Chuck Durnett's passing -- and the uncertain future of The Briefing Notebook newsletter he produced -- prompts a reminiscence from Paul Johnson, the PR man and former Gazette colleague, who started the whole thing by creating Bullwhiz.
It's on the jump.
A Brief History of the Short Life of Bullwhiz
I was saddened Saturday to learn that Charles Durnett had passed away. Chuck served for a time as the “publisher” of a quaint internet bulletin board that I started in 1991 and gave the made-up name of Bullwhiz.
Bullwhiz began in the summer of 1991 as Gannett angled to unload my employer, the Arkansas Gazette. The Internet was a relatively new thing in Central Arkansas, and not many people had access to e-mail outside their place of employment. A few Gazette employees and a couple of guys who were the spouses of Gazette employees began sending e-mails to each other via Prodigy and AOL accounts in an attempt to keep ourselves abreast of what the Gannett ferrets were doing (all the while they were lying through their teeth and assuring all of us that our jobs were safe).
When the Gazette was killed in October of 1991, the small group kept sending each other e-mails regarding job searches, the dispersal of our fellow ex-employees and other gossip.
I had been the media columnist for the Gazette (among other duties such as writing the Galloomphing Gourmand running column, movie reviews, music reviews, etc.) and when I found work at a Little Rock ad agency I would occasionally send the little band of ex-Gazette colleagues tidbits of media gossip that I would come across.
The word seeped out that I was sending out media-gossip e-mails and gradually more and more people asked to be added to the address list for the e-mails. I began calling the e-mails Bullwhiz, partly to let the recipients know that the information contained therein might or might not be reliable. Before I knew it, dozens, then hundreds, of people asked to be added to the recipient list. As the list grew, the recipients began sending in gossip, tips and information they ran across in their jobs and lives.
Soon enough, the tips began flooding in by the mailbox full. Since I never used my employer’s computer to compile Bullwhiz, I began putting Bullwhiz together in the evenings and sending the tips and rumors out under pseudonymous by-lines such as Flip D. Channel and others. The late media/political consultant Pat Walsh, who had befriended me while I was at the Gazette, informed me that unlikely recipients such as John Robert Starr and others enjoyed Bullwhiz. (Starr even sent in tips and comments of his own.)
Long story short: Bullwhiz began to receive some pretty good information among the tsunami of beefs, gripes, rumors, crap and flotsam that poured into my mailbox daily. Some of the stuff was so hot I began using my own primitive laptop at work to send out breaking-news bulletins of impending hirings, firings, transfers and chicanery.
As was bound to happen, those who had been caught in chicanery got hot about Bullwhiz. An Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist threatened to sue me for sending out reminders of his checkered past. Another columnist offered to whip my ass. The daughter-in-law of a prominent segregationist politician subpoenaed me in a legal action against her former employer and tried to compel me under oath to cough up the names of those who had reported her transgressions. I didn’t.
I had a helluva good time for the brief time that Bullwhiz had become, I was told, must-reading for a pretty large number of people, including some powerful ones.
Although I never attempted to conceal the fact that I was Bullwhiz’s compiler, I adopted for grins the persona of Captain Bully S. Whizbang. I would be greeted by calls of “Captain Bully” in places like Homer’s and Doe’s.
Inevitably, the tips, rumors and factual info sent out under the Bullwhiz masthead each evening stepped on the toes of some people with influence.
Two punks who had been hired to run a fund-raising apparatus for Governor Huckabee told my employer that the governor was displeased with Bullwhiz and the things being said about him in it. (Rex Nelson, one of Huckabee’s advisers told me that very day that the report was not true and said Huckabee even enjoyed some of the back-and-forth.) At any rate, my employer called me in and said I had a choice: I could continue to put out Bullwhiz, which he himself read daily, or I could continue to work for him. I shut down Bullwhiz within two minutes.
After a couple of weeks, Pat Walsh said there was a man who wanted to know if I objected to the man using the Bullwhiz name and disclaimer that ran at the top of each e-mail warning that the truth-to-BS ratio could be has low as 1 to 100. Pat introduced me to Chuck Durnett. We had lunch and I told him he was free to use the name for his own version of the e-mails.Eventually, Chuck became much more serious about the effort than I had been and dropped the name Bullwhiz in favor of the more serious-sounding Briefing Notebook. I stopped reading it after Chuck abandoned the freewheeling silliness of Bullwhiz.