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Breitbart’s culture war ends

Posted: March 8, 2012 11:23 a.m.
Updated: March 9, 2012 5:00 a.m.

Speak no ill of the dead. So goes a saying from ancient Greece. I must beg for an exception in the case of the late Andrew Breitbart. Like Donald Trump, Breitbart had his sweet and gentle side, but that's not what made him interesting.

The Internet news entrepreneur and right-wing political activist, who I interviewed several times, died Thursday of a heart attack at age 43. He leaves a mixed legacy. When his self-described "citizen journalism" got the story right, he demonstrated the Web's ability to empower people previously frozen out of the mainstream media spotlight. When he got the story wrong, he showed how much more responsibility the new Information Age puts on news consumers to figure out when they're being informed and when they're being bamboozled.

Breitbart made himself matter by using the Web with a frat-boy zest to drive a conservative message and embarrass liberal targets. Most prominent was Rep. Anthony Weiner. The New York Democrat was driven out of office when his Twitter-tweeted cheesecake photos of himself were revealed on Breitbart's news sites.

Breitbart's biggest coup was to take down ACORN, an alliance of community development organizations in poor neighborhoods. Over his websites and Fox News, the rising Web mogul publicized the videos of James O'Keefe, a young conservative who visited ACORN offices posing as a pimp. The videos appeared to show ACORN staffers advising O'Keefe in ways to best report income from child prostitutes on his tax returns. At least some of O'Keefe's videos later proved to be bogus, cleverly edited to give a false appearance of illegal activity. But by then ACORN had lost its federal support and reputation and closed up shop.

Sometimes Breitbart used his money and his media merely to make a point in an activist style that would have made old-school yellow journalists smile. Some members of the Congressional Black Caucus charged that tea party protesters had called them "the N-word" near the Capitol in March 2010. Breitbart offered a reward of $100,000 to be donated to the United Negro College Fund if anyone produced video and audio evidence that the charge was true. No one claimed the money and Breitbart claimed victory.

Episodes like these left him loved or reviled, depending on your point of view. The ill-speaking after his death was robust in the Twitter universe with various off-color ways to deliver expressions of "good riddance" and less-printable send-offs.

Shocked? Many see it as payback for Breitbart's own memorial tweets of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, whom he called a "villain" and "a special pile of human excrement." Civility was not always a big deal for Andrew.

By comparison, former NAACP Chairman Julian Bond's post-mortem comment that he emailed to me, among other acquaintances, sounds almost mild: "The death of Andrew Breitbart," he wrote, "disproves the adage that only the good die young."

The civil rights community has bitter memories of a story Breitbart got wrong, the video he posted of Shirley Sherrod, an Agriculture Department official, because she appeared to be advocating anti-white racism at an NAACP conference. When the entire speech was viewed, it turned out to be quite the opposite, a poignant plea against racism of any kind.

To me, it was a lesson for Breitbart and other new-age journalists: Respect old-school media values like accuracy and accountability, despite your skepticism about old-school media. Our first mission, whether in old or new media, is to help clear up the public's confusion, not add to it.

Yet an unapologetic Breitbart was determined to rewrite the traditional standards of accountability, too. When we last talked a few months back, he still wanted an apology from the black caucus, but remained unapologetic about his own unfairness to Sherrod. Instead he was trying to sell me on his new suspicions about her long-time activism to win back payments from the Department of Agriculture for black farmers. I listened politely, but he had a lot more suspicions than evidence. Journalism can be frustrating.

At least Sherrod, whose defamation suit against Breitbart is still working its way through the courts, spoke no ill of the dead. In a statement, she sent her prayers and condolences to Breitbart's family. So do I.

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