Breitbart.com published nearly two dozen articles last year promoting a virtually unwatched documentary whose production company is owned by the website’s partial owners Robert and Rebekah Mercer and its then-executive chairman, Stephen Bannon.
The website’s advocacy of the film is a case study in how Bannon and the Mercers use Breitbart to promote a web of nonprofit organizations and for-profit companies. The credentialing body for congressional reporters is currently investigating these ties as part of a review of whether the conservative website is sufficiently editorially independent to obtain official press credentials to cover Congress.
Torchbearer is a Phil Robertson (of “Duck Dynasty” fame) vehicle whose thesis is that “God is the only meaningful anchor to a civilized society” and that purported efforts by progressives to cut God out of public life are destroying Western civilization. It received a limited October 7 release in 31 U.S. theaters.
Stephen Bannon, the Breitbart chief and conservative filmmaker who took over Donald Trump’s presidential campaign last summer and is now a top White House advisor, wrote, directed, and produced the documentary.
Bannon says he left Glittering Steel and Breitbart when he moved to the Trump campaign, but there’s reason to doubt that this is true, as Breitbart’s CEO has contradicted his claim, and Bannon retains an ownership stake in Glittering Steel worth between $100,001 and $250,000 (which he currently intends to sell), according to federal filings.
Torchbearer attracted little attention from the public and was ignored by film critics. Robertson is a conservative media darling, but apart from a few scattered articles, the movie failed to make a big splash with Breitbart’s right-wing media competitors. After its brief turn in theaters, it moved to streaming services, where it was promptly forgotten (the film has 154 reviews on Amazon Video, for example, roughly one tenth as many as right-wing productions like Joel Gilbert’s Dreams From My REAL Father and Dinesh D’Souza’s Hillary’s America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party).
But at Breitbart, where the site’s leaders had a financial stake in the film’s success, promoting it was a priority worthy of mentioning in at least 22 stories.
In the months leading up to its debut, Breitbart highlighted the film’s trailer, its screening at the Republican National Convention and at the Cannes Film Festival, and news of its theatrical release. Robertson plugged the film in numerous interviews on Breitbart’s Sirius XM radio show that were then promoted on the website, sitting down with host Bannon -- or “Mr. Director,” as Robertson called him -- to discuss the “overwhelming feeling” of making the documentary and his support for Trump.
Breitbart’s promotion of the film culminated with a pair of glowing reviews published shortly before the theatrical release.
According to Breitbart’s Thomas D. Williams, the documentary was “groundbreaking” and “visually riveting,” with its Duck Dynasty star serving as “an unapologetic witness to the Christian faith as the cornerstone of Western Civilization” with such skill that “even his critics will be forced to reckon with a man whose simple, rough-hewn appearance masks a subtle intellect and a keen grasp of perennial truths.”
For Ken Klukowski, the website’s senior legal editor, the “epic” film was “a clarion call for Christians” that “gives the viewer a whirlwind tour of world history with a focus on the Christian experience from apostolic times to the present, showcasing the pattern of how godless humanity descends into depravity, in stark contrast to the sublime virtues with which God’s people adorn their lives in the face of adversity—all narrated in the iconic voice of the Duck Commander.”
Breitbart’s outlier coverage was not a typical editorial judgment, but rather the result of a conflict of interest in which figures with heavy influence over the website also stood to reap financial benefits from the film’s success through their ownership of Glittering Steel.
And it’s not the only time Breitbart has been called upon to promote a Glittering Steel production. The company also produced the documentary Clinton Cash, based on a book authored by Breitbart Senior Editor-at-Large Peter Schweizer and a screenplay by Bannon (Schweizer, Bannon, and Rebekah Mercer all received executive producer or producer credits).
Breitbart writers authored at least 103 stories referencing the film, according to a Media Matters review of the website’s “Clinton Cash” tag. This includes articles alerting their audience to broadcasts of the documentary by the website and on the conservative One America News Network; endorsements of the film by conservatives like Fred Barnes, John Stossel, and Matt Drudge; and pieces hyping how many times the film had been viewed online.
This web of financial interests playing out in the website’s editorial decisions should concern the Standing Committee of Correspondents of the Senate Press Gallery, the credentialing committee reviewing Breitbart’s bid for permanent congressional access.
The body has to this point denied the website permanent credentials because it has failed to prove that it is fully independent of Bannon, the Mercers, and a nonprofit group that employs several top Breitbart editors.
The committee is seeking more information from the website and will next convene on April 25.
Glittering Steel has also drawn attention from campaign finance watchdogs that say it may have been used to subsidize Bannon’s salary on the Trump campaign. The payments in question originate with Make America Number 1, a super PAC led by Rebekah Mercer and heavily funded by her father.
Images by Sarah Wasko, Shelby Jamerson contributed research.