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Erik Wemple
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Posted at 05:40 PM ET, 03/08/2012

Breitbart.com and the Obama footage: Showmanship prevails


A showman and his legacy. (Brendan Smialowski - GETTY IMAGES)
Who could have fathomed the comedy show that Andrew Breitbart kicked off at his speech before the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) last month? Before a supportive audience, the Internet entrepreneur made a grand promise.

So what do we get now in Barack Obama? Well, I’ve got videos, by the way. This election, we’re going to vet him. I’ve got videos. This election, we’re going to vet him. From his college days, to show you why racial division and class warfare are central to what hope and change was sold in 2008. The videos are going to come out, the narrative is going to come out...

The videos did come out — years ago. And the narrative? That came out years ago as well.

Following the death of Breitbart last week, Steve Bannon, a close friend of the fallen conservative media critic, appeared on an episode of Fox News’s “Hannity” to hype the videos stemming from Barack Obama’s days as a student at Harvard Law School. Bannon said this to host Sean Hannity:

Guys are going through a series of tapes of President Obama at Harvard and will come back to you in a week or two and show them here on the “Hannity” show. . . . This is something. . . . We’re very systematic about going through these things, very systematic about what the information is.

Systematic, huh? Bannon’s remarks yielded the conclusion that a group of hardworking film archivists were slaving away in a sensory-deprivation chamber somewhere, poring over precious footage frame by frame.

Turns out these “tapes” were online the whole time, via “Frontline,” that nationally renowned organ of the mainstream media. In a posting yesterday, Frontline explained: “In 2008, as a part of our quadrennial election special The Choice 2008, FRONTLINE ran the same footage of the speech as a part of an exploration of Obama’s time at Harvard Law School, where he graduated in 1991. It’s been online at our site and on YouTube since then.”

It’s boring stuff, too. Obama stands before a crowd of students and faculty members and speaks in praise of Derrick Bell, a black professor who had advocated for greater diversity among the school’s faculty. After finishing up, he greets and hugs the professor. In the clip, Obama sounds like Obama — that is, earnest with flashes of eloquence and charm.

In the “Frontline” video, Obama’s little oration gets chopped up with voiceover and an interview with an informed observer — evidence that the producer valued the moment more as a scene-setter than as an opportunity to dig into the student’s politics. “He’s not saying anything stunningly revelatory,” says Michael Kirk, the “Frontline” producer who did the Obama profile. Kirk works out of “Frontline’s” offices in the Boston station WGBH, which had shot the Harvard footage.

What fascinated Kirk so much about this period was not Obama’s relationship with Bell. It was how the law student managed to bridge a divided and bitter campus. “How did he work with conservatives? How did he work with liberals?” asks Kirk. “This piece of footage helped me illustrate that. The Derrick Bell story, as interesting as it was, in my journalistic judgment wasn’t that important and certainly not as important as its being made today.”

Ah, but a “Frontline” producer — he’s just a tool of the liberal media, right? He cannot be trusted with the proper interpretation of the Obama video!

That’s where the Breitbartians come in. On last night’s edition of “Hannity,” Breitbart.com top editors Ben Shapiro and Joel Pollak followed through on the late firebrand’s promise, debuting their story. The program dedicated about 18 minutes of air time to the footage and the alleged scandals surrounding it — just enough time to make multiple references to the video’s exclusivity and its suppression by the media. And by academe---Breitbart.com found footage showing Harvard Law School Professor Charles Ogletree saying that “we hid” the Obama-Bell video during the 2008 election.

Even though PBS had beaten them to the story by nearly an Olympic cycle, the Breitbart editors strained to defend their relevance. Shapiro pooh-poohed the “Frontline” piece: “PBS played the clips of him hugging Bell, but they blacked out the audio. So, they had voices over, for the audios, you have no idea that Obama is actually saying open your heart, open your mind and all this kind of stuff.”

Shapiro also chided the other outlet that had beaten him to the Obama-Harvard story. The problem with the BuzzFeed clip that was posted yesterday, said Shapiro, was that it didn’t show the Obama-Bell hug that had been on the web via PBS for 3 1 / 2 years. “You actually didn’t have the audio and the hug in the same clip which just goes to show the length that they would go . . . in order to prevent the whole kind of imagistic truth.” Remember that, mainstream media: You gotta get the hug and the audio in one package.

When asked about his site’s dreadful hug omission, BuzzFeed top editor Ben Smith cited the $30 per second that the site paid Boston TV station WGBH for the video. “That’s why we didn’t air the whole thing,” says Smith. Poverty: Now there’s a legitimate modern media conspiracy.

To amp the notion that the media stifled Obama’s core “imagistic truth,” Pollak made this remark: “There exists evidence of and this was hidden for a long time, not just by Charles Ogletree, but within the archive of WGBH, which refused even to respond when we asked for access to it.” Jeanne Hopkins, vice president of communications and government relations for WGBH, takes issue with that contention, noting that the Breitbart archival video request was getting processed like any other one. Also from Hopkins: “BuzzFeed requested the Obama footage first, in January, and Breitbart requested it in February.”

Hug-gate isn’t “Hannity’s” best hour. Via its interview with Bannon, it had promised viewers something special. It turned out to be nothing special, and not even exclusive, reducing host Hannity to speaking of “rare video” that had actually aired during prime time in the heat of the 2008 election season. And so “Hannity” was forced into insane and repeated leaps of reason to keep the package from falling apart in front of Fox’s viewers. I posed a number of questions to Fox regarding the deal between Breitbart.com and “Hannity” — What sort of arrangement do the parties observe? Will we see more such “exclusives”? — but haven’t heard back. On the radio today, Hannity attempted to defend the two-segment thing: “This is like another brick in the foundation that we have now unearthed and discovered about who Barack Obama is.”

The whole spectacle is just that. Showmanship is what Breitbart presented to the CPAC audience last month. He promised evidence of racial division. His minions delivered footage of a black man hugging a black man before an integrated campus audience, a scene that kind of matches the America that Obama promised to America in the 2008 election. If there’s one trick that Breitbart’s faithful could learn from the despised establishment media, it’s to shut up about pending projects and simply post them when completed.

Instead of drawing attention to Obama’s lefty tilt (two decades ago, no less!), Breitbart.com shines a light on a well-crafted documentary with a passage that would never make the pages of its own site. The film tells of the dramatic election that vaulted Obama to the leadership of the Harvard Law Review. One commentator tells “Frontline:”

One of my most poignant memories of the law review election process was late in the process it’s late at night, we’re trying to figure out how to resolve this thing. Clearly Barack has a lot of support but it’s not resolved yet and a conservative editor who probaly disagreed with just about everything that Barack stood for got up and said he was firmly behind Barack because we were a divided institution, this was the best person to lead the institution and to reach out to all constituences even though he had his own political views and made them known.

Whatever the demerits of the Breitbart.com report, the episode does reveal that the country flocks to old video of its president. BuzzFeed’s Andrew Kaczynski in November posted some sleep-inducing 1991 video of Obama. It starts with future president mouthing the line, “The distinguished lawyer Charles Hamilton Houston was born in 1895...” It now has 1.4 million views on YouTube.

By  |  05:40 PM ET, 03/08/2012

 
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