George Packer on the Fast, Fun, Short Career of Andrew Breitbart

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
June 4 2013 5:41 AM

The Citizen Journalist

The fast, fun career of Andrew Breitbart.

(Continued from Page 2)

The terrain Breitbart sauntered onto was diminishing, crumbling, wide open to him. Pillars of the Old Media were turning to infotainment and opinion journalism to save money and hold on to a distracted audience. Reporters were spooked because Jayson Blair made up stories in the Times and Dan Rather aired phony documents on 60 Minutes, while watchdogs on the right and left barked ferociously at their every hint of bias, and upstarts of the New Media jeered the frightened gatekeepers, until no one knew who was right and what was true and no one trusted the press and the press stopped trusting itself.

It was the perfect environment for Breitbart to stake his own claim. In 2005—the year Rather was sacked by CBS, the Wall Street Journal reduced its width from 15 to 12 inches, the Los Angeles Times cut another 62 newsroom jobs, and Arianna, by then a liberal convert, started Huffington Post with Andrew’s help (he later claimed to have thought it up as a fifth column in the complex)—Breitbart.com launched. It was a news aggregation site for wire service stories (you could bash the Old Media and feed off it at the same time) and a forum for truth-telling, in the spirit of the Swift Boat Vets and other citizen journalists. The great thing about New Media was anybody could do it. Breitbart would fly to New York all the time and make sure he got invited to mainstream media parties, where he drank their appletinis and pinot noir and made them think he was on their side, but at the end of dinner he would get in their faces and say, “You guys don’t get it. The American people are now in control of the narrative, and you can’t grab it for yourself and drive it off the cliff.”

Everything changed for Breitbart on the August day in 2009—the year the Chicago Tribune eliminated its foreign desk and the Washington Post closed its three remaining domestic bureaus in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles—when a young citizen journalist named James O’Keefe walked into his house with a batch of raw videos. They were the Abu Ghraib of the Great Society. They showed O’Keefe and another citizen journalist named Hannah Giles posing as a pimp and prostitute who wanted to set up a brothel using underage girls imported from El Salvador. James and Hannah brought their hidden camera into offices of the national left-wing organization ACORN in Baltimore, New York, and other cities, where low-level staffers sat across the table and gave them useful advice on how to establish their business while making the federal tax code work in their favor. “It was like watching Western civilization fall off of a cliff.”

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Breitbart knew exactly what to do. Make news by breaking news. Feed the media like training a dog, one video at a time instead of the whole meal at once, catching ACORN and the news outlets off-guard, exposing their lies and biases while keeping the story alive. Use a friendly network like Fox News to amplify the effect. Stay on offense; be outrageous. His real target was the mainstream media—honestly, who cared about the poor homeowners that ACORN protected from predatory lenders, or the low-income workers whose wages it fought to raise? Within a few months, ACORN ceased to exist and Breitbart was a Tea Party hero and media bigs were competing to publish profiles of him. It felt like he was doing every single banned class-A narcotic simultaneously.

It was fun! Telling the truth was fun, having the American people behind him was fun, fucking with the heads of nervous journalists and helping the mainstream media commit suicide was fun. Breitbart went on Real Time With Bill Maher and stood up for himself and Rush to the politically correct hometown mob of an audience, and it was an incredibly committed moment in his life. He found himself the leader of a loose band of patriotic malcontents, and right in front of him was the same opportunity that the Founding Fathers had had—to fight a revolution against the complex.

And if he happened to get an Agriculture Department official named Shirley Sherrod fired by releasing a deceptively edited video that seemed to show her making anti-white comments when in fact she was doing just the opposite—fuck it, did the other side play fair? Anyway, Old Media’s rules about truth and objectivity were dead. What mattered was getting maximum bang from a story, changing the narrative. That was why Breitbart was winning, with ample help from his media enemies, and why he must have been at least semi-sober during his college classes on moral relativism.

In 2010 Breitbart was everywhere, Manhattan and D.C., the Tea Party Convention and the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Twitter and YouTube, working his BlackBerry while talking on the phone, turning his florid face and keen blue eyes and wave of graying hair toward every camera aimed in his direction, getting up close with righteous indignation and puerile humor, jabbing his finger. Kate Zernike of the New York Times, are you in the room? You’re despicable. ... Ted Kennedy was a special pile of human excrement, he was a fucker, a big-ass motherfucker. ... When people are like, “What do you think we should do on health care?” I don’t have a fucking clue, it’s too complicated for me. ... It’s time for the allegedly pristine character of Representative John Lewis to put up or shut up ... they think they can take me down, that they can hurt me. It just makes me bigger. ... Fuck. You. John. Podesta. ... Have you ever seen me on TV? I always change the subject to the media context. ... Media is everything. ... It’s a fundamental flaw in my psyche—I don’t do well with death. ... They want to portray me as crazy, unhinged, unbalanced. OK, good, fine. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck

On March 1, 2012, in the full flame of glory, less than a year after scoring his biggest coup in the shape of Rep. Anthony Weiner’s erect penis self-photographed behind gray briefs, shortly after leaving an evening of wine and talk in a Brentwood bar, Andrew Breitbart collapsed from heart failure and died at age 43.

Excerpted from The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America by George Packer, published in May 2013 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2013 by George Packer. All rights reserved.

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George Packer is the author of The Unwinding and a staff writer for The New Yorker.