Love him or hate him — and there never seemed to any middle ground — the news that Andrew Breitbart had died suddenly at the age of 43 sent the Los Angeles media world into shock. Los Angeles, unlike New York, doesn't really do media (it does, of course, but not at the same frenzied level). And although Breitbart's legion of detractors pointed to his despicable opportunism and seeming lack of an ethical compass that would enable him to take a moderate approach toward...well, anything, they nevertheless had to concede that he had built a minor media empire in the West, after stints with Matt Drudge and Arianna Huffington, two other Left Coast media moguls.
He built up a group of sites that all bluntly targeted what he considered leftist institutions: Breitbart.com, Breitbart.tv, Big Government, Big Hollywood, and Big Peace. Detect a theme there? The ironic thing of course was that Breitbart himself was pretty big, in the sense of being outsized and outspoken (he also didn't lack for physical presence). Tucker Carlson, who knew Breitbart pretty well, had some very nice things to say about the man (see below) — including a bemused yet melancholy recollection of how challenging it could be to get a word in edgewise when talking, or attempting, to talk to him.
"It's not easy to have Andrew's politics on the Westside of Los Angeles at all," Carlson said. Which is true. But even more difficult was the process of transforming a scrappy, highly reactionary sensibility into a sort of online right-wing performance art. Rebecca Mead captured this fairly well in a 2010 profile of Breitbart for the New Yorker. What he did was basically take the Huffington Post model and concentrate it on opposing All Things Liberal, using the online aggregation experience he had picked up at the Drudge Report to turbocharge his traffic. That he was willing to act the puckish buffoon didn't hurt his cause.
It was a good business model, but in practice it led to some serious ugliness at times, especially the Shirley Sherrod affair, when he got carried away by his enthusiasm to score a scoop along the lines of what he had earlier achieved with a sort of seat-of-the-pants exposé of ACORN.
Even people who could put up with Breitbart at that point thought that he'd crossed a line and entered the wallow of racism. It was harder to endure his harangues. Sherrod rightly took Breitbart to court for defamation after she was fired from her job at the Department of Agriculture; the case still hasn't been resolved.
In a way, this kind of scoopage wasn't really what Breitbart was even good at. His forte was a flowing argumentative free-for-all. But he was addicted to the surge that came with the scoop, which he again channeled during the Anthony Weiner sexting scandal. Ultimately, the numbers didn't lie: he had an audience that appreciated both the routine provocation and the lack of any real sense of an obvious journalistic filter. Breitbart.com does 11.5 million pageviews per month and Breitbart.tv does 6.5 million, according to Quantcast. He was also a ferocious tweeter, often in attack mode, engaging with all comers.
Breitbart was enabled by the conservative media machine that took shape during the Clinton administration — his anger came from the fringe and was enacted in a bloggy framework that rewarded his self-confessed A.D.D. But what made him unusual by contrast with Fox News or even "Firing Line" was that he built his empire in L.A., although he certainly knew his way around Washington and New York. Choosing L.A. as the place to do what he did isn't necessarily something to be respected or admired, nor is Breitbart's own "cheerfulness," as Carlson put it, an excuse for all the sloppy scoop-chasing. But in its often disturbing and entertaining way, what Breitbart pulled off was remarkable.
Asked about Breitbart — who I often saw socially and enjoyed speaking and disagreeing with — this morning, I said that he was a guy with a good heart but a confusing brain. Things were going on between the synapses that were often bewildering, but one thing was always perfectly clear: his devotion to his family, to his wife, Susie, and their four kids. My condolences go out to them.
I last saw Breitbart about two months ago. He did all the talking. It's honestly hard for me to believe that it will never happen again.