He is hybrid journalist, content wrangler, glib analyst. But most of all, Andrew Breitbart relishes running against the grain. For starters, he is an unabashed political conservative in a Hollywood dominated by liberals.
The man has moxie.
Frustrated that like-minded players in his hometown felt too intimidated to speak their mind, he helped organize a support group called “Friends of Abe” as a haven and forum for colleagues with similar ideas and values. The group is now hundreds strong.
A pronounced loathing for celebrity journalists, media conglomerates and glitzy TV networks drew him to contribute to nimble, alternative media sites like the Drudge Report and Huffington Post and ultimately create Breitbart.com, his own “news portal.” All three compete with the mainstream media for news consumers on the Web.
When he became convinced that the traditional news media didn’t have the courage to investigate how the controversial liberal advocacy group ACORN spent its federal dollars, there was little doubt in his mind what to do: Straighten his backbone, launch a new Web site and work with activist filmmakers to tell the story.
Mr. Breitbart’s BigGovernment.com earlier this month aired the now infamous undercover video footage of ACORN workers advising young actors costumed as pimp and underage prostitute how to cheat on taxes and loan applications.
(Corrected paragraph:) Though the traditional press ignored the brutal revelations for days, their impact was swift and far-reaching. The White House was irked, and said so. The organization fired the workers captured on tape and started an internal investigation. And Congress swiftly stripped federal funding for ACORN.
“Andrew is doing what all journalists should be doing: Seek the truth, expose the truth, stand for the truth and bring it forth to the public. Without fear. I say that Andrew is an American hero,” actor Jon Voight told The Washington Times in an interview.
Mr. Voight is one of a burgeoning group of silver screen conservatives who question the role of the news media and popular culture in the erosion of traditional values. Mr. Voight also knows a good production when he sees one.
“Andrew’s on a mission to get information in a time when it is not easy to discern the truth. I believe he is a good citizen doing his duty, with an eye on accuracy. And the mainstream media doesn’t know what to do with that. It’s no wonder to me that the public is frustrated with the press,” he said.
The man in question has become a heavyweight. On Friday, the Columbia Journalism Review pronounced him a “conservative media mogul.”
Mr. Breitbart, 40, has an unorthodox journalistic pedigree. He has worked, both as intellectual force and techno-geek, for Matt Drudge and Arianna Huffington. He co-authored the 2004 best-seller “Hollywood, Interrupted: Insanity Chic in Babylon - The Case Against Celebrity” and has since become a regular analyst on talk radio, Fox News and at The Washington Times.
“Consider the hypocrisy and arrogance of the news media, how they attack and denigrate the American people. Think about it. News stories calling town hall attendees ‘teabaggers’ or racists. So insulting,” Mr. Breitbart said. “This story is an assault on corrupt government and corrupt media. It’s an expose on both.”
Mr. Breitbart, who is married to Susannah Bean, daughter of veteran actor Orson Bean, and is a father of four, is the proprietor of three online news portals: Breitbart.com, BigHollywood.Breitbart.com, and BigGovernment.com.
The latter is the site of his latest exploits on the cultural battlefield.
On Sept. 10, he began posting a series of undercover videos at BigGovernment.com. The footage was taped in offices of ACORN - the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now - the nation’s largest grass-roots community organization of low- and moderate-income people, with a presence in 75 cities.
The group has received at least $53.6 million in federal funds in the last 15 years.
Mr. Breitbart’s reporters? They were a pair of ambitious college-age “activist filmmakers” whose no-frills, investigative videography clearly uncovered wrongdoing. James O’Keefe, 25, and Hannah Giles, 20, spent $1,300 of their own money to produce the video footage, which showed ACORN employees eager to provide assistance and advice to Miss Giles, who was masquerading as a prostitute.
The videos, posted over four days, went viral. The damning evidence was amplified in the blogosphere, Fox News talk radio and The Washington Times. Broadcast and cable networks initially ignored the revelations, as did other mainstream newspapers. But Mr. Breitbart did not need them.
Indignant reactions in the American public, the White House, and among lawmakers and government were immediate. Congressional Democrats, who in the past steadfastly supported ACORN, joined Republicans in the House to end all federal funding for the embattled liberal activist group, and the Senate voted to block funding for ACORN in the 2010 housing appropriations bill.
The Obama administration had canceled plans for ACORN to work on the 2010 census earlier this month.
“Obviously, the conduct that you see on those tapes is completely unacceptable. The administration takes accountability extremely seriously,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs declared on Wednesday.
ACORN lashed out at Mr. Breitbart’s techniques, then launched its own internal investigation. Some journalists did not hide their distaste for the expose, including MSNBC’s Norah O’Donnell, who suggested it was “entrapment” with hidden cameras.
“I knew this ACORN story would be ignored and castigated by the mainstream media, which would attack the messenger first. That’s what they did. Which is why I kept my video kids out of the fray. They are too young to comprehend how the mainstream media really works,” Mr. Breitbart said.
“The ACORN story is an expose on corrupt government and corrupt media. It’s a tidal wave against the Huffington Post, the Daily Kos, Media Matters and [financier] George Soros. And a big note to Mr. Soros: We’ll be posting the receipts of our young videographers online, right down to their Subway sandwiches,” Mr. Breitbart added.
ACORN fears for other community groups, though.
“Certainly, the substance of the videos Mr. Breitbart posted online we take to heart as an opportunity to improve our system. But it doesn’t change the fact that the tapes were illegally recorded and are ‘gotcha’ journalism,” said Brian Kettenring, deputy director of national operations for ACORN.
“What’s motivating this quote/unquote journalism is a hidden agenda seeking to stop progressive reforms like health care. I think people far and wide would agree with our position that we’re concerned with the substance of the videos, and also the methods used by Mr. O’Keefe and Mr. Breitbart,” he added.
The mainstream media slowly picked up on the story, even as Congress moved to punish the group. Analysts, meanwhile, ponder the implications for journalism.
“Going undercover is a time-honored tradition in journalism, but the use of pretend identities and hidden cameras can be dicey and even dangerous. Anytime we use deception - even a little bit - we run the risk of crossing an ethical line, and we need strong justification to use the method,” said Robert Steele, media ethicist for the Poynter Institute.
“It’s essential to ask if this was all justified. Does the filmmaker have some substantive belief of wrongdoing, or were he and the actors on a fishing expedition? Good journalism requires fairness, and I become concerned if the accused does not get a reasonable opportunity to respond to the allegations.”
Mr. Breitbart, however, continues to stay on course and on message.
“ACORN and the media needed to be put in the cross hairs on this,” he said.