“Feeding the Media Is Like Training a Dog”
What Andrew Breitbart tried to teach me about journalism.
Photograph by Andrew Burton/Getty Images.
Andrew Breitbart would not. Let me. Off. The phone. “You said you were hacked,” he said, blaring out of my receiver. “Who hacked you? Who else has these e-mails?”
Maybe 36 hours had passed since I’d resigned from the Washington Post. Maybe less. The Daily Caller had gotten hold of the JournoList email listserv, in which a group of liberal academics and reporters used to share stories and riff on politics. I’d written a small number of mean and moronic things on the List. The Caller published them. This wasn’t something I really wanted to talk about.
Breitbart was insistent. “Everything I’d ever feared about the media, it’s right here,” he said. “The collusion. All of these reporters agreeing on how to cover a story so it didn’t hurt Obama. It’s disgusting. It’s the corruption of the media. It’s corrupt. This is corrupt. This is corruption.”
He wasn’t ranting; he was commiserating. One of Breitbart’s colleagues had asked me if I could write a column about the scandal for his media watchdog site, Big Journalism. I wrote it. Breitbart wanted more. He was offering up a prize of “$100,000 I don’t have” for the entire JournoList archive. And he was pressing me for details. No, I didn’t know how the emails were leaked, so I shouldn’t have said “hacked.” No, I couldn’t give him anything else.
Breitbart kept me on the phone for a half-hour. I remember the timing because there were peeved dinner hosts sitting behind a door, wondering why I was spending so much time in the room where the food wasn't. There was no easy way to get off a Breitbart phone call, especially not when he wanted something. The Breitbart call would last no less than twice as long as you thought it could. Previous calls had dealt with the merits of the forgotten ‘80s group the Alarm (Breitbart loved them), whether the Ting Tings had another album in them, and whether “Swamp Thing” by the Chameleons was the best song ever written.
So I steered the conversation into trivia, mentioned how rude I was being to my hosts, and finally extracted the Breitbart conversation-closer: “OK, bye.” So ended my only experience as a Breitbart story. He worked his source. He explained that the world was worse off if the story didn’t get out there. He shot up a flare to get the media’s attention—that $100,000 cash prize. “I have two speeds,” he told Slate’s Chris Beam in 2010, “humor and righteous indignation.” He switched between them as fast as he blinked.
In 1995, Breitbart met Matt Drudge and signed up as the Drudge Report’s evening guru. Drudge got famous; Breitbart stayed semi-obscure. Before 2009, he was merely Internet famous. He ran an eponymous news site that fed wire stories to the Drudge Report; he was drafted by the Huffington Post’s founders to reverse engineer Drudge’s traffic-generating site. One of his goals was to let celebrities express themselves, to reveal what was being talked about in the “salons,” what the self-appointed elite thought of everybody else. “I thought it would be great for Arianna and I thought it would be great for the right,” he told me in 2009, “because it gave them source material.” It would be good for everyone if people understood that their news flowed out of a tired, left-wing orthodoxy.
This was an old, old theory of media and politics. Decades ago, The American Spectator’s founder, R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr., coined the term Kultursmog to describe how “our culture is polluted by political ideas, prejudices and false pieties advocated by the soi-disant liberals.” Tom Wolfe, Tyrrell’s biggest booster, was right there with him; Tyrrell was updating what Wolfe had written in “Radical Chic.”
Breitbart, too, had an “obsession with the culture narrative in America.” Politics flowed from culture. Media bias flowed from culture. What did it take for a story to break into the mainstream media? A story had to get right with the culture. If the “Democrat Media Complex” didn’t want it, the story was quashed. “The right figures that talk radio, Fox News, and some independent Internet sites will allow us to distribute our ideas to the masses,” Breitbart wrote in his 2011 book Righteous Indignation (subtitle: “Excuse Me While I Save the World!”). “There’s one problem: those outlets are exponentially outnumbered and outgunned by the Complex.”
He was wrong. On the Web, the “Complex” has less and less control over the news. Breitbart’s projects, starting with Drudge, filtered news from the “Complex” for conservative consumption. His coverage of ACORN turned Breitbart into the kind of celebrity who could hold an hour of prime-time TV, or anchor the morning of a conservative conference when hosts needed to fill the ballroom. He used that celebrity to mock the left as evil and the media as complicit. “My mission isn’t to quash debate,” he wrote in 2011. “It’s to show that the mainstream media aren’t mainstream, that their feigned objectivity isn’t objective, and that open, rigorous debate is a positive good in our society. Man, how I long for the days of Sam Kinison, Richard Pryor, Abbie Hoffman, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, George Carlin, and Lenny Bruce.”
You see where the public Breitbart persona came from. He feuded constantly with liberal watchdog site Media Matters, waging Twitter-based war with MM senior fellow Eric Boehlert. Boehlert’s avatar portrayed him smiling, standing in front of foliage, sporting a beard. Breitbart grew out his beard and took an identical photo of himself. He would retweet, without comment, the anti-Breitbart tweets of others. He irritated liberal activists to no end, a pastime that gave him untold amounts of pleasure. My favorite moment: Breitbart infiltrating a group of anti-Koch protesters in Palm Springs, Calif., his feet lashed to a pair of Rollerblades.
Breitbart made himself irresistible to reporters. He made himself accessible, too. When ambush interviewers wanted to find him, there he was, sitting in a hotel lobby or drinking with possible allies. One of his strategies was to pass a reporter a part of a story, a possible exclusive, to make sure that it wasn’t just foundering on his Big Journalism network. “Feeding the media is like training a dog,” he wrote. “You can’t throw an entire steak at a dog to train it to sit. You have to give it little bits of steak over and over again until it learns.”
What lesson were we supposed to learn? Back when he staged the JournoList intervention/inquisition, he was trying to tell me that the gatekeeper media was dying. No one could control the news cycle anymore. No one trusted the press anymore. Just declare your bias and get to work, because anybody with a camera or an Internet connection can take you out or show you up. I don’t think Breitbart won his culture war. The political media culture we’re living in now, though, is the one he made.
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at email@example.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.