In a classic “Kinsley gaffe” (accidentally telling the truth), Steve Bannon has apparently told author Michael Wolff that his site Breitbart.com is less “legitimate” than other news organizations.
That may be true of the site under Steve Bannon. It wasn’t the case under Andrew Breitbart. But that’s another story, which I’ll discuss more below.
Here are the details of Bannon’s Freudian slip:
According to the Guardian, Wolff has a book coming out in which Bannon, among other things, terms “treasonous” the meeting between Manafort/Kushner/Trump Jr. and Natalia Veselnitskaya. (Susan Wright posted about this here.) That’s amusing enough, but in this post I want to focus on what Bannon said about his own organization, Breitbart.com. Here’s the relevant passage from the Guardian:
The meeting was revealed by the New York Times in July last year, prompting Trump Jr to say no consequential material was produced. Soon after, Wolff writes, Bannon remarked mockingly: “The three senior guys in the campaign thought it was a good idea to meet with a foreign government inside Trump Tower in the conference room on the 25th floor – with no lawyers. They didn’t have any lawyers.
“Even if you thought that this was not treasonous, or unpatriotic, or bad shit, and I happen to think it’s all of that, you should have called the FBI immediately.”
Bannon went on, Wolff writes, to say that if any such meeting had to take place, it should have been set up “in a Holiday Inn in Manchester, New Hampshire, with your lawyers who meet with these people”. Any information, he said, could then be “dump[ed] … down to Breitbart or something like that, or maybe some other more legitimate publication”.
Bannon added: “You never see it, you never know it, because you don’t need to … But that’s the brain trust that they had.”
It’s painful for me to talk about what Breitbart.com has become, because I knew Andrew Breitbart and respected him. When I say “what Breitbart.com has become” I am not talking about its support for Trump; I don’t think for a moment that Andrew would have been anti-Trump. I’m talking about a basic level of honesty.
I’ve told the story before about how Steve Bannon once told his staffers to tell me to “f**k myself” — but it’s worth relating here again in some detail because it’s illustrative of what has happened to the site with Andrew gone:
Back in 2012, Breitbart.com ran a post designed to embarrass Bono from U2. The centerpiece of the post was a video in which ambush artist Jason Mattera confronted “Bono” with some questions about his financial dealings. “Bono” not only denied having anything to do with his own businesses, but even denied being the singer for U2!
Fun story. Just one problem: as Mattera later admitted, he had actually confronted a Bono impersonator, mistakenly thinking it was Bono.
Once it became obvious that the post was garbage, Breitbart.com took it down, with no explanatory note. New York Magazine later asked editor Joel Pollak about it, and Pollak said he could “neither confirm nor deny” that the post had been taken down due to a case of mistaken identity.
I wrote a post criticizing Breitbart.com’s lack of forthrightness in acknowledging their error. As I said:
Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone. But people carefully watch how you handle mistakes.
The right way to do it is to quickly, forthrightly, and thoroughly admit error — to move to correct the error, apologize, and explain how it happened.
The wrong way is to pretend it never happened, and to lawyer it up.
I’ve met and spoken with Joel Pollak, and he seems like a smart man, and I’m sure he has the best interests of Breitbart.com at heart. But this is not how you handle it when you make a mistake. You gotta say: hey, we screwed up. At matters stand now, the biggest mistake in this affair was made, not by Mattera or his editor, but by Pollak.
My criticism did not go over well with Steve Bannon, the executive chairman at Breitbart News. The next day, a Breitbart staffer told me this in a Google chat:
I was told by Bannon — with Larry listening — to tell you, from them
F**k you, go f**k yourself — you’re the enemy and a backstabber
And you’re dead to them
that’s a quote — and I was told to go tell you
(“Larry” is Larry Solov, the co-founder of Breitbart.com.)
So, to sum up, when Breitbart.com made an error, they first tried to pretend it hadn’t happened. Then, when called on it by an honest critic, Steve Bannon declared that critic the “enemy” and told him to go f**k himself.
I have bleeped out the curse words here. I later related the quote to Solov, whom I like, and he didn’t deny that Bannon had said it.
Bannon was upset at me, I suspect, because I was unfavorably comparing how they were handling the situation to the way I believed Andrew would have handled it. Andrew had died about three weeks earlier, and they were very sensitive to criticism that they were messing up the site that was his legacy. I think they felt I was being disloyal.
But my loyalty wasn’t to them. It was to Andrew and what he stood for. I knew in my bones that if Andrew had been at the helm when the site screwed up something like that, he would have acknowledged it openly and would have found a way to laugh at it. I wanted to send the folks at Breitbart a respectful but firm message: that if you screw up, you have to acknowledge it, flat out. And fix it. For the sake of Andrew’s legacy.
That’s how Andrew would have handled it. But it’s not how his site handled that error, or several other errors they have made since.
I hate to be critical of Breitbart.com. I used to write for them occasionally. Andrew once wanted me to be the editor of one of the “Big” sites (Big Journalism) that preceded their consolidation into Breitbart.com. (I couldn’t make the commitment because of my day job.) The site is his legacy, and as far as I know still supports his family.
Andrew would have supported Donald Trump. I believe that firmly. But he would have done so in an honest manner.
Instead, he left behind a site that is run by a guy who, in an unguarded moment, lets slip that he doesn’t really consider it “legitimate.”
And that is truly sad.
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