Many outside the hothouse world of online political media were no doubt more than a little baffled yesterday when conservative web impresario Andrew Breitbart stepped up to podium at the hour that New York Congressman Anthony Weiner was to deliver his statement to the press on his randy social-media activities.
But Breitbart was playing a familiar role in his world. In a sense, his mission is to seize control of the mainstream media's microphones, as he did yesterday, and drive the conversation in his direction.
Breitbart, whose BigGovernment.com broke the original story of Weiner's lewd Twitter photo last weekend and published the cache of photos on Monday that forced Weiner's hand, said he was simply seeking an apology. Both the congressman and the media, had unfairly tagged him as a "hacker," he explained.
"I'm here for some vindication," Breitbart said.
But with his 12-minute, show-stealing appearance at Weiner's presser, Breitbart thrust himself into the national spotlight.
Jon Stewart compared Breitbart to Kanye West.
"It felt, at times, like there were two press conferences happening at once," the Huffington Post said. "One featured the spectacle of a teary-eyed and emotionally wrenched Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) apologizing for his online indiscretions. The other showcased a combative Andrew Breitbart doing his best to hijack the moment."
On Fox News, Breitbart told Sean Hannity he had "no idea I was live on television," and was told by another reporter at the press conference to get onstage so others could hear him.
Regardless of the odd course of events that transpired yesterday, Breitbart, 42, has long had the mainstream media in his sights. He launched the sites Big Hollywood, Big Government, and Big Journalism under the Breitbart.com banner in 2009, after toiling as Matt Drudge's No. 2 at The Drudge Report. Before that, he'd worked as an adviser and research assistant to Arianna Huffington, helping her launch the Huffington Post. Traffic to Breitbart's sites has grown to 20 million news page views and 3 million unique visitors per month, according to Breitbart. The mission of the eponymous Breitbart-run sites is to produce a mix of original stories and aggregated news that he says would otherwise be ignored by the liberal media.
"The media says, 'Breitbart lies, Breitbart lies, Breitbart lies,'" Breitbart barked from the podium on Monday. "Give me one provable lie."
Breitbart (who once told Slate his "entire business model is to go on offense") was credited in 2009 with helping "break" a series of undercover videos showing alleged malfeasance at the offices of community-organizing group ACORN. The videos soon overtook the news cycle, leading to the eventual withdrawal of federal funding for the group, while also giving videographer and fellow right-wing provocateur James O'Keefe an influential platform at BigGovernment.com.
A year later, though, Breitbart's credibility was burned, after the site posted video excerpts of a 40-minute NAACP speech by U.S. Dept. of Agriculture employee Shirley Sherrod that appeared to show her making racist comments. However, Breitbart drew fire after the speech was published in full, showing that selectively-edited video had taken the remarks out of context--but not before Sherrod was fired. (The White House later apologized for dismissing Sherrod, a longtime USDA official, and Sherrod sued Breitbart for defamation.)
With the Weiner case, Breitbart's reputation for reporting scandals and breaking lurid news seems to have returned. In part, though, one key piece of this particular coup seems to have come about via the aid of a big mainstream media outlet.
In publishing the new Weiner photos on Monday, Breitbart partnered with ABC News to "share the identity" of Meagan Broussard, one of the women at the center of the Weiner scandal.
ABC then contacted Broussard and "licensed a handful of photos from her," paying between $10,000 and $15,000 in exchange for an interview with her, according to TVNewser. (Fox News interviewed Broussard, too.)
"One of the reasons I went to ABC, believe it or not, was to take this out of the partisan rancor realm," Breitbart told the New York Times.