Andrew Breitbart, an online media innovator and one of its most controversial practitioners, died unexpectedly early Thursday morning, at UCLA Medical Center, in Los Angeles. He was 43.
Surpassed only by his friend and fellow conservative Matt Drudge, whose eponymous news aggregation website still commands outsize influence over the broader media, Breitbart recognized years ahead of his current-day peers the Internet’s potential to direct the flow of information from its point of inception and thus command narrative and help shape public opinion.
His alliance with Drudge began in the mid-1990s, before the Lewinsky scandal turned Drudge Report into water cooler conversation. Until quite recently Breitbart referred to himself as “Matt Drudge’s bitch.” But he left his own imprimatur on the Web as well — one that, in different ways, rivals his mentor’s.
Breitbart helped Arianna Huffington — whom he knew personally from her days as a conservative star — launch Huffington Post, which today surpasses Drudge Report both in terms of web traffic, original content and broader influence. Afterward, he also built a network of websites all his own, including Big Government, Big Journalism and Breitbart.tv.
The latter endeavors cemented Breitbart’s reputation among much of the elite, and among many activists, both liberal and conservative, as a shameless trickster, a fair-weather friend and an untrustworthy adversary.
Big Government’s big traffic, and its knack for claiming scalps, dates back to its launch in September 2009 when Breitbart used it as a platform for the selectively edited video footage that ultimately brought down the community organizing group ACORN. The footage shows James O’Keefe — one of Breitbart’s pupils — and another conservative activist, Hannah Giles, seeking advice from ACORN employees — seemingly successfully — about how to avoid prostitution laws.
In addition to toppling the troubled community organizing group, the scandal provided ammunition to conservative activists who for years have claimed without evidence that ACORN and similar groups have used fraudulent voting tactics to swing elections.
But it was also the moment Breitbart’s credibility truly began to unravel. Untethered to traditional standards of investigative reporting, Breitbart embraced the ambush-and-edit strategy that worked so brutally against ACORN. Unfortunatley for him, his next victim was much more sympathetic.
In 2010, Breitbart posted short clips of black Department of Agriculture employee Shirley Sherrod speaking at an NAACP fundraiser. Out of context, the video showed the crowd applaud as Sherrod boasted of the ways her biases against white people infiltrated her work for the government.
The reality was completely backward. When it was finally released, the full footage found Sherrod reliving episodes in which she’d refused to let her flawed instinct to under-serve white landowners prevail over her as a federal official.
But the Breitbart storm had already blown through her life. Under pressure from the Obama administration, Sherrod was forced to resign. After the exculpatory video destroyed Breitbart’s version of events, the White House apologized and offered Sherrod a new position within USDA.
She declined, and ultimately sued Breitbart for defamation.
In August 2009, before his Big-sites heyday, Breitbart tweeted a vicious series of attacks on Sen. Ted Kennedy the day he died of brain cancer.
In late May 2011, Breitbart posted an explicit photo that ultimately destroyed Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner’s career. Though the initial evidence that Weiner had sent pictures of his erect penis, concealed in grey boxer briefs, to a college student in Washington state was very strong, Weiner’s emphatic denials and Breitbart’s involvement gave the broader media reason to doubt. The ensuing week-long circus, which included Breitbart personally commandeering a Weiner press conference in New York, ultimately led to Weiner’s resignation.
Breitbart never showed remorse for any of his antics. Nearly a year ago, he told us he stood by “everything he said in the past as it relates to [the Sherrod] story.” And though his relationship with O’Keefe ultimately frayed, it wasn’t over the ethical dubiousness of entrapping and selectively editing political enemies. It was over a so-called prank in which O’Keefe planned to lure a female CNN reporter on to a boat he’d stocked with sex toys and video cameras, in a clumsy attempt at seduction.
On this, Breitbart took the high ground.
“From what I’ve read about this script, though not executed, it is patently gross and offensive,” Breitbart said in a statement at the time. “It’s not his detractors to whom he also owes this public airing. It’s to his legion of supporters.”
Breitbart collapsed on the street while walking after midnight early Thursday in his Brentwood neighborhood, his father-in-law told the Associated Press. He was rushed to the hospital where he was pronounced dead. News of Breitbart’s death was first reported on his Big websites, but such was Brietbart’s reputation that there was initial skepticism over whether the report was true or simply a prank, hack, or stunt.
Breitbart is survived by four children and his wife, Susie.
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.