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 is a staff writer covering politics.

Published at 6:03 pm CST
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