What happens when a notoriously pro-Trump website gets in the way of Donald Trump’s campaign? Nothing good — something Breitbart News learned when (now former) reporter Michelle Fields was grabbed by Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski at a campaign event, leaving her with bruises, and spurring the complete meltdown of a national news outlet.
Founded by the late Andrew Breitbart, Breitbart Media was once a far-right alternative to established outlets like National Review or The Weekly Standard. Since Trump’s campaign began, however, the site has leaned into outright nationalism and racially-tinged anti-immigration rhetoric.*
No news site has had more lovingly burnished pro-Trump credentials — or had better access to Trump himself. Breitbart News staffers have shown a willingness to offend and demean those who’ve spoken against their preferred candidate. Conservative writers who criticize Trump have found themselves under a barrage of attacks on social media and in person spurred on by Breitbart.
But then, last week, something strange happened: Breitbart itself got in the way of the Trump campaign.
At a Trump rally in Florida, Lewandowski grabbed Fields’s arm so hard she was left with bruises. The incident was witnessed by a Washington Post reporter, who wrote it up in a story about Trump’s staffers. There’s video of the incident as well.
Despite the evidence, the Trump campaign hit back, releasing a statement implying that the incident had not taken place and that Fields is a known liar (referencing a well-documented incident at Occupy Wall Street, when Fields was knocked down by a New York Police Department officer while covering the event). And then it got crazier: Breitbart sided with the Trump campaign over its own reporter. At least one fellow Breitbart staffer publicly cast doubt on Fields’s story, and internal messages show that Breitbart asked its reporters to not defend Fields publicly.
Breitbart’s refusal to stand by its own was the final straw for Ben Shapiro, Breitbart News’s editor-at-large. After Fields was grabbed by Lewandowski, Shapiro, a well-known conservative writer and founder of right-wing media watchdog TruthRevolt, has been outspoken in his support for Fields, even in the face of extreme pressure from Trump’s legion of supporters. He and Fields resigned on Sunday night**. “Breitbart, like any other outlet, is free to have whatever editorial perspective it wants,” Shapiro told MTV News in an email. “But their willingness to destroy the credibility of their own reporter in order to defend the Trump campaign settled this question for me.”
According to Shapiro, Breitbart has become “Trump's Pravda [the official newspaper of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union] and they will work to destroy anyone who stands in their way.” Shapiro’s support for Fields — and rejection of the Trump campaign’s narrative — has since led to retaliation from his own former workplace. In response to Shapiro’s resignation, Breitbart published a hit piece (cached here), revealing Shapiro’s former home address and phone number, as well as the fact that his father had written for the news outlet under a pseudonym. “I saw it this morning when I woke up at 5:30 a.m.,” Shapiro said. “I was appalled.”
Since resigning, Shapiro has been beset by attacks on social media, many stemming from anti-Semitic white nationalists (a large subset of the “Alt Right”). When asked whether this incident changed his opinion of Trump’s campaign, Shapiro said no: “I thought they were bullies, and they're still bullies.” Sounds a lot like Trump, all right.
It’s all very media-bubble, but what’s happening at Breitbart isn’t just about the press. It’s about how a major party’s presumptive nominee for president has gained the capacity to destroy anyone and everyone who stands in his way, no matter their associations or beliefs — and even if they’re part of news outlets that promote his ideology without question.
The Trump campaign has a detailed history of attacks on racial minorities, Muslims, women, the disabled, and the rest of the GOP field on a vicious and personal level. But the campaign’s willingness — and that of Trump’s acolytes — to go after media outlets supportive of his quest for the Republican nomination is ... well ... new. Now any criticism of Trump, even from outlets that have previously been favorable to him, is apparently intolerable. Now everyone is an enemy.
And you don’t have to be a conservative to be concerned. Trump and his supporters don’t seem to be particularly interested in discussing Trump’s policies or beliefs — they want to silence his opposition, full stop, and they’ll worry about the rest later. They will threaten to have reporters arrested, they’ll subject opponents to endless abuse, and they will go after anyone who questions Trump’s numerous (and I mean numerous) falsehoods, even if doing so means attacking a journalist who was physically assailed by a Trump staffer. Who won’t they be willing to hurt on the way? As Fields told the Washington Post, “If they can do it to me, if they can lie about a conservative reporter, who knows what they’ll be able to do when they have power of the executive branch?”
If this can happen to Breitbart, what could happen to publications — and people — less likely to submit to the whims of Donald Trump?
*There are allegations that the Trump campaign has provided financial support for Breitbart News in return for positive coverage.