The already strange Anthony Weiner affair reached the heights of the bizarre at Monday's climactic news conference - from an unexpected source.
Weiner, the Democratic congressman who was about to admit he had "inappropriate" contact with women over the Internet, was late to the conference at the Sheraton New York Hotel and Towers, the latest in a string of bad moves.
Who should leap to the empty mike but attack blogger Andrew Breitbart? His website, BigGovernment.com, had broken the Weiner story, publishing the images that led to the scandal. Weiner had portrayed Breitbart as an unreliable, biased shill for the right, and now Breitbart was to have his public triumph.
It's not the first time Breitbart has landed in scandal. And it likely won't be the last. He is the latest reminder of the blogosphere's perpetual presence and occasionally devastating power. James M. Naughton, a former executive editor of The Inquirer and now president emeritus of the Poynter Institute, says that "in the current era, this commentariat is going to function - or dysfunction - whether we like it or not. Yes, it has power and influence - as do Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert in lampooning the Breitbarts."
(On Monday night, Comedy Central's Colbert pointed out that while Breitbart may not have lied in the past, he has become known for misleading tactics in fomenting scandals involving ACORN; Shirley Sherrod, then of the U.S. Department of Agriculture; and NPR executive Ron Schiller, who blasted the tea party not knowing he was being recorded. "But after this," quipped Colbert, "he is one for four.")
Breitbart and his blogger brethren and sisters are a universe parallel to the mainstream. Operating by its own rules, this Fourth-and-a-half Estate analyzes, comments on, and dogfights the Fourth. It cannot be discredited, even by obvious errors in fact or judgment. It bounces back fresher than a Shmoo to fight another day. It and its techniques have come to redefine the world of public figures, as Weiner now knows.
Breitbart did triumph. "Quite frankly, I'd like an apology for him being complicit in a blame-the-messenger strategy," he said. "I am being accused of being the hacker against a congressman. . . . His minions perpetuated that false, malicious meme, and he went on CNN to attack me. . . . Everything that I've said so far has come to be true. . . . The media says, 'Breitbart lies, Breitbart lies, Breitbart lies, Breitbart lies.' Give me one example of a provable lie. One - one!"
Astonishingly, he got what he wanted from Weiner minutes later: "I apologize to Andrew Breitbart. I apologize to the many other members of the media that I misled."
Face it, says Joss Todtfeld, media consultant and president of Success In Media Inc. in New York: "While the role of the Internet blogger can many times be gray and murky, [Breitbart] happened to get this one right. He's gotten a lot wrong, too. It's not that it doesn't matter - but he's held to a different standard than newspapers or broadcast media. We're surprised when actual journalism comes from somebody we don't expect to be a full-fledged journalist."
Chris Harper, associate professor of journalism at Temple University, says, "In the blogosphere, there's an obvious point of view, from Daily Kos on one end to maybe Breitbart on the other. The blogosphere does not observe the same rules as the legacy media. There's only limited reporting, and no differentiation between reporting and analysis.
"I think that's actually a good thing. What I like about the blogosphere is that I don't have to worry about vetting the source. I know where the source is coming from and can evaluate it for myself. I can't do that in legacy media, except for the columnists."
Todtfeld says, "This is Breitbart's Monica Lewinsky moment. That's what put Matt Drudge on the map. When you all of a sudden get it right, as Drudge did with Lewinsky, then you're a big star."
Naughton half-jests that, sure, a few sorries were warranted, but adds: "Breitbart did deserve an apology, which was pretty grudging. But so does Weiner deserve an apology for the way Breitbart hijacked his podium. Maybe Breitbart could pony up part of the room rental."