It was the pre-game show to one of the most excruciating political confession-apologies in recent memory. Andrew Breitbart, attending the Anthony Weiner presser, took to the podium before the congressman emerged to speak, claiming vindication and demanding an apology. As Politico reports it:
“I would like an apology for allowing his political protectors - and this was his strategy - to blame me, to blame me for hacking,” Breitbart said. “’Don’t worry, Breitbart is a regular whipping boy. We can accuse him of anything and the press will not hold those journalists to account no matter what they say.’
“So I’m here for some vindication,” he said, declaring that “the big problem here is the coverup and the problem of trying to deflect blame on a journalist for doing his job.”
Breitbart had reason for his pique. Many in the media—including myself, who hours before the Weiner presser wrote on this website that the Weiner “scandal” appeared to be “manufactured”—had dismissed Weinergate. Some had gone so far as to “forensically” investigate the case against the congressman, essentially doing the defendant’s work for him. Others called it a #TwitterHoax.
The theme of many reports today then is that Breitbart, vilified as a composer of scoops rather than a reporter of them in the wake of Shirley Sherrod, is looking for apologies from the open left and some R-E-S-P-E-C-T from the M-S-M. He’s getting a little bit of it from the Times today in a balanced report titled “Andrew Breitbart, Conservative Blogger, Looks for Legitimacy.” And Politico has a main-page item headlined, “Andrew Breitbart’s day of vindication.” “In Andrew Breitbart’s up-and-down career as a conservative agitator, it doesn’t get any better than this,” write Keach Hagey and Kenneth P. Vogel, before describing the surreal Breitbart-Weiner presser.
They’re probably right. But both stories remind us of the checkered reportorial history that led reporters to view this latest scandal skeptically and to consistently view Breitbart himself suspiciously. You will recall the misleadingly edited video of a speech by USDA worker Shirley Sherrod, which showed Sherrod apparently bragging that she had discriminated against white farmers. An unedited version showed she had been making a speech about racial harmony. And you will recall that James O’Keefe’s ACORN video had suggested O’Keefe dressed as a pimp to go undercover at ACORN offices. He had not. The content of the videos remained disturbing, but the deception quickly became legend.
Breitbart may legitimately feel burned and now vindicated with how Weinergate has played out. And the media may need to address the way it treats scandals on the left and right. But it would be foolish not to acknowledge that there was reason to view anything that came from Mr. Big with some suspicion. He is the man who has cried “liberal scandal” too many times before.
No doubt he will continue to make those same cries. And we will likely listen more carefully from here on out. That’s probably a good thing. There is a place for a rabble-rouser like Breitbart out there, keeping liberal politicians and pressmen on their toes. If the reporting is solid. It’s not journalism of the New York Times variety, but it’s something. Whether you agree with the level of attention Congressman Weiner has drawn this past week, it’s hard not to argue that his actions were of public interest, particularly to those in his constituency, regardless of Breitbart’s motivations for putting them out there.
Perhaps I have been swayed in a conversation I recently had with Breitbart. He is a silver tongue extraordinaire and a savvy new media prophet. I spoke to him earlier this year for a magazine profile I am working on and we got to discussing the kind of reporting he does, why he does it, and why he is brazen about the ideology behind it. I did not challenge him on much—the subject of the interview was not Breitbart or his methods—but some of what he told me says much about his approach to news. Here he is on why he does what he does:
“I felt a moral and ethical obligation when I started doing what I did, when I started to report things, to let people know where I’m coming from. I was inspired in America by John Stossel. He reports the facts, he’s a journalist, but he felt to he needed to represent himself truthfully as coming from a libertarian perspective. That was sort of a light bulb over my head. I was like, yeah, what’s this false neutrality? When I talk to reporters from the major newspapers and from the major networks—including George Stephanopoulos [laughing]—they’re not neutral. To pretend that they’re wearing a newly tailored hat that renders their opinions on everything neutralized when they’re collecting the story and crafting the story and delivering the story, is a laugh riot. It’s a nearly impossible act.
He had some praise for certain liberal outlets, too. He argued that neutrality was an “unnecessary affectation, because, in my mind, a left of center organ, has the capacity to report truth.”
”I read The Independent and The Guardian with a complete open mind that there are certain things that I’m not looking at. It wouldn’t dawn on me to obsess on corporations, for instance. Because in my mind, as a consumer, it’s my obligation to do my due diligence on whether or not I want to buy something from a certain company. It’s my responsibility. And so if left of center organs are going to focus their energies on isolating big corporations as their bête noir, that’s fine, it’s not my perspective, and often times I’m highly informed as a result of it.
Or as conservatives, you tend to have a healthy skepticism on big government. And in this perfect universe, transparently self-interested watchdogs have the capacity to act as a guardian of the public trust, coming from different angles. That’s the media that I want to embrace and it’s just natural that I’ve come into hardcore conflict with those that would like to keep the false reign of objectivity, to maintain that standard—it doesn’t exist.”
One of the interesting things that emerged from our chat was the degree to which Breitbart strategizes in the dissemination of scandals. He wants each to land the hardest hit possible. This is part of the reason he has teamed with ABC News on reporting the latest Weinergate developments, as reported by the Times.
But before vindication, he sought legitimacy from the same mainstream media he regularly assails. For the revelations about the congressman, Mr. Breitbart partnered with ABC News, which interviewed Ms. Broussard and published its own account of her relationship with Mr. Weiner, a Brooklyn Democrat.
Mr. Breitbart, whose credibility was damaged by his release of a selectively edited tape of Shirley Sherrod, an Agriculture Department official, said he felt ABC News could help the Weiner story rise to something more than a scandal flamed by the conservative blogosphere.
“One of the reasons I went to ABC, believe it or not, was to take this out of the partisan rancor realm,” he said in a phone interview.
Breitbart knows how he is viewed and is now seeking to partner with the very media he maligns—“Stephanopoulos” is at ABC—to give his stories some weight and some legs. He told me he made a similar move when James O’Keefe came to him with a video showing an NPR fundraiser deriding Republicans and bragging that the broadcaster could survive without government funds. Instead of publishing the video first himself, he told O’Keefe to take it to Tucker Carlson’s website The Daily Caller. “My line with James O’Keefe, from the second he came to me, was that my blogs could not have the effect that this story needs to have,” Breitbart told me. “We sought out ubiquity. The strategy was to get the story to as many outlets and to plant as many exclusives with as many competitor news organizations so that they had a vested interest in this controversial storyline.”
His philosophy was that of a true conservative warrior:
“I have a contrarian attitude towards new media that is born from my fifteen years in news aggregation. I’d rather have the narrative that the story had a major impact than have the narrative that the story didn’t have the impact that it could, but the story was purely exclusive to my site. Impact is a far greater factor for me.”Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor. Tags: Andrew Breitbart, Anthony Weiner, New York Times, Politico, Weinergate