Breitbart at Crossroads as Bannon Is Humbled
Posted January 7, 2018 8:39 p.m. EST
In the weeks after Stephen K. Bannon’s ouster from the Trump White House last August, his flagship organization Breitbart News verged, at times, on a Bannon vanity project.
Ads on the website promoted fidget spinners emblazoned with Bannon’s likeness ($7.95 each) and a 212-page hagiography — “Bannon: Always the Rebel,” by Keith Koffler. Breitbart writers were dispatched to Alabama to boost the Senate bid of Bannon’s preferred candidate, Roy S. Moore.
But as Moore’s loss last month suggested, Bannon’s influence only stretches so far — a lesson that he is now confronting in humbling terms, as his leadership of Breitbart, arguably the most influential right-wing website, is suddenly in doubt.
Bannon’s belief that his own cult of personality could satisfy Breitbart readers has run into the fallout from his brazen criticisms of President Donald Trump, published by Michael Wolff in the book “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House.”
Once seen as a champion of Trumpism, Bannon has been reduced to “Sloppy Steve,” as Trump phrased it, with the White House urging Breitbart to consider removing Bannon. The quoted remarks have roiled not just members of his pro-Trump Breitbart audience, but also a major patron, heiress Rebekah Mercer, who controls a minority stake in the site, where Bannon serves as executive chairman.
The question now: Does Bannon need Breitbart News more than Breitbart News needs Bannon?
“People who go to Breitbart don’t go there everyday because they give a damn about Steve Bannon,” said Kurt Bardella, a former Breitbart spokesman. “We could be looking at a new world order here in terms of who will occupy the space of Donald Trump’s preferred conservative platform.”
Bannon appears to be trying to stay at Breitbart. His penance began on Sunday, with a public statement in which he attempted to distance himself from his portrayal in Wolff’s book. For one thing, he claimed, his description of a 2016 meeting between Russians and Donald J. Trump Jr. as “treasonous” was intended to criticize Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, not the president’s son.
Media figures more famous than Bannon have learned the hard way that audiences tend to remain loyal to institutions, rather than individuals. For Bannon, the possibility of losing control of Breitbart — the vehicle that propelled him into the national spotlight, and eventually the highest echelons of power — could present a significant test to his potency as a leader of a political and cultural movement.
Among the most unsettling developments for the Bannon camp was losing the support of Mercer, a hard-line conservative donor, who said on Thursday that her family had ceased communicating with Bannon and denounced his statements in the Wolff book. “I have a minority interest in Breitbart News and I remain committed in my support for them,” Mercer said in a statement.
Perhaps luckily for Bannon, Mercer cannot unilaterally dismiss him from his company. Bannon’s fate was probably in the hands of Breitbart’s other owners — the family of Andrew Breitbart, the founder, who died in 2012, and its chief executive, Larry Solov, the former Breitbart News general counsel and childhood friend of its founder.
Representatives of Bannon and Breitbart News did not respond to inquiries over the weekend about Bannon’s future at the site.
Under Bannon, who assumed stewardship after Breitbart’s death, Breitbart News moved from a scorched-earth fringe site — known mostly for publishing incendiary articles that were deemed sexist, racist and xenophobic — to an unlikely voice for disaffected conservatives and a rallying place for passionate supporters of Trump.
Its readers remain faithful to the president, a fact that Bannon seemed to acknowledge in his statement on Sunday.
“I am the only person to date to conduct a global effort to preach the message of Trump and Trumpism, and I remain ready to stand in the breach for this president’s efforts to make America great again,” he wrote.
Bannon’s aggressive style and creative agitprop were clear factors in Breitbart’s recent success. On Facebook, its reach now rivals news organizations like Yahoo and The Washington Post. The site hired correspondents in Europe and the Middle East, and poached reporters from establishment news organizations like The Wall Street Journal.
In Washington, Bannon kept a residence at the so-called Breitbart Embassy, a Capitol Hill townhouse controlled by the site, where he courted candidates and threw VIP-filled soirees. A recent book party for Laura Ingraham, the Fox News host, attracted prominent journalists and White House officials.
But as Bannon nurtured his real-world aspirations, Breitbart’s audience waned from the heights of last year’s presidential race. In November, the site received 13.7 million unique visitors in the United States, according to data from comScore, down about 20 percent from last January. It also lost advertisers who did not want their brands to appear alongside Breitbart articles.
The site struggled for acceptance in other ways, too. Despite employing a full-time reporter in the White House, Breitbart’s application for congressional press credentials was denied. Its hunt for a larger headquarters in Washington was stymied by some commercial landlords who were uncomfortable about housing the business.
Bannon, a tenacious and shrewd operator, may yet cling to his Breitbart chairmanship, and Trump is known to re-embrace associates even after public defenestrations. The campaign manager whom he fired in 2016, Corey Lewandowski, remains a close adviser.
On Sunday afternoon, a blaring, all-capital-letters headline on Breitbart.com announced to readers that, reports notwithstanding, its leader was sticking with their cause. “Steve Bannon Issues Statement,” the headline read. “My Support Is ‘Unwavering’ for Trump and His Agenda.”