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Defending the Breitbart Vetting

At the Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf takes issue with the Breitbart.com vetting of Obama’s younger years, and argues that it’s just one example of the conservative media’s self-defeating behavior:

Perhaps “The Vetting” drives traffic to Breitbart.com. When it comes to giving insight into Obama’s actions, or the course his second term would be likely to take, or advancing conservative insights, it’s utterly pointless — it misleads more often than it clarifies, and whereas actually digging into Obama’s behavior during his first term, or his donors, or the gulf between his promises and actions might produce newsworthy scoops, Breitbart.com is spending its time digging up old play posters with Obama’s name on them and proving he once dressed patriotically. …

On Twitter yesterday, conservative journalist John Tabin took issue with my argument that these pathologies, common to many (though not all) conservative media outlets, are one obstacle to a conservatism that focuses on and achieves the passage of reform legislation on taxes, spending, and entitlements. So I’ll close by posing a question to him. Breitbart.com is read largely by movement conservatives. Does it help or hurt the conservative cause when they focus on the issues raised in “The Vetting” series?

It’s true that digging into Obama’s past for insight into his second term is probably useless, and these issues shouldn’t be used as a serious conservative arguments against Obama’s reelection. But that’s not really the point of Breitbart’s vetting, which is aimed at holding the media accountable for what it missed in 2008 – as the Breitbart website explains, “to show that the media had failed in its most basic duty.” Whether it’s been successful is a matter of personal opinion, but the issue of the media’s double standard of scrutiny are certainly worth addressing.

So Obama wearing patriotic garb, and a copy of an old law school exam he gave may not be major bombshells. But is the story about Romney’s dog riding on the roof of his car decades ago really a groundbreaking revelation? Why have reporters dug up Romney’s prep school frenemies from half a century ago, while the mainstream reporting on Obama’s college and post-college years has largely been fawning and positive? Even David Maraniss’s book, which is expected to be the most exhaustive examination of Obama’s post-college years, sounds like it will also be a flattering portrayal. From Josh Wilwol’s review (h/t Mike Allen):

“Maraniss’s Obama is sympathetic, and in contrast to his exotic background, he emerges as a normal, well-adjusted guy. At Occidental, ‘Barry”s Mick Jagger impression was legendary, and as a teen at Honolulu’s Punahou School, he was known for snagging joints from his buddies’ hands and shouting ‘Intercepted!’ before taking an extra hit. Halfway through the book, Maraniss describes a day when a high-school teacher asked Obama what people should most fear. ‘Words,’ uttered the boy who would be known for his stirring speeches. ‘Words … can be weapons of destruction.’”

There’s no reason the conservative media can’t cover media bias issues, while also discussing policy — in fact, it already does that. Friedersdorf’s overarching implication, that the conservative media as a whole is obsessed with digging up Obama’s past and ignores more substantive debates, is just inaccurate. The Breitbart focus on media bias isn’t a threat to policy-driven conservatism, because it’s not necessary to choose one over the other. There are plenty of other conservative publications that cover fiscal policy, and that doesn’t mean important cultural issues have to be ignored.



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