A blustery quarrel has broken out at Breitbart News, leaving one reporter fired and poised to file a defamation lawsuit, and editors scrambling and bickering about what to do about it.
In September of 2013, Lee Stranahan quit his job as a reporter at Breitbart News. As of Friday, day two of the Conservative Political Action Conference, he was done again. This time, fired.
Thanks to Twitter and email, he isn’t being quiet about it. And neither is Breitbart Texas Bureau Chief Brandon Darby.
Stranahan is among the old school Breitbartians, the ones who miss Andrew Breitbart desperately and don’t like what the new regime under the site’s “Executive Chairman” Steve Bannon has become. But that’s all a side story. This one has everything do with Darby, Stranahan’s supervisor in the Breitbart “Texas” bureau, where Stranahan had been employed as a contributor since last month, earning $100 per story.
In February, Breitbart News announced the worldwide expansion of their operation, with new “bureaus” popping up in Texas and London, with promises of more to come. And by “bureaus,” this means someone lives in a particular city and writes for Breitbart – and voila! – a new bureau has been born. Such was the case with Stranahan, who happens to live in Dallas with his wife and kids and works from home. The release stated Stranahan’s role as part of the Texas team: “Lee Stranahan – Contributor Breitbart Texas, investigative reporter and filmmaker, focusing on the institutional Left and corruption in the State of Texas.”
This was a surprise on many levels.
Six months ago, Stranahan was done with Breitbart News. In a post on his personal website, he wrote, “Bye Bye Breitbart: I Quit and Thanks.” In the outpouring, he wrote, “Why did I quit? Circumstances led to a situation where I felt I couldn’t do my best work there. Honestly, it’s for reasons I believe Andrew would have approved of. Andrew and I shared a passion for covering big stories that the media overlooked and exposing the left; work that I plan to continue.”
Among the reasons he told me at the time why he bolted: “For a few weeks, I’d been submitting pieces that weren’t getting published. I thought these articles were strong in terms of both research and writing. When I found out who had spiked them and their explanation, I lost confidence that my work was going to be edited fairly in the future. I was on staff and salaried so this is strictly about me wanting to see my work have the most impact and to not be buried vindictively.”
He called his work “labor intensive,” and explained it sometimes involves “chasing chanting protestors around hot city streets.” He added, “As hard as I work, I couldn’t bear to see my best writing smothered to death for no justifiable reason.”
With that, he boarded a flight for the Middle East to cover the plight of of Syrian Christian refugees.
Fast forward five months later. It’s February, Stranahan is broke and looking for work. He’s told through Darby that Bannon says he can possibly return, but only if he comes “bellycrawling” back to the site. Meaning, begging will be required. Stranahan says Bannon now denies ever saying it.
Like others, Stranahan has had bitter fights with Bannon, resulting in lengthy email vitriol and unsolicited advice to Bannon to stop being a bully. This time around, Breitbart News — notorious for stringent contractual arrangements and locking reporters in for several years at a time — wanted to bring Stranahan back full time and pay him an annual salary. But he wasn’t having it. He preferred to work on his own terms as a contributor.
On February 6, 2014, Darby emailed Stranahan terms for a contract. Note the line where Stranahan is forbidden to contact higher-ups at the company such as Larry Solov and Bannon.
Subject line: Trying again
“54k per year, exclusivity for Breitbart, minimum 12 approved pieces per week at 800+ words, plus 1 2k+ word longform piece for each Sunday morning. You’ll enjoy a lot of freedom to follow your passions — as they pertain to Left or Democratic efforts in Texas. The number is workable, both + and -, if written approval is given in consideration of specific circumstances. All with the agreement that contacting Larry Solov, Steve Bannon, or any other entity in the company about work matters means immediate dismissal. Confidentiality agreement, agree not to disparage the company or anyone involved with us, to contradict company narratives, or to create public or internal controversy in a manner that Steve Bannon, Larry Solov, or I deem as negative towards the company or the interests of the company. No public fundraising for stories.”
Stranahan turned the contract down.
In January, Breitbart came dangerously close to losing Ben Shapiro, editor-at-large. In fact, leaving was most definitely in the works. But in the end, they worked it out so Shapiro could still run Truth Revolt, which has nothing to do with Breitbart. Some might read between the lines – Shapiro, also a lawyer, carved out his own terms. Another Breitbartian, Larry O’Connor, is not quite so lucky. He’s bellycrawling his way out the door, not in. Negotiations are still being sorted out and sources say they could drag out another six months.
At most news organizations, if a journalist wants out, your bosses don’t want you there. Who wants to keep someone who doesn’t want to be there? At a place like Politico, they might badmouth you for awhile, whispering that the person was never that good, no big loss. But at Breitbart, whispering would be kind. Here they use legal measures to make you stay until they are good and ready to dump you.
Last week Stranahan was working under Darby, the Texas “bureau” chief. But by the week’s end declared that he would not work with Stranahan. He killed one of his stories – (this one) – and insisted he wouldn’t publish any more. Hours later, Stranahan says, he was fired.
But technology never lets anything die, especially a firing.
A whole mess of emails broke out between Stranahan and Darby, with a peppering of Bannon mixed in. By this point, Stranahan had been reporting pieces of his story out on Twitter. Darby took the matter a significant step further by jumping onto Twitter to state that Stranahan had asked one of his subjects for money for one of his Middle East reporting missions. Darby charged that when Stranahan was turned down, he sought revenge against Dan Backer, an attorney who runs DB Strategies, which handles PAC money for campaigns. In his reporting, Stranahan purports that Backer allegedly raised Tea Party money and donated it to lawmakers such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
Stranahan gave Darby a “deadline” to remove what he considered defamatory tweets. Darby eventually deleted them, but not before the deadline. Stranahan wrote: “We are now past the deadline I sent you about removing Brandon Darbys false, defamatory published statements about me accusing me of a crime and of unprofessional conduct. Please be advised that I am moving forward with pursuing all option to recover the damage these false statements by a Breitbart employee are doing to my professional reputation and to me personally.”
Stranahan denied such an exchange between he and Backer ever existed. But over the weekend, an email chain surfaced (see below) in which Stranahan asked Backer if he knows of any funders for his mission. He mentions a finder’s fee. Backer quickly shuts him down, saying he knows of no funders and that it would be a conflict of interest for him to help in any way.
Stranahan technically did not ask Backer for money. He also did not reply angrily when Backer backed away. If Stranahan was furious at Backer and seeking revenge, their emails don’t reveal that. Stranahan claimed the exchange was so insignificant that he forgot it ever happened.
Darby, meanwhile, claims Stranahan’s story involving Backer is wrong, but has yet to explain why.
In a slew of emails obtained by The Mirror, Stranahan repeatedly asks Darby for an explanation and Darby repeatedly avoids giving one or offering any specifics. At some point, Bannon dives in to separate what reads like a rather childish fight and tells the two men to “get their shit together.”
Let’s have a look.
March 5, 2014: 6:17 p.m. – 12:07 a.m.
Subject line: “Brandon fired me over false allegations.”
Stranahan to Larry Solov — Breitbart News CEO and Andrew Breitbart’s business partner — Bannon and Darby: “I have asked him repeatedly to specify what I did wrong but he won’t. He claims I made ‘unfounded’ accusations againt ‘half the center right.’ This is blatantly false. I’ve asked him to name ONE example and he can’t, because I have done no such thing. This is unprofessional behavior and it helps nobody and will end up reflecting badly on the company.”
Bannon: “Stop..stop..stop..will u two get your shit together and work as a team…larry and I have too much on our plates…work it out.”
Stranahan: “God bless you. Have a great CPAC. Congrats on the Cruz hit.”
Bannon: “Thanks — now Lee u MUST work w/ brandon — take the burden off of him.”
Stranahan: “I’m ready, willing and trying. My original stories at Breitbart Texas have been getting us notice / lots of comments and that will continue, if he runs them.”
Bannon: “Lee, even with all your madness we still love u, but u must understand we put a lot of pressure on brandon ( as we do all the editors)…u nedd [sic] to LISTEN to him.”
Stranahan: “I have been very straightforward with Brandon about my schedule. Remember, I worked as an editor in chief for magazines. I understand the pressure. When I’m suddenly accused of something that isn’t true, all I can do is ask for him to explain. He refused. Over and over. It’s clear he had been given bad info by someone and can’t explain it. Don’t know what more to do. Love you guys, too. I just want to do the work.”
Darby: “Lee. Don’t contact me further please. Thanks.”
Stranahan: “There’s the problem. I’m ready and willing on my end.”
Stranahan: “Ask Brandon why he killed my story about a Tea Party group funneling money to Mitch McConnell and John Cornyn, through attorney Dan Backer.”
Stranahan: “Here’s the story [link]. Brandon referred to it as ‘unfounded’ accusations.’ I’m not sure what reporter Brandon was confusing me with. I don’t make unfounded accusations in my reporting. It’s a total insult but I’m still willing to work for Brandon when he stops pouting.”
Stranahan: “Brandon said I was “attacking every right of center group’ with ‘unfounded accusations.’ Like this, where i show how Tea Party Donor money went to a liberal Democrat. http://wp.me/pov2Z-2hJ Why did Brandon fire me over this?”
Stranahan: “Read those pieces, please. I wouldn’t have written them in the same style for Breitbart News, obviously, but the underlying facts are 100% solid. But I got FIRED by Brandon over the facts, which I bet he didn’t even bother to read before he fired me. It’s wrong. It shows extremely poor judgment on Brandon’s part. I did nothing wrong for him to fire me over. Nothing.”
The email exchange between Stranahan and Dan Backer
Date: Oct. 16, 2013
Subject: Hey Dan: film proposal…
Stranahan: “Dan, I recently went to Lebanon for 11 days to cover the refugee crisis and plight of Christians in the Middle East. I got exclusive interviews with Syrian refugees, major religious leaders from the region and developed some incredible contacts. I’m trying to raise around $60k for an hour documentary that hits hard on the Hillary / Kerry / Obama policies that have led to the a massive crisis. I’d want to go back to the Middle East in a couple of weeks for extra shooting and get the project edited for a December release. If you know any funders who might be interested in such a project, let’s talk. There’s a finder’s fee / executive producer credit and this is an important issue.”
Date: Oct. 17, 2013
Backer: “Lee, Thank you for the email, but I can’t think of anyone I have that kind of access too who would be in a position to bankroll the project. Sorry about that. Incidentally, and while I appreciate the offer, I can’t accept finders’ fees for introducing my clients to potential opportunities because it would create an inherit conflict under my professional ethics duties. Thanks though! If I do hear of any leads, I will let you know.”
The tweets that Darby has since deleted
Bickering between Darby and Stranahan on March 5, 2014
Stranahan: What’s happening with this piece?
Darby: Nothing. It’s yours to do as you want with.
Stranahan: Very professional.
Stranahan: Back up your accusation that I was “attacking half the center right” with “unfounded accusations.”
Stranahan: Next time you kill my pieces, tell me, coward.
Darby: I called you yesterday and told you. You have embarrassed the hell out of me, lee [sic]. I told you I wasn’t ging [sic] to be working with you and running your pieces.
Stranahan: Embarrassed you HOW? Be specific. Name one unfounded accusation I made.
Stranahan: You’re wrong and too pigheaded to know you’re wrong.
Stranahan: I’ve asked you about six times to name a specific on my “unfounded accusations” and you can’t.
The latest exchanges between Stranahan and Darby
Thursday, March 6, 2014
Stranahan: “Brandon, Please tell us all specifically when and how you claim that I contacted Dan Backer and asked him for money? Please give as specific a date or time as you can. Can you produce any evidence of texts. emails or other written evidence where you ever brought this issue up with me or anyone else? Also; please confirm that a bit over a year ago, you told me in no uncertain terms that you had a plan to file false police charges against [BLANK], with the knowingly false claim that he had a sexual interest in [BLANK] Breitbart.”
Friday, March 7, 2014 at 10:11 a.m.
Darby: “Lee, I’ve repeatedly said you are not fired. I’m am working and you are interfering with me doing my job. I am very busy here as I told you. Please stop the incessant interruptions. We can talk Sunday after CPAC.”
Friday, March 7, 2014 at 8:08 p.m.
Darby: “I know you and I are in disagreement, but I wanted to try to calm things down. So without acknowledging that your claims and/or accusations were or are correct (i.e., I do not agree), I very much wanted to stop the exchanges we have had; to that end, I took down my tweets—especially in the hope that that will let us discuss matters not only later—but with less emotion. I hope this is helpful.”
Stranahan at 10:15 p.m.: “You leveled serious allegations of professional misconduct and illegal behavior against me in a public forum. If your allegations are true, you should want nothing to do with me professionally in the future. If your allegations are false, I should want nothing to do with you professionally in the future. And we are both aware that your allegations are false.”
The Mirror sought comment from Darby as well as Bannon on Stranahan’s status with the company, his story on Backer and quarreling with Darby. None was forthcoming by press time.