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Breitbart and the Closing of the Tech Gap

Among the other supposedly historic sea changes in American politics that occurred during the 2008 election was the arrival of the Internet-age campaign. The Obama campaign was the first to take advantage of the new way of doing things and did so far more effectively than McCain. This Pew study about the Internet’s impact on the election […]

Among the other supposedly historic sea changes in American politics that occurred during the 2008 election was the arrival of the Internet-age campaign. The Obama campaign was the first to take advantage of the new way of doing things and did so far more effectively than McCain.

This Pew study about the Internet’s impact on the election is worth revisiting. To wit, although McCain voters were more likely to go online, Obama’s supporters were far more engaged there, both in terms of sharing information about the candidate and donating. In addition, the Obama campaign leveraged the web in get-out-the-vote efforts on an unprecedented scale.

The stereotypical luddite conservative is a tired thing, but there was a grain of truth in it then. Not anymore. The inertia from grassroots activists and bloggers that helped propel Obama’s base (remember Netroots?) is muted if not nonexistent, and a huge number of movement conservative blogs and news sites predominate on the right. To assume Republican turnout will be similar to 2008, as some polls do, requires assuming that the GOP ground operation learned nothing from its mistakes. In addition, there’s the argument that citizen journalism has leveled the playing field against Democratic politicians and their allies in the liberal media. The two sides almost seem to have switched.

That transition was rapid and, on occasion, lucrative for certain players in the evolving conservative-media complex. Breitbart, lacking the reservations of mainstream outlets to promote citizen journalism, was able to dominate the news cycle in innovative ways. I remember watching James O’Keefe’s first ACORN video when it was released on BigGovernment and thinking that the first site to gain a reputation as the go-to source for that brand of journalism would be extremely successful.

“Hating Breitbart,” the new documentary about the famous provocateur, contained one scene that struck me as unintentionally revealing. Breitbart is shaking hands with a group of elderly Tea Partiers after giving a speech about stickin’ it to the left, and they’re lavishing praise as if he’s some sort of prophet or magician. It seems like his iconic status stems at least in part from his ability to do what was utterly foreign to your average middle-American conservative–use the web to advance a political position nationally. Not to belittle his obvious talents, that is; he was in the right place at the right time to translate conservative resentment toward the media and the right’s growing presence online into a sturdy business venture.

One of the underappreciated things about media today is the degree to which content determines value. That’s the reason Comcast bought NBC-Universal. Cable service providers once had a nearly unassailable market position; few people switched their service and competition in certain markets was often limited to two or three options. Today the difference between a channel and an app is getting harder to discern and the old service providers are feeling shaky. Someday we’ll enter our apartments and tell the Siri inside our iTV to flick on the Wall Street Journal channel, which might cost a few bucks a month, and Dish or Comcast or Fios will be obsolete. This a la carte approach to content scares Comcast, hence its purchase of Universal. Other companies have made attempts at entering the new commercial space too, like Glenn Beck’s The Blaze TV and HuffPost Live.

The downside from Breitbart’s perspective is that relying on citizen/activist journalists for your most high-profile content is a dodgy proposition. They’re often unreliable, difficult to wrangle, and they typically don’t receive financial compensation for their work (an aside: it would be really awesome to create some sort of platform by which they could). Without O’Keefe-like scoops, the site is left with little more than its trademark irascibility and crass conservative spin. In fact, as McKay Coppins reports in his write-up of the site’s recent troubles, GOP opposition research is now a main source for (and mission of) the website:

Their stated goal — to become “the Huffington Post of the right” — was ambitious, but Breitbart.com is, at least, now competing in the traffic wars on the right. For the first time this September, Breitbart.com topped it main rivals on the right — The Daily Caller, Weekly Standard, National Review, Pajamas Media, and Hot Air — in traffic, with 2.9 million unique visits in September, according to comScore. …

Several sources, meanwhile, complained that Pollak was a Republican “shill” who had become reliant almost entirely on scraps of opposition research from the Romney campaign for scoops. Breitbart.com scored a rare interview with the candidate earlier this year, an apparent benefit of the site’s coziness with the campaign. Pollak pushed back against the notion that he had turned the site into “a mouthpiece for the Romney campaign,” and cited numerous examples where they had published stories critical of Romney — particularly during the primaries, where they attacked him from the right.

Paraphrasing the famous William F. Buckley maxim, a conservative should support the most conservative electable candidate. Attacking the formerly pro-choice pioneer of Obama’s health care plan from the right is not an indication that you’re above GOP partisanship. As Glenn Greenwald noted recently, the defining characteristic of the press corps is deference to power, and that more or less holds true whether the journalist is scoring an anodyne interview with the President or a speaking slot at CPAC.

Now, unlike in 2008, the Republican Party competes on roughly equal footing in terms of Internet-enabled organizing, supplemented by a new infrastructure of extra-party groups like Americans for Prosperity. The right-wing media is able to mobilize its network to promote stories of its own, inject them into the mainstream news cycle, and keep them there–think about Fast and Furious and the administration’s alleged Benghazi cover-up. What’s more worrisome is that this Manichean ‘balance‘ amounts mostly to a reflexive defense of two political parties that usually aren’t worth defending.

Update: Here’s a WaPo story from September on conservative gains in mobilizing voters. Sasha Issenberg has a different take.



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