A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
I think what has happened with Jeremiah Wright is that, whatever you think of him, and however unfair the media has been to him, he has given the right a way to mobilize resentment against Barack Obama that they never had before ... [Wright] is presented as the quintessential angry black man that the right wing loves to incite hatred against. So Sean Hannity is running with this as far as he can.
-- Journalist Max Blumenthal
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According to the Huffington Post, "Max Blumenthal is a Nation Institute Fellow whose work regularly appears in the Nation. A winner of the USC Annenberg Online Journalism Award, he is also a Research Fellow at Media Matters for America." But we know Max as a former night editor for BuzzFlash.com and for his fearless work in taking on right-wing zealots -- religious and otherwise -- by going to their events and challenging them. He then writes up articles for the Nation and other publications or videotapes his encounters. His book, "Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement That Shattered the Party," will be published by Nation/Basic books in July 2009.
Blumenthal is cutting quite a swath for himself in intrepid political journalism. In this interview, we talk with him about racism, Sean Hannity, and one of the alleged skeletons in Hannity's closet.
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BuzzFlash: Max Blumenthal, you wrote a piece for The Nation, where many of your articles appear. This one was about the relationship between Sean Hannity and a man named Hal Turner. You point out the hypocrisy of Sean Hannity, who recently seems to be playing unending loops of Reverend Wright's excerpted statements on his program. Why did you write the article, and what did you find out?
Max Blumenthal: Well, I wrote the article in June 2005, and it's been almost completely ignored until now. I've been saying since then that the way to handle Sean Hannity, when he brings up the issue of race, as he so often does, is to confront him with his relationship with Hal Turner, who is one of the most vitriolic and vocal neo-Nazi personalities in the United States. Finally, Malik Shabazz, of all people, someone who said Jews were warned in advance of 9/11, confronted Sean Hannity on Hannity and Colmes about his relationship with Hal Turner. Hannity, as I predicted, went into contortions explaining this relationship, and had to be rescued by his stand-in co-host, because it destroyed his argument on race.
Hal Turner is someone who hailed the fire-bombing of an apartment containing what he called "savage Negroes." He's called for the murder of immigrants. He posts bomb-making tips on his website, and he says, "I'm not a bomber. I create bombers." He's been investigated by the FBI in the killing of the family of Judge Joan Lefkow because he had posted death threats against her and called for her killing for her prosecution of Matthew Hale, the neo-Nazi leader. This is someone who Sean Hannity had allegedly fostered a friendship with, and whose career Sean Hannity promoted in a way. Sean Hannity actually allegedly counseled him on personal issues. So there's a lot Sean Hannity has to explain about his relationship with Hal Turner.
Hal Turner has been very forthright about it, saying on his personal website that Sean Hannity and he are both conservative Irish Catholic guys, and they have a lot of views in common on race. And he says in private Sean Hannity made no secret that he agreed with Hal Turner.
BuzzFlash: How does Hannity respond to this? It's clearly documented that Hal Turner did come on Hannity's WABC program on a number of occasions. And according to Hal Turner, he was given sort of the express line into the program, so that he could be on the air. How is Hannity responding to this?
Max Blumenthal: Hannity would like to ignore it. I don't think he wants to respond to it. But he brings on a lot of guests who he thinks he can browbeat on the issue of race because of their own, controversial and even racist views. I think these guests, if they go on, should do what Malik Shabazz did, and confront Sean Hannity about his relationship with Hal Turner. Sean Hannity doesn't have a convincing explanation for it, and it really undermines his whole argument that we should be living in a race-neutral society, and that he, in fact, is "color-blind."
You know, this isn't a superficial relationship. Sean Hannity got his radio show when he took over from Bob Grant at WABC. Bob Grant was sort of the original Hal Turner. He was a hysterical racist. During the nineties, he was sort of a popular figure in New York broadcasting. A lot of the backlash, kind of Giuliani-supporters, liked him. He was kind of below the radar promoting neo-Nazi groups like the National Alliance. He said, "I don't have a problem with the National Alliance." That's the largest neo-Nazi group in the United States. Grant insisted that Arabs were responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing, when it actually was a follower of National Alliance founder, William Pierce, who was responsible. WABC came under a lot of pressure from the NAACP to dump Grant for his anti-black statements, like calling Haitian refugees subhuman infiltrators, and saying that the United States contained millions of sub-humanoid savages who would feel more at home around the sands of the Kalahari or the dry deserts of eastern Kenya, and so on and so on. The protests had a big effect. Finally, Grant was sort of on the ropes.
So along comes Hal Turner, who was a frequent caller to Bob Grant's show. He organized a huge pro-Bob Grant rally in Trenton, New Jersey, which turned into kind of a confabulation of the neo-Nazi movement. A lot of people from the white supremacist national movement showed up, and it kept Bob Grant on the air for two more years. But, finally, he did himself in and was replaced by Sean Hannity.
Sean Hannity inherited Hal Turner as a frequent caller. Hannity also credited Bob Grant as his mentor. Hannity says in his book, Let Freedom Ring, "I'd grown up listening to Bob Grant, one of the most entertaining hosts I'd ever heard."
Sean Hannity had had his own problems when he was a broadcaster at the University of Santa Barbara, which is a relatively liberal school in California. He claimed that he was ousted by the left-wing management there, but, in fact, he had repeatedly made vitriolic, homophobic statements on the air, claiming that homosexuality could be "corrected" and that it wasn't a biological phenomenon. So he was ousted. Then he did the right-wing radio circuit in the South, filling in for Neal Boortz, this broadcaster who said Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney looks like a ghetto slut. He's an open racist. Sean Hannity had kind of always been in the shadows of these racist figures. Now finally, he fills in for one of them on WABC, inheriting this big fan base of angry white males, including Hal Turner, who called himself Hal from North Bergen when he called in.
What Hannity did was kind of outsource a lot of his racism to Turner. He'd have Turner call in and bash black people, and Hannity wouldn't say anything. And his audience would get a big rise out of it. For example, in August 1998, Hal Turner reminded Hannity that if it wasn't for the graciousness of the white man, black people would still be swinging on trees in Africa. This is something that you would rebuke if you're Sean Hannity and you really are against racism. Instead, Hannity continued taking Hal Turner's calls. In fact, Sean Hannity promoted Hal Turner's candidacy for the U.S. House of Representatives. At the time, Hal Turner was a major Republican activist in New Jersey who had been the New Jersey coordinator for Pat Buchanan's presidential campaign. Sean Hannity had Hal Turner on to promote his candidacy on December 10, 1998, and to attack his presumptive opponent, Robert Menendez, as a left-wing nut.
At the same time, these guys were allegedly talking off air during commercial breaks. Turner posted this on a Google discussion forum. Hannity called Turner from his job at Fox News to continue a conversation they'd been having while he was at ABC. Apparently Sean Hannity had been sent an e-mail by someone who didn't like Hal Turner, thought he was an extremist, possibly dangerous, and told him that Hal Turner had a long history of cocaine abuse and had been involved with cocaine dealers. Not only that, but that he had sort of had homosexual relationships, which was, hypocrisy, because Hal Turner was a vitriolic homophobe. And Hal Turner confessed this on a Google discussion forum. He said, I've done things I'm not proud of, and had dark times in my life, and these experiences have shaped the way I live today -- the "right"way. He said that Hannity laughed and commented that he knew the feeling. And he said that these kinds of chats with Hannity were not unusual, and that they usually happened when they were on commercial breaks.
Afterwards, when Sean Hannity got his big break in television, and got his show, "Hannity and Colmes," he allegedly brought Hal Turner's young son onto the set, and they got to hang out backstage.
BuzzFlash: Now for the record, Max, I'm reading an exchange which was one of the usual Fox circuses. Here's this guy, Shabazz, who claims that he's leading a black panther party that's supporting Obama, but Obama doesn't want the endorsement and never sought it. Of course, it becomes a cause celebre on Fox, even though this is all part of the circus of Fox. Suddenly Shabazz confronts him on his relationship to Turner. Hannity says that man was banned from my radio show ten years ago, and that the accusation of a relationship is an absolute lie. So Hannity is denying this. Other than Turner's allegations that they had a relationship, what is there to base the allegation on? Do we have tapes of these ABC radio conversations from the late Nineties?
Max Blumenthal: I acquired transcripts of them from someone who had monitored these shows, who was involved in opposing Bob Grant, and then later, in opposing Sean Hannity -- Bill Jenkins, who is from an anti-racist group based in New Jersey called One People's Project. Hal Turner has confirmed for his part that all of these conversations took place, and Sean Hannity hasn't denied them. Sean Hannity had banned Hal Turner from the show in 1998, but he also allegedly took Hal Turner after that onto the set of Fox News, and let him backstage to hang out at "Hannity and Colmes." So he's being disingenuous.
Their relationship kind of collapsed after Hal Turner tried to get the endorsement of the New Jersey state Republican Party in 2000. Instead, they endorsed his primary challenger, Theresa de Leon, who was a dark-skinned Latino woman. Hal Turner basically went bezerk and denounced the Republican Party. He said, I'd never judged people on their race, not prior to that point. To paraphrase his resentment, "And there I was on the receiving end in America -- the decision that I wasn't good enough because I was a white male." So he became the persecuted white male, and swung to the far shores of the right and embraced the neo-Nazi movement that he'd always quietly associated with, and that Sean Hannity had known that he quietly associated with. But he became a liability to Sean Hannity, and the two kind of split then, after 2000.
BuzzFlash: I'd like to go back to Bob Grant for a moment. Apparently, Bob Grant wasn't kicked off the air for his racial statements. He was kicked off the air because of something related to claiming that AIDS was a fantasy, or some homophobic statement, basically. It wasn't the race issue. And he was replaced by Sean Hannity, who is in some ways more acceptable. I mean, Bob Grant was an older guy with a toupee. Sean Hannity comes in -- clean-cut, Catholic school student, smooth style, unctuous, wrapping himself in the flag. Not as crude as Bob Grant. Not as David Duke as Bob Grant in terms of his language, but basically selling the same package, which is racism.
At the website FAIR, which is a media watchdog group, in the way Media Matters is, it says that when Bob Grant was the king of WABC, he referred to black church-goers as "screaming savages." He advocated eugenics, promoting the Bob Grant "mandatory sterilization" program. Then we see Sean Hannity walking in, and subsequently getting on Fox, and becoming the spokesperson for the new right wing. His godfather is really Bob Grant, a raving racist. Sean Hannity is just selling it in a more unctuous, sugar-coated form.
Max Blumenthal: Right. I think Sean Hannity learned his lesson at the University of Santa Barbara. He also watched closely as Bob Grant amassed this massive base of angry white males, and was driven off the air by civil rights groups and had all his advertisements pulled. Sean Hannity realized that there really is what Bill Clinton called this thing of darkness, this undercurrent of racism and hatred in American society, that's waiting to be tapped into. At the same time, if you want to have a national profile, you have to tap into it through codes, and you have to do it in a subtle way, not the way Bob Grant, who was an older man who didn't understand new media, did it. If you want to be an open racist, you're going to wind up like Hal Turner, on short-wave radio, sort of on the fringes. So Sean Hannity's been really artful about it. He managed to cast himself as "color-blind" -- which is really a subtle conservative way of opposing affirmative action and denying it. He's clever. And Alan Colmes was his foil, if not his doormat, which gives him a little bit of credibility, too. So he has the perfect format for this.
I think what has happened with Jeremiah Wright is that, whatever you think of him, and however unfair the media has been to him, he has given the right a way to mobilize resentment against Barack Obama that they never had before, because he does have a long relationship with Barack Obama. He has been extremely important in Barack Obama's ascendancy. He is presented as the quintessential angry black man that the right wing loves to incite hatred against. So Sean Hannity is running with this as far as he can. He doesn't have to say anything. All he has to do is put up an image of the angry black man, and say this contradicts everything Barack Obama has said about unity and hope. And his fans go wild.
BuzzFlash: Sometimes we forget that really Fox built an acceptable packaging upon a foundation of racist talk-show hosts who were the original exploiters of the working class displacement, and job anxiety due to jobs shifting overseas, at a time when there was busing, and affirmative action was reaching its peak in the Seventies. In Chicago, there Howard Miller was a host. There was almost one in every city. Sometimes we think this is a relatively new phenomenon. But really what we've got is a smoother-talking, car salesman version of an old phenomenon that is socially acceptable to television, because Hannity's image is the clean-cut guy on television, kind of the guy next door. He seems very earnest, but he's selling the same package of goods as Bob Grant was selling. Would you agree with that?
Max Blumenthal: I would agree with that. And also, he's added the toxic combination of illicit sex to what Grant was selling. It's really race and illicit sex - sort of like what Eliot Spitzer was doing, or what's going on in the clubs where your children may be hanging out in. You know, Sean Hannity went to the Bunny Ranch, which is this legal whorehouse in Las Vegas. It was one of the most lurid segments I've ever seen on Fox News, with close-up shots of all of these prostitutes' body parts, with cheap porn music playing, and Sean Hannity kind of making his way through this whorehouse, being groped on by all these prostitutes. And he's telling them, I think there's a better life for you. Maybe you can get out of this job and get a decent profession -- trying to appear as the good Catholic boy.
So I called up Dennis Hof, who is basically the pimp, the head of the Bunny Ranch. And I said, "What was Sean Hannity like there?" He said, "Oh, we have guys like Sean Hannity come through here all the time. They always try to "save" our girls. And some of our girls have college educations. They like this job and the independence it gives them. So we call Sean Hannity Captain Save-A-Hooker."
And I started thinking -- "Captain Save-A-Hooker" -- who does that remind me of? And I thought of Travis Bickle, the protagonist of the movie Taxi Driver, played by Robert DeNiro. I think Taxi Driver is the perfect reflection of the kind of character that Sean Hannity is trying to reach out to with his really sophisticated media techniques -- someone who is really lonely and dislocated, and surrounded by unfamiliar ethnic groups that he really resents. He is desperate for companionship, and at the end of Taxi Driver, what does Travis Bickle try to do? He tries to save the hooker -- the perfect portrayal of the right-wing backlasher. He has all this resentment, but it's really coming from a position of weakness.
Fox News perfected this formula which reaches out to this kind of people. It's really disturbing, because, when you're coming from a position of weakness, and you're desperate, and you become consumed with resentment, you tend to react in really destructive ways. I think if Barack Obama is elected, they've incited a lot of hatred that I think is potentially dangerous. The same thing with Hillary Clinton and what they've done against her. They've turned on Obama, because he's in the lead. But they've incited sexist hatred against Hillary for years.
BuzzFlash: Well, we are talking about the angry white male here, so it would follow that they would be both sexist and racist.
Max Blumenthal: Absolutely.
BuzzFlash: What you mentioned about Sean Hannity is in a way about having it both ways -- presenting and denouncing lurid sexuality. Of course, this is Fox.
Max Blumenthal: There's a video produced by Robert Greenwald that I think everyone should see. All he did was collect clips of all the lurid sexuality on Fox News, and put it together in a video. That video is banned from the website Digg because it was considered too pornographic, although all it consisted of was footage from Fox News.
BuzzFlash: Stephanie Miller, the progressive talk-show host, does a right-wing roundup every morning of what they've said. It's amazing. And Bill O'Reilly, as you were saying about Sean Hannity, is consumed with showing sex that he deplores, but lingering on it for great lengths of time with very vivid photographs.
Max Blumenthal: Bill O'Reilly is the unhinged version of Sean Hannity. This is the guy who's a complete wreck psychologically.
BuzzFlash: For both of them, their primary audience is the white male who feels somehow the world has collapsed around him. We've got uppity women like Hillary Clinton, and we've got uppity blacks like Barack Obama. Basically, our instincts as humans is that we want the power that we have. The white male's power has now been shared with women and minorities, and the angry white males are resentful and furious about this.
Sean Hannity defines patriotism and being a loyal American as upholding the white male power structure. On the other hand, if you're a white male, you kind of like this T and A stuff. So Hannity and Bill O'Reilly both indulge in showing pictures that are quite graphic and sexual, and denouncing them. But it's pretty clear they're showing them for titillation.
Max Blumenthal: Well, if you're watching these shows, you're allowed to sort of be titillated by it, as long as you know that you will never be able to touch those breasts because you're busy watching Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity. So why not resent the celebrities and all the "latte liberals" and the hip-hop stars who get to touch those breasts? Why not hate them instead, since you can't do this? It's all about resentment and weakness.
BuzzFlash: And it's about "them." The Fox Television Network, in particular, is built around "us against them," meaning white Americans against the Islamic faith, the terrorists, the Muslims, the immigrants, the Mexicans, the blacks, the women who don't fall in line.
Max Blumenthal: Sam Francis,who was sort of the brains behind Pat Buchanan and behind the white nationalist movement, called it the sandwich strategy. He described the working class, the producer class, as being squeezed between the elitist cosmopolitan one-worlders from above -- the corporatists, the people that Lou Dobbs denounces -- and sort of the brown huddled masses who are open to communist opinions from below. They're being squeezed out of existence by the collusion of the one-worlder elitists and the dark-skinned masses. This is the narrative that you hear every day on Fox News and that you also hear on Lou Dobbs and on right-wing radio. And it all comes down to white victimhood.
BuzzFlash: Isn't that ironic, because what we're hearing is that Hillary Clinton is a victim. Barack Obama's minister claims that blacks are victims. White males who follow Sean Hannity or Bill O'Reilly or Rush Limbaugh or Bob Grant are saying, in essence, we've been victimized by these people. We're victims. Our power has been taken away from us. Jobs have been taken away from us. And it's all by "them."
I want to commend your work, though. You're one of the few people who goes right into the center of these right-wing conclaves. You've confronted Ann Coulter at CPAC, and you've gone and done video work at many of these conferences. You just call these people up or attend the events and ask the questions. And you're to be commended, along with News Hounds, and Robert Greenwald, for following Fox, which is really a propaganda network. But isn't this really sort of again socially palatable demagoguery? Fox News loops the Jeremiah Wright tape, or an Osama bin Laden tape, all the time. Is it emotionally playing and toying with the audience?
Max Blumenthal: They're emotionally conditioning the audience and generating sort of Pavlovian responses. Fox News and Sean Hannity's producers are playing to sentiments that are already there, for whatever reason. And his audience was a ready-made audience that had been established since before the days of Bob Grant. We can never forget that he inherited Bob Grant's audience, so he has an audience that has strong racial animus.
If you look at how Keith Olbermann has been conditioning his audience against Hillary Clinton, you know, his audience typically opposes racism. So he paints Hillary Clinton as a racist. Sean Hannity is doing the mirror inverse -- painting Barack Obama as the racist. These guys are successful because they know how to exploit the sentiments and the deep, dark resentments of their viewers. And there's something about TV that's so public, because you're seeing everyone's private life exposed. All these public figures are exposed, and they're torn naked on the TV. But at the same time, it's so private because you can watch it in your home by yourself, or listen to right-wing radio in your car by yourself on the way to work. And you can feel however you want, and you can react however you want. And no one can see.
And this is how you prepare yourself for the day on your way to work, and get yourself going. It's how you close out your day -- with Hannity and Colmes before you go to bed. It becomes a really sort of sadistic rhythm for a lot of people. And it inspires their political passions on both sides. I think it contributes to a really poisonous discourse that we're having. Until we see that all of us are victimizing each other, then I don't think we're going to get past this. And people like Sean Hannity are going to continue to get rich while their audiences continue to get poorer and poorer, and get angrier and angrier.
BuzzFlash: Cal Thomas and Bob Beckel are an odd couple to be sure, a right winger and kind of a regular democratic guy who was Mondale's campaign manager. They wrote a book together called Common Ground, in which they referred to Sean Hannity as the leader of the pack among the bottom-feeders of political polarizers. They describe polarizers as those who "make money by keeping politics inflamed in order to sell books, maintain readership, sustain writings, fill speaking schedules or sell tickets." Some people forget that people like Hannity and Coulter and others charge forty-fifty thousand dollars a speech. They are multi-millionaires at this point. Sean Hannity makes himself out to be a spokesman for the regular American, the regular guy. He's a multi, multi millionaire at this point. The man's in a private jet whenever he has a speaking engagement. He won't even go first class. This is a guy who is virtually in the Donald Trump category in terms of travel style and lifestyle. Yet he paints himself as sort of a lunch bucket guy with a sportcoat or a suit on.
Max Blumenthal: Right.
BuzzFlash: Do you think he is the huckster first, or the believer in this first? Or is he the believer in the demagoguery and the racism and the sexism, and he's also the huckster, so he's got the perfect combination to make him a multi-millionaire?
Max Blumenthal: Definitely Sean Hannity's a huckster. But as far as his views on social issues, I think we have to judge people by their behavior. I don't know of anything he's done that is contradicting his views, although one caller recently called up and said he was having an adulterous affair, and Sean Hannity said he knew what it was like before sort of correcting himself.
BuzzFlash: He knew what it was like?
Max Blumenthal: He knew what it was like to have an adulterous affair, before sort of correcting himself. Sean Hannity's a performer. But at the same time, he's definitely an exploiter. But there's no evidence that he has contradicted any of the views he's espoused in public in any way that Bill O'Reilly has, or Michael Savage, whose real name is Michael Weiner. Weiner's become one of the biggest gay-bashers in the United States, but he used to be a homosexual in San Francisco who bragged about having a gay relationship with a black man, and he ran in beatnik circles before he reinvented himself. These people are the real frauds, in my opinion, because there's a massive gulf between their private lives and their public personas, and they're bamboozling everyone by portraying themselves as culture warriors.
BuzzFlash: Hannity was in a film a few years back, which was done by some young filmmakers in Utah, called This Divided State.
Max Blumenthal: Yes.
BuzzFlash: They showed where Michael Moore spoke, and it was a very interesting film about this community and the school, and the conflict that developed over having a liberal speaker, who was "balanced out" by a conservative speaker. I found Hannity's appearance in the auditorium, packed with probably five thousand, eight thousand people, quite intriguing. He picks out someone in the audience. He said, is there a liberal here? And someone raised their hand. It almost seemed like a plant -- I don't know if it was. But he did this creepy, scary, effective job of using this person as a foil for everything that's wrong in America. He was so smooth and oleaginous about it that it was absolutely scary to me that this guy certainly has the skill. His skill is almost like that of a magician. He used almost every logical fallacy one could think of, but in a way that was convincing.
I found it frightening because he was tremendously effective at what he did. There was no logic to it. In fact, it was all nonsense. But he knew exactly what he was doing. He knew the tricks of the trade. And it was using illogic in a magical sort of way to make him and those people feel that they were the true patriots, and this liberal in the audience was a fool, while saying, of course, I respect you, and I'm sure you're a decent person. You're just misled -- horribly misled. Is there any way to defang someone like Sean Hannity?
Max Blumenthal: Well, the best way is to point to personal hypocrisy, and to the fact that there is another Sean Hannity. Since you brought up that movie, I think it's really one of the most vivid portrayals of Sean Hannity in action, and how he can incite resentment so masterfully. It also shows Michael Moore to be a really classy person. He greets the crowd and he says, I respect you, whether you're Republican or Democrat, because you're children of God to me.
Sean Hannity comes out attacking Michael Moore in a personal way, and it shows incredible contrast between these two cultural icons, one of whom represents the right, and one represents the left. But the best way to confront Sean Hannity, I think, has been demonstrated to be to point out his relationship with Hal Turner. That shows that there's another Sean Hannity, that there's another alter ego that's wrong, and racist, and crude, and isn't scripted, and is just like his audience -- hateful, resentful, and coming from a position of weakness.
BuzzFlash: He's working with that so-called Freedom Alliance that Oliver North is affiliated with.
Max Blumenthal: Right, and I think that is another point that can be used to undermine Sean Hannity's narrative, because he is taking in a lot of money at these rallies, and he's giving it to an organization of a convicted felon. When you look at the tax filings of Freedom Alliance, much of that money isn't going to the troops. It's going to supposed "administrative costs" for Oliver North. It's paying Oliver North. It's paying his staff. And it's going into a black hole. So Hannity is exploiting the troops, as well, and this is another point to use against him. And the organization that I had mentioned before -- One People's Project -- has actually organized a campaign to boycott Sean Hannity merchandise because he's using his merchandise to covertly fund Oliver North.
BuzzFlash: Max, thank you very much for the insights on Sean Hannity and the right-wing hate radio, and best of luck to you.
Max Blumenthal: Thank you.
BuzzFlash Interview conducted by Mark Karlin.
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Hannity's Soul-Mate of Hate (Max Blumenthal/The Nation)
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW