In early 2010, right-wing fabulist Andrew Breitbart was at the height of his powers.
In September 2009, Breitbart launched his BigGovernment.com website with what remains his media empire's biggest coup: The ACORN videos secretly filmed by conservative activists James O'Keefe and Hannah Giles.
Breitbart played a central role in the months-long release of the tapes, hosting the videos on his websites and heavily promoting them. After the videos led Congress to vote to deny federal funding to ACORN, Breitbart became the toast of the conservative movement.
Meanwhile, editors at The New York Times and The Washington Post expressed regret for not giving the ACORN story sufficient attention, and they promised to take such stories more seriously in the future.
Thanks to the ACORN videos, Breitbart was riding high; without them, he would be nothing more than a third-tier, unhinged version of Tucker Carlson, providing an Internet forum for ridiculous smears, wild accusations, and trumped-up scandals.
But it soon became clear that those ACORN videos themselves were not an exception to Breitbart's typical sludge. And so began Breitbart's big downfall.
Breitbart repeatedly claimed that the videos depicted “illegal activity,” with O'Keefe and Giles likewise accusing ACORN of aiding in “criminal” actions. But investigations by California's attorney general, Brooklyn's district attorney, and an independent investigator hired by ACORN all determined that the videos showed no such illegal activity.
After Brooklyn prosecutors cleared ACORN, Breitbart embarrassingly backtracked on his previous accusation of ACORN criminality, tweeting that the “ACORN tapes were less about 'criminality' than facility with which employees all knew how to work system for any lowlife wanting govmnt $.”
The California and Brooklyn investigations also shined a spotlight on how Giles and O'Keefe had deceptively edited the tapes to “meet their agenda.” California Attorney General Jerry Brown said the videos created a “highly selective editing of reality.”
Meanwhile, a central pillar of the ACORN attacks -- that O'Keefe “dressed as a pimp” during his meeting with ACORN officials -- was unraveling. Breitbart eventually acknowledged that he himself had been unaware that O'Keefe had entered the offices dressed in slacks and a dress shirt, not the outlandish pimp costume O'Keefe wore in the tapes' opening sequences.
In January, as his ACORN triumph was falling apart, O'Keefe was getting himself in even more trouble. He was arrested by the FBI after he and his cohorts falsely represented themselves as employees of a phone company to gain access to Sen. Mary Landrieu's New Orleans office.
Numerous right-wing media figures backed away from O'Keefe following his arrest, while Breitbart -- who had previously acknowledged that he paid O'Keefe “a fair salary” -- denied any knowledge of his activities, then accused the U.S. attorney of having “frame[d]” O'Keefe “in media.” O'Keefe later pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor for his role in the incident.
Months later, O'Keefe's bizarre antics would again tarnish his mentor's credibility. In September, CNN reported that when investigative reporter Abbie Boudreau arrived for an interview with O'Keefe, an O'Keefe associate told her O'Keefe was planning to “seduce” and publicly humiliate her. According to the associate, O'Keefe was going to lure Boudreau aboard a boat he called his “pleasure palace,” where he would secretly record his attempts to “hit on” her.
Other right-wing media quickly condemned O'Keefe's “disgusting,” “ugly,” “very creepy” “stunt.” Breitbart himself eventually demanded an “explanation” from O'Keefe, before giving O'Keefe space on his website to declare victory in the fiasco and claim that the incident proved that it's CNN, not himself, that “can't be trusted.”
O'Keefe's bizarre and sometimes illegal actions would not, of course, prevent Breitbart from allowing his Big websites to be used to push O'Keefe's future videos. But that's no surprise: Breitbart himself had already posted the most misleading smear video of them all.
In July, the NAACP released a resolution calling on Tea Party activists to repudiate the movement's racist elements. In retaliation, Breitbart posted a 2 minute and 36 second clip that he claimed showed Agriculture Department official Shirley Sherrod telling a “racist tale” to an NAACP audience about her supposed past discrimination against a white farmer.
Breitbart's report rocketed through the conservative blogosphere and Fox News and triggered the Agriculture Department's demand that Sherrod resign.
But when Sherrod and the farmer she had supposedly discriminated against came forward to tell their stories and the NAACP released the full video of Sherrod's comments, it became clear that the clip Breitbart posted had been ripped from context, and the smear completely dissolved.
In the days that followed, the magnitude of Breitbart's complete lack of journalistic ethics became clear. He claimed he had received the Sherrod clip from an anonymous source and posted it without ever seeing the full video or attempting to contact Sherrod, later explaining that he “had to get it up when the media would pay attention to it.” He acknowledged that his clip had taken her out of context, but denied he had done anything worthy of an apology.
With his concocted smear on the rocks, Breitbart began hurling a variety of bizarre (and false) accusations in hopes of preserving his credibility -- all while alternating between declaring himself “sympathetic” to Sherrod's “plight” after the media supposedly “made it about her,” and continuing to suggest that Sherrod is a racist.
The scandal took on a new light after Dr. Kevin Pezzi was invited by Breitbart to repost two pieces accusing Sherrod of racism on BigGovernment.com. After we exposed Pezzi as a racist who claims to be responsible for “over 850 inventions” and schemes such as a “magic bullet” for cancer, a “robotic chef,” and sexual inventions like “penile enlargement techniques” and “ways to tighten the vagina,” Breitbart pulled Pezzi's posts from his site and apologized.
Unimpressed with his wild claims, media of all stripes condemned Breitbart as untrustworthy and his actions as “a classic example of what is wrong with our national discourse.”
But three months later, ABC News forgot for a time what Politico's Ben Smith called Breitbart's “growing credibility problem.” Breitbart's website reported -- and Media Matters confirmed -- that Breitbart would be providing analysis for the network during its election night coverage.
Amid widespread criticism, including from its own newsroom, ABC News announced that Breitbart would “not be a part of the ABC News broadcast coverage,” but rather would be “participating in an online-only discussion and debate” for ABCNews.com. After many recriminations, with Breitbart saying he had been promised broadcast time and ABC responding that he had “exaggerated the role he would play,” ABC pulled the plug, releasing a letter dropping him from its coverage of the 2010 elections.
From top of the world to too toxic for network television -- Breitbart has come a long way in a year. But while he's lost credibility with virtually everyone else, he's still a welcome member of the conservative media elite, meaning that it's only a matter of time before they parrot his latest smear.