Like at least a few local left-wingers, Mike Ellis has longed to tell TV and radio talk-show host Fred Honsberger where to get off. But calling in to Honsberger's show brought him little satisfaction. "You get 10 or 15 seconds, and then he cuts you off, and makes his point," Ellis says. "Since you're not allowed to rebut, it sounds like he won the argument and you've just shut up."
So Ellis found a way to get the last word in after all. Currently unemployed, he says, "I had the time, and I had the Internet." And so was born "Honsberger is a Liar," a Web site at http://honsmanlies.blogspot.com/ that tracks Honsberger's claims on air and challenges their factual accuracy.
Holding the feet of local media figures to the fire has been a growing trend on the Internet. And like other such sites, honsmanlies is being operated anonymously: "Mike Ellis" is a pseudonym chosen because the author wanted an "additional layer of insulation" from negative responses. (Ellis also fears Honsberger may not take his calls if he reveals his identity.) While acknowledging that pseudonyms hurt the site's credibility, Ellis notes that "everything on there is backed up with facts" -- often with links to original sources.
Ellis only watches Honsberger's cable TV show on PCNC: Honsberger's KDKA-AM radio program draws a much larger audience, but, "One hour of Fred a day is enough," he says. He and a friend, whom Ellis identifies only as "Liz," watch the show from their respective apartments, sending instant messages over the computer about material that bears more examination.
In general, they're looking to catch Honsberger in a fast one -- as when Honsberger claimed the Reuters news agency had reported that presidential candidate John Kerry supported gas tax hikes 11 times. In fact, the news service was merely quoting Bush campaign advisers; Honsberger, the site argued, "presented the source of the information as Reuters, when the source is actually the Bush Campaign. And that was a lie."
Ellis notified Honsberger of the site's existence by e-mail, but "I don't see the thing, and I won't seek it out," Honsberger says. "I don't go to sites like that. It's how they get their satisfaction, so it's good for them. I'm a media figure, so it's all fair game. I've got my forum, they've got theirs. Everyone's entitled to their opinion."
That's one of the attitudes honsmanlies tries to address. One post on the site argues that when Honsberger says on-air "you can believe what you want to believe," he's really letting himself off the hook while pretending to be tolerant of other views. The post concludes: "Contrary evidence? Doesn't matter. Flaws of logic? Doesn't matter either. Why not? Because you can believe what you want to believe. See how easy that was?"
But Honsberger doesn't have much hope of changing anyone's mind. "People of a certain mindset will hate what you did, while other people will love what you did," he says. Having been involved in online news-groups before, he says, "I've found that conversation is futile." And anyway, "These sites are populated by about five people."
In fact, for honsmanlies that may be a generous estimate. Ellis is only now installing a counter on his Web site, and says traffic is "very slow, so far." The only people to post comments on the site are himself and his friend Liz.
But Ellis is already claiming one milestone: If you type "Honsberger" and "liar" into a Google search, Ellis' site appears at the top of the list.