Andrew Breitbart (photo by Gage Skidmore)
How are we supposed to act, and what are we supposed to say–or not say–when a vicious provocateur, a man known as one of the most prolific poisoners of public discourse in America, suddenly drops dead at only 43 years of age? I’ve read the kind words written about Andrew Breitbart by his liberal and libertarian friends, Arianna Huffington and Andrew Sullivan, but I just don’t recognize the private man they describe. While I can certainly sympathize with his wife and young children, and can only imagine how unspeakably sad it would be to lose a father and a husband at the peak of his life, the disconnect between the image of private family man and public persona is too great to ignore. I only know the man by his public deeds.
Is it unreasonable to judge a man by the effect he has had on society? In that sense Andrew Breitbart was a failure. By consistently promoting as journalism such fraudulent performance art as the weird psychosexual video of James O’Keefe playing the part of a gated white man’s idea of a real life “ghetto pimp,” he failed. The fact that O’Keefe’s heavily edited misrepresentation of ACORN’s housing policies actually led a spineless United States Congress to freeze ACORN’s public funding, only makes the failure that much more disgusting. Think about that for a minute: how cynical and self-loathing does one have to be in order to think that this issue–public housing for the poor–is the one to fight against? After all, you’re likely to find one or two shifty oil company executives if you try hard enough. Perhaps being raised in tony Brentwood comes with its ressentiments.
Breitbart’s mentor was Matt Drudge, the muck-raking news assembler and satirical headline writer extraordinaire. Together Drudge and Breitbart discovered how easily one could exploit the ethical loopholes of internet “journalism” in order to make a rhetorical point. They realized early on that if you are merely the assembler of other people’s work you can claim what politicians call “plausible deniability.” And if you’re a snappy headline writer you can get rich!
These two men, more than any other internet figures, would facilitate the creation of an unaccountable web of fear-mongers, birthers and irrational haters of all stripes who could pass off their unedited and often crackpot ideas under the democratic-sounding rubric “citizen journalism.” They would appeal to emotion so as not to get bogged down in messy context (also known as reality). And they found that while research is sometimes necessary, it doesn’t need to be the edifying kind. They preferred that the facts fit their case, but when they didn’t, they just ignored those facts and went with the ones that did (even if they weren’t facts at all). And they were clever enough to never muck up a story with potentially enlightening complexity. Instead, they knew who their audience was: the true believers and the already converted. But every now and then, like the broken clock that happens to be right twice a day, something they published might actually be true and verifiable. After all, Drudge was right about Monica Lewinsky, and Breitbart was right about Anthony Weiner.
What troubles me about this approach isn’t that people like Drudge and Breitbart are sometimes right. What troubles me is that it doesn’t seem to matter when they’re wrong. Whenever one of their falsehoods is exposed, they just chunk something else until it sticks. And business doesn’t seem to suffer in the least.
Breitbart, in particular, had a knack for keeping himself in the news, unlike Drudge, who tends to remain out of the public spotlight. Breitbart not only sought it, he reveled in it, and used it very effectively to sell his websites. I’ve always thought of him as a kind of Malcolm McLaren character for the internet. McLaren was the punk rock impresario and manager of the Sex Pistols whose smirk and attitude suggested more playful put-on than authentic anger. The Sex Pistols were real, for sure, but like the Monkeys, they were manufactured–formed in McLaren’s image. And they were a great product. But by the end of their run, at their last show in San Francisco, Johnny Rotten let the cat out of the bag. Tired of the burden of playing Sex Pistol, he yelled those immortal words into the microphone (as far as I know, his last as a Sex Pistol): “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”
Which brings me to Breitbart’s most egregious, debased and cynical fraud: the case of Shirley Sherrod. In a just world this episode will be his legacy, as well as a cautionary tale for all aspiring internet journalists. When Shirley Sherrod, the Georgia State Director of Rural Development, gave a speech to the NAACP about the need to help farmers no matter the color of their skin, she framed the lesson around a beautiful story about her work with a struggling white farmer. The crux of it was that both she, an African American woman, and the farmer, had to overcome their initial racial tensions and suspicions in order for her to do what was right. In the end, the farmer received his federal assistance and was able to keep his farm.
Someone sent Breitbart a highly edited version of the speech that made it appear that Sherrod was saying that she actively prevented white farmers from receiving government assistance–the exact opposite of what happened. But because the edited video promoted a view of race and government that dovetailed nicely with Breitbart’s paranoid vision of affirmative action (or at least that of many of his readers), he posted it on his website without (apparently) fact-checking it. Furthermore, as with the O’Keefe fraud, even after viewing the unedited version of the speech, which clearly exonerated Sherrod of any hint of racism, Breitbart continued to defend his position that the speech was racist, or at least the audience reacting to it was racist (he kept shifting the goalposts). Bottom line: he made a soul-killing calculation to defend hate.
And Breitbart’s hate, calculated or not, had real human consequences. In another spineless reaction to his punk bullying, Sherrod was fired by the Department of Agriculture. But when real journalists doing actual research found the complete unedited version of the speech, Agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack recanted, and made a public apology to Ms. Sherrod, even going so far as to offer her another job in the department. At least Vilsack, who had screwed up badly in this case, tried to make amends. Breitbart never apologized. In fact, he kept defending himself.
I can’t help but think that if the private Breitbart really was the warm, personable, and humane individual described by such reasonable people as Andrew Sullivan, Arianna Huffington, and Lawrence O’Donnell, then he must have died of a broken heart. Otherwise, I don’t know how anyone other than a sociopath could carry the burden of so many ruinous lies. I don’t think Breitbart was a sociopath. I suspect he was just a self-promoter who peddled poison.
This isn’t to say that he didn’t believe in his product (for argument’s sake, let’s assume that he did). But rather, the Breitbart brand was so extraordinarily bombastic, and married to such a confrontational style of politics, that it would have been bad business for him to enter into any kind of thoughtful analysis–or, God forbid, to change his mind about anything. On his blog at the Atlantic, Ta Nehisi Coates puts this case in its proper human perspective, and in the process gives us a handle on Breitbart’s legacy.