Who are those masked men... in invisible suits ... walking into live shots ... reading the Bible and smashing eggs on their head?
When news breaks, they bust it ...
They interrupt your regularly scheduled program ...
... to fight "truth decay."
They're the NewsBreakers and they say "As citizens in a participatory democracy, we can no longer idly standby and let our government offer the airwaves, our common property, to the highest bidder."
It all began last January in Rochester, New York. A group of masked men burst into the local headlines when they disrupted the live news broadcasts of two local television stations, WROC and WHEC.
Taken into police custody, they were were accused of assault, but later released. In a press statement, NewsBreakers said they are a nonviolent media watchdog group that had "freed two live broadcasts" and "temporarily reclaimed the airwaves in the name of the American people." Their aim: to protest what they termed "the wholesale failure of Federal Communications Commission licensees to honor their obligation to the public."
"Today's event marks a new chapter in media criticism," proclaimed Buck Owens, NewsBreakers 'senior political correspondent.' "We are putting television news on notice: We're out here, we're watching and we ain't happy with what we see."
A self-described "nonpartisan, nonviolent media watchdog group dedicated to the improvement of journalism," NewsBreakers comments on and critiques television news, mostly by relying on parody and "non-traditional media interventions" to protest core problems like "overzealous" FCC regulations and corporate ownership of media outlets. Their hope is "to get people talking about the issue of TV news quality."
Owens is happy to explain the organization's goals. "We're just trying to raise a pretty simple question," he says. "Are you happy with the job that news -- TV news in particular -- is doing?"
Since the initial Rochester action, the NewsBreakers have begun to go national. In February the "Grim Reaper" -- complete with black robe and sickle -- busted a live shot at a Sinclair Broadcasting station in Columbus, Ohio. NewsBreakers say they have a "special distaste" for Sinclair, which operates both the ABC and Fox affiliate stations in Columbus (the stations share programming while operating under the motto "The Power of Television Times Two.")
"We thought the Grim Reaper was a pretty direct commentary on the nature of local television news," Buck Owens says. "It blows me away that people would tolerate one company owning both outlets."
Later that same month they also hit the Gannett-owned KPNX in Phoenix. Gannett, which owns more than 100 newspapers and 20 television stations, runs both KPNX and the Arizona Republic, the state's largest daily. After spending "most of the day transfixed by the station's coverage of the banal" -- which included stories about cute walnuts, controversial candy, a model train, naughty waiters, and a live interview with one of the Queer Eye guys -- Owens 'busted' a live shot report on a 'breaking' murder story.
Since then, they have expanded into New York -- the nation's largest media market -- with an "Eggman" bust of New York 1, and another at WABC, where a Bible-reading Buck Owens repeatedly disrupted Jeff Rossen's standup about the New York Daily News' "Scratch and Match" snafu.
"Let's see what happens to the news business when they feel attacked," says NewsBreaker J.D. Rozz. "We're setting up a 'lose-lose' situation for them -- either they can try to ignore us at their peril, while we smash eggs onto our heads behind them -- or they can challenge us, as we've challenged them."
"What we're doing is very low-brow -- obviously," admits Buck Owens. "After I smashed the eggs of my head, my dad sent an e-mail saying only 'Get help -- and get it quick!' But we find lots of people want to join us!"
But seriously -- if the word can be applied to such zany protesting pranksters -- the Newsbreakers seem to be tapping into some twisted piece of the Zeitgeist, judging from the reactions they have been getting. Their phony job postings for "Visual News Interpreters," for example, have already elicited several resumes from job-hungry would-be reporters ("I am a highly flexible, motivated and disciplined individual with an ability to adapt successfully to new and challenging situations.") who apparently didn't read too closely. And the In Box for Questions@newsbreakers.org is filled with comments ranging from "What a cool approach to media criticism" to "I'm not sure what your objective is but I'd like to applaud you for beating them at their own game" to naysayers who write "Acts like this are classless. You are low-rent, no-talent clowns!""
Behind the absurdist stance, the NewsBreakers betray the oddly serious mien of true believers. "Television news defines reality for most people," J.D. and Buck told me last week during a rare unmasked interview. "It confers heft and legitimacy to the stories that make air. But what we've found is that the only stories they want to do are the ones they already know! So we try to reframe the news for viewers and make them deal with something indefinable. Egg smashing is really just another way to smash viewers' consciousness.
"We're carnival barkers, mostly," admits senior correspondent Owens. "But even when playing, we're very serious about the need to reform our broken media system."
Of late, the NewsBreakers are beginning a dialogue with people within the industry as well, with reactions (both pro and con) to their sophomoric antics popping up on discussion boards like medialine.com and broll.net. "We're calling on media professionals to debate, at the same time as we are urging viewers to think and to reflect," says Owens.
"But hey -- this whole thing took off in just three months -- a lot faster than we ever anticipated, " Owens concludes. "We don't claim to have all the answers -- but we sure have a lot of questions. Maybe stimulating dialogue will actually lead to change. Look, our most important point is that we actually CARE about the news, and think it's important to people. We're not really anarchists -- we just want better-quality news!"