It says a great deal about the quality of publisher and provocateur Andrew Breitbart’s showmanship and his commitment to carrying a performance through that, as the news broke this morning that he had passed away at the untimely age of 43, many people weren’t sure the announcement was real. At ThinkProgress, we send condolences to his family, and remember him as an expert and captivating provocateur, even in our many serious disagreements with him on the issues.
And there’s no question that Breitbart could be a captivating presence. His Twitter feed (the last missive from it was “I called you a putz cause I thought you were being intentionally disingenuous. If not I apologize.”) was a vehicle for performance art and agitprop. A New Yorker profile of him in 2010 started with the image of Breitbart tweeting “Why is Steny Hoyer in Los Angeles sitting on Anthony Weiner’s shoulders screaming the N word into my home? Weird.” He used his feed to savage Ted Kennedy in the immediate aftermath of the Senator’s death.
That flair for the dramatic persisted off the internet: in the wake of Anthony Weiner’s Twitter flirtations scandal, Breitbart stepped off the plane in New York and went straight to a press conference to answer charges that he or someone in his employ had hacked the Congressman’s Twitter account, an event at which he complained that “72 hours in Palm Springs with your family is excruciating when you are being challenged.” It was an amusing, if self-aggrandizing, performance.
Breitbart’s more dramatic tendencies could affect his preferences in reporting. As a publisher, Breitbart’s first scalp—and his biggest—was the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, which withered after a so-called sting organization by conservative prankster James O’Keefe recorded an ACORN worker on camera refusing to judge O’Keefe, in disguise, presenting himself as a pimp. The video hardly damned the organization as a whole, but the report succeeded in starving ACORN of much of its funding and eventually forced the group to reorganize. Despite the diminishing returns of O’Keefe’s hoaxes, Breitbart stood by him, and compared O’Keefe to Sacha Baron-Cohen’s Borat character, saying “I think Borat got real politicians/personalities to act in real ways that we hold them to account for. O’Keefe is more serious.”
That penchant for the dramatic and boundary-pushing also led Breitbart into places no credible journalist would tread, a tendency he held up as proof of his independence, but that led to embarrassing missteps. During the Weiner press conference, he complained that “The media says Breitbart lies! Brietbart lies! Breitbart lies! Give me one example of a provable lie!” But the edited video he published the year before that implied that Department of Agriculture employee Shirley Sherrod harbored racist sentiments against white farmers was demonstrably inaccurate and biased, and resulted in Sherrod losing her job. Breitbart declined to apologizepublicly to Sherrod, and she sued him for defamation, a suit that is still pending.
If his addiction to drama didn’t exactly help Breitbart’s network of sites become a bastion of credible journalism, his combativeness and hunger for pageviews sometimes meant that he lent his support to more positive causes. After blogger Dave Weigel left the Washington Post after his private emails were published by rival conservative outlet the Daily Caller, Breitbart gave him space to explain himself. And at a time when the Republican party was falling back on socially conservative positions to gain support, Breitbart joined the board of gay conservative organization GOProud, saying “If being conservative means rejecting gay conservatives because they are gay, then fine, I’m not a conservative.” He later left the organization, but remained supportive of its aims.