Wil Hylton says Robert Mercer’s attempt to distance himself from the alt-right is about PR, not policy
Baynard Woods: With The Real News Network, I’m Baynard Woods. Conservative billionaire Robert Mercer sent a letter to investors in the massive hedge fund Renaissance Technologies today, informing them that he would resign from his leadership positions in that company. Mercer, one of the major funders of Breitbart News, said that he would also sell his stake in that company to his daughters, and sought to distance himself from Breitbart’s Steve Bannon, and Bannon’s protégé, Milo Yiannopoulos. “The press has also intimated that my politics marches in lockstep with Steve Bannon’s,” Mercer wrote. “I have great respect for Mr. Bannon and from to time I do discuss politics with him. However, I make my own decisions with respect to whom I support politically. Those decisions do not always align with Mr. Bannon’s.” Wil Hylton wrote a cover story for the New York Times magazine about Breitbart in August as Steve Bannon returned to the site. Welcome, Wil. Wil S. Hylton: Thank you. Baynard Woods: So, what does it mean that Mercer is selling his share of Breitbart to his daughters? Wil S. Hylton: It means he’s afraid that something has finally triggered him, and I think we know what it is. It’s the revelation Breitbart through Milo Yiannopoulos was actively courting the support and influence of white supremacists, that it was not just the passive tolerance of white supremacy on the site or the sort of coded dog-whistle language that’s apparent on the site, but that behind the scenes, Milo Yiannopoulos was actively communicating with, coordinating with, colluding with, conspiring with, and allowing himself to be sort of ghost-written by white supremacists. And when that new broke because BuzzFeed got access to all of Milo’s personal emails, which may raise some privacy concerns in some sense, but it was an amazingly clear insight into what’s been going on in the right side of the political spectrum. There has been this active infiltration, this willful infiltration of a major, right-wing news site by the most extreme, overt, unabashed white supremacists. And I think that finally that was enough that Robert Mercer said, “I don’t want to be associated with this.” I don’t think it means anything in terms of what his actual beliefs are. I mean, it’s rich for this guy to say, “The press has mischaracterized me and my views,” when he has made himself absolutely opaque, refuses to speak with the press, and then aligns himself with the most odious, extremist politically divisive organizations in America. What does he think we’re gonna interpret his political views to be? Baynard Woods: Right. And you called Breitbart a major right-wing news site and I think a lot of people on the left might not know just how major it is. But, you spoke for your story with Yochai Benkler, a data scientist at Harvard, and he showed that it was three times as large, as influential that is, as its nearest competitor Fox News. And he talks about a bridging phenomenon for these far-right views. How does that work? Wil S. Hylton: It’s a fascinating bit of research that’s done by Yochai Benkler at Harvard Law School through the Media Cloud program, which is also in collaboration with MIT. I mean, we’re talking about some very prestigious, but more importantly deeply ethical, researchers from the most well-endowed, both in terms of their capacity to put expensive machinery onto this matrix analysis of how media influence works, as well as what kind of intellectual resources they have. Right? And so you’ve got these incredibly smart people from incredibly reputable institutions who have built this massive computer software system to suck in literally millions of news articles, even tiny little blog posts, basically everything posted in English about the American election in 2016, and figure out who links to what, who tweets what, who posts on Facebook about what, and, therefore, which organization and which articles exert the most influence in what part of the political sphere. And when you get to the right side of the political sphere, as you alluded, there is no comparison to Breitbart. So, it’s this relatively new name, certainly in the cultural environment it’s a relatively new name. As a business entity it’s existed for a long time, but most of us never heard of it until 2015 or something. And so, for it to have that kind of influence that suddenly is amazing. One of the reasons it has that kind of influence I because billionaires like Robert Mercer have been pouring money into it. So they’ve been able to have this very robust operation that’s not necessarily justified, at least at the outset, by the audience. But the audience followed once there was this slick, massively funded and massively promoted right wing media machine going on. So that by the time of the 2016 election, the study that Benkler and the folks up at Harvard and MIT have done show that it’s several times larger than Fox News or Rush Limbaugh or any other major right wing influential media organization. Now, the way that it works in terms of a bridge phenomenon, according to Benkler, the thinking has been, that if you look at Breitbart itself you’ll see a lot of suggestive problematic things. But you’re not gonna see outright, overt white supremacists’ language. What you see is these sort of suggestive, like dog-whistle language. You see focus on issues that are of more interest to the far, far, far right than to anybody else, including the “moderate right.” You see all these ways in which the site gives the appearance of being more moderate than what you find when you actually go into the comments section and see who’s reading it. The people reading it are universally more extreme than the people who are writing for it. And what Benkler has proposed is that the way the site works, it collects this kind of audience, it gives this kind of audience a way of having a slightly more mainstream outlet that they can attach themselves to, to which they can be tethered in order to claim a certain respectability they wouldn’t have it they were just on these Nazi sites like the Daily Storm, or whatever. Baynard Woods: Right. And it’s crazy because it seems like what we’re seeing now with Mercer trying to distance himself from them is the opposite side of that. That he feels tarred by the bridge, the dirt on the boots that are walking over that bridge and wants to separate himself from that. You spent a ton of time with Breitbart editors and one of your main theses is that it is mostly a boring conservative site. But I think you were writing right as Charlottesville happened. It seems like that, in addition to these Milo emails that came out through BuzzFeed, really did change the conversation around Breitbart at the moment that your story came out. Wil S. Hylton: Yeah. And I think there were other variables there as well. We talk about Breitbart like Breitbart is one thing. But Breitbart, even just in the last two years, during the time period for example that Benkler studied and certainly in the time period that I was spending time with Breitbart people and trying to understand what in the world they’re doing, it’s been different things. So, Steve Bannon came back to Breitbart on August 17th of this year, but he had been gone for an entire year. And during that year the site was run by somebody else who’s politically very, very different from Steve Bannon. And what I found is that there are a lot of people at Breitbart who are basically more comfortable in a sort of conventional conservative environment. A lot of the people they’ve hired at Breitbart during the time period when Steve Bannon wasn’t there were specifically hired from these kind of anodyne, vaguely right wing publications like the Washington Examiner. Right. Where you’d get none of this kind of shouty, hysterical, theatrical alt-right attitude, and you get this more sort of buttoned-down establishment conservatism. So the site, at least during that year when Steve Bannon was gone, was being populated principally by all these people who have nothing to do with the Milo Yiannapouloses of the world who had also during that same period had been thrown out. So there was a purge of all the most abhorrent people in the site and an attempt to hire in people who were much more palatable, if not, in some cases quite interesting, intellectually challenging and interesting people. Now that Steve Bannon’s back, we’re seeing the pendulum swing back towards a much more theatrical version of Breitbart, a much more problematic version of Breitbart, although it’s still nowhere near where it was under Milo. And so, I think what you’re seeing with Robert Mercer, especially as it regards the bridge phenomenon, is that somebody like him was obviously perfectly content to have Nazis in the comments section, but once it was revealed, once the fact was revealed that it wasn’t just commenters glomming onto the site, it was writers and editors at the site actually reaching out to Nazis and giving them a chance to help write the main articles on the site and to figure out ways to code their language so that the Nazis were actually collaborating in the construction of this coded, dog-whistle language. And I wouldn’t give so much credit to Robert Mercer as to say that was a shocking and upsetting revelation to him, however much he may like to position himself that way, it seems just as likely that he knew that was going on all along, but what he doesn’t want is for everybody else to know it. Baynard Woods: Right. So, Wil Hylton, contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine, thanks for joining us today. For The Real News Network, I’m Baynard Woods.