Media Matters investigates the web of self-dealing, conflicts of interest, and corruption surrounding Breitbart.com. Its top editors have used the site to promote nonprofit organizations, for-profit companies, and personal clients who in turn pay them hefty salaries.
Breitbart.com serves as the communications arm of a web of nonprofit and for-profit entities owned or supported by hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah. The conservative website shares staff with those organizations and regularly promotes their work.
White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon was executive chairman of both Breitbart and the conservative research organization Government Accountability Institute (GAI) from 2012 to 2016. Breitbart Managing Editor Wynton Hall and Senior Editor-at-Large Peter Schweizer also serve as GAI’s communications strategist and president, respectively. The Mercers are part-owners of Breitbart and their foundation is GAI’s primary funder.
The committee that handles congressional press credentialing is currently reviewing Breitbart’s claims of editorial independence in response to the website’s bid for permanent credentials. The committee has to this point denied Breitbart’s request and has expressed concern about Breitbart’s practice of sharing key staff with GAI and its connections to the Mercers.
A Media Matters review of the website’s reporting finds that these concerns are justified: Breitbart regularly promotes the research and films generated by its owners’ and top editors’ other projects. In hundreds of articles over the past six years, Breitbart’s reporters have produced what amounts to press release copy for GAI, highlighting its findings, aggregating stories about politicians responding to GAI’s reports, and posting videos of GAI leaders -- who are also Breitbart editors -- discussing their work on television.
The conflicts of interest don’t stop with GAI. Bannon and the Mercers also co-founded and own the film production company Glittering Steel; Breitbart’s editorial resources have been used to promote that firm’s documentaries.
This intermingling of private, news, and nonprofit organizations culminated in the production and promotion of Clinton Cash, the 2015 anti-Clinton book authored by Peter Schweizer, reportedly based on research he led at GAI. As Bannon himself explained in a 2015 interview, Breitbart was a key cog in the Clinton Cash rollout strategy, producing more than 400 articles covering every aspect of the book. Glittering Steel then turned the book into a documentary -- produced by Bannon, Schweizer, and Rebekah Mercer -- that was also heavily promoted by Breitbart.
Hall and Schweizer have additional conflicts of interest outside of GAI: they also own communications firms which offer their ghostwriting and public relations services to corporate and political clients. While these firms do not publicly disclose their clients, Media Matters identified at least one case in which Breitbart heavily promoted a book ghostwritten by Hall without disclosure.
At every turn, this web of financial interests created unparalleled journalistic ethics quandaries that refute Breitbart’s claims that the site functions as a news organization independent from other groups.
In this story, based on a review of existing articles about this web of interests, federal tax filings, White House disclosure reports, film databases, corporate websites, and hundreds of Breitbart posts, Media Matters reveals:
Breitbart.com. This right-wing website was founded by conservative activist Andrew Breitbart and quickly emerged as a hotbed of bigoted commentary, conspiracy theories, and ludicrous smears of progressives. Over the years, the website has been a key force in the conservative movement’s recent anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, and anti-establishment turn. During the 2016 presidential election cycle, the site became both home to the “alt-right,” a misogynistic white nationalist movement, and a key supporter of Donald Trump. [Media Matters, 3/14/16; Media Matters, 11/13/16]
The Government Accountability Institute. This conservative think tank seeks “to investigate and expose crony capitalism, misuse of taxpayer monies, and other governmental corruption or malfeasance.” [G-A-I.org, accessed 4/5/17]
Glittering Steel LLC. This “very low-profile movie production company ... has made ads for pro-Trump and pro-Ted Cruz super PACs.” [The Daily Beast, 11/4/16]
The Mercers fund a sprawling conservative political empire that includes the media outlet Breitbart, nonprofits like GAI, and for-profit companies like Glittering Steel.
Major Right-Wing Donors Made Their Money Through Hedge Funds. Robert Mercer is the billionaire co-CEO of the hedge fund Renaissance Technologies. He, his wife, and his daughter Rebekah donated $41.3 million to Republican super PACs, party organizations, and federal candidates from 2008 to 2016. [Newsweek, 11/21/16; The Washington Post, 3/17/17]
The Mercers Have Deep Ties To President Trump. Robert and Rebekah Mercer “were among the earliest and strongest backers of Donald Trump while other elite donors still disdained him,” The Atlantic reported. Rebekah Mercer served on the executive committee of the Trump presidential transition team. [The Atlantic, 1/27/17; GreatAgain.gov, 11/30/16]
They’re Partial Owners Of Breitbart News Network LLC. Breitbart CEO Larry Solov has acknowledged that the Mercer family owns part of the website. The family reportedly invested at least $10 million in 2011. [USA Today, 2/24/17; The Washington Post, 3/17/17]
The Mercer Family Foundation, Which Rebekah Mercer Directs And Robert Mercer’s Money Supports, Is The Primary Funder Of GAI. Funded by Robert Mercer’s fortune and featuring Rebekah Mercer as its sole director, the foundation donated $36 million to an array of conservative nonprofits from 2008 to 2014. The foundation provided $3.7 million of GAI’s $6.9 million in revenues from 2013 to 2015. [The Washington Post, 3/17/17; Bloomberg Politics, 1/18/17; GAI’s IRS filings for 2013, 2014, and 2015]
Rebekah Mercer Is The Chairwoman Of The Board Of Directors At GAI. According to the group’s tax returns, Rebekah Mercer was on GAI’s board of directors from 2012 from 2014. She is now the board’s chairwoman. [G-A-I.org, accessed 4/6/17; Bloomberg Politics, 1/18/17]
The Mercers Co-Founded, And Are Partial Owners Of, Glittering Steel. [The Washington Post, 3/17/17]
Stephen Bannon advises the Mercers on their political spending and frequently leads the organizations they back, including Breitbart, GAI, and Glittering Steel.
Bannon Was Executive Chairman Of Breitbart From 2012 Until 2016. Stephen Bannon, now White House chief strategist, became executive chairman of the conservative news outlet Breitbart in January 2012 and left the position in August 2016, according to federal disclosure forms. Other accounts have him leaving Breitbart in November or December 2016. He was paid $191,000 by Breitbart in 2016. [Stephen Bannon Public Financial Disclosure Report, certified 3/3/17; Media Matters, 4/3/17]
Bannon Was Chairman Of The Government Accountability Institute From 2012 Until 2016. Bannon led GAI from March 2012 to August 2016 and was paid $437,539 over that period. He worked 30 hours a week for the nonprofit, according to the group’s tax returns. [Bannon Public Financial Disclosure Report, certified 3/3/17; The Washington Post, 11/23/16]
Bannon Was Chairman Of Glittering Steel Until 2016 And Still Owns Part Of Company. Bannon co-founded Glittering Steel with the Mercers and chaired the company from its founding until August 2016. He was paid $167,500 for his work in 2016 and still holds an ownership stake worth between $100,001 and $250,000. The company reportedly serves as a “front for Bannon.” [Bannon Public Financial Disclosure Report, certified 3/3/17; The Washington Post, 3/17/17; The Daily Beast, 11/4/16]
Bannon Is A Political Advisor To The Mercers, Who Recommended Him To Trump. Bannon served as “the family’s political adviser, assessing the impact of think tanks, policy groups and super PACS they were considering financing.” This has resulted in their collaborations on at least five projects. Rebekah Mercer also reportedly “pushed Trump” to hire Bannon as the campaign’s chief executive in August. [The Washington Post, 3/17/17; Newsweek, 12/2/16]
Bannon Turned Breitbart Into An “Alt-Right” Cesspool. While the website has always featured bigoted commentary, under Bannon’s leadership, the website featured a vast array of racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism, and anti-LGBT rhetoric. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Breitbart over the past few years made a “noticeable shift toward embracing ideas on the extremist fringe of the conservative right. Racist ideas. Anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant ideas -- all key tenets making up an emerging racist ideology known as the ‘Alt-Right.’” The website also promoted Trump-style far-right political parties across Europe. [Media Matters, 11/13/16; The New Yorker, 10/16/16]
Peter Schweizer is a conservative activist and author who worked for President George W. Bush and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. His research provides the ammunition for the Mercer-funded, Bannon-directed conservative attack machine. He develops research at GAI and writes about it at Breitbart.
Schweizer Has Been Senior Editor-At-Large At Breitbart Since 2013. Schweizer, who has written for the site since 2009, was named editor of Breitbart’s Big Peace national security vertical in 2010 and then became senior editor-at-large as part of a 2013 masthead shakeup. [Breitbart masthead as of March 20 via Twitter, 3/27/17; Breitbart.com, 10/24/09; Breitbart.com, 7/4/10; Breitbart.com, 10/18/13]
Schweizer Served As President Of GAI After Its Founding In 2012. He worked 40 hours a week and received $778,000 from the organization while serving as its president, secretary, and treasurer from 2012 to 2015, according to federal tax forms. [G-A-I.org, accessed 4/6/17; The Washington Post, 11/23/16]
Schweizer Is A Longtime Conservative Activist. Schweizer worked for President George W. Bush’s White House as a speechwriting consultant, advised former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin on foreign policy, helped then-Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal write his autobiography, and served as a fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution. He has headlined Republican Party fundraisers and regularly addresses conservative groups and conferences. [Media Matters, 4/20/15]
Schweizer Is A Principal At The Ghostwriting Shop He Owns With The Washington Post’s Marc Thiessen. Schweizer and Marc Thiessen, a former Bush speechwriter, founded Oval Office Writers LLC in 2009. The firm states that it helps prepare speeches, keynotes, and congressional testimony, and provides fundraising help, among other services. The firm does not identify its clients on its website, making it impossible to tell if Schweizer has used his Breitbart platform to promote its interests. [Media Matters, 4/20/15]
Schweizer Has A History Of Producing Shoddy Journalism. Reporters and fact-checkers have excoriated Schweizer for massive factual problems. The following is how journalists described Schweizer's work prior to 2015: “Incorrect,” “inaccurate,” “bogus,” “a fatal shortcoming in Journalism 101,” “the facts didn't stand up,” “unfair and inaccurate,” “specious argument,” “there was nothing there,” “suspicious,” “the facts don't fit,” facts “do not check out,” sources “do not exist or cannot be tracked down,” “confusion and contradiction,” “discrepancies,” “admitted a mistake,” “neither journalism nor history,” “a polemic so unchecked ... that we can't tell the fact from the fiction,” sources “have clearly used him,” and he “tacitly conced[ed] he was wrong.” [Media Matters, 4/20/15]
Schweizer Has Promoted His Other Interests In More Than 20 Percent Of His Breitbart Posts Since 2012. Over the past five years, Schweizer referenced his books or his GAI organization in 12 of his 53 Breitbart posts, according to a Media Matters analysis.
A conservative activist and author, Wynton Hall weaponizes the research Schweizer develops at GAI, often through his role as a top Breitbart editor. The website has also promoted Hall’s ghostwriting clients.
Hall Has Been Managing Editor Of Breitbart Since 2013. Hall, who had written for the site since 2011, was promoted in 2013 as part of a masthead shakeup to ensure “a 24/7 editorial team focused on the site.” As part of his role, Hall manages Breitbart’s social media presence. [Breitbart masthead as of March 20 via Twitter, 3/27/17; Breitbart.com, 10/18/13; Breitbart.com, 11/19/16]
Hall Worked As A Communications Strategist For GAI. Hall made $600,000 working 40 hours a week for GAI as its communications strategist from 2012 to 2015, according to tax returns. [The Washington Post, 11/23/16; Politico, 3/27/17]
Hall Is Also A Professional Ghostwriter, And Breitbart Has Promoted His Clients Without Disclosure. Hall is the owner of Wynton Hall & Co., a celebrity ghostwriting and branding agency whose clients have included an unnamed list of “NBA stars, White House presidential officials, Hollywood and Bollywood producers and movie stars, Fortune 500 CEOs, college presidents, Heisman Trophy winners, presidential candidates, NCAA Hall of Fame coaches, top motivational speakers, TV celebrities, and international fashion models.” He also works for Schweizer’s Oval Office Writers. Breitbart resources have been used to promote at least one of Hall’s ghostwriting clients, the tailor Martin Greenfield, without disclosing his financial relationship. [Media Matters, 4/21/2017]
Breitbart Is Seeking Permanent Congressional Press Credentials. The Standing Committee of Correspondents of the Senate Press Gallery (a group of five reporters at traditional media outlets) has so far has denied Breitbart permanent press credentials but is reviewing its application. According to BuzzFeed: “For newer outlets in Washington, winning permanent congressional press passes is a tedious process — but an important one. The hard passes are seen as the first step towards joining the White House Correspondents’ Association, where member news organizations rotate their reporters to travel with the president at home and abroad. Reporters also use the hard passes to get into other events around Washington.” [BuzzFeed, 3/27/17]
The Committee Is Concerned With Breitbart’s Shared Staff With GAI, Whose Work Is Not “In Line With The Committee’s Guidelines For Credentialing.” According to a Politico report on Breitbart’s hearing last month before the committee:
Of concern to the committee was the presence on the masthead of at least two people, Senior Editor-at-large Peter Schweizer and Managing Editor Wynton Hall, who are both also both part of the Mercer-funded Government Accountability Institute founded by Bannon and Schweizer. The GAI and the work they produce, (sic) would not be in line with the committee’s guidelines for credentialing, the committee said.
“We can’t even get an exact date Bannon resigned, on or about Nov. 13, even so, some officers and top editors at Breitbart may or may not have continued relations directly with Bannon and another organizations, even being paid,” said the standing committee chairman, Billy House from Bloomberg News. “Even if Bannon is no longer involved in GAI, top editors are involved in this other group, an advocacy group.”
“It’s not that unusual that an Arianna Huffington, or Michael Bloomberg, these people are engaged in political activities. But it’s when the editorial masthead is full of people with dual roles who are also doing advocacy, that is a problem,” said committee secretary Joseph Morton of the Omaha-World Herald. [Politico, 3/27/17]
Schweizer Authored The Anti-Clinton Hit Book Clinton Cash. In the 2015 book, Schweizer alleged that Bill and Hillary Clinton “typically blur the lines between politics, philanthropy, and business” in ways that raise “serious and alarming questions of judgment, of possible indebtedness to an array of foreign interests, and, ultimately, of fitness for high public office.” It was a trainwreck of sloppy research and shoddy reporting that contained more than 20 errors, fabrications, and distortions, but nonetheless was widely covered by major news outlets. [HarperCollins.com, accessed 4/29/15; Media Matters, 4/30/15; Bloomberg Politics, 10/8/15]
The Clinton Cash Book Was Built On GAI’s Research. In a 2015 profile of Bannon, Bloomberg Businessweek reported that Clinton Cash was “the biggest product” of GAI’s system. “GAI researchers plumbed tax filings, flight logs, and foreign government documents” and mined “the so-called Deep Web” seeking information about the Clinton Foundation’s donors, which was then reported out in the book. [Bloomberg Businessweek, 10/8/15]
Breitbart Editors Hall And Bannon Directed A Media Strategy In Which Clinton Cash’s Details Were Fed To Mainstream Outlets -- Not Breitbart. As Bloomberg Businessweek relates, in their roles with GAI, Bannon and Hall mapped out a strategy that involved feeding details of their projects to major news outlets -- not to the one at which they worked:
Hall’s job is to transform dry think-tank research into vivid, viral-ready political dramas that can be unleashed on a set schedule, like summer blockbusters. “We work very long and hard to build a narrative, storyboarding it out months in advance,” he says. “I’m big on this: We’re not going public until we have something so tantalizing that any editor at a serious publication would be an idiot to pass it up and give a competitor the scoop. ”
The reason GAI does this is because it’s the secret to how conservatives can hack the mainstream media. Hall has distilled this, too, into a slogan: “Anchor left, pivot right.” It means that “weaponizing” a story onto the front page of the New York Times (“the Left”) is infinitely more valuable than publishing it on Breitbart.com. “We don’t look at the mainstream media as enemies because we don’t want our work to be trapped in the conservative ecosystem,” says Hall. “We live and die by the media. Every time we’re launching a book, I’ll build a battle map that literally breaks down by category every headline we’re going to place, every op-ed Peter’s going to publish. Some of it is a wish list. But it usually gets done.” [Bloomberg Businessweek, 10/8/15]
The GAI Team Deployed That Strategy With Clinton Cash. The New York Times and The Washington Post were among the outlets that “made exclusive agreements” with Schweizer “for early access to his opposition research” so they could read the book and report on its findings before its publication. [Politico, 4/20/15]
Bannon Used Breitbart As A Weapon To Push The Research He Directed At GAI. Bannon told Bloomberg Businessweek, “With Clinton Cash, [Breitbart] never really broke a story, but you go [to Breitbart.com] and we’ve got 20 things, we’re linking to everybody else’s stuff, we’re aggregating, we’ll pull stuff from the Left.” Indeed, Breitbart has published at least 420 articles that reference Clinton Cash. This includes:
- 15 articles referencing Clinton Cash that were published April 20, the day after The New York Times reported that the book would be “the most anticipated and feared book of a presidential cycle still in its infancy”;
- 97 articles referencing the book that were published from April 20, 2015, through May 4, 2015, the two weeks leading up to the book’s publication; and
- another 61 articles published from May 5, 2015, to June 4, 2015, the month after the book’s publication.
As Bannon suggested, Breitbart aggregated other news outlets’ reports on the book, highlighted Schweizer’s interviews, flagged controversies emerging about the book’s critics, complained when mainstream outlets weren’t giving it sufficient attention, cheered its sales figures, pointed out comments related to the book from Democrats and Republicans, and otherwise pushed its message relentlessly.
Bannon Also Turned Clinton Cash Into A Glittering Steel Film. At a screening at the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Bannon explained that he had turned Schweizer’s book into a documentary “for liberals” as a way to damage Clinton’s credibility, adding that “it’s important that as many people as possible see this film.” The film’s credits list Schweizer and Rebekah Mercer as executive producers, Bannon as producer and author of the screenplay, and Glittering Steel and Bannon Film Industries as production companies. [IMDB.com, accessed 4/11/17; Breitbart.com, 7/20/16]
Breitbart Produced More Than 100 Articles Plugging The Film, Which Financially Benefited Two Top Breitbart Editors And Part-Owner Rebekah Mercer. Breitbart writers produced at least 103 stories referencing the documentary, according to a Media Matters review of the site’s articles tagged “Clinton Cash.” The reports include including articles alerting their audience to broadcasts of the documentary by the website and on the conservative One America News Network; stories touting endorsements of the film by conservatives like Fred Barnes, John Stossel, and Matt Drudge; and pieces highlighting how many times the film had been viewed online. The website also offered “$25.99 DVDs of Clinton Cash for the price of shipping and handling” as what was billed as an effort to launch “Breitbart Deals.” There have been no subsequent “Breitbart Deals.” [Breitbart.com, accessed 4/20/17]
Breitbart Says It Was Essential In “Leading The Charge” To Promote Clinton Cash. Breitbart reported January 18, “The impending implosion of the Clinton Foundation and the looming layoff of 22 staffers due to the closure of the Clinton Global Initiative are the result of Breitbart News and its Editor-at-Large Peter Schweizer’s book Clinton Cash.” According to the article, following the book’s publication, “Breitbart News was leading the charge and crafting the narratives behind some of the most explosive details uncovered in Clinton Cash.” [Breitbart.com, 1/18/17]
Breitbart Publicity Campaign Backed Obscure Mercer-Bannon Film. Breitbart published at least 22 articles -- including two glowing reviews -- promoting Torchbearer, a little-watched documentary produced by Bannon and Mercer through Glittering Steel. Bannon also wrote and directed the film. [Media Matters, 4/21/17]
Schweizer And Hall Appear To Have Played A Role In Writing Trump’s 2011 Book. Trump thanks Hall and Schweizer, who work together at Schweizer’s Oval Office Writers ghostwriting firm, among “the team at Regnery Publishing” in the acknowledgments of his 2011 book, Make America #1 Again. Hall has been previously identified of the ghostwriter of the book, and Trump provides a testimonial on the website of Hall’s Wynton Hall & Co. Breitbart articles about Trump do not disclose that two of the site’s top editors stand to gain financially from Trump’s political success. In a July 2015 post, Bannon praised the “smart and serious bestseller” shortly before Trump entered the presidential race, writing that the book provides Trump’s “penetrating, serious, and detailed enunciation of his political philosophy and policy views,” without disclosing the role that two Breitbart editors played in its production. [Time to Get Tough: Making America #1 Again, 12/5/11; WyntonHallCo.com, accessed 4/20/17; Bloomberg Businessweek, 10/8/15; Breitbart.com, 7/12/15]
Bannon And Schweizer Used Breitbart To Promote GAI’s Attempt To Defuse Trump’s Russia Ties. As the Trump campaign was hounded by stories pointing to Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election and the campaign’s friendly stance toward that nation, GAI released a report claiming that a top Hillary Clinton aide had his own Russia ties. Bannon and Schweizer promoted the report in a Breitbart article and on Bannon’s Breitbart radio show the next day. Two weeks later, Bannon joined the Trump campaign. Breitbart has promoted the GAI report’s claims in at least nine articles. [Media Matters, 3/28/17; Breitbart.com, accessed 4/14/17]
GAI Has Spent $200,500 On Breitbart Ads. GAI paid Breitbart $102,500 in 2013 and $98,000 in 2015 for advertising, according to IRS disclosures made due to Bannon’s conflict of interest as executive chairman of both entities. Schweizer’s book Extortion: How Politicians Extract Your Votes, Buy Votes, and Line Their Own Pockets was released in 2013, while Schweizer’s Clinton Cash was released in 2015. [Government Accountability Institute 990, 2013; Government Accountability Institute 990, 2015]
Breitbart Has Helped Promote Other GAI And Schweizer Research In More Than 100 Articles By Hall. According to a Media Matters review, Breitbart has published dozens of press release-style articles promoting Extortion and Schweizer’s 2011 book Throw Them All Out, as well as virtually every GAI report, on topics including but not limited to Obama’s attendance at presidential daily briefs; the number of Obama meetings with then-Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius; purported Russian ties to top aides to Hillary Clinton; film tax credits; campaign finance documents; purported corporate benefits from food stamps; Justice Department prosecutions of the finance industry; and two specials from Fox News’ Sean Hannity featuring Schweizer and Bannon. Hall, Bannon, and Schweizer all actively participated in these public relations campaigns for an organization that has paid them hundreds of thousands of dollars. Below are some headlines from Breitbart articles -- all authored by Breitbart managing editor and GAI communications strategist Hall -- about these products:
[Media Matters, 4/21/17]
Shelby Jamerson contributed research to this report. Images by Sarah Wasko.