Thursday, March 1, 2012

Breitbart's legacy

Breitbart wouldn't have wanted someone like me to mourn him, and I'm not going to. The world loses good people every day and I'll waste no tears on an unapologetic smear artist who made his name playing to the cheap seats with the likes of Matt Drudge and James O' Keefe. Sorry.

But it will be interesting to see what happens to his various media properties over the coming months and years. Like the sites of his contemporaries Arianna Huffington or Nick Denton, Breitbart's internet outlets have always straddled an uncomfortable line, mixing some degree of boots-on-the-ground reportage with the unshakable sense that the headlines remain the personal dominion of an autocratic media superstar. It's a system that evokes early 20th century newspaper empires as much as 21st century media conglomerates.

And now the king is dead. What happens to the sites without their center of gravity? I think it's undeniable that a lot of what brought people to Big Government and the like was Breitbart's demagoguery. There was genuine iconoclasm in many of Breitbart's creations, and from a distance, it seemed to originate from Breitbart's vitriolic character more from than anything in the structure or hiring practices of his assorted outlets. Can the sites replicate it in his absence? Can the sites retain their audience without it? Do they sink into internet obscurity, go "legitimate" as everyday conservative-leaning news organizations, or find a new figurehead?

I don't actually have any answers to these questions, but they're important, because the current generation of celebrity internet media proprietors isn't going to be around forever. In a few decades, after their ranks are thinned by death and retirement, we'll be reading their successors instead. But it's far too soon to know whether it will be their successors in spirit, driven into the spotlight by new cults of personality, or their corporate successors, the literal heirs to whatever empires get built in the internet's early, heady days.

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