My Frenemy, Andrew Breitbart

(Flickr/Gage Skidmore)

Conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart speaking at the 2011 Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C.

Andrew Breitbart, who died in Los Angeles today at age 43, angered the left less because of what he did than what the left repeatedly failed to do itself.

I first encountered the conservative activist at the 2011 Netroots Nation conference, an annual gathering for progressive bloggers and tech types. Camera in hand, Breitbart had come over to the Netroots site from the conservative Right Online conference nearby. When he walked into the lobby, liberal activists shouted at him, accusing him of nefarious activities with male prostitutes and more. Breitbart smiled as he filmed it all.

When I tracked Breitbart down at Right Online a few minutes later, no one shouted at me (though many knew I was a progressive commentator from my appearances on Fox News). Breitbart had such a sense of humor about being vilified by the left that he posed for a picture in which he pretended to strangle me. Later that evening, we sat down and talked for an hour over drinks. I'm not sure how many other prominent left-wing activists would sit down for a long, probing conversation with a relative stranger from the right. Breitbart may have been nasty in public, but in private he was generous and kind.

Breitbart was such a looming and frustrating enemy of the left in part because he was a public-relations mastermind. He had an eye for digging up dirt and the unique combination of Internet savvy and charisma to spread his campaigns like wildfire. I think history will judge him unkindly for many of his actions, including his false attacks on ACORN and Shirley Sherrod. In the case of ACORN, a community organization that assisted low- and moderate-income Americans, Breitbart publicized a heavily doctored video in which ACORN workers appear to encourage prostitution; the resulting scandal led ACORN to close its doors. A year later, he got Shirley Sherrod, head of the United States Department of Agriculture's rural development office in Georgia, fired from her post by posting two clips that, taken out of context, appeared to show her admitting to bias against white people. The resulting media firestorm demonstrated the damage a rabble-rouser with a camera and a website—combined with a complacent media—can do.

But there was also a lesson for the left in these manufactured scandals. With ACORN, Breitbart may have lit the match, but a Democratic president and Democrat-controlled Congress sat by and watched (or even worsened the situation) as the flames grew. Many progressive organizations and so-called allies similarly refused to help as ACORN burned to the ground. In the case of Sherrod, the NAACP condemned her remarks shortly after they were publicized. Perhaps if we had been as passionate and savvy about defending ourselves as Breitbart had been about attacking us, he wouldn't have been so successful.

I'm not suggesting that the left should go out and doctor videos of a Focus on the Family conference, but Breitbart at the very least did challenge the left to up its game, and perhaps journalists are now a bit more careful about amplifying a meme without checking their facts. I have no doubt that Daily Kos, TPM, and Think Progress (not to mention the Huffington Post, which he helped launch) sharpened their claws because Breitbart threw down the gauntlet.

As much a villain as Breitbart might have been to the left, he was far more of an iconoclast within the conservative movement than he is generally given credit for; he was a very public supporter of GOProud, the gay Republican organization, as well as immigration reform and other traditionally "liberal" causes. His penchant for bucking a trend might stem from having grown up a conservative in liberal-leaning Hollywood and feeling attacked for his differences. Unfortunately, Breitbart never realized how myopic and warped his perspective was. But being an underdog is something any liberal can sympathize with.

My thoughts and prayers are with his family, and my hope is that the progressive movement will be less susceptible to the Breitbarts of the future.

Comments

Oh, please! Breitbart was a serial liar who used his lies and vitriol to destroy people's lives for the mere sport of it. Trying to put any kind of positive spin on that man's legacy is but another slap in the face to people like Shirley Sherrod!

The wingers call him a "journalist" .... Fox is news. He was an ahole whose only talent was lying to the choir. How anyone has anything positive to say about this cancerous POS is dumbfounding. I don't even feel sorry for his children, they've had a terrible role model taken out of their lives.

May he burn in hell forever...

"I'm not sure how many other prominent left-wing activists would sit down for a long, probing conversation with a relative stranger from the right. Breitbart may have been nasty in public, but in private he was generous and kind."

This is going to sound unfair, but I think that this is probably due to a built-in feature of how left-right politics works in this country. Most liberals, including liberal activists/hacks, truly believe in the cause and in the arguments they advance. Whereas a very large chunk of conservative hackdom clearly doesn't. They want conservatives to "win" and probably have some affinity for the ideology, but this has nothing to do with whether they believe the arguments they advance in the media.

Thus they aren't liars, per se, but bullsh**ters. The truth-value of their statements is something that they are completely indifferent to, because those statements are designed solely to persuade the maximum number of people irrespective of whether they are factually correct or logically sound. Andrew Breitbart clearly didn't believe his own bulls**t, so of course he had no reason to be mean in private toward his ideological opposites. The same can't be said of liberals - to them, the stuff that they and others say and do actually matters. To Breitbart and the rest of the bought-and-paid-for right, all that is mostly just a game.

Spare me the idiotic elevation of this lump of offal to the status of lump of coal. He lived a life of offal, and offal he was when he died. 43 years old, and NOTHING of worth in that 43 years.

the idea that we are better off because breitbart, with the full support and encouragement of fox network cnbc cnn abc cbs and npr as well as WAPO NYT and the whole washington press corps and the whole democratic party which isn't to the left of humphrey and mccarthy, pulled down even further the basic standards of journalism in the USA is a very bad very perverted sick joke. the fact that no democrats not to left of robert la follette and jane adams did squat to save acorn or planned parenthood or shirley sherrod or any of obama's non wall street white washes is only to their shame and in no way a tribute to breitbart who should have been as easy to squash as a slug caught out in the sun. if anybody bothered to show any light on the bug it would have dried up and blown away on its own.

GIVE US A BREAK!

Lady, you're an idiot

Ms. Kohn doesn't say that Breitbart was a good guy. She said that he taught us how to protect ourselves from predators like him. She is right.

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