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UPDATED: Sons of Anarchy: Breitbart Texas in Turmoil

Breitbart Texas was widely hailed by GOP figures when it launched. A month later, things have gone downhill fast.
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UPDATE: Lee Stranahan, the Breitbart contributor who was fired last week, wrote in the comments section of this article to add perspective and dispute some aspects of the timeline of his firing. His comments (and his debate with an anonymous detractor) are here. Small changes have been made throughout the piece to clarify events and chronological order.

Stranahan writes that his quick correction to one aspect of the Backer piece, that a tea party group donated to a Democratic candidate, shows his commitment to good journalism and a “commitment to the truth above all else.”

“My work is respected by my readers for its depth and honesty,” he writes. “To have my reputation disparaged by the like of Darby has been surreal.”

Stranahan hasn’t been quiet elsewhere, either. In a video posted to his website, he’s been taking more shots at the Breitbart organization.

“If I’m not ever going to have a relationship with the management team that took over Breitbart died, what does that mean?” he asks. He’s going to use the moment as an opportunity to speak out about long-held grievances. In particular: “I want to talk about Dana Loesch.”

Loesch, a one-time star at Breitbart who now has a show with Glenn Beck’s The Blaze network, was marginalized by Breitbart.com after Andrew Breitbart’s death and held under contract to prevent her from jumping ship. She ultimately had to sue to break her contract, saying the organization was holding her in “indentured servitude.”

Andrew would have never wanted that, says Stranahan. “Andrew hated Glenn Beck,” who was interested in poaching Loesch, Stranahan says, but had always said he would let Loesch move on if she wanted. “What happened to Dana after Andrew died was wrong,” says Stranahan. “They took away her editorship and then disappeared her.”

Stranahan makes the Breitbart organization sound almost cult-like, comparing it to an abusive parent. “I’m not going to speak for everybody else, but me and a lot of people I know have been under incredible pressure the last couple of years,” he says in the video. “I don’t say this with any anger, but it’s almost been like being in a house with an alcoholic father who periodically will beat you.”

For his part, Brandon Darby has been taking the conflict in stride.

ORIGINAL STORY: When the conservative news aggregator Breitbart.com opened its new “Texas bureau,” Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst took the time to pen a letter welcoming the group—and did so with praise that would make the most hard-boiled editor blush.

In doing so, he was paying homage to the memory of Andrew Breitbart, the late firebrand conservative polemicist whose style of public engagement more often than not involved screaming. Breitbart passed away suddenly in 2012, becoming an iconic, martyred figure for conservatives. Though Breitbart.com has been expanding in recent years, the organization has had trouble figuring out where it’s going without Breitbart to lead it.

But the launch of a new bureau was an occasion to celebrate. Rick Perry and Ted Cruz both offered short congratulatory statements to Breitbart Texas—but Dewhurst went in for the whole hog, proclaiming Breitbart’s expansion into Texas as evidence of the health of the whole conservative movement in the state.

Your dogged persistence in telling the truth is a credit to Andrew Breitbart’s philosophy and a fitting tribute to his memory. Despite the waves of progressive, liberal acrimony that flow through the comment sections of your articles, you stay the course with honesty, patriotism and conservatism as your lodestar.

Dewhurst, who called himself a “friend and supporter of your organization,” went on to praise “the courage the Breitbart team displays on a daily basis, digging for the facts and applying the time-tested techniques of investigative reporting” to a “media culture that is increasingly characterized by partisan sniping and liberal bias on an unprecedented scale.”

It’s been a little under a month—how is Breitbart Texas doing so far in bringing its investigative reporting background to clean out the partisan snake-pit of Texas media?

For the most part, Breitbart Texas’ output has been a mishmash of rote news aggregation, announcements that seem like transliterations of press releases in support of favored candidates, and an eclectic assortment of dispatches from the Breitbart contributor network, who receive $100 per post, according to the Daily Caller.

One such contributor, who goes by the twitter handle @OutOfTheBoxMom, wrote an article that consists of a list of participants and contributors to the South by Southwest Education conference. Another wrote an 88-word piece headlined “HOUSTON: SON SETS MOM’S APARTMENT ON FIRE FOR REFUSING TO BUY MARIJUANA.” It has more than a hundred comments. The source of the article—presumably a Houston Chronicle article from the same day—is not mentioned or linked to.

Then there’s the fact that Breitbart routinely runs articles written by Michael Q. Sullivan, like this lengthy jeremiad against House Speaker Joe Straus, without properly identifying Sullivan or his organizations.

But that all pales in comparison to the rift that’s recently developed in Breitbart Texas caused by the firing of Lee Stranahan, a Breitbart veteran who had quit the organization last fall, before rejoining Breitbart Texas as it launched last month. Stranahan, one of the $100-a-piece contributors, was working under “bureau chief” Brandon Darby, who made his name by running with anarchist and far-left groups and  passing information on them to the FBI. Stranahan’s beat: the “institutional left” and “corruption.”

Stranahan, according to the Daily Caller, was a comparative old-timer at Breitbart, who felt ill at ease with the direction the site has taken in recent years. He was among those who miss the leadership Andrew Breitbart provided for the organization and the movement in general. Stranahan quit the website last fall in part because of qualms about the site’s direction—but he signed up again with the launch of Breitbart Texas. He needed the money.

That all fell apart last week, when a simmering rift between Stranahan and Darby spiraled out of control. Stranahan alleges Darby killed a number of stories that reflected unfavorably on individuals Darby had ties with. One of them had to do with an attorney named Dan Backer, who Stranahan says was funneling money from tea party groups to “establishment” Republicans like Mitch McConnell. Darby wouldn’t publish it—along with another story about Steve Stockman’s campaign escapades. Then Darby fired Stranahan, who began tweeting details from the killed piece. That’s when Darby took the remarkable step of attacking his own reporter’s ethics, tweeting that Stranahan had once solicited money for a documentary he was making from Dan Backer.

“Person asks group for $. Group says no. Person then attacks the group without mentioning they tried to get $ before attacking,” wrote Darby in a since-deleted tweet.

The implication that Stranahan was attacking Backer out of pettiness for not agreeing to give him money months earlier was something Stranahan strongly rejected. When he contacted Breitbart’s national leaders over the incident, he was stonewalled. He threatened to sue Darby for defamation. Darby still hasn’t indicated why he killed the piece about Backer. For his part, Stranahan initially claimed he had never asked Backer for money—when evidence came forward that he did, he claimed he had no memory of it.

The whole thing might have faded away after that, except for the fact that someone began forwarding emails from the fight to the Daily Caller’s Betsy Rothstein, a Washington, D.C.-based gadfly who trades in media gossip. The exchanges display a remarkable level of dysfunction within the organization, and some embarrassing anecdotes. Stranahan accuses Darby of being a “coward” and “pigheaded” and even alleges that Darby once cooked up a plan, as part of a long-running inter-office rivalry, to accuse one senior conservative journalist of having a attraction to the late Andrew Breitbart’s under-age son:

“Also; please confirm that a bit over a year ago, you told me in no uncertain terms that you had a plan to file false police charges against Jeffery Scott Shapiro, with the knowingly false claim that he had a sexual interest in Sampson Breitbart.”

The whole thing is unbelievably sordid and embarrassing, for all parties. To make matters even worse, Stranahan, who took stories that got killed by Darby and published them on his own website, recently had to append a major correction to one of his stories when a big part of his case against Backer’s PAC—the fact that the group had donated money to a Democratic congressman from North Carolina—turned out to be a financial reporting error.

When Breitbart Texas launched, Dewhurst proclaimed: “Rarely has a publication been better suited to the culture, economy and political climate of a particular place.” That’s a hell of a thing to say about Texas. Let’s hope not.

Christopher Hooks joined the Observer in 2014. Previously, he was a freelance journalist in Austin, where he grew up. His work has appeared in Politico Magazine, Slate, and Texas Monthly, among others. He graduated from The New School in 2012 with a bachelor's degree in history.

  • Stranahan

    If I may, I’ll make one objection to the article and that’s the apparent criticism of the story I wrote and corrected where it appeared money from The TeaParty.net Leadership Fund went to a liberal Democrat . This was in error, but it isn’t an example of bad journalism on my part.

    I found the incorrect information on OpenSecrets. I went through the FEC report from The TeaParty.net Leadership Fund. I reached out to Dan Backer, who made the reporting error that led to incorrect information posted on OpenSecrets — but Backer hung up without comment. The error by Backer was innocent — but it was his error.

    As soon as I got the info from the Democrat’s office, within a min ute I’d posted on Twitter about the error and then immediately corrected it. I did due diligence on the story. Obviously, I could have done more or reached out to the Democrat’s office, but in this article, the author never reached out to me.

    And this article actually has errors — for instance, I was fired first and then attacked by Darby. The article has the order of events wrong. had Mr. Hooks reached out to me, I could have corrected this mistake. But — not judging, actually.

    In short, I made an honest error on one story. My other stories about Backer are clear cut and significant. I have to point this out because I’m being accused by my former supervisor and friend of being, essentially, an extortionist.

    I’m a serious reporter who has covered stories from Occupy Wall Street to the Syrian refugee crisis. I do interviews, go on location, do deep research and so on. The stories I worked on with Andrew Breitbart have all been solid journalism, as confirmed by our work on the Pigford fake farmer fraud being validated on the front page of the New York Times last year.

    My work is respected by my readers for its depth and honesty. To have my reputation disparaged by the like of Darby has been surreal.

    • Stranaham

      Let’s review:

      1- You write a story whose main claim is that X scandalously gave Y money.

      2- Submit the story without disclosing to your editor that you asked X for a large amount of money a few months ago.

      3- You are asked about asking X for money but deny it. Then when confronted by evidence you say you just forgot.

      4- You publish the article yourself on your own site.

      5- The key part of the story “X scandalously gave Y money” turns out to be completely wrong and have to issue a correction (a correction your editor would have been responsible for if he had published your mistake).

      Do you think maybe you disparaged your own supposed reputation? Or is everyone out to get you as you claim?

      P.S. Stop invoking AB’s reputation in a sad attempt to save yours.

      • Stranahan

        No. You’re gotten the events wrong.

        1) I was researching stories on Dan Backer and discussing some of what I was researching on Twitter, as I often do — this was on a weekend and Monday. I discuss a number of things, including the trail of money from The TeaParty.net Leadership Fund to Cornyn and McConnell plus the money to a Democrat. This info is all up on on OpenSecrets and in FEC filing.

        2) On Tuesday, I submit a story about the Stockman campaign. I never submitted a story about Backer. I’d pitched them to Darby but I didn’t write or submit them.

        3) I’m fired for Darby for supposedly tweeting ‘unfounded’ things. I ask for an example. None is given.

        4) Wed., I asked about the Stockman piece I had submitted — I’m told again by Darby, I’m fired. I

        5) I post that Stockman piece on my site.

        6) I tell management Darby fired me for saying ‘unfounded’ things but he can’t name an example.

        7) Wed. night I post three stories on my own blog about 1) Backer “Draft Newt PAC” that got a cease and desist. 2) The money going to Cornyn and McConnell. 3) The money going to the Democrat.

        8) On Thursday, I asked Darby at least ten times to name something ‘unfounded.’ No response. Darby attacks me on Twitter and says I wrote stories as revenge for asking Backer for money.

        9) I write to Breitbart management and Darby at least six times, asking for retraction or explanation of Darby’s charges. None is given.

        10) On Friday, Democrat’s office writes to Backer and tells him that my story exposed that he made a reporting error on his FEC filing. An hour later, office sends me a letter explaining the error Backer made and that they were not the intended recipient of the money. I tweet correct, call the the Democrat’s office to confirm Backer’s error and then post the correction,

        11) On Saturday, I respond on Twitter and say I did not write stories about Backer in revenge and that I don’t recall ever asking Backer to give me money. Saturday afternoon, Stockman aide Donny Ferguson reveals October 2013 email exchange I’d forgotten about where I offered Backer a finder’s fee if he knew anyone like to invest in my film. I had not asked Backer himself for money and Darby had never once brought up this exchange — so now it’s clear that Darby had gotten this info from Backer but never mentioned it.

        That’s the accurate timeline.

        • Stranaham

          Exactly: errors are never your fault. We’re supposed to give every benefit of the doubt. But everyone else is out to get you because… you say so? (For example no one but you said the article was written as revenge, just that you failed to disclose that you tried to get some of the dirty money and were shot down before you exposed said dirty $.) And when people refuse to answer your questions (like me not telling who I am) it’s further proof that they are in on the conspiracy.

          Some people call that paranoid delusions.

          • Archie Dunbar

            Actually, asking for your real name is important to the story line as is the fact that you won’t give it. I always give most attention to writings of those who identify themselves. Anonymous postings, not so much.

    • http://www.osborneink.com/ OsborneInk

      Were you going to disclose to Christopher Hooks that you are a co-defendant with Dan Backer in Brett Kimberlin’s federal RICO lawsuit?

      Were you going to tell him any secrets about your podcast with Darby?

      http://youtu.be/Pe4NCaz4NgM

      • 1bimbo

        they do sound similar! however, the swat caller sounds more like a frat kid. the podcast guy sounds like an aging smoker. it is a fascinating theory

  • http://brainsandeggs.blogspot.com/ PDiddie

    That is some pretty rich schadenfreude, Forrest, but the exchange between Han and Ham is like icing on the cake.

  • SocraticGadfly

    $100 a pop for five minutes’ work? Hmm, I need to invent a fake conservative persona and get cracking.

  • SocraticGadfly

    Is “Dan Patrick” a Breitbart contributor yet? Where do I sign up? I’ll flame Dudley Dewless below the 30 percent mark in the runoff! :)

  • 1bimbo

    keep up texas observer, breitbart texas is whoopin’ your b*tt on an hourly basis. BBTexas is providing a much-needed information dissemination service to texans, fresh hard-hitting stuff all the time, well researched pieces on serious issues including border control, politics, social issues, media and movements on a local and national scale. texas observer? not so much. molly’s probably rolling in her grave. i check breitbart texas a couple of times a day. i might browse TO every three days or so just because i know y’all update the content as often as it takes for bread to get moldy in the cupboard.

  • Guest

    texas observer versus breitbart texas

    • 1bimbo

      texas observer?

      • 1bimbo

        breitbart texas?

        • 1bimbo

          hands down, texas observer!

  • 1bimbo

    breitbart texas V. texas observer – day2

  • 1bimbo

    breitbart texas V texas observer – day3

  • 1bimbo

    breitbart texas Versus texas observer -day4

  • Michael Moore

    The claim that anyone or anything associated with Brietbart have even a vague connection with true investigative journalism is akin to claiming the Republican National Committee is a nonpartisan organization.

  • Television88

    People do realize that Brandon’s entire life is based on one lie after another after another. He will lie to your face knowing you know the facts. But B-Barts Izzy Firsters think they have found a good pitch man. Well remove the P and you will be close. In addition to being a sociopath, he will make up crap about you and turn you into the FBI just from telling him he is getting chunky.

  • Television88

    Man…you should not worry if you are getting trashed by this little lying punkazoid. People know when Brandon opens his mouth, one a lie will spew out. I honestly don’t think his mouth is able to speak truth.