Interview: Ian Murphy, Editor of The Beast

by Joshua Goldfond

Ian Murphy is a 33-year-old blogger and journalist who currently serves as the Editor-In-Chief of the Buffalo-based political satire magazine, The Beast.  The publication was founded in 2002 by Matt Taibbi and Paul Fallon, and is characterized by its caustic, sardonic humor and unapologetically liberal voice. It is perhaps best known for its yearly list of “50 Most Loathsome Americans“, a meticulously-researched, ruthless savaging of American public figures. The magazine began as a free bi-monthly publication but ceased its print edition in 2009 when it converted to a web-only presence.

It was in 2010 that the editorship of The Beast transferred to Murphy, a long-time contributor whose outsized personality and gonzo journalism antics have stirred both praise and outrage among the magazine’s readers. Though his work covers a wide range of subjects, Murphy frequently returns to issues of government corruption, class warfare, global warming, civil liberties, and American militarism abroad. Some of his most notable work for The Beast has included an undercover visit to Kentucky’s Creationist Museum, an ambush of conservative provocateur James O’Keefe, a run for US Congress as the official candidate of the Green Party, and the publication of a highly controversial essay condemning America’s military fetish.

Murphy’s most infamous stunt to date came in February of 2011, when he made a prank phone call to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker by impersonating Republican billionaire donor David Koch. Walker, who at the time was in a stand-off with the state legislature over his “Budget Repair” bill that would essentially end public sector unions, had flatly refusal to speak with the Democratic opposition or entertain any compromise. He was nevertheless eager and available to speak with the man he thought was David Koch. The resulting phone conversation saw Walker demonstrating a level of candor and cordiality which has been largely absent in his dealings with his own constituents.

Murphy spoke with me in late May of 2012 as he prepared his trip to Wisconsin to cover the June 5th Wisconsin Gubernatorial recall election.

I was hoping that you could talk a bit about your professional background and education in journalism. What brought about your interest in progressive politics, and how did you get involved with the Buffalo Beast? 

My interest in journalism and progressive politics was a direct response to the Iraq War. I was an art school dropout, working different blue collar gigs, but seeing the New York Time’s Judith Miller (and many others) diligently spreading the Bush administration’s shoddy propaganda, I had an epiphany: “Literally anyone could do better than that!” So when I moved back to Buffalo from Seattle in ’04, saw a copy of The BEAST at a Chinese restaurant (it was still in print back then), and read my first Matt Taibbi article, I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. 

Matt founded The BEAST in ’02 and, incidentally, I love what he says about journalism majors — that it’s insane to think people need a degree to be able to verify facts and operate a telephone. Anyway, I just showed up at the office one day and tried to be useful. I started as a delivery boy, soon became art director, then associate editor, and in ’09 I became editor-in-chief. I climbed all the way from the very bottom to the incrementally higher bottom. It’s the American Dream.

You have been very vocal and active in your opposition to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s anti-union efforts for his state. You even made national headlines when you were, with shocking ease, able to get the Governor on the phone by impersonating billionaire Republican donor David Koch. Just how important do you think that the unfolding events in Wisconsin are for the nation at large? Do you think that Walker has overreached, or is it too early to say?

Walker’s overreached like Stretch Armstrong. Coup d’états tend to do that. He never ran on Act 10 — denying public unions their collective bargaining rights. He never ran on his recently revealed “divide and conquer” strategy to eventually bust up private unions and make Wisconsin a “right to work” state. And loads of other bad stuff, like cutting women’s health care because he loves The Jesus. Or he says he does. Rumor on the mean, very pleasant streets of Madison is that Scott Walker’s true “opiate of the masses” comes in pill form.

That’s the rumor. The last time I talked for 20 minutes on the phone to someone who was barely prompting me, I was high as a kite, so there may be something to it. But we don’t need conjecture. He’s demonstrably terrible. He’s the only U.S. Governor with a legal defense fund for a reason.

He barely won the governorship in 2010 with a hair over 50% of the popular vote — and a weak Democratic turnout. He dictates like he’d gotten Saddam Hussein-esque 99%. He’s unashamedly governing on behalf of only the rich, the ultra-rich, and, against their own economic self-interest, the right-wing working-class dupes. When 150,000 people show up at the Capitol to protest every weekend, as they did last year in the frigid Wisconsin winter, I think it’s fair to say that he’s supremely guilty of overreaching. 

A Walker recall victory, sponsored by Koch Industries (and every other asshole with money), would indeed be a coup d’état. Busting unions is great for business, but more importantly in the post-Citizens United America, it’s more about permanently crushing the Democratic fundraising machine. Unions and corporations can now spend unlimited moneys on elections, also brought to you by Koch Industries. Unions aren’t nearly as wealthy as corporations to begin with, but getting organized labor out of the picture leaves wildly rich corporations and individuals unopposed in their quest to purchase the Republican politicians who’ll best do their bidding. As a preview, Walker’s outspending Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett 8 to 1. 

It’s also worth noting the whole “state’s rights” angle conservatives love to espouse, as if it brings government closer to the people, in reality removes citizens from the process. An enormous corporation like Koch Industries ($98 billion in yearly revenue) can bully a relatively poor state government far more easily than it can the federal government. But they do that, too.

Whether or not Democrats can sufficiently get out the vote on June 5th is another matter entirely. All major polls put this thing at a statistical dead heat, though there are some troubling numbers. Walker’s a bit ahead in Brown County — a large, important swing county where Green Bay’s located — and he’s ahead among likely voters. But, you know, after a year and a half of bitter partisan divide, media saturation, and egregious lies, it all comes down to how many people get to the polls on June 5th. GOTV. That’s it. Unfortunately, the national Democratic Party hasn’t quite gotten behind this thing as they should have — you know, if you ignore the fact that Democrats’ support for workers is usually just lip service. 

President Obama seems to creep higher each year on your annual “Most Loathsome List,” reflecting the overall disappointment that many on the left have had towards his performance thus far. I recently interviewed blogger Ken Layne, who said that Obama that was simply an “empty vessel to hold so many liberal dreams.” Do you hold any hope for a more progressive approach for the President’s second term, if indeed he is given one?

In late 2007, I wrote that “[Obama’s] a blank slate, the pinnacle of vapid public relations—onto which the benighted masses may project their sincerest, yet unfounded, hopes in the wake of the worst administration in history.” It was apparent that he’d climb the list over time, and disappoint so many naive liberals along the way.

Well, first of all, Obama will more than likely get a second term. Romney’s a clip art billionaire with a $55,000 elevator for his many Cadillacs. He’s behind in most swing states. And he’s incapable of connecting with us human people.

Not to go off on a tangent, but this whole cycle has been excruciating, so I will. Anyone who’s paid even a little bit of attention to Republican politics knew that it was Mitt’s turn. The entire primary was one huge jerk off. And while it sells ad space for boner pills to portray the primary, and now the general, election as dramatically close on the TeeVee, it’s was always Romney, and it’s always been Obama’s race to lose. Fault the President all you want, for being the moderate Republican he’s been in the Oval Office, he’s a talented pitchman. Unlike Romney, he has human emotions. He can sing. People like that. They want to have a beer with him. Mitt Romney can’t drink beer because Mormon Jesus (by far the least plausible Jesus) will send him to the “Outer Darkness.” It’s, like, Mormon Space-Hell. It’s super far away from the planet Kolob. That’s where Holy Father lives, in the literal flesh. I’m not making this stuff up. It’s about an inch crazier than classical Christianity, but it’s another reason Romney can’t excite the base. 

Hmm…good question. Conventional wisdom has it that politicians no longer facing reelection are free to carryout whatever their ideological agenda may be. Outside of Sean Hannity’s absinthe terrors, however, there’s no reason to believe that Obama has a progressive agenda. By the standards of the ’90s, he’s a moderate Republican. Will that suddenly change with a second term? Is the right…right? Will he paint the White House Red, install a Socialism Czar, give back Native American lands, pay black folk reparations for slavery, and sentence Jamie Dimon and all the other Whites Devils to ten years in the gulags? No. Will he talk tough about banks and billionaires on the campaign trail? Definitely. He needs to get all hopey-changey again to excite the youth vote (“I’m super serious this time, guys!”), but I haven’t seen any evidence to suggest that his soaring political rhetoric will translate into policy. None. Hopefully – see what I did there? – I’m wrong. But I wouldn’t bet my pubes on it. I like my pubes. I want to keep them.

The recent documentary Better this World argues that the post-9/11 surge of federal and state counterterrorism funds has created a national hypersensitivity towards dissent and increased the pressure on law enforcement to find “terrorists” through questionable means. In 2011 you had your own run in with the Buffalo Police Department over the filming of a police officer, the aftermath of which you have been thoroughly chronicling on your website. Through your experiences and reportage, do you think that American law enforcement has indeed become more extreme since 9/11, or does it just seem that way to the middle class because it has been affecting them more broadly (airport screenings, OWS assaults, etc.)?  If so, how do we find our way back?

 Well, that’s a question…about a movie I haven’t seen. I’ll start with the last bit first.

We find our way back by using the maps of past struggles. In times of fear, we’ve always lost our way. John Adams signed the Alien & Sedition Act to keep the spirit of the French Revolution from infecting our newborn nation. Abraham Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus during the Civil War. We interned thousands of Japanese Americans during World War II. Open a history book to any war-torn page, and you’ll find the powers that be quashing dissent, curbing civil liberties, and generally abusing its power more during wartime.

Frightened herd animals we are, it’s inevitable that a large chunk of the population will meekly smile and go along. A growing amount of citizens – the police, the FBI, the lawyers, judges, every Wackenhut security guard & construction worker, Raytheon accountants, drone manufacturer groups, etc. – depend on the unjust system to make a hard living or a quick buck. Fascism has its shareholders. There’s the big guys, in on the ground floor of the scheme, who invest in the fear. They’re selling armored tanks and bomb-sniffing robots to, among many others, the Fargo police squad. Then there’s your working schmucks. They keep the armored tanks warm, and the bored bomb-sniffing robots company, in North Fucking Dakota!

This brief history lesson is not at all to excuse the draconian measures we’ve seen — the Patriot Act, the warrentless wiretapping, the FBI’s “national security letters” and unconstitutional surveillance of dissenters (like, and now the NDAA — to name a small few of the decidedly extreme miscarriages of justice perpetrated on the American people since 9/11. And, as you well know, what we’ve done at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and all over the Arab world has been much worse. It’s just a reminder that this has happened before, and we always had to fight it. And we do it just as we have in the past – by organizing, being arrested, spreading the truth, and exercising our rights until we affect change. Democracy’s a muscle –  use it or lose it.

“Counter-terrorism” is just an industry like any other. It’s about sustaining cash flow. And the only way to justify the money spent on militarizing America’s police forces is for them to show some measure of “success” — meaning they crack down on legal activity. The more money spent, the more “success” needs to be achieved. It’s a nasty little business cycle – with its shareholder, as mentioned. For a comprehensive report, read Glenn Greenwald’s “The decade’s biggest scam,” or this LA Times exposé on some of the more expensive and hilarious Department of Homeland Security projects.

I should mention that my run-in with the police was purely the result of a cop who couldn’t handle having her picture taken. I’ve in no way been charged with terrorism, thankfully, and this incident could’ve happened at any time since the advent of video. A few years ago, however, I did a fun report wherein I tested whether the millions & millions spent “securing” the American/Canadian border in Western New York had actually done that, or if it was simply about diverting taxpayer funds to ineffective and pointless “security” measures for corporate profit. A Beast coworker and I canoed across the Niagara River from Buffalo, NY to Fort Erie, Canada, bought a scary-sounding CD at Wal-Mart called “Al Qaeda Jada” by the hip-hop artist Jadakiss, and canoed back — in broad daylight and totally undetected. It was fun. And, like the Walker/Koch jape, it was shockingly easy.

In a related note, what are your thoughts on the OWS movement? Do you think it represents a shift in the country’s attitude towards its policies, or has it already run its course? Is there much hope for the future of liberalism in America?

Although I have minor criticisms about how some protesters present themselves, eschew optics, and therefore lose many winnable PR battles, I find OWS inspiring. And about damn time! I even camped out at Zuccotti Park the weekend 700 were arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge.

But, again, we’ve seen this all before. Right now wealth disparity is the most extreme it’s been since the Great Depression. We also have the lowest percentage of union membership since that period. We’re living through a rerun. Public dissatisfaction is what drove the passage of the Glass-Steagal Act of 1933, which created a legal barrier between commercial and investment banking, so that banks couldn’t throw away people’s life savings on insane gambles. That law served us pretty well for 65 years, until the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act gutted Glass-Steagal in ’98. What resulted, with other factors contributing, was a totally predictable repeat of the banking theft that led to the Great Depression.

Sorry, again, for the history. I know people hate history, unless it’s about Hitler or “Ancient Aliens.” But as have other populist movements in the past, OWS has already had an affect. It changed the narrative in the press, at the very least, and I don’t think OWS is done winning hearts and minds. The idea of economic justice resonates with people. Obama and other Dems will co-opt OWS messaging, but whether it’ll translate into a substantive policy shift has yet to be determined. That’s why stopping now is not an option.

Ha! “Hope for liberalism!” Well, these long term concepts invariably bring out my climate change realism. I won’t call it pessimism because that’s not accurate. We’re screwed. Ask any climate scientist. And I don’t have any idea what “liberalism” will mean when the drought, famine, disease, and species-wide bottleneck kicks in. I mean, we have no collective idea what “liberalism” means now. Nearly half of the country thinks Barack Obama is Rudy Ray Moore meets Noam Fucking Chomsky! But, unwisely disregarding the tragic inevitability of climate change, that’s another great thing about OWS. It’s broken down some walls — right vs. left, Republican vs. Democrat. While it’s not entirely shattered the phony two-party paradigm, it’s gone a long way in exposing the false choice. Occupiers are as mad at Obama as they are anyone — and with his Goldman Sachs Treasury, extended Bush tax cuts for the rich, and a toothless Wall Street regulation in Dodd-Frank (not to mention the morbidly obese “defense” budget), they have every right to be. So, yeah, if seeing that corporate Democrats are just as much to blame for the sorry state of our country (remember Gramm-Leach-Bliley was under Clinton, as was the disastrous NAFTA, and the horrendous welfare “reform”) can be called “liberalism,” then liberalism is on the rise. Of course, I’ll be liberally shooting at Canadians in 20 years, for the right to drink Lake Erie water, so maybe nihilism has more growth potential than anything. Abandon all hope.

Do you have any forthcoming projects that you’d care to mention? Articles, books, interviews, etc.

Well, I’m going to Wisconsin to report on the recall in the next few days. Then I’m speaking at the Personal Democracy Forum in New York on June 10 -12. But first, this week I’ll be publishing the final “Murphy’s Law” essays, which have detailed my false arrest and subsequent trial. So watch for that if, unlike my friends and family, you give a rat’s ass whether I go to jail. I coauthored an article in the current June/July issue of Free Inquiry magazine, and I somehow landed the cover story in the coming July issue of The Progressive magazine. I can’t seem to get my book published, but I am currently reading one: The War Nerd by Gary Brecher. Good stuff. I might run for president in 2016 and/or found my own psychedelic-based religion. And, um, aside from that, I just plan on watching too much TeeVee, getting too little exercise, and dying penniless and alone in my early 50s from a heroin overdose.


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