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

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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."

It's a passage I just happened upon, and reading it reminded me of Breitbart in this way: he saw conservatives as an invisibly victimized class, and although many before him had railed against the mainstream media, Hollywood, and other antagonists, he wanted to take us inside his own head, to explain the psychology of it, to tell us about his decadent time at Tulane, his squandered twenties as a default liberal, how the Clarence Thomas hearings radicalized him, and how his own biography helped him to see the master-narrative of the whole purportedly oppressive system. When he wielded a rhetorical flamethrower in the culture wars, he wanted us to know how his own observations led him to it, and made him feel self-righteous about spraying the flames. And yes, he wanted to entertain us, provoke us, dazzle us, and serve us Web ads. But he wanted it all to be true to the felt experience of aggrieved conservatives. He wanted to be their champion, to show them that someone was brazenly articulating their grievances. He felt he owed it to the nation's Tea Partiers and denizens of flyover country. And his method was so hip-hop. Everything was filtered through the lens of Breitbart: his feuds, his put-downs, his crassness, the uncertain relationship between his public persona and what he was really like.

Were his grievances legitimate?

Breitbart's critics saw an unaccountably angry man who grew up in a privileged West Los Angeles neighborhood, squandered his twenties in just the way the safety net of affluent parents permits, and ultimately had no good reason to be so angry. Wasn't he socially popular in the ideologically diverse circles where he hung out? Wasn't he welcomed without animus in the dread Hollywood haunts he continued to patronize even after he began to pillory them? Didn't his interactions with actual liberals contradict his most sweeping generalizations about them?

But his anger resonated, especially among conservatives upset or threatened by their notion that the left is winning the culture war. These are people who earnestly defended the notion that "leftists are totalitarians," as Breitbart once put it (referring not to Joseph Stalin, but to Hollywood producers, college professors, and New York journalists). They nodded along to his rants every bit as fanatically as poor teens in Bed Stuy listening to "99 Problems," for hearing their long-held grievances unapologetically spun into a charismatic narrative was similarly gratifying.

To be sure, the Bed Stuy teens have a much better case for being aggrieved than Breitbart and his fans. And reveling in grievance is more cathartic than useful, as conservatives purport to understand. But Breitbart's rise has coincided with a tendency in the conservative movement to indulge the notion that its problems stem from being treated unfairly. I wrote my college thesis on liberal media bias, gladly return to the subject periodically and still find myself annoyed and maddened by the frequency and hyperbole of conservative complaints. There is some liberal bias. It's fine to call it out -- but absurd to treat it as the very core of your worldview, the explanation for every ideological setback you suffer, or the main factor preventing a better society.*

Breitbart contributed to this counterproductive focus on the ways in which the world was being unfair to the right. The very names he gave his Web sites played into the conceit that a cabal of enemies was responsible for what ails America. His earliest target? "Big Hollywood." Next up? "Big Journalism." It's a subsequent effort that most clearly shows the absurdity that ensued: "Big Peace" was launched amid two wars that rank as some of the longest in American history, an unprecedented number of American military bases around the globe, a military-industrial complex as powerful as it's ever been, a transition to a Democratic president who himself didn't even bother to get congressional approval before launching missile strikes on Libya, and whose undeclared drone war in an undisclosed number of countries is ongoing today. Breitbart acted as though a lot of his bogeymen wielded more power than was justified by reality, but the notion of a malign "big peace" lobby was surely his most bizarre unfounded conceit. Strange too is that neither his bellicose foreign policy instincts nor the platform he gave writers like Frank Gaffney ever seemed to bother his libertarian admirers. What was that about?

In the first piece I ever wrote about Breitbart, "At The Gates of the Fourth Estate," I argued that his various bogeymen, and his hyperbolic notion of the left as "totalitarian," was a core flaw in his world view, and especially ruinous to his avowed project to rescue culture (not politics) from liberal domination.

His insistence that the left is "totalitarian," I wrote,


...implies that the left is supreme, ruthless, and all-powerful. Pushing back from within existing cultural institutions is futile; conservatives might as well withdraw into an ideologically safe dugout, nurse their resentments, and pretend that the height of courage is picking off the least careful leftists with the rhetorical equivalent of sniper fire. This needless retreat is among the biggest obstacles the right faces as it attempts to engage American culture on a more equal footing. Reversing its course depends on providing young conservatives with a less hysterical, more accurate assessment of their prospects: Ignore Andrew Breitbart!

Should you pursue your living in entertainment or the press, you will be outnumbered ideologically. But so long as you conduct yourself professionally, possess talent commensurate with your peers, and produce good work, behaving as a professional rather than a propagandist, you'll go far. You'll also meet a lot of nice people, many of them liberals, who'll help you along the way.

This ought to have been the career advice Breitbart offered to young conservatives, given how often he insisted that culture mattered more than politics. But look at where he actually spent his time. Arguing with members of the political press at CPAC. Proving that a Democratic congressman tweeted photos of his penis to women on the Internet. Trying in vain to prove racism at the NAACP and destroying an innocent woman's career in the process. Ask conservatives to cite his accomplishments and it's invariably tactical political victories that they laud. Most often cited: his role in Anthony Wiener's resignation and congressional defunding of ACORN.

In other words, short term political victories. Did they matter? It depends on what you care about. If it's winning a Twitter pissing contest, a news cycle or even a congressional seat for a single term -- or if you get catharsis from discovering that someone on the left has done something corrupt -- Breitbart delivered. But if your desired end was meaningfully smaller government or improved public policy, he had a negligible impact, if any. ACORN just reorganized under different names. The party that holds NY-9 in the long term isn't determined by a sex scandal.         

Blessed with a keen understanding of the Web and a knack for getting attention, Breitbart limited his impact by using the platforms he constructed for destructive purposes only. NPR, ACORN, Media Matters for America: he picked targets and found himself less and less able to "destroy the institutional left" as his objects inevitably got wise to his tactics. Meanwhile, Columbia's journalism school graduated 300 twenty-somethings who'll staff America's newsrooms and Web media start-ups. For another generation. USC and NYU turned out countless aspiring directors and screen writers who'll make whatever our kids watch on their iPad747s. For another generation. As far as I can tell, the grassroots conservative answer is James O'Keefe.

It would have been great if the Big sites aimed for higher quality journalism. Said libertarian press critic Jack Shafer in his obituary of Breitbart, "I liked the idea of Andrew Breitbart better than I liked any of his work at Big Government, Big Hollywood, Big Journalism, Big Peace, Breitbart or Breitbart.tv." And no wonder. What are the best 10 pieces published in the history of those sites? You'll find more quality work in a single issue of City Journal than the sum total of everything Breitbart wrote or commissioned and published in his whole career. That magazine laid the intellectual foundation for a renaissance of conservative ideas, policy successes, and cultural transformation in New York City -- as hostile a territory as there ever has been for the right.

You'd think that kind of success would inspire copycats. 

Yet Breitbart has persuaded a lot of people that his sites offer the best model for the future of right-leaning journalism, on the strength of forcing ACORN to reorganize and NPR to restaff. Who'll even remember those much heralded victories in five years besides Ron and Vivian Schiller?

As Matt Welch wrote of Breitbart, "He didn't actually have strong philosophical/policy beliefs -- at all." An ideological movement that turns him into an icon isn't taking itself seriously. In the long run, it is doubtful that Breitbart will retain the reputation he currently enjoys among conservatives, because the ideological icons history celebrates, the William F. Buckleys and Ronald Reagans and the James Q. Wilsons, are remembered for their contributions to lasting victories. Breitbart was a leader in the conservative movement during the Bush Administration and the Obama Administration, a period that has been disastrous for its avowed goals. What enduring conservative victory came between the launch of The Drudge Report in 1996 and today?

Ends Justifying Means

Last July, I attended a documentary about Sarah Palin on the night it opened in Orange County, California. It was a 12:01 a.m. showing, which theaters tend to do only when they expect big crowds. That's what I expected when I drove out to interview moviegoers, but whether due to the late hour, the fact that Harry Potter was also opening that night, or the dearth of interest in the film, which didn't ultimately do very well, I was practically the only one in the theater. I got home late, did a quick write-up in these pages, and went to bed. I woke up to mayhem. As I later detailed, Palin fans bizarrely accused me of conspiring with the AMC theater chain to schedule a secret, unadvertised showing of the Palin documentary so that I could, for anti-Palin propaganda purposes, attend it and cast its debut as a miserable failure. Or something.

Understand that this film appeared in Google's movie listings, where I saw it, and was advertised in the Los Angeles Times on the appropriate day -- which isn't a particularly difficult thing to verify if, for example, you're a publisher who lives in Brentwood. Rather than dismiss the absurd conspiracy theory or open a newspaper to check its veracity, a bullying Breitbart tweeted this:

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And this:

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Understand that Andrew Breitbart had roughly 75,000 followers on Twitter. I probably had less than 4,000 back then. As I later put it, "in three Tweets, we've got a juvenile made up name, an erroneous fact -- my screening was at 12:01 am, not 12:45 am -- plus the false implication that the films were unadvertised, requiring some special knowledge to know about them, and the false notion that I committed an unnamed firing offense. Needless to say, Breitbart didn't contact me prior to publishing that. Nor has he corrected any of his numerous errors. But he's a crusader for truth."

Every last working journalist in America hates the idea of being falsely accused of fabricating a story -- and having the accusation spread to tends of thousands of people you have no way of reaching to correct the record. It does groundless damage to your reputation. But that is the impression that Breitbart spread, on a lark, without even a shred of evidence, and despite having a spectacularly easy way to check the truth (check the previous day's newspaper) as ever there was.

Breitbart's behavior cost me two days fielding press requests, sending journalists a scanned image of the newspaper listing, receiving nasty emails and threats, and otherwise rebutting his lies. Writers from his sites piled on. So I ask Mickey Kaus, how does this square with your insistence that Breitbart "said what he thought was true, even when that hurt his side or put his own career at risk." How does it square with the notion that Breitbart "had an instinctive honesty"? He didn't with me. He never apologized or corrected the record. I doubt he even gave it much thought.

I am far from the only one he treated unethically. To cite just one more example, I've written before about Juan Carlos Vera, a lesser known victim of the Breitbart-O'Keefe partnership. I don't mean to pick on Kaus. If anyone has an excuse for missing Breitbart's flaws, it's someone who knew him in Los Angeles for a decade before he launched his "Big" publishing career, saw the doubtlessly legion occasions when he did care about accuracy, and reacted as a mournful friend upon his death. But Breitbart's journalist friends are unfair to his critics and those he wronged when they write against overwhelming evidence that he instinctively championed truth, even while writing, as Kaus does, "I don't know the ins and outs of the Shirley Sherrod mess."

I'll say!

Kaus is a respected journalist whose personal archive is rife with solid and delightful pieces. He is, as well, a Web pioneer. He is one of several exceptional writers all of whom hold themselves to journalistic standards far higher than Breitbart ever met, but are seemingly able to see only the best things about his work, and are blind to its most conspicuous flaws. Again, they're mostly people who liked Breitbart personally, and I am inclined to trust in their assurance that he was, despite the side of him I saw, a basically decent and well-intentioned person. In his work, he thought his ends sometimes justified bullying, cruelty, lying, negligence and intimidation. And not just to "destroy the institutional left." Sometimes Breitbart sunk to those depths because someone wrote negatively about a Sarah Palin movie produced by his personal friend. If the reverse had been true, if I'd publicly and falsely accused Breitbart of fabricating an event, how would he have reacted? What nasty things would his fans have thought about me?

'Be the Change' or 'Turnabout Is Fair Play'?

Gandhi famously advised humans to "be the change you want to see in the world." Breitbart fell short of that admittedly lofty standard. His ends-justify-the-means attitude at times caused him to perpetrate exactly the sort of behavior that he'd only recently railed against as vile and corrupt. Sometimes the transgressions were minor. In his book, he points out the idiocy of liberal celebrities who ignorantly spew stereotypes about the entire American right... and then proceeds to write, "I would not be in your life if the political left weren't so joyless, humorless, intrusive, taxing, anarchistic, controlling, rudderless, chaos-prone, pedantic, unrealistic, hypocritical, clueless, politically correct, angry, cruel, sanctimonious, retributive, redistributive, intolerant."

Sometimes he showed a lack of self-awareness. For example, Breitbart once complained to me that I quoted something he said at an event that was supposed to be off-the-record. Perhaps someone explained the event to him that way. Certainly no one ever told me it was off-the-record. He acted very aggrieved about the whole thing, but eventually conceded that it wasn't a big deal when I showed him that he'd said exactly the same thing in a television appearance. I wouldn't have remembered the exchange except for the fact that Breitbart is, after all, a guy who built his Web sites publishing hidden video stings of unwitting subjects. And he excoriated me for quoting a line from a panel discussion he gave before an audience of 100 people?

There were, finally, serious transgressions. Breitbart complained bitterly about charges of racism frivolously made against conservatives. He seemed earnest when he insisted that it is morally wrong to imply that someone is a racist without rock solid proof, and that the media was often unforgivably derelict in fact-checking such claims (like the assertion that rallying Tea Partiers shouted the n-word at passing congressmen). Yet this same man published the Shirley Sherrod video -- an attempt, by his own admission, to prove that some of the people in it were racist -- before he even saw the whole thing! In that case, due diligence would've been harder than opening the movie pages. But every Breitbart fan knows that if NBC or CBS or ABC would've implied his racism by airing a selectively edited tape -- if the full tape later went public, and cast him in a significantly better light -- he'd condemn the whole mainstream media, jabbing a finger in the chest of any reporter in a 10-foot radius, and he wouldn't accept it for a minute if the MSM producer explained, "Oh, our intention was to make the other people in the room with you look racist."

If you're someone who thinks that turnabout is fair play, that when conservatives do something immoral liberals are justified in behaving the same way and vice-versa, I am not going to persuade you otherwise. Suffice it to say that Breitbart sometimes subscribed to that flawed code.

The Tweets 
 
On Twitter, Breitbart deliberately stoked the worst impulses of his followers in a "look at what terrible people my critics are" project that was perhaps his most nakedly depraved. As Michele Malkin said in her obit, "If he were here, he'd be retweeting all the insane tweets from the Left rejoicing over his death. Even in death, he succeeds in exposing the hate-filled intolerance of the tolerance poseurs." She's right. He would've been glad to have inspired the tweets, and eagerly re-tweeting. But surely that isn't a quality to be celebrated. A religious person might counsel, "love thy enemy" or "turn the other cheek." A Kantian would say, "Don't treat people as a means to an end." I'd say that Breitbart's baiting and re-tweets had no lasting impact on politics in America, but caused thousands of people to feel more anger, angst, and hate in their hearts than they would have otherwise. It was, at bottom, a not very admirable self-indulgence that his fans bear partial blame for encouraging. I've certainly lost my temper on Twitter. And it's sometimes tempting to provoke people in that forum. I get it. I too have sinned! But this is a failing, not a pursuit worthy of the countless hours Breitbart invested, never mind something to be extolled in obituaries.

What Was Missing

Among conservatives, it is the Founding Fathers, Abraham Lincoln, philosophers like John Locke and Edmund Burke, journalists like William F. Buckley and politicians like Ronald Reagan who are regarded as heroes. All of those figures had a capacity for persuasion and a demonstrated willingness to square off against contemporaries with the strongest ideas contrary to theirs. And the conservative movement's most popular champions don't have those qualities anymore.

Breitbart could energize a subset of the base. He could mastermind a tactical victory, winning a news cycle or three. As he did so, he became more loved by the people who agreed with him and more hated by the people who didn't. And for all his purported "courage" and "fearlessness" he'd only debate a certain kind of person, as I can personally attest. When I first challenged him to a public debate, he told me, uncharacteristically, that he had no intention of letting me free-ride on his platform, and that when I had access to a substantial audience of my own he'd be game. Sometime later, when I was writing for The Daily Beast, my editor, Tom Watson, reached out and got him to agree to a written debate, but he postponed, then backed out for reasons he would never explain. Perhaps I shouldn't have telegraphed my preparedness.

In seriousness, the fact that he didn't debate me personally doesn't mean much, but it is telling that he never squared off, as William F. Buckley did on "Firing Line," against some critical figure from "the other side." In today's America, I actually don't think the pundit games requires much courage. The "happy warrior" talk always strikes me as overwrought and silly. But when Jon Stewart sits down with Chris Wallace, or when David Frum does a Bloggingheads with Jonah Goldberg, or when Christopher Hitchens debated Sam Harris, they were putting themselves out there in a way that Breitbart, who stuck to shouting matches and cable news spots, tended to avoid. Bluster, shamelessness, aggressiveness, a willingness to be confrontational -- Breitbart had all those things. Lots of people don't. Admire that or not, but courage it ain't, and his fans acknowledge as much when they comment on leftists jabbing their fingers in the chests of CPAC attendees.   

What To Copy, What To Avoid

Breitbart's successors should channel his passion. They should learn from his determination. They should challenge wrongheaded narratives in the media, create platforms that expand the ability of Americans to engage in political discourse, and inject mischievous humor into their work.

They should celebrate the best of what he did.

Unlike Breitbart, they should appeal to the best in people rather than intentionally eliciting their worst; produce journalism that is ambitious in its quality, not just its short-term political utility; refrain from falsely implying terrible things about people based on made up facts or misleadingly edited footage; show courage by exposing themselves to substantive debate with skilled antagonists; refrain from doing anything they regard as abhorrent when it's done by other people; and grasp that focusing on the base's sense of grievance hasn't served conservatism well.

Image credit: Reuters

*If control of the American media is what matters most, if it is the main factor in deciding presidential elections, and controlling the media narrative through some means other than argument is the key to conservative success in the future, how do you explain 1980, 1984, and 2008? How is it that Ronald Reagan won the presidency and positively cruised to re-election, even though Rush Limbaugh was working for the Kansas City Royals at the time, cable news didn't exist, there was no Drudge Report or blogosphere, and all three news networks took their cues from the front page of The New York Times? And then in 2008, when conservative media was reaching more people and making more money than ever before, the radio waves filled with Rush Limbaugh imitators, right-wing books topping the bestseller lists, Fox News the most popular cable news network in America, Red State up and running at full tilt... how is it that Barack Obama won? It's almost as if the success of conservative media outlets and ideological entertainment isn't the basic driver of American politics.
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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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