Shut Up Everybody
Why conservatives and liberals are ratcheting up their monitoring of the media.
The de-front-paging of Andrew Breitbart from the Huffington Post is the latest of several successful Color of Change campaigns with a 1-2-3 strategy: Pick "race-baiting" conservative. Demand that the conservative lose his platform. Melt the phones and inboxes until victory. (The group is still featuring the Breitbart scalp on its website, with a picture of the man looking like Saturn devouring his son.)
Breitbart's not happy, but only some of his animus is directed at Color of Change, a racial-diversity umbrage machine co-founded in 2005 by James Rucker and Van Jones. It had marshaled 43,000 calls to HuffPo demanding that the front page be Breitbart-free, but that's what it does; that's not what offends him. He's more irritated at the way the story was covered. On CNN, he points out, Howard Kurtz didn't even mention that there was a pattern, that ABC News had bounced Breitbart from an election show after a Color of Change campaign.
"We're two for two against Breitbart," says Rucker.
But that's the point—it's a campaign. As far as Breitbart's concerned, Kurtz had soft-pedaled that story, too.
"His piece was such a hack job, it was ridiculous," Breitbart says.
The irony is that one of the two items Breitbart wrote for the Huffington Post—the not-at-all-controversial items that had nothing to do with the de-front-paging—was about NPR's terrified response to James O'Keefe's sting videos of two of their executives. NPR, Breitbart wrote, was "collateral damage" in the war over coverage of the Tea Party movement. And that's basically how Color of Change and the rest of the left-wing organizations who wage campaigns against conservatives think of Breitbart.
"We see his role as going out there and creating misinformation from scratch," says Eric Boehlert, a senior fellow at Media Matters for America who has waged a long, mostly Twitter-based campaign of traded insults with Breitbart. (At one point in 2010, Breitbart grew out his beard, stood in front of foliage, snapped a photo, and changed his Twitter avatar to look like Boehlert's.) "He's not passing on Republican talking points or something like that, but in general, he's part of the GOP noise machine."
There is a liberal campaign aimed at getting conservatives off the air, off the Huffington Post front page, off Fox News. It's as blatant as the conservative campaign to dismantle the liberal media.
The blatancy is actually becoming the point. On Saturday, after but unrelated to the Breitbart incident, Politico's Ben Smith reported that Media Matters for America had "all but abandoned its monitoring of newspapers and other television networks and is narrowing its focus to Fox and a handful of conservative websites, which its leaders view as political organizations and the 'nerve center' of the conservative movement."
Media Matters had always packaged itself differently than the right's Media Research Center and Accuracy in Media. It said it was looking for misinformation, not bias. But in 2009, there was a sense that the left was getting rolled and ambushed. (The forced White House departure of Van Jones in September 2009 was seen as the last straw.) Conservatives had always claimed that Media Matters was an attack-dog group, not an accuracy group—so it became an attack group. Conservatives claimed that the group was funded by George Soros when it wasn't, so in October 2010 it accepted $1 million from Soros, who asked that Media Matters "hold Fox News accountable." Slowly, Media Matters became what the right claimed it had always been. It was like watching Bruce Banner get picked on until his eyes turned green and he started smashing things.
Nobody has explained this better, or confirmed the fears of Breitbart and his ilk, quite like Van Jones. Last September, a year after his White House exit, he gave a speech at the Facing Race conference that was captured—of course—by Breitbart.tv. In it, Jones bemoaned the fact that liberals "got 60 votes in the Senate" and "Speaker Pelosi, not some right-wing Democrat," yet still couldn't pass most of their agenda.
"There's other systems of power that we were not taking seriously," said Jones. "They have to do with the media. They have to do with the racial discourse in the media. That's the next frontier."
You can see why Breitbart would look at that, and the October 2010 campaign to get him off ABC, and this month's Huffington Post campaign, and accuse the left of a plot against conservatives with him as collateral damage.
"This has nothing to do with Breitbart's views or his language," says James Rucker, Color of Change's co-founder. "It's about a level of deceit from Breitbart that's basically anti-journalism. If you're a legitimate news outlet, you want folks that deal with facts. You don't want someone like Breitbart in your roster. And there are consequences to what he does, because he's able to take down Shirley Sherrod. ACORN, for all its faults, was the biggest registrar of low-income black voters, and he takes that down."
Breitbart, who tried and failed to resolve the Color of Change issue with the Huffington Post last week, says that the organization buckled because its editors were buckling. That's the dream. That's the bizarre version of what Media Research Center is able to do, and what its offshoot, the Parents Television Council, is able to do, when they hound the media for publishing left-wing opinion or flimsy stories that go easy on liberals.
This reality is becoming pretty transparent. We know that partisan stuff— controversial stuff—is good for ratings and good for clicks. We know who's working the refs to make the media pay a price for those ratings and those clicks. That doesn't mean we have to like it.
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet at him @daveweigel.
Photograph of Andrew Breitbart by Win McNamee/Getty Images.