Have a look at the byline-less “Crane Chronicles” series (1, 2, 3) over at Breitbart, in which the LA-based viral news blog takes a firm stand on the side of the Brothers Koch in the battle for the future of the libertarian think tank. The latest, published last Tuesday, quotes several anonymous sources and accuses Cato Institute president Ed Crane of sexual harassment and creating a “hostile and degrading” work environment for women.

It’s bracing stuff, but readers of this blog need no warnings to take Breitbart News’ anonymous sources with a grain of salt.

The first piece makes hay out of Ed Crane talking to Jane Mayer for her paranoid New Yorker profile on the Kochs. The author, whoever that might be, takes this as heresy, unconscionable collusion with the “Democrat Media Complex” that places him beyond the pale of sympathy. The quote in question involves a “top Cato official” referring to Charles Koch and his Market-Based Management ideas as an “emperor” who’s “convinced he’s wearing clothes.” Reading David Koch’s letter about the controversy, it’s tough to escape the conclusion that the Kochs have taken offense at Crane’s insufficient deference to their silly management philosophy:

When confronted about this, Ed initially claimed he only spoke briefly and favorably about us. He later acknowledged that he had made the statement as quoted, but it was only for background. Subsequently, he claimed that he was misquoted. As Ed has shown, he will partner with anyone – including those that oppose Cato and what it stands for – to further his personal agenda at the expense of others working to advance a free society.

Whether or not Ed Crane should have spoken to Jane Mayer should be irrelevant, though that sort of tribalism certainly animates the staff of Breitbart News. The idea that the president of the leading libertarian think tank should have some sort of gag rule for talking to left-wing reporters is nonsense. Whether Mayer misquoted Crane or quoted him against his wishes is not irrelevant, but to suggest that his statements were part of some sort of power grab on Crane’s part is more than the evidence supports. Either the Kochs are using this line as part of a power grab of their own, or Charles really was offended by the characterization of his book. To anyone who doubts the Kochs are narcissistic enough for that to be a motivating factor I would ask: What kind of self-respecting billionaire writes a self-help book?

One of the two main sources for the second article is the former head of Koch Industries’ lobbying arm who has continued to speak on their behalf. Nancy Pfotenhauer, who was recently put on Cato’s board, is quoted expressing horror at Crane’s boorish actions at a board dinner. Kevin Gentry, a Virginia Republican party activist of the pro-Koch faction, is the other source, and he’s quoted more or less saying that Crane needs to be fired.

The third piece contains the most serious allegations and the least substantive sourcing. It’s the perfect Breitbart story: sensational, sexy, and careful to portray the libertarian Crane as a morally bankrupt libertine. They seem to have picked up on a rumor that’s been circulating around the Rockwell libertarian faction for several months now, but they still haven’t taken it beyond the realm of innuendo.

Most of the right-wing criticism of Cato from Breitbart and RedState stems from a general objection to the institutional culture of Washington. This posture allows folks like Erick Erickson to pen manifestos that warm conservative hearts about how the namby-pamby policy technocrats need to be purged with fire and sword. That is all as it should be, and their complaints are mostly legitimate; if the majority of DC think tanks closed their doors tomorrow, national policymaking would be no worse off for it. But the dispute over Cato shows that they’re more than willing to throw consistently limited-government institutions under the bus in the name of faux-populist posturing.

Consider this post by Big Government editor Mike Flynn, former Reason Foundation government liaison and Berman lobbyist:

In the two decades or so that I’ve been in the policy and political world, I’ve seen an explosion of conservative organizations. The DC area is littered with center-right think tanks, policy shops and activist organizations. There are national organizations, and groups organized around individual issues, like education reform or energy policy. (Hell, there are dozens of organizations alone focused solely on education reform.) Virtually every state now has its own free-market think tank and, more than a few have several. In just the past couple of decades, hundred of millions of dollars have been showered on these groups to promote conservative principles.

And yet, our country has never been closer to devolving into a quasi-European socialist state. Or, perhaps more precisely, a quasi-European corporatist state, where Big Government, Big Business and Big Labor get together to carve up the economic pie. What the hell happened?

Flynn is right. In a sense, he’s echoing Andrew Breitbart’s most insightful warning that conservatives needed to become as adept as the left at shaping popular culture, a line that other Breitbart contributors have been pushing for a while now, rather than remaining among the nose-picking policy world of think tanks and state and federal governments. It’s a valid critique in a lot of ways, but I’ve always felt that any conservative artist who’s thinking about shaping popular culture is neither conservative nor a good artist.

Breitbart’s fetishistic obsession with popular culture explains a lot about the way the site operates too. It does away with the academic/journalistic convention of objectivity thus the second Crane piece contains no quote from a pro-independence Cato board member. It explains why searching for old articles on the site is such a chore; the search function is oddly poor and there’s no threading by author title, as if the site suffers from some collective amnesia (Yeah, yeah, the ol’ TAC jalopy ain’t so slick either, but we’ve got a surprise coming.)

TAC editor Daniel McCarthy once observed that the defining characteristic of centrist conservatives like David Frum is a hatred for anyone more conservative than they are. Team Breitbart are no centrists, but they use the same tactics Frum used to marginalize the anti-war conservatives, and the same tactics the GOP has used to for years to marginalize libertarians.  One might ask if Flynn felt a little conflicted running a poorly-sourced, byline-less, three-part expose defending the position of the people who used to pay his salary at the Reason Foundation.

Frum ended his famous “Unpatriotic Conservatives” screed by writing, “War is the great clarifier.” What he really meant was that anyone who opposed the Iraq war had turned their back on the country, but after nine years, almost 4,500 Americans dead, and close to a trillion dollars spent with little to show for it, we might recognize some wisdom there anyway. And as the Breitbart team ramps up their hysterical belligerence in the tragic absence of their most talented member–“#war” was the caption of the Reservoir Dogs-style instagram of the Breitbart staff taken by editor and CNN contributor Dana Loesch just after his funeral–what’s abundantly clear is that, like Frum, Breitbart’s allegiance is to cheap branding tactics over the principles espoused by institutions like Cato.

Semi-relatedly, I’ve been told the photo being used for all three Breitbart pieces actually comes from a (edit) conference question about the drug war during a speech by Tim Pawlenty; Crane was scowling at a speaker arguing for higher criminal penalties for drug offenses.


Update:  What’s the deal with picking photos of marginally libertarian or completely un-libertarian people speaking at Cato for stories about the crackup? Ben Bernanke? IMF Managing Director Rodrigo de RatoTim Pawlenty? Is it just out of ignorance, or are they showing how bipartisan and independent-minded Cato is? Or is it an underhanded suggestion that they’ve warmed up to central banking?