Last weekend, I went to see Hating Breitbart, the new documentary about the late online impresario Andrew Breitbart, who died unexpectedly earlier this year. Although released in time for the election and filled with familiar political faces and subjects (Barack Obama, ACORN, Anthony Weiner, the Tea Party, and more), the movie is stunningly post-partisan and should be watched by anybody with an interest in the future of media. (Disclosure: I was interviewed for Hating Breitbart a couple of years back and appear briefly in it as a talking head.)
Though Breitbart (1969-2012) was and director Andrew Marcus is firmly on the right side of the political spectrum, the film's real achievement is in documenting the tectonic shift from traditional legacy media to newer forms of distributed news gathering and opinion-making. This move from conventional gatekeepers and authorities (think The New York Times, official spokespeople, and established broadcast and cable news channels) to endlessly proliferating tastemakers and outlets (such as Instapundit, Gawker, and Breitbart's own suite of "Big" sites) doesn't break along conventional ideological lines. It's more attitudinal, more punk in the best sense of the word. When faced with a world that didn't cater to them and their aesthetics, the punks of the late 1970s and early 1980s famously made their own clothes, hairdos, and music. They learned how to play their instruments (if at all) while on the job. Disaffected and unsatisfied people stopped simply choking down mass culture. Instead, they seasoned off-the-shelf meals to their own tastes, tossed in whatever other ingredients they felt like or could steal, and stirred the pot until the dish was OK by them.
Though anchored in music, the punk ethos washed over all sorts of creative expression, from art (dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is heavily influenced by punk) to writing, film, and video. It seems like a century ago that Michael Moore, nursing his wounds after getting fired by Mother Jones, first padded around the GM building in Roger and Me (1989), cracking wise and talking economic smack—in a documentary, no less, the most serioso form imaginable! What was most refreshing about that movie was the D.I.Y. element of the whole enterprise. Empowered by (relatively) cheap and affordable technology and with time on his hands, Moore not only told a story that wasn't going to be told otherwise, he told it in a very different way than anybody else would have.
Breitbart pulled off something similar during his truncated life (read obituaries by Matt Welch and me). The guy who once worked as Matt Drudge's "bitch" (his term!) and helped create The Huffington Post came into his own by striking out on his own, first with the aggregator sites Breitbart.com and Breitbart.tv and then with Big Hollywood (2008), Big Government (2009), and all the rest. Like many on the right, he burned with resentment that the mainstream media disdained not just his perspective but his preferred ways of expressing it. As he notes in Hating Breitbart, he had only two modes: jocularity and righteous indignation (the latter became the title of his 2011 memoir-cum-manifesto). But Breitbart didn't just stew in his anger. He had realized that it keeps getting easier and easier for individuals and groups at every level of society and at every spot on the ideological spectrum to enter into conversations about everything under the sun. Like it or not—and ready or not—this is the world we all live in.
Reputation still matters (arguably, it matters more than ever) when it comes to having credibility and clout, but there's no question that it has never been so easy to gather information and opinion. Or to make a name for yourself by bringing something new to the table (ask Hot Air's excellent Ed Morrissey, who not so long ago was managing a Target call center for an alarm company, or the New York Times' stats maven Nate Silver, who made his bones as a baseball stats nerd and whose first forays into political handicapping were done anonymously). So does independence, which Breitbart showed repeatedly, especially in high-profile fights with Glenn Beck and with the organizers of CPAC over their exclusion of gay groups.
None of this new media wrangling is new, precisely, and there's some sort of strange and jagged line that runs from the explosion in unlicensed pamphlets in 17th-century England through the anonymous publication of The Federalist Papers through the creation of that first great alt-weekly the Village Voice through Wikileaks and beyond. That line runs through Breitbart just as surely as it does through Mad magazine, the Whole Earth Catalog, Salon.com, and Arianna Huffington. The best alternative media doesn't simply replicate what the old guard is doing; it does something different that is plugged into the technological possibilities and cultural shifts of the moment.
Hating Breitbart hits all the highlights of its eponymous subject's best-known scoops. The film recounts how Breitbart's Big Government site rolled out video compiled by James O'Keefe that ultimately led to the congressional defunding of the activist group ACORN. It ends with a short, punchy postscript involving disgraced pol Anthony Weiner's Twitter scandal. In both cases, the Breitbartian flourish of dribbling out the news helped squeeze extra mileage out of the stories. Both ACORN and Weiner responded quickly to initial reports with emphatic declarations that there were no more revelations or skeletons still in the closet—and then were promptly undermined by subsequent releases.
The section of the film dealing with Shirley Sherrod, a Department of Agriculture official who resigned after Breitbart posted a video of her speaking to an NAACP audience, is especially interesting, partly because it's an example of where Breitbart lost control of the story. In a video of Sherrod talking to an NAACP audience that was posted at Big Government in 2010, she recounts an old experience while working at a nonprofit advocacy group. When faced with a pompous white farmer who needed her help but disrespected her, she explains, she thought about not helping him out because he was white. But, she explains in the video, she ultimately realized that the issue was not about race but about poverty, and she directed the farmer to someone who helped him keep his farm. That video ended up making the rounds of cable news shows in a much-shortened form that suggested Sherrod had indeed withheld her assistance. The NAACP and government officials immediately denounced Sherrod and the USDA accepted her resignation (she was later offered her job back). She ultimately sued Breitbart and his parters for defamation in a case that has yet to be settled, as far as I know (which explains, I assume, why the video is not easily accessed on Breitbart's sites).
But the documentary makes clear that Breitbart never edited the video in a way to make Sherrod look like she had acted in a racist manner. To the contrary, Breitbart's version of the video and his accompanying article, which was largely ignored by the media, underscored that the opposite was true. Rather, he emphasized the reaction of the crowd, which laughed and clapped in approval when Sherrod implied she screwed over the farmer. His aim in raising the episode, he says, was to show that the NAACP, which had attacked him by name repeatedly over his ACORN revelations, continued to traffic in outdated racial politics. Whatever his intentions, the story didn't follow his preferred outline, though the episode in no way showed him to be a rogue editor of video, as many of his critics have claimed he was. Indeed, even MSNBC host Chris Matthews is shown saying as much.
The centerpiece of the documentary for me is the section dealing with another racially charged incident. Before the 2010 vote on health-care reform, Rep. Andre Carson (D-Ind.) claimed that demonstrators called him and other black members of Congress "nigger" more than a dozen times when they were walking into their office buidling. Despite a large crowd that including various journalists and police officers, Carson's account was never corroborated by video or audio from the scene (several of his companions, including the highly regarded Georgia Rep. John Lewis, backed Carson's account). Breitbart eventually offered $100,000 to anyone producing recorded evidence that supported Carson's charge and he also compiled a number of phone and flip-cam vids that undercut Carson's account of events. The specifics of the episode are less interesting than the use Breitbart made of distributed snippets of video and information to challenge especially loaded charges.
At more than one point in the movie, Breitbart asks members of audiences he's addressing to hold up their iPhones, pocket cams, and other recording devices and to turn them on. You, he says, are the media. That gesture is the essential takeaway of Andrew Breitbart's work—and of the documentary Hating Breitbart. Such moments illustrate how something weird and wonderful is happening when it comes to media. Surely it's more than a little ironic that just as Hating Breitbart hit theaters, the Daily Beast pulled the plug on its sick sister, the comatose magazine Newsweek, and Breitbart's protege James O'Keefe released a video about voter fraud that led Patrick Moran, the son of Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), to resign in shame from his father's campaign.
There's no question that all the old sources of power and privilege still wield enormous, perhaps even ultimate, ability to shape conversations both large and small. Witness the constipated flow of information about White House knowledge regarding the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi—and a thousand other stories you, I, and our crazy uncles think are getting short shrift in the old media (such complaints are hardly the sole province of the right wing).
Internet-empowered journalism isn't a Cosmic Cube-style weapon that will once and for all lay waste to all bullshit artists residing in low and high places. No, the new media that Breitbart helped operationalize are more like an over-the-counter Super Soldier Serum that helps us all fight for truth and justice as we define those terms (apologies for the turn to Marvel Comics-based metaphors). As the folks at Talking Points Memo, Mediaite, and even Reason.com can tell you, the expression enabled by all this doesn't reliably tilt right, left, or libertarian, and it doesn't guarantee quality of content or even an audience. But it does allow a lot more people to speak up.
"Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one," mused A.J. Leibling back in the dark ages (1960), in The New Yorker, an establishment organ whose influence runs strong even as one its dauphins, Jonah Lehrer, has recently been revealed as a fraud thanks to new media fact-checking methods. Andrew Breitbart understood that it's easier than ever to own a press and that despite the vast, incomprehensible increase in chatter—back in 1999, I estimated the World Wide Web had put at least 10 billion extra words in circulation!—the demand for even more is still infinite. You may have hated or loved what you think Andrew Breitbart stood for, but Hating Breitbart makes it clear that we'll all be living in the world he called home for a long time to come. And that it's filled with far livelier and more inclusive conversations than it would have been if he'd never been born.