The Breitbartization of the News

The Columbia School of Journalism recently published a fascinating study of media coverage during the 2016 election. Kevin Drum has a nice summary of what they found, but his title, “Breitbart Takes Over the Right” is a bit misleading.

Let’s take a look at two of the charts CSJ produced. First, here is the Twitter ecosystem during the presidential campaign.

Notice that Breitbart dominates on the right (even dwarfing Fox News), while there are several major players on the left/center (yeah, I don’t agree with how all those outlets are labelled either — but that’s for another day).

But the real kicker is something most of us noticed as it was happening — the focus of the coverage. Here is the CSJ graph on that:

What got the most coverage by far are scandals related to Clinton. Scandals related to Trump got very little coverage, while reporting on Trump issues was more prevalent than reporting on Clinton issues. But even with that disparity in mind, CJS demonstrates that:

This pro-Trump media sphere appears to have not only successfully set the agenda for the conservative media sphere, but also strongly influenced the broader media agenda, in particular coverage of Hillary Clinton….While mainstream media coverage was often critical, it nonetheless revolved around the agenda that the right-wing media sphere set: immigration.

Here is their conclusion:

Our own study of over 1.25 million stories published online between April 1, 2015 and Election Day shows that a right-wing media network anchored around Breitbart developed as a distinct and insulated media system, using social media as a backbone to transmit a hyper-partisan perspective to the world. This pro-Trump media sphere appears to have not only successfully set the agenda for the conservative media sphere, but also strongly influenced the broader media agenda, in particular coverage of Hillary Clinton.

In other words, Breitbart didn’t just take over the right wing media, they “strongly influenced the broader media agenda” as well.

That didn’t happen by accident. I will remind you that back in November I wrote about “How Steve Bannon Weaponizes a Story” based on an important exposé by Joshua Green. Using both the publication Breitbart and his Government Accountability Institute, Bannon was able to define the agenda that became the narrative of the election.

Now that both Trump and Bannon are in the White House, the dynamic has changed a bit. But Breitbart continues to play a central role as we saw last weekend when the president took a story from that publication and used it to fuel the conversation that has been the focus for the last few days. One way or another, we are witnessing the Brietbartization of the news.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.