New Journalist? Or just another talking head? He reports, you decide.
The late Andrew Breitbart says a few times in a new documentary devoted to him that he has two modes: "Jocular, and righteous indignation."
There’s plenty of both in Andrew Marcus’ film, along with many -- too many -- instances of Breitbart, in a rage, repeating himself emphatically. Then again, there are plenty of moments when journalists from the "liberal" media that Breitbart evidently despised do exactly the same thing, often in Breitbart’s company, and often to (or rather, in) his face.
The film is replete with the familiar complaints from the right wing of the infotainment blovation complex: The supposedly left-leaning mainstream media "destroys" people it doesn’t like, according to Breitbart, and selectively investigates scandalous conduct by public institutions and leaders. The Tea Party is endlessly targeted and smeared, especially with accusations of racism and homophobia. And Breitbart himself can’t get no respect from the major media outlets, who refuse to recognize his serious journalistic intent.
The problem is that this documentary is an example of all those things, only from the right. The film makes plenty of James O’Keefe’s punking of ACORN, but nowhere does Breitbart (or Marcus) acknowledge that the videos O’Keefe secretly made of ACORN staff seemingly offering their assistance to a pimp (actually O’Keefe) and his prostitute (played by O’Keefe associate Hannah Giles) wrongfully tarnished an innocent man.
The ploy O’Keefe dreamed up was to pose as a pimp and engage ACORN employees in conversations about human sex trafficking. The videos, denounced as "misleading" elsewhere, were seized upon by Breitbart and Fox News. One ACORN staffer who lost his job in the ensuing media storm was Juan Carlos Vera, who reported O’Keefe and his associate to the authorities -- for all the good it did him. One needn’t be a partisan of the right, or the left either, to detest deliberate character assassination and career sabotage, which is what one assumes Breitbart meant when he declared that the "left" goes out of its way to "destroy" people who disagree with it. But if the same things result as a matter of collateral damage, is that any better? Breitbart championed O’Keefe and his videos, but never set the record straight on Vera, who recently won a settlement.
Then there’s the case of Anthony Weiner a Democratic lawmaker from New York, who tweeted sexy images of himself. Right around the same time, there were high-profile instances of Republican lawmakers such as Chris Lee doing much the same thing. Marcus’ film doesn’t show Breitbart pursuing those stories with the zeal with which he more or less literally prosecuted Weiner. In fact, it doesn’t show Breitbart addressing those GOP scandals at all.
Then there’s the issue of the Tea Party, which Breitbart embraces as a downtrodden group, emblematic of all the ways in which big government and power-mad "old media" trample on ordinary citizens. But nowhere do we see Breitbart taking note of the fact that the Tea Party’s origins were not as "organic" as he talks about them being; in fact, the Koch Brothers, billionaire businessmen who deny climate change and work against the interests of blue-collar joes, bankrolled the Tea Party in its early days, giving it a crucial jump-start.
The Andrew Breitbart we meet here is either a college-educated former "lefty" (as described by his father-in-law, the actor Orson Bean), or else spent so much time drunk in his student days that he escaped the pernicious influence of higher education altogether (which is more or less what Breitbart himself says at one juncture). Either way, he’s a funny, smart, passionate, and likable guy. But his motives and values are a little unclear: We hear about how he became a conservative of the Rush Limbaugh stripe by, well, reading a book authored by Limbaugh. What we don’t really hear about is why or how Breitbart came to conclude that the left is any more dishonest or untrustworthy than the right.
Nor is it clear just what he’s after. When Breitbart describes his dreams of one day achieving a media empire, is he envisioning a single-handed triumph for truth as he sees it? Or is he contemplating a payday of immense bounty, the likes of which icons of the right such as Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly have enjoyed? Or are his rewards more wrapped up with fame, or with approval, or even with the rage he seemed to inspire in some people?
It’s a question worth asking of any rising star in the infotainment world; like any other performer, the professional talking head may have a plethora of needs he’s seeking to answer through notoriety. It’s a shame that we have a film about Breitbart that doesn’t manage to tell us what made him tick.
It’s not enough simply to show us images of Breitbart doing his thing while playing patriotic music. If Breitbart was truly a champion of the "new media," in which any citizen with a cell phone can become a purveyor of truth, then did he also harbor reservations about the potential for lies, distortions, and errors to take wing the way he seemingly hoped piercing, revelatory fact would?
It’s been noted before, many times, that debate in this country has long since given way to shouting. Breitbart had a loud voice, and he knew how to use it. Did that mean his words possessed a greater degree of intrinsic merit, or did he hone his vocabulary and his message in order to deliver what his audience, to judge from what we see here, wanted -- an extremely loud and forceful echo of their own opinions? That’s the sort of "journalism" Breitbart purportedly condemns, and yet there’s not much here that proves he did much else himself.
What we do see -- and this is educational -- are the contours for a certain mindset, one that views government as fundamentally exploitative and sees conspiracies everywhere. Breitbart speaks to this mindset, and it could be that he shares it. Politicians looking to advance on volume rather than argument know how to speak to this mindset, and how to reinforce its fears and blind spots. Politicians of other stripes tend to write off voters of this mindset, rather than figuring out how to reach out to them and reassure them, and this is most probably a mistake.
This documentary also casts doubt on a handful of celebrated notions clung to by the left -- that the Tea Party is simply a transient spasm from the crazed fringe right, or that big government (which is a distinct entity from streamlined, but focused, government), if simply allowed to work free of partisan gridlock in Congress, would be able to solve large problems by doing the same things it’s done in the past.
Change and progress are inevitable, and in our era they’ve happened with unprecedented speed. Figures like Andrew Breitbart -- who, we’re told by one admirer, "understood the flow of information like no one else" -- will have an influence, perhaps a fundamental influence, in shaping the evolution of our increasingly tightly-woven technosphere, which makes the so-called "new media" possible and powers massive social movements from multi-player, globally available video games (invisible in politics and the national conversation, but tectonic in its scope and potential) to the "Arab Spring" of a couple of years ago. Whether you view Breitbart as a prophet or a warning of coming times probably depends on your received, and preconceived, notions. Perhaps he was a bit of both.
Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor, writing about film, theater, food and drink, and travel, as well as contributing a column. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.