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How the alt-right duped MSNBC into firing one of its contributors

An online community weaponized the political commentator Sam Seder’s satirical 2009 tweet.

Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

Update: MSNBC has rehired Sam Seder. The original story is below.

MSNBC cut ties with one of its contributors, Majority Report podcast host Sam Seder, after a tweet he sent in 2009 joking about the hypothetical rape of his daughter resurfaced and became fodder for an attack from the alt-right, the largely internet-based fringe movement that includes many elements such as racism, white nationalism, and white supremacy.

The Wrap initially reported Monday that MSNBC would not renew Seder’s contract, and Seder confirmed his firing in an interview with Erik Wemple of the Washington Post.

Seder claims his tweet was attacking rape apologists — not joking about rape. But his firing demonstrates that alt-right activists have successfully weaponized journalists’ old tweets in their fight against the “fake news” mainstream media.

The 2009 tweet that prompted Seder’s dismissal was recirculated by Mike Cernovich, a blogger and purveyor of the Pizzagate conspiracy, and his followers. (Seder attributed the smear to his criticism of Republicans defending Roy Moore in Alabama.) But this isn’t the first time the alt-right has carried out a similar campaign against a journalist. Earlier this year, the New York Times’s ombudsman publicly reprimanded a reporter after a Cernovich-led outrage campaign over a joke about a tweet from rapper Bow Wow.

Many news outlets care deeply about how their reporters act on social media and will suspend or even fire reporters for a single tweet. Cernovich — who has used Twitter to spread fake news, accuse prominent Democrats of running a child sex ring, and repeatedly suggest that women lie about rape — is using this sensitivity to his advantage.

How a tweet from 2009 created a 2017 controversy

Sam Seder is a liberal political commentator who hosts the Majority Report podcast. An iteration of the show began on the liberal radio network Air America, where he co-hosted with Janeane Garofalo; it now operates as a daily political podcast. He’s got acting, writing, and directing credits to his name, in addition to working as a commentator for MSNBC. Seder told the Post that he’s appeared on the network for at least a decade, and became a paid commentator within the past few years.

In 2009, Seder posted this tweet: “Dont care re Polanski, but i hope if my daughter is ever raped it is by an older truly talented man w/ a great sense of mise en scene.”

At the time, director Roman Polanski had been arrested by Swiss authorities in connection with a decades-old case of sexual abuse of a young teenage girl. In 1977, as part of a plea bargain to avoid more serious charges, Polanski pleaded guilty to unlawful intercourse with a 13-year-old. Then he fled to the country to avoid punishment.

After Polanski’s arrest in 2009, petitions circulated in Hollywood in which artists and celebrities called for his release and decried the arrest due to his immense talent. Disgusted observers read them as basically saying a rape charge doesn’t count if one is a creative genius.

That’s the context in which Seder posted the tweet. He says it was to satirize Polanski’s defenders.

Then last week, some began circulating the tweet again on Twitter. Seder deleted it out of “expediency” on November 28; he said on his show that he now regrets doing so.

His decision to erase the tweet further incensed Cernovich, who wrote in a post on Medium titled “MSNBC Contributor Sam Seder Endorses Polanski’s Sex Crimes in Now Deleted Tweet” that “no one in the mainstream media will report on this story, even though the Tweet is authentic, leading to further distrust in the media.”

Cernovich accused the media of a deliberate attempt to downplay the 2009 tweet: “Just like the media covered up Bill Clinton’s rapes for decades, and just like the media won’t demand that Al Franken step down form the Senate, even after saying Roy Moore must withdraw from a Senate Race,” he wrote.

Cernovich concedes that Seder might be “making a joke or being sarcastic,” but the outrage gathered steam. Sebastian Gorka, a former Trump adviser accused of having ties to a pro-Nazi group in Hungary, tweeted it; it was retweeted by Donald Trump Jr.

Seder told the Post that after Cernovich started circulating the tweet, Errol Cockfield, senior vice president of communications at MSNBC, contacted him and asked about Cernovich. Seder got a message the next day saying the network was cutting ties.

Seder defended himself on his podcast on November 30, saying yes, the tweet was obviously sarcastic. “I was a former actor, professional satirist, and comedy writer at that time,” he said. “And I was particularly disgusted that a community I was even tangentially associated with would defend a child rapist based on the fact that he was a good filmmaker.”

“At that time I wrote and posted a tweet that captured my anger in the best way I knew how, which was through satire.”

Seder told the Post that as the Wrap was reporting a story about his dismissal, a representative for MSNBC informed him that since his contract was on a pay-per-appearance basis, the network would not continue to book him and would not renew the relationship. (MSNBC did not return a request for comment.)

The mainstream media is very sensitive to charges of bad tweets

Seder’s firing has sparked its own outrage, with many (including those within the network) saying that MSNBC is acting on a bad-faith smear.

Cernovich has correctly identified social media as a vulnerability for media companies sensitive to the criticisms — levied relentlessly by America’s president — of liberal bias or “fake news.” In giving in to Cernovich and his alt-right followers, MSNBC is confirming that their tactics work. This, as Sean O'Neal at the A.V. Club writes, puts the network on the side of those whose “openly stated goal is the destruction of news outlets just like it through the use of blatantly manipulative trolling techniques that use their own propensity for faux outrage against them.”

This strategy succeeded in March, when the New York Times public editor reprimanded Sopan Deb, a culture writer for the paper. Deb — who covered Trump for CBS in 2016 — joked about a tweet from rapper Bow Wow.

In March, Snoop Dogg made a video mocking Trump as a clown named Ronald Klump and threatening to shoot the Klump character. Trump tweeted about the video, saying Snoop Dogg had a “failing career,” and Bow Wow rose to Snoop Dogg’s defense: “shut your punk a— up talking s—t about my uncle @SnoopDogg before we pimp your wife and make her work for us.”

Deb denounced the Bow Wow tweet. Then he retweeted it with a dog pun:

@BreitbarkNews is a parody account that parodies the far-right news outlet with tweets about dogs. But Cernovich and his followers latched onto Deb’s tweet, calling him a supporter of human trafficking because Deb had joked about Bow Wow’s comment about pimping out Melania Trump.

The Times’s then-public editor Liz Spayd devoted a column to criticism of Deb’s tweet, even though she acknowledged that “far-right groups” might be using the tweet for their “own purposes.”

“Conservatives may use such tweets — or retweets — to further their case that the ‘liberal media’ will do and say anything,” she wrote. “More significantly, mainstream readers who hear of or see the tweet out of context might easily take offense. It’s a lose, lose.”

Media outlets are also wary of appearing too controversial to advertisers. Brands, and the networks that rely on their ads, are sensitive to public criticism — boycotts helped lead Fox News to fire Bill O’Reilly earlier this year, following allegations of sexual harassment. People protesting Sean Hannity’s show following his interview with Roy Moore led advertisers, including Keurig, to pull their ads (though that also led to a boycott backlash).

As New York magazine’s Jesse Singal points out, networks’ inability to figure out the source of the anger adds another complication. “If you understand that the source of the anger has to do with political preferences and ideology and a desire to attack one’s enemies rather than, well, actual outrage,” he writes, “It might affect your decision.”

It might. But so far, Cernovich has bet on the power of hundreds of thousands of outraged-sounding tweets — and that bet has paid off.