When the Tea Party News Network went live on the eve of the 2012 presidential election, its mission was no less than to become the first news outlet in the nation dedicated to being the voice of the new conservative revolution, a watchdog on the powerful, and a clearinghouse of information for the pitchfork-wielding brigades threatening to lay siege to Washington.
But two and half years after the site’s launch, some Tea Party stalwarts say it has made the same mistake that so many political outsiders do once they get to Washington: forgetting its roots. Instead of being a home of news and opinion for and about the right wing, TPNN has fallen into the digital trap of posting online content that appeals to the lowest common denominator, merely to generate clicks.
“It was supposed to be an educational tool for people who were upset with what is going on in the world,” said Samuel J. Wurzelbacher, better known as the folk hero “Joe The Plumber.” “But then they figured out, ‘Hell, we can make more money off of this.’ I stopped going to the site. It stopped being informative.”
For many Tea Partiers, the site reached its nadir at the end of last week, when its popular Facebook page, which has 1.2 million likes, posted stories that, as one regular reader described it, “wouldn’t have made the cut at TMZ.”
One post shows a large man getting into a fight at a U.K. restaurant with a young woman. After she slaps him, he punches her through a floor-to-ceiling window. “Did the Big guy go too far or do you think the girl got what she deserved?” a subheadline on the post asks. The headline of another post reads: “VIDEO: Cowardly Sucker Punch Kills Autistic Man.”
The stories, such as they are, are just the latest evidence of what fans of the site say is an increasing turn toward the lurid. Another recent post shows a video of a child running roughshod in a 99-cent store, overturning shelves and tossing items on the floor while, as the story says, “The narrator speaks in Ebonics as he follows the kid around, simultaneously condemning his actions and spurring the boy on.” The video ends with the child being physically punished, presumably by another shopper. Yet another post shows a frantic attempt to rescue a woman whose car was almost completely submerged in water, her desperate screams are all but audible in the photographs. Videos of fights are frequent. “Big Strutting Peacock Picks A Fight With The Wrong Guy” reads one headline. “Homosexual Foster Dad Lets His Baby Die In A Hot Car; His Sentence Is Outrageous” reads another.
The stories have generated a backlash among some of the site’s more devoted readers.
“Again, this is not Party news/info. This is BS. Stay focus [sic] on our goals as a party,” wrote one member of the TPNN community below one such story. (“Go back to being a pussy somewhere else,” responded another commenter.)
“What does this have to do with the Tea Party? Stop posting irrelevant crap,” added another commenter on a similar story.
In an interview at a coffee shop near the Fox News studios, the Tea Party News Network’s news director, Scottie Hughes, defended the posts as a legitimate effort to expand the organization’s footprint.
“If we talked politics all the time, how many people would we lose? Nobody talks politics 24/7. People talk sports. People talk dog shows. We are like other news outlets trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t,” she said. “We are trying to make you a well-rounded person, so you can have stuff to talk about at the water cooler, so you aren’t just seen as the crazy Tea Party person who has been demonized for so long.”
Hughes, a tall, vivacious blonde, has been the face of the site since it launched and has parlayed her TPNN prominence into a spot as a regular contributor to Fox News, leaving her husband and two children back home in Nashville for most of the week. The mission of TPNN is still “to rebrand what a Tea Party person is,” she said, but she acknowledged that “we are all being pushed right now, and it is what it is for all of us in online media—get clicks, get clicks, get clicks, every one of us. Break news, break news, break news. Stories and clicks. And it is really hard for people like you and I who have studied journalism all of our lives and who have this love for real, honest news.”
Much of the non-political content that makes its way onto the TPNN Facebook page is hosted by affiliated websites, among them one called Fights.buzz, which shows street altercations of the type that are banned from YouTube; Blessings.buzz, which despite its title posts non-religious content like “Woman Saved From Bullet by Miracle Bra,” and Viral.buzz, whose mission statement is self-evident.
All are owned by Todd Cefaratti, who is also the founder of TeaParty.net, a nonprofit dedicated to the “advancement of the constitutional conservative values of the tea party,” according to its website, and which took in close to $6 million in donations in this last election cycle, according to federal records.
Hughes said her job is to keep “that other stuff” away from what happens at TPNN but compared Cefaratti to Roger Ailes and the Fox empire, which also includes channels dedicated to entertainment, business, and sports.
“It is the same as any media conglomerate,” she said. “This just happens to be online, and we live in a capitalist society, so why not try to make money?”
Although surely not at the same level as Ailes, TPNN is a huge player in the conservative mediasphere. In the last month, the site drew 30 million page views, and 12 million unique visitors, and it is consistently ranked among the top 20 conservative news sites. Slate recently included the site in a story about a wave of buzzy new conservative media outlets and noted that TPNN frequently scores interviews with Republican leaders.
Ali Akbar, a prominent conservative blogger and political operative, said the crossroads the site finds itself at speaks to some problems the Tea Party movement is facing as a whole, with Internet marketers running into a space that was once filled by political people.
“They are in the web analytics business,” Akbar said. “They aren’t promoting ideas. They are promoting traffic. What political organization needs to be promoting fight videos?”
For his part, Joe the Plumber said he had had enough: “I won’t click on those damn stories. It’s about the shock factor. It has nothing to do with politics. It has to do with clicks. How far are they willing to go to compromise their integrity? It makes me sick, it makes me angry. It makes me want to go kick someone’s ass.”
Comments like that from Tea Party true believers, Hughes responded, hurt the most. She is trying to lure those readers back. The non-political fight and wipeout videos, she said, were like “why people watch The Tonight Show. You want information, but you want to get entertained. We want people that want everything.”