Dot-Com Bites Man
By Arianna Huffington
April 06, 2000
DrKoop.com -- the health-care Web site co-founded by the former Surgeon General -- is in danger of flatlining. Among the i-mourners, however, you will not find the folks at TomPaine.com. A new online journal of opinion, TomPaine.com helped put the ailing dot-com on virtual life support with a classic old media club -- a paid op-ed in the New York Times on March 29. It's some of the best real estate in new or old media, and TomPaine.com is fixing it up very nicely. It was the 23rd week in which the bottom right-hand side of the paper's op-ed page has been occupied by TomPaine.com, bringing attention to topics the mainstream media often overlook, from America's burgeoning private prison industry to the politics of pesticides.
And to Dr. Koop. Entitled "DrKoop.CON?" the "op-ad" presented damning evidence that "America's family doctor" had traded his good name for financial gain. Koop's Web site suffered from a severe case of Disclosure Deficit Disorder (DDD). A large dose of public exposure -- bitter tasting but needs to be taken only once -- usually helps clear it right up. It seems the Good Doctor had urged Congress to extend the patent for Schering-Plough's popular allergy drug Claritin without disclosing that his Koop Foundation had earlier received a million-dollar grant from the very same company. He also downplayed at a congressional hearing the danger of allergic reactions caused by latex medical gloves after he had received $600,000 from a major latex glove-maker.
All TomPaine.com did was give a second opinion and fuel others to investigate. Fortuitously, two days after the op-ad ran, DrKoop.com's stock price plunged 41 percent -- with investors apparently ready to pull the plug, more to end their own misery than the consumers', but still.
This is not the first time TomPaine.com has had a healthy (for us) impact on one of its targets. Last November, the cyber-magazine used its Times spot to shed light on the government's horrifying -- and under-reported -- plan to recycle radioactive metals into consumer products like zippers, belt buckles, silverware and the orthodontic braces used on our kids' teeth. Only then was the story picked up by high-profile outlets such as the Wall Street Journal and the "CBS Evening News." Facing further outbreaks of public scrutiny, the Department of Energy killed the program.
TomPaine.com's inspiration is the revolutionary author of "Common Sense" and "The Rights of Man," who inveighed against distant and unaccountable leaders. That TomPaine.com is for promoting integrity, fairness, justice and all good things in our democracy is hardly exceptional in the public-interest community. But three other elements make it unique and uniquely powerful: its use of investigative reporting, of the sort that has fallen out of favor in a media culture obsessed with Jon Benet and Elian; its use of irony, sarcasm, invective, irreverence and savage wit in the service of its causes; and its financial muscle. Put them all together and you have a sort of public-interest smart bomb, coming (eventually) to a chimney near you.
"The op-ed page of the New York Times," says TomPaine.com's publisher, John Moyers, who learned activism at father Bill's knee, "is the front yard of the government and media establishment. Each week we're banging a lawn sign into that well-manicured turf, giving fresh voices a chance to join the national conversation."
Financed by the Florence Fund, a multimillion-dollar nonprofit devoted to helping public-interest groups publicize their messages, TomPaine.com has the luxury of not having to be distracted by ratings and commercial values. "We are fulfilling the role that PBS ought to be fulfilling," Moyers told me. "Even on our Web site, we don't have banner ads, just slogans. We are speaking to an elite audience, but introducing to them the ideas of the grass roots, trying to communicate not just the facts but the passion and the outrage."
Like a political version of those ads from "American Beauty" (the hint of something dark behind the lovely exterior), TomPaine.com's op-ads have prodded the public to look closer at the Clinton administration's weakening of the Clean Water Act; slammed the networks and the major newsweeklies for choosing black faces to illustrate poverty in two out of three stories even though three out of four of the nation's poor aren't black; took a satiric swipe at our skyrocketing incarceration rate by publishing a memo from McPrisons, Inc. -- "Over Two Million Served!"; and hailed Doris "Granny D" Haddock, the 90-year-old grandmother who walked coast to coast for reform, as a heroine in "a movement in the making."In the breadth of material it covers -- from the wrongs it rails against to the people it celebrates -- TomPaine.com dissects the degradation of our democracy and prescribes what it will take to turn things around. It's as aptly named -- in its service to its namesake -- as DrKoop.com.
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