On September 10, Andrew Breitbart launched his new site, BigGovernment, with hidden-video camera footage of two young conservative activists who’d gotten Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) employees to advise them on hiding prostitution profits from the IRS. Within hours, Breitbart was doing interviews with reporters who wanted to know how, exactly, the story had come about, and why Big Government was releasing the videos and the identity of the muckrackers — 25-year-old James O’Keefe III and 20-year-old Hannah Giles — so slowly.
“It was strategized,” Breitbart told TWI this week, so “that they would be deprived of the type of information that a defense attorney would try to gather in order to create a defense.”
Who were “these people?” They were not just the leaders or members of ACORN itself. “They” were the Democratic Party, the White House, the progressive Center for American Progress and its president John Podesta. The “Democrat-media complex” is Breitbart’s name for the whole apparatus. “We deprived them of information,” Breitbart explained, “so that they couldn’t come up with a vile, kill-the-messenger attack with the media doing the groundwork for them.”
The success of Breitbart’s strategy was immediate, stunning, and is still ricocheting around the political world. Five days after the story broke, the U.S. Senate voted 83-7 to prevent ACORN from receiving any federal funding. Two days later, the House of Representatives did the same. Meanwhile, Breitbart was talking to more reporters, amused at how the “kill-the-messenger attack” was playing out. When one report from The Washington Post called him for a story about O’Keefe and Giles, Breitbart compared their tape to the photos of Abu Ghraib prison released in April 2004.
“She goes, ‘Wait a second! I worked on the Abu Ghraib stories,’” said Breitbart. “I go, ‘Yeah, that was one aberrant National Guard unit. And now I have five ACORN places that are all complicit in the exact same thing. And there are more!’” (The reporter, Carol Leonning told TWI that the conversation did not go this way, but that she enjoyed getting Breitbart’s take “very much.”)
Breitbart, angered by the Post’s eventual story–it seemed to intimate that O’Keefe and Giles had been motivated by ACORN’s registration of non-white voters, in a line that was corrected days later–moved right on. BigGovernment had claimed a victory that conservative journalists and activists had been seeking for years, occasionally embarrassing ACORN with a state lawsuit, but drawing no blood. It was a natural next step for Breitbart. Until a few years ago he was known mostly as the man behind the curtain of The Drudge Report and a ringleader for Hollywood’s quiet community of political conservatives. (Breitbart lives in Los Angeles and runs his web operations from an office in his basement.) With the launch of BigGovernment, he is gaining new recognition as the conservative movement’s most successful — in terms of damaging liberals — new media pioneer.
“I get accused of breaking some journalism school rules,” said Breitbart. “Well, why don’t we have the Howard Kurtz conversation on a low-rated CNN show after this? Or at a J-school of your choice? I’m willing to be accused of being a monster.”
In the planning stages of BigGovernment, Breitbart asked Mike Flynn, a longtime friend and a fixture in Washington’s libertarian and conservative circles, to recommend an editor. Both men eventually decided that the editor should be Flynn, who had recently left the libertarian Reason Foundation. With no Washington office, and with only six other employees, Flynn and Breitbart trained their eyes on possible scoops. Originally, they had planned to launch the site with a scoop from a filmmmaker named Patrick Courrielche. He had been on a conference call in which White House and National Endowment for the Arts staffers seemed to be directing artists to glorify the administration with their grants. But they rushed the launch of BigGovernment to capitalize on the ACORN tapes. Flynn, a one-time lobbyist and campaign strategist who had beaten ACORN in an Albuquerque minimum wage referendum, got to edit the story that terminated the group’s taxpayer funding.
“The voter stuff had always been the least interesting to me,” Flynn told TWI. “ACORN’s always been around, and they’ve always been a kind of Apple Dumpling gang. They’re always screwing up.”
The revelation of the ACORN story, said Flynn, was that conservative and libertarian journalism had gotten past “this frustration that whatever they do, people won’t cover it.” With video, and with the right new media strategy–with Fox News–they could get coverage after all.
“It’s not just the ACORN story,” said Flynn. “Van Jones resigned without a single column in The New York Times. They threw [the NEA's] Yosi Sargeant under the bus. The Census acted on ACORN before the Washington Post weighed in. There are actual repercussions even without the mainstream media weighing in. If I was at The New York Times, I’d be shuddering.”
Breitbart, more than Flynn, has taken fire from the “Democrat-media complex” on the ACORN story. O’Keefe and Giles have said they spent $1,300 of their own money on the story, and Breitbart has said he’ll post their receipts online.
Much of the media attention on the ACORN tapes and the ensuing scandal has focused on O’Keefe, a Rutgers University graduate who had been making pie-in-the-face video exposes of liberals for years. O’Keefe came out of a campus conservative movement which has been well-trained, well-funded, and well-connected (to other campuses and to the broader movement) by groups like the Virginia-based Leadership Institute and the Delaware-based Collegiate Network. They are far from the first activists to film similar stunts; the pro-life activist Lila Rose, another recipient of Leadership Institute aid, has filmed “stings” of Planned Parenthood. But little of this conservative muckraking has made it beyond local news or Fox News reports. In coming to Breitbart, O’Keefe and Giles found a new media ally who could package and sell their goods.
“The unorthodox roll-out was orchestrated to protect James and Hannah,” said Breitbart. “The moment that their peril ended, was when Jon Stewart reported on this, making fun of the media for missing the story. At that moment I called James and Hannah and said, “You’re mostly in the clear, and the only people left who’ll attack you will be some liberal bloggers.’”
Breitbart knows something about liberal bloggers. His pre-BigGovernment career included many months working to launch The Huffington Post. (He had been a researcher for Arianna Huffington in the early 1990s, before he joined Drudge, when both of them were still conservatives.)
“I wanted the world to see what the Left and the Los Angeles/Manhattan salons had to think about national politics,” Breitbart told TWI. “Sunlight is the best disinfectant. I thought it would be great for Arianna and I thought it would be great for the right, because it gave them source material.”
As The Huffington Post launched, Breitbart launched breitbart.com, a news aggregator with some original content. In 2007, he launched breitbart.tv, where Fred Thompson published a video poking fun at Michael Moore that preceded the former Tennessee senator’s ill-fated run for president. In 2008, Breitbart kept up the momentum, launching a sprawling conservative blog about the film industry, BigHollywood, and writing a column of the same name for The Washington Times. He saw the rise of liberal new media as a rearguard action against conservative new media, which in 2004 had pushed the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth allegations against Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and the scandal of allegedly forged documents that CBS News used in a report about President George W. Bush’s military service.
“It’s so obvious that the mainstream media needed the netroots,” said Breitbart. “It needed The Huffington Post and the Daily Kos and the Media Matters of the world to protect them from future Swift Boats and Rathergates.” The ACORN scandal, he said, was “Rathergate 2.0.”
“The left has done a very good job with Internet stuff,” said Flynn. “Josh Marshall has broken some interesting stuff at TPM. They ought to know that you don’t need a big backer to break news. This notion of this right-wing conspiracy — look, I’ve been inside what would be called the right-wing conspiracy for a long time, and there’s no planning. These people couldn’t plan a bake sale.”
On Wednesday afternoon, ACORN filed lawsuits against the filmmakers and against Breitbart. He has not responded to that yet; when he spoke with TWI, he was still laughing at how mainstream media reporters could get so excited about Abu Ghraib and so angry at his site and his reporters.
“This is the Abu Ghraib of journalism!” said Breitbart. “Abu Ghraib, Abu Ghraib, Abu Ghraib, Abu Ghraib, Abu Ghraib, everywhere you go. I heard that two million times, from when they reported in 2004 to right now. This is the Abu Ghraib of Abu Ghraib. Abu Ghraibs for everyone! NEA Abu Ghraib! White House Abu Ghraib! ACORN Abu Ghraib! Journalism Abu Ghraib! You’ve all been exposed, you corrupt bastards.”