When more than 43,000 ColorOfChange.org members spoke up last week to demand that huckster Andrew Breitbart not be given a place of privilege on the Huffington Post, they weren't motivated by some desire to name-call. They weren't pretending to have some window into Breitbart's heart, or to understand his personal preferences or how he treats his neighbors.
But you wouldn't know that from watching how Breitbart — and many in the media — responded to the success of our campaign. Instead, the issue quickly became whether or not Breitbart is a racist, a claim that ColorOfChange.org has never made. What we have rightfully claimed is that Breitbart race-baits. What we mean by that — just in case it's honestly a term that confounds the wordsmiths in the Beltway's media corps — is that Breitbart is the latest in a long line of political operatives who take advantage of Americans' racial fears and anxieties for political, economic or personal gain.
Race-baiting is a tool that has propelled the careers of many men before Breitbart (see: Lee Atwater). And if journalists, pundits and political leaders aren't willing to acknowledge that Breitbart and his ilk willfully create false narratives that play on racial divisions, then our public discourse is doomed to continued pollution by these dirty tricks in an era where they simply have no place.
Here's how we described what Breitbart does in the original email message we sent our members: "His method is to pose as a journalist, and then use deceptive tactics to gin up race-based fears, protect racists, and demonize black political leaders and institutions." Race-baiting is what Glenn Beck did when claimed that Barack Obama has "a deep-seated hatred of white people, or the white culture." It's what Roger Ailes did with the "Willie Horton" ad and what he continues to promote in much of Fox News' programming, as we saw in Megyn Kelly's breathless coverage of the New Black Panther Party last summer. And it's what Breitbart did when he demonized ACORN, Shirley Sherrod and the NAACP under false pretenses.
By pointing out these clear examples of pandering to some of the worst and most antiquated instincts in the American psyche, are we calling Beck, Ailes, Kelly or Breitbart racists? No. In fact, we're happy to assume that they aren't — because it's not who they are that creates a problem; it's what they do.
In this most recent case, after his ouster from a coveted slot on HuffPo's front page, Breitbart was eager to change the subject to whether or not he's a racist. It was a blatant effort to distract the public from the accusations he'd have a much harder time defending: whether he engages in race-baiting.
But you'd expect as much from Breitbart. The real problem is that major media figures and institutions took the bait, thereby helping muddy the conversation to the point that a meaningful dialogue became impossible. For some reason, Huffington Post Executive Editor Roy Sekoff took seriously the line of questioning put to him by the Daily Caller, practically tripping over himself to assure the Daily Caller's readers that he knows Breitbart is a good person on the inside.
Breitbart, though, is relieved that Sekoff and Arianna Huffington have said publicly that they don't think Breitbart is a racist. "I want to make it as clear as possible that neither I nor Arianna believe that Andrew Breitbart is a racist," Sekoff said in his email to the Daily Caller. "If we did believe that, we never would have allowed him to blog on HuffPost — let alone featured him on our front page. The decision about not featuring him on the front page in the future had nothing to do with race, but was based on the nature of his attack on Van Jones, as we've always made clear."
Sekoff's words are troubling for several reasons. For one, he (and, because he implicates her, Arianna Huffington) pretends that race has nothing to do with why Breitbart is bad for the Huffington Post brand. Instead, he sticks by their stated, implausible rationale for getting rid of their Breitbart problem: that it's because Breitbart said mean things about ColorOfChange co-founder Jones on someone else's website.
Why not tackle the issue directly and speak to Breitbart's role in destroying Sherrod's career, maligning the NAACP and financially crippling ACORN under false pretenses? Why did taking that additional step prove too difficult for Sekoff and Huffington? Perhaps for the same reason that many white progressive organizations and bloggers (with some important exceptions) that are usually eager to pile on when there's an opportunity to call out the lies of conservative operatives were silent.
It could largely have been because these groups were afraid to run afoul of the Huffington Post, a media outlet that has long been considered a key part of progressives' communications infrastructure. But shouldn't that be all the more reason to keep HuffPo honest? A more likely reason for their conspicuous absence from the conversation was an inability to confront head-on a conversation about race and race-baiting.
This same reluctance (cowardice? postracial delusion?) was evident in some of the coverage of our campaign. David Weigel at Slate conflated our members' efforts against Breitbart with Media Matters' work monitoring Fox News, characterizing both as " … a liberal campaign aimed at getting conservatives off the air, off the Huffington Post front page, off Fox News. It's as blatant as the conservative campaign to dismantle the liberal media."
Well, no. Unless there's a conservative campaign afoot to keep race-baiters who intentionally deceive from appearing as trustworthy, ethical pundits on the Sunday-morning shows and network news, then there's really no comparison. Perhaps Weigel realizes this but fears what an honest assessment of Breitbart's race problem might do to his own bona fides as an objective journalist.
It's this kind of tiptoeing around issues of race that has allowed a new, twisted logic to take root. Lately, the activists and everyday folks who name or challenge inequality and racial discrimination are themselves labeled "racists," and these claims are taken seriously by some in the media. Breitbart used precisely this tactic — launching the invective at Jones and ColorOfChange.org as a whole — once our campaign started gaining steam.
Of course, it's easy to see why Breitbart, Beck, et al. engage in this tactic. They think that the more they toss the word around, the less meaning it will have. And if "racist" means nothing, and members of the media continue to scratch their heads and pretend that race-baiting is a foreign concept with no historical precedent, then Team Breitbart will ultimately win. They'll be free to continue their cynical behavior under cover of linguistic darkness. And our public discourse will become all the weaker for it.