A toxic legacy
March 2, 2012By Dick Polman
When someone in public life dies, the traditional response is to bow one's head and say nice things while minimizing or ignoring the deceased person's most knavish traits. Such was the case yesterday - at least in some quarters - in the wake of the news that conservative media pioneer and provocateur Andrew Breitbart had suddenly left us.
But in other quarters - most notably, in the digitalsphere where Breitbart had done so much of his work, for better or worse - tradition held no sway. I won't repeat the comments, many of which insisted in the bluntest possible language that he should be consigned to a fiery ecosystem governed by a guy with a pitchfork. Suffice it to say that one major newspaper felt compelled to include this paragraph this morning: "News of Mr. Breibart's death sparked such hostile responses from some readers that The Washington Post had to pre-moderate the comments section on its web site."
I wince at that kind of hostility. Yes, it's true that when Ted Kennedy died a few years ago, Breitbart himself responded by declaring that Kennedy was "a special pile of human excrement." But why respond in kind? Didn't our mothers teach us that two wrongs don't make a right?
Still, it should be possible to critique such a person - warts and all - without sounding reflexively hateful or, at the other extreme, reflexively worshipful. I don't want him to burn forever in the nether region, but nor do I think we should cleanse, excuse, or ignore his lamentable public conduct just because he's leaving behind a young family.
Honesty is the bottom line. And here's an honest assessment, from conservative commentator and ex-Bush speechwriter David Frum: "It’s difficult for me to assess Breitbart’s impact upon American media and American politics as anything other than poisonous. When one of the leading media figures of the day achieves his success by his giddy disdain for truth and fairness - when one of our leading political figures offers to his admirers a politics inflamed by rage and devoid of ideas - how to withhold a profoundly negative judgment on his life and career?"
No, you can't withhold it. Not even his admirers could quite withhold it; even though Rich Lowry, editor of the conservative National Review, yesterday lauded Breitbart as "fearless, gutty, and innovative," he also conceded that Breitbart "wasn't a journalist in the traditional sense of dotting every i and crossing every t."
Indeed not. Breitbart - and his acolytes on websites such as Big Government - merely took on the trappings of journalism, breaking "stories" that invented untruths for openly partisan purposes. Here's Frum again: "This indifference to detail suffused all of Breitbart’s work, and may indeed be his most important and lasting legacy....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."
Today I saw an example of his toolmaking at the terrific new journalism museum in Washington. How great it is that the Newseum has emblazoned Breitbart on a wall for all to see. The exhibit recounts his targeting of a black federal Agriculture Department official named Shirley Sherrod.
In July 2010, Breitbart posted an excerpt from a video in which Sherrod supposedly confessed to an NAACP audience that she had supposedly refused to assist a white farmer. According to Breitbart's accompanying text, she confessed to slighting the farmer "because he is white." Black racism! The video excerpt went viral, and Fox News naturally ran with it. Sherrod was promptly dumped by the Agriculture department.
But when the full video surfaced, Breitbart's "scoop" unraveled. Turned out, Sherrod (a) had been describing an incident that took place 24 years earlier, and (b) that she ultimately went the extra mile to help the white farmer avoid foreclosure. Plus, the farmer was still alive, and he told CNN that the Breitbart excerpt was "ridiculous" and "a bunch of hogwash, in my opinion. She was just as nice to us as anyone could have been," and she was "helpful in every way."
Rich Lowry at the National Review, who was so measured in his critique of Breitbart yesterday, didn't mince any words when the hit job on Sherrod was exposed. He called the espisode "a lesson in how the culture of offense often works in contemporary America - chewing people up and spitting them out before they even have a chance to defend themselves." Sherrod sued Breitbart for defamation, and said that her legal action "is about how quickly, in today's Internet media environment, a person's good name can become 'collateral damage' in an overheated political debate."
The lawsuit was still pending, and dies with Breitbart.
For Breitbart, "the attack was everything, the details nothing." So said David Frum yesterday. This credo remains true for all the acolytes that Breitbart has inspired in the conservative "media." Frum is no fan of Barack Obama, the Democratic party, or liberal politics in general, but he, like others in the sane wing of conservatism, recognize the enduring value of fact-checked reality. And he worries that Breitbart has left a toxic legacy:
"We live in a time of political and media demagoguery unparalleled since the 19th century. Many of our most important public figures have gained their influence and power by inciting and exploiting the ugliest of passions - by manipulating fears and prejudices — by serving up falsehoods as reported truth. In time these figures will one by one die. What are we to say of this cohort, this group, this generation? That their mothers loved them? That their families are bereaved? That their fans admired them and their employees treated generously by them? Public figures are inescapably judged by their public actions. When those public actions are poisonous, the obituary cannot be pleasant reading."
No, it is not. But at least it rings true.
Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1