A Case Study in Right-Wing Media Malpractice from Breitbart.com

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In breathlessly reporting that President Obama once dressed in colonial garb, the site does nothing to advance the public interest or conservative governance.

Obama as patriot.jpg
For some reason, Breitbart.com thinks the mainstream media is hiding this old photo of Barack Obama in patriotic garb.  (Hyde Park Herald)

Conservatives including Rep. Paul Ryan, Gov. Mitch Daniels, and various Tea Party leaders have all argued in recent months that their ideological movement would do well to focus on fiscal matters -- simplifying the tax code, reforming entitlements, and shrinking the structural deficit, for example. A sharp new e-book by conservative journalist Phil Klein argues that sort of focus is necessary if the right is to succeed in pressuring Mitt Romney to govern as a conservative. In a review of his essay Wednesday, I stated that the existing conservative media is an obstacle to policy driven conservatism.

Today, an example of what I mean.

Upon Andrew Breitbart's unfortunate, untimely death, the websites that he'd spent the last several years building, now published collectively at Breitbart.com, had built a sizable conservative audience. Observers wondered what would become of them without their namesake.

The answer came with the posthumous publication of Breitbart's last column, with an editor's note appended to the top. "Andrew did not want to re-litigate the 2008 election. Nor did he want to let Republicans off the hook. Instead, he wanted to show that the media had failed in its most basic duty: to uncover the truth, and hold those in power accountable, regardless of party," it stated. "From today through Election Day, November 6, 2012, we will vet this president -- and his rivals."

Thus was born an ongoing series, "The Vetting."

For Breitbart.com, the decision to commit substantial editorial resources to the president's past had an immediate opportunity cost: there'd be fewer pieces on his first term in office and less opportunity to present arguments about why conservative policies would better serve the country. The decision seemed strange to me. Conservative media was around during the 2008 election. Was there really relevant information that they'd failed to uncover at the time? And while President Obama surprised civil libertarians with his governing choices, weren't the things conservatives hated about him -- the health-care bill, the Keynesian stimulus, the "green jobs" program -- basically exactly what you'd expect from the campaign he ran, or from any liberal Democrat?

Now we need not speculate about Breitbart.com's coverage decision. With the opportunity cost in mind, we can look at the fruits of "The Vetting" so far. I submit that this line of coverage has been an utter waste of time, whether measured for its impact on GOP electoral chances or advancing conservative ideas or holding politicians accountable via the media.

I encourage you to suspend your own judgment until I've run through the particulars.

Installment No. 1, the posthumously published Andrew Breitbart piece, unearths a poster for a 1998 play about radical community organizer Saul Alinsky. At the bottom in small print, State Sen. Barack Obama is listed as one member of a panel scheduled to speak about the play after its conclusion. If you're familiar with Breitbart.com, the logical leap that's coming won't surprise you. The piece is written as if being on a panel to discuss a play that is sympathetic to a political figure means that the panelist's true beliefs are as radical as the figure himself. This guilt-by-association is unpersuasive on the merits. Its also a strange way to go about analyzing the ideology of a former state senator, U.S. senator, and sitting U.S. president. There is excellent evidence of the sort of thing Obama would do if elected to represent Americans -- what he has done in Illinois, the Senate, and the White House literally is how he'd govern.

On March 14, Ben Shapiro dug up a question from a law-school exam that Obama gave while a professor. He argues that the exam proves several things: that he doesn't share the conservative perspective on the relationship between marriage and childbearing; that he thinks invoking tradition is problematic if it's being used to deny what he regards as basic rights; and that the decisions judges make are shaped by their personal experience. Can anyone be surprised by any of this? And once again, there is a much easier way to figure out how President Obama's views on constitutional law might shape his presidency. I am certain that he prefers judges like Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, and that his Justice Department would advance exactly the sorts of con-law arguments that it has in fact advanced over the last three years.

What other than willfully hiding Obama's patriotic garb could explain the media's failure to republish a photograph appearing in a venue as prominent as the Hyde Park Herald circa 1997?

What's the point of extrapolating from an old exam?

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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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