- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 3, 2021

THE BIG TALK

An occasional interview series with Americans who are challenging the status quo.

President Trump was just starting his protracted fight against the Nov. 3 election results when top media members got the memo that the switch was on from offense to defense, according to The Babylon Bee.

It was a joke, of course. Sort of.

The Bee satirizes the political, intellectual and religious trends that strike it as absurd, a stance that puts it at odds with most of the modern media market and placed it at the crossroads of conservative writing and censorship.



Surprisingly often, a short piece from The Bee seems to become real news. A jesting report in The Bee will be fact-checked and censored, usually briefly, by social media platforms.

As a consequence, the satirical website has been fondly christened by its conservative blogging brethren as “the paper of record.”

“Doing satire in this environment has been challenging, going above and beyond reality, staying a step ahead of reality is difficult,” said Seth Dillon, The Bee’s chief executive officer. “We joke all the time about how our prophecies are being fulfilled, as if these are prophetic statements we’re making, because we’ll write a satirical piece that is satire the day it was written and then a week later it comes true.”

With Joseph R. Biden coming to the White House and Mr. Trump leaving it, The Bee will find itself challenged in a new way.

“Trump has been interesting because he’s such a wild character,” Mr. Dillon said. “I would never say there was no division in politics. There have always been divisions, there’s always been extremes or whatever. But I feel like the extremes are becoming a little bit more pronounced, the personalities are becoming a little bit more charged, fiery, crazy. And Trump represents that.”

So crazy has the situation become, to use one of Mr. Dillon’s favorite words, that The Bee created a daily feature last year called “Not The Bee,” which aggregates real stories that strike it as preposterous or deserving of mockery.

In recent weeks, The Bee mocked The Hill for a fawning piece on Mr. Biden’s approval rating as president-elect, elected officials who order “the plebeians” to stay home during the COVID-19 pandemic while they frolic where they wish, and “devout Catholic” Mr. Biden mispronouncing “Psalmist.”

Mr. Trump not only provided fertile ground for satirists but also challenged perceptions of what is and isn’t real news.

The Bee’s image of Mr. Trump leaning out a car window and smashing a mailbox with a baseball bat was a successful and obviously humorous take on alleged voter suppression. But an earlier post in which Mr. Trump claimed he had done more for Christians than anyone else since Jesus was taken as real by the president’s opponents.

As John Lennon learned in 1966, cheeky references to Jesus are touchy in America.

“We always hear from the left how gullible our readers are because they share our stuff like crazy because they think it’s real or whatever,” Mr. Dillon said. “But the left took hold of that and shared it like crazy as an example of how terrible Trump is, how evil he is, how egotistical he is. They bought into it so hard. And it was just because they wanted it to be true.”

The Bee opened in 2016 in the closing months of the Obama administration. Mr. Dillon, 37, bought the site in 2018 and now works in its Jupiter, Florida, headquarters, surrounded by professional golfers.

“We have a golf simulator here in the office, which is kind of fun so we can take breaks and hit some balls here and there,” he said. “But we’re avid tennis players.”

It’s a largely intellectual exercise. Mr. Dillon summed up The Bee’s staff, which is scattered all over the country, as mostly “ultra-nerds” who are into theology, board games and satire.

Indeed, The Bee is also an avidly Protestant Christian platform. It targets what it considers flimsy or false religion, and Mr. Dillon said it isn’t unusual for Bee staffers to try to reform some devout Calvinists among them.

“A core thing with The Babylon Bee is communicating Christian truth with our satire,” he said. “In our view, there is a lot of bad theology, a lot of this ‘self-help Christianity.’ It’s not just cultural commentary or political commentary. We go back and forth on issues like free will and divine providence all the time.”

Generally speaking, The Bee is respectful of other faiths, although there are exceptions. Scientologist Tom Cruise was the subject of a Bee piece after his recent on-set outburst over workers not wearing face masks.

“‘We must follow the science!’ screams actor who believes Xenu dumped frozen aliens into volcanoes and exploded them with bombs 75,000,000 years ago,” The Bee’s headline blared.

“The goal is not to make ad hominem attacks and make people feel stupid,” Mr. Dillon said. “It’s more along the lines of ridiculing bad ideas.”

Yet what The Bee thinks are bad ideas and what ideas are regnant in Hollywood, most college campuses, editorial board rooms and Washington are often the same. For that reason, Mr. Dillon said, The Bee is too often misinterpreted as “fake news.”

In October, Facebook censored a Bee piece that mocked aggressive questioning of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett by Sen. Mazie K. Hirono, Hawaii Democrat, during confirmation hearings. The Bee compared Ms. Hirono’s approach to medieval witchcraft trials, using a joke Monty Python popularized decades ago.

It seems improbable that people at Facebook or fact-checkers at Snopes.com or USA Today don’t get obvious jokes, Mr. Dillon said, which makes their aggressive moves against The Bee seem more suspicious than well-intentioned.

But there is no point in explaining the joke to Silicon Valley gatekeepers, Mr. Dillon said. Instead, The Bee screams “censorship” as loudly as it can and alerts as much of the public as it can about the dubious blocks.

That is easier for the site to do now given that it has more than 20,000 paid subscribers and gets more than 20 million page views a month. It’s easier when its Twitter account has 856,700 followers.

But that doesn’t mean it isn’t serious business when the biggest players seem intent on silencing The Bee.

The Bee is on Parler, an alternative to Twitter that touts a free speech ethos and has become a refuge for conservative voices. But that is “preaching to the choir,” Mr. Dillon said.

He said he wants to reach a presumably more diverse audience on established sites.

“We want to swing for the fences,” he said. “We’re not afraid of offending people. Of course, when you offend the wrong people that can be difficult.”

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