Andrew Breitbart's assault on journalism

Blog ››› ››› JOHN V. SANTORE

Andrew Breitbart, the Matt Drudge protégé and Internet entrepreneur behind BigGoverment, BigHollywood, and -- with other sites in the works -- is trying to position himself as the avant-garde leader of conservative media. In reality, Breitbart is nothing new. He's merely the latest right-wing activist to digitize the conservative media machine that has held such sway in America for decades. As such, his work contributes not to the evolution of journalism, but to its dissolution.

And yet, Breitbart has styled himself as a journalistic savior, as someone willing to ask the tough questions and report what the mainstream media supposedly hide due to their allegiance to the political left. He recently explained the thinking behind one of his upcoming online ventures, BigJournalism, in the following way: "Our goal at Big Journalism is to hold the mainstream media's feet to the fire. There are a lot of stories that they simply don't cover, either because it doesn't fit their world view, or because they're literally innocent of any knowledge that the story even exists, or because they are a dying organization, short-staffed, and thus can't cover stuff like they did before."

But what kind of journalistic world would Breitbart really like to create? It wouldn't be a more accountable or accurate one. It would instead be a world of pure partisanship, one largely devoid of any meaningful journalistic standards at all -- or, for that matter, standards of decency.

On December 10, Mediaite, the online news-industry aggregator, published an interview with Breitbart in which he railed against "the Democratic-media complex," adding that his current and future initiatives would "fight the mainstream media -- New York Times, Washington Post, LA Times, CBS, ABC, NBC, MSNBC, and CNN -- who have repeatedly, and under the guise of objectivity and political neutrality, promoted a blatantly left-of-center, pro-Democratic party agenda." Two days later, Politico ran another profile of Breitbart, interpreting him as possessing "an interest in fighting the cultural wars that he feels the left has been winning for 40 years." (In that interview, he also emphasized his particular antipathy toward Media Matters. "I'm 100 percent at war with those people," he was quoted as saying.)

Such rhetoric should not be overlooked. As Eric Boehlert recently explained, conservative activists like Breitbart aren't interested in actual journalism. Nor is he against media bias. To the contrary: He is media bias. Everything Breitbart touches is unapologetically imbued with his world view -- one which is defined by a combination of right-wing pseudo-populism and old-line nativism. His content is geared toward, in his words, "a largely underserved audience who fiercely believe in free markets and don't think Western Civilization sucks." Just to eliminate any ambiguity, Breitbart has said his viewers and readers are "Tea Party-esque." In spite of this, he pretends, as do most conservative media figures, that he speaks for the people. "If we aren't 50% of the country," he told Mediaite, "we are damn near close," the same kind of baseless inflation Glenn Beck traffics in.

With such clear conservative credentials, Breitbart's work is all too predictable. He is concerned almost exclusively with smearing and attacking individuals and organizations associated with Democrats or progressives. As is the case with such ventures, facts and standards of evidence are unimportant. The ACORN "scandal" was case in point, as Breitbart trumpeted undercover footage of low-level ACORN employees as unimpeachable evidence that the entire organization was systemically corrupt. As I wrote at the time, it was literally the opposite of the way in which an actual journalistic investigation takes place. No attempt was made to demonstrate that the offending employees represented the norm. Hannah Giles, James O'Keefe, and Breitbart himself all claimed that Giles and O'Keefe had never been turned away from an ACORN office -- a lie twice over. And of course, ACORN never actually helped O'Keefe or Giles carry out their proposed crimes. Breitbart offered no evidence that the verbal assistance they received would have translated into any actual action.

No organization or individual should be above legitimate criticism. But the key word is legitimate. Breitbart's assault on ACORN was a partisan hit-job, and it accomplished its goal, helping to convince 52 percent of GOP voters that the group "stole" the 2008 presidential election. (Mediaite's Colby Hall described the attack as "arguably one of the biggest stories of the year." It was, but Mr. Hall should have noted that ACORN wasn't the real story -- Breitbart and his tactics were.)

Breitbart's latest fixation is Department of Education official Kevin Jennings. Jennings already suffered an initial round of right-wing attacks several months ago, when he was accused of having failed to report, and to even having encouraged, the statutory rape of a high school student -- a lie Media Matters conclusively debunked, first by revealing that the student in question (named Brewster) was at least 16 years old at the time of the supposed incident, and then obtaining a statement from Brewster in which he dismissed the entire story and praised Jennings. And that was just the beginning. Jennings was soon compared to Roman Polanski, was called an advocate for NAMBLA, and accused of "indoctrinat[ing]" schoolchildren about homosexuality."

And the right won't stop. Jennings is back in the news -- and this time, Breitbart is leading the charge. BigGovernment has published an endless number of vulgar articles accusing Jennings of having known in advance about the content of a seminar in which two Massachusetts Department of Education employees engaged in an explicit discussion of sexual practices with a teen audience. But Jennings didn't know, and it turns out that the "evidence" to back up the claim is from MassResistance, an anti-gay organization that has been labeled a "hate group" by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Despite that, Breitbart is all too happy to do the bidding of the right's homophobic attack-dogs.

In truth, as far as right-wing ideologues go, Andrew Breitbart is remarkably ordinary. If there is anything that distinguishes him, it's his shocking immaturity and vindictiveness. His Twitter feed is evidence enough of that, the venue where he chooses to post some of his most petty, juvenile, and objectionable invective. He routinely engages in name calling -- for example, Eric Boehlert is "Earache Boehlert," and Media Matters CEO David Brock is "David Brockovich." More recently, he has posted a host of puerile, scatological attacks on Jennings reminiscent of the tantrums of a child desperate for attention.

Despite such an overwhelmingly clear record, some have legitimized Breitbart's websites as nothing more than a response to The Huffington Post, which ironically, he helped found. Is Breitbart simply a conservative media entrepreneur hoping to emulate the success of progressive news and opinion sites? Hardly -- it's a classic case of false equivalency. While The Huffington Post is undeniably a forum for progressive bloggers and commentators, it has also made a serious investment in real journalism, having founded The Huffington Post Investigative Fund earlier this year. The Fund is staffed by seasoned journalists with long track records. Compare that to Breitbart's BigGovernment, a website deriving its content from a string of Republican Party officials and right-wing activists. To cite but one example: Jim Hoft, the BigGovernment writer currently spearheading the Kevin Jennings assault, is also the man behind Gateway Pundit, a conservative blog as unconcerned with accuracy as Breitbart himself.

As Andrew Breitbart works to build the kind of online media brand that Matt Drudge did years ago, all serious journalists owe it to themselves, and to their profession, to remember who he really is: a far-right activist devoid of integrity. He has no respect for actual journalism, seeking to turn the field into a province defined solely by partisanship and politically potent smears. Any reporter who cares about their craft should recognize that at his core, Breitbart would be all too happy to see them out of a job.

Andrew Breitbart
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