The late online impresario Andrew Breitbart (1969–2012) was firmly on the right side of the political spectrum. But a new documentary about his life, Hating Breitbart, transcends his politics and instead captures the tectonic shift he helped bring about from the 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 (think 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. If they learned how to play their instruments at all, they did it 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 wanted (or could steal), and stirred the pot until the dish was OK by them.
Breitbart pulled off something similar during his truncated life. The guy who once worked as Matt Drudge's "bitch" (his term!) and who 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 (born in 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. But Breitbart didn't just stew in his anger. He realized that it keeps getting 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.
Reputation still matters, arguably more than ever. But there's no question that it has never been so easy to make a name for yourself by bringing something new to the table. Ask Hot Air's conservative commentator Ed Morrissey, who not so long ago was managing a Minnesota-based call center, or 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. Also key is the notion of independence, which Breitbart showed repeatedly, especially in high-profile fights with Glenn Beck and with the organizers of "the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) over their exclusion of gay groups.
There's a 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.
Directed by Andrew Marcus, Hating Breitbart hits all the highlights of its 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 to initial reports with quick, emphatic declarations that there were no more revelations or skeletons still in the closet—and then were promptly undermined by subsequent releases.
A highlight of the documentary is the section dealing with the racially charged atmosphere around 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 building. Despite a large crowd including various journalists and police officers, Carson's account was never corroborated by video or audio from the scene (though several of his companions, including the highly regarded Georgia Rep. John Lewis, backed Carson's claims). 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 version 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 Hating Breitbart too.
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. Internet-empowered journalism isn't a cure-all. But it does allow a lot more people to speak up.
"Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one," The New Yorker's A.J. Liebling mused back in the dark ages (1960). Andrew Breitbart understood that it's easier than ever to own a press, and that despite the vast, incomprehensible increase in chatter, the demand for even more is still infinite. You may have hated or loved what 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.