Ultraconservative Christian News…Not

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Filed under: Culture Jamming and Reality Hacking, Satire

Submitted by Peter Maloney:

A Niche of the Unreal in a World of Credulity
by Mark Oppenheimer
The New York Times
September 3, 2010

Since 2008, ChristWire.org has emerged as the leading Internet site for ultraconservative Christian news, commentary and weather reportage.

“Hurricane Earl Projected Path, Gay East Coast of America,” ChristWire opined on Monday. One headline in late August proclaimed, “Warning! Black Music Infiltrates the Minds of Future Homemaking White Women.” Last week, referring to Ken Mehlman, the former Republican Party chairman who came out of the closet last month, ChristWire asked, “Why does Ken Mehlman think that choosing the homosexual lifestyle is more important to him than the Republican values he once held so dear?”

ChristWire has lately reached new levels of popularity, in part thanks to an Aug. 14 column, “Is My Husband Gay?” Written by Stephenson Billings, the piece is a 15-point checklist to help wives detect possibly closeted husbands. “Gym membership but no interest in sports” is one warning sign. So is “Sassy, sarcastic and ironic around his friends” and “Love of pop culture.”

“Is My Husband Gay?” was picked up on The Huffington Post and mentioned by Ryan Seacrest on his radio show; so far it has been viewed 8.3 million times.

Oh, by the way: ChristWire is all one big joke.

Not the readership “” which hit a high of 27 million page views in August “” but the content, the opinions and the fake authors who write the stuff. (There is no “Stephenson Billings.”) Neither of the two founders is a conservative Christian. They are just like-minded 28-year-olds who met on the Internet, have never seen each other in person, and until this week had never given their real identities to a reporter.

Bryan Butvidas is a software developer who works out of his house in Southern California. Kirwin Watson is a former Pepperdine student who moved back home to Kansas, where he now works “on the patient-care staff” of a local hospital. According to phone interviews with both men, they met online in 2005, when both were contributing to the news aggregator Shoutwire.com.

They are fuzzy on the dates, but soon “” “maybe it was 2007,” Mr. Butvidas offers “” they were posting collaborative humor pieces on the Web. Mr. Butvidas bought the ChristWire.org domain name, and the partners began to conceive the Web site that exists today, something like what The Onion would be if the writers cared mainly about God, gay people and how both influence the weather.

“The first real post that we let stay up,” Mr. Butvidas said, “was “˜Gays Raising Stink Over Rick Warren Prayer at Socialist Obama”™s Inauguration,”™ and that is dated Dec. 31, 2008.”

Today, the expanded editorial staff, who all work free, includes “six to eight other monitors, who keep an eye on things,” said Mr. Watson, “and 20 to 30 other regular writers.” Mr. Watson usually writes the pieces signed “Jack Gould.” Mr. Butvidas typically writes the pieces by “Tyson Bowers III,” whom you may know from Wednesday”™s article, “Gays Now Using Santa to Entice Man Boy Love Relations.”

One of ChristWire”™s most prolific contributors, the author of “Is My Husband Gay?” remains mysterious even to his editors.

“The kicker is we don”™t know who “˜Stephenson Billings”™ is,” Mr. Butvidas said. “He has been writing for us about a year. We get thousands of e-mails a week about his stuff. All we know is he is from New York City, and everything he touches turns to gold.”

Neither Mr. Watson nor Mr. Butvidas is a crusading atheist. Mr. Watson calls himself “an observant Catholic,” and Mr. Butvidas is a nondenominational Protestant who is “religious for the most part.” Their target, they say, is not Christians but those who do not question what they hear on the news.

“There”™s just rampant idiocy in the media sometimes,” Mr. Watson said. “People watch their favorite news channels, don”™t question it and will regurgitate it the next day at the office. That is no good at all.”

“Our main culprit,” he adds, “is Fox News.”

A close reader of ChristWire will soon figure out (one hopes) that the site is not serious. But many of the columns are deft enough, just plausible enough, to fool the casual reader. Even “” or perhaps especially “” a reader whose beliefs are being mocked.

Marie Jon, who writes for the quite earnest conservative site RenewAmerica.com, used to allow her stories to be reposted to ChristWire. After I called her for this column, her editor at RenewAmerica wrote a letter to ChristWire asking that Ms. Jon”™s writing “” and her picture, which had run between photographs of men identified as “Jack Gould” and “S. Billings” “” be removed.

Later, in another telephone interview, Ms. Jon explained why she had allowed the satirical site to use her words.

“I thought if somebody comes and stumbles upon my article and reads something that is actually the truth, maybe they will get a blessing from it,” she said.

I asked her if she knew the site was satirical, and she indicated that she had not really paid attention. “I might have mistakenly contributed in the past,” she said, “because I didn”™t know the site, and then shrugged my shoulders because I didn”™t know how popular they were.”

Ms. Jon should take heart: she is in good company. As John Hudson reported on The Atlantic Wire, a Web site associated with the magazine, Katla McGlynn, a comedy blogger for The Huffington Post, initially bought “Is My Husband Gay?“

On Aug. 19, she posted a takedown of Mr. Billings”™s piece, arguing, for example, that wearing tight clothes is not necessarily a sign of homosexuality. “It”™s 2010,” Ms. McGlynn wrote. “You”™d be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn”™t own skinny jeans or check themselves out occasionally.”

Ms. McGlynn quickly rewrote her post, without indicating that the new post was a corrected version of an old one. The post now says of the ChristWire piece, “We”™re not sure if this is satire or not.” When I tried to find out how Ms. McGlynn (tentatively) changed her mind, Mario Ruiz, a spokesman for The Huffington Post, wrote in an e-mail, “We did get hoodwinked.”

Later, on the telephone, he said Ms. McGlynn would not answer questions.

Mr. Butvidas says numerous news outlets, like The Washington Post, New York magazine and The Onion, have tried to uncover the identities of the men behind ChristWire. “We don”™t even reply to them,” he says.

Now, Mr. and Mr. ChristWire have decided to give up their anonymity. We can only hope that public exposure does not undermine their project, eloquently summarized by Mr. Butvidas: “Let”™s write stuff to expose how stupid people are.”