The American right has been waging a campaign against the so-called liberal media from as far back as the Nixon era. It mostly began in the late 1960’s and early 70s with concerted attacks on news organizations by Nixon’s vice president, Spiro Agnew, fed by speechwriters Pat Buchanan and William Safire. The media, according to them, was in the pocket of those who wished to destroy the Republican Party and sully the Republic. The theme of liberal media domination, which was soon packaged in the book The News Twisters (1971) by conservative journalist Edith Efron, has since grown into an urban legend. The theme has been advanced in more recent times by Robert and Linda Lichter in The Media Elite (1986), Bernard Goldberg in Bias (2001), and Bill O’Reilly in Culture Warrior (2006). Efforts to correct the historical record, for example by Eric Alterman and David Brock, have been only partially successful in countering the conservative frame of liberal control.
Andrew Breitbart, the internet provocateur who has received much attention since his death in early March, was one of the right’s most vocal media denigrators. Breitbart will no doubt be missed by his political comrades in arms. He rang the liberty bell for conservative internet junkies and pushed the theory of a liberal-media nexus to new extremes, portraying it as a grand tale of collusion and conspiracy. In his book Righteous Indignation, he asserts that the “Democrat-Media Complex,” as he calls it, rigs facts to support its statist goals and promotes group-think in the form of political correctness. It presents, in his mind, an existential threat to libertarian freedom.
Like Glen Beck with a wink and a chalk board, Breitbart treats us to a “brief history lesson” on the dark origins of the Complex–a bit too brief it turns out. In his presentation, he presents a grab bag of wispy but menacing associations of the “guilt-by” variety. The Complex apparently took its message from a combination of alien philosophies based on Hegel and Marx that were imported into the U.S. with the help of fellow travelers and took root in American academic institutions. Their destructive critique of capitalism supposedly tainted the thinking of a long line of American progressives and guided the activities of wily practitioners like pediatrician Benjamin Spock and, especially, old-time labor organizer Saul Alinsky, who has become a favorite target of today’s tea partiers.
Breitbart believed that this palpable threat to American liberties had to be confronted head on. He was encouraged by the new kinds of journalistic media represented by Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. But, for him, the most exciting challenge to the old, sluggish news establishment was the ability of independent internet users like himself to create their own alternative news websites and to “out” provocative information on them. The resourceful individual could gather his or her own unofficial news from anonymous sources, coordinate the timing of its release, and then disseminate it to the world with the aid of a sympathetic political network. Breitbart’s model in this regard was Matt Drudge, creator of the Drudge Report, which rocked the media world by trafficking in gossip and leaked information. The Drudge Report was the pivotal source of revelations in the Monica Lewinsky scandal and other socio-political happenings.
While working by the Drudge formula, Breitbart developed his own distinctive approach to fighting the establishment. By personal preference his style was more provocative and in-your-face than that of the reclusive Matt Drudge. Being knowledgeable about Hollywood and the youth culture, he used techniques that could appeal to a popular sensibility. His major innovation was the use and manipulation of video and audio evidence to embarrass opponents. Breitbart’s brazen methods have been widely reported on. He devised a right-wing primer for “realistic revolutionaries” that purported to borrow tactics from the devil’s own playbook: Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals. These included taking the fight to the enemy’s sanctuaries (e.g. MSNBC and the New York Times), not letting the enemy forget his own rules (i.e exposing hypocrites), and using ridicule.
While Breitbart’s practices were potentially headline-producing, in the end they met with mixed results. His use of the gotcha videos of ACORN employees by prankster James O’Keefe was certainly successful in bringing down a liberal community organization. The defunding of ACORN by a congressional vote was, no doubt, Breitbart’s greatest victory in the culture wars. On the other hand, his botched and mean-spirited attack on Shirley Sherrod based on spliced and misleading videos is a vivid illustration of how drive-by, attack journalism can backfire on its perpetrators. Driven by a need for instantaneous point scoring, it is a hit-or-miss proposition with little guarantee of accuracy or public acceptance.
Given the current emphasis on journalistic ambush and blood-letting, there seems little chance of going back to the way things were without a change in the political climate. For the moment at least, the right seems to have achieved its goal of discrediting objective news sources and invoking media warfare. When media and government can no longer be trusted, conspiracy theory and extreme ideas have a better chance of flourishing. The obvious victims are reason, moderation, and civility. Along with truth.