Breitbart.com Struggles With the Contradictions of Its Namesake

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It's no wonder Andrew Breitbart's inheritors disagree about how to carry on his legacy -- his charisma masked many inconsistencies.

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What happened to Andrew Breitbart's Web empire after he died? It's a question that McKay Coppins recently explored in a BuzzFeed article on the inheritors now fighting over the man's legacy. A quote attributed to a former Breitbart.com employee captures it all: "We were running a kind of happy cult when Andrew was in charge, and when Andrew died everyone had an incentive to spin what they thought he was up to. If he knew he was going to die, I'm sure he would have called a dinner the night before and given us the tablets or something ....  But he didn't."

Hence all the anonymous quotes from disgruntled current and former staffers. One insisted that today's Breitbart.com "has nothing to do with what Andrew stood for," and that he "would detest what it's become." Another said, "Andrew wasn't a flack. He wanted to take them all on," in comparison to the current editor, who several sources called "a Republican shill," a charge the editor denied, even as he noted that "it's revisionist history to act as thought Andrew wouldn't have wanted to fight for whoever the Republican nominee was," seeing as how he urged activists, "Ask not what the candidate can do for you, but ask what you can do for the candidate."

What Was Breitbart Really About?

As someone who observed him as closely as anyone during his rise and tangled with him as much as anyone too, my advice to his successors is that they talk it over and agree on their own vision. Breitbart had an overwhelming personality and an ethos underwhelming in its substance. Trying to follow his vision, as if it offers clarity and consistency, would doom any  enterprise. Is any cult of personality healthy?      

In addition, the Breitbart business model relied heavily, during the man's life, on his constant TV appearances. On screen he was riveting -- combative and frenetic, who knew what he would say next? Producers and audiences loved him, so he could reliably get himself in front of millions to tout whatever theory or story he was obsessed with during a given news cycle. He hated the mainstream media but benefited tremendously from appearing on its shows. Since no one at Breitbart.com (and few anywhere) possess that skill, the business model cannot be the same as when Breitbart was alive. Trying to do the same thing would doom any enterprise.

The temptation to claim the mantle of Breitbart's "true vision" will nevertheless be too powerful for the people associated with Breitbart.com to resist. For that reason, the evident contradictions in Breitbart's life will go a long way toward explaining the tensions that persist in the website.

Is Politics or Culture More Important?

Long before he became a household name, Andrew Breitbart argued -- in keeping with the perhaps accurate prejudice of his native Los Angeles -- that culture is more important than politics. "Breitbart knew instinctively, as people in Washington and most other places did not, that movies, television programs, and popular music send out deeply political messages every hour of every day," Byron York once wrote. "They shape the culture, and then the culture shapes politics.  Influence those films and TV shows and songs, and you'll eventually influence politics."

What Breitbart fans who invoke that side of him never acknowledge is that he spent the vast majority of his time on politics. The output he produced and published was almost entirely political. The readership he built is composed of political junkies. He was far more likely to crash a liberal political gathering than the Academy Awards. The young people he mentored were ideological warriors like James O'Keefe targeting organizations like ACORN to undermine their political activities, not young filmmakers or musicians subverting Hollywood paradigms. And the people with whom he worked? Look at Breitbart.com today. The site has subsumed the "Big Hollywood" vertical. It is almost entirely political, and regards The Blaze and The Daily Caller as its competitors. Its readers get no indication that "politics is more important than culture," and no wonder -- it depends on political junkies for page views and profit.

'That's Outrageous' or 'Turnabout is Fair Play'?

Along with many conservatives, Breitbart frequently complained that the mainstream media and academia are race-obsessed, and that leftists behave abominably when they accuse their political opponents of being racist, one of the most discrediting charges in American life. Yet the Drudge Report, where Breitbart got his start, frequently exploits America's racial anxieties in its content, and Breitbart himself famously accused the NAACP of racism based on a misleadingly edited video of Shirley Sherrod speaking to a gathering of its members about her experience with white farmers (to whom she initially felt antagonism, but eventually chose to help).
If his inheritors are to be proud of what they produce, they'll need to improve on Breitbart's legacy, not mimic it.

The Breitbart.com staffer of today could cite Breitbart's life as evidence that race-baiting is especially immoral, or that it is an effective tactic for attacking the left to avenge similar attacks on conservatives. The contradiction in Breitbart's behavior means neither claim is entirely right or wrong.

Is Lying About Antagonists Okay?

On a previous occasion, I explained how Breitbart falsely and preposterously accused me of conspiring with a major movie theater chain to show an unadvertised screening of a Sarah Palin movie, ostensibly so that I could write about how the theater was empty and embarrass the movie's producer (who, I later found out, was a Breitbart associate, something he didn't mention at the time). I produced the relevant movie listing from the previous day's newspaper, and he still failed to retract or apologize. So I was able to personally observe blatant, willful dishonesty. Similar bad behavior was on display in the case of Juan Carlos Vera, who Breitbart treated shabbily

Needless to say, these incidents are at odds with the story about Breitbart that his admirers like to tell: that while he might've been hotheaded and impolite, he was a righteous crusader for truth. I don't doubt that he did frequently crusade on behalf of truth, both real and perceived, but he showed cowardice and dishonesty in other instances, which shouldn't be forgotten. If his inheritors wish to be proud of what they produce, they'll need to improve on Breitbart's legacy, not mimic it.

What's Next?

Shortly after Breitbart's untimely and unfortunate death, I wrote something that still holds up. It would have been great, I wrote, if Breitbart's sites had aimed for higher-quality journalism. Wrote libertarian press critic Jack Shafer in his obituary, "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, 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 Schiller 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 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 has come between the launch of the Drudge Report in 1996 and today?
You'll find more quality work in a single issue of City Journal than the sum total of everything Breitbart wrote, commissioned, and published in his whole career.

What I'd add, having occasionally checked in on Breitbart.com, is that there is still no vision or agenda beyond attacking the left with whatever weapons come most easily to hand. Executed properly, there's money to be made doing that, but most ideologically motivated writers want to feel as if they're fighting the good fight on behalf of some positive vision. Little wonder that several are willing to complain off the record to BuzzFeed that the site is rudderless. Without Breitbart's charisma and righteous indignation, the nihilism of his project is more evident. If Romney wins, there's a very really danger that Breitbart.com will turn out to be one of those sites that distracts conservatives by writing as if the left is in power, even as a Republican administration pursues various misguided policies with the help of loyal propagandists. Ideologically, the site may be rooting for Obama's defeat. From an editorial and business perspective, that could be the worst thing imaginable, for Breitbart.com is all about attacking the left. Unless its editors and staffers proactively grapple with the questions I and others have raised, their fate may be determined on Election Day. Come 2013, will they be attack dogs or apologists?

In neither case will they do so with the charisma of their founder, or his righteousness -- since his passing they've seen the flaws and contradictions in his approach more clearly than he ever did.
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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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