Feature

Andrew Breitbart: Bully or visionary?

The conservative activist, who died last week at 43, pioneered and mastered the use of the Web as a political tool.

If Andrew Breitbart had lived longer, said John O’Sullivan in NationalReview.com, he would have been seen by history as a media genius “in the same league as Hearst, Pulitzer, and Murdoch.” But tragically, the conservative activist and Internet entrepreneur collapsed and died last week at 43, leaving behind a wife, four children, and a political-media culture that has his fingerprints all over it. Breitbart helped build and shape some of the most heavily trafficked sites on the Web, from the Drudge Report to The Huffington Post, and when possible he liked to make the news as well as report it. The hidden-camera investigation of the leftist group ACORN, which Breitbart encouraged and published, led directly to the organization losing its federal funding. He broke the news of Rep. Anthony Weiner’s sexting adventures, and stayed on the story—and in a jaw-dropping display of chutzpah, even hijacked the podium at Weiner’s apologetic press conference—until the congressman resigned. Breitbart sometimes “went too far,” said John Podhoretz in the New York Post, but “my dear wild friend” was at heart a counterculture rebel. By pioneering and mastering the use of the Web as a political tool, he broke the liberal media’s monopoly, and “changed the world.”

I’m sorry Breitbart died, said Ta-Nehisi Coates in TheAtlantic.com, but sorrier “for how he lived.” He was an immoral partisan who cared nothing about truth, or the people he attacked so viciously. Take his attempt to destroy Shirley Sherrod, an obscure Department of Agriculture official he targeted to make black people look biased against whites. Breitbart published a carefully edited videotape of Sherrod’s speech to the NAACP, in which she seemed to say she’d denied government aid to a white farmer to punish him for his attitude. Only after panicked Obama administration officials fired Sherrod did it emerge that in her full speech, she actually said that she’d learned to overcome her own racial prejudice, and had given the farmer the aid he needed. Breitbart never apologized for slandering Sherrod, whom he clearly saw “as little more than a shiv against the hated liberals.” Breitbart hunted scalps for the sheer fun of it, not out of any real conservative convictions, said Alex Pareene in Salon.com. He “ruined a number of people’s lives for no real reason.”

His impact on public discourse was no less toxic, said David Frum in TheDailyBeast.com. Over the past 15 years, Breitbart used the Internet to create “a new kind of culture war,” characterized by “a giddy disdain for truth and fairness,” and the proud use of “manipulation and deception.” He reduced politics to a “pure struggle between personalities,” with ideas and principles taking a distant backseat to outrageous accusations and public humiliation. If he got the facts wrong, who cared? He had but one ethos, said David Weigel in Slate.com, and it was: “Just declare your bias,” and get to work destroying The Enemy. Whether Breitbart won the culture war he thought he was fighting is debatable. “The political-media culture we’re living in now, though, is the one he made.”

Breitbart hardly invented partisan journalism, said Ross Douthat in The New York Times. If anything, in fact, he helped restore the profession to the freewheeling state it was in before the rise of the “stifling and conformist” media conglomerates in the 1950s. There may be less fairness and rigor in Breitbart’s kind of journalism, but there is more energy, and thanks to him, “the circus is here to stay.” He really was a throwback to some earlier era of swashbuckling, roguish reporters, said Matt Labash in WeeklyStandard.com. He frequently called me “in the white-hot fever of one of the headline-garnering skirmishes he inserted himself into,” so full of manic delight at his own antics I worried he’d burst. “One of his favorite pastimes was retweeting his own hate mail, which was voluminous.” Like comedian Andy Kaufman, Breitbart saw everything as a goof, and he strove, above all, “to make people crazy.” He “clearly excelled at his job.”

But in the end, Breitbart may have been a casualty in his own war, said Andrew Sullivan in TheDailyBeast.com. We don’t yet know what caused his heart to give out last week, but I do know he became utterly consumed by “the new 24/7 mediaverse,” tweeting and blogging and waging virtual combat against his enemies 18 hours a day, seven days a week. That “takes a much bigger physical, emotional, and spiritual toll than most realize.” Breitbart may have been “our first new-media culture-war fatality. I fear he won’t be the last.”

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