Inside the Emerald City and Behind
   the Curtain

     An Interview with Richard Metzger by Erin Fried

Richard Metzger is the founder and Creative Director of The Disinformation Company, Ltd., a popular website and multimedia company that peddles in all things alternative. Since launching www.disinfo.com in 1996, Metzger and his partner Gary Baddeley have published a successful line of anthologies, the newest of which is entitled Abuse Your Illusions, and recently produced a DVD that highlights some of the team’s other ventures, including the Disinformation TV series which aired on Great Britain’s BBC-4. Despite a few setbacks (Disinformation has lost sponsorship three times in the course of its existence), Metzger and Baddeley now retain full creative control over a multi-media effort that has attracted an audience numbering in the hundreds of thousands.

Fried: What first exposed you to some of the different ideas on which Disinformation is based?

Metzger: Well, I’ve always been interested in underground and counter-culture. When I was growing up in the seventies, the stuff from the sixties was showing up in used bookstores and in libraries and stuff like that – where I was in Wheeling, West Virginia. And I just became fascinated by that kind of thing. And then from there, it slipped into true punk rock and the “Zine” revolution of the eighties, which it became so inexpensive to do. And all of that whole counter-culture that starts from the Jazz Age onward, it’s all very interesting to me. It was sort of a natural outgrowth out of those interests. You know, at one point I became totally fascinated by conspiracy theory, like fifteen years ago, and I just wanted to read all about it – not that I believe the conspiracy theories necessarily – but because I was fascinated by the anthropology of it, or the sociology of it, I thought it was fascinating. Some of these viewpoints were so, so out there. Disinformation was a way, when the internet came along, to tie all of those interests together into a kind of a business.

Fried: What were you trying to accomplish when the idea for Disinformation came to you?

Metzger: Just to highlight information that doesn’t make it into the mainstream media. To give it a home, as it were. In some of these anthologies that we publish, like Everything You Know is Wrong and The Book of Lies, there were articles that Pulitzer Prize winners like Syndey Schanberg could not get published elsewhere. So now the investigative journalist has a harder and harder time finding an outlet in America. We could get this stuff out there, and there’s an audience that’s really hungry for this.

Fried: Do you feel like you are still reaching for the same goals?

Metzger: Yes, Disinformation has been around for eight years, and I had tried to get it off the ground in an earlier incarnation – originally as a TV show even earlier than that – this is 1991. Gary Baddeley and I, we just tried to turn it into a business with his arrival in 1997.

Here’s the thing. I always wanted to have a TV Network. There was this underground TV network under TBS, Turner Broadcasting Network, this thing called Nightflight – this is 1980, maybe ’81. And it was on for a long time, but every Friday and Saturday night from 11 o’clock until 6 in the morning, it would be this really weird underground, you know, it was like everything from midget westerns to rock and roll stuff, like the Lenny Bruce performance, really crazy, crazy stuff, Firesign Theater, more counter-culture than you can name, they had some sort of representation on this network. And I was thinking that it was brilliant, and I was fascinated. All of a sudden you had something that strange in your living room. It was this unprecedented thing in my life, and I always thought that someone’s got to do an underground channel, you know….That is what I have always wanted to do – to have a TV network and to be able to program all that stuff. It would be like an anti-CNN. And I think it’s going to happen. I think the reality of it is that if we plug away at this long enough, someone is either going to fund us to try to do that, or they will hire us to do it for them.

Fried: Do you think a major network will take notice of you at some point?

Metzger: Yeah, I mean, if you can show somebody how to make money in a new way, they are gonna like you. If you are Rupert Murdoch or some of these right wing guys just show them how to make money and they are going to let you do it. Matt Groening and the Simpsons are a great example of that. You get a really wacked message out on these airwaves owned by Rupert Murdoch.

But I think someone is going to come along and do that, and that has been the goal. That was always the goal, to get there. So we just have to keep on doing what we’re doing, and keep making money and being able to hire more employees, and so forth.

Fried: When first designing the site, were you gearing toward a specific audience? Or were you trying to appeal not only to a welcoming audience but to curious unsuspecting readers as well?

Metzger: There was a very conscious effort to do [the latter]. The site originally had more of an X-Files feel to it. The whole design was only there for like six months, and then it switched to something that was a bit more New York Avant Garde kind of a graphic design. The idea was sort of to entice people with an X-Files storefront, and then once they were there, they could sort of span out. If it basically said, “conspiracy theories and weirdness and UFOs” on the front door – when they walked through the door, yeah they had all that stuff, but they also had Noam Chomsky and Howard Bloom.

Fried: Did you think there was ever a danger it approaching it that way? Did you ever worry that you were misrepresenting the site with an entrance promising more of the fantastical elements than the real news stories?

Metzger: Well, don’t forget, too, that the site has always been links to other news sites. Well, that’s not true, we did have original content for a while, but mostly it’s a link farm.

But the idea then was just to show people… Let’s say we had something on Aryan Nation. We would link to articles that, in some cases, came from a seminary bulletin, a young student studying to become a priest who wrote about the Aryan Nation’s movement. He went and actually interviewed these people to where it was a really well thought out paper. So you understood what the phenomenon was about. There would be links to some fifteen-year-old dickhead’s Aryan Nation site. We had a link to an Aryan Nation dating site for a while. Believe it or not, they had a single’s site that was for only white people – white supremacists. The idea was like, listen, you don’t need me to explain this to you. Go and look at it for yourself. So when people say that everything is under the rubric of Disinformation and why should they believe this, it is telling you at the front door! This is an ironic name: Disinformation, the mixture of truth and lies, the sort of tag line of Everything You Know Is Wrong. Why would you believe us anyway? It’s amusing to me.

Fried: In You Are Being Lied To, the first book of the Disinformation series of anthologies, Noam Chomsky notes that mainstream media has been “socialized” to conform to the values of its business partners but says there are a few important exceptions. Can you hypothesize on what organizations he might have meant?

Metzger: I haven’t a clue. I haven’t a clue. BBC?

Fried: With traditional news programs like dateline NBC, CNN, Fox News, even NPR – widely attended and easily accessible – committing more and more time to sensationalism and celebrity, who do you think is reporting on the “real news”?

Metzger: I don’t know who is reporting on the real news – it’s not Fox, obviously, it’s not Entertainment Tonight. There’s a fair amount of stuff that slips through the cracks just because of the sheer amount of hours a day that they have to fill. I have seen, I can’t think of it, but I did see a story on CNN headline news one day, and I thought ‘I can’t believe they just said that on television’. By the next news cycle, that story was gone.

I think by virtue of the fact that they’ve got 24 hours a day to fill in a pie chart, there’s just so much information that’s not really meant to – that’s going to embarrass some corporate bigwig – it happens from time to time.

Fried: How should a consumer go about discovering the standard of ethics of a news organization, how to pick up biases before becoming engulfed in propaganda that kind of meets them at the door?

Metzger: Well, I think it’s easy to find out who owns these corporations. Fox News is owned by the same man who owns the New York Post. So you can figure out what agenda is likely to be handed down to the minions. And that’s why CNN, under the ownership of Ted Turner, was different, had a different feel, even than it does now. CNN was much more hard news when Ted Turner was involved. A lot of the info-tainment stuff is just to satisfy the corporate masters at Time Warner, you know. So these organizations are always going to have the flavor or the character of the person at the top. It’s the board of Directors at General Electric – you aren’t going to hear anti-nuclear stories.

Fried: Is “info-tainment” used to distract from issues to which a network, for one reason or another, might not wish its viewers to give ear, or do you think that so many people tune in because they want to be entertained and not necessarily informed?

Metzger: Those reality shows and all this kind of stuff, they appeal to people for different reasons, I think. To answer your question in a short way, I think, yeah, people just want to be entertained. All it is really, I don’t think there’s anything nefarious going on; I just think that they want to get good ratings so that they can have high commercial DCM rates. And they get that by doing these stupid human shows. But, I think people like reality television for the same reason that monkeys will watch other monkeys to get their behavioral cues. The advertising industry is very good at convincing people that they need to watch these shows to be able to talk about them the next day with their friends.

Fried: When dealing with your corporate sponsors, you’ve been very successful at highlighting the spectacular elements and downplaying the unpopular ones. Did you use this technique deliberately as you were marketing different products?

Metzger: Well, I wish I could tell you that I was so clever, that that was my goal from the get-go. It wasn’t – it didn’t have to be. The money was being spent, I knew what was going on. What was I gonna do, like a lame-o kind of UFO magazine that you could buy at a newsstand…But when I had to demo this for the corporate executives from TCI who would come in from Colorado to look at this stuff, I wasn’t gonna show them ‘well here’s how to cook up crystal meth’. I mean, I’m not an idiot. It’s all there, but I would show them ‘Oh, UFOs’. It was the path of least resistance, really.

And then with the Sci-Fi channel, they had a tape! When they wrote a hefty check to have the sixteen episodes that aired over in Great Britain made into four one-hour best-of specials for them, they had a sales tape that we sent around. By the time you have watched Uncle Goddamn and you are moving into the woman sewing her vagina shut, you would think that somebody would have a clue. But they wanted to buy it, and they did. Clearly, somebody just watched the montage at the beginning and said, “Let’s do it.”

And then there was an executive shake-up, and finally I wrote them a memo and I said, “Look, this is what I’ve done. Here are the notes, please read along as you watch this.” Because there’s only so much I can do. You cannot make Caligula into Mary Poppins with judicious editing. And I knew what was going to happen, but I was quite happy about that because we got paid in full. To me, that show is like my art form. Being able to tighten it up, it was great. I spent an awful lot of time on that show. I wanted people to see it and everything, but I wanted them to see it with the integrity that I put into it, not showing some re-cut I had to do to satisfy some legal idiot at the Sci-Fi Channel. So that was great, and we still own it. So we’re still going to sell it, we’re probably going to make a Canadian sale. Though, having said that, we’re probably never ever going to be able to get this on American TV....It just wouldn’t air now.

Fried: Do you think that it’s possible to be successful if you are trying to provide an option to the public instead of trying to manipulate control of their attention?

Metzger: I don’t know the answer to that, but it would seem to me that in the future, it’s going to move in the direction of what you probably don’t want it to do, and it’s probably going to stay there. I think the more Bill O’Reilly types who want to develop their so-called point of view or at least a level of showmanship; I think that’s only going to continue. I think, obviously, the next person who is going to be, I think, really big in that kind of Michael Moore kind of way is Al Franken….The Left is going to develop more personalities like that to counter.

You know something that is interesting is that the idea of the media being this kind of neutral place, like the New York Times is supposedly neutral. Newspapers really never attempted to do that before. Back around the 1940’s, it was mostly a case of advocacy journalism – for a long time. And then the flavor changed, and now it’s changing again. It’s beyond an advocacy thing, it’s about personality.

Fried: In our hyper-commercialized society where politics filters into the daily workings of everything from hospitals to elementary schools, do you think that we ignore the extent to which everything is marketed or do we come to expect it as a way to measure standards?

Metzger: Here’s one thing that’s true. When you have so many things fighting for your attention in the media-scape or just walking down the street in New York City or at the grocery store where last night I was waiting in line, there’s a level when something is deemed by a corporation as worthy of advertising, then it tends to stand out more because you are bombarded with it. I remember seeing Arnold Schwarzenegger on TV, and he was saying, “Everybody’s going to love Jingle All The Way, it’s a family movie, it’s a very professional movie.” And he was basically just saying that it’s what you would expect you’d get. Ha! “It’s a very professional movie” – I think it’s a reflex. I think that people, because they see something advertised, it seems legitimate.

Fried: In terms of ‘indie’ culture, things that are seemingly-lesser produced tend to be more trusted. You have maintained a different kind of identity by not appealing to the lowest common denominator and by going for something much more specific. What, if any, impact has that had on the make-up of your audience?

Metzger: Well, we couldn’t have done that anyway, it wouldn’t be Disinformation. It had to have integrity. We are marketing, in a lot of ways, to skeptical people, which is a really odd demographic. And what is really interesting to me now, people who have kind of grown up with it, they’ll say “oh, I’ve been into it since I was fourteen,” you know, “can I come work for you, man?”

The other thing is, if the goal is to get on a television network, part of the audience [for Disinformation], it’s not just You Are Being Lied To, [they aren’t interested in] just this kind of political or investigative journalism. There’s my book on the Occult, for example, and more whimsical things. We have a children’s book out now. There are some pretty sensationalist things that we do, like Uncle Goddamn. So, right now, we are aiming for a very kind of elite, high IQ audience. And I like weirdness. I like that kind of thing myself. And that’s another thing – it does reflect our personalities and the personalities of the people with whom we choose to collaborate.

Fried: I think that emanates very clearly. Oftentimes in mass media, things kind of go through a filter, taking all individuality out to prevent anyone from being offended.

Metzger: There’s like a distance from it. Someone has to explain something to you. Like on the DVD, you notice there’s not a whole lot of narration or my point of view. I’m not saying those things. For sure, I needed to do it at times to bring the story along, but very often I let someone like I’m not the intermediary, if you can’t figure out what’s going, you’ve got a problem.

Fried: Narration does serve a purpose though. When you are talking about the DVD on www.disinfo.com, you mention that it helps to have a person to accompany the audience on this journey into things unknown. It’s an interesting philosophy. It seems patronizing; we see this idea manifest itself in everything from film to sports. What do you think about that, about this need of the consumer to have guidance?

Metzger: Well, its kind of a showbiz convention in a way, I think that’s all it is. We respond; it’s like monkeys, they watch other monkeys to get their behavior cues. Women read fashion magazines to learn what to wear. These are things that human beings do. One of the things that Madison Avenue knows is that people respond to a human face, which is why you always see human faces on magazine covers, not other things... You see human faces, or celebrity faces, that’s instant recognition.

Especially on television, lots of programs will have a host or intermediary. It’s like with a news-caster. People connect with that. “Oh, I like Peter Jennings, but I don’t like some other guy.” I think it comes down to that. It’s a comfort. In some ways, these things – these conventions, the internet, the way magazines are laid out, especially their covers – there’s a science of human behavior that Madison Avenue adheres to. It’s kind of the path of least resistance. It works. They are continually selling more products just because of that successful formula, the intermediary, the guide in whatever territory it is. They aren’t going to bucket a trend.

Fried: The concepts upon which Disinformation operates are very progressive; the idea of abandoning censorship, for example. Do you worry that only progressively-minded people will seek it out and you’ll miss that portion of the population whose minds you had hoped to change?

Metzger: Not really, the audience for something like disinformation is very self-selecting. You might think, oh they get a lot of hate mail. We get none, we get virtually none. So, in preaching to the choir, we’re preaching to about 500,000 people. It all just chips away at ignorance, that’s all it is. I don’t have any delusions of grandeur about it, although obviously I have some. There has to be some sort of ego that makes me want to do this.

Fried: Well, no matter what form of art you choose to make, you have to admit a certain level of arrogance in order to assume that an audience should need or want to be your audience, don’t you?

Metzger: Yeah, and there is almost no redemption from that.

Fried: Janet Jackson produces a licentious display at a Super bowl half-time show, igniting a media frenzy that lasts through multiple news cycles. Meanwhile, a story linking Senator John Kerry and President George W. Bush as alumni members of the Skull and Bones Society, a secretive and very influential organization at Yale University whose membership extends into nearly every level of American government, is all but ignored. How does one combat that kind of hype?

Metzger: I think the answer is your worst nightmare. It’s that conspiracy thing. It’s an announcer going “WHAT DO GEORGE BUSH AND JOHN KERRY HAVE IN COMMON? DARK SOCIETY….[voice fades dramatically]”

I don’t know if you’ve watched the speech on Disinfo.Con. [It went,] ‘This is a unique period in history. [Media corporations] need people to write for them, to make the next South Park, to be the next Marilyn Manson, and if they are gonna give you this money, grab it. It doesn’t make sense to be a Zine publisher when you could be on TV. That’s what the goal should be, this mass penetration of these ideas.’ And then [after the speech], this kid walked up to me and said, “you really made me feel stupid. I was offered $70,000 a year by Coca Cola to sponsor my punk Zine in Canada. I turned them down. And now I realize, I could have bought a car, I could have hired an assistant a couple of days a week to run errands. I take the bus, I take the bus. I don’t even own a car.” If you get a chance, however briefly, to take a train to the main-line of the culture, take advantage of it. There’s a lot of monkey-wrenching that can be done. These kinds of opportunities do happen. They should be seized with alacrity. Otherwise, you’re never going to get anywhere.

There is too much competition for our attention. I look at it this way, if there’s going to be 500 channels, you want to be one of them. It doesn’t make any sense to aspire to anything less. And if you fail, you fail trying. These things are going to change over time in the very same way that the turnover at these magazines is going to produce people who are more contemporary today with their opinions vs. John Ashcroft….It has to. It will.

Fried: There appears to be an obvious desire for sitcoms or sports or any sort of television programming to satisfyingly conclude, to tie everything up in the last five minutes and be done. Do you think this influences the way in which news programs present themselves?

Metzger: One thing that’s true is that there is a human desire for closure and an expectation for an arc in the dramatic cycle. Also, if you notice a show like Behind the Music, you know when the drug tragedy is gonna happen. They even did a show on 1969: The year the music died. And there was a point where the year became sad. Seriously, [in a booming voice] ‘and it turned dark when the Rolling Stones played Altamont’. The year! It just shows the absurdity. It’s that formula.

Fried: I understand you are a big fan of William S. Burroughs, author of, among other things, Naked Lunch. In an interview with Gregory Corso and Allan Ginsberg in 1961, Burroughs states:

“To concern yourself with surface political conflicts is to make the mistake of the bull in the ring, you are charging the cloth. That is what politics is for, to teach you the cloth. Just as the bullfighter teaches the bull, teaches him to follow, obey the cloth.”

Corso asks, “Who manipulates the cloth?”
To which Burroughs answers, “Death.”
Do you agree?

Metzger: Yeah.

Fried: Have you heard this quote before?

Metzger: Oh, yeah. Death. I think what he means by that, in a way, is the whole life-cycle when in the end you die. People think they can control their environments. The whole idea of politics and political parties as being the cloth, that is actually brilliantly put and is demonstrably true because look at the history of the 20th century. It doesn’t matter which political party is in power, it ultimately is so superficial. As Bob Wilson puts it, one group of bandits is financed by Wall Street vs. another group. One group will be in power for a period of time and do certain things and another group will get in and repeal those things and do what they want to do. That’s just the way it works. I think a good way of putting it is when you have a rope-tugging contest with people on either side and they are trying to take it. It’s between the Right and the Left. One side wins for a while, for a period of time, it’s an eternal struggle. It’s human nature.


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