You’re not supposed to speak ill of the dead, a rule I always ignore when somebody famous or newsworthy dies. If we shouldn’t be overly sentimental about death because we all die anyway, what better time to assess a life than when it ends, even if prematurely as in the case of media provocateur Andrew Breitbart, who died today at the age of 43? In the case of Breitbart, a man who gloried in savaging his political enemies whether they were dead or alive, there’s little reason to hold fire until the funeral baked meats have gone cold.
Besides, he knew how to take a punch. And he liked throwing them.
I liked the idea of Andrew Breitbart better than I liked any of his work at Big Government, Big Hollywood, Big Journalism, Big Peace, Breitbart or Breitbart.tv. As I wrote in Slate in 2009, I admired the way he ignored journalistic convention and the usual ethical standards to pursue the stories that were important to him. I admired his entrepreneurial approach to journalism and his disdain for the credentialed, self-important press corps. I enjoyed his prankster sense of humor, which goes a long way toward explaining why news of his death, tweeted and retweeted this morning, was met with disbelief. He was just the sort of guy who would fake his death and cull the reactions to make a tendentious point at the expense of his enemies.
But where did the punches land? Credit him with starting the avalanche that buried ACORN, hammering the National Endowment for the Humanities Arts by publishing a revelatory conference call tape, midwifing the congressional insider-trading scoop of Big Peace editor Peter Schweizer and exposing (sorry!) Weinergate. But also credit him with the shoddy attempted takedown of Department of Agriculture official Shirley Sherrod.
I doubt that Breitbart cared all that much about his won-lost record. Profiling Breitbart in 2010 in Slate, Christopher Beam wisely accepted the conservative media brat on his own terms to capture the man in all his glory. “I have two speeds,” Breitbart said. “Humor and righteous indignation.” Although he was capable of accuracy and accountability, those speeds were not operational when he appeared on television and his rhetoric accelerated. But it didn’t bother him when the liberal media establishment — loosely defined as anybody who took issue with him — spent negative words on him. “They want to portray me as crazy, unhinged, unbalanced. OK, good, fine. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you,” he told Beam.
These sound like angry words from an angry man, but they weren’t. An F-bomb from Breitbart’s lips was a sort of Irish blessing, an invitation to get in the ring with him to see who was the champ and who was the chump. Noah Shachtman’s 2010 profile in Wired extracted the agitprop essence from Breitbart’s act, noting that for all his professed hatred of the “Democratic-media complex,” he knew how to work its strengths to his advantage. That complex delights in being attacked, and the broader and more profane the assaults are, the more the complex enjoys it.