If there's anything more bizarre than an Andrew Breitbart conspiracy theory, it's the decision of so many mainstream reporters to handle him with kid gloves. Breitbart is waging war on the establishment media, and they respond with friendly profiles that whitewash his dishonesty and sleaziness -- apparently not realizing that by legitimizing Breitbart, they hasten their own downfall.
If Breitbart has one defining characteristic, it is his flagrant dishonesty -- a dishonesty that is apparent not only in his willingness to traffic in bogus attacks, but in his rejection of basic standards of proof and logic and reason and consistency. And yet the typical profile of Breitbart portrays him simply as an eccentric but brilliant entrepreneur waging a valiant and impressively successful struggle against craven and corrupt elites -- while his dishonesty goes unmentioned and his critics go unquoted.
Take this week's piece by NPR's David Folkenflik, which quotes Breitbart extensively and includes praise from Glenn Reynolds (who was not, by the way, identified as a conservative) and noted that the New York Times public editor rebuked the paper for not reporting on Breitbart's ACORN videos but said that Breitbart's approach is "primarily ... aimed at trying to score ideological points," rather than "broadly informing the public." But no specific criticism of Breitbart's product is included -- not one. Not a single example of Breitbart ever getting anything wrong. No mention of his sites peddling birther conspiracy theories. And much the same can be said about Lloyd Grove's profile of Breitbart for The Daily Beast, and for Perry Bacon's (slightly better) Washington Post profile last fall, which generously portrayed Breitbart as a conservative Josh Marshall. (Unlike Folkenflik and Grove, Bacon did include quotes from Breitbart critics, including Media Matters' Eric Boehlert. But he did little to seriously examine Breitbart's credibility.)
Some of this, of course, stems from the media's typical unwillingness to call a lie a lie and a liar a liar (unless, of course, the lie is about sex and the liar is a Democrat.) Nothing new there, unfortunately. But Breitbart also benefits from the nature of his dishonesty. Convoluted conspiracy theories and thinly evidenced allegations against obscure targets are, by their very nature, confusing. Getting to the bottom of Breitbart's claims and assessing their validity takes time and effort -- time and effort many reporters are unwilling to spend, even when they are writing about Breitbart. Add that to the media's general unwillingness to be seen taking sides in ongoing controversies, and it's no wonder Breitbart isn't more clearly shown to be the fraud that he is.
If mainstream reporters are unwilling or unable to assess Breitbart's credibility based on the "journalism" he and his accomplices produce each day, they may find illumination in a little-noticed 3 a.m. tweet Breitbart posted on January 5. Donning his tin-foil hat, Breitbart lashed out at critics of the "Birthers" and aligned himself with the Vince Foster conspiracy theorists of the 1990s:
Birther template is Vince Foster Redux. Asking questions renders 1 conspiracy theorist. @mmfa & mod cons reinforce toxicity. Rinse, repeat.
Surely by this point, the media can understand the dishonesty and the delusions of the Vince-Foster-was-murdered crowd -- a crowd that Breitbart stands proudly alongside, insisting that they were simply "asking questions" and were unfairly maligned as "conspiracy theorists." It is not complicated, and it does not require taking a position on current affairs. The Vince Foster conspiracy theorists were nuts and liars, and Andrew Breitbart defends them.
A brief refresher: After White House counsel and Clinton friend Vince Foster committed suicide in 1993, an unholy alliance of right-wing true-believers and opportunistic profiteers began peddling ever-more-convoluted claims that he had, in fact been murdered -- perhaps by the Clintons themselves, perhaps in a (non-existent) apartment owned by Hillary Clinton, and so on.
Like any good conspiracy theorist, they became more and more certain of foul play as time went on -- their certainty only reinforced by facts and evidence and official investigations to the contrary.
The United States Park Police investigated Foster's death and ruled it a suicide; the conspiracy theorists disagreed and demanded another investigation. Whitewater special prosecutor Robert Fiske (a Republican) investigated the death, concluding it was a suicide. The conspiracy theorists were unsatisfied, and demanded more. Congressional committees investigated (with Republican Dan Burton of Indiana going so far as to shoot up his vegetable garden in a creative if misguided attempt to prove that Foster was murdered) but they, too, failed to produce any evidence of murder. The conspiracy theorists were unswayed. Whitewater independent counsel Ken Starr, leaving no stone unturned in his effort to find something -- anything -- to make Clinton look bad, investigated. Starr, too, ruled the death a suicide. The conspiracy theorists announced that Starr was covering for Clinton. Don't believe me? Here's a taste:
[I]n all likelihood, Starr agreed to cover up Clinton crimes because he too, has taken money from the Communist Government of China. ... The Communist Chinese Government influence is particularly significant, since it now appears that they financed the entire 1992 Clinton presidential campaign. ... we knew that the Starr investigation was corrupted enough to cover-up the murder of Vince Foster ... Starr obviously got Janet Reno to expand his investigation to include Monica Lewinsky so that he could use it to cover-up the real crimes of Bill Clinton.
Yes: the lunatic fringe behind the Foster conspiracy theories were so certain of their cause -- or so willing to profit from pretending to be certain -- that they accused Ken Starr of covering up for Bill Clinton. That's like accusing the Hatfields of being in league with the McCoys, or the Red Sox of conspiring to aid the Yankees. And it's classic conspiracy-theorist behavior: Everybody's in on it. Even Rush Limbaugh!
These are the people Andrew Breitbart defends as simply "asking questions." These are the people with whom Andrew Breitbart aligns himself.
One of the leading voices in the Ken-Starr-is-covering-for-Bill-Clinton brigade was WorldNetDaily's Joseph Farah:
Could this be a simple oversight, incompetence, negligence? Or is Starr an active party in the cover-up of the strange circumstances surrounding Vincent Foster's death?
These days, Farah keeps himself busy peddling nutty claims about Barack Obama's citizenship -- just like Andrew Breitbart.
Typical of the approach taken by the Foster conspiracy theorists was right-wing "journalist" Chris Ruddy's claim that Foster's death scene must have been staged, because the gun with which he killed himself was found in his right hand, despite the fact that he was left-handed. Aha!
Only one problem: Vince Foster was not left-handed.
Undaunted, Farah continued selling videos containing Ruddy's false claim years later.
Again: These are the people Andrew Breitbart defends as simply "asking questions." These are the people with whom Andrew Breitbart aligns himself.
And, indeed, his approach to evidence is eerily similar. Like his predecessors, Breitbart sees treason everywhere he looks. And like any good conspiracy theorist, he demands that the victims of his allegations prove their innocence. Take his excitement at discovering that ACORN CEO Bertha Lewis had visited the White House. A classic "who cares" story, Brietbart's BigGovernment.com treated it like an actual, full-fledged scandal. But -- whoops! -- it turned out to be a complete crock. ACORN's Bertha Lewis hadn't visited the White House; the visitor was a different woman named Bertha Lewis, the giveaway being that the two women have different middle initials.
When caught in such a blunder, you can go one of two ways. You can admit your mistake and commit yourself to avoiding such false claims in the future. Or you can write something like Breitbart's January 4 tweet:
Breitbart, in other words, responded to criticism for publishing false claims by demanding that his critics prove that two people with different names are not the same person.
Major-media profiles of Breitbart tend to portray him as a mix of Hunter Thompson's gonzo journalism and William Buckley's pioneering work establishing conservative journalism. But that isn't Breitbart's true lineage, and (as Eric Boehlert has explained, Buckley would be aghast at the idea that Breitbart was carrying on his legacy).
No, Breitbart continues a long line of right-wing cranks, peddling lies for fun and profit.
He's a modern-day Chris Ruddy, who (with the help of Richard Mellon Scaife) parlayed his bogus claims about Vince Foster's death into Newsmax.com, his own conservative mini-media-empire. He's Joseph Farah -- the Obama Birther who was behind the Ken-Starr-was-covering-for-Bill-Clinton madness -- with better P.R. He's Ambrose Evans-Pritchard -- the British journalist described by Gene Lyons as "The Pied Piper of the Clinton Conspiracists" for his claims of Clinton involvement in Foster's death and the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building -- with HTML skills.
During the Clinton years the mainstream media enabled and empowered the Ruddys and Farahs and Evans-Pritchards of the world by chasing after the nonsense. Trumped-up scandals and controversies oozed forth from these conservative charlatans and ended up in The Washington Post and on ABC News, with the sensational claims receiving more attention than the lack of credibility of the accusers. And they're doing it again. But this time, they have more to lose. Already in a weakened state, the media cannot afford to empower a dishonest crank bent on destroying them.
Jamison Foser is a Senior Fellow at Media Matters for America, a progressive media watchdog and research and information center based in Washington, D.C. Foser also contributes to County Fair, a media blog featuring links to progressive media criticism from around the Web, as well as original commentary. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook or sign up to receive his columns by email.