Facebook and the media keeping empowering right-wing peddlers of hate like Breitbart
Here we go again: Facebook just became the latest traditional media player to enable the right-wing hate of Breitbart News.
Unveiling its news tab initiative last week, on which Facebook is partnering with outlets such as CNN, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal, the company also confirmed that the far-right conspiracy bastion Breitbart News is being included in the prestigious online rollout, even though Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg can't give a straight answer for why the social media giant is partnering in a "high-quality" news initiative with a site that featured a "Black Crime" watch and publishes well-known white nationalists. “Part of having this be a trusted source is that it needs to have a diversity of views in there, so I think you want to have content that represents different perspectives,” Zuckerberg said last week.
"Perspectives"? Really? As Facebook was announcing its news tab cooperative last week, Breitbart was "cheering a right-wing campaign to spread revenge porn photos of Rep. Katie Hill (D-CA)," Media Matters noted, adding, "Breitbart is currently in ‘24-7 campaign mode’ for Trump, and its sham polling has been cited extensively by the president to push back against the impeachment inquiry." It’s disgraceful, but hardly surprising. Breitbart editor in chief Alex Marlow has gone on the record saying that "rape" is just "sex a woman regrets." Facebook must be so proud.
By the way, this Facebook situation could get worse, and very quickly. The company refuses to release the full list of media partners it has chosen to work with, leading to speculation that the complete roster will include a lot more Breitbart-type GOP swamps, thereby making a mockery of Facebook’s "quality journalism" initiative.
"Facebook wants to win over Republicans, including lawmakers who have grilled Zuckerberg in Congress over shaky claims of ‘anti-conservative bias,’ as well as President Donald Trump, who has threatened tech companies with new laws and antitrust action," The Verge noted. "Leaving out Breitbart might earn Facebook condemnation from these quarters."
It's all very sad, and it's alarmingly common, as traditional media outlets, often fearful of offending conservatives, eliminate all commonsense guidelines and embrace the hateful, disreputable, and destructive work of right-wing media peddlers. Simultaneously, they often lock out thoughtful liberal players from gaining the same access.
When he was alive, there likely wasn't a glossy magazine or major newspaper in America that didn't publish a feel-good profile of Andrew Breitbart, the site's founder, as journalists worked overtime to whitewash the noxious hate that fueled Breitbart's often manic behavior and the site's racist content. A chronic liar like Donald Trump, Breitbart oversaw a hateful opposition research firm that pretended to be in the news business, and the Beltway press loved him, eagerly puffing up his reputation.
Perhaps the most famous (and regrettable) example of the traditional media enabling a hate site like Breitbart was when The New York Times in 2015 openly helped market the anti-Hillary Clinton book Clinton Cash, written by a Breitbart acolyte and published by Rupert Murdoch. It was the Times that trumpeted the “focused reporting” of Clinton Cash as “the most anticipated and feared book of a presidential cycle still in its infancy,” and said that it would prove to be “problematic” and “unsettling” for the Clintons. The book featured an extraordinarily long list of errors, corrections, and retractions, but that didn't seem to bother the Times.
What's especially regrettable today is that Facebook is elevating Breitbart at a time when liberal activists, led by the Sleeping Giants online collective, have convinced so many advertisers to pull their business from the toxic site. Since 2016, more than 4,000 advertisers have severed ties with Breitbart, causing the site to lose 90% of its ad revenue, according to former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, who once ran Breitbart. The site has also been losing traffic at an alarming rate in recent years. "Since Trump became president, monthly traffic has virtually collapsed, plummeting nearly 75 percent," The Washington Post reported in July. Yet against a backdrop of vanishing advertisers and vanishing readers, Facebook steps forward and rewards Breitbart with a seal of approval from the largest media entity on the planet.
There should be no debate about whether Breitbart is a legitimate news site or deserves to be treated as such. It is, quite often, a sewer—and one that functions in an ethics-free zone.
In 2018, when Republican Roy Moore was running for one of Alabama’s U.S. Senate seats and was accused of having sexually assaulted a teenager, the attorney representing his accuser was approached by two Moore supporters who wanted the attorney to discredit his client in exchange for a large cash payment. The lawyer's statement would be given exclusively to Breitbart News. But that's not all: Two Breitbart reporters actually attended the meeting with the attorney and reportedly pressured him to sign the incriminating statement against Moore's accuser.
Two years ago, BuzzFeed News published explosive documents confirming that Breitbart actively solicited story ideas from neo-Nazi leaders. Maybe that's why in 2017 the credentials committee for Capitol Hill reporters denied Breitbart a permanent press pass. Then, last year, a Bloomberg report revealed that during the 2016 election, Breitbart reporter Dustin Stockton worked as an “off-the-books political operative” for the Trump campaign.
The background of all this is that Facebook has a long, shameful history of kowtowing to the right-wing mob. In 2016, a dubious press report suggested that Facebook editors were "suppressing conservative news," which set off right-wing hysteria. In frantic reaction, Facebook eliminated human editors, or "news curators," from the news selection process and replaced them with an algorithm. That move unleashed a tidal wave of fake news stories on Facebook, which helped Trump get elected. Incredibly, Zuckerberg then hired a retired far-right Republican U.S. senator to investigate whether Facebook is guilty of conservative bias.
Today, a bullied Facebook is continuing the media’s shameful tradition of mainstreaming Breitbart hate.
Eric Boehlert is a veteran progressive writer and media analyst, formerly with Media Matters and Salon. He is the author of Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush and Bloggers on the Bus. You can follow him on Twitter @EricBoehlert.