A Tribute (Sort Of)

It’s a tribute to Andrew Breitbart’s skill at media manipulation that when word of his death started spreading around Twitter this morning, the first reaction many people had was that it was a hoax. Only after confirmation from the Los Angeles Times and other news organizations did people believe it was really true.

Breitbart was someone I kept maybe half an eye on, at best, so I don’t have a fully developed take on his career as a media provocateur and what it meant. He seemed to be someone of endless energy and pugnacity, which served him well in bringing down Anthony Weiner, but which proved an embarrassment with the deceptively edited ACORN and Shirley Sherrod videos.

Two people asked me today if Breitbart was “a journalist.” I think it shows how much the media environment has changed over the past decade that the question didn’t strike me as making much sense. He was a conservative activist and a showman, and one of the things he did was journalism, both good and bad. If you do journalism, are you a journalist? Does it matter?

I ran across three pieces today that I think are worth sharing.

The first is a remembrance by Josh Marshall, editor of the liberal website Talking Points Memo, who gets at Breitbart’s dual nature. Despite being well to the right of someone like Marshall, and exceedingly unpleasant on occasion, Breitbart had a certain way about him that people found compelling. Marshall writes:

There are some people who live for the fight. It’s something I try not to be part of. Yet it’s a big, punchy, vivid and outrageously honorable tradition in the American public square. I cannot think of many people who lived more out loud than he did, more in primary colors.

The second, a 2010 profile by Rebecca Mead of the New Yorker, was pretty much definitive at the time and holds up well. Despite its warts-and-all depiction of Breitbart, it comes across as fair, and Breitbart emerges as a not-entirely-unsympathetic character driven mainly by resentment and disdain for those he considers to be liberal elitists. And if that’s not a good description of what the modern conservative movement is all about, I don’t know what is.

Finally, apostate Republican David Frum has written a very tough assessment for the Daily Beast that acknowledges Breitbart “was by all accounts generous with time and advice, a loving husband and father, and a loyal friend,” but that is unstinting in its criticism of Breitbart’s brand of media activism. Frum writes:

Breitbart sometimes got stories right (Anthony Weiner). More often he got them wrong (Sherrod). He did not much care either way. Just as all is fair in a shooting war, so manipulation and deception are legitimate tools in a culture war. Breitbart used those tools without qualm or regret, and he inspired a cohort of young conservative journalists to do likewise.

Like Frum, I wonder if Breitbart might have grown if given the chance. His Weiner takedown surely must have showed him that getting it right brings a completely different level of respect and influence than does faking a video and getting caught.

Breitbart was only 43 years old and leaves behind four young children. Was he on his way to media respectability, or is that just wishful thinking? We’ll never know.

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Editor's Note: This article was originally published March 1, 2012, at Media Nation. Photo by Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons, used with Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported.
Dan Kennedy

Dan Kennedy

I am an assistant professor at Northeastern University’s School of Journalism, specializing in new-media trends. I write a weekly online column for The Guardian’s Comment is Free America section, and was a finalist for a Syracuse University Mirror Award in media commentary in both 2008 and 2009.

In addition, I am a contributing writer for the Boston Phoenix, for whom I worked as the media columnist from 1994 through 2005. While at the Phoenix, I won the National Press Club’s 2001 Arthur Rowse Award for Press Criticism and the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ 1999 award for media reporting. I’m also a regular commentator on media issues on “Beat the Press,” on WGBH-TV (Channel 2).

My weblog, Media Nation, is featured on Jim Romenesko’s media-news site at Poynter.org and on the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s Daily Briefing page.

On the summit of Mt. Hancock.

On the summit of Mt. Hancock (south)

My book on the culture of dwarfism, “Little People: Learning to See the World Through My Daughter’s Eyes,” originally published by Rodale in 2003, is now available in a free online edition issued under a Creative Commons license, as well as a high-quality, print-on-demand paperback edition. “Little People” was praised by the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe, the Providence Journal, and Publishers Weekly, and was featured by NPR, Salon, and Child Magazine.

From 1979 through 1989 I worked as a reporter for The Daily Times Chronicle of Woburn, Mass., where I covered the trial at the center of Jonathan Harr’s book “A Civil Action.” My account of the case and its aftermath is online here.

On July 21, 2007, my son, Tim, and I hiked to the northern and southern summits of Mt. Hancock, my 47th and 48th (and final) 4,000-foot mountains in New Hampshire, finishing a quest I had begun in 1968.

I am currently writing a book on the New Haven Independent and the rise of hyperlocal community news sites, to be published by the University of Massachusetts Press in 2012.