Andrew Breitbart, 'Reborn' On The Internet, Died A Force In Media And Politics
NEW YORK -- On one fateful night in 1994, Andrew Breitbart decided he was finally going to figure out why a couple friends and the guys at Wired couldn't stop talking about this thing called the Internet.
Breitbart spent several hours in his Austin, Texas, apartment that evening, devouring a rotisserie chicken and knocking back several bottles of Pilsner Urquell before completing the then-complicated task of aligning his computer and modem to get on the Internet. In "Righteous Indignation," Breitbart's 2011 memoir and manifesto, the future online publisher and conservative provocateur recalled that moment, writing: "I was reborn."
On Thursday morning, Breitbart died at the age of 43.
In the intervening 18 years, Breitbart's relentless drive and intuitive understanding of a burgeoning medium propelled him to what he'd eventually become: a disruptive force in the media, a prominent figure in the conservative movement and a self-described "reluctant culture warrior." Once a behind-the-scenes player, Breitbart's public persona grew in recent years and so did his non-stop sparring with ideological foes -- whether on Twitter, in TV studios, or on the street.
Just weeks ago, Breitbart could be found screaming at Occupy protesters outside of the Conservative Political Action Conference, repeatedly telling them to "stop raping people." While Breitbart appeared unhinged on the YouTube-ready clip, he also seemed to relish such stunts and later said the point of yelling outside CPAC was to get the national media talking about allegations of sexual assault at Occupy encampments.
Known for railing against the "Democrat-media complex," Breitbart frequently took aim at Democrats and organizations with ties to the party. In Sept. 2009, he published conservative filmmaker James O'Keefe's undercover "pimp" videos inside the offices of community organizer ACORN that ignited a media firestorm leading to the organization's downfall, even amid questions about the tapes being edited in a misleading way. More recently, he helped take down Rep. Anthony Weiner by insisting that the Congressman had sent a lewd photo over Twitter despite his repeated denials. Weiner later admitted he sent the photo, and others, but not before Breitbart hijacked the podium at his press conference.
But Breitbart also stumbled in courting attention from the media, most notably after posting a misleadingly edited video of Shirley Sherrod, an African-American Department of Agriculture official who lost her job in a Breitbart-generated uproar over her comments about dealing with a white farmer. Sherrod had been making a point about the need for racial tolerance while the edited video suggested the opposite.
These days, Breitbart's best known for such provocations, scoops, and press-baiting antics, many which first get play on his cluster of "Big" sites before pick-up by the same mainstream media he constantly railed against. But before the oversized persona, Breitbart worked in the background as an instrumental part of the growth of The Drudge Report and the creation of The Huffington Post.
In 1997, Matt Drudge introduced Breitbart to Arianna Huffington, who recalled in an interview her two experiences working with him -- first on a personal site, Arianna Online, and later with The Huffington Post.
"From the beginning, the thing about Andrew was just his exuberance," Huffington said. "When he started working for me, soon after that, it was hard to get him to leave the office." Huffington said she had to conspire with Susie, his "amazing wife," in order to get him to leave the office.
Breitbart played a key role in getting Arianna Online -- which included newspaper columns, a chat room and even an advice column featuring Huffington's mom called "Ask Ya-Ya" -- online. "[My mother] would write her answers longhand or give them to Andrew and he would transcribe them and post them," Huffington recalled. "And throughout that whole time, she would feed him."
But the working relationship wasn't all about online advice and Greek food at the kitchen table in Huffington's Brentwood home. Breitbart was obsessed with scoops, could dig for information online and later worked with Huffington on a series of columns revealing that Larry Lawrence, a top Clinton donor, had fabricated his war record and shouldn't have been buried in Arlington Cemetery -- an honor given at the president's request. Lawrence's remains were later dug up and moved to another site.
Breitbart next went to work with Drudge, recalling in his book a period when all three were intent on shaking up the legacy media back East.
"I had my buddies Arianna and Matt, and we were all hanging out together, we were all doing more from Los Angeles with minimal resources than the mainstream media were doing from Washington D.C. with hundreds of reporters," Breitbart wrote. "It was great fun."
Drudge, in a statement to readers Thursday, described Breitbart as "a constant source of energy, passion and commitment" through the site's first decade.
Breitbart would return to work for Huffington in late 2004 on what became The Huffington Post, staying on until shortly after the site's May 2005 launch.
"He was very involved at the beginning of The Huffington Post," Huffington said. "After a few months, it became clear that our political differences, in terms of how we're seeing the world, were going to make it very hard to continue working closely together." But it was an amicable break-up, she said, and the company later bought back his stock.
Founding editor Roy Sekoff, in a separate interview, recalled Breitbart's contributions early on and how his "mind worked in overdrive."
"My job, as I saw it, was to catch the gems," Sekoff said. "They were coming so fast. He would literally have ten big ideas in one email. My job was to sort of say, 'I think that one makes a lot of sense, that one's incredible, and put the other eight aside.'"
Sekoff said that Breitbart was instrumental early on, along with co-founders Huffington and Ken Lerer and BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti (who spoke to his site about Breitbart's role and how he was "at war with himself" because of loyalties to Drudge).
"He had more ideas than you could fit into a football stadium and a lot of them were really good," Sekoff said. "And I think he really was thinking disruptive thoughts."
Sekoff added that Breitbart and Huffington "both had this tremendous sense of urgency, and I think that's informed The Huffington Post to this day."
And Breitbart kept some ties to The Huffington Post through the years, writing up until a year ago. In March 2011, Breitbart described former White House adviser Van Jones as "commie punk," a "cop killer-supporting, racist, demagogic freak," and a "human toxin." A HuffPost spokesman told New York magazine at the time that Breitbart's attack violated "the tenets of debate and civil discourse we have strived for since the day we launched."
Breitbart told The Daily Caller that it was the "height of ingratitude" that Huffington sided with Jones over someone who "help[ed] create for her the very institution she’s now using to shut me up.”
Huffington said she had a difficult time taking Breitbart's work off the site. "I really wanted him to keep writing," she said. "I always want to have many voices on the site, and I really do believe in this beyond left and right editorial approach." She was in London at the time and recalled trying to argue with Breitbart over the phone. It didn't work.
However, despite such public spats, Huffington said "there was a real fondness between us" and she believes Breitbart "really knew I cared for him."
Similarly, Sekoff recalled debating with Breitbart on a panel in Los Angeles a couple years back where Breitbart revealed a "dirty little secret" to the progressive-leaning audience that "the HuffPost guy and I, we love each other." During an interview, Huffington's daughter called upset after hearing the Breitbart news and they talked about the "wake-up calls" that make one reassess his or her work and life balance. Huffington, who fainted from exhaustion a few years ago, is now a vocal proponent of getting enough sleep.
"It's really the negative side of having the kind of passion and relentlessness and drive that anybody who succeeds in life has," Hufffington said. "But you can take it to an extreme that kind of then destroys you."
The news of Breitbart's death shook the media and political worlds on Thursday, with many heartfelt remembrances quickly posted online and tweeted. But given Breitbart's manic response to Ted Kennedy's death -- calling him a "villain and “duplicitous bastard” shortly after the news broke -- not everyone was unwilling to speak ill of the dead. Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi, in a post titled "Death of a Douche," wrote that he "couldn’t be happier that he’s dead."
The Daily Beast's David Frum wrote that "it's difficult for me to assess Breitbart’s impact upon American media and American politics as anything other than poisonous."
"When one of the leading media figures of the day achieves his success by his giddy disdain for truth and fairness -- when one of our leading political figures offers to his admirers a politics inflamed by rage and devoid of ideas -- how to withhold a profoundly negative judgment on his life and career?" Frum asked.
Frum took particular offense to the "indifference to detail suffused all of Breitbart’s work," which he said "may indeed be his most important and lasting legacy."
Still, even one of Breitbart's biggest critics held its fire for a day. In a statement, liberal watchdog Media Matters said "we've disagreed more than we've found common ground, but there was never any question of Andrew's passion for and commitment to what he believed."
Indeed, Breitbart clearly had an intense passion and appeared to have found his calling. On Thursday morning, Big Government posted the new conclusion for later editions of his book.
"I love my job. I love fighting for what I believe in. I love having fun while doing it," he wrote. "I love reporting stories that the Complex refuses to report. I love fighting back, I love finding allies, and -- famously -- I enjoy making enemies."
Breitbart concluded that he probably lost some friends throughout the public battles that would dominate the final years of his life, but likely made many more allies. "At the end of the day," he wrote, "I can look at myself in the mirror, and I sleep very well at night."