Famous literary meals
"Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" by Hunter S. Thompson
Strangely, the night before the latest humiliation of the Daily Caller’s Tucker Carlson — by a Washington Post report that the Caller’s key source for its “scoop” that Sen. Robert Menendez patronized prostitutes now says the website paid him to find women who would lie about it — I watched the documentary “Hating Breitbart,” a hagiographic 90 minutes of the late Andrew Breitbart ranting, vamping and raging for the admiring camera of his friend Andrew Marcus.
I wasn’t going to write about it, not because I hate Breitbart – I didn’t, and don’t – but because, sadly, it’s kind of slight. It doesn’t do justice to its outsize subject, however much it worships him. But the Carlson news juxtaposed with the documentary reminded me how much more talented Breitbart was than the pale imitators he left behind – as well as how much his rage-fueled, by-any-means-necessary character assassination posing as journalism lives on, albeit ineptly.
I haven’t written about Breitbart since his sudden death over a year ago, at the too-young age of 43. We’d sparred online for years; to be honest, his rage scared me, a little. Technically, Breitbart dropped dead of heart failure, but I couldn’t shake the feeling he’d died of his consuming anger, and that I was somehow complicit. The title of “Hating Breitbart” refers to his enemies’ supposed hatred for him, but it would be more accurately titled “Breitbart Hating,” because it’s all about the titanic hate – of liberals, particularly in the media – that drove the right-wing would-be media mogul.
The film, and Breitbart, were feted last week at CPAC, with Tea Party darling Sen. Ted Cruz toasting the late blogger as a “great and fearless leader.” (Promoters say the documentary will have a theater run in May.) It reminded me that Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum all paused mid-campaign last year to eulogize the bombastic Breitbart when he died, a symbol of his power on the right. The CPAC party might turn out to have been a final right-wing Breitbart orgy – BuzzFeed’s McKay Coppins detailed the way his empire is falling apart without him last fall, and that was before mini-star Dana Loesch sued his successors to get out of her contract — but the Daily Caller mess reminds us his legacy lives on.
“I admire Breitbart,” Carlson says in “Hating Breitbart,” right after Breitbart roared at him that Rep. John Lewis, the storied civil rights hero, is “a fucking LIAR!” on camera. “It’s not the way I speak, but I love watching him, and I think his criticism is incisive … If anyone has watched the press closely, it’s Breitbart.”
Carlson apparently watched Breitbart closely, and distilled his hate, though not his weird prankish showmanship or destructive elan.
* * *
I only vaguely knew of Andrew Breitbart in August 2009, when he emailed Salon’s executive editor as well as our CEO with the subject line: “Did Salon fir (sic) Joan Walsh?”
Heard a rumor that Salon canned Joan Walsh. If so, I must say — it’s about time. I really could not believe her recent statement:
“Obama got where he is largely because he makes white people feel like he knows we’re all trying real hard. And we really like it when black people make us feel that way.”
It’s hard to take Salon seriously with someone so downright stupid at the helm. If you keep her, maybe it would be best if you changed her title from Editor-in-Chief to Magic Honkey.
I wrote back to reassure him I had not been fired, or “firred,” and he shot back:
In the future, Ms. Walsh, would you mind not answering emails I never sent to you?
After that, we never engaged again, except of course on Twitter. Oh, and that time he hijacked Anthony Weiner’s press conference to shriek about me – but I’m getting ahead of my story.
The quote of mine that sent him around the bend, hoping for my firing? It wasn’t my most brilliant utterance, but it was from a “Hardball” segment on charges, by Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, that President Obama was “racist” and, in Beck’s crazy words, held a “deep-seated hatred of white people.” I called the claim ludicrous, noting that the president had been raised by his white mother and her white parents, whom he loved very much. I also made the remark about white people that so outraged Breitbart, as well as Limbaugh, who then labeled me “the Magic Honkey,” a high honor indeed.
On some level, my comment about Obama “making white people feel like he knows we’re all trying real hard” was mocking liberal whites (myself included). But the sometimes witty Breitbart couldn’t see humor when it came to the issue that drove him nuts: his conviction that people who pointed out racism were, in fact, the real racists. And that’s the through-line of “Hating Breitbart”: how one man stood up to liberal bullies who tried to paint racist anti-Obama right-wingers as racists.
Bizarrely, the documentary gives short shrift to Breitbart’s one accurate scoop and journalistic coup: capturing Rep. Anthony Weiner in the act of sending a photo of his panty-clad erection to a young woman via Twitter. Although Weiner first claimed his account had been hacked, he later admitted he sent the photo, resigned from Congress – and ultimately apologized to Breitbart for impugning his story. That story only unfolds in the film’s final 10 minutes, surreally, as the film’s credits roll, almost an afterthought.
The rest of the 90 minutes go to Breitbart’s crusade to exonerate the Tea Party and anti-Obama conservatives of charges of racism, and to justify his attacks on alleged black evildoers and “racists,” from ACORN’s Bertha Lewis to Rep. John Lewis to, most famously, former Department of Agriculture employee Shirley Sherrod, who is still suing Breitbart and his colleague Larry O’Connor for defamation. The central “drama” in the film is his failed attempt to prove that Rep. John Lewis and two other black congressmen were lying when they said Tea Partyers called them the N-word during the final votes on Obamacare.
Ultimately Breitbart would offer a $100,000 donation to the United Negro College Fund to anyone who produced video showing that Lewis was slurred. Even his sliming of Shirley Sherrod originated in his effort to retaliate against Lewis and the NAACP for alleging that some Tea Partyers were racist.
“Hating Breitbart” portrays Breitbart’s increasingly unhinged campaign against Lewis as a dogged search for the truth. But in fact, it comes off as pathological. The inability to locate video documenting the slur against Lewis “proved” he was lying, for Breitbart – but not for anyone outside of his orbit. The film acknowledges that video captured Rep. Emanuel Cleaver being spat on by an angry Tea Partyer, but it makes much more of Rep. Andre Carson’s claim that he heard the N-word 15 times – even though four short videos Breitbart found of Carson and Lewis walking down the Capitol steps where the insults reportedly occurred don’t show it.
Yet Breitbart didn’t make Carson the centerpiece of his crusade. It had to be Lewis, the civil rights hero who has near-sainthood status among liberals, including, to be honest, me. But even mainstream media figures looked at Lewis’ past and present reputation for integrity and asked why he’d make up something like that. Let’s remember, too, that reporting that someone shouted the N-word at Lewis isn’t the same thing as reporting that every Tea Partyer is a racist. But over and over Breitbart argued that Lewis and other civil rights liberals were calling “tens of millions” of people racist – with the help of the mainstream media.
Breitbart and his hagiographers can’t accept that for anyone not deranged by disliking Lewis, it was easier to believe the racial slur happened, even without video proof, than that someone of Lewis’ moral and political stature would lie about it, with the backing of two other congressmen. When ABC’s Terry Moran says that to Breitbart, in the course of a “Nightline” segment on the blog impresario, it leads to him blowing a gasket and shrieking at Tucker Carlson that Lewis is “a fucking LIAR!”
Lewis’ charges begat the NAACP’s resolution, at its national conference, asking that the Tea Party “repudiate” the racists in its midst. Which begat Breitbart’s fateful attack on Shirley Sherrod, his lowest moment as a media entrepreneur. Still, Breitbart, and the filmmakers, don’t back down in continuing to press the case that Sherrod’s story of racial reconciliation in fact proved that she was a black racist. Video captured Sherrod acknowledging that earlier in her career helping Southern farmers hold onto their land, she didn’t, at first, give “the full force of what I could do” to a white farmer who had condescended to her – but later she helped him save his farm, became his friend, and saw that the issue was less about black and white than about the haves and have nots. “There is no difference between us,” she says simply.
But to Breitbart, Sherrod’s long-ago moment of not fully helping the white farmer, plus her NAACP audience’s murmurs of approval and amusement as she told the story, proved their racism. “She’s not post-racial,” Breitbart tells a roomful of reporters. “And people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.” Sherrod’s defenders, myself included, merit the same attack. “The Joan Walshes of the world,” Breitbart acolyte Dan Riehl complains, are “so obviously not post-racial.” It’s such an odd charge: Civil rights liberals don’t claim to be post-racial. But Breitbart and his backers believe that without us, we’d live in a glorious state of e pluribus unum, a phrase he repeats over and over.
* * *
As with his other dubious journalistic coup, James O’Keefe’s ACORN sting, Breitbart didn’t think it ultimately mattered that the Sherrod video had been selectively edited, nor do the filmmakers: Video doesn’t lie. “Hating Breitbart” depicts the ACORN story – O’Keefe posing as a pimp with “prostitute” Hannah Giles getting tax advice from the low-income advocacy group – as an unadulterated journalistic triumph.
The film insists liberal critics never presented evidence of how the tapes were selectively and deceptively edited (I have a cameo in a montage of journalists calling them “selectively edited,” as though we’re reading Politburo talking points) though there are in fact reams of documentation. Breitbart himself admitted he’d been misled by O’Keefe into thinking the video provocateur showed up at ACORN offices wearing the pimptastic fur coat and hat he wore elsewhere in the film, when he didn’t. O’Keefe recently paid $100,000 and apologized to settle a lawsuit by an ACORN employee who lost his job when O’Keefe’s sting operation falsely depicted him as helping with tax evasion – while editing out the fact that he’d called the police on the supposed “pimp.” The larger context of ACORN’s performance, its strengths and weaknesses, are meaningless; Breitbart found a few evildoers.
This gets to the heart of Breitbart’s twisted approach to “journalism” – which endures in his empire of “Big” sites as well as in imitators like the Daily Caller: They’re so convinced of the left’s perfidy that they don’t feel like they have to get every detail of the story right – it’s enough that the bad behavior in question quite well could have happened, or maybe an aspect of it did happen.
The very first “scoop” his inheritors presented after his death, which turned out to be a farcical non-story, was in fact Breitbart’s own idea: A breathless piece about a bio written by Obama’s former literary agent back in 1991 that described him as being born in Kenya. Now, the editors noted that neither they nor Breitbart subscribed to crazy birther paranoia; they believed the president (and his long-form birth certificate) that he was born in Hawaii. But the fact that the 17-year-old agency bio hadn’t become news in the 2008 election proved, to the Breitbots, that the mainstream media failed to vet Obama. Just like the lack of video showing John Lewis being called the N-word proved that he was lying about it. Got it? My head hurts, too.
And while none of Breitbart’s inheritors have his sense of humor or talent at self-promotion – as McKay Coppins wrote, “These days, the only time reporters pay attention to Breitbartians is when they’re clicking the ‘block’ button on Twitter” — there’s a through-line from his insisting that even though he got the gist of Sherrod’s story absolutely wrong, he was right — because she admitted not fully helping the white farmer at first — and silly Ben Shapiro insisting he got the “Friends of Hamas” story right, despite all the evidence to the contrary. I mean, the fact that a reporter joked about Chuck Hagel being paid by “Friends of Hamas” proves that, well, um, he could have been!
Tucker Carlson seemed to be trying to assume Breitbart’s mantle exposing black “racism” back in October, when he reportedly paid for a non-scoop: the full video of a speech Obama gave to a black ministers’ conference back in 2007, which had been widely covered by the media at the time. Carlson hyped his story with Sean Hannity, believing he had an “October surprise” that could win the election for Mitt Romney: proof-positive that the president is a racist, because he praised Rev. Jeremiah Wright and suggested the federal government tarried in providing Katrina aid. Carlson insisted Obama was preaching racial division to his black audience and sputtered, “This is not a dog whistle, this is a dog siren!” But beyond Hannity, even Fox paid little attention to the non-scoop, and it died.
Now the Daily Caller has shamed itself with its dodgy story about a Democratic senator paying prostitutes in the Dominican Republic. To be fair to Carlson, a gesture he would never reciprocate, I should acknowledge that there’s reason to distrust Melanio Figueroa when he says the Daily Caller paid the women to lie. Of course, there was also plenty of reason to distrust Figueroa when he said Menendez patronized Dominican prostitutes. That’s why other news outlets, like ABC, the Newark Star-Ledger and the New York Post, passed on his lurid story when he peddled it to them. Only the Caller thought it passed muster. Now Carlson is working overtime to discredit Figueroa, when a little elbow-grease to vet the shady lawyer before the story ran would have gone a long way. That’s how journalism works.
But what the Caller and the Breitbart empire do mostly isn’t journalism; it’s opposition-research. When Reince Priebus declared in his GOP “autopsy” last week that conservatives should “hire activists to track Democratic incumbents and candidates with video cameras constantly recording their every movement, utterance, and action,” it was more evidence how much Breitbart is missed. Hell, he’d have been more likely to have gotten prostitutes to entrap Menendez into patronizing them than to pay them to lie about it. Or to get James O’Keefe to try to entrap him, anyway.
Which brings me to the strange omission in “Hating Breitbart:” its cursory treatment of his success in bringing down Anthony Weiner. Maybe that’s because the story behind the story remains so murky. The band of Weiner-haters who exposed the congressman later formed a circular firing squad, accusing one another of all sorts of bad behavior, including their own (non-sexual) use and abuse of young women and even underage girls. At some point, I stopped paying attention, because the bottom line was that Weiner sent the photo himself and then lied about it, but the story behind the story remains rancid.
But the basic outlines of the story were true, and to Breitbart, represented validation of his journalistic enterprise. Because I (stupidly, in hindsight) argued to give Weiner the benefit of the doubt, given Breitbart’s track record with Shirley Sherrod and the ACORN tapes, he singled me out for particular attack when he grabbed the mic before Weiner began his press conference. “Salon.com and Joan Walsh played the role that Weiner wanted,” he ranted, demanding an apology. I don’t mind saying now that I found his focus on me, there and elsewhere, a little bit unnerving.
In fact, Marcus’ film has its roots in a Big Journalism retort to me, back in February 2010, after Breitbart went bonkers, repeatedly, at that year’s CPAC conference, especially on the topic of Salon. Our Mike Madden caught him on video in various states of unraveling. (My favorite part was when he seemed to be yelling into reporter Dave Weigel’s notebook, not his tape recorder.) I wrote a blog post, “Breitbart’s breakdown: A video tour,” and Marcus replied with a short composite video in a post “Did Andrew Breitbart ‘breakdown’ at CPAC?” that compiled the clips. I was pretty impressed, at the time, that Marcus didn’t leave out any of the crazy. (They’ve since taken down the video.) “Note to Salon,” he wrote. “Responding to false charges of racism with anger and outrage is a completely rational reaction.”
And indeed, Breitbart’s CPAC “breakdown,” as captured in Marcus’ 2010 video, is all there in “Hating Breibart” — the blogging mogul shrieking “Fuck. You. John. Podesta,” bending over and yelling about “Big Podesta” and “Big Soros” into Weigel’s notebook, or his pupik. The film doesn’t shrink from the crazy: There are many shots of Breitbart lying on a hotel room bed, on his tummy, with his laptop, like a pre-teen playing endless video games with no parent to tell him to get off and go to sleep. In other scenes he’s hyperventilating and sweaty; still others feature him raging into a phone at or about someone who he thought did him wrong.
After his 2010 CPAC meltdown, I wrote condescendingly:
My advice to Breitbart is to let his journalism speak for itself. That’s what Salon does, and it’s worked well for almost 15 years. Vein-swelling red-faced snarling at other journalists? That may feel good – actually, it doesn’t look like it feels very good at all. But either way, it doesn’t get the work done.
I was enjoying his hysteria, and I feel bad about that now.
“Hating Breitbart’s” candid moments make clear it was Breitbart who lived on hate, and may have died on hate; he so often seemed about to have a stroke over the perfidy of his enemies. Although the film tries to call him a “happy warrior,” and yes, it shows a few fun moments he had with friends, you’re left with the impression that hate consumed him.
I’m not a doctor, and my armchair diagnosis may be wide of the mark. But my final skirmishes with Breitbart, and his untimely death, convinced me to avoid Twitter wars, and go visit a friend or listen to music or walk my dog when I start to feel feel like hate is driving my work more than love is. Hate makes us stupid; hate gets things wrong. It lets one focus on the “accuracy” of calling out Shirley Sherrod’s brief admission of racially driven decision-making, while missing her moving story of racial unity. Hate is a waste of life. His acolytes might want to take the same lesson from “Hating Breitbart.”
Joan Walsh is Salon's editor at large and the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."More Joan Walsh.
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