It was just after 7:30 last Saturday morning when anyone following Buzz Bissinger’s Twitter feed might have sensed the first pop and hiss of another gathering eruption.
The initial message from Bissinger promised, “No ranting today.” But the acclaimed author of the book “Friday Night Lights” followed with a potshot at “that judge in England [who] should be shot (gently and without permanent damage) for convicting guy of bad Tweet.”
Seconds later, another message derided all “dangerous judges.” Then came another post about Bissinger’s loathing for U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) (whom he said “would be working at Wal-Mart” if she weren’t so attractive), for his hometown Philadelphia 76ers, for cable TV crank Dick Morris, for “manipulative, devious” cats and for President Obama (“to save presidency, should move to Montana and never speak.”)
Bissinger had only begun to tweet. Over a little more than an hour he would send 63 Twitter messages to his 18,190 followers and to anyone else who picked up copies of his messages, known on the micro-blogging site as “retweets.”
Those living in Bissinger’s corner of the Twitterverse have grown accustomed to his jags, though this seemed like a particularly frenetic one. Still, his online fulminations seem incongruous — given his very public loathing a couple of years back about just such blogging and the considerable gap between the missives and the thoughtful, long-form journalism that is his calling.
Bissinger seems to have no real business here. Can he do any real good, sticking and moving with mostly noxious jabs? And yet he’s laugh-out loud funny and potentially venting enough of his abundant anxiety to clear the path for another “Friday Night Lights.” And so we watch like we watch an acquaintance perform at a karaoke bar on open-mike night. We are thrilled that the performer is taking a risk, wincing at the inevitable sour notes and praying we don’t become a target.
It’s been 2 1/2 years since Bissinger, 56, went on Bob Costas’ HBO talk show to express his utter contempt for this sort of quick, dirty and unmannerly blogging. The writer lambasted Will Leitch of the racy sports website deadspin.com. He said sites like Leitch’s “are dedicated to cruelty, they’re dedicated to dishonesty, they’re dedicated to speed.”
Bissinger could be counted guilty on counts one and three of that same indictment. Savage and fast as he may be, though, he exhibits a certain admirable (dark) consistency. “For me, Twitter is an outlet,” he told me this week. “I wake up every morning literally mad about something and then one thing leads to another, leads to another.”
Admitting the obvious shift in his views, he doesn’t offer any grand explanation. “The world changes,” he said. “You can’t fight it.”
The former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter — who won a Pulitzer Prize as part of a team writing about corruption and chaos in the courts — said he feels compelled to speak out in a world where too many others stand silent.
The other day @buzzbissinger (his Twitter handle) called Bill O’Reilly the unholy love child of Keith Olbermann and Bill Maher. He compared those devious cats to Republican leaders. He described Monday night’s NFL football game as a battle between the “Vomiter” (Donovan McNabb of the Washington Redskins) and the “dog executioner” (Philadelphia Eagles’ Michael Vick, previously convicted of animal cruelty.)
He can be achingly funny and crude, often simultaneously. He realizes that his role as the sheriff of popular culture — Sam Kinison with a keyboard — promises a certain number of broken relationships.
Bissinger is the co-author of “Shooting Stars,” the story of LeBron James and his friends rising from nothing to high school basketball champions. But after collaborating with the basketball star, he felt James’ true arrogance revealed itself as he peddled his skills in free agency. A months-long Twitter-strafing ensued, much of it too profane to reprise here. James and Bissinger no longer speak to each other.
During his research and writing of his baseball book, “Three Nights in August,” Bissinger became enamored with the driven, instinctive St. Louis Cardinals Manager Tony LaRussa. But LaRussa infuriated Bissinger when he and his star slugger, Albert Pujols, appeared last summer at the rally sponsored by conservative television host Glenn Beck.
“WHY AREN’T LARUSSA AND PUJOLS WORRYING ABOUT THEIR TEAM PLAYING LIKE … ,” Bissinger wrote. The baseball men had ignored their real work, he argued, to prop up a demagogue. LaRussa no longer speaks to Bissinger.
“Someone with some credibility has to stand up and say ‘This is not right,’” Bissinger said. He hastens to call LaRussa “a terrific guy,” but adds, “I just couldn’t live with myself if I just let it go. Do I regret losing him as a friend? Yes. Do I regret doing it? No.”
LaRussa didn’t return my calls about his tormentor. David Simon, the former newspaperman and creator of “The Wire,” and another Bissinger target left a message: “I have no interest in responding.”
In Saturday’s Twitter fury, Bissinger only began with the British judge, who upheld the conviction of a man for a joking Tweet (frustrated that a weather delay might keep him from seeing his girlfriend, he said he would blow up the airport). He went on to compare the Miami Heat’s James to a 6-year-old and called New York Times columnist Paul Krugman “a miserable mope who doesn’t like anything” and who wouldn’t improve the economy one iota, if he had to stop talking and take some action.
In the midst of these 140-character bursts (the maximum Twitter allows) Bissinger also managed a running commentary on the national deficit reduction commission. He embraced the commission’s “real plan to cut [the] deficit” and trashed politicians for “squealing like stuck pigs.” By the time the string of messages had been exhausted, though, he also had the commission chairs — Democrat Erskine Bowles and Republican Alan Simpson — as bad guys, playing politics and “trying to make themselves look noble.”
Such contradictions are part and parcel of life with Buzz, say those who know him. One day he lures them in with a moment of sincere commiseration. Another he repels them with ego and bombast. Amidst all the slam jobs last Saturday, he tweeted multiple recommendations for his friend Fen Montaigne’s book on penguins and the Antarctic.
He disarms critics with his frequent self flagellation. Tweet from last year: “I wrote Friday Night Lights when I was 33. I am now 55. Haunts me every day. Best thing that ever happened. Worse thing that ever happened.”
In the midst of Saturday’s fusillade, Bissinger attested “I am not drinking.” A few minutes later he told his Twitter followers he had taken his “pharmaceuticals” and begun to wind down.
Satiated after 66 minutes of tweeting, the writer told me he got back to work on a Vanity Fair feature that will profile “the worst doctor in the modern history of the United States.” Then he’ll return to his latest book. About raising a son born 27 years ago with brain damage; it promises to be an emotional wrecking ball.
Bissinger said he has backed way off in recent months, only binge tweeting about once a week. That leaves plenty of time to get a draft of the book to the publisher by year’s end. Besides, how much damage can a few 140-character messages do?
“My shrink likes it,” he said. “He says, ‘If it gets things off your chest, it’s just fine.’”