TAMPA, Florida — The time elapsed between the exposure of David Chalian’s hateful remarks and his firing as the D.C. bureau chief of Yahoo News was astonishingly brief. At 10:22 a.m. Wednesday, Matthew Sheffield posted video showing Chalian, accidentally caught in an open-microphone moment during an ABC News online broadcast, making a sick “joke” that Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign was indifferent to suffering caused by Hurricane Isaac: “They’re not concerned at all. They are happy to have a party with black people drowning.” Within three hours, Chalian was fired — “terminated effective immediately,” Yahoo said in a press statement that included an apology to Romney, to the GOP nominee’s campaign staff, and to “anyone who was offended.”
About a half hour after Chalian was fired, in a theater near the Tampa Bay Times Forum where the Republican National Convention is meeting this week, a new documentary film made its world premiere. Hating Breitbart chronicles the career of a man who dedicated his life to fighting the dishonesty and prejudices of what he called the Democrat-Media Complex. Among the “stars” of the movie, appearing as an expert commentator on liberal bias and Andrew Breitbart’s war against it, is a young man named Matthew Sheffield — the founding editor of the Media Research Center’s Newsbusters site, and the same Matthew Sheffield who exposed Chalian’s career-destroying gaffe.
Breitbart died of a heart attack in March, but his crusade against media bias lives on, so that it is possible to name what happened to the former D.C. bureau chief of Yahoo News: David Chalian got Breitbarted.
A lot of other journalists here in Tampa — where an estimated 15,000 members of the press have converged to cover the GOP convention — share the same partisan prejudice that resulted in Chalian becoming a sudden addition to the unemployment statistic. Consider, for example, MSNBC’s coverage of the Tuesday night’s proceedings: Every time a black or Hispanic speaker appeared on stage, the cable-news division of the NBC network cut away from live coverage. No one watching MSNBC saw the speeches by Texas GOP Senate candidate Ted Cruz, former Alabama Democrat Artur Davis, or Utah GOP congressional candidate Mia Love. It seemed as if the network’s coverage was orchestrated to protect MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, who has relentlessly accused the Republican Party of racism. This is not a new accusation, nor one made exclusively by Matthews, but it was one that particularly enraged Breitbart.
Hating Breitbart examines several examples of Breitbart’s battles against the Republicans-as-racists meme, including an incident in 2010 when Democrats claimed — and major news organizations reported as fact — that Tea Party protesters had shouted racial epithets at members of the Congressional Black Caucus, including Georgia Democratic Rep. John Lewis. After examining multiple videos of the confrontation, which occurred during a “Kill the Bill” rally against the Democrats’ health-care legislation, Breitbart concluded that no such incident had happened: Democrats were lying, and the liberal media were merely repeating those lies. So he publicly offered a $10,000 reward to anyone who could provide proof of the alleged epithets. Then Breitbart upped the ante, first to $20,000 and a few days later to $100,000. In a moment captured in the new film by director Andrew Marcus, Breitbart joked to a friend that he might as well increase the reward to a trillion dollars.
No one ever collected the reward, rather conclusive proof that Breitbart was right: Democrats had manufactured a false accusation of Tea Party racism out of whole cloth, and the media had purveyed it as true, without even bothering to examine the evidence.
That kind of injustice — not mere “bias,” but outright dishonesty by major news organization — inspired Breitbart’s rage. The movie shows Breitbart saying, “I’ve got two modes: jocularity and righteous indignation.” His impish sense of humor gets ample play in Hating Breitbart, which shows him in New Orleans on the campus of his alma mater, Tulane University, where he was a decidedly indifferent student. He partied his way through school and, because he was more interested in drinking than in taking notes, escaped much of the left-wing indoctrination that has become so deeply ingrained in American higher education. Still, he was a man of the Left until he read a book by Rush Limbaugh given to him by his father-in-law, the actor Orson Bean. The film doesn’t touch on the deep irony of Breitbart’s political conversion. Bean was blacklisted in the 1950s because of his alleged Communist sympathies, but had become conservative by the time his daughter started dating Breitbart, whom he helped convert from Left to Right — a conversion that ultimately had revolutionary consequences. Breitbart spent more than a decade as a top assistant to Internet news pioneer Matt Drudge, then helped Arianna Huffington create the Huffington Post and eventually launched his own news site, Breitbart.com.
In 2009, Breitbart emerged as an outspoken defender of the Tea Party movement, and much of the footage in Hating Breitbart comes from his speeches at rallies around the country. Since its founder’s death, Breitbart.com has continued to pursue his vision. The site has a team in Tampa covering the GOP convention, and it was Breitbart.com’s John Sexton who on Wednesday pointed out certain interesting details of Chalian’s résumé, including his role at ABC News as the producer of Charlie Gibson’s 2008 interview with Sarah Palin. Breitbart’s example helped inspire a surge of interest in citizen-journalism, as he often explained in speeches that he relied on ordinary people with video cameras to expose the news that the liberal press refused to report.
Many of those in attendance at Wednesday’s movie premiere were Breitbart’s friends and colleagues, who afterwards expressed how much they miss him. Breitbart the man is gone, but Breitbart the verb is still very much with us.