Stephen Reader covers politics for It's a Free Country, WNYC's interactive politics site. He joined the station in 2010 and has also worked for Studio 360, WNYC's Peabody Award-winning show about art, culture, and creativity.
Breitbart on ACORN, Sherrod, and 'Gotcha' Journalism
Wednesday, May 11, 2011
Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on the Brian Lehrer Show, Andrew Breitbart, conservative media critic and author of Righteous Indignation: Excuse Me While I Save the World!, discussed his book and his take on the big news of the day.
The Clarence Thomas epiphany
It may come as a surprise that Andrew Breitbart grew up a self-described secular liberal before going on to build a mini-media empire specializing in conservative talking points, defenses of the Tea Party, and criticisms of mainstream journalism. It may also come as a surprise that Breitbart's transformational epiphany came during the Clarence Thomas hearings, in which the Supreme Court Justice was investigated for sexual harassment.
I went into the Clarence Thomas hearings thinking, okay, let's take down this serial sexual harasser, and by end of the event I thought, where's the accusation? What's the worst thing they're even claiming he did? When it was the pubic hair on the Coke can thing, I wanted to throw my shoe at the television set. I didn't understand how the Ted Kennedy could sit in judgment of this man given his history with women.
It was a perceived moral hypocrisy—not government policy, nor political ideology—stemming from partisanship that began the change in Breitbart. And then, there was the media coverage, which seemed to follow politicians' lead.
Everybody was so serious at ABC, CBS, NBC, like this is most serious accusation in the world. Even if it were true, it seemed like a nothing sandwich. When year later my suspicions confirmed that this was a show trial, because he happened to have the sin of being conservative and black, and in all likelihood would vote against Roe v. Wade, that it was a setup. Less than year later, Bill Clinton of sexual harassment fame was set up as the standard bearer of the same Democratic Party that said, 'I believe Anita,' every bumper sticker in my neighborhood. I thought, there's something wrong here; why can Clarence Thomas be pilloried while Bill Clinton can be protected on the same grounds of sexual harassment? It acted as an epiphany for me that started me down a path to challenge the mainstream media narrative.
Defending the ACORN Tapes
Flash forward about 20 years, and Breitbart commands a fleet of conservative-minded alternative media websites. BigGovernment.com, BigJournalism.com, Breitbart.tv—it's these websites that brought film-making activist James O'Keefe to the attention of the country, and the frustration of the Left.
In 2009, Breitbart helped O'Keefe release a series of hidden camera tapes documenting O'Keefe's meetings with the community organizing group ACORN. In the tapes, O'Keefe and his partner Hannah Giles pose as a pimp and prostitute receiving advice from ACORN employees on how to qualify for government housing funds, lie about their profession for tax purposes, and basically launder money.
Needless to say, the liberal blow-back was tremendous. Outlet after outlet, big and small alike, introduced arguments that the tapes had been improperly edited, that O'Keefe wasn't actually dressed like a pimp in the meetings (although it's made to seem that way), and more. Breitbart said there was no better example of the mainstream media machine at work.
Had ACORN not been the target, and it was the NRA or the Catholic Church, I guarantee Katie Couric would have owned the story, that Rolling Stone would have had Hannah and James on the front, and HBO would have given them a series to keep doing this. But I knew that since it represented the vaunted community organizing group that was associated with Obama and with 'helping the poor'—but not really looking at how great society is, hooking up people to government dependency—I knew this so went against the narrative that the mainstream media provides on groups like that, and that media wouldn't touch it.
Were they edited—and does it matter?
Breitbart said that the whole argument over context and editing distracts from what we do see in the tapes: an advocacy and action group with major political ties advising people how to profit from illegal activities. What's been edited out in no way excuses what was left in.
I guarantee you this: they had—Media Matters, ACORN, the mainstream media—everyone had the full context and no way to explain away the behavior. They had to try and deflect on us that James created a series of videos that included music, an intro sequence where he is dressed as extravagant looking pimp, but what you'll see in those selectively edited ones, they don't distort the reality of what happened. The straw man argument of him being dressed [a certain way] is a pointless one. What does it matter if in every ACORN office they were helping a person who was a Dockers-wearing pimp versus an extravagant one?
Was the Sherrod Story a Sham?
The other major Breitbart video controversy in recent memory involves Shirley Sherrod, who was forced to resign from her position as Georgia State Director of Rural Development for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Her resignation came after Breitbart circulated an excerpted video of Sherrod at an NAACP event telling the story of choosing not to do her best to help a white farmer save his farm. In the end, Sherrod does provide the man assistance, despite his rude behavior toward her—but the way Breitbart edited and presented the tape was reported by some to as an attempt to label Sherrod a racist.
That caused a huge flare-up. Government officials pressured Sherrod to resign and the NAACP even denounced her remarks. But then it was asked: had Breitbart selectively edited the tape to take Sherrod's comments out of context, and was she then being blamed for something she didn't exactly say?
I had a 1400-word piece that had these words: 'eventually her basic humanity informs her to help the white farmer.' The two-plus minute video clip that was put on my website, along with another video that nobody paid attention to, has in it her redemptive arc where she says, 'But then I realized it's not about black versus white, it's about rich versus poor.' That was in essence her argument that she realized from the story.
From whence the confusion, then? Breitbart may have emphasized the portion of her speech where she talks about not helping the white farmer, but according to him, his intention wasn't to draw attention to Sherrod—it was to the NAACP and their reaction to her words.
My argument was against the NAACP framing the Tea Party as racist by saying members of its audience were racist. I said, those that live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones, and I have video of your group laughing at a lady talking about how she stuck it to a white farmer. I stand by that point today, because the NAACP apologized for the behavior of the audience the day that it happened.
Breitbart argues that he wasn't going after Sherrod, and wasn't misrepresenting her remarks by focusing on that particular moment. Rather, the media assumed that Sherrod was his target, when it was really the organization hosting her.
The week before, Ben Jealous of the NAACP had been on TV attacking the Tea Party as racist. I went on a radio show the Thursday before the Monday we put those videos out there, and I said, 'Ben Jealous, you're trying to divide this country on a racial schism. The country can ill afford for you to be fomenting this type of racial animus during a summer in which everybody is suffering.' Sherrod on day one said she blamed the NAACP for this because they got in a fight with the Tea Party.
To mock or inform?
Whatever your feelings about Breitbart's brand, the style of journalism he encourages is undeniably interesting, subversive and effective. Look no further than the de-funding of ACORN or the forced resignation of Sherrod for evidence.
But is it really journalism? Can it be trusted? And is it valuable? Brian Lehrer asked Breitbart if the sort of guerrilla "gotcha" reportage practiced by James O'Keefe does more to inform the public, or make a mockery of existing institutions.
I think it does both, but I think the question seems to be asked when Hanna and James do it...I grew up with Abbie Hoffman, Hunter Thompson, the Merry Pranksters, and now I watch as Dateline dresses up in Muslim garb and go to Nascar rallies to try and get middle Americans to say terrible things. They failed at it. As long as the mainstream media tells me that Hunter Thompson deserves his own wing of the J-school, and that it's okay when Dateline does it and 60 Minutes does it, I'm not going to be here to criticize it when James O'Keefe does it or the liberal from the Buffalo Beast does it with Scott Walker.