On Thursday afternoon, Buzzfeed published an explosive story on how the so-called alt right rose to prominence and got their messages of white supremacy and hate into the mainstream media and, eventually, the White House. Writer Joseph Bernstein lays out in excruciating detail how Stephen Bannon—former adviser to President Donald Trump and head honcho at Breitbart—groomed a charismatic tech editor named Milo Yiannopoulous to become one of the frontmen for a dangerous movement.
Via a cache of emails released to Buzzfeed, Bernstein shows just how much Bannon and the staff at Breitbart depended on Yiannopoulous—who used the fact that he is a proud and out gay man as sort of shield against criticism—to mobilize a group of trolls and conservative figures alike into a cohesive unit with the same goal: to wage war against the perceived dangers of activism and the social justice movement.
Yiannopoulous was aided not only by Bannon, who provided him with money and a platform, but also by various professionals in the liberal media. If you blinked, you may have missed that Yiannopoulous had a friend at Broadly, Vice’s often proudly feminist site aimed at women: senior staff writer Mitchell Sunderland.
Sunderland was part of an email thread that, according to Bernstein, was dedicated to mocking the “social justice” internet. He was Yiannopoulos’s plant in women’s media, feeding stories to Yiannpoulous who would then disseminate those stories through various channels to Breitbart.
“Please mock this fat feminist,” Sunderland wrote to Yiannopoulos in May 2016, along with a link to an article by the New York Times columnist Lindy West, who frequently writes about fat acceptance. And while Sunderland was Broadly’s managing editor, he sent a Broadly video about the Satanic Temple and abortion rights to Tim Gionet with instructions to “do whatever with this on Breitbart. It’s insane.” The next day, Breitbart published an article titled “‘Satanic Temple’ Joins Planned Parenthood in Pro-Abortion Crusade.”
The article Sunderland referred to is not specified, but it is a clear reference to an excerpt from West’s debut collection of essays Shrill, which was published last year. West has written at length—often for Jezebel, where she was on staff for several years (and remains friendly with staffers)—about her body acceptance issues and how she likes the way she looks; she’s an outspoken feminist with opinions that often draw ire and even threats from men.
Sunderland siccing a known troll on a high-profile feminist who was once harassed by a man pretending to be her dead father, is an astonishing thing for a man employed by a website that, per their mission statement, is “devoted to representing the multiplicity of women’s experiences,” to do. One could reasonably assume that the experiences of a “fat feminist” are included among the women Broadly aims to represent. Was Sunderland working out a personal issue with West by mobilizing Yiannapoulous’s army of trolls with Twitter accounts and a lot of free time? His intentions aside, Buzzfeed’s reporting speaks to a specific kind of discourse that is increasingly prevalent across the political spectrum: trolling for trolling’s sake, poking the ideological bear in a craven grab for traffic and attention without regard for who gets hurt or harassed in the process.
Sunderland’s body of work on the site is standard current-era women’s media fare—but poring through his archives, one finds some curious aberrations. He interviewed Camille Paglia, and assessed Kellyanne Conway’s 2004 book with a magnifying glass, searching for signs of feminism. He spoke to various InfoWars including Mike Cernovich and Paul Joseph Watson about whether or not the conservative movement has its own form of “wellness.” And, in 2015, he wrote a rousing defense of Ann Coulter as gay icon, titled “Ann Coulter is a Human Being.”
The most sympathetic reading of this situation is that Sunderland got lost in a kind of journalism that has always existed, but is more prevalent in our current political landscape; writers intent on fully understanding a controversial issue ingratiating themselves with the “other side” to present a comprehensive picture of the ideological forces they’re trying to question, and accidentally becoming friendly in the process. Seeking a multi-dimensional understanding of a sociological thicket as dense as the alt right is a perfectly reasonable impulse, and having one’s mind changed isn’t wrong. But the case of Sunderland does raise the question: How close is too close? Will spending enough time “embedded” in a community that espouses hate or rubbing shoulders with the handmaidens of the administration eventually convert you into one of their own? Will everyone who covers the Trump administration and the alt right eventually “go Nazi”?
Or is this simply a case of agreeing with Milo and his ideological cohort from the start? Sunderland did not respond to Jezebel’s request, but we’ll update this post if he does.
Editors at Broadly did not return Jezebel’s request for comment on this post. Broadly has reportedly fired Sunderland, but it seems like he shouldn’t have too much to worry about: