Breitbart’s Brand of Journalism

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March 1, 2012; Source: Associated Press

Andrew Breitbart, who made a mark in society and in our sector, died on Thursday at age 43. Nonprofit Quarterly covered the activities of Breitbart and his associates over the years, particularly in regards to with two very troubling incidents. His impact is one that we don’t find to be a positive development for political discussion or for investigative journalism.

Breitbart supported and nurtured a kind of journalism that pushes against the boundaries of ethics and honesty. He and his associated would trap unsuspecting functionaries of targeted organizations—like some intake workers in local ACORN chapters—to find the staff that would fall for their ploys and behave inappropriately. That would give Breitbart the ammunition to tarnish the entire organization’s reputation, even if the actions of the people in question might have been completely unrepresentative of what the organization was trying to do.

ACORN had plenty of problems independent of the “gotcha” videos that Breitbart promoted.  ACORN might well have succumbed to its own internal issues (see our past coverage of ACORN here). Those issues include the million dollar embezzlement conducted by the brother (Dale Rathke) of ACORN’s founder (Wade Rathke), the organization’s unfortunate predisposition to cover up the embezzlement and the actions of misguided staff members, and problems of transparency. But Breitbart and his associates weren’t thinking about the good programs and services that ACORN provided that would be lost when videographers masquerading as pimps and prostitutes sucker punched a couple of inadequately trained and inadequately overseen intake staff. 

Breitbart also honed the kind of journalism that he and his associates played against Shirley Sherrod, the longtime black farmers activist, taking an out-of-context excerpt from one of her speeches and using it to convey exactly the opposite of the meaning that she intended—as a fuller reading of her speech would reveal to anyone other than those motivated by political animus—to create a firestorm within the Obama administration. It eventually cost Sherrod her job at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), though eventually the USDA bureaucrats figured out what Sherrod’s speech really was about and tried, pathetically, to make amends.

Although Sherrod had no ethical and managerial albatrosses to disgorge, the Obama White House and the USDA overreacted to the underhanded and dishonest behavior of those who took a few words of her speech and turned her into a cause celebre. 

But Breitbart’s impact has been much bigger than the collapse of ACORN or the firing of Sherrod. Rather, it’s that Breitbart elevated a kind of journalism that we find to be reprehensible.  Not only are some journalists—particularly our peers who write mostly for the Internet, but not only them—completely open to following the kind of gotcha journalism that Breitbart perfected, but it is remarkable how leadership institutions and government agencies roll over and play dead in the face of this kind of behavior.

On learning of Breitbart’s passing, Texas Gov. Rick Perry tweeted, “RIP ‘O Mighty Warrior!”  It’s sad when anyone as young as Breitbart, who leaves behind young children, dies. But in order to move our society forward, let’s hope that we will examine and eschew the kind of journalism that Breitbart stood for. –Rick Cohen

  • John Honey

    There was no embezzlement. There was only a cover-up by vote of the leadership. But I may be the only person that can explain this. I am the original (1970) CFO of ACORN and am willing to testify. I am also the one and only expert witness.

  • El

    wow — you have once again reached an all new low Rick. Andrew Breitbart brought many issues to light that needed to be brought to light. You cannot possibly single him out for “gotcha journalism” when the lamestream media is fraught with less than half truths, unlimited gotcha attempts, and blatant biased neglect to report and misleading coverage of most political issues today. There are so many instances where the liberal media has taken things out of context and misrepresented the facts.

    Frankly, it is your type of journalism that people are finding reprehensible. So I hear a waking giant?

  • John Honey

    Rick has thoroughly interviewed me from the beginning. He can be trusted. What are your credentials?

  • michael

    Love him or hate him, Breitbart was an American Original. Rough, tough, brilliant, boorish, independent, creative, crude and most importantly…totally fearless of those in power. His handling of the Weiner affair was brilliant by any measure. To let a little drip of the story come out and then sit back for 2 days while [I]respectable journailsts[/I] savaged him as a liar (did NPQ expound on eschewing that type of journalism?).,,,then releasing the rest and exposing the mainstream media as little more than bleating sheep.

    And recall what was without a doubt the most interesting and amazing moment of politcal drama in the past decade… [youtube youtube]

  • lp2

    It certainly was ok when former news organizations like ABC, NBC or CBS broke a story like Breitbart but they and their surrogate networks now are relegated to regurgitating the identical dose of media matters talking points which I assume is your tolerable standard of “truth”. Journalism is a lost art only practiced by a very few courageous and independent “warriors”. Hard to see that when your vision is so far obscured by intestines.

  • Rick Cohen

    Thanks for the note, John. Glad you commented. Maybe the missing million that Dale helped leave the organization for his own personal expenditures doesn’t qualify someway as “embezzlement,” but it certainly does to me. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines embezzlement as ” to appropriate (as property entrusted to one’s care) fraudulently to one’s own use.” Dale Rathke was entrusted to care for those funds.

  • karen t

    so much for non-profits being a-poitical. was this really necessary. i’m canceling my subscription. you sound like sour grapes dissing a dead guy who can’t defend himself. cowardly.

  • Bill

    Breitbart was a beacon in a world of darkness. He will be missed and I hope others will continue his brand of enterprise journalism.