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.
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.
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.
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?
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."