Breitbart News Was a Racist Fever Swamp Long Before Steve Bannon Arrived
Breitbart News is currently imploding. The site's decision to prioritize its support for Donald Trump over its responsibilities to its own reporters has triggered what seems to be a staff uprising and potential exodus, with four writers out the door and others reportedly circulating their resumes. Breitbart management is now embroiled in a vicious back-and-forth with no end in sight.
The purged are invoking the journalistic "legacy" of the site's creator, the late conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart, as a key reason to flee. "Andrew built his life and his career on one mission: fight the bullies. But Andrew's life mission has been betrayed," wrote editor-at-large Ben Shapiro in his statement of resignation. "Indeed, Breitbart News, under the chairmanship of Steve Bannon, has put a stake through the heart of Andrew's legacy."
Under Andrew Breitbart's leadership, this story goes, the website did great things, but those who inherited his empire have ruined it.
As a member of Media Matters' research staff, I have been reading the various elements of Breitbart's network since his "news" site Big Government went live in 2009. I have watched the launch of various sub-sites under the "Big" umbrella under Andrew Breitbart's stewardship and the relaunch as the Breitbart News Network shortly after his death in 2012. I can say with some authority that the notion of a "golden age" of Breitbart journalism is fiction.
By all accounts, Breitbart was a loving father, husband, and friend, and a cherished mentor to a generation of young journalists. That said, his news site was always a hotbed of ridiculous smears and lies pushed by writers with little interest in the truth.
Following the conservative writer's death, The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf wrote of Breitbart's work:
It would have been great if the Big sites aimed for higher quality journalism. Said libertarian press critic Jack Shafer in his obituary of Breitbart, "I liked the idea of Andrew Breitbart better than I liked any of his work at Big Government, Big Hollywood, Big Journalism, Big Peace, Breitbart or Breitbart.tv." And no wonder. What are the best 10 pieces published in the history of those sites? You'll find more quality work in a single issue of City Journal than the sum total of everything Breitbart wrote or commissioned and published in his whole career.
Breitbart's media empire began with his news aggregation site Breitbart.com and his video aggregation site Breitbart.tv. Big Hollywood, his group blog focused on culture, launched in January 2009. But it was Big Government, his political news site, that first made him a national political figure when it debuted in September 2009.
The Big Government site launched with a major exclusive: conservative activist and videographer James O'Keefe's "nationwide ACORN child prostitution investigation," a series of videos documenting supposedly illegal behavior by staffers for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), a community-based organization that advocated and provided services for the poor. The story drewfirestorm coverage from the media as new videos trickled out one by one on Breitbart's website, triggering congressional action to ban federal funding for the organization and eventually leading to its collapse.
It was also based on a lie.
A series of investigations by state and local authorities found inappropriate behavior but no criminality on the part of the ACORN staffers. They also found that O'Keefe's videos, prominently trumpeted on Breitbart's website, had been "severely edited" by O'Keefe and a fellow activist, who had taken the statements of the employees out of context in order to "meet their agenda."
Breitbart's sites spent much of the rest of 2009 publishing similar smears of progressives that did not survive the most minimal scrutiny. Was the White House making a political statement with Mao Zedong ornaments on the Christmas tree? (No.) Community organizers were praying to Barack Obama! (No.) The White House got union members to beat up a Tea Party protester! (Definitely not.) Meanwhile, the crew at Big Hollywood was spending significant time with birther nonsense as well as more pedestrian comparisons of Obama to Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Vladimir Lenin, Mao, Pol Pot, and Fidel Castro.
The site's low point may have been Jim Hoft's disgusting anti-gay smears of Ken Jennings, the Department of Education official responsible for preventing bullying in schools. Hoft, the dumbest man on the Internet, wrote a series of posts targeting Jennings for his Gateway Pundit website, repeatedly drawing upon the work of hate group MassResistance. Hoft's attacks on Jennings were routinely cross-posted on Big Government.
Breitbart's attempts to attack members of the administration culminated in his July 2010 effort to prove that Shirley Sherrod, an African-American official at the Department of Agriculture, was a racist who refused to provide aid to a white farmer. Sherrod was quickly fired as right-wing outlets began pushing Breitbart's story. But the claim imploded after full video emerged showing that Breitbart had taken Sherrod out of context, and the farmer in question came to Sherrod's defense, calling her a "friend" who "helped us save our farm."
Sherrod subsequently sued Breitbart; she settled with his estate in October 2015.
As Breitbart sought to defend his smear, he made what must go down as one of the strangest editorial decisions of his career. Big Government published two posts attacking Sherrod that were authored by one Dr. Kevin Pezzi, who claimed that Breitbart had sought him out himself. Our investigation of Pezzi quickly revealed the following:
Pezzi, who says that "Breitbart asked me to write for BigGovernment.com," has a peculiar self-described history. Pezzi claims to be responsible for "over 850 inventions" and schemes such as a "magic bullet" for cancer, a "robotic chef," and sexual inventions like "penile enlargement techniques" and "ways to tighten the vagina" (because "men like women with tight vaginas"). Pezzi has started multiple websites, from term paper helpers to a sexual help site that answers "your questions about sexual attraction, pleasure, performance, and libido" (Pezzi is qualified to do so because "No doctor in the world knows more about sexual pleasure than I do").
Pezzi's posts were subsequently removed from Breitbart's website, because while they represented "one of the most thorough and well-researched examinations" of Sherrod, "we have been made aware of other writings from this author which do not reflect the principles and values of this site."
Breitbart followed up his fabricated smear of Sherrod as a racist by accusing civil rights hero Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) of lying that Tea Party activists protesting health care reform had hurled racial epithets at him.
Breitbart's defenders cite his 2011 report that the married Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY) had been sending sexually explicit material to other women as one of his websites' major victories. Breitbart published a series of Weiner's explicit social media posts, and his work triggered Weiner's resignation. But the story wasn't exactly Watergate.
The rest of 2011 was basically par for the course for Breitbart's websites. There was the time they accused President Obama of having "marched with" the New Black Panther Party in 2007 (thousands participated in the march, which commemorated the 1965 march from Selma, and Obama actually spent the event with civil rights icon Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth). There was the time Big Government reported that an Occupy activist had been murdered inside a protest camp in Savannah (that did not happen). There were all the different times Big Journalism featured a Nazi-era anti-Semitic cartoon. And there was the time that, two days after Breitbart himself attacked birtherism, a blogger for Big Journalism promoted Jerome Corsi's book Where's the Birth Certificate under the headline "What If The Birthers Are Right?" (days later, Obama released his long-form birth certificate).
In March 2012, following Breitbart's tragic death, the site released Breitbart's final column, which was designed to kick off his relaunched news empire's effort to "vet" Obama the way the media had purportedly failed to do.
Breitbart's post revealed that in 1998, then-state Sen. Obama attended a Chicago play about activist Saul Alinsky and then took part in a panel discussion afterwards.
In the months that followed, Breitbart's heirs unveiled a series of similarly shoddy efforts to "vet" Obama. Among the big stories was one about a "smoking gun" video showing then-Harvard Law student Barack Obama hugging the late Harvard professor Derrick Bell at a 1991 protest supporting Bell's push to have a woman of color offered tenure at the school.
As Bell was, according to the website, a dangerous radical, this was supposed to be a big deal. In fact, Bell was a respected academic; even if he had been a dangerous radical, the video of him and Obama hugging would prove nothing, and the video had been available online for years and the event had been repeatedly reported on.
Another supposedly big story covered a 1991 pamphlet published by Obama's former literary agency that erroneously describes him as being "born in Kenya." This supposedly fit "a pattern in which Obama -- or the people representing and supporting him -- manipulate his public persona." Hours later, the literary agency revealed that it had been a fact-checking error on its part.
The years to come would bring embarrassments like the "Friends of Hamas" smear and the time the website tried to attack the wrong Loretta Lynch. The flagrant support for Trump has been a new and humiliating development for the site.
But there was no journalistic legacy for Breitbart's heirs to squander. Big Journalism was always bad journalism.