Andrew Breitbart: Media manipulation as an art form
Andrew Breitbart didn’t invent the new media universe. It was already safely in place when he emerged as a potent force in the conservative blogosphere several years ago. But no one exploited the immediacy and subversive force of new media like Breitbart, who died Thursday of an apparent heart attack at age 43.
Breitbart was a revolutionary eager to overthrow a media establishment that he viewed as a front for left-wing social causes. Always brimming with righteous indignation — before he died, his final tweet offered an explanation for why he’d called an adversary a “putz” — he had contempt for anything that smacked of liberal do-gooderism or hypocrisy.
As much as Breitbart loathed his liberal adversaries, he shared many of their beliefs — not the political ones but the ones rooted in an adversarial approach to the establishment. Like many on the left, such as Christopher Hitchens and Jon Stewart, Breitbart had a sly wit, a knack for courting controversy and a disdain for the insular, self-important Washington press corps.
A savvy provocateur, Breitbart knew that the best defense was a good offense. Even though “Game Change,” HBO’s film about how Sarah Palin became John McCain’s 2008 running mate, doesn’t debut until later this month, one of his websites, BigHollywood, has been attacking the film’s credibility for weeks. A typical headline: “‘Game Change’: Meet the Leftists Who Turned HBO Into a Pro-Obama SuperPAC.”
When it came to liberals, it took one to know one. Breitbart was born in the cradle of modern progressivism, growing up in a Jewish liberal household in Brentwood. Largely apolitical through his college years, Breitbart embraced the conservative cause in the early 1990s, only after he became outraged at what he viewed as an insidious liberal attack on Clarence Thomas during the Supreme Court justice’s confirmation hearing. From then on, outrage was Breitbart’s chosen weapon. After apprenticing with Matt Drudge and Arianna Huffington (even after she’d emerged as a full-blown liberal), Breitbart began launching a variety of his own websites, including BigGovernment, BigJournalism and BigHollywood, each one dedicated to the destruction of the old media guard.
Because I write about pop culture, I kept a close eye on BigHollywood, a site especially close to Breitbart’s heart, since it gave him a platform to bash the most visible form of liberal hegemony — the pampered, self-absorbed denizens of show business. Breitbart viewed Hollywood as an industry of sellouts who disguised their careerism by embracing silly social causes. As he once memorably put it: “People come out to Hollywood not to do Shakespeare in the Park, but to get rich and to be able to have sex with the best looking people in the world.”
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According to BigHollywood, the movie industry was ridiculously out of touch and often contemptuous toward regular Americans, slipping left-wing messages into virtually every aspect of entertainment, even “Muppets” films. To hear Breitbart’s bloggers tell it, there was a blacklist against conservatives in Hollywood, forcing them to avoid ever revealing their true beliefs. No one avoided the lash — after I took issue with Breitbart on that last issue, BigHollywood’s lead writer, John Nolte, took to calling me Hollywood’s “left-wing enforcer.”
Breitbart would’ve been a marginal figure if he had simply been a media gadfly. His genius was rooted in the realization that in the new media universe, being outrageous often gets far more attention than being authoritative. After Ted Kennedy died in 2009, when everyone else was lionizing the great liberal crusader, Breitbart ripped him as a “duplicitous bastard.”
In many ways, Breitbart was a throwback to the subversive media manipulators of the 1960s, especially counterculture provocateurs like Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. They courted the media with bizarre antics. Breitbart often did the same. One of his most potent weapons was the hidden camera. In 2009, his confederates posed as a prostitute and her boyfriend, seeking assistance from the staff of the community group ACORN. The stunt attracted nationwide controversy when ACORN staffers offered advice on a scheme designed to skirt federal law to obtain housing that could be used for illegal activities.
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A Government Accountability Office report cleared ACORN of criminal activities, but the explosion of news coverage put Breitbart’s BigGovernment site on the map. Other exposés weren’t as successful. Breitbart posted video excerpts of an agriculture department employee, Shirley Sherrod, supposedly making a racist remark but had to backtrack when a longer version of the tape showed Sherrod discussing bridging racial differences.
Last year, Breitbart was at the heart of the scandal involving New York Rep. Anthony Weiner, an outspoken supporter of liberal causes. Breitbart posted a sexually explicit photo on his BigJournalism site that he obtained from Weiner’s Twitter account. After Breitbart leaked other graphic photos that Weiner had sent to young women, Weiner resigned, but not before Breitbart hijacked a Weiner press conference, taking control of the podium and holding court with reporters before Weiner could take the stage.
If Breitbart had a psychic twin it was Michael Moore, someone he loathed but someone who shared Breitbart’s gift for self-promotion and agit-prop exposés. Love him or hate him, Breitbart was a bracing breath of fresh air who brought an entrepreneurial zeal to his combative style of journalism. Breitbart once said, “I have two speeds — humor and righteous indignation.” It was his true gift — putting pedal to the metal. That may not qualify him as a hall of fame journalist, but in today’s shoot-from-the-hip media universe, it makes him irreplaceable.
Photo: Andrew Breitbart at home August 5 in 2010. Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times.