Fighting Back Against the Dangerous Lies Spewed by Right-Wing Propagandist Andrew Breitbart
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The videos led many of ACORN's supporters to abandon the community organizing group. Soon after the video scandal surfaced in the mainstream media, the U.S. House of Representatives (including many Democrats who had worked with ACORN in the past) voted to de-fund the organization. In reality, less than 10 percent of ACORN's budget came from federal grants. But the symbolism of Congress' action was more important than the money itself. Congress' action provoked ACORN's cautious foundation funders to drop the group like a hot potato.
Within a few months, ACORN had been exonerated of wrongdoing by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the Brooklyn District Attorney's office, the Attorney General of California, and a federal judge, who ruled that the law barring the group's receipt of federal funds was unconstitutional. By then, however, it was too late. In April, ACORN laid off its entire staff and closed its offices in over 100 cities. (Meanwhile, last January O'Keefe was arrested for breaking into Sen. Mary Landrieu's New Orleans office in another "gotcha" attempt,; he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three years of probation, a fine of $1,500 and 100 hours of community service).
(Full disclosure: We were a target of Breitbart's smear tactics after we published a study last year revealing the distorted media coverage of the manufactured ACORN controversy. An updated and expanded version of that study will be published in a few weeks in the fall issue of Perspectives on Politics, a journal sponsored by the American Political Science Association).
Now Breitbart is back in the news as a result of another manufactured controversy, this one regarding Shirley Sherrod. He's gotten even more media attention for this episode than he did for his ACORN shenanigans. But the current firestorm has many of the same elements as the phony ACORN scandal that he cooked up last year.
First, Breitbart posted a highly doctored video on his website that was intended to put its target (both African Americans -- hardly a coincidence) in the worst possible light. Then the right-wing echo chamber -- including Fox News and the conservative blogosphere -- picked up Breitbart's ball and ran with it. Next, the mainstream media -- the daily newspapers and the TV networks -- took the false accusations at face value and repeated them without bothering to verify and fact-check, acting more like stenographers than reporters. Finally, liberal groups like the NAACP and liberal politicians (in this case, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and the White House), wary of any controversy, jumped the gun and distanced themselves from the target of Breitbart's attacks -- by firing Sherrod before she even had an opportunity to explain or they bothered to investigate the accusations.
Unlike the manufactured ACORN controversy, Breitbart's deception in the Sherrod "scandal" was uncovered quickly. A few media outlets, including CNN, dug a bit deeper, interviewed Sherrod, talked to the white farmers that Sherrod helped, reviewed the entire videotape of her speech to the NAACP in Georgia, and disclosed what should have been apparent from the beginning -- that what Sherrod actually said had no relationship to what Breitbart claimed she said. This led the White House, Vilsack, the NAACP and others to offer apologies and led Vilsack to offer Sherrod another job with the Department of Agriculture.
There are thousands of right-wing websites and bloggers, but so far Breitbart is the most successful, having mastered -- indeed, having helped create -- the new rules of political combat made possible by the internet and cable TV.
Breitbart has not only drawn attention to his manufactured scandals but also to himself. Time magazine, the New Yorker, Wired, Slate, and other publications have published profiles of Breitbart. These profiles could hardly be called fawning or even admiring. He comes across as an obnoxious, self-centered bully. But the profiles are nevertheless respectful, in the sense that they recognize his entrepreneurial skill and his take-no-prisoners attitude.
Both the right-wing echo chamber and the mainstream media don't quite know how to categorize Breitbart and what he does. The Philadelphia Daily News called him a "rising conservative media figure." The Washington Post called him a "conservative activist" and an "internet entrepreneur." NPR described him as a "conservative online news entrepreneur." The New York Times and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution called him a "blogger," while Newsday and the New Republic called him a "conservative blogger." The Las Vegas Review-Journal called him an "online muckraker and journalist." Sean Hannity, the San Francisco Chronicle, and ABC's "Good Morning America" labeled him a "publisher."
Regardless of what he's called, the Sherrod story is a good example of Breitbart's skill at what academics call "agenda-setting" and "framing". A week ago, hardly anyone had ever heard of Shirley Sherrod. Now, she's practically a household name. And many people who might not recognize her name at least know something of the story. In the past few days, almost every major news outlet has published or broadcast something about this story. That's the art of agenda-setting.
Americans not only know who Sherrod is, they already have an opinion about her, because they've been told that she's a black federal employee who used her position to discriminate against whites. That's the art of framing. Within a matter of hours, that frame burned through the media like prairie fire.