THE WEEKEND INTERVIEW
Taking On the 'Democrat-Media Complex'
Andrew Breitbart on bringing down Acorn, Hollywood liberals, and embarrassing the mainstream media.
BY JAMES TARANTO
The Wall Street Journal, Saturday, October 17, 2009
HOLLYWOOD--Dressing up as a pimp and prostitute in order to seek Acorn's help in starting a child sex-slavery ring wasn't Andrew Breitbart's idea. But without the Internet entrepreneur's flair for publicity, the hidden-camera sting might not have produced such impressive results. Within days of his publishing the video exposť, government agencies were cutting ties with the left-wing advocacy and community-organizing group, Congress was voting to end its federal funding, and news organizations were rushing to catch up with a sensational story they had initially resisted or ignored.
James O'Keefe, the 25-year-old aspiring filmmaker who played the pimp in the Acorn meetings, came to Mr. Breitbart in early August with his videos. They showed Mr. O'Keefe and his putative partner in crime, 20-year-old Hannah Giles, asking Acorn counselors for advice on how to evade the authorities while setting up a business offering the sexual services of underage girls smuggled into the U.S. from El Salvador. It was a shocking and outlandish tale, but employees in at least five Acorn offices fell for it and offered to help.
"I had a 20-year-old and a 25-year-old and my integrity on the line if we were going to launch this," Mr. Breitbart says. "It was so obvious that the mainstream media, given this information, would not cover it and would, in effect, attempt to cover it up." So he devised an intricate strategy of rolling out the videos one at a time, anticipating Acorn's defenses and rebutting each in turn with the next video.
The first, recorded at Acorn's Baltimore office, appeared Sept. 10 on Fox News Channel and on Mr. Breitbart's new Web site, BigGovernment.com, a group blog that combines reporting and libertarian-leaning polemics. Four more videos followed over the next week. "This plan wasn't just a means to defend against the media's desire to attack the messenger," Mr. Breitbart says. "It was also a means to attack the media and to expose them . . . for the partisan hacks that they are." One need not agree with that harsh characterization to acknowledge that Mr. Breitbart largely succeeded in catching news organizations flat-footed and embarrassing them into reluctantly covering the story.
Mr. Breitbart, 40, grew up in Hollywood, though his parents weren't in show business. (His father was a restaurateur, his mother a banker.) After graduating from Tulane University, he returned to Southern California, where he dabbled in film production and music journalism before finding his calling online in the mid-1990s. "I just like the Internet," he says. "I feel more natural in this environment, where I am part of the media and not a passive receptacle of the media." He worked for a time on the Drudge Report, and Matt Drudge introduced him to Arianna Huffington, now the doyenne of liberal bloggers. Mr. Breitbart designed a Web site for her back when she was still a Republican.
He held inchoate liberal views until 1991, when the Clarence Thomas hearings occasioned a conservative awakening. He came to loathe the left-wing show-biz culture, the subject of his 2004 book, "Hollywood, Interrupted," and of his group blog Big Hollywood, launched early this year. "These people believe that Christians and conservatives and Republicans and libertarians are all variations on the Nazi theme."
Although Mr. Breitbart practices a form of journalism, as an independent operator he moves freely across boundaries that would constrain a traditional newsman. He makes no pretense of impartiality and openly engages in political activity. On Sept. 12, he took time off from the Acorn video roll-out to travel to Illinois, where he spoke to a tea-party rally. He works with actor Gary Sinise on a group called Friends of Abe (as in Lincoln), which brings together Hollywood conservatives. You might say he's something of a community organizer.
It was with politics in mind, Mr. Breitbart says, that he chose to release the first Acorn video on Sept. 10, the day after President Obama's speech to a joint session of Congress. His rationale: "I am going to do what John McCain did the day after the Invesco speech," Mr. Obama's address to the Democratic National Convention, by announcing the choice of Sarah Palin. "I am going to suck the air out of the room on the health-care debate. That was intentional."
Mr. Breitbart's work on the story has centered on a sophisticated public-relations campaign. He placed exclusives not only with Fox, but with local newspapers in the cities where the videos were made. On his site, he published the raw videos and complete transcripts, lest he and Mr. O'Keefe be accused of manipulation through editing.
The crux of the strategy was the timing of the video releases. "Every step of the way, we wanted to plant traps" for Acorn and its defenders, he says. The Baltimore video was the first because it was "the most clean-cut of explicating their offer and Acorn's ability to help them with the transaction through their intricate networking of tax assistance and street-level advice-giving on how to avoid the law." Acorn called the video "false and defamatory" and accused Fox of "racist coverage," but also fired the employees who appeared in it.
The video from Washington followed on Sept. 11. Acorn asserted that it was "slanted to misinform the public," although again it swiftly sacked the employees involved.
Acorn also claimed that Mr. O'Keefe and Ms. Giles had been rebuffed in four cities, including New York and San Diego. But on Sept. 14, the New York Post reported that in fact the pair had received offers of help from Acorn's Brooklyn office. "It was like, Bam! You're a liar again," says Mr. Breitbart. Two days later, the San Diego video came out (the employee there reportedly called police two days after the visit, though no police report was filed). In between was the San Bernardino, Calif., video, featuring Tresa Kaelke, who is white. So much for racism.
The Obama administration was quicker than much of the national media in responding to the scandal. On Sept. 11, the Census Bureau announced that it was dumping Acorn as a "partner" in promoting next year's enumeration. The first mention of the sting on a network evening newscast--CBS's--did not come until Sept. 15, the day after the Senate voted 83-7 to deny the group federal housing funds. The New York Times reported it for the first time a day after that. (The Journal had cited it in a Sept. 12 news story.) On Sept. 27, Times ombudsman Clark Hoyt published a column in which the paper's managing editor acknowledged having been "slow off the mark" but denied that political bias played any role.
Meanwhile, the Internal Revenue Service joined the Census Bureau in cutting ties with Acorn, and Congress voted several more times to defund the group, including a measure to deny it all federal money, which passed the House 345-75 on Sept. 17. (This and similar provisions are amendments to various bills, which must be reconciled and signed before becoming law.)
The next Monday, Mr. Breitbart followed a dictum of Saul Alinsky, whose 1971 book, "Rules for Radicals," is the bible of left-wing community organizers: "A tactic that drags on for too long becomes a drag." Figuring that a sixth Acorn video wouldn't have much impact, he shifted to a different scandal. He published the full transcript of an August conference call in which officials from federal agencies, including the National Endowment for the Arts and the White House's Office of Public Engagement, urged federally subsidized artists to produce propaganda on behalf of Mr. Obama's legislative initiatives. Patrick Courrielche, an artist and Big Hollywood contributor, had recorded the call. By week's end Yosi Sergant, who had organized the call as the NEA's director of communications, was out of a job.
Mr. Breitbart claims victory, and in extravagant terms: "At every step of the way, we were correct. At every step of the way, the mainstream media took the lies of Acorn. At every step of the way, the mainstream media attempted to cover up for Acorn. . . . If they think that Acorn or the Democratic Party or the NEA or the Office of Public Engagement is the primary target, they couldn't be more wrong. It is the Democrat-media complex. It is the mainstream media. No jury would need more evidence at this point. The Clark Hoyts of the world should just put their pens down and retire right now and walk away. They lost."
Yet some caveats are in order. Partisanship was not the only reason for media resistance to the Acorn story. The approach Mr. O'Keefe and Ms. Giles used--lying to prospective sources or subjects--is grossly unethical by the standards of institutional journalism. Almost all major news organizations, including the Journal, strictly prohibit it. To be sure, there is a world of difference between employing such tactics and reporting on the results when others have used them. And there is no question that the pair's findings were newsworthy. But journalistic discomfort with their methods is a sign of integrity, not corruption.
Reporters also were--and still are--operating on incomplete information by Mr. Breitbart's design. He refuses to say how many videos he has yet to release, or what is on them, except that "in the end, Hannah and James and me will have been truth-tellers every step of the way." He acknowledges that such withholding of information "goes outside the realm of journalism"--perhaps a needless concession, since news organizations do not typically release information prior to publication--but he defends it as necessary to protect Mr. O'Keefe and Ms. Giles from "those that would destroy them."
Mr. Breitbart says that some reporters have pressed him for information about the unreleased videos, and these demands make him indignant: "They were the desperate attempts of defense attorneys to say, 'You have an obligation to tell us how many tapes there are.' I said, 'Isn't that interesting, because Acorn wants to know that too . . . because they don't know how big the scandal is.' " Yet while it's true that journalists have no right to Mr. Breitbart's information, one can hardly fault them for wanting all the facts.
Even if one accepts Mr. Breitbart's critique of the mainstream media, nobody should root for their downfall or destruction. Their role--that of impartial watchdog and broker of information--is a vital one, whether or not they perform it well. While Breitbart-style opinionated journalism can provide healthy competition, it cannot substitute for straight news. As Mr. Breitbart himself says, in an unusually modest moment, "I'm not looking to slay the dragon . . . but I wanted to embarrass the dragon into being a more reasonable dragon."
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