Columns, Opinions

Smith GS: News’ new groove — a liberal reads Breitbart

By
Staff Columnist
Monday, February 27, 2017

At the Conservative Political Action Conference last Friday, President Trump intensified his war on the media by berating once again so-called “fake news.” “Fake news doesn’t tell the truth,” Trump said. “It doesn’t and never will represent the people, and we’re going to do something about it.” Then, in an unprecedented move, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer barred news organizations deemed unfriendly to the Trump administration from a press conference. The New York Times reported that “reporters from the Times, BuzzFeed News, CNN, the Los Angeles Times, Politico, the BBC and the Huffington Post were among those shut out of the briefing.” News organizations permitted to attend the briefing included the conservative-leaning Washington Times, One America News Network and Breitbart.

This is scary. Trump and Bannon have turned the media into a battleground, with the likes of the New York Times on one side and the right-wing Breitbart axis on the other. Last week’s press briefing is an unnerving example of how the Trump administration can elevate organizations like Breitbart by denying its competitors a seat at the table. Estimates indicate that 10 percent of Americans now get their news primarily from Breitbart — a number high enough to merit attention.

As a liberal, I hadn’t read Breitbart before last week. I first heard of it when Steve Bannon became chief strategist at the White House, but I dismissed its reach as insignificant. Recently, though, I decided to give the website a look — mostly out of curiosity and partially out of a desire to diversify my news intake. I wanted to step outside of my comfortable echo chamber of news, which is normally limited to the New York Times and New Yorker, to see what a significant portion of the American public reads.

The first thing I noticed was Breitbart’s unusual aesthetic. Its logo is a white, block-letter B encased in an orange square, and its headlines change from black to orange font when you hover over them. The bright, oscillating colors and doomsday headlines evoke a sense of combativeness and malcontent. Breitbart’s aesthetic, coupled with unabashedly right-leaning articles, leave the reader with no choice but to feel vaguely angry and pessimistic about the state of world affairs. It supplies news with an attitude.

My initial impulse was to reject the website in its entirety and never visit it again. It evoked feelings of unease and frustration, and its views were morally suspect. But as I thought about it more, I realized it was doing something significant that I couldn’t ignore: Through web design and selective reporting, it was curating news to produce a specific reaction.

Breitbart has no interest in creating the impression that it is a passive, innocent messenger merely relaying the news of the day. It embraces and champions its role as a news curator. Breitbart does not just report the news — it reports the news its way. Through a combination of web layout, headlines and article content, Breitbart ensures that readers will react in the way that it wants: with a feeling that, as the Guardian’s Adam Gabbatt phrased it, “the world is going to hell in a handbasket … unless our guys can fix it.”

This is significant because Breitbart is redefining the relationship between news organizations and truth. For the likes of the New York Times, the Boston Globe and the Washington Post, accurate reporting is paramount, and the truth is rooted in objectivity. For Breitbart, the truth is that the world is in disarray, and reporting is a means of communicating that reality. Breitbart is busy driving a wedge between the assumed, natural relationship between truth and news.

Breitbart has re-envisioned the news website, not as a place where people go to learn about current events, but as a place that tells them how to feel about current events. In Breitbart’s world, truth takes a back seat to emotion. If it can succeed in its mission to change the role of news, then “news” itself could become subjective — something that we embrace or reject emotionally, rather than interpret intellectually. This would mark an unsettling victory for the Trump administration in its war on the media and truth.  I hope Breitbart’s project fails. In the meantime, I’m going to cling to the New York Times for dear life.

Benjamin Smith GS can be reached at benjamin_smith@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.