When I wrote “The Pride and Reward of Falsification: Post-Objectivity as Post-Responsibility” for the recent book News with a View (edited by Burton St. John and Kirsten Johnson) centering on Andrew Breitbart and James O’Keefe, I wasn’t thinking in terms of a specific, definable strategy, certainly not one that would come to be known as “breitbarting.” I should have been.
Though O’Keefe styles himself as following the tradition of the muckrakers of a century ago, the purpose of breitbarting is quite different. Instead of exposing corruption, the purpose of brietbarting is to present the appearance of corruption. This is what O’Keefe, with diminishing success, tries to do. This was what made Breitbart famous before his untimely death.
Breitbarting, in fact, is all about appearance–and about self-promotion (in that, it does go back to the muckrakers, but that’s for another time).
The prototype breitbarter was “Jeff Gannon” (James Guckert), whose shenanigans within the White House press corps led, among other things, to the founding of ePluribus Media. Guckert created the persona “Jeff Gannon,” a putative journalist, to gain access to the White House press room on day passes. The ultimate goal was to ask President Bush a loaded question under false pretenses for the purpose of demonizing the opposition and gathering attention to “Gannon.” This succeeded, but “Gannon” was also quickly exposed as a result–and in a way quite unflattering and beyond his control.
Breitbart and O’Keefe learned from the “Gannon” example. Real breitbarting, when it appeared, moved beyond “Gannon” in a couple of significant ways. First, the breitbarters made sure they were ready to expose the deception themselves, and to use that as part of the story. Second, they never use the technique within a friendly or neutral venue, making sure that, no matter the consequence, they can always fling any charges of deception back on the people or place they have deceived.
None of the breitbarters participates in journalism, but that was never really their point. To paraphrase the old ad, they only play journalists on TV… and that is the point:
They use the trappings of [journalistic] objectivity while manipulating information to produce proof of the point or believe that had brought them to the story in the first place.[…] [P]artisan activists have had no compunction about styling themselves as journalists, and the public has had little reason not to accept them as such. (“The Pride and Reward of Falsification,” 30)
“Breitbarting,” then, is the construction of a persona for the purpose of infiltrating a stronghold of a political enemy with the intention of capturing on video responses to loaded questions or scenarios constructed for ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ outcomes.
The technique comes to attention as breitbarting moves beyond Breitbart’s own “Big” websites and O’Keefe’s antics, this time at the Netroots Nation conference in Providence, RI. Someone named Anne Sorock attended a panel with the express purpose of embarrassing Native American panelists with a question concerning Elizabeth Warren’s ancestry. She was exposed in the midst of her attempt, but posted her story anyway. As usual with breitbarters, she manipulated the event she wrote about both in words and in selective editing. This time, however, she was called out. First, at the conference and then in the comments on the site she writes for by someone who also attended, someone writing under the name “Geekmobile.”
One of the brilliant parts of breitbarting is that the breitbarters have learned that being called out, even immediately, even irrefutably, doesn’t matter. What matters is the attention. Sorock may or may not be on the way, now, to media stardom, but that (and confirming right-wing prejudices) is her intent–the truth or falsehood of what she has “uncovered’ is irrelevant.