Propagandist Andrew Breitbart collapsed and died Thursday while walking near his home in Los Angeles, leaving behind a string of wrecked individuals and organizations devoted to the less fortunate.
As a conservative media hatchetman and journalist of convenience, Breitbart had been at the forefront of the race to the bottom in both national news and politics for more than a decade. The 43-year-old melded political activism with propaganda to bring woe to liberal causes and individuals who often seemed incapable of defending themselves against his virulent attacks. He was facing the legal consequences for that aggressive partisan behavior at the time of his death.
Breitbart, who was raised in Los Angeles’ upscale Brentwood community, and his youthful sidekick, James O’Keefe, who was raised in the affluent New Jersey community of Westwood, formed a kind of dynamic duo for those seeking to mislead the faltering middle class on behalf of predatory elites. They used partially staged and heavily edited videotapes to exaggerate the sins of their political opponents and spread them so rapidly via conservative websites that the mainstream news media was forced to match many of their alleged “scoops” without thoroughly vetting them.
The result was an echo chamber where conservative lies quickly took on the appearance of truth. The human toll from those misrepresentations left many political and news insiders struggling Thursday to praise the life of a damaging and divisive figure at the time of his passing.
“It’s difficult for me to assess Breitbart’s impact upon American media and American politics as anything other than poisonous,” conservative David Frum said of Breitbart. “When one of the leading media figures of the day achieves his success by his giddy disdain for truth and fairness — when one of our leading political figures offers to his admirers a politics inflamed by rage and devoid of ideas — how to withhold a profoundly negative judgment on his life and career?”
Breitbart’s death from an apparent heart attack occurred less than three weeks after his bizarre behavior at an Occupy Wall Street rally outside the annual meeting of the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C. An unsteady Breitbart drew the attention of police after he repeatedly shouted “behave yourself” and “stop raping people” at the youthful nonviolent protesters, whom he denigrated as “freaks and animals.”
He hurled the insults while being separated from protesters by police and security. The provocative performance was par for the course for a fake tough guy who ridiculed the very social conventions — like civility and nonviolence — that protected him from the physical response his taunts invited.
Breitbart’s body has been autopsied, but it will be several weeks before all the tests are completed and an official cause of death is released to the public.
Breitbart is survived by his wife Susannah, four children, his parents and a sister.
Breitbart worked for Matt Drudge, founder of the conservative Drudge Report, and helped Arianna Huffington start the left-leaning Huffington Post, before setting out on his own in 2005.
None of them pursued a collegiate journalism degree or paid the formative journalism dues that typically accompany the start of news career, when reporters work under the direction of seasoned editors and learn about the importance of balance, triangulation and accuracy. However all three were web savvy and opportunistic.
They understood that they could rocket to fame and wealth on the evolving Internet by aggregating and repackaging the work of others for partisan political audiences. The trio’s financial success came with a heavy societal price, which included eroding the level of American political debate and helping to polarize a nation.
“We shared a love of headlines, a love of the news, an excitement about what’s happening,” Drudge said after learning of Breitbart’s death.
“All I can think of at the moment is what Andrew meant to me as a friend, starting from when we worked together — his passion, his exuberance, his fearlessness,” Huffington told Forbes.
Breitbart used the Internet to build a media empire by waging a propaganda war on behalf of his conservative audience. He ignited political scandal and exploited mainstream media conventions, and did not shy away from misleading, exaggerating and engaging in sins of omission to accomplish those dubious goals.
It was Breitbart’s fertile partnership with the unprincipled O’Keefe that yielded his most spectacular successes and failures. Together, the ethically-challenged pair succeeded in destroying the 40-year-old Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), which was devoted to the poor and faltering middle class. ACORN closed its doors in 2010.
More than 300 people lost their jobs when federal agencies pulled their grants from ACORN in the wake of the smear-job Breitbart and O’Keefe orchestrated against it in 2009. The social justice organization had fought against predatory lending, lobbied for a living wage, and championed the needs of Gulf residents left homeless by Hurricane Katrina. However, it was ultimately targeted by conservatives for conducting voter registration campaigns in poor and lower-middle-class communities.
O’Keefe secretly taped meetings with ACORN employees in eight cities in the summer of 2009 while posing as a needy individual seeking assistance with a number of unsavory ventures. The discussions he initiated ranged from the sexual exploitation of a girlfriend, played by fellow conservative provocateur Hannah Giles, to tax evasion and the smuggling of illegal immigrants. He intertwined their responses with questions recorded elsewhere to create a misleading storyline.
The edits presented him in the garb of an inner-city pimp in one outlandish video (below left), which went viral after Breitbart distributed it. However, many viewers of the clip never noticed that the fake pimp didn’t appear in the same frames as the low-level ACORN workers he was supposed to be duping.
Subsequent investigations by the Massachusetts Attorney General, Brooklyn District Attorney, California Attorney General and U.S. General Accounting Office all determined that the videos had been heavily edited and no criminal misconduct had been committed by ACORN workers. Investigators determined that several workers actually had rebuffed O’Keefe and Giles, two advised Giles to seek legal help, and one reported O’Keefe’s fictional immigration scam to Mexican police.
None of the rejections were included in the clips Breitbart distributed.
“Andrew Breitbart was a media warrior,” O’Keefe said on his Project Veritas website, which served to insulate Breitbart legally from his wealthy protégé’s misadventures. “I woke up this morning saddened by the loss and lonely without his presence; he had long been a source of comfort and advice for me.”
O’Keefe was permanently discredited in the eyes of the news media when he was arrested in New Orleans in January 2010 while trying to gain access to the telephone system of U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu’s by posing as a repairman. He and three fellow activists pleaded guilty to one misdemenanor charge of malicious intent to damage the phone system on May 2010. O’Keefe was sentenced to three years of probation for the failed bid to make surreptitious recordings.
Breibart’s biggest triumph occurred independently of O’Keefe in 2011, when he secured salacious photos which U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) had sent to a Twitter follower shortly after his marriage to Huma Abedin, a longtime aide to Hillary Clinton. Weiner’s new wife was pregnant at the time of the resulting sexting scandal, which led to the viral release of a photo of a bare-chested Weiner and a picture of his tented boxer briefs (right).
In true elitist Liberal fashion, Weiner was promptly abandoned by his closest allies and forced to resign even though there was no evidence he had committed adultery. He admitted exchanging suggestive photos and texts with six women over three years and stepped down.
Breitbart’s professional nadir occurred in 2010 when he tarred Shirley Sherrodd with a heavily edited video derived from a speech she gave in Georgia. The clip sent spiraling through the blogosphere implied that the U.S. Agriculture Department official, who is black, had boasted of referring a white farmer to a lawyer of his own kind and presented her in a racist light. The full speech actually was a lesson in racial healing, in which Sherrod explained why farmers of all races faced common challenges dictated more by poverty than race.
Sherrod (below right) was pilloried by conservative propagandists, who demanded her resignation. The conservative uproar was echoed by competing mainstream media, prompting public criticism of her from the head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and internal calls for her resignation.
Sherrod ultimately bowed before the media lynching and submitted her resignation. She later received an apology from President Barack Obama and was offered a new job at USDA after the full video was released and the white farmer in question rushed to her defense, crediting her with saving his family farm.
Breitbart’s death came as he confronted a federal defamation lawsuit Sherrod filed against him in February of 2011. The suit, which had survived his attempts to dismiss it, was moving forward.
“My prayers go out to Mr. Breitbart’s family as they cope during this very difficult time,” Sherrod said Thursday.
Breitbart had little patience, delicacy or respect for those who held political views other than his own. He also loved to bait journalists seeking political balance in the hyper-partisan environment his discredited tactics helped spawn.
Breitbart reached a personal low when he described former U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) as a “villain,” a “duplicitous bastard,” a “prick,” and a “special pile of human excrement” after the icon of the Kennedy family died in 2009.
According to AP reporter Michael Blood, Breitbart once took the podium at a Tea Party rally and insulted reporters who were prohibited from responding by a professional code which discourages them from becoming active particpants in the events they cover.
“It’s not your business model that sucks,” Breitbart shouted at members of the contracting news industry, “it’s you that sucks.”
U.S. newsrooms have shrunk to 41,000 positions from 54,000 positions since 1990, even as colleges and universities have handed out 872,000 undergraduate and graduate degrees in communications and journalism. Breitbart held neither. Instead, he had a bachelor’s degree in American studies from Tulane University.
Ultimately, Breitbart was a journalist of convenience who wrapped himself in the benefits of the news industry’s reputation for credibility, courage and balance, without shouldering the ethical burdens that helped build it.
ACORN-founder Wade Rathke compared Breitbart to circus tycoon P.T. Barnum, who is widely credited with coining the popular phrase “there’s a sucker born every minute.”
“Truth or fiction hardly mattered as long as it drove traffic to his websites, dollars to his pockets, and stirred up a mess,” Rathke said on his blog. “That was his business and that was all he really cared about.”
Update 2: This story was updated with information about Matt Drudge and Ariana Huffington on March 4.