A few days before the presidential election, Will Sommer wrote a story for Washington City Paper about a little D.C. pizzeria with a big problem.
"Alt Right Conspiracy Theorists Obsess Over Comet Ping Pong," read the headline, which fronted a story that described how harebrained internet sleuthing implicated a neighborhood pizza joint in "a global Democratic sex ring."
Weeks later, after a man walked into the restaurant and fired a gun, the national press began covering the bizarre (and untrue) conspiracy theory known as Pizzagate. For many journalists, it was probably the first brush with a right-wing conspiracy theory spawned from 4chan and Reddit message boards.
But for Sommer, who's now campaign editor at The Hill, it was just another weekend on the right-wing news beat.
"It was a Saturday night, and all these alt-right guys I follow were tweeting about Comet Ping Pong," Sommer said. "Which, being in D.C., I go to and enjoy. And I thought, 'Finally, we have something in common.'"
Sommer initially thought the right-wing Twitterati just really liked pizza. When the story took a darker turn, he wrote it up for his weekly newsletter, Right Richter, under the headline "Little Seizers."
In the months after the election, as right-wing conspiracies continue to go mainstream (take the Seth Rich affair, for example) and gobsmacked journalists reckon with President Trump's surprise win, there's been no shortage of hand-wringing about the importance of "bursting your bubble" — getting out of the New York-D.C.-Boston corridor and exploring red-state viewpoints.
But Sommer has been dishing the latest news from the right for more than a year now, and his newsletter (now at 5,200 subscribers) is a must-read for anyone looking to diversify their media diet.
"They call this epistemic closure, this idea that conservative media was existing without being in dialogue with the rest of the media — which makes it very interesting," Sommer said.
Below is a Q-and-A with Sommer about Right Richter, and what he's learned from more than a year on the conservative media beat. It's been edited for length and clarity.
So, what's Right Richter about? Why conservative media?
It's a weekly roundup of what's going on in conservative media — both the ideas and the conspiracy theories, as well a lot of the personalities. Coming from Texas, I had a lot of exposure to Republican and conservative media. I grew up listening to talk radio and what have you. So I always had a taste for it.
And, about a year ago now, my girlfriend kinda got sick of me telling her about it. So she said, 'Why don't you start a newsletter?' Initially it was just a couple of friends, and now it's a couple of thousand people? (Editor's note: It now has about 5,200 subscribers).
So does your girlfriend subscribe?
Yeah. And she copyedits.
Have you been able to monetize the newsletter yet?
Not yet. Right now, it's more of a calling card for what I can do. And of course, it's very helpful to have a mailing list of roughly 5,000 people. We'd like to monetize in the future.
What in the conservative media landscape led you to start Right Richter? Has it changed at all?
I toyed with the idea for a couple of years — whether it would be a WordPress blog or a Tumblr or, as it ended up being, a TinyLetter. This was in the thick of the presidential campaign, the GOP primary was wrapping up, and Republican politics was in such flux. And I think that's what really draws me to it, is the idea of new things.
What about conservative media do you find so compelling?
I'm very used to the tropes. In the case of somebody like Rush Limbaugh — he's a good broadcaster. He's entertaining. He's a good time. I have some very personal opinions about individual people. I think Sean Hannity is a total snooze to listen to. People like Hugh Hewitt, Dennis Prager — they're just death to me. But Rush Limbaugh, if I'm on a road trip, I'll do a little.
Why aren't more journalists paying attention to conservative news?
They call this epistemic closure, this idea that conservative media was existing without being in dialogue with the rest of the media — which makes it very interesting. For example, after Greg Gianforte attacked Ben Jacobs, the Guardian reporter in Montana — all of these people were on talk radio saying, 'Oh, he's a pajama boy, he's a pajama boy.'
Well, I tweet this, and I realize that people don't know this four-year-old conservative meme of these millennial, liberal men (who) are just sitting around in their pajamas. So it's a very high-context culture, which is one of the reasons it's so enjoyable.
Do you know if you have any conservative subscribers? Have you gotten responses from conservative-leaning people?
Ominously, the famously combative Fox News PR department has subscribed. When I got that, I was like, 'Oh, boy.'
Sometimes, people can get a little fussy when they're not in it. They love to be mentioned. But sometimes I hear, 'Kind of a crappy issue this week.' And I'm like, 'Well, yeah. Because you weren't in it.'
What do you think is behind the persistence of falsehoods like Pizzagate?
I think some of it has to do with a decades-long assault by conservative media on what we would consider the mainstream media. And generally, an attack on independent institutions of truth and authority, including academia, scientists, that sort of thing.
I think you end up in a situation where people are just very closed off to anything that's to the left of someone like Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity. If you've bought into this thing in the '90s, let's say, that Hillary Clinton was having all of these people offed — the Clinton death list — well than perhaps it's not such a stretch that she's running a pedophile ring.
You get moved down this path, and it's very bizarre.
What about the really out-there stuff? There's this whole thing about how Pepe the Frog is actually an Egyptian god.
Gavin McInnes, the co-founder of Vice, has ... organized this fraternal order of Western chauvinists. It's essentially like an adult fraternity, a la "Old School." But they have these strange rituals. They're on the alt-right, I would say, but they're what I would call the "alt-light" in that they aren't explicitly racist or anti-Semitic. It's this hyper-nationalism.
The truly bizarre thing is they have all of these initiations. One is that you get repeatedly punched by fellow Proud Boys while yelling out the names of cereals. So there's all these videos of these guys getting walloped and going, "Raisin Bran!" "Frosted Flakes!" And the idea is that you can keep your head in a fight. It's crazy.
I feel like some of this is driving the divide between the mainstream media and people who are really far on the right. It's almost like they're living in a different existence.
To use Pizzagate as a very extreme example: If you believe that there's this crazy Democratic sex ring, you're going to go crazy. You're going to be like, "Everybody knows about this and no one's doing anything about it? This is outrageous." So these theories have the effect of alienating people from anything outside of right-wing media.
When Fox News retracted the Seth Rich story and Sean Hannity said he would no longer be talking about it for now, I thought this might be a sign that the mainstream conservative media were going to be distancing themselves from these further right or alt-right conspiracy theories.
They're going to persist. Another interesting thing to watch about conservative media is when someone hits a line. It's hard to know where that line will be, but you can really tell when they hit it. In the case of Sean Hannity, he was working on a Fox News story that they later retracted in the case of the Seth Rich thing.
Have you noticed any conservative media outlets that seem to be really good with saying, 'No, that stuff isn't our bread and butter?'
A lot of what we would think of as Never Trump Republican media — National Review, Weekly Standard, that sort of thing — they're just meaningless right now on the right. But it's also, like, "Where have you been? Whoa, there's conspiracy theories on the right? No kidding." It's been a decade-plus. I have the most respect for people who love Trump and they're on the right and refuse to embrace conspiracy theories.