By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Andrew Breitbart’s mixed legacy

Andrew Breitbart at the CPAC conference in Washington last month.

It’s a tribute to Andrew Breitbart’s skill at media manipulation that when word of his death started spreading around Twitter this morning, the first reaction many people had was that it was a hoax. Only after confirmation from the Los Angeles Times and other news organizations did people believe it was really true.

Breitbart was someone I kept maybe half an eye on, at best, so I don’t have a fully developed take on his career as a media provocateur and what it meant. He seemed to be someone of endless energy and pugnacity, which served him well in bringing down Anthony Weiner, but which proved an embarrassment with the deceptively edited ACORN and Shirley Sherrod videos.

Two people asked me today if Breitbart was “a journalist.” I think it shows how much the media environment has changed over the past decade that the question didn’t strike me as making much sense. He was a conservative activist and a showman, and one of the things he did was journalism, both good and bad. If you do journalism, are you a journalist? Does it matter?

I ran across three pieces today that I think are worth sharing.

The first is a remembrance by Josh Marshall, editor of the liberal website Talking Points Memo, who gets at Breitbart’s dual nature. Despite being well to the right of someone like Marshall, and exceedingly unpleasant on occasion, Breitbart had a certain way about him that people found compelling. Marshall writes:

There are some people who live for the fight. It’s something I try not to be part of. Yet it’s a big, punchy, vivid and outrageously honorable tradition in the American public square. I cannot think of many people who lived more out loud than he did, more in primary colors.

The second, a 2010 profile by Rebecca Mead of the New Yorker, was pretty much definitive at the time and holds up well. Despite its warts-and-all depiction of Breitbart, it comes across as fair, and Breitbart emerges as a not-entirely-unsympathetic character driven mainly by resentment and disdain for those he considers to be liberal elitists. And if that’s not a good description of what the modern conservative movement is all about, I don’t know what is.

Finally, apostate Republican David Frum has written a very tough assessment for the Daily Beast that acknowledges Breitbart “was by all accounts generous with time and advice, a loving husband and father, and a loyal friend,” but that is unstinting in its criticism of Breitbart’s brand of media activism. Frum writes:

Breitbart sometimes got stories right (Anthony Weiner). More often he got them wrong (Sherrod). He did not much care either way. Just as all is fair in a shooting war, so manipulation and deception are legitimate tools in a culture war. Breitbart used those tools without qualm or regret, and he inspired a cohort of young conservative journalists to do likewise.

Like Frum, I wonder if Breitbart might have grown if given the chance. His Weiner takedown surely must have showed him that getting it right brings a completely different level of respect and influence than does faking a video and getting caught.

Breitbart was only 43 years old and leaves behind four young children. Was he on his way to media respectability, or is that just wishful thinking? We’ll never know.

Photo (cc) by Gage Skidmore and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

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  1. Kate McAllister

    “Just as all is fair in a shooting war, so manipulation and deception are legitimate tools in a culture war. Breitbart used those tools without qualm or regret, and he inspired a cohort of young conservative journalists to do likewise.”

    Breitbart was a devil worshiper who eats raw human babies and drinks only the blood of the innocent. He cheated on his taxes, his wife, his mistress, and his 9th grade algebra test. He lied about taking algebra. He lied about what he had for breakfast that morning. He lied about being a journalist. He lied about his age. He lied about his name. He lied about being a liar. To say there is no low he would not stoop to, is an insult to stoops in nice neighborhoods everywhere.

    Hey look! I’m just as much a “journalist” as Breitbart was!

    I come not to praise nor bury Andrew Breitbart, only to condemn him as he condemned so many others.

    The man was unadulterated scum. Not because of his politics, but because of his utter disrespect for anything one could call a principle. Except, perhaps, that his only principle was never to have one. Even considering to call him a “journalist” is an insult to the profession and a sign of how far the industry has fallen. Even Amy Goodman, the Queen of Left Wing Demagoguery, tries to tell the truth. Perhaps with a lot of spin on it, but truth nonetheless.

    And to say he “might get better” is another sign of journalistic wishy-washiness that’s all too prevalent in the industry today. Credibility is like virginity: you only get once chance to lose it and once you do, you’re screwed. He could try and be Murrow or Cronkite for the rest of his life…and that would never change that he was NOT – and never would be – a journalist.

    Why? Because you never could trust a word he said.

    I am not sorry he is gone. And I do not pity him, nor anyone connected to him. If he or his family desired our solicitude after his death, then perhaps he should have done something to deserve it in his life. Instead he nakedly pandered to the lowest common denominator to further expand his overdeveloped ego. He didn’t just align himself with everything that is wrong with modern media, he didn’t just contribute to everything that is wrong with modern media, he gleefully shouted to the rooftops that he knew what he was doing was wrong, and that everyone should hope to be as bad as him.

    He may rest in peace. But the rest of us know a little less of it, thanks to him.

  2. Rick Peterson

    other than the Sherrod video, where are all the instances of Breitbart errors I keep hearing about? The level of venom by his detractors on the web is his greatest legacy and says a lot more about them than him. Like Howie Carr, raking muck is usually not pretty. But if the alternative is not knowing about malfeasance, I’m willing to live with that to shine a light on the facts.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Rick: The ACORN video. As for the “venom” being directed at him, I suggest you read the New Yorker piece, in which Breitbart revels in his own venomous persona. You can’t go around calling people a “c–t” without making some enemies.

  3. Dan Bloom

    In the wake of Andrew Breitbart’s surprising death, Piers Morgan spoke candidly with Brooke Baldwin on “CNN Newsroom” earlier today.

    The conservative blogger was a regular guest of “Piers Morgan Tonight,” appearing as recently as Tuesday evening following the Republican primaries in Arizona and Michigan.

    Sitting across the table from Breitbart less than two days ago, Morgan says he saw nothing to indicate any health issues: “He looked really good, and we said that on air. I’m just as shocked as anybody about what’s happened.”

    The “Washington Times” commentator frequently served on political panels for “Piers Morgan Tonight,” drawing rave reviews from the host:

  4. Christian Avard

    I’m not believing in Breitbart’s death until I see the original copy of his death certificate.

  5. Stephen Stein

    Breitbart was a villain. He was a big ass motherf@#$er. He was a duplicitous bastard. He was a prick.

    No, wait, that’s what Breitbart said about Ted Kennedy after his death. Sorry, honest mistake.

  6. Aaron Read

    I think the most telling factoid about Breitbart’s death is that even Charlie Pierce…a man who rarely shies away from full-frontal verbal assaults…is only linking to Breitbart’s thoroughly classless “eulogy” tweet of Ted Kennedy, and saying no more than that.

    He says more about David Frum talking about Breitbart than he did about Breitbart. Granted, he righteously smacks Frum – and Frum deserves it – but I am nevertheless rather disappointed. A full-throated Charlie Rant would bring some self-righteous amusement to an otherwise stressful day I’m having. 🙂

  7. Andrew Breitbart wasn’t a journalist. Nor did he use journalism as a tool.

    He used online publishing channels for his rather crude and cruel form of activism and character assassination.

    At least that’s my take.

  8. Al Quint

    Aaron, if you’re disappointed with Charlie, you might be interested in Matt Taibbi from Rolling Stone’s take. It’s certainly not lacking in the venom department. And Breitbart’s fans responded in kind, sending him death threats, publishing his home number, etc

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Al: I’m sorry, but Matt Taibbi and Andrew Breitbart deserve each other. Really a shame Breitbart’s not alive to respond.

  9. Mike Benedict

    @Dan: Your take above just summed up the difference between the left and the right. The right loves right-wing commentators who act like complete jackasses. The left shuns left-wing commentators who do the same.

    We probably should be more forgiving of our own and more ruthless with theirs. Fight fire with fire.

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