The clarion of the far right seems to be having second thoughts about how far right it wants to go.
Faced with an advertiser boycott and plummeting readership, Breitbart News has lately been trimming back some of its more extreme elements in what may be a bid for more mainstream respectability.
Gone: Prominently displayed stories appealing to overt racial prejudice, such as reports and essays about crimes committed by African Americans. Articles such as “Five Devastating Facts About Black-on-Black Crime” and “Black-on-Black Crime: Blame it on the System and Ignore the Evidence” have all but disappeared from the site.
Gone: Reporter Katie McHugh, who was fired by Breitbart on Monday for tweeting after the latest terrorist attack in London, “There would be no terror attacks in the U.K. if Muslims didn’t live there.” McHugh doubled down on the vitriol when an Iranian American, actor Pej Vahdat, called her “a real moron.” In reply, she tweeted, “You’re an Indian,” then deleted it.
Long gone: Milo Yiannopoulos, once Breitbart’s biggest star and a magnet for accusations that the site promoted misogyny, white ethno-nationalism and demonization of immigrants. Yiannopoulos was forced out in February amid exposure of videos in which he spoke favorably about pedophilia.
Breitbart hitched itself to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign last year and reaped an enormous spike in reader traffic and media attention. Its former chairman, Stephen K. Bannon — who once declared Breitbart “the platform of the alt-right” — became Trump’s campaign chairman and later his chief White House strategist.
But the postelection period hasn’t been very kind to Breitbart.
The site’s visitor traffic has fallen 53 percent since November, from 22.96 million unique individuals to 10.76 million last month, according to ComScore, which tracks Web trends. Other news sites have seen a falloff since the election, too — The Washington Post and the New York Times are off 24 and 26 percent during this period, respectively — but Breitbart’s losses are at roughly twice the mainstream rate.
At the same time, an advertiser blacklist of Breitbart organized by an anonymous online group called Sleeping Giants appears to be biting hard. Only 26 companies had ads on Breitbart last month, down from 242 in March, according to the marketing-news site Digiday. It said the remaining advertisers were primarily smaller direct-response companies, although Amazon.com remains one of its sponsors, despite pressure from its employees to cut ties to the site (Amazon’s chief executive is Jeffrey P. Bezos, who owns The Post).
The traffic and advertiser losses may be compelling a move toward a kinder, gentler Breitbart, says Will Sommer, who tracks conservative media in his newsletter Right Richter.
“Breitbart has never been under more pressure than it is now, trying to establish itself as the premiere right-wing outlet even as liberal boycott threats have cost it hundreds of advertisers,” Sommer wrote, adding, “So now, any staffer who hurts Breitbart’s request for respectability (and advertisers) can expect to be fired.”
Sommer said it would be difficult to imagine Breitbart firing McHugh for the same tweets a few years ago.
Breitbart declined to address specifics of McHugh’s firing and would not comment on its editorial direction. But the media organization said in a statement: “The assault on Breitbart is part of a larger effort by the Left to attack conservative media by unjustifiably affixing derogatory labels to any voice that threatens its ideological agenda. Breitbart is the leading conservative, pro-family website in America.”
It said its traffic has increased 59 percent on a year-to-year basis and that it ranks No. 60 among U.S.-based websites, according to the Alexa web-tracking firm. “Hence the liberal hysteria,” it said. “Last year, Breitbart started millions of conversations about populist values and now many of those values are becoming policy for the United States.”
On the other hand, McHugh’s firing showed some of the downside risk for a site that has attracted some of the more extreme elements of the alt-right. (“Alt-right” is an ill-defined term that can refer to antiglobalist, anti-establishment views, but also refers to a far-right movement whose followers hold racist, anti-Semitic and sexist beliefs and who desire a whites-only state.)
The firing prompted alt-right media figures such as Mike Cernovich to attack Breitbart. He tweeted in support of McHugh’s effort to raise funds online for medical bills and said, “Breitbart fired a journalist to appease fake news media.” Others, enraged by the firing, called Breitbart a “cuck,” or cuckold, an alt-right slur for those who betray the faith. Fiery conservative Ann Coulter, a Breitbart columnist, declined to bite a friendly hand: “Whatever the reason for the firing, Katie McHugh is a great journalist,” she tweeted.
Breitbart revealed in February that it is part owned by a billionaire investor, conservative political donor Robert Mercer, so the economic impact of a prolonged advertiser boycott is unlikely to be debilitating. It also is cushioned by its sales of Breitbart-branded merchandise, such as T-shirts and a coffee mug emblazoned with its logo and the word “covfefe,” a reference to President Trump’s recent Twitter gaffe.
On another front, Breitbart has fought a so-far losing battle to secure a bit of Washington prestige: press credentials to cover Congress.
The site’s application for permanent credentials has been rejected repeatedly by the committee of journalists that has long been in charge of determining official accreditation.
The committee’s official rejection has nothing to do with Breitbart’s editorial thrust; rather, it wants to ensure that the site is free of conflicts of interest, particularly its relationship with Bannon and its overlapping ownership and editorial leadership with a Florida foundation Bannon co-founded, the Government Accountability Institute.
It has also expressed concern that an Egyptian businessman and political figure, Moustafa el-Gindy, rented his Capitol Hill townhouse to Breitbart for its Washington headquarters at below-market rates in exchange for favorable coverage.
On Monday, lawyer Laurence Levy of the Greenberg Traurig firm put the credentials committee on notice that Breitbart had hired him to press its case. Breitbart “is entitled to permanent Credentials, and will continue to pursue permanent Credentials,” Levy wrote.
The White House ethics office last week issued a waiver to Bannon entitling him to communicate with editors and reporters at Breitbart, dismissing a complaint by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a liberal group. However, the waiver was undated, the New York Times reported, raising questions about whether it had been improperly backdated to cover prohibited contacts.