Breitbart.com sets sights on ruling the conservative conversation
Andrew Breitbart loathed the “institutional left,” and what he called “the Democrat media complex.” A son of Brentwood who cut his sharp online incisors working alongside blogging pioneers Matt Drudge and Arianna Huffington, Breitbart went on to forge an eponymous website and persona as one of the fiercest voices of the right. His mission appeared cut short March 1, when he died of heart failure. Breitbart was just 43.
But an unlikely crew of friends and associates — his oldest childhood friend, a pair of Harvard-educated lawyers, a financier/filmmaker who served in the Navy and a musician pal who reinforces the fallen leader’s voice as the website’s “minister of culture” — scarcely paused after the loss. Just three days later, with the blessing of Breitbart’s widow, Susie, they launched a redesigned Breitbart.com website.
In the months since, Team Breitbart has worked feverishly — with up to 100 posts a day on “verticals” dubbed Big Hollywood, Big Government, Big Journalism and Big Peace — to make the site the go-to destination for conservatives.
“We are going to be the Huffington Post of the right,” said Steve Bannon, executive chairman of Breitbart News Network. “That is our focus every day.”
That’s a tall order in a crowded field — including the Weekly Standard, World Net Daily and the Daily Caller — which, at least for now, each draw more readers than Breitbart.com according to the rating service comScore.com. Still, the site’s readership has been up as much as 30% some months this year. ComScore put Breitbart’s traffic in June at 1.1 million unique visitors. Sprawling Huffington Post attracts more than 38 million visitors.
Regardless of size, Breitbart.com can find its way to the center of the political conversation. When aides to Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney said recently that the time had come to “vet the president,” for some observers that echoed a Breitbart.com series of anti-Obama hits, “The Vetting.” Lefty websites quickly chided that the Romney campaign had gone “the full Breitbart” — all attacks all the time.
Breitbart made his name by sowing outrage. He promoted the hidden-camera videos that helped take down the liberal community activist group ACORN. He exposed the sex-charged online romp of the now ex-Democratic Congressman Anthony Weiner. He hyped a video that left the misleading impression that an Agriculture Department employee was giving a speech defending racism. In fact, she was condemning it.
Now Breitbart’s crew spends a good part of each day, stretching to 12 hours and more, channeling their fallen leader. Why counterpunch against questions regarding Romney’s unreleased income taxes and offshore investments when you can beat up on President Obama, the man Breitbart called an “unrepentant radical”?
“You just try to infuse the site with the spirit of the guy, from people that knew his DNA and knew what he wanted,” said Bannon, 58, a former Naval officer and one-time Goldman Sachs vice president who met Breitbart at a conservative film festival. “You cannot replace Andrew Breitbart. The conservative movement does not have a lot of warriors. He was a combination of Marshall McLuhan and Falstaff.”
Befitting its namesake, who liked to Rollerblade to confrontations with liberal demonstrators, the website makes its headquarters in funky offices in West Los Angeles — once the purported home of the rapper Master P’s video productions and, later, site of a renowned poker game.
Larry Solov, who grew up next door to Breitbart, leads the operation. In 2007, on a trip to Israel, Breitbart asked his best friend to chuck his corporate litigation career and become the site’s chief executive. “He said ‘Let’s change the world. Let’s grow a business,’” recalled Solov, 44. “It was a surprisingly easy decision.”
In the days before he died, Breitbart had been working to re-launch his site — expanding to a staff of about 20 and revamping the design. He spoke in February at a convention of conservatives and promised a new video bombshell and renewed scrutiny of the president.
Breitbart.com has followed its namesake’s words as a road map — particularly in the more than 50 stories in “The Vetting.” A few of the nuggets have popped up in major news outlets, but none has made big news.
The much-hyped video turned out to be of Obama as a law student, giving a speech in which he supported Derrick Bell, a left-wing Harvard law professor who saw racism as endemic to America. In the video, Obama hugged Bell.
“After all this fuss, we are left with no bombshell and no cover-up,” wrote Paul Janensch, a former newspaper editor who teaches journalism at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut.
Where the Breitbart coverage tries to suggest a fabric of deception around Obama, critics instead see an overweening anti-Obama narrative. The website runs a picture of the young state senator wearing a Revolutionary War-style coat in a Fourth of July parade. Breitbart.com suggests 15 years later that this is “proof of hypocrisy,” since some Democrats would come to mock tea party activists for wearing similar garb.
Obama declines, like most candidates, to release his academic records. Breitbart.com speculates he might have done worse on the SAT test than George W. Bush, based on the average Columbia University transfer student’s score in the year of Obama’s arrival.
A blogger for theAtlantic.com called the series “utterly pointless — it misleads more often than it clarifies.” The conservative blogger Jon Fleischman defended the postings, in an interview, as “through the roof” in originality. But even the Wall Street Journal’s online media blogger called most of the Obama series “pretty banal.”
The failure of most of the website’s stories to get much bounce does not reflect their weakness, said Bannon. “Andrew would have blown these stories up to the sky,” he said. “Other people don’t have that kind of electric personality, that charisma, but it doesn’t mean that the quality of the work is not there.”
Devotion to the founder permeates the staff. Editor in Chief Joel Pollak, a 35-year-old Harvard Law grad and one-time congressional candidate in Illinois, made his name as a conservative scrapper thanks to YouTube video of his confrontation with liberal Congressman Barney Frank.
“Minister of culture” Jon Kahn, 44, a film- and songwriter, sometimes performed his songs at events where Breitbart spoke. Managing Editor Alex Marlow, 26, thrived as a conservative blogger at famously liberal UC Berkeley. As the site’s first full-time employee, he relishes the ability of a small shock force to reach a big audience.
Editor-at-Large Ben Shapiro entered UCLA at 16 and co-authored his first book (“Brainwashed: How Universities Indoctrinate America’s Youth”) at 20.
Can their site be sustained for the long run? Breitbart.com’s operators said they have more than adequate backers and capital for now. (They declined to detail the financial underpinnings.) Solov said the animating spirit of the Breitbart name should not be underestimated. “This,” he said, “is a long play.”
“Does this thing have a bright, promising future as a business? Not based on what we are seeing right now,” said Alan Mutter, a San Francisco-based media analyst. Many ad-based websites have struggled as a few giants soak up most of the business and the endless space for online promotion drives down ad rates. But Mutter added that there are big-money backers willing to fund such sites on both the left and right.
The operators concede that the political content can make some big brand-name advertisers skittish. But ads for the likes of Nissan, JetBlue and Oracle find their way to Breitbart.com. A number of ads appear targeted for political sites generally. That can lead to incongruities. One banner last month asked Breitbart readers to sign a birthday card for President Obama.
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