Beto O'Rourke's presidential campaign made some news this week when it evicted Breitbart News' Joel Pollack from a private event. The right-wing site with white nationalist loyalties hyped the kerfuffle as an attack on the free press, claiming Pollack is a news reporter. And lots of Beltway journalists rushed to the defense of the GOP propaganda outlet, insisting that the Democrat had crossed a dangerous line.
But that convergence of conservative and traditional media talking points completely misses the truth about Breitbart and the role that far-right outposts like it play in today's political landscape. Put simply, Pollack is a news reporter the way I'm an astronaut. It's a silly and completely misleading description. And once you strip it away and get to the truth about what Pollack and Breitbart represent, the O'Rourke campaign's decision looks far less controversial, and far more acceptable. Plus, it's about time Democratic candidates start to push back against the right-wing noise machine.
In reality, Pollack functions more as a GOP campaign tracker than he does a news reporter. Trackers are paid operatives who relentlessly follow candidates from the other party, in hopes of capturing an embarrassing moment on tape. That was evident last week at the Iowa State Fair when Pollack, with his video camera in hand, aggressively pursued Joe Biden and falsely accused him of lying about what Donald Trump had said in the wake of the neo-Nazi riot in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2018. The resulting confrontation generated some headlines, but in no way was Pollack acting as a journalist, which makes sense, because Breitbart doesn't produce journalism.
Here are just two recent and egregious examples of how Breitbart functions as a GOP opposition research firm, and not a journalism outpost.
In 2018, when Republican Roy Moore was running for one of Alabama’s U.S. Senate seats and was accused of having sexually assaulted a teenager, the attorney representing his accuser was approached by two Moore supporters who wanted the attorney to discredit his client in exchange for a large cash payment. The lawyer's statement would be given exclusively to Breitbart News. But that's not all: Two Breitbart reporters actually attended the meeting with the attorney and reportedly pressured him to sign the incriminating statement against Moore's accuser.
Meanwhile, a 2018 Bloomberg report revealed that during the 2016 election, Breitbart reporter Dustin Stockton worked as an “off-the-books political operative” for the Trump campaign, encouraging a former Bernie Sanders supporter, Bruce Carter, to work to convince black voters to vote for Donald Trump or sit out the election entirely. The two men spent time together at the Democratic Convention that year. "Carter says it felt like a courtship, if at times an aggressive one. Stockton showed Carter a movie called Clinton Cash, which Breitbart was screening in Philadelphia for disaffected Sanders supporters. He discussed Clinton’s shortcomings and the fresh start Trump could offer," Bloomberg reported.
On no planet that I know of would the aggressive courting of political surrogates be called the work of a campaign news reporter.
Yet lots of Beltway journalists, led by those at The New York Times, dashed out to defend Breitbart in the wake of O'Rourke’s eviction. In a way, it made sense that Times reporters came to Breitbart's defense, considering it was the Times that tried to elevate Breitbart to professional status during the 2016 campaign. That’s when the paper formed an exclusive partnership with the author of a dishonest Hillary Clinton gotcha book, backed by Breitbart and published by Rupert Murdoch's right-wing empire. It was the Times that single-handedly announced that Clinton Cash represented a supremely important news event. It was the Times that trumpeted the “focused reporting” of Clinton Cash as “the most anticipated and feared book of a presidential cycle still in its infancy,” and said that it would prove to be “problematic” and “unsettling” for the Clintons. Those are descriptions that must have had Murdoch's publicists beaming with pride. “The book has credibility because the New York Times cut a deal with the author,” Esquire's Charles Pierce noted at the time.
The fact that the book's author, Peter Schweizer, had an extraordinarily long list of errors, corrections, and retractions to his credit didn't seem to bother the Times. The daily entered into an ill-conceived agreement for a Murdoch-backed book that provided virtually no hard evidence of Clinton wrongdoing. Then the Times used the book to publish an unsubstantiated, connect-the-dots Clinton hit piece that even Beltway media insiders conceded fell apart after just 24 hours of reflection. (NBC News: It “doesn't hold up that well.”)
Traditional news outlets might not be able to distinguish between GOP propaganda machines and actual news outlets, but the O'Rourke campaign can.
Eric Boehlert is a veteran progressive writer and media analyst, formerly with Media Matters and Salon. He is the author of Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush and Bloggers on the Bus. You can follow him on Twitter @EricBoehlert.
This post was written and reported through our Daily Kos freelance program.