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A blogger's parting with the right

Charles Johnson's Little Green Footballs website once was devoted to writing about the 'Loony Left.' Now he prefers to focus on his liberal social views and disagreeing conservatives.

January 08, 2010|James Rainey
  • Blogger Charles Johnson said this week: "I like to think I am pretty independent of [the] political winds."
Blogger Charles Johnson said this week: "I like to think I am pretty… (Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles…)

Back when he built his Little Green Footballs website into a favorite of the conservative right, Charles Johnson liked to write about the "Loony Left" and "Bush Derangement Syndrome."

He would pair accounts of extremist violence with sarcastic headlines about Islam, the "Religion of Peace." A 2006 anti-war rally in Washington went down as an "Idiotfest" and activist Cindy Sheehan "Mama Moonbat."

Imagine the surprise among conservatives to learn -- in a series of postings over nearly the last two years, and then in an official declaration of estrangement a little more than a month ago -- that their darling did not love them anymore. Maybe he never did.

Johnson's posting on Nov. 30, “Why I Parted Ways with The Right,” created a maelstrom in some corners of the blogosphere and the Twitterverse. Onetime hyperlinking pals have called him a tyrant and a traitor. Earlier, one had questioned his sanity.

In Johnson's mind, he has not really changed but merely shifted his focus. Where once he was preoccupied with national security, staking out a hawkish, pro-military position, he now spends more time focusing on his liberal social views, and gripes with conservatives who disagree. "I like to think," he told me this week, "I am pretty independent of [the] political winds."

But not totally immune. As I talked to Johnson in his office, an alert flashed on one of his two giant computer monitors. An angry screed targeting him on another website concluded: "I think a visit to Mr. Johnson's home might be warranted. Anybody got his address?"

Such veiled threats are at least one reason why Johnson, 56, relocated not long ago. He remains in the Los Angeles area, but now is in a gated community.

The man who once decried vitriol spread on liberal websites now says: "The kinds of hate mail and the kinds of attacks I am getting from the right wing are way beyond anything I got when I was criticizing the left or even radical Islam."

Since the 2001 founding of Little Green Footballs, Johnson and the website have epitomized the ability of the lone wolf, armed with no formal journalistic training but with technical prowess and an obsessive work ethic, to earn a high profile on the political blogosphere.

Johnson's internal metrics show he routinely gets more than 100,000 page views a day. A couple of outside analytics firms put Little Green Footballs' unique monthly visitors between 37,000 and 124,000.

Those aren't huge numbers, but LGF, as it's known, provokes an outsized conversation on the blogosphere. Johnson proudly announced this week that his site had passed the 8-million comment mark.

Before his Web adventures, Johnson made his living as a professional guitarist, playing with singer Al Jarreau and bassist Stanley Clarke, among others. A gold record that he cut with George Duke (when Johnson went by the nickname "Icarus") hangs on his office wall.

An interest in Atari games got him into computers and, in turn, into website design. Little Green Footballs (He will say the name derives from "an incident in my youth, with a band in Japan." Nothing more.) was initially an experiment to understand the new avocation of "weblogging."

Once a relatively apolitical Democrat, he said the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks changed the blog's focus dramatically. He began to devote long hours to researching and writing about Islamic extremists.

Johnson got a burst of big media attention shortly before the 2004 election, when he was one of the first bloggers to challenge the authenticity of the memos that CBS News said proved President Bush had gotten favored treatment in the Texas Air National Guard.

Using a basic Microsoft Word program, Johnson typed in one of the CBS memos and compared the result with the one allegedly produced on a typewriter in 1972. Images of the two nearly identical documents blinked back and forth on Little Green Footballs, devastating Dan Rather's claims of the memos' legitimacy.

Another scoop came a couple of years later, when Johnson's eye for computer manipulation helped him expose a Reuters photograph that had been doctored, exaggerating the damage done by the Israeli military. The Reuters stringer was canned. Israeli leaders praised Johnson's sleuthing.

Johnson's knack for ferreting out fakes and hypocrisy has been impressive. But hyperbole sometimes overshadows his analytic approach. He's not immune to the throes of passion he has disparaged on both the left and right.

He jumped on a lame and misbegotten attempt by conservatives last year to force the Los Angeles Times to release a videotape of Palestinian Americans meeting with then-candidate Barack Obama, even though the paper had promised a confidential source not to do so.

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