[This is a guest post by Michelle Cottle]
I understand why Breitbart has Jonathan Chait, among others, up in arms about conservative pseudo-journalism. But what I find disheartening about this Andrew Breitbart business isn’t what it says so much about conservative journalism as about the sorry state of journalism period. Not the way it’s practiced (or malpracticed) by any one group or individual, but how the very notion of journalism as a real profession, with even minimal standards of conduct and ethics, has evaporated.
Breitbart’s decision to run with the video was without question appalling. But there have always been madmen, charlatans, and assholes in this business. Arguably more outrageous is that, even having been exposed as either a total scumbag or a fool, he will almost certainly suffer no serious or lasting repercussions.
I mean, how could he? Breitbart isn’t employed by an institution in a position to fire him. He operates with absolutely no oversight and no accountability. Not that I’m suggesting institutional oversight is necessarily the answer: These days, notoriety, no matter how grotesquely attained, is just another path (indeed, one of the surest) to becoming a multimedia phenom. Hell, look at Eliot Spitzer. But no one should be able to operate without some reasonable check on his destructive craziness.
Could Breitbart’s readership revolt? Sure, but don’t bet on it. More and more Americans consider journalism just another front in the bloodsport of partisan politics, where the ends justify damn near any means. Increasingly no one cares about (or recognizes) the difference between marshalling facts to make your argument and just completely making shit up. Breitbart already caters to an outraged lunatic fringe that, like Erick Erickson, will mostly cheer him for sticking it to the lefties. And if Breitbart’s readership doesn’t abandon him, you can bet he’ll always be able to find advertisers who’ll stick by him as well.
I suspect some will say that Breitbart is not a journalist. (I know I’d say that.) This is the sort of semantic hair-splitting that allows Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck to spew the most outlandish garbage, then retreat behind the mantle of entertainer or “rodeo clown.” For a not insubstantial number of people, however, these guys are the definition of journalists: truth-tellers in an otherwise corrupt, hopelessly biased field.
Side note: Am I assuming Breitbart either suspected that the video in question had been tampered with—or at the very least didn’t care enough to perform even minimal due diligence about its origins? Yep. This isn’t because I’m convinced he’s an evil guy (though he may be). It’s more that, as Chait points out, Breitbart experienced a suspiciously similar embarrassment just a few months back, when it was revealed that the infamous ACORN pimp video had been deceptively edited—without Breitbart’s knowledge, he claims. Hey, mistakes happen. I’m well aware of that. But usually after getting burned, a media outlet takes steps to make it a little harder to get burned the exact same way again—at least for a year or so. (Trust me on this.) And it’s not like the Shirley Sherrod video was some dark masterpiece of editing genius. So I’m going out on a limb and betting that either Breitbart is lying about one (or both) of his victimizations at the hands of duplicitous videographers (one of whom was his own protégé), or he simply can’t be bothered to care if he’s being used to peddle lies specifically aimed at ruining other people’s lives. Either way, the guy deserves to endure fallout far more serious than making a fool of himself in a couple of cable interviews.
So what am I hoping will happen here? I’m not entirely sure. Journalists are, obviously, not doctors or lawyers or plumbers. You don’t need a license, or even a highly specialized set of knowledge, to practice the craft. But neither should the profession sit back while some raving yahoo, just for kicks, shreds what’s left of industry standards and practices—or, worse yet, enhance the guy’s fame by letting him babble on for the amusement of chat show audiences. With someone like Breitbart, all exposure is good exposure.
So maybe what’s called for here is a good old fashioned shunning. Let’s treat Breitbart like the toxic tantrum he is: no more profiles or interviews or linkages to his web site, even in the service of condemning him.
Yeah. I know. That makes this post kinda problematic. But how else to get the word out? Now, I swear, not another word from me about you-know-who.