Maybe the most telling thing about the news that conservative blog impresario Andrew Breitbart had died was that as word spread on Twitter this morning, many people passed it along with the caveat that it might not be true, though it was reported on his own website, BigJournalism.com.
That’s partly the nature of social-media news today: Twitter has falsely killed many famous people. It’s partly the reluctance to believe it could be true that a vital, combative figure suddenly died at the young age of 43. And honestly: it’s an outgrowth of the online news culture that Breitbart worked in and influenced–a pugilistic journalism of scoops, stings and broadsides, sometimes hugely influential, sometimes widely criticized for their context and accuracy. Couldn’t it be that someone was just trying to prove a point about the gullibility of big mainstream media?
But the news was in fact true, and whatever you think of Breitbart’s politics or journalism, it’s sad. Breitbart died suddenly of natural causes in Los Angeles, and he leaves behind a wife and four children. He also leaves behind a network of high-traffic, highly partisan websites, including Big Government and Big Hollywood as well as Big Journalism. He leaves behind a short but influential career that included publicizing the lurid Twitter photo that brought down Rep. Anthony Weiner in 2011, one of the biggest political scandals in recent years.
And he leaves behind an image as one of journalism and politics’ most abrasive, zealous fighters and critics of big media, willing to use his sites to support political ends—sometimes, with explosive, widely publicized stories that relied on manipulation and strategic editing. His partisanship could be an asset: he went with the Weiner story, for instance, when other outlets were still doubting it and when many of Weiner’s defenders were buying explanations that the congressman had been “hacked” or set up.
But he also used his websites as a cudgel, sometimes unfairly. He posted the 2009 James O’Keefe sting videos against the community-activist group ACORN, a favorite conservative target, in which O’Keefe appeared to solicit and get advice from the group on running a business as a pimp. Investigations later found that the videos were heavily edited to make ACORN look complicit, but Congress suspended the group’s funding anyway. He posted video excerpts from a speech by Shirley Sherrod, an Agriculture department official, that lost her her job after she seemed to boast about discriminating against whites; after an exonerating, full video came out (which Breitbart also posted), Sherrod was offered her job back.
If pointing all that out seems to be speaking ill of the recently dead, Breitbart himself had no squeamishness about speaking his mind, mourning period or no. After Sen. Ted Kennedy’s death, Breitbart tweeted that Kennedy was a “prick” and “duplicitous bastard,” adding: “I’m more than willing to go off decorum to ensure THIS MAN is not beatified.”
So in a way those people critiquing Breitbart, as a person, political figure and publisher—and I’m sure they’re doing it right now—are paying a kind of tribute. Breitbart gave hard and must have expected to get it back hard. He came out of the American political tradition that if you cared about things, then you fought about them. This was Breitbart’s public style, not to make friends—though he was friendly, for one, with progressive publisher Arianna Huffington, whom he helped launch the Huffington Post after apprenticing with The Drudge Report—but to get into opponents’ faces, make a noise and get attention.
“I liked being hated more than I liked being liked,” Breitbart said in a 2010 profile by Steve Oney for TIME. The piece went on:
Breitbart perceives himself as a new-media David out to slay old-media Goliaths. As he sees it, the left exercises its power not via mastery of the issues but through control of the entertainment industry, print and television journalism and government agencies that set social policy. “Politics,” he often says, “is downstream from culture. I want to change the cultural narrative.” Thus the Big sites devote their energy less to trying to influence the legislative process in Washington than to attacking the institutions and people Breitbart believes dictate the American conversation.
The conversation that he has helped form is a much more contentious one, its facts and assertions more disputed, doubted and tussled over. I have no doubt we will see plenty of that in the reactions to Breitbart’s death on TV and in blog posts and comments sections: there will probably be encomiums and ugliness, praise and criticism wrapped in political argument. There will be a feisty wrestling over the version of him that history will remember—a fight based on the principle, which many of Breitbart’s big stories have followed, that the first, most attention-getting draft of a story is the one that ultimately sticks in memories.
That’s how Andrew Breitbart would have done it. Part of Breitbart’s legacy is a rise in the power of openly partisan journalism outlets and contested news. But if another part of his legacy–as exemplified by the first reaction to his death–is a rise in skepticism, alertness and critical reading of the media, that’s not entirely a bad thing. RIP.