Breitbart struggles to define its role in Trump era: Bad boy, watchdog or lapdog?

Breitbart News hit a wall Tuesday in its campaign to storm the ramparts of the media establishment when one of the most influential press associations in Washington, D.C. denied its application for credentials to cover Congress because of concerns over the site’s funding, staffing, workspace and independence.

The decision by the Standing Committee of Correspondents of the House and Senate Press Gallery — a body chaired by five reporters from mainstream news outlets including Bloomberg News, The Omaha World-Herald and The Washington Post — also means the site’s temporary credentials won’t be renewed when they expire May 31.

It’s a significant setback for the popular right-wing website that championed Donald Trump’s bid for president and whose former executive chairman, Stephen Bannon, became Trump’s campaign chairman and chief White House strategist.

A permanent credential would not only be Breitbart’s ticket to cover hearings and roam the halls of Congress; it’s also a key to other doors in the D.C. media establishment. The credential is a prerequisite to joining the White House Correspondents’ Association, a membership that includes rotation in “pool duty” covering the president’s activities and the right to buy tables at the prestigious annual White House Correspondents’ scholarship dinner that most presidents dutifully attend (Trump is boycotting this year).

[caption id="attachment_457492" align="aligncenter" width="1280"]From left, White House Senior Counselor for Economic Initiatives Dina Powell, President Donald Trump's White House Senior Adviser Steve Bannon and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster attend a news conference with President Donald Trump and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in the East Room at the White House, Wednesday, April 12, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik) Former Breitbart News Chairman and current White House strategist Steve Bannon. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)[/caption]

Breitbart’s failed bid so far to get a Congressional press credential is part of the larger and unresolved story of how it positions itself in the Trump era. Does it remain a rebellious, naysaying outsider unconcerned with establishment trappings? Does it evolve into a more conventional partisan newsroom and formally distance itself from deep-pocketed financial backers? Or does it become a mere mouthpiece for a president it helped elect?

The latter, of course, is the most dangerous path. I spent years as a correspondent in China, a society hobbled by state-run media and the lack of a free press, and no self-respecting U.S. news organization would want to be an organ of state power taking marching orders from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

“The problem Breitbart has is a common one in journalism: How do you balance speaking truth to power and keeping access to power?” said Lee Stranahan, a former investigative journalist at Breitbart who quit a few weeks ago in a dispute over what he perceived as instructions not to ask questions at the White House press briefing about an investigation he was working on.

The balance between truth and access that Stranahan highlights is one ethical challenge his former employer faces, but it’s far from the only one.

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Breitbart has reveled in storming the establishment’s ideological barricades since its founding a decade ago by Andrew Breitbart, the late liberal-turned-conservative publisher, critic and bête-noir of the news industry. That creation story also makes it hard to imagine the site’s founder storming more literal barricades to gain admittance to the ranks of the elites he routinely derided.

The site gained fame by ginning up controversy around so-called scandals involving liberal politicians and groups, including the heavily edited hidden-camera video that purported to expose ACORN.

Waving a far-right pirate flag of politically incorrect views in a sea of largely centrist and liberal-leaning mainstream news outlets, Breitbart amassed a devoted following in a fractured media landscape years before Trump rode a populist, nationalist wave to the White House.

Before joining Trump’s campaign, Bannon famously called the site “the platform for the alt-right,” a term associated with White supremacists and nativists who reject mainstream conservatism and spew misogynist, racist, anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic views on social media and lately, in public.

The website has earned criticism for publishing such incendiary headlines as: “The solution to online 'harassment' is simple: Women should log off,” “Bill Kristol: Republican spoiler, renegade Jew,” “Birth control makes women unattractive and crazy,” “There's no hiring bias against women in tech, they just suck at interviews,” and “Hoist it high and proud: The Confederate flag proclaims a glorious heritage.”

[caption id="attachment_457494" align="aligncenter" width="1280"]Conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart, the namesake of Breitbart News Network, gestures as he speaks during an interview at the Associated Press in New York, Tuesday, June 7, 2011. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens) Conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart, the namesake of Breitbart News Network, gestures as he speaks during an interview at the Associated Press in New York, Tuesday, June 7, 2011. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)[/caption]

Stories like these have sparked outrage from critics in the media and beyond. Sleeping Giants, a Twitter campaign that began last year, is pressuring advertisers to boycott racist and sexist media, and claims more than 1,900 brands, including Kellogg’s, BMW and Visa, have pulled ads from Breitbart. Employees at Amazon are pressuring management to stop their ads from appearing on Breitbart through algorithms that buy ads from third-party advertising exchanges.

Despite the controversy, Breitbart’s following pushed the site’s traffic to 17.3 million unique visitors in January 2017, up from 14.1 million a year earlier, according to comScore. Alexa ranks Breitbart the 64th most popular site in the U.S., while SimilarWeb ranks it 122 among all news and media sites globally. It continues to build its social media following and currently boasts 3.36 million likes and 686,000 followers on Facebook and Twitter, respectively.

Now that Breitbart’s chosen candidate is ensconced in the Oval Office, its insurgent outsider status is changing. It’s sought some of the trappings and recognition of insider status, including congressional and White House credentials, coveted interviews with key officials and a seat at the table alongside mainstream media outlets that Breitbart and its ideological fellow travelers dismissively refer to as “the MSM.” They’ve recently hired journalists from a couple of those traditional outlets, The Hill and The Wall Street Journal, to build expertise and sourcing.

“They want to be seen as the outlet of record in the Trump era, they want to be taken seriously,” said Oliver Darcy, a media reporter formerly with Business Insider who has covered Breitbart.

But aside from scoops doled out to favored outlets by the White House (an Oval Office interview with Trump, an exclusive Facebook livestream with Press Secretary Sean Spicer) and the occasional invitation to prestigious panels as the representative of alt-right media, keeping up with the Joneses has proved difficult.

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Breitbart was given the opportunity to be part of White House press pool coverage on Inauguration Day, but it was limited to “supplemental” pool duty, which usually means the Vice President’s or First Lady’s schedule, not the presidential pool rotation that’s set by the White House Correspondents’ Association.

The Trump White House has been generous with Breitbart, as one might expect, given the site’s unwavering support for the president’s candidacy and Bannon’s current perch. Entry to the briefing room is granted by the White House, not the Correspondents’ Association, and Breitbart and other partisan outlets are well-represented and often called on for questions.

But that attention hasn’t always worked out well for Breitbart, said Will Sommer, campaign editor at The Hill and author of the Right Richter newsletter that covers right-wing media.

The Facebook livestream with Spicer was “astonishingly badly produced, like a weird horror movie," Sommer said. "They got a big break and blew it. And [Washington Editor] Matt Boyle had this giant Oval Office opportunity to interview Trump, and his questions were like, ‘Mr. Trump, why is the media so bad?’”

“They’re trying to use this moment to mainstream themselves and professionalize their operation, and they want the signifiers of legitimacy," he added. Whether they’re going to get the legitimacy is something else. That only comes with exposing your financial arrangements.”

[caption id="attachment_457493" align="aligncenter" width="1280"]White House Press secretary Sean Spicer speaks to the media during the daily briefing in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House, Friday, March 24, 2017. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais) White House Press secretary Sean Spicer speaks to the media during the daily briefing in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House, Friday, March 24, 2017. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)[/caption]

Phone calls, voicemail messages and repeated emails to Breitbart’s CEO and general counsel Larry Solov, its Washington editor Matt Boyle and its spokesman Chad Wilkinson were not returned Tuesday.

In a statement provided to other media, Wilkinson said Breitbart is “unequivocally entitled to permanent Senate Press Gallery credentials and is determined to secure them,” without elaborating on how the site plans to do that.

Senate Press Gallery committee members say Breitbart is wrong to presume it is “entitled” to a credential simply because it’s a news organization, and wrong if they assume they were denied for ideological reasons. The issue, the correspondents say, is an irregular operation, a lack of transparency and the failure to prove editorial independence from funders and political activists, despite stating that a prominent donor has no editorial involvement.

The standing committee of correspondents has been policing the independence of members and issuing credentials for more than 130 years, according to its website. Senate Press Gallery Director Laura Lytle points to article 4 of its rules: applicants must not be engaged in lobbying or paid advocacy, nor have any claim before Congress or the federal government. The rules further state: “publications must be editorially independent of any institution, foundation or interest group that lobbies the federal government, or that is not principally a general news organization.”

This is where things get dicey for Breitbart, which is partially owned by Robert Mercer, a billionaire hedge fund manager and far-right donor, and his daughter Rebekah. The Mercers also fund the Government Accountability Institute, a nonprofit research institute co-founded by Bannon, which bought ads on Breitbart’s site and handsomely compensated three top officials who were simultaneously on the news site’s payroll: Bannon, Peter Schweizer and Wynton Hall, according to a Washington Post investigation. GAI’s political advocacy work has raised questions about its tax status as a public charity.

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Breitbart provided conflicting dates of employment for Bannon, who stepped down from Breitbart before becoming Trump’s chief strategist, and for Hall, who worked for GAI and Breitbart at the same time, according to the correspondents’ committee. Breitbart’s Solov wrote that Hall resigned as managing editor, but media reporter Darcy says his sources say Hall is still “very involved,” signing onto Breitbart’s Slack channel and assigning stories.

The standing committee insists this is not about the establishment locking arms against Breitbart over its far-right views. Other conservative digital upstarts have been approved for credentials, including The Daily Caller, co-founded by Fox News host Tucker Carlson. And liberal and left-wing outlets tied to advocacy groups, including Media Matters, a media watchdog that belongs to a progressive research group, and ThinkProgress, a site that belongs to the liberal Center for American Progress, have failed to get credentials, according to committee records.

Even SCOTUSblog, a nonpartisan site dedicated to the Supreme Court that has won many journalism awards, wasn’t granted credentials because it’s run by lawyers, not by a news organization, standing committee chairman Billy House, a correspondent for Bloomberg (and former colleague of mine), told me.

White House Correspondents’ Association president and Reuters correspondent Jeff Mason refused to confirm whether any Breitbart reporters are members. WHCA currently requires journalists to obtain a congressional credential to join, but some members who got a congressional pass and WHCA membership while working for another outlet may have maintained membership after moving to Breitbart.

Questions were raised last month when a writer for the Daily Signal, a news and commentary site for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that has a sister political action committee, filed a White House pool report. Mason said it was supplemental pool duty covering the Vice President, not the President’s regular pool rotation that’s for members only, but criteria for all pools is now being reviewed, along with membership bylaws.

[caption id="attachment_457497" align="aligncenter" width="1280"]The White House in Washington late Saturday, Feb. 25, 2017, as President Donald Trump returns from a dinner with daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband White House adviser Jared Kushner at Trump International Hotel.  (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta) The White House in Washington late Saturday, Feb. 25, 2017, as President Donald Trump returns from a dinner with daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband White House adviser Jared Kushner at Trump International Hotel. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)[/caption]

Senate Press Gallery committee chairman House said the door’s still open for Breitbart to cut ties to advocacy groups, eliminate perceived conflicts of interest and obtain credentials. But since the site put in its bid last year, House said a series of letters about its masthead, ownership, staffing, links to advocacy groups and commercial address in a single-person residence raised more questions than they answered.

House acknowledged that media owners may have political leanings, but they can’t interfere with news gathering for those to be independent media. Former New York Mayor and Bloomberg LP founder Mike Bloomberg, billionaire investor Warren Buffett and Amazon.com and Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos all own news organizations represented on the standing committee. “Owners can have opinions, but here has to be a firewall between their activities and editorial operations,” House said.

Stranahan, the former Breitbart journalist, argues that the old-school journalism gospel that reporting can’t be tied to money from advocacy groups is an outdated tenet for an era when the news business is struggling to survive.

“A lot of new media outlets — whether it’s [left-wing] Amy Goodman and ‘Democracy Now’ or whoever are funded by outside political interest groups because the economic bottom fell out of journalism some years ago with the internet,” said Stranahan, who now has a radio show for the Russian government-funded Sputnik news agency. He sees no problem with going from far-right media to Russian funding because he says no restrictions are being put on his work.

“That’s the problem for everyone in journalism now — how do you make money? We need to revisit that assumption” that journalism can’t have political ties. “That’s the illusion of objectivity that establishment media has been attempting to promote, and I don’t agree. You can’t tell me The New York Times doesn’t have a political agenda or that Jeff Bezos doesn’t have political interests,” said Stranahan, who has a podcast called “Making the News.”

Stranahan would welcome all comers, as long as they’re transparent about their interests and funders. Don’t expect Media Matters, which has taken funding from liberal billionaire George Soros, to do a hit piece on Soros, he says, and don’t expect Breitbart to do a hard-hitting take on the Mercers.

He is critical of Breitbart for what he sees as blind devotion to Trump, for abandoning a jaundiced eye for critiquing power. But he says the argument that editors are taking direct orders from the White House is bunk.

But do calls come in? Stranahan argues that just because Bannon joined the White House, he shouldn’t be barred from criticizing coverage he thinks is erroneous.

Stranahan’s argument works only so far. A politician has a right to protest false or unfair reporting, but the words of a former media boss and are very likely to influence coverage in a way that’s improper once they’re in public office.

There’s one piece of Stranahan’s advice for his former employer that I heartily endorse: Aside from being transparent about your funding and associations, he suggests getting an ombudsman to monitor the site’s reporting and content from the inside, to communicate with readers on the outside and to keep a critical eye so it doesn’t become a state media mouthpiece. Setting aside all its other issues, a site that started as a bête noir doesn’t want to end up any president’s lapdog.

  • Profile picture for user Indira

    Indira Lakshmanan

    Indira Lakshmanan is the Newmark chair in journalism ethics. For 25 years, she's covered Washington and international news as a correspondent, columnist, guest guest and contributor for The Boston Globe, Bloomberg, the International New York Times, NPR, PBS, Politico Magazine and others.

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