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Inside the Battle ‘For the Soul of Conservative Media’

Variety logo Variety 1/19/2017 Gene Maddaus

In life, Andrew Breitbart was a first-class rock thrower, attacking Democrats and the press with the zeal of a guerrilla partisan. The website he founded, Breitbart.com, did not play by the same rules of combat as its forebears in conservative media, as it generated outrage and scandals with occasional carelessness about facts. While outlets like Forbes and The Wall Street Journal thrived on access to Beltway and Wall Street insiders, Breitbart operated on the fringe, and openly scoffed at the ruling elite.

How things have changed. Four years after Breitbart’s death from heart failure at the age of 43, his creation has assumed a central place in American politics, and is now staring out from the windows its founder once tried to break. It has become, in essence, the mouthpiece for the Trump administration. With that has come an invitation to be in the room where it happens: Steve Bannon, the site’s former executive chairman, is now one of the most powerful men in the country, having been named chief strategist for the White House.

Breitbart.com’s newfound position is a reward for its decision to throw all of its weight behind Donald Trump, publishing headlines and stories that testify to his genius. And that has led to business gains: Trump’s victory resulted in a flood of 23 million visitors in November, putting it among the dominant conservative sites online. Bannon did not respond to requests for an interview.

“The battle is just beginning for the soul of conservative media,” says Ben Shapiro, who left Breitbart last spring over its support of Trump, and now runs the Daily Wire. “Is it going to be the conservative media or the pro-Trump media, if the two come into conflict?”

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Illustration BY Señor Salme

Trump’s victory comes at a moment when the conservative media landscape is already in flux. Fox News is still reeling from the twin losses of Megyn Kelly, to NBC, and CEO Roger Ailes, to a sex harassment scandal. Terrestrial radio — which made fortunes for people like Rush Limbaugh — is slowly dying off. While the Drudge Report remains the homepage for the right, it’s now in its third decade, making it something of an elder statesman among Republican-leaning outlets.

At the same time, a host of newer players — Breitbart included — are bubbling up and trying to appeal to younger, more digitally savvy audiences. The question is what kind of conservatism will they sell?

On one side are sites that believe a rising generation of conservatives will rally to a more traditional, small-government orthodoxy. On the other are sites like Breitbart, which embrace a white nationalist populism loosely identified as “alt-right.” Under Bannon, the site published such stories as “Black Mob Swarms Georgia Walmart to See ‘How Much Damage’ They Could Do,” “5 Devastating Facts about Black-on-Black Crime,” and “Rape Deniers: 9 Facts About Illegal Alien Crime the Media Covers Up.”

If any outlet can contend with Breitbart for the title of “platform for the ‘alt-right,’” it’s a site called Taki’s Magazine. Founded by Taki Theodoracopulos, a Greek millionaire and socialite, the influential but niche site specializes in commentary. Unlike Breitbart, it does not do reporting, and does not seem interested in access to the Trump administration. The site does have a winking relationship to the term “alt-right.” Though it once employed Richard Spencer, the white nationalist credited with coining the term, it also professes to reject all labels. It sees itself as standing against the forces of political correctness, Hollywood, and the mainstream media.

Mandolyna Theodoracopulos, daughter of the publisher, and the executive editor of Taki.mag.com, described the so-called “alt-right” as “a category of people who are weary of unbridled multiculturalism…. Most do not wish to see their country become something they have not chosen without some say in the matter.”

It was these white nationalist views that, at least in part, helped fuel Trump’s rise. With his pledge to build a wall along the Rio Grande and his claims that many Mexican immigrants were “rapists” and “criminals,” Trump helped inject this point of view into the center of the political arena.

Like Trump, Andrew Breitbart’s rise was linked with the entertainment business.

His career as a conservative provocateur began in Hollywood, which he saw as a powerful and decadent influence on American culture. He poured his contempt for the industry into his first book, “Hollywood Interrupted,” a 2004 jeremiad against Hollywood liberals. The effort was undertaken half in jest, according to Mark Ebner, who co-wrote the book.

“Andrew was a goofball — that’s what made him endearing,” Ebner says. “We were idiots. We were laughing at the absurdity of the whole thing by the end of it.”

Ebner, who is politically liberal, is alarmed at how Breitbart.com has evolved.

“It’s scary times,” he says. “It’s almost like a big joke blew up in everybody’s face.”

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On the other side of the divide are people like Shapiro, whose Daily Wire is often critical of Trump. For example, the site was skeptical of the deal to save several hundred manufacturing jobs at Carrier in Indiana, saying it went against free-market principles.

“There is this weird argument that if you’re a conservative, shut up, don’t criticize him,” Shapiro says. “My job isn’t to get anybody elected. My job to tell the truth about the principle.”

During the campaign, many conservative outlets objected vociferously to Trump. But since his victory, Shapiro says former critics have toned down their objections. Shapiro is especially hard on Breitbart.com, his former employer, which he says became a sycophantic propaganda outlet for Trump under Bannon’s leadership.

Kurt Bardella, a former spokesman for Breitbart, also quit last spring as he saw Breitbart becoming “the de facto rapid response arm of the Trump campaign.” Now that Trump has won, Bardella is worried that the new administration will trample over press freedoms and will only engage with outlets that carry its water.

“This is as close as we’ve ever been to having a state-run media entity,” Bardella says, noting that Breitbart.com scored the first interview with Bannon after the election. “It becomes more than getting a scoop. You’re the vehicle for communicating on behalf of the administration.”

Breitbart’s leaders, who declined to be interviewed for this story, have rejected criticism that they’ve been co-opted by Trump, and have said they intend to hold him accountable to the people who elected him.

If any other outlet stands to profit from Breitbart’s access, it’s Sirius XM, which broadcasts the Breitbart News radio show on its Patriot Channel. Until he took over the Trump campaign in August, Bannon hosted the show. Dave Gorab, Sirius XM’s vice president of talk programming, says he hopes Sirius will be able to parlay that access in order to “bring folks up close and personal with the folks running our country.”

“They understand the power of radio,” says Gorab, who declined to provide audience metrics for the Patriot Channel. “Steve lived Sirius XM every single day. He knows how effective it is.”

For other conservative outlets, Bardella advises, the key will be not trying to “out-Breitbart Breitbart.”

“You’re not gonna have their access,” he says. “Strategically they need to put themselves in position to still be relevant after the Trump presidency.”

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