For a while Tuesday, all journalists were banned from an event this Saturday in which a famous non-journalist is to receive an award for “courage in journalism.”
Confused? That’s the chaotic effect of Steve Bannon landing back in Tucson.
Bannon first made a mark here in 1994, helping take over management of Biosphere 2 in a sudden shake-up demanded by founding investor Ed Bass. Police were called in, security officers lined the property, a break-in happened, arrests occurred and lawsuits ensued before Bass handed over management to Columbia University in 1996.
This year, the Brian Terry Foundation invited Bannon, now widely known for helping get Donald Trump elected president, to its annual banquet in Tucson. Bannon is slated to talk about border security and receive an award, said Terry’s cousin Robert Heyer, the chair of the foundation.
Terry, a member of the Border Patrol’s tactical unit, was killed in December 2010 by a member of a “rip crew” looking to steal loads of drugs from smugglers west of Rio Rico. That’s bad enough, but the story became more galling because the crew carried guns bought in Phoenix and smuggled into Mexico as part of an ill-conceived sting run by the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, the notorious Operation Fast and Furious.
Bannon is a natural to speak to this audience. The outlet he runs, Breitbart News, has specialized in reporting alarming news about the border, immigrants and Muslims, and it also acts as a voice for the Border Patrol agents’ union, which often publishes its press releases there first.
On Monday, some Tucsonans started talking about protesting Bannon, and the management of the JW Marriott Starr Pass got squirrely. On Tuesday Heyer and the foundation announced angrily that the resort had banned reporters from the event. But the Marriott reversed the nonsensical idea a couple of hours later.
Tuesday’s brief tempest showed how provocative Bannon’s selection was for the foundation. Democrats largely hate him, and so do a portion of Republicans — those Bannon has labeled “the establishment” and vowed to defeat. For example, he took credit — probably more than he’s due — for helping drive Sen. Jeff Flake out of his own re-election campaign, and endorsed opponent Kelli Ward.
For the foundation, Bannon’s controversial nature is probably a good thing in that it brought some attention back. I know I haven’t thought about the foundation much, after reporting on its first banquet at the Marriott Starr Pass in 2012.
“Nobody gives a s--- about Brian Terry anymore,” Heyer told me. “Operation Fast and Furious has faded from the press. We’re trying to stay relevant. We’re trying to raise money for the things we do.”
Those things, primarily, are college scholarships intended for law-enforcement-oriented students, and support for the families of Border Patrol agents who are killed or injured. It’s a small foundation, with reported revenue of $120,180 in 2015, that does good work.
But Bannon’s selection was more controversial to people like me because of the specific award the foundation is giving him. It is for “courage in journalism and reporting,” in honor of the coverage that Breitbart News gave to the Fast and Furious scandal.
Let’s be clear: Bannon is not a journalist. I doubt that even he would consider himself a journalist. He is a propagandist for the conservative-populist-nationalist movement that he considers the way forward for America. He pushes that agenda on various platforms — film, speeches, political campaigns. One of them, sometimes, is journalism, or a facsimile thereof.
Breitbart News was not a leader among the organizations that broke the stories on Operation Fast and Furious in 2011. The leaders were a mixture of mainstream news organizations and conservative bloggers. I remember, because I covered the story that year for the Star.
Bannon, it should be added, wasn’t even running Breitbart News in 2011. Founder Andrew Breitbart ran it until he died unexpectedly in March 2012. That’s when Bannon took over and, yes, later published stories that kept the Operation Fast and Furious story alive.
“What Breitbart did, was when the mainstream media began to not cover the Operation Fast and Furious scandal, that’s when Breitbart started covering,” Heyer said.
It’s true — Breitbart did continue to publish stories on Operation Fast and Furious in the years after the story eased out of the national news. In that sense, Bannon did help hold the Obama administration to account. But to understand why Breitbart published those stories, you have to understand that Bannon is trying to lead a political movement.
In the process, he’s sullied the whole idea of journalism, trying to paint actual news organizations as “fake,” or at least no less biased than his outlet’s unvarnished, pro-Trump propaganda. He’s tried to erase the line between those who try to pursue the truth and those who have no interest but their own political goals.
After a topsy-turvy seven months as President Trump’s chief strategist in the White House, Bannon returned to running Breitbart, which appears to be gradually turning into a vehicle for Bannon’s self-aggrandizement.
On Tuesday morning when I pulled up the website, the top four stories on Breitbart all covered a new book about Steve Bannon, “Always the Rebel.” The top headline was of Bannonesque grandiosity: “Steve Bannon: Same causes of Roman Empire’s decline can be seen in America today.”
Perhaps, though, Bannon’s most anti-journalistic act was his effort this week to undermine the Washington Post’s reporting on Alabama candidate for U.S. Senate Roy Moore. Bannon supported Moore in the primary and has defended him since allegations came out in the Post that Moore preyed on teen girls when he was a 30-something prosecutor.
In response, online news site Axios reported, Bannon sent two Breitbart reporters to Alabama to try to undermine the Post’s reporting. There’s nothing wrong with one outlet correcting another news outlet’s errors, or reporting similar facts in a different light, but Bannon’s efforts seem transparently political — to defend Moore and undermine the Post.
The Post is led by legendary editor Marty Baron, whose feat of exposing child abuse by priests in the Catholic Church was featured in the movie “Spotlight.” That’s a guy who has shown “courage in journalism.” Bannon — he has shown remarkable intelligence, skill and, yes, courage in politics. But not journalism.
Still, I don’t blame the foundation for wanting him here as a draw, and I definitely don’t blame real journalists for covering him.