Jul 8, 2014
‘I Killed Breitbart’ Review: What Chris Faraone Saw at the Revolution
I don’t care whether his family’s feelings are hurt or not. If they are, they can take comfort from the extraordinary piety, stupidity, and, generally speaking, the uniformity of coverage of the man’s death.
-Christopher Hitchens, on the legacy of Jerry Falwell, as quoted by Chris Faraone, author of I Killed Breitbart.
Chris Faraone doesn’t want your civility. To Faraone, ignorant, conspiratorial, and often racist ramblings on the Internet are the Real Conversation, or at least part of it, and we shouldn’t try to pretend that real people aren’t taking real time out of their real lives to make those comments.
Faraone’s latest book, I Killed Breitbart, brings you face-to-page with every commenter on the internet, including the Curmudgeonly Conservative, the Overly Earnest Liberal, and a sizeable group of people who believe the question is irrelevant because the answer is always RON PAUL 2012. Readers will find themselves in places that respectable members of society try to avoid, like a Free Staters rally in New Hampshire, the back of a police van in New York, and the entire Tampa-St. Petersburg metropolitan area. Along the way, Faraone discovers that even though astroturfing has become high art, there are still enough zealots, contrarians, and cranks to keep things unpredictable and endlessly entertaining.
But I Killed Breitbart isn’t Activists Say the Darnedest Things, nor is it an exercise in Both Sides Do It feel-goodery.
“[Objectivity] is at the crux of my beef with Breitbart,” he says. “The fact that the Breitbarts of the world have gotten closer to the mainstream than I ever will is fucking ridiculous. I came to accept long ago that most of my best ledes get rejected by the [Boston] Globe.”
For Faraone’s devoted alt-media fans, that’s a badge of honor, a talisman worn proudly by a reporter-activist who, in his own words, “fetishizes the halcyon days when journos crushed glasses of whiskey and showed up in the same stinking outfit the next morning.” But readers of I Killed Breitbart won’t find a call to the barricades so much as an invitation to light up a joint, go for a walk, and get to know the weirdos, hucksters, and rubes who comprise some of the loudest corners of our national conversation.
Following a short introduction, Faraone opens with juicy updates to the strange saga of James O’Keefe and Nadia Naffe. Using recent court cases to augment a story he first reported in the Boston Phoenix, Faraone’s story of ratfucking gone wrong is one of the best pieces of American political journalism you’ll read this year. Nadia Naffe was a young, black, Republican woman (I know, right?), and she wanted to help out the GOP cause. She started working with conservative activist and Huggy Bear fanboy James O’Keefe, and it’s all giggles and gumdrops until the phrase “rape barn” finds its way into the story, and no, I’m not going to tell you how it ends because it’s a beautiful piece of investigative reporting and you should go read it. Have you read it yet? Did you get to the “rape barn” part yet? I bet it’s not what you thought it was!*
Naffe had met Breitbart in person, before his untimely demise and before all that “rape barn” unpleasantness, and she once thought of him as a friend. Faraone says that’s typical.
Here’s why Breitbart was Breitbart: you’ll never meet a [conservative blogger] who doesn’t call him a personal friend. He put in the work.
That personal touch gave Breitbart a personal, just-add-outrage army of trolls ready to defend their leaders against all enemies. As her relationship with O’Keefe and Breitbart soured, Nadia Naffe found herself under attack by Breitbart’s passionately disgruntled patriots, some of whom published her Social Security number, ruined her credit score, and made her fear for her safety. “After the Nadia story,” Faraone confessed, “I just wanted to go back to being a music writer.”
A hip-hop head at heart, Faraone’s subjects have always been the wild-eyed true-believers for whom no setback is ever permanent and no victory is ever sufficient. The son of a schoolteacher, he’s got a knack for covering people who enjoy beating their heads against the exact same spot on the exact same wall, day after day after day. And while he might find some of his subjects ridiculous, he only makes that judgment after he’s taken the time to listen. Surprise surprise, it turns out that stereotypes are occasionally inaccurate.
At a Free State rally in New Hampshire, Faraone dives headfirst into a movement that’s normally associated with gun nuts…and yes, FINE, there are some gun nuts, but the individual Free Staters seem far more reasonable than the Yosemite Sam impersonators who make the news. At the 2012 NATO summit in Chicago, Faraone walks into a city controlled by Democrats and finds no room for democratic expression. And on the streets of New York, he walks alongside a group of people who are convinced the Rapture is imminent and that a group of protesting teachers are frittering away their last precious moments on Earth: “WE ONLY HAVE NINE MORE DAYS LEFT!” they scream into a crowd of teachers, and the teachers seem to wonder how often disruptive students become disruptive adults.
A third of the book focuses on the radical left, including a behind-the-scenes look at how a group of environmental activists pulled off a demonstration inside a Keystone XL office in Massachusetts. Faraone made something of a name for himself by covering Occupy, and he still has issues with the way the movement was portrayed on the right. “I hang out with Rapture people, and all he [Breitbart] can do is get drunk and scream at people at an Occupy rally? There was never an intent to accurately characterize these people [Occupy].”
Faraone cites one of Breitbart’s more effective pieces of agit-prop, the reports of sexual assaults at Occupy sites, as emblematic of how Breitbart gamed the news media. “To look at Occupy, hundreds of thousands of people, and to tokenize even a single sexual assault…you’re not looking for the real story. Know what else happened that day?” he asks, and I realize he’s made this point before. “The food inspector came and passed the kitchen. Nurses came. There was a rally in solidarity with the people in Seattle. A hairdresser from Newbury Street gave out free haircuts in the camp. And a baby was born. None of which ever made it into the Globe or the Herald.”
Offering further proof of the sorry state of the American news media, Faraone asks if I’ve seen the headlines in that day’s Globe and Herald. Each paper was running a story about the same statewide report on Massachusetts teachers, the first of its kind in the Commonwealth. “Here it is,” Faraone says, thumbing through his smartphone as an are-you-fucking-kidding-me smile spreads across his face.
“Globe: ‘Teachers get high marks.’ Herald: ‘Teachers don’t make the grade.’” He shakes his head and reaches for his beer. “You can’t stick your dick in a hornet’s nest and expect to understand how bees work. You’ll just get a bloody dick.”
In a post-Breitbart world, Faraone’s truth-seeking dick remains unbloodied and unbowed. He’s realistic about the financial prospects facing a left-leaning troubadour of the radical fringe, noting that “There are days when the book is doing well on Amazon, and it’ll be surrounded by eight Glenn Beck books.” Still, for anyone willing to push past the haters, I Killed Breitbart offers a sharply written, gimlet-eyed view of a nation that looks nothing like the one described by Thomas Friedman and David Brooks. Faraone’s not trying to pretend that the Breitbarts of the world don’t exist or should be ignored; instead, like a good journalist, he engages them, finds common ground, gets them talking…and then runs, laughing, to tell the rest of us what he just saw.
“I truly believe that I’m only a radical because of the context,” he says, and I’m not sure he’s wrong. “I would love to find the me on the right. If there were a me on the right, I’d be friends with him or her.” I raise an eyebrow. “Really!” he insists. And despite his real, personal hatred for Breitbart, it’s clear that, at least in hindsight, Faraone respects his deceased sparring partner. “I’m asked all the time, Was [Breitbart] an act? No, he wasn’t an act, and it doesn’t even matter if he was, because he was an inspiring actor. …I don’t resent the Breitbart people, I hate them. It’s a push-and-pull, or really, a push-and-push…and I think that’s why Breitbart didn’t resent me either.”
* It was exactly what you thought it was.