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Breitbart is one in long line of reviled, revered media gadflies

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Gene Policinski
June 11, 2011

Conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart is highly partisan, frequently newsworthy – and, likely depending on your political views, to be roundly admired or soundly criticized.


But Breitbart is credited by all with first reporting the indiscreet tweets of Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y. It’s the latest in a series of headline incidents involving the digital entrepreneur and his unique new-media mix of publishing, sensationalism and political advocacy.


Weiner’s self-inflicted political implosion again put Breitbart front and center on the national stage in recent days – including an interview on NBC’s “Today” show and an oft-aired, bizarre turn in front of news cameras at the same lectern that Weiner would moments later use to admit he sent graphic photos of himself and suggestive texts to women.


But Breitbart also faces a lawsuit by a former U.S. Agriculture Department employee that claims he damaged her reputation in 2010 by posting a “deceptively edited video” depicting her as a racist. And his partisan “gotcha” approach leaves behind any sense of traditional news media.


Still, though Breitbart’s fame may be rooted in the new tools and pervasive reach of the Internet Age, he’s also the latest in a long line of controversial “scandalmongers” throughout U.S. history that have been reviled or revered – often both.


Colonial editors promoted independence and fueled debate over the proposed Constitution and Bill of Rights. But many also gleefully attacked political rivals by reporting their personal scandals and professional failings. “Yellow journalism” of the late 1800s exploited both scandal and new printing technologies to reach and influence mass audiences. So-called “muckrakers” of the early 20th century exposed social ills in dramatic fashion.


James Callender was a newspaper editor who plagued John Adams’ presidency in the late 1790s with charges of pro-monarchy fantasies, mental illness and of a “hideous hermaphroditical character.” Callender eventually was repudiated even by his quiet sponsor, Thomas Jefferson – after which the editor retaliated with scandalous reports of an intimate relationship between Jefferson and slave Sally Hemmings that remain controversial today.


American University journalism scholar Joseph Campbell notes that William Randolph Hearst shook up the relatively staid world of New York City journalism in the late 1890s by exploiting new advances in printing such as color to add zest and sensational impact to stories of political corruption as well as crime, sex and scandal.


And while their targets may have viewed the reporting as irresponsible and sensational, the work of the early 20th century’s muckraking authors and journalists now is valued for exposing social ills and dangerous conditions.


Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle revealed poor working conditions, corruption and rampant tainting of meat with rat feces and urine in the nation’s meatpacking industry – prompting the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906. Viewed by some as politically motivated as Breitbart, Sinclair later said he wrote The Jungle to attack industrial capitalism and promote socialism.


Pioneering journalist Nellie Bly went undercover in sweatshops to report on poor working conditions for women, and had herself committed to New York City’s Women’s Lunatic Asylum for 10 days to document mistreatment of the mentally ill. Photographer and writer Jacob Riis exposed wretched living conditions for the poor, especially children.


For decades beginning in the 1930s, newspaper columnist Drew Pearson – sued for libel a reported 50 times – and later his protégé Jack Anderson used what critics called a combination of facts, leaked material and pure rumor to fuel a newspaper column, “Washington Merry-Go-Round,” to go after high-ranking officials and public figures.


Campbell said in an interview this week that controversial figures like Breitbart can do harm, but also provide “a much-needed kick in the pants” to a complacent journalism establishment, disclosing issues and facts that otherwise would not be known.


History will be the final judge on whether Breitbart is an Internet flash in the pan or joins the ranks of valued public crusaders and vocal gadflies.


But all of them, and all of us, are empowered by our First Amendment freedoms (as an old saying goes) “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”



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