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Half the Story

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It would be impossible to have a national reckoning with the predatory sexual behavior of powerful men in America without eventually putting the U.S. Congress under the microscope, and so far the most alarming allegations implicate Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), the 88-year-old Civil Rights Movement veteran, who is the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee and the longest currently-serving member in the legislature.

The details of the accusations first appeared in Buzzfeed, which obtained and verified the authenticity of confidential affidavits attesting to Conyers’ conduct that were filed two years ago with Congress’ Office of Compliance. Buzzfeed’s report not only documents Conyers’ actions, but also the scandalously tilted and opaque system Congress instituted to adjudicate accusations of sexual misconduct against elected officials.

The airtightness of the story is notable in part because it didn’t reach Buzzfeed reporters through the normal channels of congressional leaking, but through an intermediary. Specifically, as disclosed in the article, the documents were initially obtained by Mike Cernovich, a sleazy racist peddler of conspiracy theories and an alt-right hero who nevertheless (or perhaps I should say unsurprisingly) has procured sources with access to valuable information in the Trump-era Republican Party. 

The media can’t and shouldn’t be expected to ignore revelations like the Conyers leak just because they are the fruits of right-wing efforts to skew the information environment.  But it is people like Cernovich who I had in mind when I wrote this article last week, warning liberals that right-wing propaganda merchants and their foreign fake-news allies could easily fabricate accusations of sexual impropriety against prominent Democrats, and, in so doing, weaponize the #metoo movement. By the end of that week, we learned just how such an operation might work, because someone attempted it. The appeal to believe accusers becomes difficult when it simultaneously compels liberals to believe people like Mike Cernovich, or the agitprop writers at Breitbart. Forced to choose, liberals could easily collapse into recriminations, setting back important causes.

Cernovich’s decision to launder a genuine scoop through a legitimate news outlet ironically spared liberals from this double bind, in favor of promoting the larger goods of forcing Conyers to confront his actions, and Congress to perhaps dismantle the system of protections it has erected to shield its members from public scrutiny for bad conduct.

This does not redeem Cernovich. What it does is expose an alternative means by which the kind of people who promoted PizzaGate might use selective truth, and the liberal commitment to empirical fact, to set the people who care most about righting perverse sexual power dynamics against one another. Just as it might do with fabrications.

It is not inconsistent to be both pleased to see the allegations against Conyers come to light and simultaneously alarmed that someone with access to Congress’ cache of sealed complaints against members might be treating Cernovich as a conduit. The latter is a recipe for an orchestrated campaign of leaks about members of one party alone, intended to create the false impression that sexual misconduct in Congress is a partisan affliction of Democrats only.

This is what Breitbart goons mean when they celebrate the concept of “weaponization of information.” It is also what authoritarian regimes aim to accomplish through selective prosecution of political enemies. It is comparable, in a traumatizing way, to the 2016 election, in which the private emails of one party, but not the other, were stolen and strategically distributed to the public, creating an insurmountable handicap. The main difference, of course, is that stealing private emails is wrong, but airing credible sexual harassment allegations leveled at powerful people is proper. 

We just need to get all of them. 

The media must validate and expose the truth surrounding sexual misconduct in places of power, even if those revelations are the fruits of right-wing efforts to skew the information environment. But half of the truth in this case would amount to a wild distortion. On Monday, the anti-Trump conservative writer David Frum asked, “So who is ready for a world in which Democrats force Al Franken out of the Senate while Republicans vote Roy Moore in?” There are actors on the right who would see that as a partial victory. They would prefer a future in which Democrats force multiple members out of Congress, and Republicans force none, allowing Trump—the alleged and admitted sex predator—and his propaganda allies to campaign on the platform of not turning Congress over to the party whose members had to resign in disgrace.