Bill Maher is taking credit for the swift downfall of former Breitbart senior editor Milo Yiannopoulos. In a conversation with the New York Times’ David Itzkoff, the Real Time host—who interviewed Yiannopoulos live on his show last Friday night—argued, “What I think people saw [on my show] was an emotionally needy Ann Coulter wannabe, trying to make a buck off of the left’s propensity for outrage. And by the end of the weekend, by dinnertime Monday, he’s dropped as a speaker at [the Conservative Political Action Conference]. Then he’s dropped by Breitbart, and his book deal falls through.” He added, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” implying that the platform he provided to the alt-right-trafficking provocateur allowed people to see him for who he really is. “You’re welcome.”
In the days since the Maher interview, Yiannopoulos lost his book deal with Simon & Schuster, had his keynote speaking slot at CPAC revoked, and resigned from Breitbart. He’d previously been banned from Twitter for his racist provocations regarding comedian Leslie Jones.
Of course, while the timing is convenient for Maher, his reasoning for Yiannopoulos’ downfall leaves out the giant elephant in the room: the video that leaked over the weekend, and which showed Yiannopoulos explicitly condoning pedophilia. While many have rightly noted that it was hypocritical of CPAC and Simon & Schuster to endorse Yiannopoulos’ past expressions of racism, transphobia, and anti-Semitism only to find these particular comments unacceptable, it remains the case that it was the video (not Maher’s interview) that broke the camel’s back.
Maher defended the interview, in any case, arguing that it isn’t his job to check the falsehoods spewed by his guests. But his attempt to flip the narrative here—the interview was a controversial move upon its announcement and, after it took place, was dismally received—feels blatantly disingenuous.
The fact is that Yiannopoulos didn’t just misrepresent important issues—he lied, often violently and nastily. He said of Leslie Jones, “I said she looked like a dude—she does; I said she was barely literate—which she is,” to which Maher merely nodded and muttered “OK.” He said transgender people are “vastly disproportionately involved in sex crimes,” a completely misleading claim, as Slate’s Matt Dessem explained. And he furthered his commentary by calling transgender identification a “psychiatric disorder” and vowing to “protect” women and children from trans people wanting to use the bathroom corresponding to their gender identity. (While fellow guest Larry Wilmore memorably shot down that last point, Maher had the gall to say that Yiannopoulos’ fear was “not unreasonable.”)
In late 2015, Rick Santorum appeared in a similar one-on-one segment with Maher and wrongly described a survey of climate scientists. While Maher didn’t correct him at the time, he went out of his way in a subsequent episode to expose his lies. “Sorry, Rick,” Maher said at the end of the episode. “But you can’t come on my show and misrepresent the most important issue of our time.”
In this case, however, Maher didn’t find it necessary—or important—to fact-check his guest. He reiterated this by telling Itzkoff, “It’s not my job to hold [Yiannopoulos] accountable to everything he’s ever said or done.”
It is, perhaps, possible that Maher’s softball, dangerously chummy interview helped to spur the kind of reaction necessary to finally push Yiannopoulos out of the bounds of acceptability. But what the Real Time host doesn’t seem to realize is that, if true, this pushback had as much to do with his allowing another First Amendment advocate to conflate hate speech with free speech unchecked as it did with Yiannopoulos’ functioning as an “an emotionally needy Ann Coulter wannabe.” Maher inadvertently revealed just how far into the mainstream a bigoted, ideologically empty troll was allowed to go.