Breitbart's blight: The state of right-wing “journalism”

Last August, Andrew Breitbart wrote a column for the Washington Times on Kenneth Gladney, a black conservative activist who was allegedly assaulted at a union meeting. According to Breitbart, the incident was the fault of the Obama White House: “These union thugs were directed by the White House to go to the protests and 'punch back twice as hard.' And they did.” Of course, that's not at all what the White House did or said, but Breitbart nonetheless demanded that the White House be held accountable.

Fast forward eleven months, and Andrew Breitbart is back again, posting a cropped video of Shirley Sherrod, an African-American USDA official, speaking at a NAACP event. The video, according to Breitbart, was “evidence of racism coming from a federal appointee” and showed Sherrod saying “in stark detail, that her federal duties are managed through the prism of race and class distinctions.” Breitbart's accusations resulted in Sherrod's forced resignation, and it was not until after she had lost her job and reputation that the full video came forth showing that everything -- literally everything -- Breitbart had alleged was absolutely false.

The whole Sherrod affair has quite publicly and embarrassingly blown up in the right-wing hatchetman's face. And now Breitbart, who demanded the White House be held accountable for something they didn't do, is insisting that he not be held accountable for a fiasco that, without question, is pretty much all his fault. And what's truly upsetting -- aside from the ordeal Sherrod's been put through -- is that he'll probably get away with it.

There is an insidiousness to Breitbart's modus operandi that is often overlooked in the many profiles and write-ups devoted to him and his online media empire-cum-vanity projects. The New Yorker cast Breitbart as a borderline psychotic whose “constitutionally adversarial” nature leads him to fight with everyone: “No battle is too petty for Breitbart, no target too small or pathetic.” This is largely accurate, but Breitbart actually does discriminate in the fights he picks. As The Atlantic's Joshua Green rightly points out, Breitbart's preferred arena is race, and his aim is “to stir the very worst racial resentments.”

Indeed, it's difficult to find anything Breitbart has done recently that hasn't served to inflame racial tensions. The backdrop to Breitbart's accusations of racism against Sherrod was his insistence that no racism exists in the predominantly white tea parties, and that the real racists are at the NAACP, which had just recently passed a resolution condemning the racist elements within the tea parties. It's exactly the sort of allegation that would get Breitbart's audience fired up, as it plays to the tea party's majority opinion that too much has been made of the problems facing African Americans. And that's why Breitbart leveled the charge to begin with. He wanted to stoke a racial frenzy and ride the ensuing wave of publicity.

One can also look at the people and organizations Breitbart has targeted in the very recent past: Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), a hero of the civil rights movement ( “I don't care what he did 40 years ago, he's trying to rip this country apart” ); the Congressional Black Caucus ( “they're searching for that racism” ); Democrats and labor unions ( “this is a racial, racist, racially divisive strategy” ). Breitbart's websites were also instrumental in pushing the phony New Black Panther story, as well as the right-wing campaign to stop the Ground Zero mosque. Whenever the country's or the conservative movement's continuing problems with race bubble up, Breitbart can be reliably expected to counterintuitively and counterfactually assert that the real racism is actually coming from minority groups or organized labor.

In a way, you can't really blame Breitbart for this. The lies and race-baiting are part of his pathology, and you can no more expect him to stop playing to the racial paranoia of his audience than you can a slug to stop oozing mucus. What makes Breitbart dangerous is the welcoming embrace he receives from the conservative media, which gives his antics the potential to be treated as actual news. Glenn Beck and the rest of Fox News make no secret of the fact that they use Breitbart to guide much of their coverage, conservative magazines like the National Review are always ready to promote him, and the right-wing blogosphere positively loves the guy. Once they all start buzzing in unison about the latest Breitbart “scoop,” it doesn't take long for the other cable networks and the newspapers to be cowed into following suit.

And now that Breitbart is feeling the pinch for his ridiculous Sherrod overreach, the conservative press will serve as his port in the storm. David Frum has already documented how the right-wing have, to appropriate Frum's metaphor, turned in unison like a school of fish to disappear Breitbart's culpability and instead blame everything on the Obama administration: “The central fact of the Sherrod story has been edited out of the conservative narrative, just as it was edited out of the tape itself.” This becomes especially disingenuous when you realize that many of the same conservatives afflicted by this convenient and selective amnesia actually praised Breitbart to the stars for the Sherrod story before it was debunked.

And that, really, is why Breitbart, despite having committed an ostensibly career-killing (and potentially legally actionable) injustice, isn't likely to disappear from view. His audience certainly isn't going anywhere, and it's pretty clear there's nothing he can do that will earn him the disfavor of his conservative media peers -- including, we now learn, smearing an innocent African American woman as a racist and getting her fired. He'll continue to appear on Fox News and write columns for the Washington Times, and Republican politicians will continue posting items on his websites, lending Breitbart credibility he's done nothing to deserve.