Down the Breitbart Hole

If you visited Breitbart regularly in recent months, you could see a shift underway. On any given afternoon, you were still likely to encounter headlines about ‘‘illegal aliens’’ invading the country, but if you clicked on the link, you landed on an article that was extraordinarily dry — usually just a rundown of some politician’s speech, or a dry recitation of governmental statistics. Not to say the site was no longer right wing — the act of choosing what to cover and how to position it with a headline is a powerful bias unto itself — but weeks could pass in which few of the articles on Breitbart had anything like the attitude and opinion baked into dozens of mainstream sites.

In my conversations with Alex, he was careful not to broadcast this change too vigorously. If I asked whether he would still hire a bomb thrower like Yiannopoulos, he immediately insisted that he would. ‘‘I’d love to hire another Milo,’’ he would say, going into a spiel about how the right needs to ‘‘get under the skin of the left just like you’ve been getting under our skin forever.’’ At a certain level, this seemed true. Alex edited Yiannopoulos for three years, and they remain in touch. But a lot of the Breitbart staff were relieved to see Yiannopoulos go, and the most notable hire of the last seven months was the financial reporter John Carney, from The Wall Street Journal. At the same time, the site was increasingly willing to challenge the Trump administration. After Shapiro’s departure, he accused Breitbart of becoming ‘‘Trump’s personal Pravda’’ and speculated that if Trump won, the site would function as state media. When I first began spending time with Alex, he was fond of saying ‘‘We won the election,’’ with little separation between himself and the administration. But as the spring turned into summer, it became clear that many of his battles remained. The site has fought against every significant Republican health care bill, challenged the president’s missile strikes on Syria and gone after myriad administration officials who depart from Breitbart’s worldview — including not only McMaster and Kushner but also Trump’s chief economic adviser, Gary Cohn, and his former chief of staff and press secretary, Reince Priebus and Sean Spicer.

How much of this comes at Bannon’s direction is hard to say. Bannon received an ethics waiver that allows him to remain in contact with Breitbart staff, and it would seem pretty obvious that some conspiring must go on. No writer on earth would allow a colleague to decamp for a job in the White House without pestering the daylights out of him for leads and scoops; what’s harder to explain is why so few of those leads and scoops turn up on Breitbart. When a White House leak does surface on the right, it’s far more likely to appear in a competitor, like Shapiro’s The Daily Wire or the blog of Mike Cernovich. Shapiro told me that he doesn’t think Bannon gives much to Breitbart at all. ‘‘The way Steve plays the game, it wouldn’t make a lot of sense,’’ he said. ‘‘If he’s going after Jared Kushner, he’s not going to do that through Breitbart, because it’s too obvious.’’ Charlie Spiering has yet to land an interview with the president, and in early June, Alex traveled to Sicily for the G-7 meeting, hoping to interview Trump himself — but Trump declined to see him. ‘‘It’s starting to become a pattern,’’ Alex told me recently. ‘‘They’re keeping us out of reach.’’

We were sitting at a Mexican restaurant sipping mezcal, and I asked whether he felt he was trying to make Breitbart legitimate. At first, he scowled, but then he nodded. ‘‘Are we trying to become a legitimate news site?’’ he said. ‘‘Yes. The question is why. I don’t think we have a choice. We are so high-profile now, we get so much scrutiny, we have no choice but to get it right. That’s something that has changed over the past year. People read our stuff and pay attention. We don’t need to be outraged and hysterical anymore. We don’t need to wave our arms around, flailing madly because we don’t feel like we are being listened to.’’

I mentioned that I didn’t really believe he would hire another Milo Yiannopoulos.

‘‘You may be right,’’ he said. ‘‘It was getting to a point where Milo was limiting Breitbart, and Breit­bart was limiting Milo. Our stories should look like they could appear in any other publication. The bias now comes in story selection. We’re not going to cover the Russia scandal as much as we’re covering the cartels coming over the border.’’

The problems with trying to legitimize Breit­bart are, of course, abundant. One is that conventional news organizations are themselves in a fight for economic survival; another is that the whole concept of news is in the midst of a revision. Most reporters these days think of objectivity as a laudable but abstract goal. Trying to verify facts and elide opinion may push a writer to higher standards, but the overall thrust of journalism these days has been a move away from the construct of objectivity, not toward it.

It’s also not clear how many of Breitbart’s readers want a toned-down site. Alex has hired his sister to moderate comments, and his refusal to embrace the wild conspiracy theory that Russian hacking never happened is a sharp departure from a core conviction of many Breitbart readers. This is what Lee Stranahan meant when he described Alex as a ‘‘traitor’’ who ‘‘does not get basic narratives.’’ How many readers will accept a new narrative remains to be seen. Earlier this year, the tracking company Alexa reported that the site had plummeted on the list of most popular websites to No. 281 from No. 45; after an inquiry from Breitbart, the ranking shot back up to No. 59. Alex insisted that traffic is up 60 percent from this point last year, but even if that’s true and the readership remains loyal, another problem remains. Since the election, activists from a group called Sleeping Giants have begun pressuring advertisers to withdraw from Breit­bart, and as of this writing, the group claims 2,484 companies have pulled out. Alex acknowledged that the impact of the boycott has been severe. ‘‘It’s a fight,’’ he told me quietly one night. ‘‘That’s all I can really say.’’

In moments like this, it was possible to feel sympathy for a man in his predicament. He confided to me on another night that like so many people he has tried to hire, he knows that working for Breitbart will occlude his future. ‘‘I don’t have a lot of security,’’ he said. ‘‘I think I’m the best person to be editor of Breitbart, but what does that mean to the rest of the job market? I don’t have a lot of outs.’’ I sometimes had the sense of him as a figure trapped in a myth — a man adrift on a rudderless ship, reeling from the tempest of Trump’s election, surrounded by the deck fires of incendiary staff members and trying to pull down the pirate flag in order to steer a new course, past the sirens of click-bait outrage, between the Scylla and Charybdis of Bannon and Breitbart, and he could feel the sea of global resentments beneath him, tossing him this way and that, a riotous current that he partly understood and partly rued but mostly just wanted to leave behind.