Update, 5/26/2015: On Monday, Twitter permanently suspended Chuck Johnson’s Twitter account, as well as another account, @citizentrolling, he set up in response to the initial suspension. The suspension came in response to a tweet Johnson sent out asking for help “taking out” activist civil rights activist DeRay McKesson. (Johnson has said he was merely referring to his reporting and was not making a physical threat.) You can read his lawyer’s letter to Twitter demanding immediate reinstatement here. Read the original piece below:
Hours before I was due to hop in a rental car to drive to his home last week, Charles C. Johnson laid down a new ground rule: He would talk only if I promised not to mention he lived in Fresno. The internet was full of crazy people, after all.
We’d originally arranged to meet weeks before he launched a one-man crusade to out “Jackie,” the woman at the heart of Rolling Stone‘s flawed investigation into campus rape at the University of Virginia. There were already many other examples of his antagonistic brand of online dirt-flinging to discuss. Johnson, a tireless self-promoter, seemed eager to speak—or spar—face-to-face; he even offered to let me stay at his place in California. Now he was asking for privacy.
It was an odd request, considering that the Washington Post had just reported where Johnson lived? and his location was posted on his Twitter page at the time. Not to mention that he had recently published the home addresses of two New York Times reporters? and he’d just spent two days gleefully airing personal information about a woman he’d never met. (“I’m giving Jackie until later tonight to tell the truth and then I’m going to start revealing everything about her past,” he’d taunted her on Twitter.) Johnson was asking for a degree of respect that he relishes in denying others.
I didn’t agree to Johnson’s ground rule, but he agreed to see me anyway. After five hours in the car, I arrived at my motel to find a fresh set of emails. We could talk, but only if we didn’t go anywhere near his house. On second thought, we couldn’t meet in person at all—he’d traipsed off to LA for some meetings and was planning on staying for another day to do a TV interview. I’d already rearranged my flights after he had forgotten I was coming. Now I’d been snubbed for Larry King.
“I suppose there’s some people who think it’s ironic or whatever,” Johnson said about his desire to conceal his whereabouts when we finally spoke by phone. “I’m just trying not to make it easy on people. There’s a reason I own several guns.”
Johnson had almost immediately called BS on Rolling Stone‘s investigation after it was published in late November. (“That UVA story about that gang rape never happened. We all know it. Why can’t we say it?” he tweeted.) Like most of the story’s skeptics, Johnson zeroed in on its central anecdote, in which a student named Jackie described a brutal gang rape at a fraternity. Johnson hammered the article’s author, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, searching for holes in her previous reporting and wondering whether she was friends with her former University of Pennsylvania classmate, journalistic fabricator Stephen Glass.? After RS conceded that it had found “discrepancies” in Erdely’s reporting, Johnson offered a cash reward to anyone who could tell him who Jackie really was.
Two days later, Johnson published what he claimed was Jackie’s full name at his website, GotNews.com. Then he published photos from her “rape obsessed” Pinterest page. He told me that he paid $200 for the information that led to her.
It was a characteristic performance from the 26-year-old provocateur, who is impatient with journalistic ethics and possessed with an insatiable appetite for personal destruction. He is a subject of mockery on the left and the right due to his blustery self-promotion (“I’m making a list, checking it twice, gonna find out who is naughty…”), baseless speculation (he thinks Barack Obama may be secretly gay), and regular face plants. Last week, he mistakenly claimed to have found a photo of Jackie at an anti-rape rally; it was someone else. Still, he defended his “batting average.” (The woman in the photo says she will sue Johnson.) But he is adept at digging up dirt on public and private figures, and even when he’s at his most egregious, he’s hard to ignore.
His other recent antics have included suing for access to Mike Brown’s juvenile records, making the unproven claim that the Ferguson police shooting victim had once been charged in a second-degree murder.? Citing police sources, he accused “street thug” Eric Garner, the Staten Island man who died after being put in a chokehold by a New York City police officer, of domestic abuse. He incorrectly reported that New Jersey had an Ebola case; he then reported that a nurse quarantined in the state was a “left-wing Democrat.” He hijacked the Mississippi Republican primary by offering $1,000 for photos of Sen. Thad Cochran’s wife, who was in a nursing home. And he’s trained his sights on other journalists, such as Wesley Lowery of the Washington Post, whom Johnson said was “obsessed with race” and had shown “overt friendliness in his reporting about Michael Brown.” Johnson revealed that Lowery had once received a speeding ticket. “We are going to use auctions to set the price on the head of each journalist we take down,” he tweeted.
Besides Twitter, Johnson’s primary platform is GotNews, a crowd-funded startup he launched in early 2014 after denouncing the “stenography” of traditional insider media. “I don’t do the ‘being a bitch for the establishment’ thing which a lot of Republicans do,” he told me. “I go where the story leads.” While he claims to be an “equal opportunity debunker,” Johnson’s stories often lead back to familiar targets—lefty activists, “lying women and thuggish black men,” elitist journalists, and the mainstream conservatives he believes have screwed him over.
“It’d be very easy to write a ‘Fuck Charles Johnson’ piece, and in many respects, however you write the story, it doesn’t hurt me either way,” Johnson told me. “You may decide, for instance, what many people on the left and the right think—that I’m a sociopath and blah blah blah. Or, on the other hand, that I’m ‘working on some new entity that’s going to be controversial.’ There’s a degree to which, however you turn the lens, both things will be true.”
The Rolling Stone-UVA debacle is the perfect scandal for Johnson, he explained on Twitter, because it combines his “three favorite types of frauds: college administrators, campus feminists, & fake journalists.”? It was a clue to Johnson’s evolution: His current role stems directly from his days as a campus gadfly, the conservative kid who was obsessed with tweaking political correctness and fixated on grudges and gossip.
The chip on his shoulder dates back to at least high school, when Johnson, the son of two teachers from a working-class part of Boston, attended prestigious Milton Academy on a scholarship. He gravitated toward politics, and when someone on a Young Republicans online forum posted a quote from former Education Secretary Bill Bennett positing that aborting black babies would drive down the crime rate, Johnson sprang to his friend’s defense. “Despite being called a Nazi repeatedly, I defended free speech and said that given what I had read about the African subcontinent and the successes of black Americans (despite their high crimes [sic] rates), I found myself rather privileged to be living in America,” he later wrote.
In the ensuing controversy, which drew the attention of the Boston Globe, minority students took a vow of silence, classes were canceled, and the school held a special assembly to screen the movie Crash. It had all the trappings of a Johnson controversy—an inflammatory comment involving race, his own sense of persecution, and an empty threat of legal action (he believed the school had not treated him fairly, but opted not to sue).
Johnson came into his own as a right-wing enfant terrible at Claremont McKenna College, a Southern California liberal-arts school, which he attended between 2007 and 2011. He wrote a blog called the Claremont Conservative, where he pilloried campus figures in increasingly hostile fashion, getting himself named “Most likely to take over the world” by the student newspaper and becoming infamous enough to inspire a Twitter account? dedicated to ending his “reign of terror.”
I spoke with several former classmates who knew Johnson but were afraid to go on the record for fear of becoming his next target. Those concerns were probably not misplaced. Last week, Johnson posted an open letter on Facebook to his fellow Claremont alums, telling them to bug off: “Now that I have some measure of notoriety and success, I do not owe you phone calls or responses to your condescending ‘concern’ for me. Please know that most of these emails will be deleted or archived. Some will be openly mocked. Others may be retweeted or written about in future things.”
In one typical dustup, the editor of the student newspaper, Ross Boomer, deleted a comment Johnson had left on a pro-gay-marriage article. In a subsequent comment, he said he’d been censored because Boomer was gay. At the time, Boomer had come out to his college friends but not to his family, and he believed that Johnson was trying to out him. Johnson told me the incident has been “exaggerated,” and that he didn’t realize Boomer’s sexuality was private because he had been “like running around being gay on campus.”
Another student newspaper editor named Michael Wilner got it even worse. Johnson published a series of posts rehashing Wilner’s run-ins with the law over a couple of misdemeanors. (His record has since been expunged.) Even after they had both graduated, Johnson wouldn’t let it go: In 2013, Johnson wrote an article for the Daily Caller? in which he reprised his claims against Wilner, who had since become the Washington, DC, bureau chief of the Jerusalem Post. In March, he tweeted that Wilner should be banned from Saudi Arabia due to his past. Wilner declined to comment for this article.
Johnson’s biggest target at Claremont was Bassam Frangieh, a professor of Arabic best known for teaching poetry. Johnson accused him of supporting Hezbollah and Hamas, based on a trove of writings and petitions that Johnson had “translated by three different translators at considerable personal expense.?” He added that all of his allegations had been reviewed before publication by his mentor, Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz, for whom he had worked as a researcher when he was in high school. Asked about Johnson, Dershowitz responded in an email, “We disagree about many issues but I admire his principled opposition to all things politically correct and his determination to be heard and to make a difference.” Frangieh, who is still at Claremont, declined to comment for this story.
The lesson from Johnson’s college years was a valuable one: Vendettas go viral. His stories, which fit neatly into the conservative narrative that diversity and political correctness are concealing the truth about campus leftists run amok, got him noticed. He wrote about Frangieh for National Review? and Breitbart, and landed an internship at the Wall Street Journal on the strength of his Claremont Conservative scoops.
Johnson’s post-graduation freelance pieces for Breitbart, the Daily Caller, and Glenn Beck’s the Blaze were united by a promise that somewhere out there existed some piece of dirt—a video, a thesis, a long-lost gay roommate—that, if revealed, would knock down the facade of lies created by the liberal establishment and its media allies. His biggest scoop was a report suggesting that then-Newark Mayor Cory Booker didn’t actually live in Newark. Booker knocked the story down by releasing corroborating documents, and the Caller took a hit for not disclosing that Johnson had been a paid opposition researcher for a PAC supporting Booker’s opponent in the New Jersey Senate race.
Johnson’s investigations often hinged on race. He reported that Obama had told his law school students there is “institutional racism” in American society. He dug up an essay that Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro wrote about his mother, Rosie, a Chicano activist. Johnson discovered that United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice had once argued at Stanford that white people should have to study black history. He uncovered that Mo Cowan, an African American lawyer who had been temporarily appointed to Sen. John Kerry’s vacant Senate seat in 2013, had once helped organize “takeovers” in which black people would go to Boston bars and restaurants and…buy drinks.
He also continued to take on other journalists. He penned a report for the Daily Caller on David Kirkpatrick, after the New York Times reporter published a lengthy investigation into the 2012 attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya. According to Johnson, Kirkpatrick had been busted for public nudity while he was a student at Princeton. That was true, but much of the rest of the piece, which detailed Kirkpatrick’s collegiate hijinks and an appearance in Playgirl, was cribbed from a satirical Daily Princetonian story. Johnson told me that he has trouble recognizing satire because he is mildly autistic. Though he personally wasn’t worked up about Benghazi, he was smart enough to know, as a contractor getting paid by the click, that the Caller‘s audience was.
“I was with Charles when he was right (which was usually) and with him when he was wrong (which was more frequently than is optimal),” writes Tim Cavanaugh, Johnson’s former story editor at the Caller, in an email. Cavanaugh, now at National Review Online, does not hesitate to praise Johnson: “He is a constantly interesting journalist who is worth paying attention to more often than not. He was well worth the effort and cash the Caller put in for his work.” In an email, Daily Caller founder and Editor in Chief Tucker Carlson confirmed that Johnson had a freelancing arrangement and was not a full-time employee, but otherwise declined to comment.
But Johnson increasingly felt like he was being constrained by his editors at the Caller and other sites, who encouraged him to tone down his tweets. In early 2014, after the Caller stopped publishing him, he devoted himself to working full time on GotNews. His first big project was in Mississippi, where Republican Sen. Thad Cochran was facing a tough primary against a tea party challenger in the summer. Johnson paid a black pastor to allege that Cochran had illegally relied on black Democratic voters in the Republican primary. The pastor later recanted; Cochran was reelected in November. Johnson’s still pissed off about it; he told me he’d like GotNews to “curb-stomp” mainstream Republicans like former party chair Haley Barbour, with whom he’d clashed with in Mississippi.
Those attitudes and tactics have alienated Johnson from his conservative colleagues. A Washington Examiner story last Wednesday featured a half-dozen conservative writers venting about the damage Johnson is doing to right-wing journalism. The Daily Caller‘s Matt K. Lewis has argued that writing about Johnson would only encourage “more bloggers threatening to expose the identities of an alleged rape victims [sic].” Yet perhaps no outlet has done more to encourage Johnson’s habits than the Caller, which recently published a rambling speculation about Lowery’s racial identity that was inspired by the GotNews report on his speeding ticket.
It’s a mistake to think that Charles Johnson came out of nowhere. He honed his style as a regular contributor for the Caller and Andrew Breitbart’s website. His first book, an ode to President Calvin Coolidge, was blurbed by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Fox News pundit Michelle Malkin, and torture-memo author and University of California-Berkeley law professor John Yoo. His stuff was featured on Fox News, and he spoke at the Heritage Foundation. At first, when he started scoring Drudge links and embarrassing Democrats, Johnson’s escapades were very useful to a lot of people in conservative circles. Now no one knows how to make him go away.
In a series of phone conversations, Johnson was civil, trying, perhaps a little too hard, to frame his work as a nonpartisan quest to “disrupt” the powers that be. This was not the unhinged Johnson of Twitter, who had justified doxing Jackie by noting that a friend of his had called her a “lying bitch.” He had a ready explanation for this—it’s performance art. “On Twitter, like, I have a certain kind of personality, a pugnaciousness, like an alter ego,” he said. “You know, like when Spider-Man puts on the costume, for instance, he’s no longer a mild-mannered photographer. He has an attitude. I do that because I want my content to really go viral.”
But even a put-on online persona can have real-life consequences for the people sucked into its maw. Twitter’s policies state that users who “engage in targeted abuse or harassment” are subject to permanent suspension. Johnson’s Rolling Stone-UVA tweets and the stories they link to have prompted a calls for his account to be suspended. It’s happened three times already, if only temporarily. His most recent suspension came after GotNews published the home addresses of Campbell Robertson and Julie Bosman, New York Times reporters who had sinned in Johnson’s eyes by publishing the name of the street on which Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson lived. After the GotNews story went up, both reporters received threats and had to leave their homes. (An Illinois woman named Julie Bosma also received threats.) Johnson’s defense was that he didn’t directly post the reporters’ information on Twitter, but only linked to it on GotNews. The stunt prompted New York Times media columnist David Carr to dub Johnson a “troll on steroids.”
While Johnson’s rise was made possible by new and old conservative institutions, he now exists in the no-man’s-land occupied by Gamergate trolls and fellow troublemaker James O’Keefe. That’s fine with him. GotNews functions as a mash-up of Reddit and TaskRabbit, with Johnson offering his network of “independent researchers” cash bounties for solving “puzzles” he throws at them—like taking down Jackie. “You get all these hobbyists and amateurs and people out there who have a lot of time on their hands, many of whom are retired, or they’re a mother, their kids are sleeping while they’re researching, they’re stay-at-home moms, or they’re college students, or they’re unemployed, or this is their moonlighting thing,” he explained. “All those people are starting to find one another, and many of those people are starting to find one another through me.” (He runs a side business, CCJ Strategies, which does oppo research for companies and campaigns. He hopes to integrate it with GotNews in the future.)
When we spoke, Johnson was thinking about how to turn his current momentum into something more sustainable. He was in Southern California for a series of meetings with potential investors. He sounded almost drunk on success, boasting that he wanted to do for conservatives what Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” comments had done for the left in 2012. “The day Jeb Bush announces for president is the day I publish his mistress’s name,” he promised on Twitter. (He considers Cruz the “least dirty” of the 2016 field.)
With his site’s traffic spiking and the Rolling Stone story crumbling more every day, Johnson’s head was spinning with possibilities. “I wanna do a Kickstarter for leaks,” he told me. “Right now there’s essentially no mechanism to financially reward whistleblowers…Basically there’s no mechanism to reward those people for giving up the information. And I want to kind of fix that.” It sounded almost altruistic. But Johnson’s vision would essentially monetize the kinds of privacy invasion and harassment that mark the dark side of citizen muckraking and have made the internet such an unwelcoming place for many people—particularly young women.
And the kind of petty score-settling Johnson specializes in goes both ways. On Tuesday, Deadspin floated an old college rumor that Johnson had once defecated on a dormitory floor at Claremont. When Johnson tweeted on Friday that he’s considering a run for Congress, the first reply suggested his campaign slogan could be “Outing rape victims and pooping on the floor since 2014. Vote for me.” Of course, I had to ask him about the allegations. “For the record, I did not shit on the seventh floor, but I wish I did,” he told me.
And sometime after he revealed Jackie’s name, he began to worry about the deranged critics who had begun doxing his family and sending him threatening messages. For a moment, Charles Johnson had gotten a taste of what it’s like to feel the wrath of Charles Johnson.