The BuzzFeed Buzz Saw: Why Campaigns Should Fear These Four 20-Somethings

Mar 15, 2016
Originally published on March 15, 2016 9:23 am

For more than a generation, politicians have been on notice that political opponents would hold them accountable through deep dives into their records — a practice called oppo research.

This election cycle, candidates for the White House also have found themselves trying to dodge a buzz saw: BuzzFeed.

Andrew Kaczynski, 26, runs a political research unit for the news organization, scouring the historical record to unearth buried stances taken by leading candidates. A surprising number of the controversies and scoops that surface in televised debates and interviews started with Kaczynski's four-person team, called the K-File.

They pointed out Hillary Clinton's error when she asserted that all four of her grandparents were immigrants. They found the video where Ben Carson said he thought the pyramids were built to store grain.

They watched enough video (an estimated 3,000 hours overall) to know that Donald Trump's claims of consistently opposing the U.S. invasion of Iraq are not supported by the record.

BuzzFeed has grown past its roots as a viral site focused on lists and GIFs, and has earned credibility among more traditional journalists with some strong reporting from the campaign trail. Now BuzzFeed is offering a new multimedia form of accountability journalism: repeatedly revealing the candidates' contradictions, hypocrisies, misstatements — and, at times, flat-out weirdness.

"To, like, truly understand who these people are, you have to, like, absorb all of their information from their life," Kaczynski says.

In recent months, the K-File team has been able to direct the attention of campaigns and the press toward various overlooked facets of candidates' histories. For example, they found a 1996 clip where Hillary Clinton referred to certain children as "superpredators."

The team also unearthed a 1985 video clip in which Bernie Sanders proclaimed admiration for Sandinista leaders in Nicaragua and Fidel Castro's regime in Cuba.

This isn't the first time that Kaczynski's finds have changed the election game. Kaczynski has been honing his digging skills since the 2012 election cycle, when he was a student at St. John's University in the New York City borough of Queens. New to the city and living alone in a Russian family's basement, he spent hours watching old footage of Mitt Romney, picking out clips in an effort to discern who the presidential candidate really was.

Kaczynski found videotape of Romney from years earlier, calling himself a progressive while appealing to Massachusetts voters. He slapped it up on YouTube and tweeted out a link, and soon enough saw citations of it in mainstream media coverage.

This year, Romney instead benefited from Kaczynski's work, referencing research by the BuzzFeed team several times in his recent anti-Trump speech. Trump also spent days fielding pointed questions after Kaczynski found two instances of former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke calling for followers to support Trump's candidacy.

And the K-File team made a meal of Ben Carson, in one instance unearthing this from a commencement address in 1998: "My own personal theory," he said, "is that Joseph built the pyramids in order to store grain; now all the archaeologists think that they were made for the pharaohs' graves ... "

Kaczynski and his team's findings drove both critical and supportive headlines about Carson: In one case, BuzzFeed found evidence supporting much of his account of moral righteousness at Yale, which had been receiving skeptical coverage.

Other news organizations are jumping on his leads. CNN's Don Lemon, for instance, quizzed Clinton on that "superpredators" quote during a recent Democratic debate.

"I think it was a poor choice of words," Clinton replied. "I never used it before, I haven't used it since, I would not use it again."

Katherine Miller, BuzzFeed's political editor, says the dynamic amounts to a one-two punch of old media and new.

"Having it appear on CNN is a good thing," she says. "We don't have access to Donald Trump, we can't get into his events, we don't have press access to him — so we can't grill him on any particular issue."

Andrew Kaczynski loves the hunt, but winces when he thinks about his ultimate prey.

"Sometimes politicians do, like, generally change their opinions on things, and there have been, like, they've moved with the times," he says. "But other times, like, it just comes off as so cynical and political that it can be somewhat disheartening."

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And politicians are generally on notice that their opponents can hold them accountable through deep dives into their records - a practice called oppo research. Now, as NPR's David Folkenflik reports, candidates for the White House have also found themselves trying to dodge a buzz saw called BuzzFeed.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Remember when Hillary Clinton tried to connect with Latino voters by asserting all four of her grandparents were immigrants?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HILLARY CLINTON: All my grandparents, you know, came over here. And...

FOLKENFLIK: Yeah, BuzzFeed disproved that, in part through a check on ancestry.com. The Clinton campaign had to walk it back. Only one grandparent was an immigrant. Donald Trump claims he consistently opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, despite no record of him doing so. BuzzFeed came up with this gem from "The Howard Stern Show" in 2002.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE HOWARD STERN SHOW")

DONALD TRUMP: We have an idea who the enemy is. And a lot of times, the politicians don't want to tell you that.

HOWARD STERN: So are you for invading Iraq?

TRUMP: Yeah, I guess so. You know, I wish it was - I wish the first time it was done correctly.

FOLKENFLIK: So not consistently opposed to the invasion. BuzzFeed has grown past its roots as a viral site focused on lists and gifs. And it has earned credibility among more traditional journalists with some strong political reporting from the campaign trail. Now BuzzFeed is offering a new multi-media form of accountability journalism, repeatedly revealing the candidates' contradictions, hypocrisies, misstatements and, at times, flat-out weirdness. Sometimes its posts stand alone. Sometimes they propel longer reported pieces. Andrew Kaczynski is the leader of BuzzFeed's four-person K-file team.

ANDREW KACZYNSKI: To, like, truly understand who these people are, you have to, like, absorb all of their information from their life.

FOLKENFLIK: Kaczynski wears a baseball cap backwards in the newsroom. His Twitter avatar involves a cartoon BuzzFeed icon smoking a cigar. And at 26 years old, he is the grizzled veteran of the team. One of his colleagues recently earned a degree from Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism. BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith jokes that won't be held against him. Kaczynski and the K-File team have collectively watched an estimated 3,000 hours of video during this political season and filed hundreds of requests under the Freedom of Information Act.

KACZYNSKI: And once you've done that with all of these people, whether it's Hillary Clinton or, like, Donald Trump - when things happen, you can, like, very quickly connect them.

FOLKENFLIK: Those connections have had an effect. Mitt Romney's speech denouncing Trump relied several times on the research generated by BuzzFeed's K-File team. Trump spent days fielding pointed questions when Kaczynski found two instances where former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke called for followers to support Trump's candidacy. Democrat Bernie Sanders found himself on the defensive over 30-year-old comments on a Vermont public-access channel praising the Castro regime in Cuba. And the K-File team made a meal of Ben Carson, in one instance unearthing this from a commencement address in 1998.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

BEN CARSON: My own personal theory is that Joseph built the pyramids in order to store grain. Now, all the archaeologists think that they were made for the pharaoh's graves. But...

FOLKENFLIK: Might want to go with the archaeologists on that one. Kaczynski's approach evolved while a student at St. John's University in Queens, N.Y. during the last presidential cycle.

KACZYNSKI: I was just very interested in, like, learning who is Mitt Romney behind whatever his campaign rhetoric is - who he was at the time. And it was very much like going through it and picking out what other people would find interesting as well.

FOLKENFLIK: So you're in your room. You're watching all of this stuff for hours. And your friends are saying what exactly?

KACZYNSKI: I don't really have friends. I'd just moved to New York. I was living in a Russian family's basement. So no one was really saying anything. My girlfriend was, like, very surprised that it was getting pick-up.

FOLKENFLIK: So at least she's like, you're a dork, but you've got some kind of logic behind it.

KACZYNSKI: Yeah, yeah, basically.

FOLKENFLIK: Kaczynski found tape of Romney years earlier calling himself a progressive while appealing to Massachusetts voters. He slapped it up on YouTube and tweeted out a link. This time around, mainstream news organizations often jump on BuzzFeed's leads.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DON LEMON: Secretary Clinton, in 1996 you used the term super-predators to describe some young kids. Some feel like it was racial code. Was it? And where you wrong to use that term?

FOLKENFLIK: That's CNN's Don Lemon basing a question at a Democratic debate on a K-File report. Clinton's reaction...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CLINTON: I think it was a poor choice of words. I never used it before. I haven't used it since. I would not use it again.

FOLKENFLIK: Katherine Miller says that the dynamic amounts to a one-two punch of old media and new. She's BuzzFeed's political editor.

KATHERINE MILLER: Having it appear on CNN is a good thing because, you know, we don't have access to Donald Trump. We can't get into his events. We don't have press access to him. So we can't grill him on any particular issue.

FOLKENFLIK: Yet millions of Americans read BuzzFeed.

MILLER: We've been able to do posts that a lot of people see in a lot of ways, particularly through mobile on Facebook. And in that way, we're kind of getting the best of both worlds in terms of being able to have that presented to a candidate and also be read by a lot of people.

FOLKENFLIK: Andrew Kaczynski loves the hunt but winces when thinking about his prey.

KACZYNSKI: Sometimes politicians do, like, generally change their opinions on things. And there have been, like - they have moved with the times. But other times, like, it just comes off as so cynical and political that it can be somewhat disheartening.

FOLKENFLIK: The funny thing is, if you ask Kaczynski who his audience is, he'll tell you it's the politicians themselves. So folks, you've been warned. David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.