US & Canada

How Breitbart became Donald Trump's favourite news site

Stephen K Bannon Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Steve Bannon has stepped down from the helm of Breitbart to become Donald Trump's campaign CEO

Even before President-elect Donald Trump named the executive chairman of Breitbart News Network Stephen K Bannon as his chief strategist, the site had played an unusual role in the election.

The right-wing outlet, which has been accused by some as being a hate site, aligned itself with the billionaire real estate mogul early on - to the extent where employees began to raise concerns about it being little more than a "fan club" for the Republican.

Now, with Bannon's appointment to the future president's inner circle, there are fears the most-read conservative news website in the US will be little more than a mouthpiece for Mr Trump's policies.

They are fears which have been brushed aside by the site's editor-in-chief in recent days, but it still begs the question: what is Breitbart and how did it get to where it is today?

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Andrew Breitbart, the founder of Breitbart News, was a controversial member of the conservative media who died suddenly in 2012

Andrew Breitbart, a staunchly conservative media entrepreneur, created Breitbart.tv in 2007, which mostly aggregated news from other outlets.

Over time, Breitbart - who worked for online news pioneers Arianna Huffington and Matt Drudge - decided to create a site that challenged and undermined the power of mainstream media, which he saw as ruled by liberal-leaning reporters, editors and publishers.

He created three websites, Big Journalism, Big Hollywood and Big Government, covering all three arenas from a combative, right-wing perspective. Breitbart mirrored his news sites' attitude with his own larger-than-life persona.

"My entire business model is to go on offense," he told Slate in 2010. "They want to portray me as crazy, unhinged, unbalanced. OK, good, fine."

Breitbart's first big break was an undercover video investigation of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (Acorn), which purported to show Acorn employees giving advice on how to set up a house for prostitution. The videos were heavily edited but the fallout caused the organisation to fold.

Another video on the site cost Agriculture Department official Shirley Sherrod her job by making it appear she was making racist comments. After the unedited video, which showed her repudiating racist comments, became public her former bosses apologised and tried to hire her back.

On the other hand, the site was spot on in 2011 when it became the first news outlet to run with the story of former New York congressman Anthony Weiner's sexting scandal.

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Image caption Donald Trump at a campaign event, vowing not to sever ties with Corey Lewandowski over an incident with a Breitbart reporter

In 2012, Breitbart died suddenly of a massive heart attack, just as he was about to launch a newly consolidated news site called simply Breitbart.

Bannon - a former naval officer, investment banker, Hollywood producer, and conservative documentarian - stepped up as executive chairman.

"We are going to be the Huffington Post of the right," Bannon famously said at the time.

Their headlines, however, were anything but Huffington Post-like: "Would you rather your child had feminism or cancer?" was one jumped on by Democrats during the presidential race.

Others include "There's no hiring bias against women in tech, they just suck at interviews", "Giuliani: 'Professional protesters,' not Hillary supporters, marching across nation" and "EXCLUSIVE: London cop confirms Donald Trump UK radicalisation claims".

It worked. Under Bannon's leadership Breitbart expanded by opening London, Texas, Jerusalem and California editions, and tripling its staff.

Readership has exploded from 2.9m unique visitors in 2012 to 17m in 2016, making it the most-read conservative news website in the US.

Image copyright Breitbart
Image caption Breitbart is the most read conservative website in the US

That huge surge in traffic is in part thanks to the number of exclusive interviews it secured with Trump early on in the presidential race - in the last year their traffic spiked 124%. Trump was also a frequent guest on Bannon's conservative talk show on Sirius XM.

That hasn't come without cost. According to Buzzfeed, some of Breitbart's own staff fretted they were becoming a "fan site" for Trump. Responding, Bannon was quick to mention that unlike other campaigns, Trump has never bought advertising on Breitbart.

That internal discord boiled over when Trump's former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski pulled a Breitbart reporter away from the candidate so forcefully he left bruises on her arm. The reporter, Michelle Fields, wondered aloud at the time why Lewandowski would behave that way towards "a Breitbart reporter, the people who are nicest to you".

Lewandowski and the Trump campaign denied any altercation had taken place, and Breitbart published a story questioning Fields' account. Subsequently, Fields and a number of top editors resigned from the site.

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Image caption Despite Bannon's new appointment, the site has said it will call Mr Trump out

One of those editors wrote a highly critical piece of both Bannon and Trump, arguing that the current iteration of Breitbart is a betrayal to its founder.

"[Bannon] has sold out Andrew's mission in order to back another bully, Donald Trump; he has shaped the company into Trump's personal Pravda," wrote former editor-at-large Ben Shapiro.

Those fears raised their heads again, after Bannon was announced as Mr Trump's new strategist.

But in an interview with The New York Times, the site denied it would be a mouth-piece for Mr Trump.

"Our loyalty is not going to be to Donald Trump; our loyalty is to our readers and to our values," editor-in-chief Andrew Marlow said.

He added: "If Trump runs his administration and honours the voters who voted him in, we're all good. But if he is going to turn his back on those values and principles that drove his voters to the polls, we're going to be highly critical. We're not going to think twice about it."

In the meantime, the site is making the most of the rise of the populist right, and planning on expanding into France and Germany - both countries with elections coming up, and where the right is hoping to repeat the victories seen in the US.

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