The Breitbart Dilemma


Respectable news outlets aren't the only ones having trouble processing the fact that a purple-eyed partisan like Andrew Breitbart is producing impactful journalism this season. The ancient Atlantic magazine–which, strangely, appears to have morphed into a sort of Blogger's Monthly–has been furrowing its brows at Breitbart & Co. both in print and online.

Regular Atlantic contributor Conor Friedersdorf, writing at The Daily Beast (and earning a high-five from Andrew Sullivan), poses the question:

ACORN is just the latest example of how conservative media love to blast The New York Times for its shortcomings. So why can't they live up to the Gray Lady's standards?

Easy answer: Because it's possible to criticize X on grounds of Y without yourself doing Y better than X. In fact, it's probable, given the fact that X is powerful enough to be a regular target of criticism. (If you think about it, media criticism is one of the only categories of criticism where the critics at least somewhat participate in the act being criticized–no one expected Pauline Kael to make better movies than The Sound of Music, but they lapped up her reviews anyway.) Andrew Breitbart (a friend of mine) is nobody's Pauline Kael, yet he produces bits of real-world journalism that eventually The New York Timeses of the world have to catch up to. This fact is apparently enough to make people's brains pop.

Take the normally interesting journalist Mark Bowden. Writing in this month's Atlantic, Bowden discusses two political gadfly bloggers who, out of political motivation, dug up the two videos of Judge Sonia Sotomayor that most news networks were playing on the day of her nomination to the Supreme Court–the "wise Latina" speech, and another one about appellate courts making "policy." Instead of asking the (to me) obvious question–why is that the tens of thousands of paid journalists in this country who did work related to Sotomayor's nomination failed to unearth the newsworthy videos?–Bowden spins the anecdote into Exibit A of All That Has Gone Horribly Wrong in Journalism. Excerpt:

I would describe their approach as post-journalistic. It sees democracy, by definition, as perpetual political battle. The blogger's role is to help his side. Distortions and inaccuracies, lapses of judgment, the absence of context, all of these things matter only a little, because they are committed by both sides, and tend to come out a wash. Nobody is actually right about anything, no matter how certain they pretend to be. The truth is something that emerges from the cauldron of debate. No, not the truth: victory, because winning is way more important than being right. Power is the highest achievement. There is nothing new about this. But we never used to mistake it for journalism. Today it is rapidly replacing journalism, leading us toward a world where all information is spun, and where all "news" is unapologetically propaganda.

Reading this, you'd almost think that Sotomayor's nomination was derailed, that the "wise Latina" quote ended up defining her, that the bulk of journalism about her was based on partisan misunderstandings of a long and presumably boring speech she gave at Duke. None of that is remotely true.

More relevantly to the journalism discussion, partisan media criticism is not "rapidly replacing journalism," it's supplementing journalism, forcing journalism to be sharper, and frequently committing acts of journalism in its own right, despite not being motivated by the same allegedly pristine Mission guiding postwar American newspaper types. That fact is not difficult for most consumers to grasp, but it's proven maddeningly elusive for keepers of the old flame. Here's the scoop: Media critics are more motivated by politics than journalistic purity, and in their extra motivation they can and will occasionally steal the old guard's lunch. They–and more importantly, their work–should be held to the same standard that people apply to alt-journalism from all sources, not just those whose politics seem yucky.

Read Breitbart defending himself here; Friedersdorf responds here. Watch Breitbart on ReasonTV here and here. And in December 2004, I used him as my lead example of a column called "Biased About Bias."