Breitbart News Tries to Go Mainstream

The scrappy, outsider publication has never enjoyed this much prominence—but it’s discovering that success brings its own challenges.

Carlos Barria / Reuters

The mainstreaming of Breitbart News is well under way.

The right-wing outlet founded by the late Andrew Breitbart has taken on an increased importance in the Trump era, morphing into the main pro-Trump news organ over the course of the campaign. And recent changes reflect the site’s outsize status in the new Washington; two of its writers are joining the site’s former chairman in the Trump White House, and the site has hired journalists from mainstream outlets, and is in the process of trying to hire more. Once considered fringe, the site is now approaching establishment status, just as Trump’s populist-nationalist ideology went mainstream, taking over the Republican Party and finally the White House.

Breitbart’s former chairman Steve Bannon becoming the White House’s chief strategist was a clear enough signal that Breitbart had arrived in the upper echelons of power, but other indications are adding up to reinforcing it. Staff writer Julia Hahn, a favorite of Bannon and fierce critic of House Speaker Paul Ryan, is reportedly joining the White House in a policy role. And national-security editor Sebastian Gorka—who was paid by the Trump campaign for consulting work while still on the Breitbart masthead—is reportedly joining the National Security Council.

Meanwhile, Breitbart has hired John Carney from The Wall Street Journal, and announced three other new hires, as first reported in Axios on Tuesday: Kristina Wong from The Hill, Sam Chi from Real Clear Politics, and Sean Moran from Americans for Prosperity. According to a Breitbart News staffer who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly, the site is trying to recruit from Politico as well.

Add to this the fact that Breitbart is planning to expand internationally; the company has outposts in Jerusalem, Rome, and London, and is planning to add France and Germany to the mix as well as reportedly expanding in Italy—a further sign of the site’s ambitions.

The changes mark a significant shift for Breitbart, which has always fashioned itself as a rule-breaking band of outsiders challenging the establishment. But when you’ve become a favorite of a consummate Washington insider like Mike Allen—he recently went on Breitbart’s SiriusXM show to say that “we admire so much what's been built at Breitbart” and “one of the things that we like about Breitbart is you do things that other people aren't”—it’s difficult to maintain a firm hold on that impish, irreverent image.

Instead, competing with mainstream outlets has become the new priority.

“I’m building The New York Times,” Breitbart’s Washington political editor Matt Boyle told me. “That’s what I’m doing right now. I’m building a journalistic enterprise that’s designed to replace all of you.”

Boyle has reportedly, in the past, floated himself as a potential White House press secretary, though he denies that he wants to work in the administration.

According to the current Breitbart staffer, journalists from mainstream outlets started reaching out to the site about jobs after the election, seeing an opportunity for greater access to the new administration in a place like Breitbart than at other outlets.

One former Breitbart writer expressed surprise at its ability to poach from mainstream outlets. “I’m a little bit surprised they’re able to do that. Particularly at this point, since it’s become a comedically preposterous propaganda arm of a single candidate … Even people at Breitbart were joking about, ‘Have you seen Breitbart’s front page.’”

But the former writer offered an explanation: money. Breitbart is said to make attractive offers, especially compared to other right-wing outlets in D.C. “It’s because they outbid everybody else,” the former writer said. “They pay considerably above market value.”

The challenge for Breitbart is that the more it becomes part of the mainstream, the more its outsider cred is threatened.  Already, some former Breitbart staffers have splintered off to form an even more ideologically pure group, arguing that Breitbart has become “boring” by hiring journalists like Carney. And it would be hard for any news organization to maintain an identity as an iconoclastic truth-teller if its main mission is to amplify the president’s message, as Breitbart’s critics allege is now the case.

“The bottom line is this is a publication now centered around the Emperor Trump philosophy, and that is going to be in constant competition with the mainstream journalists who may want to join and report critically on the president,” said Ben Shapiro, a former Breitbart reporter who left in protest after the site sided with Trump’s campaign in the dispute over the former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski’s rough handling of former Breitbart reporter Michelle Fields.

Add to this the fact that Bannon’s departure to join the White House has left a “leadership vacuum” at the top of the editorial structure, according to a source with inside knowledge of Breitbart who spoke on condition of anonymity. Bannon exerted a large amount of control over the site’s inner workings, and the current editor in chief, Alex Marlow, is a more enigmatic figure than Bannon with a much smaller public profile.

“Who’s the bigfoot over there?” asked one former Breitbart writer who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Who’s the actual editor in chief? Bannon was really the editor in chief, Alex was more managing editor … How does this operation function in the absence of Bannon? They’re just going to take unofficial cues from Bannon.”

“There’s no internal communication about stuff,” the current staffer said, saying that the first they’d heard of the new hires was the announcement in Axios. “The editorial process is not smooth.”

The question now becomes what the effect will be of the blending of Breitbart with the White House and the mainstream media. The hiring of Hahn, an immigration hawk who accused Ryan during the campaign of trying to elect Hillary Clinton, has been widely interpreted as a shot across the bow from Bannon to Ryan, a frequent target of Breitbart’s. But as with anything Breitbart-related, the situation is murkier than it seems; just last week, the site ran a piece under Boyle’s byline praising Ryan for "warming up to President-elect Donald J. Trump’s ideology.”

“In the Kremlinology, Breitbart will reflect the Bannon position inside the White House,” said one of the former Breitbart writers.

Breitbart editor in chief Alex Marlow didn’t return a request for comment.