An analysis of Andrew Breitbart's game, after his talk at the METal (Media, Entertainment & Technology Alliance) breakfast this past August in Marina Del Rey, California...
Impressively balancing a thick databook on a chunky thigh while half-sitting on a barstool, Breitbart waves his hands a lot when he talks. He's animated like a magician is animated. And like a magician, his game is designed to distract his audience in order to deceive it. To play with perceptions while concealing intentions. Like a magician, in Breitbart's hands, content is just a prop used in an act that's all about controlling context.
Aside from being a renegade from the Huffington Post and "Matt Drudge's bitch," (his phrase), Breitbart is known primarily for having broken two so-called stories: A recent one about a black USDA employee, Shirley Sherrod, whom he accused of racism by editing video content of an old speech of hers to define its context; another about how James O'Keefe, a skinny white politically-connected boy from Tennessee claiming to be a pimp with a stable of underage El Salvadoran girls, tricked staffers in a community service organization into giving him tax advice.
"I alternate between jocularity and righteous indignation," he says to his audience of approximately 80 Southern California businessmen.
What is he indignant about? Not political ideology. Politics, he says, don't interest him, he says. What interests him, he says, is culture. While that may be true, what seems to interest him most is revenge.
There's no doubt that the old journalism model is broken, and that the advent of the 24/7 news cycle and online networks gives aggressive aggregators like Breitbart room to maneuver. Breitbart, however, makes it personal. A vendetta.
"I want to destroy Katie Couric and Charles Gibson," he says at one point in the talk.
When METal founder and host, Ken Rutkowski (who does an admirable job of keeping the conversation between Breitbart and METal members civil) asks him what he thinks of Rupert Murdoch, Breitbart's response is, "He's old... I want his job."
He says didn't have much going for him in his life until Arianna Huffington gifted him with a work ethic while he was a Huffington Post researcher.
I was the kind of guy who would try to impress girls by showing them how organized my bookmarks were," he says of his pre-Arianna days. "I was pathetic... When I heard that [one of the London tabloids] would be publishing an online edition, my nipples got sensitive.
Breitbart's "righteous indignation" is a performance pose -- the character lurking behind the pose is vengeful, self-loathing and apparently easily aroused. He is about as righteous as a sock puppet. "I'm a biased asshole," he says. This seems more rooted in reality than anything else he says during his talk.
He surrounds himself with handlers who look like extras from the film Bloodsport, and a crew with cameras and clipboards. One of the handlers claims to have seen Bloodsport five times. "And by five I mean ten," the handler adds.
The reason the guy mentions Bloodsport is that Frank Dux, whose PR says his story inspired the film, is in the audience. Before Breitbart's speech, I overhear Dux talking about a body suit he's promoting that will make full contact martial arts video games possible. A fight against someone you never have to face in person? Sounds like a perfect Breitbart product. They can brand it "Bloodbart."
When Breitbart can't remember a particular detail -- the night of the week the network news first covered the ACORN story -- he asks a member of his entourage, and when the aide answers, Breitbart ignores him and uses his own answer instead. Clearly, he's not as interested in giving us accurate information as he is in showing us his is the most authoritative voice in the room, and oh yeah, he has people who respond to his commands.
"I manipulate the media," he boasts. By media he means people. And by people he means us. When asked on Saturday about his characterization of Sherrod, for example, he responds with a sleight-of-hand trick. "Honestly, honestly, honestly, honestly," he begins, "how many people saw the full Sherrod video, the full forty-five minutes?" Quite a few hands go up. "How many people saw the two-plus minute piece we put up at BigGovernment.com?" More hands. "And how many people read the full article we put up" he asks. Another show of hands.
Having hooked his audience into a call-and-response pattern, the magician begins the trick with what's known in the magic trade as "the switch": He was not attacking Shirley Sherrod, he says, he was attacking the institutional racism by the NAACP members in her audience who applauded when Sherrod seemed to be bashing white folks. From there, it's a simple "misdirect" to label Sherrod a "confusing soul." And then -- nothing up his sleeve! -- the "simulation": he equates her with Matt Dillon's racist cop in the film Crash. A real flesh and blood woman suddenly collapses to the dimensions of a movie character. All of a sudden, we're not talking about people, we're talking about stereotypes. This is known in the trade as "the ditch." The prestidigitation continues with "the load": He says the NAACP labels the Tea Party racist based on one anti-Obama sign in Florida! Then "the palm": Claims by Congressmen John Lewis and Andre Carson that Tea Partiers directed the N-word their way 14 times prior to the health care vote cannot be substantiated! They've vanished into thin air. Wow! Just a second ago, Shirley Sherrod was a woman in Georgia talking about helping farmers and now she's two men in Washington talking about the N-word. How'd he do that?
He said it himself. Manipulation. That's his game.
Like a hacker sharing his list of cheats, he offers detail after detail about how the game works: How he decided to release the ACORN videos as a series instead of all at once. How ACORN's "one good move" was replacing a Jewish man with a black woman as its spokesperson. How he held back the ACORN video from Los Angeles so as not to alert the mainstream media of the coast-to-coast coverage of the series. How James O'Keefe fed on Subway sandwiches and spent $1,400 on an undercover production that subsequently generated millions of Breitbart mentions in the media. Take that, all you expense-account-eating media elites!
If hearing about a London tabloid going online makes Breitbart's nipples sensitive, imagine what telling stories about a boy dressed in his grandmother's chinchilla coat posing as a pimp for under-aged El Salvadoran girls must do to him.
"I'm pathetic," he says again. This self-deprecating posture is another element of the Manipulation game. If the objective of your game is to drag your enemies into the mud, best to be down in the mud yourself.
He claims to fight left-of-center political bias by the mainstream media with his own right-of-center bias. That's a false dichotomy, because the opposite of bias is not more bias. As David Rose, the CEO of Unified Field Bank, who was in attendance, remarked after the talk, "That's like saying you're using gasoline to put out a fire."
No, the opposite of bias is acceptance, and Breitbart can't afford to go there. Not only would it be bad for a brand like his that feeds on intolerance and fear-based narratives, it would mean that Andrew Breitbart would have to accept himself, and in doing so would have let go of the illusion that sustains him -- that he's taking on mainstream media in order to destroy it -- and confront the truth -- that he's taking on mainstream media in order to become it.
Mike Bonifer is the author of GameChangers -- Improvisation for Business in the Networked World. and the CEO of GameChangers LLC