Andrew Breitbart, the hyperactive, charming, and divisive creator of Big Government and its sister sites who died today at 43, also served as the link between two of the dominant media forces of the last decade: The Drudge Report, which he helped run for years, and Huffington Post, where he was present — briefly — at the creation.
Breitbart’s role as Drudge’s right hand is well known; less public was his brief, memorable stint as one of four partners in the Huffington Post in 2005. It’s a story that hasn’t been told in great detail, but BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti, who also co-founded the Huffington Post with the site’s namesake Arianna Huffington and media business figure Ken Lerer, recalled that period in an interview today.
Breitbart’s role later became contested — he brashly claimed total credit for “the plan,” which his former partners denied — but he was an unmissable presence in the Soho office that was for a time Huffington Post’s New York headquarters. There, for a month in the spring of 2005, he worked closely with Lerer (who is now Chairman of BuzzFeed), and Peretti, a graduate of MIT’s media lab, to launch the site.
“He taught us a lot of things early on,” Peretti said, recalling how Breitbart showed them key features of the media ecosystem. “He explained about looking at the British newspapers late at night because they would sometimes break news before the U.S. papers. He cared about getting links up seconds or minutes faster than other publications and was obsessive about that.”
Breitbart was also a font of ideas, not all of which made it into practice.
“He wanted every commenter to have to pay $1 to comment, and the dollar would go to charity but the user’s true identity would be authenticated through a credit card,” Peretti recalled, noting that the idea prefigures current attempts to authenticate identity online.
He also proposed “a phone number where celebrities could call in and leave voice blogs that would automatically appear on the site ,” Peretti recalled. “He wanted that built before launch, and launch was four days away.”
His creativity, as many who worked with him know, could be hard to contain.
“He was just incredibly difficult to have in the office – he was totally ADD and would jump from idea to idea. He would spend hours playing fantasy baseball during the day. He was incredibly good at fantasy baseball,” Peretti said, but then started talking to another Huffington Post employee about starting a fantasy baseball company amid the Huffington Post launch.
There were also also ideological tensions from the start.
“He was at war with himself,” said Peretti. “He wanted to be sure Drudge respected what he did and that he could also make this new venture.”
“He was pretty loyal to Drudge, and protective of Drudge – he was completely obsessed in the early days of Huffington Post with trying to make Drudge love him while still doing Huffington Post,” Peretti said.
There were also big differences about the ideological slant of Huffington Post, which was kept deliberately vague, but which was launched in implicit opposition to President George W. Bush and aligned with the progressive movement. But Breitbart and Huffington had a personal relationship dating back to her time as a conservative — he had been her intern — and they hoped that his relatively liberal views on some social issues would provide common ground.
“He was terrified of the idea that Huffington Post was a competitor to Drudge. He thought that Huffington Post could be bipartisan and that Drudge would love the idea of these big boldface names blogging because he understands the value of that,” he said.
Breitbart had also hoped, Peretti said, to pull Drudge in a more entrepreneurial direction, and to persuade him to monetize some of his outgoing links by starting a kind of “Drudgewire,” a site that housed wire stories that Drudge linked. Drudge, whose success is in part the product of resisting expansion and change to his core product, refused.
As Huffington Post’s other partners pulled the site in a more determinedly liberal direction, and as their relationships soured, Breitbart soon moved on. He returned to Drudge and created Breitbart.com, a version of the wire service idea.
And Breitbart, divisive as he was in public, was personally warm, open, and likable.
Drudge turned his page into a tribute Thursday to Breitbart’s “energy, passion and commitment.”
“My thoughts and prayers go out to Andrew Breitbart’s family and friends, especially his wife Susie and their 4 beautiful children,” Huffington tweeted.
Peretti also parted on good terms with Breitbart, whom the three remaining partners bought out of Huffington Post soon after their working relationship collapsed, and before the site had gained any real traction
A year later, Peretti visited Breitbart home in Los Angeles, and Breitbart showed off his remodeled kitchen.
“Look what I did with my HuffPost money!” he said.