Media Clips

Tangled Web: Bush Takes on the Internet

Can you tell which of these George W. Bush Web sites is sponsored by the governor?
Can you tell which of these George W. Bush Web sites is sponsored by the governor?

The Internet has been hailed repeatedly as the most democratic form of media ever devised. As long as a person has access to a computer and a modem -- something even the poorest of people are increasingly able to get -- he or she can put out a message which, at least in theory, stands on equal footing with the largest of corporations. One man in Massachusetts is currently putting that theory to the test -- and he's doing so over the objections of the richest political campaign in history.

Back in May, Gov. George W. Bush's presidential campaign filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) against gwbush.com, a Web site maintained by one Zack Exley of Boston. Despite what one might think from the name, gwbush.com is not a Bush-friendly spot on the Internet. Instead, Exley uses the site to lampoon and blast our governor, mainly for his hypocrisy on the issue of drugs. The site features a series of fictional news articles -- often peppered with actual quotes from Bush -- claiming that Bush has decided to turn himself in for his alleged past drug use, in order to be fair to the thousands of other people whose "youthful indiscretions" have landed them the lengthy and ludicrously harsh prison sentences supported by Bush.

In its complaint, the Bush campaign argues that Exley's site constitutes the same type of political speech carried out by political action committees and candidate campaigns, and that Exley may have violated FEC regulations by not registering with the commission and filing the same type of contribution and expenditure reports required of those entities. A hearing on the complaint was held on August 19, but no decision has yet been made by the FEC.

If you haven't seen Exley's site, you owe it to yourself to go there immediately. The parody site looks almost identical to the Bush campaign's official site (http://www.georgewbush.com) -- a fact that drew Exley a copyright infringement complaint from the campaign which has since been dropped -- but the banner across the top bears two marked differences. First, the photo of Bush on Exley's version bears an incriminating white smudge under the guv's nose. And while Bush's official motto is "Prosperity With a Purpose," Exley's site claims "Hypocrisy With Bravado," as well as "Drug-Free Since 1974." Elsewhere, Exley's site has an illustration of Bush snorting lines under another motto: "It's the Hypocrisy, Stupid."

According to Exley, a computer programmer, the site came into existence almost by accident -- he just happened to be browsing through unclaimed possible domain names and discovered that the Bush campaign had failed to appropriate "gwbush.com."

Exley bought the rights to the name for the standard $70 fee. He didn't expect it to become one of the nation's best-known political Web sites or to stir up such controversy.

"My expectation for the domain name was that [Bush] would contact me and I would sell it for maybe as much as $1,000," Exley says. "But I put up a copy of the official site, and figured that it would be funny that the Bush people would eventually come across it and then eventually call. But instead, I got a letter threatening to sue me for copyright violations. I thought that was kind of weird.

"Then things just sort of unfolded. I took down a copy of the site and put up a satire of his cocaine use. I slightly altered it so there wouldn't be copyright problems. Then they seemed to forget about the copyright thing, but then filed a complaint with the FEC. Then they started calling reporters and leading the reporters to me!"

And the reporters did come -- Exley has since been featured on NPR's All Things Considered and, just before talking to the Chronicle, he finished an interview with CNN.

The Bush campaign didn't respond to my call, but other news accounts have shown that the governor's people have handled this completely wrong. The campaign apparently felt it couldn't take the obvious course of action -- ignore Exley -- because the name might cause people to think they had reached the official campaign site. Instead, they have become increasingly hostile toward Exley, whom Bush referred to as "a garbage man" during a May 21 press conference. Also in reference to the site, Bush said that "there ought to be limits to freedom," which Exley has since turned into a T-shirt motto.

"Somewhere in this," Exley says, "they finally asked me how much I wanted for the domain name. I realized there was too much fun to be had to just sell it for $200 or so. By then I was getting all the press attention and lots of e-mails. When it became a political thing, I realized it wasn't for sale. I named a price of $350,000. This is back when it was small, when I was just messing around."

That price tag has become a key component of Bush's complaint. The basic elements of the allegation are that:

1) Exley, by saying "Just Say "No' to a Former Cocaine User for President," is calling for the defeat of a particular candidate and thus must put disclaimers on the site stating who is funding the site;

2) if Exley has spent more than $250 this year on the site, he must file expenditure reports; and

Can you tell which of these George W. Bush Web sites is sponsored by the governor?
Can you tell which of these George W. Bush Web sites is sponsored by the governor?

3) if Exley and gwbush.com have received contributions or made expenditures of more than $1,000 this year, they have violated FEC laws by failing to register as a political committee.

Exley says that his costs to maintain the site are minimal -- the aforementioned $70 to obtain the site, and hosting charges that amount to less than $20 per month. But the Bush complaint says that, under FEC regulations, "expenditures" also include the cost of the computer hardware and software used to create the site, as well as the "fair market value of the site." The complaint then charges that "Mr. Exley may have established [the fair market value] if he has attempted to sell the site." In other words, that $350,000 price tag, a figure he says he created just to aggravate the Bush campaign and thwart a sale, suddenly becomes an "expenditure."

"There's absolutely no basis for" the complaint, says Exley. "This is what it rests on: The Web site appears on a video screen, so they equate it with mass media. And the whole NPR story never questioned that [premise]. Is there any similarity between Web sites and the type of mass media that the FEC has been charged with regulating? They exist to regulate anything that gives the rich an advantage. But a Web site is just me talking. You can publish a Web site for almost no money. It shouldn't be regulated by the FEC because it is an inherently democratic medium. The Web is where ideas count."

The FEC refused to comment on the case.

Although Exley would clearly prefer that Bush not be president, he says he does not support a particular candidate. While his site has links to several other anti-Bush sites (the number of which has ballooned in recent weeks), it also has links to sites attacking Al Gore.

"I've learned as much as I can about who's running, and there is not enough difference between them on the issues that count. We really have a one-party system. There is not enough difference between Republicans and Democrats."

Did Exley aim his computer at Bush simply because of the good fortune of stumbling across the gwbush.com domain name? Could he just as easily have gone after another candidate?

"No," Exley says. "There is more to parody with Bush. Everybody that I know of is a typical hypocritical politician, but only the hypocrisy of George W. Bush is so astoundingly clear."


Ben There, Done That

If you've been curious why the Austin American-Statesman's Ben Wear, one of that paper's better reporters, is no longer on the City Council beat, so were we -- especially in light of rumors that have been making their way around City Hall that Wear had been reassigned for taking a spin on city issues that clashed with Mayor Kirk Watson's views.

Wear was made assistant Metro editor and put in charge of education issues because "I promoted him," Metro editor Tim Lott says. "Ben is a very good writer, and as it turns out, a good editor. It's hard to find really qualified, sharp journalists who want to be an assistant Metro editor. I talked to him about it over a period of [several] months, offered him the job, and he took it."

Asked about any possible conflicts with the mayor, Lott says, "People complain all the time. The question is, would somebody complain and make a difference? The answer is no. We were very happy with him and he deserved a promotion. Everything you have seen out of the superintendent coverage and the education coverage is Ben."

Wear declined to comment for this story, but Watson said he's "surprised that any such rumor is out there." Asked if he was displeased with Wear's coverage, Watson said, "No. I suppose when you're a public official and working hard, you're not happy with every story or headline, but I like Ben. There were times when we might disagree on the way a story went -- [but] he did his job and I did mine."

Speaking of spin in the Statesman, the paper's anti-enviromentalist rhetoric made its way from Editor Rich Oppel's column (see "Media Clips," Aug. 20) into the main editorials on Sunday and again on Tuesday. Once again, those who dare question one of the city's seemingly wrapped-and-ready deals -- specifically, the Save Our Springs Alliance -- were branded as "no-growth advocates" ("Don't risk water supply," Aug. 29, and "Jeopardizing our water," Aug. 31).

Can we please do away with this obsolete terminology? SOS, since its inception, has always been about directing and guiding growth, not stopping it. Anyone who actually advocates a true no-growth position was pushed to the fringes of Austin's enviromental movement long ago, and their positions rendered moot by the 200,000 people who moved here over the last decade. While the Statesman editorials represent an entirely legitimate opinion and make some reasonable points, such inflammatory labeling undercuts its argument for readers who personally watched and participated in the environmental movement which helped create this growth.

Ironically, on the facing page of the Statesman op-ed section, Oppel's Sunday column complained that "Austin perfects the art of stereotyping people: The newspaper, it is alleged, is either in the hands of environmentalists, or in the pocket of the developers." He then confessed that "We do it when we too easily label people in news columns. -- We should report what people say or do, and describe their affiliations, experiences or backgrounds -- and then leave judgements about motive to readers."


No Ruling on Contempt

Overdue KOOP update: In the contempt of court hearing against the KOOP board of trustees held Aug. 4, Travis County Judge Jeanne Muerer issued no ruling. Contrary to the propagandistic e-mail sent out by trustees' supporter Paul Odekirk (headlined "Trustees at KOOP Vindicated!"), the non-ruling just means what it says -- that Meurer chose not to rule on this part of the suit brought by former KOOP members Michael Zakes and Jerry Chamkis, finding the trustees neither innocent nor guilty. Meurer did not explain her ruling, but Russ Ham, attorney for Zakes and Chamkis, said that Meurer indicated that the contempt motion should instead have been brought against the Non-Profit Center, the third-party group which handled the disputed community board election of the listener-supported station, but the NPC wasn't before the court.

The upshot is that the suit is still alive, and Zakes and Chamkis are mulling their options for further action. end story

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Zack Exley, georgebush.com, gwbush.com, Ben Wear, American-Statesman, Kirk Watson, Tim Lott, KOOP

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