Andrew Breitbart says it will be "quite a statement" if he spends seven hours at an ABC News-Facebook digital town hall event Tuesday and doesn't get to offer his political analysis during the network's election night television broadcast.
Breitbart told The Upshot on Sunday that he expected to have a role that would be a "hybrid of online and broadcast participation."
The network, however, contends that Breitbart's role has always been to participate in an online discussion and debate, part of which may be broadcast on television. (Since ABC expects to air some of that online town hall on television, Breitbart may still appear on both platforms anyway).
But ABC, facing criticism from the left, chose to clarify Breitbart's role on Saturday. The network put out a detailed statement explaining that Breitbart will not be serving as an ABC analyst or getting paid. Breitbart, it should be noted, never said he'd be an ABC analyst or getting paid; his site only noted that he'd be providing analysis on election night.
And thus begins a confusing dispute over Breitbart's role -- what he said and didn't say, and how ideological critics on the left jumped into the fray Friday joined by ideological supporters today.
As a conservative publisher, pundit and provocateur, Breitbart has spoken many times about how the "Democrat-media complex" keeps out dissenting voices on the right. So Breitbart's claim that ABC News is going back on its word, after pushback from the left, plays directly into his own long-standing media critique.
Since launching his first "Big" site in September 2009, Breitbart's faced criticism following several high-profile controversies over his operation's reporting, such as the heavily-edited video that resulted in the firing of Shirley Sherrod, an official at the Department of Agriculture, and the ACORN tapes made by filmmaker James O'Keefe. (Although O'Keefe appeared to play the part of an outlandishly-dressed "pimp" in ACORN's offices, it was later revealed that he actually wore normal clothes and said he was the "prostitute's" boyfriend when speaking with the organization's employees.)
The Breitbart-ABC controversy kicked off Friday afternoon when liberal commentators and activists criticized the possibility that the network would put the conservative gadfly on the air. The dispute has only ratcheted up since then--but now with conservatives firing back at ABC over the suggestion that the network is keeping Breitbart off the air. The ideological divide is clear: Liberals distrust Breitbart, while conservatives take his side against a major news network.
The catalyst Friday was a report by Breitbart's Big Journalism site that Dana Loesch, the site's editor-in-chief and a conservative commentator, would provide election night analysis from ABC's New York studio. Loesch's role was promoted in an ABC press release, and the network has confirmed that she's a part of the broadcast.
The same Big Journalism post also stated that "Bigs founder and head of the Breitbart empire Andrew Breitbart will be bringing analysis live from Arizona." It's a true statement -- if you consider giving a take on the election to be "analysis -- and in any event, not a particularly boastful one. [See Update]
However, the ABC press release only touted Loesch's involvement and didn't mention Breitbart providing analysis. Breitbart assumed he'd be providing analysis of the election rather than only being a participant in a digital town hall, as ABC clarified his role would be after taking heat from Breitbart's critics. "[C]learly," Breitbart wrote Sunday, "I was being asked to give analysis — or, was ABC News paying for me to fly to Arizona and to foot my hotel bill so that I could perform avant-garde interpretative dance?"
"I can state with absolute certainty that the verbal pitch to me to participate was punctuated by the opportunity to appear as part of ABC News' broadcast television for the night," Breitbart also wrote Sunday. "I was also aware that the majority of my participation — seven long hours — would be online.
ABC News stated over the weekend that Breitbart was scheduled to appear only at an Arizona State University town hall—streamed live on ABCNews.com and Facebook—and not on the television broadcast as part of the network's election night analysis. Breitbart, the statement read, "has not been asked to analyze the results of the election for ABC News."
"Mr. Breitbart exaggerated the role he would play on his blog," ABC News spokesman Jeffrey Schneider told The Upshot on Monday. "We immediately made it clear that was never the role he was supposed to play. He had been invited to be part of our digital town hall, and that is still the role."
Breitbart says that ABC is caving on a verbal promise and that the network "went into overkill mode" with its Saturday statement after criticism from liberal watchdog Media Matters, commentators like MSNBC host Keith Olbermann, and online calls to boycott ABC. (Media Matters' Matt Gertz, for one, described Breitbart as a "noted propagandist" with a "history of unethical behavior and misinformation.")
"The activist left unleashed fury against ABC News," Breitbart said. "You think if they're upset about Juan Williams saying something politically incorrect, imagine the guy who took down ACORN, their sacred cow."
Some ABC News stars also got roped into the dispute.
White House correspondent Jake Tapper responded to criticism over Twitter on Friday night, and "Good Morning America" host Stephanopoulos tweeted Saturday that "Breitbart [is] NOT on ABC network broadcast." (The Washington Post's Greg Sargent reported on dissatisfaction among staffers in ABC's newsroom over Breitbart's election night role.)
Breitbart also pushed back on Twitter over the weekend. And on Sunday night, he published an email from an ABC producer with the headline indicating that it "Reveals ABC News Walked Back 'Bigs' Publisher Participation in Election Night Coverage." He wrote that the network is "not standing up for free speech and the 1st Amendment."
The ABC producer's email doesn't specifically say that Breitbart will be called on by Stephanopoulos, Diane Sawyer or anyone in the New York television studio for his take on the night's races. The email, in that respect, is no smoking gun.
But Breitbart never claimed to be a studio analyst or that he expected a certain amount of television airtime. The producer does say that the Arizona town hall, which he was invited to participate in, "will broadcast on the ABC Television Network, abcnews.com, ABC News Now, and ABC News Radio" and that the "show will be live on the web and ABC News Now as well as on the network from 4:00pm till 11:00pm MST."
Breitbart notes that there are "two times that [the] ABC News producer confirms in the email that I will be part of ABC News' network broadcast." Breitbart added that another ABC spokesman's statement Friday -- that Breitbart would "be one of many voices on our air" -- bolsters his argument that television was always a part of the deal.
Now, there's technically a scenario in which Breitbart appears in some form on the network's television broadcast but still isn't called on as a political analyst for ABC's election night coverage.
Here's how: Schneider explained that portions of the digital town hall will be included in the ABC network broadcast. So, he said, "it's entirely possible that anybody who says anything thoughtful or interesting during the streaming portion of it can be excerpted on the broadcast."
Still, the spokesman emphasized that "there is never a guarantee of what will be part of the broadcast."
Erick Erickson, editor-in-chief of the conservative site RedState and a CNN analyst, fired back at ABC Monday morning along with others on the right.
[UPDATE: This post was updated several times text within the text for clarity and to address a factual inaccuracy. The ensuing uproar over Breitbart's involvement helped obscure the basic wording of the original Big Journalism release, which was substantially in line with ABC's stated plans. I regret the error.]
(Photo of Breitbart from February: AP/Reed Saxon)