Bill Berkowitz: Getting its Buzz On
Getting its Buzz On
BuzzFlash.com: informative, saucy and acerbic Internet news site is must-see stop on information highway
By Bill Berkowitz
As the deadline approached for naming its GOP Hypocrite of the Week for the Friday, May 13, edition of BuzzFlash.com, Editor Mark Karlin was faced with a daunting challenge. While some of the previous "winners" -- Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Karen Hughes and President Bush -- are all well-known political figures, this week's choices were a gaggle of relatively unknown GOP officials and surrogates involved in sexual shenanigans. Pressed to choose one person, Karlin opted for Spokane, Washington's Mayor Joe West (more on him later).
On Thursday, May 12, an elaborate, creative and saucy BuzzFlash.com headline summed up the sexually-charged stories making the rounds that morning:
"The Right Wing Republicans are Just Plain Perverted: Former Wife of Dr. David Hager Claims He Continually Sodomized Her Against Her Will. Hager is Bush's "Family Values" Appointee to the Advisory Committee for Reproductive Health Drugs in the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Anti-Abortionist Terrorists Having Sex With Mules? GOP Congressmen Choking Their Mistresses? Anti-Gay Repub Mayor Accused of Child Molestation and Paying Off Gays for Sex? They are All Psychotic! This is a Major Story from "The Nation." "But it was the painful, invasive, totally nonconsensual nature of the [anal] sex that was so horrible." Whoa! Lock up the women and children; the Republicans are in town."
Whatever you think about this approach -- it's over-the-top, they nail it, too much bile with your morning bagel -- give BuzzFlash.com credit for: a) refusing to roll over and play dead in this difficult political climate; b) alerting readers to credible -- and frequently alternative -- information sources in an age of pre-packaged news, c) not missing a day since it started on May Day in 2000 and, d) having a darned good time doing all of the above.
Dr. David Hager, an obstetrician-gynecologist who was a controversial hard right Bush Administration appointee to an FDA advisory committee, sexually abused his former wife, Linda Carruth Davis, during their thirty-two-year marriage, according to a recent report in The Nation. (Read "Dr. Hager's Family Values" in The Nation.)
Did Neal Horsley, the Carrollton, Georgia.-based computer programmer and anti-abortion terrorist who founded the Nuremberg Files web site -- which led with pictures of bloody and mangled fetuses, and made its reputation by providing names, and whenever possible home addresses, telephone numbers, license-plate numbers, and Social Security numbers of physicians and health care workers involved in abortions -- come of age by having sex with animals? That's what Horsley told Fox News' Alan Colmes on his radio program; a partial transcript is available at "News Hounds -- We watch Fox so you don't have to."
James E. West, the Mayor of Spokane, Washington, was given BuzzFlash.com's "Hypocrite of the Week" award after the Washington Post reported that the anti-gay GOP official was "the subject of an FBI probe into accusations he offered municipal jobs to men he met in gay online chat rooms." Mayor West, complaining that he was the victim of a "brutal outing," was no doubt referring to stories that appeared in the hometown newspaper The Spokesman-Review, which reported allegations "that he molested two boys while he was a sheriff's deputy and Boy Scout leader in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The newspaper also set up an online sting and found him visiting a gay online chat room," according to the Post.
None of these tales of right wing sexuality run amok matter nearly as much as the Bush Administration's lies about the existence of Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq, the non-existent link between Saddam Hussein to 9/11, or his non-existent connection between Hussein and al Qaeda.
And they pale in comparison to stories about the serial ethical lapses of the House Majority Leader Tom DeLay or the temper-tantrum-challenged behavior of John Bolton, Bush's nominee as United Nations ambassador.
Every day, BuzzFlash.com traffics in the serious and the preposterous, the sublime and the slime of twenty-first century political life.
Those who know BuzzFlash.com understand that: a) It is an uncompromising and indispensable daily source of news and information, gathered from hundreds of media outlets; b) It has grown rapidly over the past few years; c) It regularly interviews major political and literary figures, as well as those not receiving the attention they deserve; d) It accepts no advertising and is supported by an online store that offers dozens of extraordinary premiums including unique DVDs, CDs, new and classic books, hats, t-shirts and book bags; and e) It is a proud and profoundly partisan news service that is occasionally given over to the hyperbolic headline.
Those who don't know BuzzFlash.com, should.
I recently had the opportunity to interview Mark Karlin, the editor and publisher of BuzzFlash.com. Karlin grew up in Lincolnwood, Illinois, a town whose "name inspired my belief in government of the people, by the people, and for the people." He attended Yale University, but wants readers to know that unlike George W. Bush and John Kerry he was not in Skull and Bones. He graduated cum laude, with honors and later received a master's degree in English. He taught for awhile, became a freelance journalist and then worked on outreach projects with non-profit advocacy groups.
Karlin had just returned from the National Conference for Media Reform in St. Louis. (Disclosure: BuzzFlash.com has frequently linked to my stories.)
Bill Berkowitz: You started up BuzzFlash.com five years ago. What was your motivation and how did you come up with the idea?
Mark Karlin: We started up on May Day of 2000 and we haven't missed a day since. BuzzFlash.com is a pro-democracy news and commentary site dedicated to focusing on news and public policy. BuzzFlash.com believes that the government of the United States belongs to and is accountable to the people; not that the people belong to the government. It is committed to exposing the hypocrisies of a radical fundamentalist Republican Party that has seized the U.S. government and is turning America into a bigoted, exclusionary state, reflecting the theocratic outlook of fringe Christian extremists.
The mainstream press wasn't providing news that reflected accuracy, truth and context; instead, it had become part of the "infotainment" bottom line of large media corporations. There was no historical context: "history" seemed to re-create itself with the start of each 6-hour news cycle. Television news in particular rides the crest of each wave of government information (or lies) that comes in -- and then starts up again in the next news cycle.
BB: Why you?
MK: To paraphrase a revered Jewish scholar: "If not I, then whom." Although I am the founder, editor and publisher, BuzzFlash is really a community of readers and pro-democracy patriots (and these are not just clichés to us, we mean it) who find common ground on the site. Although I worked on the site 24 hours a day for several years, we now have a great team -- due to the generosity of our readers -- including a crack managing editor, two senior editors, three consulting editors, an administrator and someone who sends out and keeps track of orders for our "premiums." It's truly a team effort at this point, just like democracy should be.
BB: You run a fair amount of original content on the site. What is the breakdown and where do these contributions come from?
MK: About 20 percent of our stuff on any given day is original commentary and reader-generated contributions. The rest consists of links to articles from other sites that readers often tip us to; we receive more than 1500 e-mails a day during the week.
I write most of the editorials. Site visitors write the BuzzFlash reader commentaries. We also have a stable of regular contributors who provide analysis and humor and more well-known experts send us material. Just yesterday, Congressman John Conyers sent us an exclusive commentary on the filibuster. It's a spicy BuzzFlash stew of original content.
BB: Your May 12, headline (see above) was a BuzzFlash classic. Why the hyperbole?
MK: When I first started BuzzFlash, I thought the headlines should reflect what a reader of the site might think when they're reading about some Republican lie that might be reported as fact in the mainstream press. It's kind of like the balloon filled with a person's thoughts that you see in comic strips. Only on BuzzFlash.com, the interior reaction to some outrageous story or Bush comment is conjured up as a headline. Needless to say, since a person doesn't generally censor what they are thinking inside their head, when it comes out as a headline, you are going to see a good deal of irreverence, sarcasm and passion.
I guess the most controversial headlines have more to do with style than substance. They are the ones that run on and on like the long sentence your English teacher in high school warned you not to write. But they are really a way of expressing the outrage that the reader is also feeling about the story underneath the headline. Mainstream press headlines are terribly limiting in length, and yet in 2005, we are a nation where headlines often are the only news that people remember.
So, it's hard to pass up a headline on BuzzFlash.com that would leave you blue in your face if you held your breath reading it. Sometimes our readers don't need more than the headline to get the picture.
BB: Who writes them?
MK: I do a lot of them. Our managing editor and three consulting editors have all picked up the "BuzzFlash style" by osmosis. When they write headlines, it reflects their take too. But to be fair, they would probably want me to confess that most of the longest ones are mine. I don't think they are eager to claim authorship for them.
BB: Give me some stats re readership, hits, etc.?
MK: We started five years ago on May Day of 2000. When we began, we had about three dozen readers a day; by October and November 2004, there were more than 5 million reader sessions a month. Although readership dipped a bit after the election, it's now coming back up. A lot of readers were so discouraged that they, to paraphrase Voltaire in "Candide," decided to tend to their own gardens.
BB: How do you get by financially? A day job?
MK: Let's just say that the next time a right wing person claims we are getting tons of money from rich liberals, please ask the wingers to send them our way. We just wrote an editorial in which we noted that wealthy liberals don't generally give big money -- or even little big money in our case -- to the emerging new media. They tend to fund activism and candidates.
The site was funded by my sweat equity for quite awhile, but then we started selling progressive premiums and readers started sending in contributions (they are not tax-deductible), and I was able to hire some staff and pay off the growing server and e-mail alert costs. Even though we don't charge a subscription fee, it costs a lot of money to run the site.
Our biggest financial limitation is that we don't accept advertising or fees from vendors for posting premiums. From the beginning, I was committed to keeping BuzzFlash.com free from the influence and pressures that advertisers -- corporate and political -- assert on the media. This was a no-brainer. Even if they don't call you up and scream about some offending headline or editorial, you start pulling your punches because you know that they are looking over your shoulder.
We have no one looking over our shoulders except our readers. We are accountable to them and no one else.
And yes, I have other income that provides food, clothing and shelter for my family. I didn't start thinking I would become rich -- and, you know what, I was right!
BB: You've interviewed some remarkable folks. How do you get access to these people?
MK: At this point, many of them seek us out, or their publicists or press secretaries do, because of our impact and influence. We are read by both grassroots activists and public policy makers among progressives, Democrats and independents. And, strangely enough, lots of mainstream media reporters and editors read us.
In addition, because part of our mission is to help create larger markets for pro-democracy books, DVDs and CDs, the publishing houses seek us out. But there are, to be sure, some people who are elusive interviews -- and we do the grunt work of chasing them down.
BB: Have you been catching flak from the right?
MK: Like periodic mass outbreaks of the flu, vitriolic e-mail from the right wing tends to come in unexpected waves. It usually can be traced to a scathing posting on a site like FreeRepublic or a negative mention on some GOP faux pundit show. The most recent time the religious right bombarded us was when they became obsessed with the Terry Schiavo case. Although they never wrote us before about anyone else dying, they referred over and over again to the "horror of her execution."
BB: You recently returned from the Media Reform Conference in St. Louis. Where does BuzzFlash.com fit within the media reform movement?
BuzzFlash not only publishes articles about media reform and regularly criticizes the media for being stenographers for the Bush Administration, but, our growing presence on the Net represents one manifestation of the new media.
Unlike corporate media, the new media should be accountable to the citizens of this democracy, and not its shareholders and self-serving politicians. Whether television, radio or print, the American mainstream media has clearly become a business first. As one recent BuzzFlash interviewee said, American citizens rate third in terms of mainstream media interest -- after shareholders and the executive branch/Congress. Case in point: Recently, the Washington Post waited nearly two weeks to print a story about a British memo that clearly indicated that the Bush administration planned to "fix" information to lead America into the Iraq War. And it buried the story on page 13.
The issue of media reform is essential to returning America to its Constitutional roots in democracy. Without media reform, the Bush administration will continue to get away with its most fundamental propaganda dictum, "If you repeat a lie five times, it becomes the truth."
BB: In a rapidly shifting media landscape, what are your plans for the future?
MK: We continue to grow in readership and influence -- and we plan on reciprocating the trust our readership has placed in us by expanding in several ways. We are going to be enlarging our network through the creation of several BuzzFlash.com affiliated websites. Our first launch was gophypocrites.com, where our slogan is "So many Republican hypocrites, so little time."
We also have plans for providing local-based versions of BuzzFlash, but that's a bit down the line. We put contributions from premium purchases back into the site, so we can only move as fast as the cash umbilical cord allows us to.
We are also expanding our original content offerings and looking to enhance the BuzzFlash.com main site. We just completed, under the oversight of our managing editor, a complete "backend" overhaul of the site, giving us software infrastructure capabilities of doing much more with the homepage -- and also facilitating our network expansion. It was a major step in our continued growth.
For more please see the Bill Berkowitz archive.
Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.