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.
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.
In other words, none of what Breitbart presented was true or even remotely related to what actually happened. But ACORN was long gone by then, denied funds by Congress and disbanded when support dried up. The original story, fueled by Fox News, raged on the airwaves for days and triggered congressional, state and local investigations. But the reports that largely absolved ACORN, released months later, never got the level of media play that destroyed the organization.
The case of Sherrod is even more illustrative. In July 2010, Breitbart provided a video to news organizations purportedly showing Sherrod, an employee at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, admitting to a black audience that she exercised racist behavior toward a white farmer who had come to her for help.
Within hours of its airing, Sherrod was fired by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and condemned by NAACP President Benjamin Jealous. It took just a day for the undoctored video to be revealed, showing that Sherrod was making the opposite point: how she could have turned her back on the farmer but instead reached into her own humanity and took on his case.
Most likely Breitbart and his cohort knew nothing about Sherrod or the tragic mistreatment of blacks by the USDA. They didn't know or care — and apparently neither did her bosses — about the reverence for the Sherrod name in civil rights circles.
As Charles E. Cobb Jr., former Mississippi field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, wrote on The Root, Sherrod and her husband, Charles, were renowned for their great courage during the civil rights movement. And when young militants turned SNCC in a more confrontational black nationalist direction in response to right-wing terrorism, the Sherrods steadfastly embraced their commitment to nonviolence and interracial cooperation, as Coates also noted in his blog.
Red Meat for Racists
Breitbart wouldn't back off even when a reporter got the wife of the farmer Sherrod had been speaking about to confirm how Sherrod had taken up their cause and helped save their farm. As Coates said, "In short, when confronted with his participation in an immoral act, Breitbart doubled down on immorality. Accused of deception, he elected to deceive further. He took many with him down that path, and by the end we were left with writers parsing the term lynching so as to further malign Sherrod."
The image of a black woman admitting racism toward whites in a presentation to a black audience that seems to laugh and clap in approval is red meat for those who are anxious to prove that blacks are secretly racist. In an age where only a few diehards are still strumming the tropes of old-fashioned black inferiority, the next-best strategy for marginalizing African Americans is an assault on their morality.
For those with such an agenda, what Shirley Sherrod espouses publicly cannot be true; whatever ACORN professes, the organization (led by a black woman at the time of the attacks) hides a dastardly secret agenda. What the NAACP says it believes is just propaganda.
The quest to prove the immorality of African Americans — and presumably absolve white racists of their own guilt — feeds into the continued effort to unlock the deep, dark secret of President Obama: He can't really be who he appears to be; he's actually a Muslim or a radical or a Kenyan anti-colonialist. He wants to weaken America and destroy our way of life. He has come to power only by cheating us (with the help of ACORN, in some scenarios), because otherwise it couldn't happen.
Breitbart, like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh and other conservative provocateurs, learned to tap the fear of white conservatives who cannot accept that liberals, black and white, have come to power legitimately or that a black man sits in the White House. In Breitbart's case, he exploited the people's trust in video: If it was on TV, it had to be true. If the facts didn't support his argument, he and his followers made them up and didn't hesitate to step on people's lives and reputations in pursuit of their goals. No one should be saying anything good about that Andrew Breitbart.
Joel Dreyfuss is senior editor-at-large at The Root.