Hollywood is known for throwing big glitzy events and even bigger, glitzier checks at politicians on their California campaign stops. But a portion of Hollywood’s industry figures go above and beyond the call of duty to fight for their beliefs and causes, often leading the march to Washington D.C. to address the issues where they matter most. Profiled here are eight activists spanning the Hollywood industry, who have used their Hollywood connections to not only raise money, but to change bills and legislature in favor of their causes. Read about their impact, challenges and experiences as they took the long road to D.C. to fight on behalf of their causes.
The Rogue Factor
Name: Andrew Breitbart
Current Role: Founder of BigHollywood.com, BigGovernment.com, BigJournalism.com, BigPeace.com, Breitbart.tv
Affiliations: Tea Party, The Drudge Report, Huffington Post, Conservative provocateur journalism
Name: Andrew Breitbart
“I actually have an idea for a TV show,” says Andrew Breitbart, talking animatedly on the phone. “It’s going to be called ‘Road Trip From Hell,’ and it’ll be a road trip with Anthony Weiner and me.”
He pauses for a moment. “The irony is that I’ll be the one to disrobe.”
Walking distractedly around his casual workspace in a nondescript office building in West Los Angeles, Breitbart hangs up the phone and boasts that The New York Times is going to be following him around as he embarks on a tour of Missouri later that week.
“They’re the last of the holdouts,” says Breitbart, grinning widely like the proverbial cat that got the cream.
“The American media, the J-school types, are joyless,” says Breitbart. “All day they just suck on lemons and try to suck the fun out of the media.”
Breitbart’s eagerness to bring what he calls fun back to the media is apparent. A recent photo, taken by journalist Noah Shachtman at an NPR event, shows Breitbart’s signature in the guestbook with an arrow drawn to the two signatures above, accompanied by the comment “LOL.” The two names were Jill Abramson and Bill Keller, the managing editor and executive editor of The New York Times.
“I told David Folkenflik, the media editor [of NPR], “I have news for you. Go look at the guestbook at the front of NPR.” Breitbart chuckles. “Isn’t it funny that I wrote LOL and pointed to it? I like to consider myself as a performance artist.”
The picture amuses Breitbart so much that he makes a quick phone call to Shachtman and leaves a message. “I’m so glad that somebody noticed that, because I thought it was news.”
“I’ve been friends with him for a long time,” says Breitbart of Shachtman, who profiled him for Wired in 2010. “He and I disagree on politics, but that never stops me.”
“Andrew gets how the mainstream media works, better than anyone, which is kind of ironic since he spends all day bitching about it,” says Shachtman later, in a phone interview. “He can be a total maniac, but he can also turn around and be very funny and be very touching about his kids.”
It becomes clear that there are two Andrew Breitbarts — one is a 42-year-old happily married man with four children, the son-in-law of retired actor Orson Bean, while the other is a provocative right-wing pundit shouting his message to anyone, whether they care to listen or not.
For Andrew Breitbart the activist/journalist, nothing seems to be too small or irrelevant to be considered news, and Rep. Anthony Weiner learned this the hard way in early June of this year. When the Democratic congressman from Brooklyn and Queens accidentally tweeted a picture of his genitals, concealed by briefs, on May 27, the picture was only up for a few minutes but had already been captured by one of Weiner's Twitter followers, a man named Dan Wolfe (@patriotusa76), who began to retweet the posted image in astonishment. Weiner claimed on his Twitter feed that his account had been hacked, but the picture was out and Breitbart was on it.
Soon after, Breitbart revealed that he had more pictures Weiner had been sending to women via social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. Many media outlets were quick to shoot down Breitbart’s claims — MSNBC referred to him as the “conservative character assassin,” while CNN’s Jeffrey Toobin called Breitbart’s insinuations against Weiner “outrageous,” adding, “it’s too bad that he got to say that stuff on CNN.”
The drama climaxed at a press conference held by Congressman Weiner a few days later, which saw Breitbart hijack the podium prior to Weiner’s address, and then saw Weiner breaking down and admitting that he had indeed posted the inappropriate picture on Twitter, albeit by accident.
A sweet victory for Breitbart over the media he despises.
Breitbart’s particularly acidic response to the media’s coverage of Weinergate stems from a deep-seated dislike of many of the mainstream "old-media" publications. The talk moves to the Huffington Post, which Breitbart helped to launch in 2005. But it didn’t take long for him to stir up controversy there either.
“I created the frikking Huffington Post as a means to put that on my resume so I could say, more voices not less, and you notice the Huffington Post kicks me off of the Huffington Post front page after creating it, creating $315 million in value for Arianna Huffington, because I disagreed with [former Obama adviser] Van Jones? Because I called Van Jones out for the communist that he is?”
Breitbart had previously worked as an assistant to Huffington in the late '90s and then went on become the primary editor of The Drudge Report, whose founder, Matt Drudge, blazed the path for the sort of provocateur journalism Breitbart has now refined.
Breitbart’s feuds with journalists are well documented. When he discusses the media, the names of specific journalists provoke sharp reactions (“Who wrote it? If it’s Conor Friedersdorf, it’s pathetic — he should not be allowed to write about me”); he often engages in Twitter feuds with people like Friedersdorf, an associate editor at The Atlantic.
A few weeks after this interview on July 18, one such war of words breaks out between Breitbart and Friedersdorf on Twitter (@conor64). The subject is Friedersdorf’s account of an opening-night midnight screening of “The Undefeated,” a documentary about Sarah Palin.
Breitbart doesn’t hold back when ripping into Friedersdorf. Using words like "fake" and even "fecal" in his retaliations, Breitbart surmises that Friedersdorf must have staged the midnight screening of the film, which was unsurprisingly empty, as it competed with the opening night of the final "Harry Potter" installment:
From @AndrewBreitbart, 18 July 2011: “StinkyFunky® @conor64 set up false premise: That any1 would go to unannounced post-midnight show on Thurs. 'Lighthearted' my ass.”
Breitbart then attacks Friedersdorf for misquoting him from an off-record conversation, which Friedersdorf denies. Breitbart even tweets to his 50,000-plus Twitter followers that Friedersdorf had applied for a job with him in the past, a seemingly irrelevant injection into the argument, and another claim that Friedersdorf denies with a tweet:
From @Conor64, 18 July, 2011: “@AndrewBreitbart And again, the lie that I tried to get a job from you. When was that exactly?”
It appears that no battle is too small for Breitbart to fight in the name of right-wing justice. The resulting backlash to Friedersdorf’s “lighthearted” article on “Undefeated” from conservatives and Palin supporters led Friedersdorf to publish an in-depth article explaining every step of his process in reporting it.
Even journalism school professors, who are trained to teach journalism reported in a fair and balanced manner, can’t escape Breitbart’s wrath. He identifies NYU’s Jay Rosen and American University’s Jane Hall, both of whom, he says, “use objectivity and neutrality as their cudgel to push their progressive agenda.”
“Jay Rosen, Jane Hall are not objective, they’re political hacks,” states Breitbart.
Breitbart not only believes that the leftist movement has taken over media, brainwashing the nation to be anti-conservative, but that this takeover also extends to Hollywood, damaging the standing of conservatives in the entertainment industry.
“People who come into this town, who start running around playing the John Cusack ‘I-hate-the-crypto-fascist-Republicans’ game, that might as well be saying to the casting agent, ‘Hire me, hire me, I’m willing to go out there and call Republicans crypto-fascist,’ says Breitbart. “It is a way to placate the liberal beast in this town, and there is no corollary for conservatives, who have to keep quiet for fear of losing jobs, and so I think that there isn’t a level playing field in this town.”
As a native Angeleno, Breitbart has a unique relationship with Hollywood, an industry that he’s not officially a part of, and yet is deeply connected to (including through marriage). That relationship is explored in Breitbart’s book “Hollywood Interrupted: Insanity Chic in Babylon,” which he co-wrote with Mark Ebner, an investigative journalist who has reported for numerous publications including Rolling Stone, Slate and Details. But it is Breitbart’s connections to Hollywood’s conservatives and the indignities he claims he suffers that really set him aflame.
Breitbart says that he knows “thousands of Hollywood conservatives who keep their mouths shut, who don’t make movies or who don’t write scripts, who will do everything they can to conceal that they disagree with the leftist monolith, with the totalitarian streak that would be punitive towards them.”
Fundraiser John Emerson [link to John Emerson profile in Influencers], a longtime Democratic Party/Hollywood insider, disregards Breitbart’s claims that industry conservatives get blacklisted because of their political beliefs.
“No, I don’t buy that a bit,” says Emerson. “If any group is going to be anti-blacklisting, it’s the people on the progressive side, since they were once blacklisted during the ’50s, so that is absolutely not going to happen.”
Emerson further argues that Breitbart’s notions of Hollywood having an outwardly leftist bias have no grounding.
“What Hollywood is in the business of doing is producing things that the public is going to see and pay money to see,” Emerson says. “So if there’s a perceived liberal bias in movie messages, it’s because that’s actually where the mainstream American public is. But if you look at the big blockbuster movies, I can argue that many of them have more conservative than liberal messages.”
Breitbart, however, already has a ready-made answer to Emerson. “Anybody who says it’s not true is either ignorant or lying,” Breitbart says.
For all of his accusations of conservative persecution in Hollywood, Breitbart prefers to punt on what, if anything, he is willing to do about it.
“As much as I can’t stand the totalitarianism of it all, and the mean-spiritedness and the punitiveness of it all, at the end of the day, [David] Geffen, [Steven] Spielberg and [Jeffrey] Katzenberg have no obligation in a free market to be forced to make movies that they disagree with,” says Breitbart, naming the DreamWorks SKG trinity as the upper echelon of Hollywood.
“So ultimately the burden I put is on conservatives and free-market people and capitalists,” he adds. “If you don’t like the product in Hollywood, if you don’t like the actors and the directors and their leftist mindset, then it’s your obligation to get your hands dirty, invest and take the risk to attempt to appeal to that mass audience that you claim is not being served.”
Hollywood does have its known conservatives, actors like Gary Sinise, Jon Cryer, Jon Voight and Angie Harmon, who came out to support Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain in 2008.
There have also been whispers around the industry of an obscure conservative Hollywood group known as “Friends of Abe,” consisting of “entertainers who share common beliefs like supporting U.S. troops and traditional American values,” according to an article in the Washington Times.
The Hollywood Reporter reported that Friends of Abe organized an event for Carly Fiorina during her 2010 Senate campaign in California (in which she ended up losing to incumbent Barbara Boxer). The event was hosted by Sinise, with entertainment from comedian Dennis Miller and country singer Lee Greenwood. Guests included Breitbart and “Desperate Housewives” creator Marc Cherry.
Not that anyone is willing to talk about Friends of Abe. When Breitbart is asked about the group during our chat, he warns he will end the interview if we go any further. Trying to find ironclad proof of the group's existence also proves fruitless. It appears as though the underground group of Hollywood’s conservatives, who reportedly congregate unofficially at Barney's Beanery in West Hollywood, want to remain unknown, at least for now.
In the 2008 presidential campaigns, Barack Obama garnered more than $8.8 million from the entertainment sector, while his opponent, John McCain, received only $1.1 million. But Friends of Abe or not, the growing force of conservatives may carry significant weight in the 2012 campaign in terms of swaying Hollywood power from blue to red.
As for Breitbart, who recently attended a Republican Jewish Coalition event in Beverly Hills where he introduced Newt Gingrich as “… an impeccable adviser to the next president of the United States,” he has only vague ideas for who should actually represent the nation’s conservatives in the race for the White House.
It seems he is more comfortable as a brick-thrower than as an actual political operative.
“I’m not a pragmatic politician, I have no desire to be a politician. I believe in what I believe and I feel that I have every right to report what I think is truthful, and I also have the right to enjoy what I do and not be a sourpuss about it, and I have a right to my own political belief systems and my own cultural belief systems,” says Breitbart stubbornly.
“I’ve only started to realize how much contempt I have for the Republican establishment over the last two years. I’ve had to learn that. I used to think that the political establishment was corrupt, but I didn’t realize the degree to how corrupting the Beltway mentality is,” he adds.
But he does have a soft spot for Sarah Palin.
“I love Sarah Palin ... I have no problem with her using war metaphors,” Breitbart declares, referring to Palin’s often controversial choice of words (in this case, her “Don’t retreat, reload” tweet).
“These people want to take Sarah Palin down, and I’ll defend her use of language every day of the week. I think they’re brutally unfair to her.”
He also defends some of the more egregious gaffes committed by the former Alaska governor.
“Pop culture took something that she said, where she said that you can see Russia from Alaska, which is absolutely 100 percent true,” says Breitbart, “and then Tina Fey went on ‘Saturday Night Live’ and distorted it to say ‘I can see Russia from my doorstep,’ which is not true and sounded ridiculous. Pop culture distorted what she had to say.”
The rant, however, is not over, and Breitbart gets visibly more annoyed.
“Now you get to see why I and Sarah Palin are frustrated with the media. There are so many perceptions … that are based upon false means, that the media has repeated over and over and over. No wonder I have a problem with the media,” he says.
Not enough of a problem, however, to refuse invitation from network talk shows to participate in pundit roundtables.
“I’m a journalist,” declares Breitbart, when asked to define his role. “If I could just put those stories out, and they would sit there on their merits and they would have consequences, then I wouldn’t have to be an activist or a provocateur or a performance artist.”
Breitbart’s frustrations with the media have led him to take an activist route into becoming an anti-left-wing media vigilante. He established BigGovernment.com, BigJournalism.com, BigPeace.com, Breitbart.tv and BigHollywood.com, all acting as aggregators, conveyors and watchdogs of news from the conservative standpoint.
“I’m a new sheriff in town saying fuck you. Fuck you!” spits Breitbart.
“No, I’m not Newt Gingrich — he doesn’t use that type of language, he doesn’t fight back. I’m not Tim Pawlenty. Fuck you. If you’re going to malign and lie about people, if you’re going to lie about me, if you’re going to try and say that I’m the hacker, that I’m the selective editor when I’ve never edited anything, I’m going to fight back. And I’m not restricted, I’m not running for office,” Breitbart fumes.
Operating on the fringe is what gets Breitbart going, and the more he is attacked, the more vengeful his posture.
Describing himself as “a rascally, fiercely independent conservative,” Breitbart, of course, supports the Tea Party movement, and he hopes to see one of its supporters win the Republican nomination.
Despite not endorsing anyone yet, Breitbart wants to see Thaddeus McCotter, Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin, Herman Cain and “any other person who over the last two years stood by the maligned Tea Party” take on the Democrats for the race to the White House.
“I'd rather have new blood in there, new passions in there and people who aren’t beholden to their pensions, and people who aren’t beholden to their future jobs when they lose with the lobbyists. I just find it to be manifestly corrupt, and we can’t afford it anymore,” says Breitbart.
Breitbart then turns to his computer and looks through all the tweets he is receiving, among them a mixture of support and disgust. One user, @StoopidProof, has tweeted, “Why does Conservative Pornographer @AndrewBreitbart choose to live under a socialist, elitist regime in Brentwood, CA?”
Breitbart chuckles and clicks the retweet button. “I don’t live in Brentwood,” he laughs, before typing the same message back to @StoopidProof, leaning back in his chair and basking in the resultant attention.