Andrew Breitbart used James O’Keefe’s fabricated “pimp videos” to kill off ACORN, the progressive organisation that worked to register low-income voters. That may be Breitbart’s most enduring legacy. I thought this blogpost would be called “the Thatcher” problem, but she is still alive; or the Rupert Murdoch problem, but he’s still alive too.
What do you do when someone thoroughly detestable dies?
Unlike Thatcher, who will die well into her retirement (and well after her mind has retired), and unlike Rupert Murdoch, whose evil has generally been carried out through employees and subsidaries, Andrew Breitbart’s evil was active and personal.
On 19th July 2010, Andrew Breitbart posted two short videos showing excerpts of a speech by Shirley Sherrod, Georgia State Director of Rural Development for the United States Department of Agriculture, at an NAACP fundraising dinner in March 2010.
In the 1960s Shirley Sherrod established a land trust with her husband, for poor black farmers in Georgia: New Communities, Inc.
In his first post about the video, Breitbart wrote: “In the first video, Sherrod describes how she racially discriminates against a white farmer. She describes how she is torn over how much she will choose to help him. And, she admits that she doesn’t do everything she can for him, because he is white.” He also strongly implied that Sherrod was describing recent actions as a USDA official unser President Obama, though since he had seen the full tape he knew that she was talking about an event in the 1960s. Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News picked up on this, and accused Shirley Sherrod and NAACP of “reverse racism”, and Sherrod was fired.
When NAACP put the full video up on their website, you can read the full transcript here. The bold section is the part that Andrew Breitbart exercpted for his video. NAACP had accused the Tea Party movement of racism. (This is shown to be true.) Breitbart took a videorecording of a black speaker to a majority-black audience, where the speaker was making an impassioned defense of the principle that it is not black or white but rich and poor that unite and divide Americans, and the audience was applauding her. And Breitbart edited it to make it look as if she were saying the exact opposite.
When Shirley Sherrod brought a defamation case against him, Breitbart tried to have it dismissed, claiming that his post had been essentially truthful, though he wasn’t exactly accurate about what he’d said.
He said the same thing today [April 2011] to MSNBC’s Martin Bashir during a combative interview in which Bashir repeatedly challenged Breitbart regarding his attacks on Sherrod and other topics. In response to Bashir’s insistence that Breitbart answer the simple questions Bashir posed, Breitbart grew increasingly agitated and made several flailing attempts to cast blame on others. (MSNBCN Video)
Breitbart and his lawyer Larry O’Connor filed a complaint using a surprising strategy: They argue that their video was wholly appropriate because Sherrod really is racist. As a public-relations stunt, this puts the public attention back on Sherrod and continues to smear her name. Rather than debate Breitbart’s conduct, he wants to keep up the conversation – a perennial favorite in conservative circles – that various groups discriminate against white people. Prospect, 12th May 2011
This was not a one-off instance: nor did Andrew Breitbart stop. In April 2011, footage of a labour-relations class at University of Missouri taught by professors Judy Ancel and Don Giljum was posted on Breitbart’s website BigGovernment.com:
In the video, the professors appeared to make a number of statements backing the use of violence in the struggle for labor rights. But it turned out the video was edited in a way to distort their words—similar to recent video campaigns against ACORN, Planned Parenthood, NPR and former FDA official, Shirley Sherrod. “I was just appalled, because I knew it was me speaking, but it wasn’t saying what I had said in class,” said Judy Ancel, director of the Institute for Labor Studies, University of Missouri-Kansas City.
Breitbart has inspired and supported other conservative video-editors, James O’Keefe and Lila Rose, in their attacks on institutions such as ACORN and Planned Parenthood. It appears to have been Andrew Breitbart’s stroke of genius to realise that no matter how unconvincing the video “evidence”, dramatic videos that can be shown on the evening news will become part of the news cycle and part of the accepted truth of a story. Getting out the facts can be difficult. Getting out media-manipulative lies is now within reach of anyone who owns a video-camera and some inexpensive editing software.
I wouldn’t want to oversell Breitbart’s influence: both James O’Keefe and Lila Rose are graduates of The Leadership Institute, which teaches “political technology” in order to “identify, train, recruit and place conservatives in politics, government, and media”.
In 2007, the Institute trained 6,787 people in 470 training programs of 39 types. As of August 2008, the Leadership Institute had trained more than 62,000 students. During the fall of 2006, its Campus Leadership Program sent out 60 field representatives to help conservative students create independent campus groups.
Amanda Marcotte, a noted left-wing blogger, writes about the advantages that liars have:
But honestly, the time-effort gap may not even be the largest problem that those of us dedicated to reality-based politics face. What may be more disturbing is the increasing willingness of the mainstream media to entertain the lies of people who have been thoroughly demonstrated, through the painstaking and time-consuming work of truth-telling, to be pernicious liars who should never be trusted ever again. Like James O’Keefe. For what it’s worth, I thought paying attention to the ACORN videos without a thorough fact check was unforgivable. Maybe I could forgive some writers for it, but anyone who works in television knows for a fact that it’s easy to manipulate video, and could tell at 100 paces that these videos were not only manipulated, but not even that good at disguising their manipulations. (Distorted audio, weird cuts that indicate that something is being concealed, an unwillingness to show O’Keefe in the videos.) But okay, he got one pass based on the assumption of good faith.
But after it was demonstrated that O’Keefe had manipulated the ACORN videos beyond all recognition of what had actually happened? After investigations demonstrated that people in the videos were portrayed saying one thing, but often were saying the opposite? (Such as advice given to a woman to hide money from an abusive boyfriend/pimp was edited to suggest the advice was to hide money from the IRS.) And then it was discovered his compatriot Andrew Breitbart was willing to promote a video the purported to show Shirley Sherrod saying one thing, when she was, you guessed it, saying the exact opposite thing. Plus, O’Keefe’s arrests and his attempt to sexually harass and threaten, through implication, to assault a journalist, with the intention to tape the whole thing on the grounds that this would embarrass her. (Which really goes to show how distorted his worldview is, though I suppose with heavy editing to erase the man who is striking threatening poses in a woman’s direction, you could somehow make it about her, though how I don’t know.) After that, the only reasonable, rational thing to do is to take everything that O’Keefe produces, and put it in the trash without wasting your time. Whatever potentially “shocking” stuff on there is definitely going to be manipulated and dishonest.
Last October, the Murdoch Times and Rothermere’s Daily Mail invented a story about the Occupy London protest camp being left empty at night. But when the protesters rented the same kind of thermal imaging camera, they were able to show that the stills from the journalist’s camera had been a fraud – most of the tents “looked” empty because the fabric was heat-reflecting.
Moreover, the footage shows that activity in and around camp is still apparent at night, despite the insulating effect of the material. Presumably, those taking the original thermal images could observe the camp and assess the occupation level with their own eyes, too.
Only in carefully-selected thermal stills would the protest camp appear empty, leaving the impression the reporters must have known the story spun from the thermal images wasn’t true.
The story of Andrew Breitbart’s attack on Shirley Sherrod, like the Daily Mail’s attack on Juliet Shaw, is a personal attack on impersonal grounds: Breitbart admitted openly he chose Sherrod’s speech to edit in order to attack the NAACP for presuming to identify the Tea Party movement as racist. All he knew about Sherrod was what he’d learned about her while listening to her speech in order to edit it: he actively wanted to turn her speech around and make her look racist.
The Washington Post’s obituary of Breitbart kindly describes him as “mischievous”. American conservative bloggers who loved to cite and link to Breitbart’s videos are in mourning today.
But insofar as his death gives pause to the new right-wing habit of making video dramas about conservative ideology and presenting them as “groundbreaking news”, well, that could only be a good thing. O’Keefe is currently serving out a three-year suspended sentence for a misdemeanour offense; Lila Rose’s attempts to bring down Planned Parenthood are struggling in the face of so much combined American experience of the good this healthcare organisation does.
The problem with the very decent line that when someone is dead one should speak nothing but good of them, is the Thatcher problem and the Murdoch problem – when an individual did so much active evil, it is vital that what they did should be remembered. If we forget that, the evil tends to recur.
That is what took me to sadness. I have experienced curiosity as a primarily selfish endeavor. It originates in the understanding of the brevity of life, and the desire to see as much of it as possible, from as many angles as possible without doing too much damage to my morality. The opposite of that — incuriosity, dishonesty, the opportunistic deployment of information — is darkness. Breitbart died, like all of us will, in darkness. But as a media persona he chose to also live there, and in the process has impelled countless others to throttle themselves into the abyss.
I have heard it said by some fellow liberals that Breitbart was in fact a good person, that his public persona was not the same as his private. This kind of praise is so broadly true of most controversial public figures as to be meaningless. And it is irrelevant. Breitbart may well have been an excellent father and a great friend but that is not why we are talking about him. We are noting his death because of the impact he had on our politics and our conversation. It must be said that that impact was for the worse. Any talk of his private life, is an attempt to change the subject and avoid discomfiting truths.
It is wholly appropriate to be sorry that Andrew Breitbart died. But in the relevant business, it is right to be sorry for how he lived.
Update, 28th August: It was announced today that the Republican National Convention will pay tribute to Andrew Breitbart “included in a moment of remembrance honoring prominent Republicans who have died since the 2008 convention”. Well well.
On the 21st August edition of Morning Joe, the conservative host Joe Scarborough said
he’s tired of his party being the “Stupid Party.” Akin is the Republican congressman who said in an interview earlier this week that a woman’s body can stop conception in the instance of a “legitimate rape,” thus obviating a need for exemptions from abortion restrictions for the victims of rape and incest.
On Monday, Scarborough said that Akin was evidence of a Republican party that had placed ideology ahead of actual electability and fitness to govern. On Tuesday, with Akin (thus far) refusing to get out of the race, Scarborough made it clear that, to his thinking, the mortally wounded Akin campaign could be spoiling the chances for Republicans to take the majority of seats in the Senate.
A week later, the RNC announce they plan to honour as a prominent Republican the man who was so dishonest that when he died his followers assumed the announcement on his own website was probably a hoax.
he’s less interested in the question of whether or not the Republican Party should be a moderate or a conservative party, “I’m just tired of the Republican Party being the ‘Stupid Party!’” he said, “Stupid people saying stupid things and scaring off independent voters and swing voters!”
Yes, well. They’re not listening.