video of this. None of what I'm saying is in any way in controversy whatsoever. They were kicked, they were beaten. They were -- there were homophobic slurs. There was anti-immigrant sentiment. And then the Proud Boys ran away; the cops at the time did nothing -- maybe they didn't know exactly what was going on, to give them the benefit the doubt. They have subsequently begun a search for nine people who were identified on the videos. But what is your sense? Gavin McInness came out and said that I have got friends on the NYPD -- I want to thank them. How much do you think that is real and how much is that just his sort of posturing.

CARUSONE: I think that's a little bit of bluster. But there has been incidents over the past year where at various police departments across the country, officers and deputies have been fired or sanctioned because they have been caught in their personal time either wearing or engaging in Proud Boy activities. So one, there actually is a part of the Proud Boys that intentionally reaches out to and recruits law enforcement officials. It's a really important part of their organizing. They really believe that penetration into law enforcement not just gives them insight but gives them some degree of protection. I do think he's exaggerating fairly heavy a bit, as it relates to the NYPD. I don't take anything that he says at face value but it is reflective of a deeper intentionality on the part of the Proud Boys. And the other piece to sort of get to the violence piece a little bit is one of the things they do is they actually have a training program for higher level members around how to instigate fights to actually have these set-ups, right? I mean, that is a part of it, to actually create these conditions where you can actually look as though you're operating in self-defense and I'm not saying that was happening here, but actually you know there's a lot of events where they are involved in that a part of it is essentially a set-up job that they are enacting essentially a script in order to pretend as though they are operating in self-defense when they're not.

SEDER: Angelo, we have just about 90 seconds left. How does how does Gavin McInnes make money off this and how many of these Proud Boys exist in this country?

CARUSONE: It's hard to say about the number that exists, definitely thousands. I would say that the growth rate is really steady. I've been watching and monitoring them now for a solid two years and two years ago they were marginal and infinitesimal and I would say that now they're definitely in the thousands of like steady active participants and that's because it's reflective of a deeper environment. And Gavin makes his money largely because Mark Levin is his new boss and he's in bed with a really big media company, Cumulus Media, which is the second largest radio company out there has a subdivision called Westwood One that actually distributes his program to companies that pay for it. And that's mostly how he makes his revenue these days is through that.

SEDER: Is that over terrestrial radio or is that just through CRTV?

CARUSONE: They had tried very aggressively through terrestrial radio and it wasn't clear to me that they were ever able to successfully get any contracts, CRTV and then some smaller digital distribution deals.

SEDER: Interesting. And who funds that, is that just strictly a corporate thing and have people basically said hey why are you, why is this major corporation supporting literally brownshirt thugs?

CARUSONE: It's weird because CRTV basically pays Westwood One for Gavin McInnes' program. That's how it is, so Mark Levin's company CRTV pays Westwood One, which is that really big radio company, for that -- for the distribution rights. I mean, they're probably the largest footprint that he has right now. Westwood One has not been successful. But they have other programs that they've been adding that are very similar to Gavin McInnes' -- they're just not that much further. And most programs they've had, they had had success in getting onto terrestrial radio. So in a way, the whole idea behind Gavin -- it's kind of like the Overton Window -- right? -- is that if you were the tip of the spear and you're really far out there, maybe you're not palatable, but you create a taste in the audience's mouth for something that is close to that but maybe just not that far over the line and that's the thing that I feel is the net effect of all this is not just the violence but how they constantly move things further and further.

SEDER: Angelo thank you so much for your time today, I really appreciate it. Angelo Carusone is the president of Media Matters.