The Jaundiced Eyeball

The Breitbart Betrayals

Chris Lehmann   March 17, 2016
Mark Taylor

What would Breitbart do?/ Mark Taylor

There aren’t many hard-and-fast rules left in the grand digital Guignol of political journalism but, without question, a central organizing principle should be the old dictum of the schoolyard: when a bully pushes you, you push back.

However, over at Breitbart News—the gaudy home to the most truth-challenged persecution manias on the American right—the alleged physical assault of campaign reporter Michelle Fields by Trump campaign manager (and all-around thug) Corey Lewandowski was far from a call to arms; it was, rather, a call to roll over and whimper. News of the attack—which has since prompted Fields to file criminal charges against the Trump apparatchik—failed to spark any robust protest from Breitbart managers on behalf of their reporter. What’s more, the Breitbart operation—which has essentially doubled as a PR arm of the Trump campaign this primary season—published a report disputing the testimony of both Fields and Washington Post reporter Ben Terris, who confirmed (according to audio transcripts of the episode) that it was Lewandowski who had gone after the Breitbart scribe. Sure, Fields was grabbed by her arm and pushed roughly backward, the Breitbart post grudgingly conceded—but then went on to contend that video footage of the incident suggested that it wasn’t Lewandowski doing the actual manhandling.

The abject failure of a news organization to back up one of its own reporters was so shocking—and so poisonous to the already shaky morale of the Breitbart newsroom—that few paused to note the irony of Breitbart positioning itself as an authority on the interpretation of videotape. Breitbart’s Big Government section, after all, was once a self-standing site that was home to the first great pseudo-scoops of conservative agitprop auteur James O’Keefe, who persuaded some gullible ACORN workers that he was a pimp in need of federal grant money (even though he never, as he claimed, documented any illegal conduct on the part of the hapless ACORN staffers). Then, less successfully, O’Keefe and Breitbart trumpeted maliciously edited footage of Agriculture Department official Shirley Sherrod making allegedly derisive comments about white farmers. (Sherrod, who is African American, was actually summarizing stereotyped misconceptions about such people she might formerly have held, and had since outgrown—i.e., she was making the polar opposite point that O’Keefe and the Breitbart organization claimed she was crudely advancing. Sherrod was eventually fired, and sued Breitbart in a libel complaint that was settled out of court.)

This is more than simply blaming the victim—it’s framing the victim, as both an untrustworthy witness and noncredible reporter.

In short, it says everything about the Breitbart M.O. that, when confronted with evidence of the blowback from its opportunistic, counter-journalistic alliance with the Trump campaign, the organization’s first impulse is neither to address the central issue head-on nor to call out the loathsome conduct of Trump flack Lewandowski, but rather to gin up the impression that their reporter wasn’t giving a reliable account of her own assault. This is more than simply blaming the victim—it’s framing the victim, as both an untrustworthy witness and noncredible reporter. It’s also entirely in the spirit of site founder Andrew Breitbart, once an eager student of right-wing smear-monger Matt Drudge. (Breitbart collaborated in the founding of the Huffington Post before launching his eponymous web publishing empire in 2007; he died in 2012 at the age of 43.)

And as is the case with every botched cover-up, things got worse as time went on. When Breitbart editor Ben Shapiro announced he was resigning due to his bosses’ handling of the Fields incident and because of the organization’s de facto status as a “Trump Pravda site,” the web site published a childish attack on Shapiro under the headline “Ben Shapiro Betrays Loyal Breitbart Readership in Pursuit of Fox News Contributorship.” 

The piece was promptly pulled from the site (but can be savored in all its petulant glory here); absurdly, Breitbart’s own in-house counsel Joel B. Pollak claimed authorship, even though it ran, pointedly, under the pseudonymous byline of Shapiro’s father, David Shapiro, another contributor to the site, and another writer who’s resigned from Breitbart in the wake of this clusterfuck. Piling absurdity on absurdity, Breitbart has lately claimed that the piece was never intended to be posted on the site—which of course raises the question of why, in that case, anyone should go to all the trouble of outfitting it with a compromising pseudonymous byline.

But this, too, is classic Breitbart-style agitprop: publish any scandalous material serving your pet agenda, then rapidly flee from the consequences of your action the moment any trouble surfaces. When the Sherrod tapes were exposed as a scam, for instance, Big Government somehow recruited one Kevin Pezzi—er, excuse me, Dr. Kevin Pezzi—to continue whaling away on the slandered official’s alleged dishonesty, racism, and overall lack of character. The only problem was that Pezzi was an all-purpose online charlatan, and not merely a specialized one like Breitbart; he marketed fake term papers, a bogus cancer cure, a “robotic chef,” and devices to tighten vaginas and enlarge penises. (Not that he’d ever need the latter accessory, mind you; he is, by his own account, “bigger than some porno stars.”)

Never has a multimillion-dollar resort felt quite so much like a Weimar beerhall.

The same basic playbook drives nearly all the heavy-breathing clickbait in the Breitbart empire, from its Trumpist dalliances with birtherism to the toe-curling news about the White House’s Maoist Xmas tree ornaments (a war on Christmas and capitalism, all in one sinister, cunning blow!). It scarcely matters whether your material, your writers, or your sources are credible: just get out there and make the ideological opposition look like demented, howling liars, mobsters, and shape-shifting subverters of all that is decent. The perfect coda to Lewandowski’s tour through the sanitized right-wing news cycle came on Trump’s Tuesday night celebration of his latest round of primary victories at the candidate’s gilded Mar-a-Lago compound: his campaign manager was marshaled on stage behind him, and Trump singled him out for special praise; by the end of the GOP frontrunner’s performance, Lewandowski—a man facing criminal assault charges filed by a reporter—was chortling and clapping along as Trump was denouncing the reporters on site as “really disgusting people.” Never has a multimillion-dollar resort felt quite so much like a Weimar beerhall. 

Indeed, Breitbart’s core business model goes a long way toward explaining why the company’s senior brass would turn on one of their own reporters exactly as they would slander any garden-variety ideological foe—and why they would identify so viscerally with the Trump insurgency. And at the risk of belaboring the obvious, the alleged journalistic crisis now roiling the Breitbart operation is really no such thing, since Breitbart has never really been a journalistic enterprise. This is not a haughty, old-media complaint (though Lord knows I’m not above such things). It is, rather, a simple reflection of how the Breitbart brand cultivates the terminally aggrieved mindset of its loyal following. For starters, Breitbart leaders are much more thoroughly schooled in ideological discipline than in the canons of honest reporting. Its late namesake was not, as his self-minted legend had it, a free-spirited libertarian convert to the conservative cause; he was, rather, a duly credentialed Lincoln Fellow at the Claremont Institute, which has also given us such right-wing luminaries as National Review web maestro Kathryn Jean Lopez and Tea Party senate hopeful Christine “I’m Not a Witch” O’Donnell. O’Keefe, meanwhile, matriculated at the Leadership Institute, a conservative seminar in collegiate dirty tricks that boasts Karl Rove, Grover Norquist, and Ralph Reed among its distinguished alumni.

Likewise, the scarifying campfire stories about left-liberal perfidy that jolt Breitbart readers into fresh tremors of terror come fully marinated in the self-reinforcing demonology of the professional conservative movement. The end result is like a schematic diagram of full-blown epistemic closure. The site’s reputation-making ACORN footage was first teased in 2009 by Breitbart in his Washington Times column; it was then leaked directly to Breitbart’s admiring cronies at Fox News; while news of a follow-up tape purportedly exposing more ACORN malfeasance went directly onto the front page of the New York Post, another right-wing News Corp. media property.

All that’s really changed in today’s configuration of Breitbart, Inc. is that the resentment it’s assiduously minted for the grassroots right is now being echoed forcefully by the Trump campaign. Meanwhile, former Breitbart allies like Fox News are increasingly hostile to the forces of Trumpism, which is an all-too-pressing threat to their preferred mode of right-wing scammery (er, excuse me again: “media business model”). But Breitbart’s chairman, Stephen Bannon—a former Goldman Sachs banker, radio talk-show host, and financier of many fragrant conservative agitprop film projects—isn’t about to stand in the way of Trump’s epic bid to place the Breitbart agenda firmly in the political mainstream. (Nor, for that matter, is company CEO Larry Solov, who is everywhere described as Andrew Breitbart’s “lifelong best friend”—evidently his only credential as a news executive.) And when you’re weaned on the mother’s milk of movement conservatism, as opposed to the empirically minded drudgery of journalism (or libel suits or criminal complaints, for that matter) well, it’s no real contest, so far as either managerial prerogative or rapidly multiplying click counts are concerned. So cue up another grainy video, Team Breitbart, and tell us one more time about all the many shifty doings of the liberal media elite.

Chris Lehmann is editor in chief of The Baffler and author of Rich People Things. His latest book, The Money Cult, is out now from Melville House.