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How ‘Passionate Warrior’ Breitbart Influenced Conservative Social Media Efforts

March 1, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
For another discussion on how politicians use online tools, Jeffrey Brown is joined by journalists Lauren Ashburn and Howard Kurtz of the Daily Download. They reflect on the impact of conservative "warrior" Andrew Breitbart, who was found dead Thursday, and examine how event staging is affecting campaigns this year.

JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight, we continue our regular look at the campaign as it plays out in social media and on the Web.

For that, we’re joined again by two journalists from the new website Daily Download. Lauren Ashburn is the site’s editor in chief and is formerly with USA Today Live and Gannett Broadcasting. Howard Kurtz is Newsweek’s Washington bureau chief and host of CNN’s “Reliable Sources.”

And welcome back.

HOWARD KURTZ, Newsweek/CNN: Thank you.


JEFFREY BROWN: I want to start with some news today, and unfortunately in the form of an obituary.

The conservative media activist Andrew Breitbart was found dead, aged 43, natural causes. We’re still waiting to learn more.

But, Howie, this was a major figure in the world that you guys look at, right, social media and political activism?

HOWARD KURTZ: Absolutely.

Andrew Breitbart was a passionate warrior for conservative causes. And that fervor came through every time I interviewed him. And he really was a creature of the Internet, because being able to directly broadcast, in effect, to millions of people online enabled him to bypass the mainstream media.

But Breitbart was also a guy who delighted in going too far. So, for example, he was the one who put up the undercover video in that sting against the community group ACORN which turned out later to have been edited, and the famous — or infamous, I should say, deceptively edited video of the federal worker Shirley Sherrod, made it look like she was giving a racist speech, when then she was actually making the opposite point.

He didn’t — he wasn’t big on apologizing when he pushed the envelope like that.


And he was known as a rebel really online. And he had a lot of detractors and a lot of supporters. He had 73,000 Twitter followers, the size of a small city. But a lot of them didn’t like him. But they loved his passion, I think.

Even Media Matters, which is a liberal watchdog group, came out today and said, “We praise his passion and his commitment to his craft.”

JEFFREY BROWN: So, an influential, if divisive, figure in this world.


When Sen. Ted Kennedy died, just hours after that, he was writing some pretty harsh things about him.

JEFFREY BROWN: Okay. So now let’s move to the primaries, because today — this week, there were two, Michigan and Arizona.

And one very interesting event of the week happened in Michigan. It was a Mitt Romney event at Ford Field.

Howie, tell us about that.

HOWARD KURTZ: This was billed as a major economic speech by Romney’s campaign, and yet it became about one thing. That one thing was the setting and the horrible optics.

And the reporters there — Washington Post journalist Philip Rucker is an example. He used his Twitter account to send out a picture of Ford Field. And, of course, the event had been moved there, and he wrote, “I’m not sure there are enough seats at Ford Field,” sarcastically, “for Romney’s econ speech.”

So the entire substance of what Romney had to say was overshadowed by the pictures of the fact that this was a stadium that was largely empty.

JEFFREY BROWN: So an example where the campaign is trying for one thing, but it gets out of their control.


And I think this also shows how influential pictures have become in social media. One of the things that we have also noticed is the website Instagram, which is a very popular picture-sharing site — it has five million users and more than 150 million pictures. I will show you some of the examples.

Here’s President Obama, a picture taken and put up on Instagram. The campaign just decided to join Instagram several weeks ago so that they can get their pictures out without having to, as Howie said before, go through the mainstream media.

JEFFREY BROWN: And who — so who are they — when they say getting it out, who are they trying to reach with things like this?

LAUREN ASHBURN: Here’s another one I’ll show you.

HOWARD KURTZ: Well, these are purported to be behind-the-scenes pictures. And they’re trying to reach people who like not only looking at pictures on Instagram, but you can edit them yourself, you can share them, you can send them around. So they’re basically playing to the online community, which is increasingly a large segment of potential voters.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you also have examples from, again, Mitt Romney, right? But these are not ones that he put out.

LAUREN ASHBURN: Right. He didn’t, unfortunately, Jeff. I don’t understand why they wouldn’t put these out.

Look at this one picture here. Doesn’t Romney look just like the, you know, happy grandfather? His hair is disheveled and he’s smiling, obviously, at some event.

HOWARD KURTZ: Let me take a second to explain how come we’re seeing this picture and some others that you’re about to put up.

And that is, while the Romney campaign might have put up these kinds of family man pictures, instead, it was a site called BuzzFeed, which is kind of an offbeat site that deals with a lot of pop culture stuff. Today, BuzzFeed has pictures of 30 cats lounging in shoes.


HOWARD KURTZ: And they put this up under the headline “25 Photos That Make Mitt Romney Look Human.” In other words, this is not the candidate we see on the stage looking rather stiff every. . .

JEFFREY BROWN: And it’s been an issue for him. Right?

LAUREN ASHBURN: Right. Here’s another one.

HOWARD KURTZ: Instead of the Romney campaign doing it, it’s left to BuzzFeed. And it has attracted a lot of attention and, yes, buzz.

LAUREN ASHBURN: Right. Well, it has.

Look at this picture, though. What does this say to you? This just says regular guy playing a backyard game with his family in a normal middle-class neighborhood. And this one, how many times have we all been here with our families seated around the kitchen table? There he is in the middle, the patriarch of the family, and those yellow tumbler cups that everybody uses, so kids don’t spill things.

HOWARD KURTZ: And you know where these pictures came from was a blog. It was called the Mormon Mommy Blog maintained by a daughter-in-law of Mitt Romney. And so this is how it made its way on to BuzzFeed. Once this was publicized, the blog was shut down.

Why the campaign wouldn’t. . .

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, it was shut down. So once the campaign sees these out, which you’re saying make him look pretty good, at least natural, their reaction was to. . .

JEFFREY BROWN: . . . negative?

HOWARD KURTZ: I guess they felt that this was private.

But when you’re running for president, part of what you’re doing is you’re running your family, as the potential family to live in the White House.

LAUREN ASHBURN: His handsome son.

HOWARD KURTZ: His handsome — his five sons.

And so it’s hard for me to understand why it took an offbeat website to put out pictures that this campaign should pay money to have people look at, because it makes Mitt Romney look like a good guy.

LAUREN ASHBURN: It does. Well, it makes him — his big criticism is that he is very stiff, not a hair out of place, very calculated at the debate, not going too high, not going too low.

And here this softens him, but it doesn’t seem like the Romney campaign really got that.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s interesting, because the running theme in what we have just looked at today and other things we have talked about is the campaigns trying to use these different technologies, but often not being able to control what comes out.


And the same thing is really happening with video as well. Pictures are something that we are all able to grasp on to. But then you don’t where they go once you put them up on to the World Wide Web.

And you don’t know how they’re manipulated as well. So I think that could be one of the reasons that the campaign has been so reticent to use it.

HOWARD KURTZ: But the sea change here is — whether you’re talking about a video announcement of a candidacy or an attack ad that is put on the Web or just these nice pictures of behind the scenes or playing with your grandchildren, you used to have to rely on television programs like this one to put those out. Now campaigns can do this themselves.

Some of them are more adept than others. But they understand that images really create lasting impressions in a way that words simply can’t match.

JEFFREY BROWN: And others can put it out as well, Andrew Breitbart and many others, right?


JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Howard Kurtz, Lauren Ashburn, thanks again.