Though it regurgitates one of the media’s persistent false memes about Andrew Breitbart, Slate‘s tribute to Breitbart, in the form of a vignette by New Yorker stalwart George Packer, is an otherwise fitting celebration of the life and work of a new media pioneer and entrepreneur whose “fast, fun career” continues to inspire us all.
In the tribute, an excerpt from Packer’s new book The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, Packer juxtaposes the constant downward spiral of the Old Media with the rise of Andrew Breitbart. Through key stages of Breitbart’s life, Packer notes that the media went from one of America’s most trusted to most distrusted institutions. In doing so, Packer highlights just why the world needed an Andrew Breitbart in the first place.
The terrain Breitbart sauntered onto was diminishing, crumbling, wide open to him. Pillars of the Old Media were turning to infotainment and opinion journalism to save money and hold on to a distracted audience. Reporters were spooked because Jayson Blair made up stories in theTimes and Dan Rather aired phony documents on 60 Minutes, while watchdogs on the right and left barked ferociously at their every hint of bias, and upstarts of the New Media jeered the frightened gatekeepers, until no one knew who was right and what was true and no one trusted the press and the press stopped trusting itself.
Breitbart knew exactly what to do. Make news by breaking news. Feed the media like training a dog, one video at a time instead of the whole meal at once, catching ACORN and the news outlets off-guard, exposing their lies and biases while keeping the story alive. Use a friendly network like Fox News to amplify the effect. Stay on offense; be outrageous. His real target was the mainstream media–honestly, who cared about the poor homeowners that ACORN protected from predatory lenders, or the low-income workers whose wages it fought to raise? Within a few months, ACORN ceased to exist and Breitbart was a Tea Party hero and media bigs were competing to publish profiles of him. It felt like he was doing every single banned class-A narcotic simultaneously.
It was fun! Telling the truth was fun, having the American people behind him was fun, fucking with the heads of nervous journalists and helping the mainstream media commit suicide was fun. Breitbart went on Real Time With Bill Maher and stood up for himself and Rush to the politically correct hometown mob of an audience, and it was an incredibly committed moment in his life. He found himself the leader of a loose band of patriotic malcontents, and right in front of him was the same opportunity that the Founding Fathers had had–to fight a revolution against the complex.
Sadly, Packer gets ACORN wrong–he leaves out the many cases of voter fraud, as well as Barack Obama’s history with the radical group, which is the primary reason many conservatives were interested in it. He also repeats the false claim about “deceptively edited video” in the Shirley Sherrod controversy. William Jacobson of Legal Insurrection reiterated his detailed analysis of the claim, noting: “The myth lives on because it’s a lazy, cheap way to denigrate Andrew Breitbart.” It is an unfortunate error in an otherwise worthy essay.