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