CNN's Aaron Brown discovered he was the target of an organized campaign against him one morning in early May, when his Blackberry started vibrating with the fury of hundreds of e-mails. "It was like magic fingers at a cheap motel," he says.
He had run afoul of the online media critics at Media Whores Online, an anonymously run Web site whose writers and readers share a conviction that the mainstream media (aka "media whores") is dominated by a right-wing agenda, slavishly praising President Bush and viciously attacking all things related to Bill Clinton, Al Gore or Democrats in general. So MWO devotees, in turn, attack back.
The site's gimmick is to activate its readers, directing them to the latest offending "whore" to spam with e-mail arrows. And in its nearly three-year history, MWO's profile has steadily risen, meriting increasingly frequent television and newspaper citations. All by ruffling the feathers of those easily wounded egos in journalism.
Oddly, Brown, the high-profile anchor of "Newsnight with Aaron Brown" and resident Mr. Nice Guy, prompted this particular attack himself by refusing a round of valentines from MWO readers. The compliment? That unlike most of his peers, Brown was not a "whore." Or more precisely, Brown says, that "I was probably a whore, too, but I wasn't in this instant."
And what had Brown done to win MWO's affection? He had merely offered a mild note of skepticism following a gaffe by White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, who blamed failed Middle East peace talks by President Clinton for ratcheting up violence in the region. Fleischer retracted the statement quickly, but while others characterized it as a slip-up, Brown seemed to wonder aloud if Fleischer had simply taken the fall for administration talking points that went over badly. MWO viewers cheered.
But Brown took offense at the raft of cookie-cutter e-mails that started trickling to him the next day, and responded to some of them. He neither liked the implication that his colleagues were "whores," he wrote back, nor accepted the notion that they were dedicated to a right-wing agenda. His responses soon made their way onto Media Whores Online. That's when he became a subject of the site's wrath -- and his Blackberry really started buzzing.
"I was just blown away by the nastiness of it all," he says now. "There was this sense that this was a perfectly responsible way to talk to people." The battle escalated when Brown made reference on his show to the "nasty barrage of e-mail from people who believe the media slants the news to favor conservatives," and dismissed them as "small stuff from small people." The anonymous voice behind MWO deemed Brown's statements to be those of a man trying to muzzle criticism -- an odd complaint, considering Brown gave their complaints an exponentially greater audience by mentioning them on his show.
"At long last, Mr. Brown, have you no shame?" the site asked. Brown says the episode reached its nadir when one e-mailer wrote to tell him he "hoped my daughter was raped by a Republican so that I would know what the rest of the country was going through."
Eventually, Brown penned a surprisingly magnanimous open letter to the site, in which he warned that its "tone and language," was comparable to "anti-abortion protestors [who] call doctors murderers and satanic on their web sites," which "emboldens people of like mind to cross the line, sometimes with tragic results." He ended it by saying he still wanted to hear criticism, if delivered "civilly."
A few months later, Brown still sounds rattled by the ordeal. "I'm a pretty gentle soul in a lot of ways," Brown says. "I was just distressed that there's this place and they throw language like this around when it usually just comes down to a disagreement with editorial policy."
But that's exactly Media Whores Online's tactic: personally browbeat journalists who stray from what they deem a fair (usually meaning partisan Democratic) point of view. In addition to Brown, MWO has managed to rankle reporters and editors at the Washington Post, ABC's George Stephanopoulos and CNN "Crossfire" host Tucker Carlson, who describes the MWO rationale as: "So anybody who doesn't share our political opinions is a traitor, or a sellout or a whore? That's not media criticism, that's revolting."
On the other side of the aisle from Carlson, literally, MWO has its admirers. His "Crossfire" co-hosts from the left, James Carville and Paul Begala, both frequently plug the Web site on air. "I just think they're great. They generate a lot of buzz, they come with a lot of attitude, and they go against the conventional corporate media," says Begala.
Of course, it's hard to take MWO seriously as a media watchdog, when it remains completely free of any accountability. But the site's anonymity has only fueled interest in it, and has prompted an increasingly popular Washington guessing game. Because no one, it seems, knows for sure who is behind MWO, even those who have been closely affiliated with the site since the very beginning.
As best can be determined, Media Whores Online originated in Tulsa, Okla., in 1996 when a self-proclaimed "ADD Catholic with an IQ of 64" began an irreverent left-leaning e-mail listserv called RL-LNW, short for "Rush Limba -- Lying Nazi Whore." Shy yet passionate, its low-profile editor, Terry Coppage, took on right-wing agendas with cutting and often crude humor. He received some financial help from Marc Perkel, an eccentric computer programmer who ran against incumbent John Ashcroft in the 2000 Missouri Republican Senate primary, garnering 10 percent of the vote with almost no campaigning. Soon Coppage began publishing his commentaries on a Web site called Bartcop, and adopted the moniker "Bart."
Coppage's political rantings grew more fearless with each issue, and he thinks he might have been the first to coin the term "media whore." But that's impossible to verify, since the phrase now saturates the Internet.
By 1999, Coppage says, he began receiving contributions and corresponding with someone known only as JennyQ. Her numerous graphics and e-mails were witty, creative and occasionally angry. In 2000, JennyQ emailed Bart about going it alone with a Web site that would assume the media-task-taking responsibilities of Bartcop, but remain affiliated with the site.
Elsewhere in cyberspace, an Arkansas journalist named Terry Krepel was corresponding with a woman identifying herself as "Jennifer Kelly" on Salon's Table Talk. They chatted online about starting their own respective Web sites. He'd call his Conwebwatch, for conservative Web watch. She'd call hers Mediawhoresonline.
"I had known about it from the beginning," said Krepel, who eventually wrote a few articles for MWO. "I tried to stay away from it a while. There was a little bit more bomb-throwing than what I was trying to do."
A person identifying herself as Kelly, and representing MWO, has also corresponded with editors at Salon, and even claimed responsibility for the site in the May 2001 issue of the now-defunct Industry Standard, as well as in its own archived pages from February 2001. There Jennifer Kelly confirms "I am the MWO Editor-In-Chief," in a section labeled "Who and Why we Are."
And in June 2001, a Jennifer Kelly gave an interview to the Nation, describing MWO as willing to "mimic tactics of the wingnuts," by labeling those they disagree with as whores and refusing, on principle, to criticize any writer whose work they dub "non-whore."
Nobody, though, including Coppage, nor any of the other Web site contributors contacted for this article knew exactly who JennyQ or Jennifer Kelly is. And more recently, the mysterious "Jennifer Kelly" has disappeared.
For this article, the person, or persons, in charge of MWO insisted on only an interview by e-mail, and insisted on anonymity, signing all answers with "the editors" and employing the royal "we." They view themselves as grass-roots activists who use anonymity to ensure that "citizens who participate can do so without unnecessary harassment by those who do not like what is being said." They fear harassment from right-wing zealots, according to the e-mails. "Our contributors, ordinary citizens, have real jobs and real families, and some of them would most certainly face consequences if their involvement were known."
The responses did admit that the site has an outside funder -- but would not identify who it is, and would only say the funder was not actively involved in the site's content. "Those who could be described as 'most responsible' for the site's content have never been publicly identified as such anywhere, as far as we know."
And, for now, there's no reason they need to be.
But some MWO followers have not managed to remain so hidden. Last month, MWO launched a new offensive against an old target, Post reporter Susan Schmidt, whom they (along with other media critics who use their names) thought covered the investigations against the Clintons with particularly partisan relish. They dubbed her "Steno Sue," labeling her a stenographer for Independent Counsel Ken Starr, and launched an e-mail campaign. Several of the site's readers sent Schmidt angry e-mails.
But instead of engaging them as Brown did, Schmidt sought vengeance. After figuring out where two of the e-mails originated from, Schmidt contacted the senders' respective employers. A small media hoopla ensued; Washington Post ombudsman Michael Getler confirmed to the American Prospect that Schmidt did, indeed, contact the employers and was "told not to do it again."
But those two were mere foot soldiers in MWO's war, and the incident only helped to spur on the guessing game of who was really the person behind the curtain, sending directives and choosing new targets. Certainly there's a level of sophistication to those decisions -- choosing fairly obscure targets of derision, like Schmidt, for example, loathed only by near-professional Clinton defenders. And that's got Beltway observers convinced a political professional is somehow involved.
"I don't know who is writing and funding Media Whores Online, but I bet you 20 bucks I know them," said CNN's Carlson. In the wee morning hours following the White House Correspondents dinner in early May, Carlson even cornered Joe Conason, columnist for Salon and the New York Observer, and asked if he was behind the site. Conason denied it, and says he would never write anonymously.
Although, Conason adds, "Their worldview is not that different from mine."
Conason, and his coauthor of "The Hunting of the President: The Ten-Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton," Arkansas Democrat-Gazette author Gene Lyons, are listed in MWO's list of "Media in Exile," a group that it deems "upholds the standards of professionalism in journalism." Both are frequently showered with praise, as are Nation writer Eric Alterman and Begala, among others. Conason and Lyons both say they have no idea who is behind the site.
"Clearly they overvalue Joe's and my writing," Lyons said. "I keep thinking, don't they ever disagree with me? What do I have to do to get them to disagree with me?" Its "A-list Whore Roster" is dominated by conservative columnists such as the New York Times' William Safire, the National Review's Jonah Goldberg and Fox News' Sean Hannity. But it also likes to single out some comparatively liberal commentators -- including MSNBC's Chris Matthews, Fox's Geraldo Rivera and the Nation's Christopher Hitchens -- who dare to stray from the party line. The list changes constantly, as readers submit their own nominees. (Last week featured two targets not normally considered right-wing whores, the New York Times' Nicholas Kristof and CSPAN's Brian Lamb.)
Among the site's many acolytes, there seems to be only a passing curiosity about who might be in charge. I spoke with seven former and current contributors. They are a tiny sample of MWO's core disciples, those whom the blog originally intended to serve, the editors stated. In return, they are fiercely loyal to the site. Only four shared a curiosity about the site's founders and editors, and most said they could abide the site's continued anonymity. A few said they believed the site was started by someone not unlike themselves, someone with a day job or, perhaps, a family, who just got fed up.
"You definitely get the impression that she's just an angry citizen, like the rest of us," said Christian Livemore of Savannah, Ga., who contributes to both Media Whores Online and, more frequently, to Bartcop.
Mediawhoresonline.com was registered as a domain on Oct. 30, 2000 with contacts listed as "Clinton, Socks and Buddy." The timing couldn't have been better. The weeks following the uncertain general election sowed the seeds for cyber activism to come. The media's coverage of the showdown in Florida frustrated and incited many, particularly Gore supporters, who felt the election was stolen out from under them. At the same time that some people were discovering the MWO site and Bartcop, other partisan sites such as the Drudge Report-inspired Buzzflash.com, Democrats.com, the Daily Howler and a host of smaller but similarly lefty blogs found burgeoning new audiences.
Despite a new era of crack Internet-crime investigators and looming federal legislation demanding domain accountability, the Web site has managed to grow without being required to make any further disclosure.
Of course, nothing is completely anonymous about the Internet, since every e-mail message and Web site has a specific digital address traceable to its point of origin. Names can also be found in a Web site's html coding, or in a header on an e-mail. But a moderately tech-knowledgeable person can figure out how to remove blatant identifiers, as the Media Whores Online site has done, and only Internet hosting companies (and, of course, hackers) have the means to trace IP addresses to actual computers.
And there are no legal restrictions on anonymous publishing. "Any person can publish anything anonymously any time in any medium," said Ronald Coleman, an intellectual property attorney at the New York law firm of Gibney Anthony and Flaherty. "That is a very fundamental corollary to freedom of the press."
Of course, anonymous speech is not protected if it's defamatory. But the laws on Internet defamation are changing. In years past, if a corporation wanted to shut down an anonymous Web site that was writing critically about it, it would file a "John Doe" lawsuit and subpoena the Internet host, such as America Online or Earthlink, to disclose the registered user. Last year, the New Jersey Superior Court Appellate Division put a stop to this. Now those seeking to unveil the authors of anonymous Web sites in the name of defamation have a greater threshold of proof. "You've got to do more than merely file a lawsuit and use it as a fishing expedition," Coleman said.
Besides, as several experts also pointed out, a miffed journalist would have a hard time proving that being labeled a "media whore" constitutes defamation.
Other hurdles may loom in the future. Verisign Inc., which has a monopoly on the registry of all domain names, has an agreement with some 90 different registrars, many of whom have agreements with sub-registrars, that requires customers to enter reliable, accurate information when setting up a domain name, which then appears in Verisign's library of names.
Technically, a customer found to have provided a false identity ("Clinton, Socks and Buddy" would presumably qualify) could be found in violation of the contract, and lose the Web site he or she registered, Verisign spokesman Patrick Burns said. But for now, the requirement is in effect voluntary. Many, many people provide false information to the registry, even those who are not publishing anonymous Web sites, simply to avoid spam, said Chris Hoofnagle, legislative counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington. Verisign hasn't the time or the energy to verify a few million sites, Burns said, so false domain contacts are usually only examined upon inquiry by a third party, often an attorney.
This could change with federal legislation recently introduced in the House by Rep. Howard Coble, R-N.C., and Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif., that would make providing false information while registering a domain name a criminal offense. The measure faces opposition by civil libertarians. "The danger is people could be prosecuted for fraud when their real objective is to obtain anonymity," Hoofnagle said. If the legislation passed, the force behind MWO might finally become known. Passage, however, appears unlikely.
Beyond any legal ramifications, the ethical issues involved in anonymous attacks seem clear -- especially for media outlets that choose to cite an anonymous Web site. As Aly Colón, on the ethics faculty of the Poynter Institute, says, "I think every citizen should feel free to hold the media accountable; it's better for the media.
"But to use that site as an information source that is definitive and credible may be difficult, especially for those who question who they are and what their agenda is," he says.
And yet in the last year and a half, Media Whores Online has been cited in two dozen publications, including the (London) Guardian, USA Today and, yes, Salon. Just last month, a column published in both the Los Angeles Times and the Record of Bergen County, N.J., quoted a Media Whores Online report about, interestingly enough, the funding sources of a "conservative media watchdog" group's Web site. Yet the story failed to give Media Whores Online, its source, any context, simply attributing the reporting to "mediawhoresonline, a watchdog group," without mentioning the Web site's partisanship or its anonymous management.
"It seems like sloppy journalism to just re-quote from an anonymous medium," said Roger Boye, assistant dean of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. "You have to question the source's motives."
"You take the information at face value, and have to decide for yourself how credible it is based on what the individuals are writing about," Colsn said. Of course, that's also the point reiterated ad nauseam on the site itself: Consider the source.
Even Aaron Brown sees a virtue, of sorts, in the site. "They may be a little over the top," he says. "Their choice of words is offensive. But I guess I'd rather that people care than not."