Andrew Breitbart's brave new world
Andrew Breitbart strips off his blazer, windmills it over his head and lets it fly to the stage with a matador's flourish. He booms into a microphone, sneering, taunting. Breath sprints to keep up with words.
A Breitbart boil is under way, before a cheering throng of tea partiers on a moonlike strip of Nevada desert back in March.
A finger stabs overhead as the conservative online publisher declares Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., a racist. An arm lances outward as he decries Republican leaders as apologists.
Voice rising, Breitbart pledges $10,000, then $20,000, then $100,000 for the United Negro College Fund if proof is found to corroborate claims of racial name-calling during tea party protests on Capitol Hill.
"They decided to play lowball, hardball tactics," Breitbart seethes. "Well, we're going to have to play it right back at them."
You could argue he has done just that.
Two weeks ago, Breitbart posted an edited video that left the impression that Shirley Sherrod, then a little-known black federal employee, was racist. Within days she was out of a job, the doctored tape proved wildly misleading and President Barack Obama was on the phone with her trying to make things right.
Sherrod says she plans to file a lawsuit against Breitbart, and he's being blamed for committing the same online sins that he says are endemic in the U.S. media: political bias and lack of fairness. But despite calls, even from some conservatives, for Breitbart to apologize to Sherrod, he has done nothing of the sort.
"What would warrant an apology?" he told CNN. "I'm not the one that threw her under the bus."
Love or hate him, you can't avoid Breitbart on cable TV these days. But who is this 41-year-old father of four from Los Angeles, who has emerged as one of the most incendiary figures from the Beltway to Hollywood, a minor-league Limbaugh who mixes shock-jock calculation, conservative credo and answer-to-no-one swagger? Who is this icon of the smash-mouth politics that divide America?
Breitbart vaguely resembles a younger version of the actor Carroll O'Connor, with gray hair and pale blue eyes. He has the kind of build that suggests he's not averse to polishing off his kids' leftovers.
In the quiet of his Los Angeles living room, where the California sunshine floods through skylights and toys occupy corners, Breitbart is practiced and polite. Dressed in a blue blazer, jeans and button-down shirt, he's nothing like the combative partisan seen hissy-fitting on YouTube clips.
Kids' artwork is taped to the walls, and he chats amiably with his wife about dinner and a visit from his in-laws. There's a large-screen TV and pool table, and a book on see-through houses rests nearby.
Breitbart talks about his views with the zeal of the convert that he is. A personality ago, he was a cookie-cutter Hollywood liberal. But his passion for his brand of conservative politics is shot through with the keen business sense of an up-and-coming media mogul: He knows that what he says sells.
As with the Sherrod video, he is skilled at finding issues that push conservative buttons while at the same time pulling Internet traffic to his websites, driving up advertising rates. He's a man with an agenda, and it's as much business as politics.
"I'm committed to the destruction of the old media guard," Breitbart has said. "And it's a very good business model."
He did not speak with Sherrod before the clipped video went up, and he says he was unaware of the complete speech at the time. By his account, he posted the clip to expose racism within the NAACP, which last month passed a resolution condemning what it said were racist elements within the tea party. He wrote that the 1986 video shows "nodding approval" in the crowd to Sherrod's remarks, which he sees as evidence of bigotry.
It's not the first time he's been involved in a controversy over edited tapes. Last year, one of Breitbart's websites debuted the hidden-camera sting videos made by James O'Keefe III and Hannah Giles that brought down the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN. Giles posed as a prostitute, and the videos show ACORN staffers offering advice on taxes and other issues. Critics said the heavily edited tapes shaped a deceptive narrative, a charge Breitbart denies.
He relishes his public role as provocateur. He told reporters from the stage of a tea party convention in February, "It's not your business model that sucks, it's you that sucks." And this on Sen. Edward Kennedy's death: "If you can't say something nice about a person, then say mean things about them instead," Breitbart wrote. "Especially if they are unapologetic manslaughterers."
Breitbart's home turf is a colony of conservative websites anchored to news aggregator Breitbart.com, which gets more than 2 million visitors each month. He's a regular on Fox News, and has a book on the way.
News cycle by news cycle, fact by fact, Breitbart uses his websites and public appearances to challenge what he perceives as liberal bias in the media, academia and Hollywood, the broad forces that shape American lives. His loudmouthed style is a radical departure from conservative voices of the past, like William F. Buckley Jr.
"I do what I do because the mainstream media chooses not to do it," he says. "The game of the left controlling the narrative ... is ending."
And yet a centerpiece of the Breitbart operation is, in effect, a handshake with the devil, as he sees it: the mainstream media. His most popular site, Breitbart.com, showcases content he buys from The Associated Press and other mainstream news organizations. It was launched under the motto: "Just the news."
Breitbart TV, another grab-bag, rounds up video clips.
From there it's a hard right turn, and it's clear after a few clicks Breitbart isn't promoting an impartial media. A quartet of sister sites offer conservative analysis, commentary and blog posts that pass judgment on news stories or delve into other topics of the day — a sort of online bulletin board for conservatives. There's Big Journalism, Big Hollywood, Big Peace and Big Government. (He uses the modifier "Big" to mock the media slang Big Tobacco and Big Oil).
Some past headlines, "NY Times admires Taliban," "Who really needs a journalism degree?" and "Left Admits Racism Charges Against Tea Parties a Tactic, Not a Truth."
Not surprisingly, the left sees Breitbart as another entertainer-pundit on the fringes of journalism, where facts are disposable and attitude trumps intellect.
"I call it thuggery in the national discourse," says Democratic strategist Karen Finney, a Clinton White House veteran "It's damaging to our country."
But his take-no-prisoners approach goes down well with conservatives who feel their political leaders have been too hesitant, too timid. Breitbart "intends to offend the other side," says Republican strategist Jonathan Wilcox, who teaches a course on politics and celebrity at the University of Southern California. He's "an oppositional figure at an oppositional time."
Breitbart's personality is reminiscent of the manic, stop-and-go driving in his hometown of Los Angeles, and right now we're at stop.
When asked what he does other than pounding a laptop or hanging out with tea partiers, he has to pause. He's a devoted Los Angeles Dodgers fan, and has traveled the country to cheer on his favorite team. He spends a lot of time with his in-laws at their home in Venice, near the beach, and a getaway usually means a meal with the kids at California Pizza Kitchen.
"When you have four kids ... unless you have the television on it's pure mayhem," he says. "It's just pure chaos."
Larry Solov, his business partner and lifelong friend, says the blogger has two speeds: lighthearted jokester and fiery culture warrior.
"They flip back and forth," Solov quips. "And there is not that much in between."
Breitbart is part of a small cluster of Hollywood conservatives that includes comedian Dennis Miller and Joel Surnow. While he told tea partiers in Nevada that he's not rich, he doesn't live like Joe the Plumber either — a Range Rover is parked in his driveway, and the neatly-tended homes in his hillside neighborhood go for more than $1 million.
When Breitbart tells his story, it can feel rehearsed, a tale told many times. He's quick to needle the teenager and young man he once was, talking about his journey from college party boy and lapsed music critic to 21st century Internet mogul, as he's been called by talk-radio host Laura Ingraham.
He grew up in an affluent bubble in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles (home to Arnold Schwarzenegger and Harrison Ford), not far from where he lives today with his children and wife Susie, the daughter of actor Orson Bean.
The son of a restaurateur, he attended private school and emerged liberal. Politics was just a word.
That began to change at Tulane University in New Orleans, where Breitbart partied and mustered average grades but was exposed to a grittier version of America. In a city long troubled by crime and poverty, he started thinking about social problems and "the Great Society trash can," a reference to welfare programs in the 1960s.
A defining moment came as he watched the 1991 Senate hearings on Clarence Thomas' nomination to the Supreme Court. Breitbart grew indignant as Democratic senators grilled the nominee, in his view unfairly; he believed the allegations of inappropriate behavior leveled at Thomas paled in comparison to Kennedy's Chappaquiddick scandal. Breitbart considered the media, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Organization for Women complicit in what he saw.
"I went in expecting to root against Clarence Thomas and I came out doubting the Democratic Party and liberalism," he says.
He eventually changed his party registration to Republican and never looked back. He wrote recently on an Atlantic magazine website that there was a time when he read the Los Angeles Times, the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, British music magazines and what he called his Bible, satirical Spy magazine, but those habits died with the Internet. Now, his reading tastes lean right.
All that would be just personal footnote if he hadn't met Web pioneer Matt Drudge of Drudge Report repute in the mid-1990s. Breitbart became his long-serving underling. He was also there during the formative days of the Huffington Post.
In interviews, Breitbart usually refuses to talk about Drudge, who is known for fiercely guarding his privacy (and didn't respond to AP requests for an interview), but he does say this: "I owe him everything."
"If he had been left of center, he would have been on the cover of Rolling Stone and Wired and Vanity Fair a million times," Breitbart says. "My greatest takeaway from Matt Drudge ... was his sense of individualism, to follow your path. And so, Drudge is Drudge and I'm me."
Breitbart's talk of new media revolution is as much throwback as innovation. The confrontational right-left voices in today's national dialogue recall newspapers of the 18th and 19th centuries, which had little use for milquetoast neutrality.
"When you have a more open, competitive landscape, you need to do something to differentiate yourself. One way is to have a point of view," says Rich Gordon, director of digital innovation at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.
Is it journalism?
"It's a different brand of journalism than I grew up with in the 20th century," Gordon says. "We seem to be going back to the future."
Breitbart rattles off ideas for more than a dozen interlinked sites and blogs, some of which he says could launch later this year: Big Education would take on teacher unions and political correctness in schools; Big Tolerance, to "show that blacks, gays, Hispanics, Jews, are not all of one progressive mindset."
Solov, his business partner and friend, considers the company's finances private and wouldn't say if it turned a profit last year. Breitbart says advertising pays for a small staff — Internet traffic to his site gets a big boost from his old friend Drudge, whose site links stories to Breitbart's online turf.
There are those who think Breitbart's future is in the Beltway culture he despises. One reader posted this, "Andrew for president 2012."
Breitbart looks momentarily bemused when asked if he harbors political ambition.
"I'm less of a senator than I am a pied piper or Johnny Appleseed," Breitbart says. "Being a senator would diminish my power."