Pointergate and Breitbart’s Failed Smears: Has Right-Wing Media Reached Its Racist, Sexist Self-Parody Apex?


This past week, while liberal America was licking its wounds, Conservative media began celebrating the triumph of Republicans at the ballot box by, um, messing up, big-time. Yes, it was a bloodbath of poorly executed, thinly sourced, racist and sexist insinuation and smear tactics. Stephen Colbert in his bloviating persona couldn’t do better.

Let’s start with Breitbart.com. The clearinghouse of dubiously sourced, dogwhistle-laden hit pieces really topped itself this weekend by running two pieces that were allegedly tough takedowns of Obama’s new Attorney General nominee, Loretta Lynch. Specifically, the writers got down to wondering why no one was talking about her deep Clinton connections, and what the media was missing. (Hint: Whitewater!)

One problem: The Loretta Lynch tapped to be AG happens to be a black woman from South Carolina with a double Harvard degree who currently prosecutes federal cases in Brooklyn. The former Clinton lawyer is a white lady who lives and works in California.

So, nope.

As the initially posted correction read, “Correction: The Loretta Lynch identified earlier as the Whitewater attorney was, in fact, a different attorney.”

For a while, the articles lingered on the site, but they have since been taken down because, well, they were bullshit, and were roundly mocked as such on social media:

It was inevitable that at some point Breitbart and its ilk’s predictable formula of “digging into liberals’ mysterious pasts” and connecting disparate old scandals in a great chain of conspiracy would backfire (the day they can manage to get the Obamacare website, Monica Lewinsky, Benghazi, Sandra Fluke, ISIS, Ebola, and abortion into one post will be their greatest day).

In this case, their error was so ridiculous that the articles eventually disappeared. Yet more typically, the innuendo they attach to left-wing figures sticks around for a much longer time, doing damage.

As it turns out, this smear technique has filtered down to local media, as Minnesota non-scandal “Pointergate” indicates. Here’s Pointergate in a nutshell: The mayor of Minneapolis, Betsy Hodges, was taking part in a voter awareness and registration drive when she posed with a volunteer, Navell Gordon, a formerly incarcerated person trying to turn his life around by serving the community. In the picture, they were pointing at each other.

The Minneapolis Police Department reacted by telling local news station KSTP that Hodges, who has pushed for more police accountability through policies like bodycams, had angered cops by “flashing gang signs.” As a local pundit-in-training, former police officer Michael Quinn, said, “The fact that they’re flashing gang signs at each other, showing solidarity with the gangs, she’s legitimizing what they’re doing.” And then the local media ran with it, saying they had a hot, hot story of the mayor “posing with a convicted felon while flashing a known gang sign.”

Fortunately, social media was there to push back, hard, calling the non-scandal #pointergate and finding dozens of pictures of celebrities, politicians, and even the story’s reporter himself throwing “gang signs” by daring to point a finger.

As hilarious as the #pointergate meme became, the forces that created the stupid, offensive story are still at work. Diversity-starved newsrooms, racism towards young men of color, a desperate desire for “scandal” and the treatment of police forces as sacrosanct authorities rather than public servants — the list goes on.

As with Breitbart’s colossal fail, this singular moment of ridiculousness belies many other innocuous-seeming manifestations of the same awful media trends: race-shaming, attacking female politicians for “associations,” reinforcing tired stereotypes instead of seeking actually interesting angles, like this one:

Fortunately, slightly more nuanced media exists. This Melissa Harris-Perry roundtable put a lid on Pointergate, in a conversation that brought out the race, gender, and policy subtexts:

Now, in a vacuum, this whole silly week of media mess-ups would amount to no more than pure hilarity. Unfortunately, smearing liberal women and minorities is the most reliable pageview producer for conservative media and its imitators. It’s an m.o. which targets prominent feminists and people of color in the media, politics, and pop culture regularly, always with the same finely wrought technique of throwing all kinds of racist and sexist bugbears at the wall and seeing what sticks.

These two scandals, thankfully, didn’t stick — but future ones might. So it’s important to keep our debunking muscles in good shape, even when media “scandals” reach self-mocking levels of awfulness.