Andrew Breitbart, conservative commentator and founder of the websites Big Government, Big Media, and Big Journalism, died unexpectedly early Thursday morning at the age of 43. As Slate's David Weigel reports," I chatted with Breitbart on Saturday, in Michigan, where he was giving a speech to an Americans for Prosperity conference, and he was as hyped-up and funny as I'd ever seen him." In 2010, Christopher Beam profiled Breitbart. The article is reprinted below.
The first time I saw Andrew Breitbart, he was publicly insulting a reporter. "Kate Zernike of the New York Times, are you in the room?" he asked the crowd. "Are you in the room?" Heads turned. Apparently not. "You're despicable," Breitbart said. "You're a despicable human being."
Zernike's offense: an item posted on a Times blog in which she said a speaker at the Conservative Political Action Conference, where Breitbart was also speaking, had mocked President Obama in "racial tones" by adopting a "Chris Rock voice." Breitbart disagreed. "She's the one that correlated his voice to Chris Rock. He happens to be from Brooklyn! He's using his voice!" Laughter and applause. "This is what these creeps do," Breitbart said. "I'm sick of having cocktails with them. I'm now at war with them. No more cocktails."
Ritual denunciations of the mainstream media, as well as personal invective, are not uncommon at CPAC. (It's where Ann Coulter famously insinuated that John Edwards was gay.) Even so, Breitbart stands out. Conservative figures may rail against the media, but they rarely call out reporters by name. They rely on those reporters, after all. It's one thing to toss fans some vague media-bashing red meat. It's another to deliberately alienate individual journalists in terms usually reserved for murder trials.
In the past year Andrew Breitbart has gone from Internet famous—for years he served as Matt Drudge's second-in-command, then in 2005 he helped found the Huffington Post—to famous famous. Now, with a budding eponymous Internet empire of his own, he's using it to inflame the left, one bilious, apoplectic, vein-popping, pseudo-comedic rant at a time. The hard part is figuring out who the joke is on.
Since January 2009, Breitbart has launched three Web sites—Big Hollywood, Big Government, and Big Journalism—each a conservative critique of their respective industries. Big Hollywood broke the story that got a flack for the National Endowment for the Arts tossed from the Obama administration. Big Government posted the now-famous videos that showed two young conservatives, James O'Keefe and Hannah Giles, entering several offices of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, better known as ACORN, posing as a pimp and a prostitute looking to open a brothel for underage, illegal immigrant girls.
Meanwhile, Breitbart's face and voice—a younger John Lithgow who sounds like Rush Limbaugh if he surfed—are everywhere, at least in the conservative media. He's a regular on Fox News. He has guest-hosted Dennis Miller's radio show and does frequent spots on Hannity. His sparring match with MSNBC's David Shuster in January, after O'Keefe was arrested for entering Sen. Mary Landrieu's New Orleans office under false pretenses in what the FBI claimed was a phone tampering scheme, introduced him to liberals as that guy who yells even more than Chris Matthews. His Twitter feed, meanwhile, is a dutiful liveblog of his unfiltered brain firings. "I've never met a person as depraved as Eric Boehlert," Breitbart tweeted one night at 2 a.m., referring to his vocal critic at the liberal watchdog group Media Matters for America. "What a sickening variant of the human form. His mother must throw up thinking of him." Breitbart also enjoys retweeting his critics' most derisive comments. This recent message is typical: "RT @ johnandrewwalsh: RT @ andrewbreitbart I am positively DRENCHED in semen!" At any given moment, the odds that Andrew Breitbart is emitting words are roughly 9 in 10.
Breitbart is a pundit scientifically calibrated to piss off liberals. By Saturday morning, after his speech in the main hall at CPAC, Breitbart is trailing flipcams. Most of them are toted by liberal journalists looking to grill him on ACORN. Breitbart gladly submits. "Are you insane?" he asks Salon's Mike Madden. "Why don't you care about ACORN?" "Fuck. You. John. Podesta," he intones, leaning over to speak directly into a reporter's notebook as if it were a microphone. (Podesta, president of the liberal Center for American Progress, also sits on ACORN's Advisory Council.) He calls The Nation's Max Blumenthal, who criticized O'Keefe for attending a panel with a white supremacist, "the most despicable life form I've ever seen." (Watch clips here, here, here, here, and here, or the Slate V compilation below.) The videos serve as the ultimate Breitbart Rorschach test. To the left, they expose Breitbart once and for all as a blubbering, red-faced freakazoid. To the right, they're the testimony of a telegenic hero finally standing up to the liberal media.
For Breitbart, bringing down the mainstream media isn't just a crusade. It's practically a civil rights issue—only more fun. He considers himself a journalist-slash-entertainer, an Edward R. Murrow by way of the Merry Pranksters. What makes him different is that he's offensive in every sense of the word. "My entire business model is to go on offense," he said. "They don't like our aggressiveness." He knows how he's seen by the liberal establishment. "They want to portray me as crazy, unhinged, unbalanced. OK, good, fine. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you."
As media criticism, it's not subtle. But then, neither is Andrew Breitbart. As a six-word corporate motto, however—a kind of elevator pitch for the whole Breitbart enterprise—it is genius. As long as his message is getting through, Breitbart doesn't care if you think he's an asshole. Assholes get attention.
"Media is everything. It's everything." It was the first night of CPAC, and Breitbart was having a heart-to-heart with O'Keefe at an after party at Morton's Steakhouse in Washington.
When O'Keefe first approached Breitbart with a handful of ACORN videos over the summer, Breitbart plotzed. But his enthusiasm didn't come from wanting to expose ACORN. "That was James and Hannah's bugaboo," he said. Breitbart wanted to expose the media. "When they came to me, I told them, 'You don't understand, you're about to prove my thesis,' " he said. He knew the mainstream media would resist covering the story, so he formulated a strategy to force them to cover it.
The idea was simple: Post the videos one at a time. Never say how many videos there are altogether. And space them out in such a way that ACORN's inevitable backtracking would be contradicted by future videos. It worked. The first video posted on Sept. 10. After the second video went up, ACORN CEO Bertha Lewis said that O'Keefe and Giles's ruse had failed at several other ACORN offices, including in New York. The next day, Big Government posted the New York video. It turned out the pair had not been thrown out at all. They had been instructed to, among other things, bury their sex money in a tin in their back yard.
The New York Times did cover the story. But only after Congress had already voted to rescind federal funds from ACORN. The paper's tardiness earned it a slap on the wrist from its ombudsman, Clark Hoyt. Breitbart's main beef, though, is that the Times didn't cover ACORN—it covered the coverage. The reporter, Scott Shane, treated the videos and ACORN's response as a political spat between two warring factions, rather than as an exposé of corruption that merited further digging.
Of course, it's the prerogative of the Times to decide what's published in the Times. Maybe it just didn't think the ACORN scandal was that big a deal. (Shane said as much to Hoyt.)Plus, when the publication breaking the news is itself fresh-faced and unproven, as Big Government was, the big dogs are always skeptical. Breitbart doesn't buy it. "It's one of the biggest stories ever," he says, comparing it to Watergate and Abu Ghraib. "It's a big-ass story."
Nor do ethical objections persuade him. By Times standards, the ACORN story was ill-gotten. The Times doesn't allow its reporters to misrepresent themselves. Why would it follow up on a story by a news organization that does? Breitbart dismisses this as pointy-headed Columbia Journalism School twaddle: "If Blackwater said, 'We know who raped those Iraqi girls, but we covered that up,' and somebody got an internship at Blackwater and exposed them, do you think they'd be asking whether the person got the internship under illegitimate means? … This is what journalists do. They get the story."
The best measurement of the ACORN videos' impact may be the lengths to which Breitbart's opponents have gone to discredit them. Follow the back-and-forth closely, and you'll quickly find yourself deep down a rabbit hole of charges, countercharges, and counter-countercharges over such details as whether O'Keefe went into ACORN's offices dressed as a pimp or in business casual. (Answer: business casual. But critics say the credits montage used in each video, in which he wears a fur jacket and sunglasses, intentionally misleads viewers. They also fault the normally correction-obsessed Breitbart for failing to correct news stories that misreported that O'Keefe wore the pimp costume all along.)
To Breitbart, what O'Keefe was wearing is beside the point. What matters is the behavior of the ACORN employees. Still, to placate his critics, Breitbart has offered to release the complete, unedited video footage—but only if Boehlert or Podesta agrees to watch it with him in public, followed by a Q&A. (Breitbart has already released the complete transcripts and audio.) Breitbart knows they won't take him up on the offer. But that's the point: His job is to extend the story. To drag it out as long as he can. That's why he won't just release the full videos online. "Because no one would cover it," Breitbart said. "Now the more they come after me, the bigger the story gets, the more the pressure builds. … I'm admitting it publicly: I'm fucking with you."
Put another way, he advocates fiercely for his stories. He waged a long-running war with the Washington Post, for example, over its inaccurate description of the charges against O'Keefe. (The results of his efforts can be seen at the top of this piece.) He urges other conservatives to tape their conversations with reporters, in case they get misquoted. "I will skullfuck anyone who misrepresents what I say," he said.
Journalistic objectivity isn't impossible, per Breitbart. It's just extremely rare. "I've met many journalists who impress me with their ability to play it straight," he said. "I think they're the exception to the rule." Most journalists will claim to be objective. But "out of the other side of mouth, they say they got into it because of social justice and economic equality. It's obviously a contradiction."
Is there any publication he considers objective? "Playboy," he said.