The Real Legacy of Breitbart

A media critic looks at the meta impact of the late provocateur, who used the web to irritate and confound his detractors.

Andrew Breitbart, who died March 1 at age 43, wasn't just a founding member of the "new media." In many ways, he defined the current era of "post-journalism" media, and he offers valuable lessons for television news.

If "traditional media" refers to the period when institutions of mainstream journalism were responsible for a vast majority of coverage, then "new media" refers to what happened when digital technology combined with less expensive barriers to entry, the undercutting of newspaper monopolies and broadcasting oligopolies and the proliferation of distribution outlets.

Journalism is no longer the primary method for describing daily developments, and institutions of journalism no longer have a stranglehold on disseminating those descriptions. As well as being reported on, the day's events are now scrutinized by comedians, ideologues, propagandists and first-person participants. The big tent of new media welcomes The Daily Show and The Onion, Rush Limbaugh and Arianna Huffington and cell phone-camera-wielding tweeters from the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street.

Breitbart was Matt Drudge's sidekick during the mid-1990s, when they discovered that the Internet had abolished the monopoly enjoyed by Associated Press journalists in delivering the day's headlines. Drudge Report used the format and basic content of the newswire to advance a personalized and politicized agenda.

For decades, the mainstream media had been excoriated for its liberal bias. But such opposition bore little fruit in changing journalistic practices until new-media outlets came into existence. A right-wing worldview came to dominate talk radio and then, under Roger Ailes at Fox News, the medium of cable news. Breitbart set about filling the online niche in the anti-liberal-bias media complex with his network of "Big" sites on Breitbart.com.

The new landscape enabled nonjournalistic styles to encroach on turf that was once the domain of traditional reportage: Limbaugh offers a radically different approach to the reporting on NPR; Bill O'Reilly offers an alternative to Brian Williams. Breitbart was different. Instead of creating non-reportorial formats to supplement the perceived failures of traditional journalism, he used the formats of reportage as his weapon of deconstruction.

Using hoaxes, thought experiments, provocation and guerrilla ambushes, he violated norms of reportage to deliver a product that seemed to conform to them. In his most famous coups -- videos of allegedly corrupt activities at ACORN and purported racism by Shirley Sherrod, a black USDA employee -- he claimed to be delivering journalism but was instead presenting propaganda, complete with a propagandist's tricks of selective editing and removal of context.

Breitbart's disregard for journalistic norms derived from a postmodern version of the "liberal bias" charge against the mainstream media. Where other critics take mainstream-media journalism to task for failing to deliver on its aspiration to be impartial, fair and balanced -- in other words, falling short of an accepted ideal -- Breitbart took the aspiration itself to be the problem: Such an ideal was a form of liberal bias, and therefore its journalism would automatically select facts, frame issues and organize debates to discredit his right-wing worldview.

Because mainstream journalism, therefore, was inherently untrustworthy, Breitbart was justified in subjecting the world on which he was reporting to his ideological prism; and if the facts happened to fail to cooperate with a worldview he knew to be correct -- a worldview denied and defamed by the organs of Big Journalism -- then his guerrilla journalism was justified in reconfiguring those facts to accord with his cause.

Breitbart's intervention teaches three lessons for television news at a time when it needs to define its role in the world of new media.

First, Breitbart demonstrates that there is no formal answer to the question of what sets journalism apart from other methods of representing the world. If he could make his ACORN and USDA videos look like 60 Minutes-style undercover footage, then technique alone will not guarantee that the end product is real journalism rather than misleading propaganda.

Second, Breitbart's uncanny nose for news -- what grabs headlines, what provokes controversy -- demonstrates that the criterion of newsworthiness alone does not set journalism apart. To be newsworthy is indispensable, yes, for successful journalism, but not sufficient.

Third, there is no safe place along the political spectrum where journalism can find itself immune from charges of liberal bias. Breitbart teaches that such an accusation no longer means a failure to live up to aspirations of impartiality but, instead, is a criticism of the aspiration itself. There are plenty of other locations in the new-media landscape where right-wingers can do the things they do. Journalism is just a liberal thing to do. Get used to it.

Andrew Tyndall is the publisher of Tyndall Report, which monitors television news.

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BREITBART LIVES: A pair of documentaries still will be released

We haven't heard the last of Andrew Breitbart. The late conservative bomb-thrower is set to star in two documentaries, both of which are in postproduction and will receive at least a small theatrical release. Hating Breitbart began 2-1/2 years ago when director Andrew Marcus started shadowing the firebrand at Tea Party rallies and left-wing protests. Marcus spent $500,000 and shot 100 hours of footage for the film, which he says was 99 percent finished when Breitbart died March 1. The director is busy tweaking the film to include more about Breitbart's life and legacy. "An event like this really changes the meaning of the content we have," says Marcus. "We had a strategy, then our main character passed away." Hating Breitbart will be joined by Occupy Unmasked, which features Breitbart's blistering attacks on the movement, from Stephen K. Bannon, producer of the pro-Sarah Palin documentary The Undefeated. -- Paul Bond

 
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