Donald Trump's New Media
Political communications and media activism take a step closer.
The effective merger of Donald Trump's campaign for president and the obstreperous, resilient media outlet Breitbart makes more sense than anything else that has happened so far this crazy year.
Trump's campaign has always been, to a degree greater even than the usual model campaign, almost entirely a media product: Trump on TV, Trump at rallies, Trump yelling on Twitter. And Breitbart is an exemplar, to a far greater degree than even the old partisan journalism, of a pure and focused “media activism,” in which the technical tools of journalism are turned to clear political ends.
Andrew Breitbart, the site's founder, saw his work this way: not as journalism, but as “war.” “War means that everything is on the line,” one of his reporters, Matthew Boyle, explained when he announced that he was “shipping out” to join the site. “We’ll fight the war on the battlefield of new media.”
I didn't really understand what that meant until a puzzling experience in 2012. BuzzFeed News's great Andrew Kaczynski, scouring the archives, had unearthed an interesting video of a young Barack Obama participating in a diversity rally at Harvard. As he tried to get a copy of the video from the Boston public television station, Breitbart started bragging about a coming video revelation, which we suspected was the same video. So we scrambled to beat them, and we did.
Breitbart's editors didn’t react the way I would have — by being angry about being scooped. They saw it differently, and assumed an ulterior motive. They wound up arguing — really — that we must have published the video in order to cover up the video. (Does this appear not to make sense? It does not make sense.) The logic is usefully flexible. Whenever we, or other non-movement outlets, broke news that was unflattering to Breitbart’s enemies, they could explain it this way: We were breaking the news in order to keep Breitbart from breaking it, and to help its targets get ahead of their searing exposé.
Breitbart staffers coined the term "Bensmithing" (!) to explain this phenomenon. It’s defined as: “A political tactic that disguises itself as journalism in order to protect Democrats.”
This projection continues to this day. This week, Katie Baker’s deep and sympathetic profile of a woman who says she was raped by Bill Clinton was positively received, deservedly so, by left and right. But the Breitbart headline was the literal reverse of other conservatives’ reaction: “BuzzFeed Shames Juanita Broaddrick.” If you’re at war, you need enemies.
The projection is laughable — but revealing. If the core value of your media work is the effect it has on politics, then your motives are at the center of everything you report. The opposite and traditional view — which I share— isn’t that there’s no such thing as bias, implicit or explicit. It’s that reporters’ ultimate responsibility is to their readers, not to their side in the partisan wars. That entails publishing whatever information you find, without regard to political consequences.
The merger of political and media power is a formidable thing. It wasn't by accident that a central standoff in the recent Turkish coup plot was in a television station's office. In 1991, Soviet troops trying to hold the Union together opened fire on crowds at Lithuania’s main television broadcast tower. Modern autocrats assert control in large part through taking over television.
That kind of monopoly power isn’t available in the American digital media. But an owned-and-operated media has been a politician’s dream since the internet made it technically possible. George W. Bush's old-fashioned attempt to “go over the heads of the filter” was replaced by a vision modeled on sports media. Back in 2008, the Clinton campaign told me they were taking a cue from MLB.com when they launched HillaryHub as its own Drudge Report — but Obama’s slick in-house video was really the political media product of the cycle. Now it's 2016 and she has a podcast. Breitbart is a kind of Players' Tribune for Trump.
Every American politician has this fantasy. And it can work as long as it works — when you're popular, riding high, in control of your own narrative. That is not Donald Trump, who has lost control of the campaign story and can only win by appealing to people who aren't Breitbart readers.
But as campaigns become more fully media creations, and as media activism rises around the world as a central political force, this merger may wind up being his central legacy.