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Tampa’s Tim Burke has certain skills and a Twitter following. The FBI has his computers.

The former Deadspin journalist, who tweets often as @bubbaprog, has gone silent.
 
Tim Burke in a promotional image for Netflix's documentary series "Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn't Exist." Burke, formerly a journalist for Deadspin, broke the Manti T'eo girlfriend hoax story. On May 8, federal agents searched the Seminole Heights home Burke shares with his wife, Tampa City Council member Lynn Hurtak.
Tim Burke in a promotional image for Netflix's documentary series "Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn't Exist." Burke, formerly a journalist for Deadspin, broke the Manti T'eo girlfriend hoax story. On May 8, federal agents searched the Seminole Heights home Burke shares with his wife, Tampa City Council member Lynn Hurtak. [ Netflix ]
Published May 26, 2023|Updated May 30, 2023

FBI agents served a warrant at a home in Tampa earlier this month, and a small but remarkably consistent corner of the internet went dark.

For well over a decade, fans of the Twitter account @bubbaprog could count on a stream of compelling and obscure sports clips, inscrutable cable news blunders and left-leaning critiques of politicians and pundits. The account posted nearly 134,000 times since 2008, or around 25 times daily to its 117,000 followers. Videos posted there frequently reached millions of views.

For sports and media obsessives with a taste for the wonkish and arcane, @bubbaprog, run by the longtime journalist and blogger Tim Burke, was a fountain of weird and timely content — sportscasters’ faces frozen in midword contortions, basketball fans epically failing at high-fives or a candid clip of Tucker Carlson between segments, talking about buying 200 tins of dipping tobacco. That’s the tip of the iceberg for a recent week.

No longer. Federal agents searched the Seminole Heights home Burke shares with his wife, Tampa City Council member Lynn Hurtak, on May 8. Tampa Bay Times reporting revealed the search to be part of a probe into possible hacks of Fox News — particularly related to at least six leaked behind-the-scenes clips of Carlson. (The tobacco video, one of several Burke has shared recently of the former Fox host, is not specified in the probe.) Agents seized Burke’s computers. Hurtak said the warrant was “solely related to my husband’s work as a journalist,” though Burke now runs his own consulting business.

Related: Tucker Carlson, Fox News hacks tied to FBI search of Tampa council member’s home

Burke has not been accused of any wrongdoing. Specifics beyond that remain mysterious for now.

What’s clear is that Burke, who was “extremely online” long before that term was coined, has disappeared from the internet. For a high-metabolism media figure whose tech setup in his Florida home is the stuff of legend, it’s a notable silence. His Twitter is dormant. His personal and business websites are down.

Last week, the 44-year-old consultant told the Times he couldn’t tweet because he no longer had his phone but offered no more details before he stopped responding to a reporter’s calls.

Through his prolific online efforts, and some big stories he broke at the edgy sports blog Deadspin, where he worked until 2018, Burke has become a fascination in certain media circles.

The New York Times profiled him in 2013, describing his 10-monitor home-office apparatus dubbed the “Burke-puter” as capable of recording 28 broadcasts at once. At the time, he reportedly strapped in for a hundred hours a week at home in St. Petersburg’s Kenwood neighborhood to mainline a dozen simultaneous games while pulling highlight clips with incredible speed.

That story described Burke’s setup as “a flashing, beeping, glowing, thrumming assault of screens, wires, remotes, tuners, phones, receivers, computers and general electronic effluvia,” but the Burke-puter grew even more complex, judging by Burke’s recent appearance in Netflix’s “Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist.” In the 2022 documentary, Burke sits at an array of glowing monitors at home in Tampa, recounting how he debunked the widely repeated but never-verified story of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o’s girlfriend dying the same day as his grandmother.

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Along with then-Deadspin-intern Jack Dickey, Burke broke the story of Te’o being catfished in an online hoax — the scoop of a lifetime that for a moment in 2013 consumed media far beyond the world of college football.

“He just had tools that none of us had and that, I would wager, at that time, maybe a dozen journalists in the whole country had,” Dickey said of Burke in the documentary.

The "Burke-puter," or Tim Burke's home monitor setup, as seen on the Instagram page of his wife, Lynn Hurtak.
The "Burke-puter," or Tim Burke's home monitor setup, as seen on the Instagram page of his wife, Lynn Hurtak. [ Instagram ]

Burke made another splash a few years later by pulling together dozens of video clips of Sinclair Broadcast Group anchors at local news affiliates across the U.S., eerily reciting an identical script criticizing “fake stories” in the national news.

Media reporter Brian Stelter, then at CNN, had already broken that story, noting how the corporate-mandated script echoed conservative cries of “fake news,” but Burke stitched the clips into an uncanny Deadspin video. His headline, “How America’s largest local TV owner turned its news anchors into soldiers in Trump’s war on the media,” got national attention.

Clips like those used in the Sinclair video can be obtained with a paid service like TVEyes, which companies use to track mentions on TV news. In other cases it appears Burke ingests high-quality satellite or cable feeds into a system he’s created that might be akin to a world-class DVR.

Writer Charlie Warzel, who covers technology, media and politics in his popular newsletter Galaxy Brain, said Burke caught his attention in 2022. Burke had shared posts about European and Ukrainian television feeds shortly after Russian forces invaded Ukraine.

Warzel conceived a story about Burke’s place as a sort of media watchdog and historian and the lessons gleaned via years of TV-watching. He shelved the story amid a move to The Atlantic, but said he’d found Burke’s setup, allowing him to capture and monitor thousands upon thousands of hours of live TV each week, “fascinating.”

“Nobody really does what he does,” Warzel said. “So I was just trying to pick his brain. … After two hours, we’d just barely cracked my first question about his setup. He is really passionate about all that stuff.”

In that unpublished interview, Warzel said Burke expressed a drive to create a video archive for future research on Ukraine and said he’d similarly archived thousands of hours of local news footage during the George Floyd protests.

Among Burke’s other projects: He built Twitter bots that monitored the closed-captions of major news networks like CNN. Anytime they mentioned breaking news, his bots would post a screenshot.

Tommy Craggs, former executive editor at Gawker Media, which owned Deadspin when Burke was there, said Burke possessed a serious nimbleness when it came to stories researched and reported entirely via the internet.

“Tim looked at video the way someone who came from a traditional print journalism background would look at obtaining documents, or working a source to find something out,” Craggs said. “He aggressively pursued video in that same way, like it was a story to unearth, whether it was an inane clip on the local news or putting together the Sinclair thing.”

Plenty of people have skill with video, he said. “But I have yet to see anyone quite do it with that sort of journalistic vigor.”

Craggs said Burke spoke of having a connection to Anonymous, the international hacker collective — a claim Burke himself repeated in Netflix’s “Untold.” “He seemed to know that world in a way the rest of us did not. He’d also had this whole life in academia, and maybe a polka band at one point?”

In the documentary, Burke said that, pre-Deadspin, “I traveled in some interesting online circles, including with Anonymous, the notorious online hacker group. And I developed a reputation as somebody who finds things.”

After Deadspin, Burke worked as director of video at the Daily Beast but lasted less than a year. Mostly he pulled together politics-related clips from cable news into a single video barrage that revealed something larger. One example: When Donald Trump said he knew nothing about Wikileaks, Burke cut together two minutes of the then-president talking about Wikileaks.

In 2019, he launched Burke Communications. On its website, Burke Communications advertised consulting, political strategy and social media training, plus a 181,000-gigabyte video archive, noting “If it appeared on television, we can probably find it.”

“Our studio features an array of more than 30 monitors running off a selection of workstations running Linux and MacOS,” the website said. “Being first & being best requires radical solutions.”

When Ben Mathis-Lilley, a senior writer for Slate.com, needed some obscure data on how often broadcasters mentioned Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh for his book, “The Hot Seat,” he reached out to Burke.

“You come up with a stat that would be great to have, and then you realize it would take six months of research to figure it out,” Mathis-Lilley said. In a day or two, Burke sent him a file with data from 43 Michigan football broadcasts. “As far as I know, nobody else in the world could do that. Maybe the Michigan research department.”

Burke’s work setup may have started with a desire to multitask baseball-watching while working toward a doctorate in media studies at the University of South Florida.

A Wired.com story from 2011 focused on Mocksession, an early Burke blog that posted video of a wide receiver picking his nose at the National Championship. Burke founded the site in 2006. “He was trying to focus on his dissertation but kept getting distracted by his obsession with the Tampa Bay Rays,” Wired wrote. “In an effort to follow the ball game and be productive, he hooked up a TV tuner to his computer.” An obsession was born, went the story. (He never finished the dissertation.)

Burke came up in the heyday of blogs. For years, he chronicled his thoughts on everything from relationships to politics to “Veronica Mars.” He got his first taste of virality from a project called Classic Hits By Microsoft Songsmith, feeding classics into Microsoft’s maligned Songsmith program to create oddities, like Billy Idol’s “White Wedding” over a bluegrass track. The project got noticed by some national media, but Burke was only mentioned by his YouTube channel’s name, azz100c.

Burke Communications’ clients, he has said, include media companies that hire him on contract for quick-hit video production. He’s fast enough at posting sports highlights that he’ll sometimes get retweeted by ESPN after he posts a clip from one of their own broadcasts.

For a guy who’s been presented in national media as most likely to be found holed up in a dark room, in real life, Burke is surprisingly civically engaged.

He’s known as a fan of growing his own citrus trees and pepper plants, and he fosters rescue beagles with Hurtak at their Seminole Heights home. She has said that Burke, an Ohio native, was teaching at a college when they met.

He’s won Tampa Tiger Bay Club’s “Garfield award” for asking the best question more than once. He’s president of the Seminole Heights Neighborhood Association and treasurer of the League of Women Voters of Hillsborough County Inc., and a board member at Jobsite Theater, the resident theater company at the Straz Center.

“He and his wife attend every opening night, fundraisers, things like that,” said producing artistic director David M. Jenkins. “He’s one of our biggest supporters.”

Burke also managed Hurtak’s recent campaign for Tampa City Council, seen by many as an impressive upset win against Janet Cruz, a former state legislator with more name recognition and money.

“As someone who’d never run a campaign, he deserves a lot of credit. Hurtak ended up with 60% of the vote,” said Tom Scherberger, a former Tampa Bay Times editor and communications pro. Scherberger volunteered for Hurtak’s campaign and has interviewed Burke on his WMNF radio show. “I know people were questioning some of the messaging. They told me, ’You need to talk to him about doing something different,’ but their ground game worked through engaging voters, not spending money.”

Burke appears to have no criminal record beyond a disorderly conduct charge, a misdemeanor, from the Ohio University Police department when he was 19 and living on campus.

After filing a motion in court, the Times obtained the warrant used to search Burke’s home, which detailed an array of laptops, computer towers, notebooks, hard drives and related equipment seized by authorities.

Correction: This story was updated after initial publication to properly identify Burke’s role with the League of Women Voters of Hillsborough County Inc. He is treasurer.