Conservative blogger and entrepreneur Andrew Breitbart, who died shortly after midnight Thursday in Los Angeles at the age of 43, was insightful, combative and absolutely puckish.
He was raised in an affluent Los Angeles family, the son of a restaurateur and banker, and attended Tulane University in New Orleans. In a 2011 interview with WNYC, Breitbart explained his political evolution. Clarence Thomas' Supreme Court hearings proved to be a key moment.
"This was a trial show," Breitbart said, "because he happened to have the sin of being conservative and black," and a likely opponent of Roe v. Wade. Breitbart recalled thinking: "Why can Clarence Thomas be pilloried, while Bill Clinton can be protected on the same grounds of sexual harassment?" So he set out to challenge traditional media.
By the mid-1990s, he'd met Matt Drudge, a blogger who shared many of his political, and entrepreneurial, leanings. It was Drudge who introduced Breitbart to Arianna Huffington, back when she was more known for conservative punditry. Breitbart helped launch the Huffington Post but lasted barely a month.
In a 2010 New Yorker profile, he recalled watching Huffington and thinking, " 'Wow, if she can do that, why can't I?' … I don't have a salon at my house. So I was like, 'Well, why don't I create one." So he produced a constellation of highly influential websites — Big Hollywood, Big Government and, naturally, Breitbart — that gave a home to conservative voices.
Some key moments of Breitbart's career stand out. One of the most striking came in 2009, when he posted to his Big Government site videos featuring activists — dressed as a pimp and prostitute — seeking guidance from ACORN offices on how to run a business. That episode led to the group's implosion.
The following year, Breitbart posted a highly edited video clip of a speech featuring Shirley Sherrod, a veteran U.S. Department of Agriculture official with deep roots in the civil rights movement. Sherrod appeared to suggest that she would have discriminated against a white farmer in her native Georgia. The full video clip, however, showed she was making a point about how she overcame prejudice to help that farmer. Predictably, the video went viral and stimulated a momentary national conversation about race. Sherrod lost her job but eventually sued Breitbart and his associates.
In another episode last summer, Breitbart published sexually explicit photos that Anthony Weiner, then a Democratic New York congressman, had sent in a direct Twitter message. In Weiner's eventual press conference announcing his resignation, he declared, "I apologize to Andrew Breitbart" — who then made a scene at the event. Later, Breitbart told CNN that he felt vindicated.
Fittingly, news of Breitbart's death spread quickly on the Internet, with protégés extending condolences. One came from Michelle Malkin, the conservative commentator, who wrote on her blog: "I'm stunned. He was kinetic, brash, relentless, full of fight, the bane of the Left, and a mentor to the next generation of right-wing activists and citizen journalists."
There was a generally respectful tone on the opposite side of the political spectrum. Tweeted Sally Kohn, a commentator who regularly appears on Fox and MSNBC: "Sad to hear the death of Andrew Breitbart, who was always kind & decent to me.
Breitbart owned the website Big Journalism but wasn't a journalist in the classic sense. He clearly viewed himself as a kind of news director, wiling to take on the muckraking stories and ideas that much of today's traditional media outlets are unwilling to touch, despite the shift toward very siloed news portals where point of view matters. Breitbart was impatient and entrepreneurial, and his legacy will endure.
Steven Gray is a contributing editor to The Root.