As the war of words between the President of the United States and Steve Bannon rages over comments in a new book, one question remains on the minds of those who were friends of the man whose website Bannon now runs: Can it survive without him?
Breitbart News was founded by the late Andrew Breitbart and his childhood friend Larry Solov as several separate sites, the “Bigs,” they were called. Big Hollywood, Big Government, Big Journalism, etc. The names were a play on the liberal penchant for demonizing entire industries by labeling them as “big” and using it against liberal sacred cows – think big oil, big tobacco, big pharma.
Around the time of Breitbart’s death, the individual sites were rolled into one: Breitbart News.
After Andrew’s death in March 2012, Steve Bannon became the effective head of the company, though Solov and Breitbart’s widow retained ownership control.
I was friends with Andrew and used to write on a volunteer basis for his sites because of that friendship. It’s unclear how Steve came into the picture, he wasn’t around at the start, I just remember him suddenly being around when Andrew came to town. I never asked, he never said, and it doesn’t really matter.
To say things changed when Steve took over is to say the sun is bright. Matt Drudge, a close friend of Breitbart’s and former supporter called Bannon “schizophrenic.”
Bannon is “a blot on the conservative movement and a detriment to Breitbart News more broadly, as he always was,” says Ben Shapiro, a good friend of Andrew’s and editor-in-chief of The Daily Wire.
Dana Loesch, nationally syndicated radio host and author who served as editor-in-chief of Big Journalism was equally as blunt. “He should have never been in this position in the first place. Bannon has turned that website into the Media Matters of the right,” Loesch said.
A former editor-in-chief of Breitbart TV sees Bannon as an obvious liability. Larry O’Connor, now a radio host in Washington, DC, told the Daily Caller, “It’s hard not to see how he’s a liability for the Brand for the company at this point. Not to mention the reputation of the investors. He’s the face and voice and identifying figure that represents the website and you’ve got the president of the United States publicly humiliating and ridiculing him almost a daily now.”
“He’s a total piece of shit,” said another friend of Andrew’s who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Meredith Dake-O’Connor, one of the original editors at Breitbart video, was not happy with the choice of Bannon to succeed Andrew but tried to give him a chance. She quickly soured on him. “From the day that Bannon was announced I have been against his leadership at Breitbart.com. In reality, I tried to give him a chance right after Andrew’s death, but his treatment of people and his editorial vision is and always has been unacceptable,” she told the Daily Caller.
I’ve only known Steve socially, I’ve never worked with him – and socially he was perfectly fine – but several former Breitbart employees, many of whom are friends of mine, have painted a picture of abuse, bullying and threats that completely changed both the tone and direction of the company once he took over.
Make no mistake, Andrew Breitbart was a partisan; he was upfront about it, proud of it. But the work was not about pushing any person or party.
“It’s impossible to say how the site would have evolved under Andrew’s leadership,” Dake-O’Connor said. “In my observation, Andrew was far less interested in Washington tick-tock than Steve’s editorial vision. Andrew despised the incestuous relationship that media organizations had with politicians. Steve recreated that incestuous relationship but on the other side of the aisle. I cannot imagine Andrew doing the same thing.”
Larry O’Connor agrees with his wife, “Although the site was obviously focused on national politics quite a bit with the big government web page, and he was intent on keeping the main operation in Los Angeles. He had no interest in moving to DC and he had no interest in having the central focus of the site be Washington politics. So to that end, I think that there’s been a pretty major departure.”
“But beyond that, there’s a question of tone,” O’Connor continued, blaming Bannon for that change in tone. “Under Andrew we were sharp and pointed and we would criticize and attack our political foes, but it was never mean, it was never vicious. It was fun. Think of Andrew on Rollerblades, that was the spirit of Andrew and it was the spirit of what the sites represented. Since those days, I believe the content on the site now is mean and angry and vicious and vengeful and destructive.”
Loesch, too, believes the Bannon-run Breitbart is far from Andrew’s original vision. “I don’t think Andrew Breitbart ever meant for his site to be a “weapon” for Steve Bannon’s personal vendettas,” she told the Daily Caller. Continuing, “I will not speak for Andrew, but if you listen to his last CPAC speech wherein he clearly defined the battle lines, I doubt Andrew would define ‘enacting the President’s agenda’ as power-jockeying while opposing the President’s primary endorsements (and stripping the GOP down to a now one seat majority), fighting his historic tax reform, bashing his family publicly, and undermining his overall agenda by blabbing and leaking to progressive media outlets.”
“The site bears little to no resemblance to what Andrew built,” Shapiro told the Daily Caller. “Andrew’s vision was of a fighting machine directed against false media narratives and involved in the culture war, not a personal political tool for a two-bit grifter.”
Many people share Shapiro’s opinion. “Steve is kind of dumb,” said a source prevented from speaking on the record, “That’s the great unreported story here. He’s so aggressive and self-assured, so eager to tell you about the latest book he’s skimmed, that you can miss it at first, but if you press him even a little it’s obvious he has no idea what he’s talking about.”
Under Bannon, Breitbart became more of an activist site, particularly for Donald Trump during the 2016 Republican primary. That’s how Steve made it into the Trump inner circle, and now that the relationship has soured, the question of what comes next for Breitbart News remains an open one.
There are reports that Bannon could be on his way out, having fallen out of favor not only with the White House, but with Rebekah Mercer, the daughter of billionaire hedge fund manager Robert Mercer and a major investor in the company and benefactor for Bannon’s political activities.
So what becomes of Breitbart if Bannon leaves? Can the ship sail without its captain? Should it?
Loesch says the answer depends on whether Bannon remains in control. “Andrew’s legacy is more influential than Bannon’s quest for personal power and vengeance. Whether it can be saved or not depends on if Bannon stays and the editorial direction it takes in his absence,” she said. “Using the site as a tool of petty vengeance to kneecap the president and those who would challenge your borrowed authority isn’t journalism.”
“As long as Bannon directs every editorial decision in the editorial spirit and tone of the site and he continues to be the face and voice and singular figure representing the brand, it’s going to have some problems,” O’Connor said. “Especially in one fundamental business aspect … You saw Matt Drudge basically coming out this week and calling for Larry Solov and Susie Breitbart to take back control of the site. He publicly ridiculed Steve Bannon. I don’t see how Andrew Breitbart’s vision for a news and opinion website sustains itself when the Drudge Report is at odds with it.”
“The only way Breitbart News could be saved,” Shapiro said, “is for the original vision of Breitbart to rise above Bannon once again: stop investing in DC politics, and start investing in the wars Andrew found valuable. Bannon has certainly toxified it for the foreseeable future.”
That’s the problem the website faces: it’s now more Steve Bannon than Andrew Breitbart. How can it survive without him?
“There are people there whom I consider family,” Dake-O’Connor added. “There is a deep bond for what the editorial staff went through that will, for me, always endure. I believe the early day editors, hired when Andrew was alive who are still there (and a few others), can make smart editorial decisions and produce great journalism that covers news and culture that the mainstream ignores. I’ve seen them do it. It all depends on the website that they want to be.”
Shapiro thinks the staff would welcome the prospect of giving it a go without Bannon. “Not everyone there is a Steve loyalist. In fact, I’d think most people there dislike Steve intensely, but they work for him, so there’s not much they can say,” he said.
On the other hand, Loesch thinks wholesale changes, not just at the top, are needed to save the site. “In my opinion, yes. I believe those who best kept the fighting, happy warrior spirit of Andrew Breitbart alive all jumped ship long ago,” she said.
Dake-O’Connor would like to see a major culture-shift and focus for the site. “The only way the site is successful in my mind is if they go back to the LA-culture-centric scene and vibe not only editorially, but staff-wise. Anyone not on board with that, or who is more interested in being considered a power broker, will not help that cause,” she said.
Larry added, “Matt Drudge and Rush Limbaugh were friends, mentors, and heroes of Andrew’s. And this week you saw both of those New Media icons publicly distance themselves from Steve Bannon. How could any of us thrive in the right-of-center new media landscape by being on the wrong side of those two?”
So would these former employees return to help right the ship, even temporarily? “I run my own ship now,” Shapiro said. However, he did add, “I’d always be more than happy to help out any outlet bearing Andrew’s name that wanted to reflect Andrew’s vision, because I believe in that original vision, and Andrew was a great man and a terrific friend.”
Dake-O’Connor has a similar desire to see the site thrive under new management, but would she return? “It would depend on their editorial direction going forward and how much editorial influence I would have,” she said.
“I have definitely, over the years, had some real disagreements and some disappointments with what they published on the site. I’ve learned some amazing lessons about journalism, the industry and the relationship of media to our culture and country since leaving there and going into the beltway media world,” she continued. “Sometimes I find myself nostalgically thinking what it would be like to take those lessons back there. So under some very specific conditions, yeah. I think every person who worked there in the early days has committed time to thinking how they would return and right the ship if the conditions were right.”
She concluded, “We loved Andrew and we cared about that brand and that little collection of blogs that constantly punched way above their weight, and won.”
The sentiment is shared by her husband, Larry. “I’ve always left open the possibility of being part of what Andrew wanted to accomplish. And I still have great love and affection for many people who are still there. And certainly if it would help Susie and Andrew’s children, I would seriously consider it,” he said.
Larry thinks there will have to be significant staff changes as well. “I don’t know about wholesale but a good chunk of the DC hires would need to be reexamined in a very serious way,” he said.
As far as returning goes, Loesch is “happy where I am and am preparing for a new endeavor later this year. I don’t like going backwards.”
She thinks the problems at Breitbart now run deeper than just Bannon. “I also don’t think any of the original editors, myself included, would consider assisting the site with anything unless those who facilitated Bannon’s rise and failures were stripped of any and all editorial authority,” she concluded.
As for me? Do I think it can continue? Breitbart News has found an audience with their current Bannon-led business model, so the site without him would undoubtedly go through some growing pains. But at this point, they may be worth it for the long-term prospects. So much of the site’s identity is tied up with Bannon, but it is anchored to his relationship with President Trump. That relationship appears to be over, and it’s clear something has to change. What that change is depends on whether or not Bannon stays.
I’d prefer to see him step aside, maybe start his own website. I haven’t been comfortable with what Breitbart has become in the last few years. I’d like to see the spirit of Andrew return to it and that can’t happen under current management, if it can happen at all.