The FRONTLINE Interview: Joel Pollak
Joel Pollak is the senior editor-at-large for Breitbart News and the author of How Trump Won: The Inside Story of a Revolution. In this interview, Pollak traces how Breitbart evolved from an organization focused largely on Hollywood and culture, to a must-read website for anyone following conservative politics – including Donald Trump himself.
This is the transcript of an interview with FRONTLINE’s Michael Kirk conducted on March 24, 2017. It has been edited for clarity and length.
… Who was Andrew Breitbart? We’ve talked with many people, all of whom have wonderful and interesting descriptions of him.
Andrew Breitbart, like many of the people who came to work for him, was a liberal apostate. He had grown up in West Los Angeles; he had conventional liberal views about the world. Was not terribly engaged in politics, but had some exposure, initially to talk radio and other things. The turning point for him, as he describes in his memoir, Righteous Indignation, was watching the Clarence Thomas hearings and watching Clarence Thomas dragged through the mud, and understanding that the promises made by Democrats as to what the public were going to see and how the public was going to be convinced that this man was unfit for the job, those promises were never fulfilled, instead of which you had a smear campaign against a man whose only crime really was being both black and conservative. And even Andrew, as a liberal, could see that this was wrong, and it violated some sense of justice that he had.
That began a process for him of political exploration. Many of us had similar journeys, perhaps provoked by different things, different experiences. But many of the people who came to Andrew were former liberals, who had had experiences that convinced them that left wing ideas were wrong and were incorrect or unjust. And partly because we felt such a burning desire to show that to people, that there was a very passionate group that assembled around Andrew and his mode of being happy warrior, that is to say, to fight hard for ideas, but to do so in an optimistic way.
Andrew believed that if given a level playing field, conservative ideas would have an even shot at winning, and perhaps win most of the time. And it was for that reason, he believed, that the mainstream media and that the institutional left did everything they could to marginalize conservatives, to ignore conservative ideas, to cast conservatives as racists.
Andrew started Breitbart about 12 years ago. But the real launch was in 2009 with “Big Hollywood.” That was a blog about Hollywood, written largely by conservatives in Hollywood. There were some movie reviews by conservatives in Hollywood. There were political posts. But essentially what it was was a continuation of Andrew’s exploration of just how left-wing Hollywood was, and just how intolerant Hollywood had become. Even though many people in Hollywood like to think of themselves as tolerant and open-minded and standing up for freedom of expression, when it comes to ideas with which they disagree, they’re often quite the opposite.
Andrew believed Hollywood came first before politics. Hollywood was upstream, or, as he liked to say, culture is upstream from politics. Politics is downstream from culture. Hollywood and the mainstream media, to him, created the landscape on which all political debates happen, so it was necessary, if you were going to unravel what he saw as the fundamental injustice of American political discourse, you had to start with the culture brokers.
So “Big Hollywood” launched in early 2009. In the fall he launched “Big Government” with the ACORN videos that James O’Keefe had produced. And that was a major splash. That came at a moment when Republicans had begun to find a mode of opposition to President Obama, and that exploded. Following that, there was “Big Journalism,” which sought to cover the mainstream media and push back. Then there was “Big Peace,” which was a critique of the liberal international consensus about global affairs.
At that point, Andrew began to plan to consolidate all of the different “Bigs” into Breitbart.com. He planned for the relaunch of Breitbart.com, which was scheduled for March 2012. As it happened, he passed away suddenly on March 1, 2012, and we launched Breitbart.com on schedule as he had planned it a few days later. We made the move, as Andrew had wanted, from essentially a blogging website, or set of blogs, to a 24-hour news service that was going to compete with the big names in the mainstream media. That’s where Andrew always wanted to go with this. And it was difficult, because many of the people who had worked for Breitbart had come from the activist world rather than the journalistic world. There were some people trained in journalism. But we had a huge task, which was to convert a site that had been largely focused on opinion, and even advocacy journalism, to one that had to cover news, because opinions don’t get trafficked. The reason that people don’t click on opinion is that everybody already has one. You can’t sell something to someone that they already have.
… So where and when does Bannon enter this scene with Andrew?
Steve was an important part of the company, I think, from the beginning. He was on the board of the company when I first joined. Then, after Andrew passed away, sometime after he had passed away, Steve became chairman of the board, executive chairman of the board. So his role increased afterward, and he was very important to the stability of the company during that period, and also to its success.
Were they close, Andrew and Steve?
Shared a vision?
Yes. Yes, they did, yes.
Steve Bannon is interested in politics more than Andrew was interested in politics.
That is correct.
How does that shift occur, and what was the impact of that on Breitbart?
Well, during the 2012 election, there were all kinds of debates about what the election meant. I remember a moment when we were all in the office watching one of the primary debates and realizing that this wasn’t going to go well. We could see it from the primary already, this wasn’t going to go well. Mitt Romney was an outstanding candidate in many ways, very well qualified, but the Republicans hadn’t managed to capture the imagination of the public, and there was a debate as to whether this was a good thing or a bad thing.
The election of 2012 settled that debate, in a way, not so much by deciding whether it was good or bad, but by making it clear that the Republican establishment, which had, in a sense, forced Romney on the rest of the party, and to which the Tea Party had reluctantly agreed, the Republican establishment had to have some accountability for that, instead of which the Republicans in the Beltway decided they were going to use the loss of 2012 to exact revenge from the Republican base. In their imagination, it was the base that had cost the party the election by pulling Mitt Romney to the right. This was the standard conventional Republican wisdom.
They came out with an “autopsy” of what ought to be done to fix the party in the future. And some of the recommendations were OK. But there was one very interesting one, which was that the party had to pass comprehensive immigration reform and move on. There was no real discussion or debate about it. It was just presumed that that had to happen, and there were very smart conservatives who agreed with this at the time.
I said, “No offense, but if they do that, I can’t vote Republican anymore.” And the reason is, I’m from an immigrant family, and to my mind, the most important thing about the United States is the rule of law. And the reason my family left where it was, which was South Africa, which they didn’t have to leave at the time — they could have had a comfortable life — my father had strong political views. But the life that was offered to professionals then, particularly white professionals, was very, very comfortable. But my father did not want to raise his children in a country where, as he likes to put it, illegality had become the law.
The rule of law, for my father, was the most important principle growing up in South Africa. He wasn’t a particularly political person in the activist sense, and didn’t see much of a future — foresaw the future of South Africa as a bloody civil war, which, thanks to Nelson Mandela and others, didn’t actually happen. But what he embraced in America was the rule of law. And to me, that was a fundamental issue. So the idea that people who had come to the country illegally or stayed in the country illegally would simply be absorbed as citizens to me was wrong. Not that there couldn’t be some solution found, but if the Republicans simply passed the sort of quick amnesty that the party wanted, to me that was offensive and also undermined the very reason some of the most talented immigrants come here.
There was a pushback, largely from the base, but also among some, I suppose, the party intellectual — among the party’s conservative intellectuals, various different people had a problem with this. Breitbart became the tip of spear for the pushback against the Republican effort to ram through comprehensive immigration reform, and I think the Beltway Republicans didn’t understand what was going on. I think that when they encountered this opposition, they wrote it off very easily as xenophobia, which it wasn’t, and that hurt them even more, because they were unable to anticipate the motivations of the opposition, and so they couldn’t plan to defeat it.
That in a sense was the moment Breitbart became much more of a political player, not because we were in the caucus rooms counting votes, but because we were covering the story of how the Senate was dealing with this bill and how the Republican establishment was trying to sell the bill. We were covering the alternatives to immigration reform. We were covering the dissent within the party, and we gave it a voice it might not otherwise have had.
I think that may have attracted Trump’s attention, that at some point immigration certainly became something he took an interest in. If you look at the history of his interest in politics, you can look at what he’s saying today about trade, and it’s almost exactly what he said in the 1980s about trade.
But he has changed on immigration. I don’t know if he’s changed his views, but he certainly has spoken a lot more lately about immigration than he ever did before. The only thing he had really said about it before was that he thought Mitt Romney’s approach was clumsy.
But the moment — and you can pinpoint it exactly — when Donald Trump took the lead for the first time, almost never looking back in the Republican primary, was July 10, 2015. Remember that Trump launches his campaign on June 16, and he comes down the escalator, and he gives a speech, and it’s controversial. He says some things about Mexicans and so forth. He languishes in sixth place for weeks, behind not just Jeb Bush and Scott Walker, but also behind Mike Huckabee and some people who would soon become second-tier candidates. That’s where he was in the beginning.
On July 1, there was a horrific murder on a pier in San Francisco, where a young woman named Kate Steinle was killed, seemingly at random, by a man who had been convicted several times and deported several times already, who had a gun, and fired it. He claimed later he was shooting at seals, I believe, but fired it, struck her. She died next to her father. And Breitbart reported that. We weren’t the first to report it, but we gave that story a lot of attention, and we followed up on it. This, to us, was a symbol of everything that was wrong in the immigration system and in the sanctuary city policy that San Francisco and others had adopted.
After that, Trump met with the families of the Remembrance Project. This is a group of families who had lost loved ones to crimes committed by illegal aliens, whether it was drunk driving or murder. There was a picture that I believe was taken by Jae Hong of the Associated Press of Trump standing with his arms folded in front of him, looking very serious, as he listened to the families telling their stories. This group had approached many politicians. Donald Trump was among the first to actually listen. And that photograph went viral.
Breitbart News was there to cover it, but so was the Associated Press, and so were other mainstream media outlets. And within nine days, if you look at the Real Clear Politics polling average, Donald Trump had gone from sixth place to first place, and he never looked back. Now, immigration was an issue that resonated with the Republican base, but it resonated with other people as well, because it became a symbol of the way in which many people felt unprotected by the government. Whether it was national security or health insurance, they had been made promises that had not been fulfilled. And no one had suffered more acutely than these families, who not only had a right to be protected from foreigners coming into the country and killing their loved ones, but who were also shunted to the side of the immigration debate by both parties in Washington, who had no interest in hearing from them. They were the remainder in a division problem. They were outliers. They were statistical anomalies until Trump found them and realized that these families represented the crux of the problem. Some of them were immigrants themselves. And it was at that moment that Trump connected to the conservative base into the country in general and never looked back.
… What did Bannon know as the chairman, as the guy on the phone in the morning. What did he know? What was the tuning fork he brought to the situation?
I think Steve understood better than anybody what the conservative base was thinking. And the reason is, again, very simple. He was talking to them. He had had a history of making movies about the conservative movement, Sarah Palin … He also covered the left, the Occupy and so forth. But he had this radio show on Sirius XM, Channel 125 — it’s still on, 6:00 to 9:00 Eastern every morning — and it’s a caller-driven show, unlike personality-driven talk shows, some of which are great. Steve allowed the callers to debate, to drive the direction of the show … And people calling in weren’t just random individuals. Many of the people listening to that program and calling in were activists, were people involved in local politics. Steve used that as a barometer to judge which way the news cycle was going and which way the political winds were blowing. That’s why he had such a close read of the electorate. But again, that’s because he was listening. It’s not that hard to listen.
If you had listened to his program, you would know what Steve Bannon thought. You would know what the conservative audience thought. It needn’t have been this grand mystery when Steve suddenly became involved in the Trump campaign and then the Trump White House. People treated him as if he were this very dark and mysterious character. He had been the most open character in conservative media essentially. People just hadn’t tuned in, except for the people marching to the polls in November.
… Was there a struggle at Breitbart over Trump? With Cruz, with Trump, who were we with? Did you sense that internal struggle? And how did it end up being Trump in the end?
I don’t really think there was that much of an internal struggle. I do know that people made arguments for various candidates sometimes, or because we don’t really run on opinion, it was more argument for how a particular story was going to play out, what news to cover and so forth, and arguments about where things were going. Every time somebody stated their view, Steve would say: “Well, what are the facts? Don’t give me your hot take. Don’t give me your opinion. What are the facts?” And he was persuadable if you brought facts.
That’s the extent of it. There wasn’t really a vehement political debate inside Breitbart. I think that there were a few individuals who felt strongly about particular candidates, but I only realized that much later. In a company that’s that large, it’s very hard to know what everyone’s views are. We weren’t a small blog outfit anymore, and we weren’t operating on opinions, so it didn’t play into things as much.
Speaking personally, there were several candidates I felt I could have supported and voted for, and I think there was an openness to any of these possibilities. There was a lot of very positive coverage of many of the candidates when they launched their campaign. Ted Cruz got very favorable coverage from Breitbart when he launched, and Donald Trump got covered. All of them also were criticized at times. Even though I had very positive views of both Cruz and Trump, for example, I wrote articles where I criticized things they had said or done.
It was more of an open environment. But I think unlike other conservative sites — which have great content, but a lot of it is driven by opinion and polemics that I find fun to read, because I’m in that world, but I’m not so sure the rest of the public finds interesting, because what people really care about is news. So Steve’s focus was always on facts. There was never an effort to drive coverage toward one candidate or another in the Republican primary. Once the primary was over, you know, we’re a conservative website. We’ve always been more partial to the Republican nominee, even though there’s also been counter currents, both in 2012 and 2016.
I think what happened at some point in the primary was a lot of conservatives, not just at Breitbart but outside of Breitbart, realized Trump was going to win the primary, were convinced he was going to lose the general election, and made the choice to oppose him very vehemently and publicly, for two reasons. One, I think altruistically, they felt they were saving the party from itself: If there was some way that Trump could be dumped, maybe this looming mess of defeat by Hillary Clinton wouldn’t happen. And the other thing was, I think there were some conservative publications and individuals who wanted to position themselves atop the wreckage when it happened, so that we were the ones who warned you and told you so, and now you should listen to us and not these other people.
That surprised me, because I really hadn’t foreseen that level of conflict, but it grew later. And the atmosphere inside the conservative media world over the course of 2016 was very tense. It was difficult sometimes for people to come up with arguments to sustain that debate. Many of the tensions became personal. For those of us who had been supportive of Trump because he was the nominee essentially, there was a looming fear of what might happen after November, because people wanted Breitbart to turn against Trump. They felt that our voice was perhaps the only one strong enough to really dent his prospects. When we declined to do that, I think the atmosphere turned very nasty toward us. Certainly, on the eve of November 8, I could hear the sound of the knives sharpening. And we just had to brace ourselves for whatever would happen.
Are you surprised when Bannon signs up with the Trump campaign in August?
Yes and no. I was not surprised because it made sense. Steve understands the media better than almost anybody. Trump needed somebody who could repair his strategy with the media. Remember that this was at the tail end of the Khizr Khan controversy. This was in the doldrums of August. This was where Trump had lost his convention bounce. Hillary Clinton seemed to be riding high. It made sense to bring Steve on, because Steve understood the media, and Steve also was in touch with the conservative base that Trump needed to make sure he had the support of. So it made sense.
On the other hand, you know, the sudden disappearance of this person you work with every day to join the most exciting and challenging campaign in any of our lifetimes was a surprise, especially because there wasn’t any indication that anything like that would happen. We didn’t have close and intimate connections with the Trump campaign. We were simply covering the Trump campaign. There were areas of agreement on policy among Breitbart writers with some of what Trump was doing, particularly on immigration and other areas, but there was no sense in which we were tied at all to the Trump campaign. So it was a surprise in that sense. Yet once you realized that it happened, it made a lot of sense.
Within that first week, early, Access Hollywood happens. The Juanita Broderick-Paula Jones moment happens. It really does feel like your friend and colleague and boss, I guess, Steve Bannon’s hands are all over it now, right?
I don’t know. It’s hard to know what he’s done without an intimate knowledge of what is going on in the White House. I mean, I can’t say. I do think that that second presidential debate with Juanita Broderick was, from at least what’s been reported, was his idea. But … the real Breitbart touch there was recognizing you had to surprise the media, that the media would all move in one direction, and you had to give them something they couldn’t anticipate. And there’s a knowledge, when you work for Breitbart, that you have very few friends in media. You’ll have friends in surprising places. We don’t talk about them because they don’t necessarily want us to say their names or whatever, but we do have some contacts in the mainstream media, people who like what we do and understand what we do even if they don’t agree with it.
But generally, you understand the media are your enemy, so you never enter any situation expecting to impress them. You don’t always have to be hostile, but in this case, certainly the element of surprise — and it was not the only time it was used on the campaign trail. My personal favorite moment was the birther so-called press conference, where the media came expecting to hear Trump speak about Obama’s birth certificate, instead of which he wheeled out one general and one admiral after another to talk about what a great commander-in-chief he was going to be, thus undoing the damage of the Khizr Khan controversy earlier that year, and then at the end spends 10 seconds talking about how Obama was born in Hawaii and leaves the stage.
The media knew they had fallen for a trick. They knew they ought to have known, because it had happened before, and yet they went for it anyway. That, to me, was a bit of Breitbart theater.
The Michelle Fields story. What actually happened there?
I think the entire controversy took us by surprise. I have made my peace with most of the people involved, privately. I reached out to them months later. There were a few to whom I felt I owed an apology, private, not on behalf of the company, just myself, and there were a few I approached who didn’t respond. At this point, I believe that’s on them. There were people who exacerbated some of the conflicts at that time and continue to do so. My door is open, I feel, and there’s nothing I can do about people who see it as in their interests to continue to drive a wedge. …
So when people say, “Look, I worked at the site; the site should have supported its reporter. The fact that it didn’t said that the site was on Trump’s side. The site was crossing the journalistic or whatever line, the ethical line it was,” you say?
Your duty as an editor is not to your reporter. Your duty as an editor is to the truth, so you have to put the truth and the facts above all else. We strove to do that and updated stories when new facts became available. That is the best that I felt, as an editor, I could do. It wasn’t the only option available to us, to address the situation in the way that we did. But what happened was, the controversy over what happened in that room, when Donald Trump came off the stage, was deliberately exacerbated by people outside the company who either simply wanted to hurt the company or see if there was some kind of wedge they could drive between Breitbart and Trump, to the extent that we had a relationship with Trump.
But I think they wanted to turn Breitbart against Trump and saw this as an opportunity. Here is a conflict between Breitbart and the Trump campaign over the way a reporter was treated. Let’s see if we can drive this and make this the moment where Trump suddenly loses the primary. I think that was the agenda of a lot of people driving this. As an editor, your duty is to the facts, and when you know the facts, you have to report them. …
Did you think she was not truthful in this circumstance? This is a he said/she said moment if ever there was one, right? Is she not telling the truth? What fact came to you that moment?
The problem wasn’t anything she said. In fact, Breitbart put up her account of the events and supported her account of the events. The problem was what other people said had happened, and that became the narrative. The first person to comment on this story was someone totally outside the company, and that created a media environment. This was a one-day story to which the company had responded appropriately by supporting its reporter based on her version of the facts, by asking the Trump campaign to apologize if indeed the facts were as presented, because we didn’t know, she didn’t know, nobody knew. And that was it. It ought to have ended. Could have ended.
I think my feeling, if I look at what was motivating me at the time, was to try to calm everybody down. The piece that I wrote tried to square both narratives and say, “Here is a way that everybody can be right and nobody can be wrong.” Well, I made a mistake, because nobody wanted to be right. Everybody, at that stage, wanted to have this fight and make Breitbart the target. I think that all around, there were things that could have been done differently. But I’ve made my peace with it, in that sense.
… Was there a moment where Breitbart found itself, either because of Bannon or a natural tendency, supporting Trump in a way that is unusual compared to how another news organization might respond.
OK, since we’re talking about it, the story of how that happened has never been properly told, and it has been deliberately distorted by some of the people telling it for the wrong reasons. For example, the story at Buzzfeed said that I had told staffers not to defend Michelle Fields. That is actually not what happened. If you read the actual leaked conversation that Buzzfeed published and that others published —
Tweets and –?
The internal company dialogue. I was acting in my capacity as in-house counsel, and I was telling people not to comment either for or against. That day, we had suspended a reporter for tweeting against her. That’s the context in which I said that. It was not to tell people not to defend her. And, in fact, when she wrote her defense and we published it on the website, she wrote her version of events, I encouraged people to share it, because that was a part of the message that the company had approved and had controlled.
But in any company, when you are in the spotlight of a crisis, you can’t have employees opining about what they think ought to be done or whether their colleague ought to be believed or not believed. The company had been very supportive of her from the beginning, and the day I asked people not to comment, earlier that day we had someone be not supportive on Twitter. That person is no longer with the company, not for that reason. But it was portrayed as if there was this attempt to quell support for her. And that is emphatically not what happened.
And there were many aspects of this story that came afterward that were also misreported, often by people who had reason to know better. The reason they did so was because they wanted to use this point of potential conflict, where it was Breitbart’s word against the Trump campaign, to turn Breitbart entirely into an attack machine against Trump. There was this sense that only Breitbart could stop Trump. And when Breitbart declined to do so, because that’s not our job — it’s not our job to get him elected, and it’s not our job to stop him from being elected — when we declined to play that role, conservatives became very vindictive about it.
… There was an effort by conservatives opposed to Trump to prevent him from leading the party. There are some who are still gratified when he slips up, or he fails or faces political headwinds. You see the “Never Trump” crowd kind of come out again, but these aren’t conflicts I am particularly interested in remembering or exacerbating. … I have no interest, and I see no use in sort of having these fights out. Again, that’s why I approached people quietly and privately on my own, just to say, “Let’s mend fences.” And many people did. And I think that that’s good. I think there were some who didn’t, for their own reasons.
But I think that the country is much bigger than a Twitter fight among journalists. And it’s not just conservative journalists. I’m always amazed at the amount of time that journalists in general spend on social media. It’s useful to get your articles out there and to engage in debate with people and to get feedback from your readers. But I think the main problem that journalists have in the Trump era is spending too much time talking to each other and not enough time listening to the country.
One of the reasons Breitbart, in a sense, was the only website to get this election right, was we had spent a lot of time listening. And after that whole controversy blew over, we went right back to listening. That’s what we did. …