Andrew Breitbart Talks Down Talk Radio

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The Internet publisher says he wants the right to convey its ideas with the same "sophistication and excellence" as the left



The Web TV show Uncommon Knowledge has produced the year's most interesting interview with Andrew Breitbart. Its host, Peter Robinson, alluded to the great strides conservatives have made in media over the last couple of decades: the rise of talk radio, cable news, and the right-leaning blogosphere. "Shouldn't you relax?" he said to his oft-agitated guest. "Things are working out."

In response, Breitbart insisted that what the right has built is "not enough" -- and in doing so, he disparaged AM radio as "the lowest form of communication," touted the excellence of his arch-nemesis NPR, and said he wished that the right could convey its ideas with the same "level of sophistication."

Here is the exchange:

PETER ROBINSON: What do you want?

ANDREW BREITBART: I want a center right nation to fight for its soul, and its soul is represented in the arts - in a world in which media is everything, AM radio is the lowest form of communication. It's tinny. It's not robust. It's not Avatar. I want Avatar. I want the right to enter the world of media and invest in media the way that the left does. George Soros is throwing money like crazy.

PETER ROBINSON: You want an NPR.

ANDREW BREITBART: I want everything. They have an NPR. They're so slick in understanding how important media is. They've convinced the government to pay them to propagate their worldview. How come we're not fighting for money to propagate our worldview? Because we don't believe in it. Okay. Then use the free market to convey the same ideas with the same level of sophistication and excellence that NPR does, because they are superior at what they do, just as Jon Stewart is superior at what he does. I grant Hollywood and the experts in propaganda for what they do.

PETER ROBINSON: You admit that they're good. In fact, that's what annoys you.

ANDREW BREITBART: It annoys me. And it annoys that our side does not commit to this battle.

There is some truth in Breitbart's assessment: liberals do excel in the realm of culture, and conservatives too often convey their ideas less adeptly. But he hasn't a clue how to remedy the situation -- in fact, he exacerbates it. On his own Web sites, where he is free to reign as he likes, he doesn't publish journalism of exceptional quality, like some feature stories you see in The Weekly Standard, or arguments of great sophistication, like the best of the essays in the Claremont Review of Books. He publishes aggrieved blog posts, many of them poorly reasoned, and the person he has most elevated is James O'Keefe, purveyor of low-budget ideological sting videos.

The temptation is to tell Breitbart, "Quit whining and produce something of quality, rather than incentivizing a whole generation of young conservatives to jet around the country trying to win news cycles, or convincing them that if they go into any cultural industry they'll be persecuted." I've tried to tell him before. But he still doesn't get it, and his remarks in the clip above illuminate his error. It's telling, for example, that what he wants isn't for conservative directors to produce their own It's a Wonderful Life, or Cool Hand Luke, or The Graduate. What he wants is Avatar, a film that succeeded almost entirely due to its achievements in the technical realm, and whose plot was widely regarded as a hackneyed piece of simplistic borderline propaganda.

Shouldn't the right aim higher?  

What Breitbart wants is more conservative creative professionals. But what's needed to even the playing field in the arts is something different: creative professionals who happen to be conservative. Folks for whom excellence in their chosen field comes first and is their desired end. That is why Jon Stewart succeeds. He is a comedian first. Through his comedy, we get a window into his worldview, including his ideological preconceptions. They shape what he satirizes. Sometimes his comedy gives insufficient due to conservative insights. It would be nice for the right if there were a TV comedian as talented who bought into some right-leaning ideas. But if Andrew Breitbart launched a site called Big Comedy, he'd recruit based on ideology, house the comics in a business model where ideological agreement with the audience was vital, and pronounce it a success if it showed a profit, even if the jokes were awful.  

That is what he's done in the realm of journalism, seemingly blind to the fact that NPR is excellent largely because it employs folks who care a lot about producing exceptional work. Listen to the best public radio generally - This American Life, Planet Money, Radio Lab - and what you hear isn't merely an impressive technical adeptness. The substantive quality is evident too, whatever one's ideological predispositions. Sure, its mostly liberals producing these shows, but they're mostly doing their utmost to follow their stories and ideas where they lead.

Hence the frequent departures from liberal orthodoxy. Here is a telling fact, and I defy anyone to deny it: The This American Life episodes on auto unions, the difficulty of firing bad public school teachers, and the American health care system do a more effective job communicating conservative insights on those subjects than the sum total of everything Breitbart has ever written or published. 

That is because in practice, Breitbart isn't motivated by producing work of high quality in any field. He is an ideological warrior, someone who cares more about destroying ACORN, embarrassing the NAACP, and exploiting the sex scandals of Democratic politicians - all political projects - much more than building any journalistic or artistic institution of exceptional merit.

In chin stroking interviews, he pretends otherwise, telling his interlocutor, and perhaps himself, that the end goal is helping the right to achieve excellence in the realm of culture, but where is the follow through? He gives us James O'Keefe in a pimp coat instead of Avatar, bombastic cable news shouting matches rather than savvy, well-researched Jon Stewart style take-downs, and deceptively edited video of Shirley Sherrod rather than NPR quality journalism. He is doomed to fail at the project he claims as his life's work because he is under the mistaken impression that ideology is everything. Internalizing that left-wing idea is his undoing.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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