Breitbart's Inheritors Battle Over His Legacy
"A happy cult" no more as internal friction stresses the conservative website. "I think he would detest what it's become," says one staffer.
Less than a year after the sudden death of the conservative provocateur and pioneering blogger Andrew Breitbart, the web empire he had begun to build under his own name is plagued by an unusual degree of disorganization and rampant infighting as his disciples battle for ownership of his legacy, according to current and former employees, and people close to the company.
Breitbart spent the beginning of 2012 feverishly working to overhaul his website, transforming it from an aggregator of newswire stories into a splashy, tabloid-style landing page featuring content from his scrappy network of "Big" blogs: Big Government, Big Journalism, Big Peace, and Big Hollywood. He was days away from the relaunch when his heart failed on March 1 in Los Angeles — shocking the online right that worshipped him, and the liberals who loved fighting with him.
Publicly, his staff showed a united front. After the funeral on March 6, 10 of the website's editors posed for a picture together, and posted it to Instagram with the hashtag #war. “We took that picture to say, ‘Hey! We’re still here,’” editor Mike Flynn told Slate's Dave Weigel at the time. "We're going to carry out Andrew's vision."
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. That's still less than 10 percent of The Huffington Post's traffic, but a record for the site, which had endured fewer than half that many visitors in the months of April, May, and June.
But insiders say that a few strong months of traffic, aided by regular, loyal Drudge links, have masked deeper problems. The portrait that emerged from multiple interviews with sources at the site and in its orbit was one of a disorganized, downtrodden army of conservative foot soldiers eager to carry out their fallen leader's mission, but deeply divided over how to interpret his battle plan.
"We were running a kind of happy cult when Andrew was in charge, and when Andrew died everyone had an incentive to spin what they thought he was up to," said one former employee. "If he knew he was going to die, I'm sure he would have called a dinner the night before and given us the tablets or something…. But he didn't."
(Breitbart.com has described BuzzFeed as "a left-wing rag;" has turned our editor's name into a verb, "Bensmithing," meant to describe a sophisticated form of journalistic malpractice in which damaging facts about Democrats are reported as a means of covering them up; has repeatedly referred to this reporter as a "media-approved Mormon;" has accused us of editing a hug out of a video to protect President Obama; has accused us of conducting "partisan strategy" to protect President Obama; and has written, according to a search of their site, 396 posts attacking BuzzFeed.)
There is also a sense that some of its highest-profile contributors may be drifting away. Dana Loesch, a CNN contributor who is the face of the Breitbart empire these days and its only veritable TV star, hasn't written a post in more than a month — and one source said she has sought a job at The Daily Caller. Asked about the situation, Breitbart editor-in-chief Joel Pollak said she was "still a contributor" but declined to comment further. Loesch did not respond to specific questions about her employment prospects. In any case, she remains a major player in the fight to define Breitbart: her husband, for instance, produced the music in the recently-released tribute documentary Hating Breitbart.
But at the center of the new Breitbart.com is a small circle of business partners who took control of the company and, by default, the rights to Breitbart's legacy after his death.
Larry Solov, Breitbart’s best friend and longtime confidante, became CEO; Steven Bannon, who made his name last year for directing a documentary defending Sarah Palin from her critics, became executive chairman; and Joel Pollak, an unsuccessful congressional candidate from Illinois and Harvard Law School protégé of Alan Dershowitz who began as lead counsel for the company, is now editor-in-chief. Conservative commentator Ben Shapiro also serves as editor-at-large, and his byline is a mainstay on the homepage.
Without Breitbart's larger-than-life persona holding it together, fault lines quickly began to form on staff. Solov, Pollak and a few others run the company from an office in L.A., but the site's contributors are spread across the country — and many complain that the editors are all but impossible to reach.
E-mails and phone calls go unreturned for days, two sources said, and the people at the top of the masthead are so unresponsive that one employee sent a notarized letter to inform Pollak he was quitting.
In an interview with BuzzFeed, Pollak dismissed the claims that he's unreachable as "not accurate," and said he reads every one of the 200 to 300 emails he gets daily.
But prominent conservatives, reluctant to criticize an ideological ally, also privately shake their heads at the site’s management.
"They don’t even know how to do basic stuff, like, what a lede is. Like, maybe you should inform your readers in the first paragraph what your story is about," said a high-profile conservative journalist who works for another outlet. "I think most of the criticism they get is ideological in nature, from liberals. But the real critique is on a much more basic, practical level."
Staffers who talked to BuzzFeed were willing to give the benefit of the doubt to Solov, a Breitbart loyalist who one person described as "a good guy [who] just has no idea what water he's swimming in." The staff reserves blame for Pollak and Bannon, who are viewed by some internally as opportunists parleying their position into personal prestige in Republican circles.
Complained one staffer: “It has nothing to do with what Andrew stood for. I don’t think he would even read the site or like it. I think he would detest what it’s become.”
"Andrew wasn't a flack. He wanted to take them all on," said a former Breitbart employee, complaining that the site is now run by “partisan hacks.”
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. But managing editor Alex Marlow also defended their widely favorable coverage of the candidate, arguing that's what Breitbart would have wanted.
"It’s revisionist history to act as thought Andrew wouldn’t have wanted to fight for whoever the Republican nominee was," he said, citing Breitbart's CPAC speech earlier this year where he urged activists, "Ask not what the candidate can do for you, but ask what you can do for the candidate."
One reporter who eventually left the site complained that Pollak would regularly assign reported stories to advance his take on the news, and if the reporting deviated even slightly from his preferred message, he would simply rewrite the article.
"If you investigated it and it didn't come out in the way he wanted it, he would be upset," said the reporter, who complained that editing sometimes introduced factual errors. Pollak denied the claim, and said most of the rewriting he does is to protect the company against potential lawsuits.
More broadly, several people lamented that the site had lost its founder’s eagerness to break provocative stories dealing with electrifying third-rail issues like race, gender, and corrupt power — replacing much of the content with repackaged conservative commentary.
"Their dysfunction has made it hard to be what Andrew Breitbart is all about, which is breaking stories no one else wanted to touch," he said. "I think their obsession with whatever is on MSNBC every day is just boring."
A current Breitbart staffer singled out a colleague, John Nolte, who has devoted much of his time to attacking journalists on Twitter rather than moving the ball with reporting.
“He’s capable of tremendous insight but… he’s written the same post for three years,” the colleague complained.
One pressing consequence of the company's organizational challenges: Questions from inside the organization about how the finances are being handled. Shortly before Breitbart's death, Bannon helped bring in $10 million in capital, which was meant to fund the site's relaunch and expand its staff. But when Breitbart died, he left a wife and four young children who could benefit from a financial return — and two sources familiar with the situation say the widow has been asking about the money.
Asked about the claims, Solov said there was "zero truth" to them.
The most jarring change to the Breitbart empire this year, however — the one that's prompting some of its oldest contributors and biggest stars to jump ship — is its waning ability to get the attention of the mainstream media.
That's because when the site lost Breitbart, they didn't just lose an editorial vision; they lost a media savant who had trained under a bipartisan pair of web geniuses — Matt Drudge and Arianna Huffington — who taught him how a good stunt, or a sophisticated prank could drive national news cycles for days.
He took the lessons to heart. When Breitbart's Big Government broke the Anthony Weiner sexting scandal, for example, the blog mogul made sure he got the credit when he seized the podium and began taking questions from a crowded hall of New york reporters awaiting the Congressman's statement.
And he relentlessly promoted James O'Keefe's undercover videos — including the famous pimp-and-hooker sting that took down the community organizing group ACORN — by going on network morning shows, and exhibiting a certain comic self-awareness that his disciples today lack. He was a partisan prankster with a knack for showmanship whose self-awareness and sense of humor endeared him to the press, and helped his scoops go national. These days, the only time reporters pay attention to Breitbartians is when they're clicking the "block" button on Twitter.
"Without Andrew there, it's difficult to imagine a long-term future for the site," said one longtime friend of Breitbart's.
Marlow agreed that Breitbart was unparalleled in his ability to promote a story, but said they were proud of the work they've done since his death. Pollak pointed to instances where they've helped shape conservative narratives over the course of the year. They said their site was among to first to sound the alarm bell on what they consider to be skewed presidential polls, and took pride in introducing new arguments into the "Benghazi coverup."
"It's very hard to own a national news cycle the way you do with Weiner and ACORN. That doesn't happen every day," said Marlow.
As for the detractors on staff — who Pollak derided for hiding behind anonymity because "they want to receive the paycheck" — editors chalked it up to bloggers whose work hasn't been good enough to earn prominent placement on the site.
"Andrew designed it so that there would be friendly competition for spots on the front page," said Marlow, adding, "In any environment where there's competition, there's going to be people who feel like they've gotten a better shake than others... But the core editorial unit are people who understood Andrew's vision the best of anyone possible."
True or not, there are many in Breitbartland who believe management is falling far short of their founder's vision — and it's hard to wage an effective battle for relevance when a civil war is brewing at home.
Shortly after Andrew's death, Breitbart.com staffer Charles Johnson wrote a tribute column to his friend and boss, and planned to submit it to another site, sources said. Pollak forbade him from publishing it. And though he didn't provide a reason, staffers suspected it was because he viewed any unapproved content written by his staff as a threat to his control of the Breitbart narrative. After a standoff, the writer proceeded to publish the tribute against his editor's demands anyway. Johnson (who declined to comment on the incident to BuzzFeed) was promptly fired.
He was re-hired a week later, and the two men made amends. But the larger fight never ended.
"I don't even call it Breitbart.com anymore," said one staffer. "I call it Wannabe Breitbart.com. I said at the time, when Andrew died, they gotta shut this thing down or else it's going to fall apart. I think I was right."
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated John Nolte's first name.