Andrew Breitbart's Dirty Legacy

There's been too much praise in the media for a man who lied and cheated and was loose with the facts.

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When Andrew Breitbart died suddenly on March 1 at age 43, it was not surprising that so many commentators said nice things about the man. We still have a strong taboo about speaking ill of the departed, and an early death is a shocking reminder of our own mortality. But there was no excuse for the pass so many news outlets and pundits seemed anxious to grant Breitbart despite his legacy of deceptive and dishonest deeds.

Piers Morgan presided over a Breitbart love fest on his CNN show. Arianna Huffington, the conservative-turned-liberal who had Breitbart's help in creating Huffington Post, gushed: "Andrew was full of passion, exuberance, fearlessness, and often coming up with statements that he couldn't prove, although he was also obsessed with facts and wanting to ferret out facts and the truth -- so there are all these paradoxes."

Black conservative pundit Amy Holmes walked in lockstep: "Part of his passion, too, that really drove him was being a champion and protector of the underdog, and that conservatives don't need to be in a defensive crouch, that they can stand up proudly and declare their values and, in particular, conservatives in the minority community, or the sexual-minority community."

To his credit, Morgan touched on the question of Breitbart's capacity to polarize, but only as if it were an unfortunate side effect of his principles rather than his primary intention. But then Morgan couldn't resist slathering on more butter: "And he was a great character. He was a very intelligent guy, incredible work ethic. And he will be deeply missed, not least by our panel."

A Legacy of Deception and Dishonesty

Too many commentators confused Breitbart the private person with Breitbart the public figure and tried to conflate the two. We can all feel sympathy for the loss to Breitbart's family, and we can even understand why his friends spoke of his generosity and commitment. But as Ta-Nehisi Coates noted in his blog at the Atlantic, this is not the issue. "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."

Avoiding speaking ill of the dead is not a reason to remain mute about an evil legacy. Breitbart was an agent provocateur who lied and cheated and distorted the facts to support his right-wing political agenda. He was largely responsible for destroying ACORN, an organization that worked for decades on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised. He nearly ruined the reputation of Shirley Sherrod, who had a distinguished civil rights record. Before he died, Breitbart was promising to expose unsavory information about President Obama's college days.

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Breitbart's fame was not the result of journalistic zeal or of some innovative grasp of new media, as some of his supporters have suggested. In fact, his work had nothing at all to do with journalism, and all to do with political propaganda. His strength was a clear grasp of how he could use the unrestrained and unfiltered competitiveness for news in the age of the Internet. He understood that there was a ready, hungry market for doctored videos, faked scenarios and outright lies, especially if they confirmed the darkest suspicions of people on the right who are frightened about change in "our" America.

Take the case of ACORN. In September 2009, Breitbart posted a video of a “sting” operation against the venerable community organization. The covert video purported to show a couple dressed as pimp and prostitute (James O'Keefe and Hannah Giles) who were seeking and getting advice at an ACORN office on how to set up an illegal business. Much later, an investigation showed that the couple had never worn the outlandish clothes to the ACORN office and that, contrary to Breitbart's assertions, an ACORN worker had immediately called the police to report the incident.