A little over an hour ago as of this writing, Andrew Breitbart casually strolled down the escalator into the lobby of the Minneapolis Convention Center, stopping just outside the main hall at Netroots Nation.
What followed was, sadly, entirely predictable:
With the annual conservative Right Online conference just down the street from Netroots Nation, it was inevitable that some sort of shenanigan would occur in Minneapolis this week. And so it did, early Friday afternoon when Breitbart, camera crew in tow, showed up at Netroots unannounced and uncredentialed.
As he no doubt expected, the conservative blogger was immediately accosted by an angry progressive with a Flip cam when he stepped off the escalators at the Minneapolis Convention Center, where Netroots is being held.
The attendee yelled in Breitbart's face, demanding he answer questions like "have you ever used cocaine?" and "why are you so fixated on gay magazines?"
Breitbart yelled back at the guy, refusing to answer. Eventually Breitbart's security detail pulled him away...
I watched the whole unfortunate and unnecessary display unfold with dismay. But, sadly, this is a microcosm of something we in the progressive movement do all too often: we spend an overabundance of our time and attention on right-wing provocateurs whose entire raison d'etre is to ruin good people's lives, and distract us from doing the work we need to do to make the world and this nation a better place.
In the online world, we know what to call these sorts of distracting saboteurs, and we know what to do with them. They're called trolls, and the proper policy for dealing with them is to refuse to engage them, and to remove them from our collective minds as soon as possible so that we can get down to more productive business.
Andrew Breitbart, like his minion James O'Keefe, is a troll. A particularly virulent and nasty troll, admittedly, but a troll nonetheless. He exists for no other reason than to disrupt and create problems for Democrats and progressives in order to derail our efforts on behalf of those without a voice in corporate-controlled America. He thrives on attention. Like a flame, he can destroy rapidly destroy people and organizations given enough media play, but suffocates without the oxygen that attention provides.
Writing screeds about the Troll (to say nothing of screaming at him in person) is not only pointless, but counterproductive: everyone already knows his shtick. If the traditional media listen to the troll, it's not for a lack of knowledge of his tactics and purpose, but precisely because of them. Like many other attention seekers and similar trolls, Andrew Breitbart is good for ratings. The more time and attention the troll receives from the Left, the more pleased the Right becomes about the irritation the troll is causing, and thus the more attention the Right will give the troll. This makes the troll an even bigger story, which only makes the traditional media likelier to give the troll even more attention. This, of course, becomes a self-reinforcing cycle. Remember: the traditional media isn't interested in pushing left-wing or right-wing narratives. The traditional media is interested in ratings, which is why substantive stories like social security cuts get left in the dust behind a story about an elected official taking pictures of his own private parts.
All of which might explain why, despite his being denied entry to the conference for lack of actual media credentials, the Troll seemed the cat that ate the canary after the whole episode was over:
So, what is it like to be in the middle of a Breitbart scrum at the premier progressive conference of the year? About as you'd expect: Every cellphone camera in the world is displayed while attendees yell curses at the man whose videos inaccurately cast Shirley Sherrod as a racist and website accurately exposed ex-Rep. Anthony Weiner as a man with a serious social media problem.
Breitbart seemed pretty thrilled, and the whole affair is likely to make it into his RightOnline speech later in the weekend.
Par for the course, and just more oxygen for the flame-fueled Troll. Just remember: what works in the online blog-and-comment world also works in the traditional media and in-person world: don't feed the troll. Just ignore it, discard it and watch it slink away quietly instead.
If we do feed the troll, it's stories like Breitbart's that will make their way out of Netroots Nation and beyond, instead of real stories that matter--stories that each of us as activists are making happen with little to no media coverage every single day, even as the Trolls of the world steal the spotlight away for their own nefarious ends.