Kathy Willens/Associated Press
Kathy Willens/Associated Press
LOS ANGELES – Andrew Breitbart used the Internet relentlessly to ignite political scandal and expose what he saw as media bias, even if he sometimes had to edit the facts to do it.
The fiery online publisher and blogger who collapsed and died Thursday at 43 relished public combat with liberals – a YouTube clip last month shows him bellowing at Occupy Wall Street protesters, “Stop raping people, you freaks!” Yet the conservatives and tea party activists who loved him said he exposed corrupt leaders and what he called the hopelessly liberal “old media guard.”
The converted Hollywood lefty who partied his way through Tulane University also was a soft-spoken father of four. The conservative warrior chose to live on enemy turf, Brentwood, the tony Los Angeles enclave favored by the Hollywood elite he so often mocked.
Breitbart used his website to promote a hidden-camera video with actors posing as customers that led the downfall of the liberal Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN. He posted explicit photos of former Rep. Anthony Weiner that caused the New York congressman to resign in a sexting scandal, and an edited video that caused former U.S. Agriculture Department official Shirley Sherrod to resign over since-reversed perceptions she was a racist.
In a new media age, Breitbart argued that anyone with a laptop could reshape public discourse. He used his skills at sites such as Big Journalism and Big Government, and his takedown of Weiner established him as a conservative media star.
He was filled with contradictions. He was a self-avowed enemy of the mainstream media, yet he subscribed to The Associated Press and admitted loving the venerable news agency’s photos that came from afar.
“It’s a love-hate relationship,” he confided at a quiet moment.
He pleaded with conservatives to drive relentlessly forward – walk into the line of fire, he would say – yet the final sentence from his prolific and often caustic voice on Twitter was, ironically, an apology for calling a follower a “putz,” just in case he misunderstood a message to him.
His business partner and lifelong friend, Larry Solov, once said Breitbart had two speeds: lighthearted jokester and fiery culture warrior.
“They flip back and forth,” Solov said. “And there is not that much in between.”
Breitbart died after collapsing shortly after midnight during a walk near his home. He was rushed to the emergency room at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center.
Breitbart suffered heart problems a year earlier, but his father-in-law, actor Orson Bean, said he could not pinpoint what happened. Larry Dietz, watch commander at the Los Angeles County coroner’s office, said an autopsy was likely.
“It’s devastating,” Bean said.
Breitbart leaves behind his showcase, a family of websites that waged daily war with what he considered liberal bias in the media, on college campuses and in the entertainment industry. Joel Pollak, an editor, said Breitbart was planning to launch a retooled version, and those plans would go forward.
“The core of what Andrew did was bring new citizen journalists into the new media,” Pollak said. It “was, and still is, what we do.”
It wasn’t immediately clear who would take over the company, which once ran out of Breitbart’s basement and now employs about a dozen people.
His anchor site, Breitbart.com, was visited by 1.7 million people in January, according to website tracker comScore Inc. Though other political sites are far larger – his mentor, Matt Drudge, attracted more than 4 million visits that month – his profile was elevated by public appearances and relentless speechmaking, particularly at tea party rallies, where he was a favorite.
Republican candidates for president were quick to offer praise and condolences after learning of his death. Newt Gingrich tweeted: “Andrew Breitbart was the most innovative pioneer in conservative activist social media in America. He had great courage and creativity.”
He played by his own standards. He faulted what he called the mainstream media for all manner of shoddy work and bias, but his aim could go off course, too.
Sherrod, who is black, was ousted from her job as the USDA’s state rural development director for Georgia in July 2010 after an edited video surfaced of her making what appeared to be a racist remark. She is seen telling an NAACP group that she initially was reluctant to help a white farmer save his farm more than two decades ago, long before she worked for USDA.
Missing from the clip was the rest of the speech, which was meant as a lesson in racial healing. Sherrod told the crowd she eventually realized her mistake and helped the farmer save his farm.
Once the entire video surfaced, Sherrod received numerous apologies from the administration – including President Barack Obama – and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack asked her to return to the department to work on civil rights issues.
She declined Vilsack’s offer but later sued Breitbart, his employee, Larry O’Connor, and an unnamed “John Doe” defendant for defamation. A lawyer for O’Connor said Thursday it’s not clear whether the case will proceed against the other two defendants, who were seeking to dismiss the case in federal court.
In a statement Thursday, Sherrod said she was surprised to hear of Breitbart’s death.
“My prayers go out to Mr. Breitbart’s family as they cope during this very difficult time. I do not intend to make any further comments,” she said.
Breitbart was skilled at finding issues that pushed conservative buttons while pulling Internet traffic to his websites.
“I do what I do because the mainstream media chooses not to do it,” Breitbart said in a 2010 interview. “The game of the left controlling the narrative ... is ending.”
Condolences also came from liberal critics.
“We’ve disagreed more than we’ve found common ground, but there was never any question of Andrew’s passion for and commitment to what he believed,” said Ari Rabin-Havt of Media Matters, a liberal watchdog group and frequent Breitbart nemesis.
The 2009 hidden-camera video that eventually brought down ACORN showed staffers offering advice about taxes and other issues to actors posing as a prostitute and pimp – a technique that would be frowned on in journalism schools. Some employees appeared willing to support illegal schemes involving tax advice, misuse of public funds and illegal trafficking in children. A Government Accountability Office report cleared ACORN of criminal activities.
Even so, public pressure led Congress to block previously approved funds from going to ACORN and to stop future payments. Approximately 10 percent of ACORN’s funds came from federal grants, and the group eventually disbanded.
Weiner’s downfall began on May 28 when Breitbart’s website posted a lewd photograph of an underwear-clad crotch and said it had been sent from Weiner’s Twitter account to a Seattle woman.
Initially, Weiner lied, saying his account had been hacked. But he pointedly did not report the incident to law enforcement – a step that could have led to charges of wrongdoing far more serious than mere sexting. At one point, he told an interviewer that he could not “say with certitude” that he wasn’t the man in the underwear photo.
Weiner’s spokesman said the photo was just a distraction and that the congressman doesn’t know the person named by the hacker.
The congressman denied sending the photo and said he had retained an attorney and hired a private security company to figure out how someone could pull off such a prank.
But Weiner dropped that story line June 6, offering a lengthy public confession at a Manhattan news conference, acknowledging to online activity involving at least six women.
One of two adopted children, and the son of a Santa Monica restaurateur, Breitbart traced his conservative conversion partly to the 1991 Senate hearings on Clarence Thomas’ nomination to the Supreme Court, which he considered unfair. Before rising to prominence, he was a long-serving underling at the Drudge Report and also was there during the formative days of the Huffington Post.
Breitbart seldom showed restraint with critics and seemed to relish the negative attention his antics earned him. He once told reporters from the stage at a tea party convention, “It’s not your business model that sucks, it’s you that sucks.”
After Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts died in 2009, Breitbart tweeted, “Rest in Chappaquiddick” and called him “a special pile of human excrement.” When critics questioned his tone, he tweeted they “missed my best ones!”
Breitbart is survived by his wife, Susannah Bean Breitbart, and four children.
Associated Press writers Philip Elliott, Mary Clare Jalonick, Jack Gillum and Brett Blackledge in Washington, Sue Manning and Jeff Wilson in Los Angeles, and Ray Henry in Dalton. Ga., contributed to this report.