Inside the "War Room" as Breitbart CEO Claims "Smear Campaign From Mainstream"
The pro-Trump conservative site, in a nondescript anonymous building in West L.A., is planning a massive ramp-up and global expansion in the wake of the president-elect's surprise win.
The walls of the waiting area in the West Los Angeles headquarters of Breitbart News Network are decorated with three TV screens, one each for Fox News, CNN and MSNBC. On the coffee table is a Ronald Reagan picture book and Donald Trump coloring book, where the president-elect is portrayed as various superheroes and historical figures.
For security reasons, the front door remains locked, and there is no signage indicating that this nondescript location is in fact ground zero of a media movement that helped elect one of the most polarizing presidential candidates in memory. Breitbart, in fact, not only promoted Trump on its popular news and opinion site but also loaned its executive chairman, Steve Bannon, to Trump, first to run his campaign and now as his chief counselor.
On Nov. 17, a dozen writers huddle in a room mostly made of glass — their "hashtag war room" — a nod to founder Andrew Breitbart who, before his death in 2012, declared war on the "Democratic-Media Complex." The mostly 30-something staffers are remarkably jovial, considering the Democrats' descriptions of the staff as hateful bigots who threaten the very fabric of the nation (the group fancies itself as America-loving patriots). Most of them, in fact, can tell stories of cousins, friends, long-lost school mates — even Uber drivers — who've launched unprompted attacks on their character. They are unable to fathom how anyone could work for Breitbart or Bannon and not be a racist, homophobe or anti-Semite.
"It's a complete smear campaign from the mainstream media to undermine our influence and undermine the power Bannon has now," says Breitbart News CEO Larry Solov. "It didn't work against Trump, and it won't work against us. This is a political war, and it can get ugly." The Southern Poverty Law Center is accusing the site of publishing stories that "demonized immigrants" and also is collecting 360,000 signatures on a petition telling Trump to fire Bannon.
"This is all the left has — they call us names," says editor-in-chief Alex Marlow, who denies claims of racism and defends provocative headlines like "Political Correctness Protects Muslim Rape Culture." "They do this every election. The vitriol against George W. Bush was nearly as bad. It's always, 'You're a racist, sexist, bigot.' That's easier than debating ideas," says Marlow.
Solov, an attorney, claims to be considering a lawsuit against a major media company that has been advancing the notion that Breitbart is "promoting white nationalism." (CNN and MSNBC are among those who've insinuated that.) But it's the bit about him running a company that's anti-Semitic that really galls him, given he is Jewish, as was Breitbart, and the two formulated the concept of their media company while on a trip to Jerusalem in 2007, swearing that their coverage "would be unapologetically pro-freedom and pro-Israel."
But defending Breitbart from charges of bigotry — while also convincing readers it is more than a mouthpiece for Trump — is only the first step in a broader plan to extend Breitbart's reach and take advantage of a surge in popularity (comScore says unique visitors to Breitbart.com more than doubled in two years to 15.8 million in September).
Solov says he will open bureaus in Germany and France in the next few months, as well as expand its existing offices in Jerusalem, Texas, London and Washington. Breitbart is adding to its staff of 115 worldwide, and insiders say there are talks to expand its Breitbart Daily show on Sirius XM into an entire channel on the satellite radio platform. Plus, Solov says he wants to "take the next step into video and television" with a channel streamed online or via traditional cable.
"Breitbart is to the Trump campaign as Area 51 is to the Air Force — a mysterious site for weapons testing," says John Pitney, a professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College. "In his policies, Trump may have to bow to the realities of politics and arithmetic. If so, he will need a voice on the right to defend his reversals and compromises. Breitbart could play that role."
Solov acknowledges coverage of Trump is likely to be positive, but only as long as he remains true to the values that got him elected, primarily cracking down on illegal immigration, striking fair-trade deals and repealing Obamacare, which are the three issues that resonate most with Breitbart's readers, according to Marlow.
Bannon is on a leave of absence from Breitbart while working for Trump, but Solov acknowledges that access to the White House makes Breitbart "uniquely positioned for best-of-class coverage. We're used to being the opposition press. The Obama administration never blew us any kisses, that's for sure, and for good reason."
Three days after Trump beat Hillary Clinton, Breitbart senior editor at large Joel Pollak placed flowers on Andrew Breitbart's grave at Hillside Memorial Park, a Jewish cemetery in Culver City. "Not to celebrate Trump's victory, but because Andrew succeeded in leveling the playing field," Pollak says. "That's all he ever wanted. Just a fair and open debate where people aren't judged on evil motives impugned to them."
Pollak is an orthodox Jew who wears a yarmulke to work everyday, and says he and the others who share his faith (including five staffers in Jerusalem) are actually "energized" by what he says are the false accusations that Breitbart is anti-Semitic.
That charge, covered in depth for several days, stems mostly from a single headline on an opinion piece by David Horowitz that reads, "Bill Kristol: Republican Spoiler, Renegade Jew." The progressive watchdog group Media Matters for America has been pushing the headline to sympathetic reporters nationwide.
"Why does he have to say Bill Kristol is a Jew? What does that have to do with anything," said Joy Behar during a discussion of Bannon and Breitbart on the Nov. 15 episode of ABC's The View. "This is what fascism looks like and it scares the hell out of me."
"They're unprincipled pricks," Horowitz tells The Hollywood Reporter, "and in the case of Joy Behar, blithering idiots. Behar attacks Bannon and me without having read the article or understanding why I called Kristol a 'renegade Jew.' … Calling defenders of Israel like Bannon and myself Nazis is beyond idiotic."
Like many at Breitbart, Pollak has several anecdotes about what it's like working for a media outlet under siege, like when he covered an anti-Bannon protest at City Hall in Los Angeles on Nov. 16 and required a police escort after some of the demonstrators recognized him from TV appearances.
Before one recent appearance, his Uber driver, completely unaware of who Pollak was, launched into a tirade about evil Breitbart and Bannon. "Here I am headed to NBC studios to answer the very charges she's making and I can't tell her who I am because she's already driving erratically. Complete strangers suddenly think I'm the worst person in the world," he says.
Marlow, meanwhile, has been dealing with fallout from a BuzzFeed story about his high school alma mater, Harvard-Westlake School, where former students have been debating whether the school should distance itself from its 2004 graduate. When Marlow's wife defended her husband and Bannon, BuzzFeed posted a photo of her.
"You have to have thick skin to do what I do, but things got really creepy when BuzzFeed cherry-picked stuff to imply I may or may not be a Nazi," he says. "To bring my wife into it shows how disgusting the dialog around Breitbart has become. It's a new low. Privately, some people have been supportive, but publicly they don't want to be in the crosshairs of the mainstream media."
During Pollak's post-election visit to Andrew Breitbart's grave, he says he was thinking of the title of his memoir published just prior to his death, Righteous Indignation: Excuse Me While I Save the World.
"I think Andrew saved the world," says Pollak. "It may not look like it now because everyone's running around like crazy people accusing people of stuff, but this election will remind Democrats that there should be checks and balances on the presidency."
TIMELINE: THE RISE OF BREITBART
1995: Matt Drudge launches the Drudge Report and later makes Andrew Breitbart the site's first employee.
2004: Breitbart meets Steve Bannon as the latter makes and markets a Ronald Reagan documentary he's producing.
2005: Breitbart launches news aggregator Breitbart.com.
2007: With best friend and attorney Larry Solov, Andrew Breitbart founds Breitbart News Network.
May 28, 2011: Breitbart News reports that Rep. Anthony Weiner sexted with a 21-year-old woman. Weiner resigns June 21.
July 2011: Bannon premieres his Sarah Palin documentary, The Undefeated, in Pella, Iowa, and taps Andrew Breitbart to introduce the former vp candidate to the crowd.
March 1, 2012: Andrew Breitbart dies of heart failure at age 43. Bannon is named executive chairman of Breitbart News, and Solov is named CEO.
June 16, 2015: Donald Trump formally announces his bid for the presidency. Coverage of his campaign over the ensuing months is noticeably positive at Breitbart News.
March 10, 2016: Breitbart News reporter Michelle Fields accuses Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski of manhandling her. Breitbart News appears to side with Lewandowski, and Fields resigns three days later.
April: Breitbart News is linked to the "alt-right" for the first time via an article from the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Aug. 17: Trump names Bannon CEO of his presidential campaign.
Nov. 13: President-elect Trump names Bannon his chief strategist and senior counselor.
A version of this story first appeared in the Dec. 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.