Andrew Breitbart's Legacy: Credit and Blame Where It's Due

Good and bad, the controversial Web publisher had a major impact on media, politics, and our public discourse.

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The day that Andrew Breitbart died, the short obituary I published in these pages urged everyone to reflect on the evident love he had for his family, the energy with which he conducted his work, and the personal generosity he showed friends. People possessed of those qualities die every day without mention, some readers noted, arguing that the deaths of public figures should occasion no more than narrow assessments of their professional legacy. But the double standard would be better resolved in the other direction. The journalist's charge is to convey reality, and although the press treats politics and business as though they're of unique importance, it isn't so. We'd do well to reflect more on the private people who shape society. The significance of apolitical, non-economic acts are often overlooked and under-appreciated.

For staunch critics of Breitbart, it is especially important to acknowledge his best attributes. They help to explain the posthumous outpouring of support he has received. His personal friendships with public figures are distorting how they are judging his professional legacy, but people who behave badly in one sphere can set an example in others. Matt Yglesias, a model of online civility compared to Breitbart, controversially tweeted after his untimely death, "The world outlook is slightly improved with Andrew Breitbart dead." Few who've pilloried Yglesias objected even once to the daily stream of ad hominem incivility coming from the Breitbart publishing empire or his personal Twitter stream, so the righteous outrage on display is a bit hollow. But there is a better objection to Yglesias' tweet than calling it uncivil: the fact of the matter is that even a critic of Breitbart's professional legacy has no reliable way of measuring it against his personal life and making a summary judgment about his overall impact on the world.

Bear that in mind in this assessment of Breitbart's professional legacy, the aspect of his life I am most qualified to comment upon. It includes praiseworthy achievements. As Nick Gillespie noted at CNN, Breitbart played an important role in the creation or evolution of pioneering Web sites like The Drudge Report, The Huffington Post, and his "Big" sites -- whatever one thinks about their content, they helped spur advances in the Web medium the fruits of which are now universally available. Said Gillespie, summing up who benefits, "It's the conservatives at Drudge, the liberals at HuffPo, the leftists at DailyKos, the libertarians at Reason. It's all of us and Breitbart helped create and grow a series of do-it-yourself demonstration projects through which we can all speak more loudly and more fully. Breitbart is dead, but the conversation pits he built will live on." Perhaps they'll even improve with time like The Huffington Post, which started out as a glorified online diary for celebrities. It's now publishing Radley Balko investigations. Breitbart also deserves credit for speaking in favor of including gays in the conservative movement and against its idiotic Birther faction, which he helped to pillory and marginalize.  

It is too much to call Breitbart a visionary. The "flatter media" he helped advance, for better and worse, was inevitable once the Web came along. But when early Internet age publishing is chronicled, his name belongs on a list that includes Andrew Sullivan, Mickey Kaus, Glenn Reynolds, Megan McArdle, Josh Marshall, Matt Drudge, Eugene Volokh, Jonah Goldberg, Arianna Huffington, Markos Moulistas, Jane Hamsher, Matthew Yglesias, Ezra Klein and others. For better and worse, they've all shaped the medium and the messages of our era.

Due to the untimeliness of Breitbart's death, there has been an understandable reluctance to examine his achievements alongside his shortcomings, especially on right-leaning Web sites, for arguing about the man's memory almost immediately turned into another skirmish between ideological tribes. But disagreeing about whether his professional legacy was a boon to the country, as many conservatives insist, or an overall detriment, as others claim, isn't likely to get us anywhere. Suffice it to say that even history's greatest heroes, beloved patriarchs, and loyal family dogs are imperfect. The most hard-core movement conservatives should be able to acknowledge that some aspects of Breitbart's professional life would be better repudiated than celebrated or copied, even if their overall assessment of the man remains emphatically positive.

What follows isn't an attempt to persuade you to share my conclusions about Breitbart's overall impact on the world. The reader can draw that conclusion as well as I can. But having remarked on his innovator's spirit, his contributions to the Web, his passion for his causes, his humor, and his loyalty to family and friends, it profits us to confront his flaws and transgressions forthrightly. Were he a monster, no one would be tempted to copy him. Precisely because he was a charismatic hero to many, avoiding his mistakes requires us to be unsentimental.    

Neither personal friends nor ideological allies are particularly good at that, so their obituaries, while very much worth reading, are insufficient. As someone who met Breitbart just a few times, an outsider rather than a member of the conservative movement, and a critical observer of his career who thought deeply about his impact in the course of tangling with him, sometimes bitterly, this is my attempt at an unsentimental critique. What follows is the part of the Breitbart legacy his fans haven't confronted -- and more reasons why they valued him too.   

A Movement Conservative For His Time       

In Decoded, Jay-Z's autobiographical account of how and why he writes his rhymes, he describes the moment when the rap he was hearing on the streets of Brooklyn stopped being playful and started describing in graphic language the crack epidemic roiling urban America and the hustlers who were both its victims and its suppliers. "Hip-hop had described poverty in the ghetto and painted pictures of violence and thug life, but I was interested in something a little different: the interior space of a young kid's head, his psychology," he wrote. "Thirteen-year-old kids don't just wake up one day and say, 'Okay, I just wanna sell drugs on my mother's stoop'... to tell the story of the kid with a gun without telling the story of why he has it is to tell a kind of lie... I wanted to tell stories and boast, to entertain and to dazzle with creative rhymes, but everything I said had to be rooted in the truth of that experience. I owed it to all the hustlers I met."

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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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