The hypocrisies of the rightwing media are fascinating to behold: Claiming bias while engendering further bias; disavowing race and class warfare while fomenting racial and class divides; and taking the position of the victimized underdog while representing the most dominant and powerful ideological positions.
Hating Breitbart, a new film that is being re-released later this month in theaters and other distribution platforms, is the latest in a wave of rightwing documentaries that have arrived in the Obama age, including, and most notably, last year’s $30 million success 2016: Obama’s America.
These films not only manage to have their cake and eat it, too, they perpetrate the idea that documentaries in our current postmodern zeitgeist are less about reporting the truth than manipulating it. Errol Morris should be proud: looking at films like Hating Breitbart and Obama’s America is like listening to Morris subjects Fred A. Leuchter or Robert S. McNamara, men who exist within their own frameworks of reality and rationalize their belief systems with what ever evidence they can find, however dubious.
Hating Breitbart begins with an outrageously ironic quote, considering the contentious reputation of its source, the controversial New Media mogul Andrew Breitbart, who died last year. “The left pits people against each other,” he says. “Divide and conquer is the strategy: I don’t want to live in that world.” But in one of the film’s many contradictions, Breitbart continues with a statement that suggests the opposite. “What the left has stood for with political correctness is to try and get those with whom they disagree to shut up. You’re gonna call us racist? You’re gonna call us potential Timothy McVeighs? Fuck you,” he says, before adding a one-word provocation: “War.” So much for not pitting people against one other.
One of Breitbart’s most vigorous lines of attack was to call out the mainstream media for what he alleged was biased and unfair reporting. As the film makes clear, he positioned himself as a lone renegade, filled with righteous indignation for media injustice. But when you have allies like Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes, can you really call yourself an underdog and an outsider?
Early claims to fame, which all figure prominently in the film, include Breitbart’s publicizing of a series of undercover videos that showed employees at the community advocacy group ACORN giving tax advice to activists posing as a prostitute and a pimp; criticizing members of the Congressional Black Caucus for alleging, without proof, that Tea Party demonstrators yelled the word “nigger” at them; and exposing racially-charged comments made by U.S. Department of Agriculture director Shirley Sherrod, which were later blown out of context and yet led to her resignation.
For a man who publicly embraced the fact that his own family was racially mixed and decried the existence of any racism in the Tea Party, it’s instructive that three central accomplishments of Breitbart’s career, as shown in the film, involved black people—all the targeted ACORN employees appear to be lower-class African Americans, as are Sherrod and the Congressmen. (Breitbart’s pivotal role in the Anthony Weiner “sexting” scandal, in which Weiner tweeted lewd pictures of himself, is relegated to an afterthought during the end credits.) Breitbart would say that his race-based attacks are intended to uncover double standards in the mainstream media. His argument, as laid out in the film, is that the Left uses race to discredit the Right, when, in fact black people and other minorities have biases, too.
This logic is fundamentally flawed on two levels: 1) it incites the very same kind of racial conflict and division that Breitbart says he’s against, and 2), it willfully disregards America’s enduring power structures, where white people hold dominance over people of color. White people using race to diminish black people is not the same as black people using race to point out or resist historically rooted oppression. The fact is that violence against minorities is still a major problem in America, where, according to 2011 FBI statistics, 71.9% of racially motivated hate crime victims were targeted because of an anti-black bias.
Breitbart and other right-wing media-makers would probably disagree, arguing these facts are no excuse for prejudice or resentment, but Hating Breitbart reaffirms these two discriminatory impulses. When the majority of a documentary focuses on a central white figure standing in opposition or counterpoint to black people, it only substantiates the claim that unseemly racial politics underscores the conservative movement.
As for the claim of media bias, these films avowedly hope to counteract what they see as the spread of false information by the likes of the New York Times, CNN and Michael Moore. True, Moore frequently bends or massages facts to make his arguments, which may be no different from the tactics of Breitbart or Hating Breitbart‘s director Andrew Marcus, who never challenges any of Breitbart’s claims. But just as we can criticize Moore for muddying or overemphasizing certain facts over others, shouldn’t we also criticize more substantive offenders, be it Breitbart or the most watched and most powerful cable news network, Fox News? As grandma used to say, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”
Hating Breitbart is not as grossly manipulative or clumsily over-the-top as Stephen Bannon’s Sarah Palin hagiography Undefeated, but it’s always irksome to see, say, a pundit from an avowedly libertarian magazine presented as an objective commentator. But, of course, no one who pays to see Hating Breitbart or 2016: Obama’s America is expecting objectivity. They’re expecting rightwing political advocacy.
At the end of Hating Breitbart, the charismatic rightwing muckraker challenges a protestor, and says, “Give me one example of a Breitbart lie.” The protestor is stumped. But of course he is: through the thicket of media manipulation, over or under-emphasis, and shrewd misdirection, there’s no simple truth or falsity to wield back. Those working to expose distortions must tackle them meticulously, and in depth. See, for instance, Media Matters’s rigorous and comprehensive “Big Falsehoods” post. Truth doesn’t come in a sound bite. It’s far more complicated than that.
Anthony Kaufman has written about films and the film industry for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Village Voice, and Slate. He is currently a regular contributor to Variety, The Wall Street Journal Online, Filmmaker Magazine, The Utne Reader, and writes the ReelPolitik blog for Indiewire.com.