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The Rick Santelli 'Tea Party' Controversy: Article Kicks Up a Media Dust Storm

Debate heats up: How much are Rick Santelli and the Tea Party protests he inspired part of a project orchestrated by right-wing groups?
 
 
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Editor's Note:  "I hope that the president and the final stimulus plan succeed." So writes CNBC pundit Rick Santelli in a recent public statement, one that's very much at odds with his on-screen persona as an instigator of a right-wing protest movement against Barack Obama's economic recovery plans. This is the man whose outraged rant against Obama's plan for distressed homeowners was viewed millions of times on CNBC.com and YouTube and sparked a backlash in the form of "Tea Parties" across the United States.

Santelli's reversal resulted from the controversy surrounding a Playboy article by journalists Mark Ames and Yasha Levine. The article, which was later taken down from Playboy's site after possible libel claims, exposed the connection between the right-wing group FreedomWorks and the online Tea Party organizers, and suggested that Santelli's tirade was a "carefully planned trigger" for the Tea Parties.

In addition to his public statement on CNBC, Santelli suffered the ignominy of canceling an appearance on Jon Stewart's The Daily Show this week, and further revelations and accusations are flying between Ames and Levine's ExiledOnline Web magazine and the New York Times and Atlantic Monthlyblog, among others.

In a statement on the controversy, sent to me in the afternoon on March 3, Ames and Levine write:

"There has been a lot of speculation as to why Playboy removed our original article from its site. Let us put it this way: When you look at the fallout from our article -- FreedomWorks admits its role in the teaparty, Santelli issues a giant lawyer-penned opus about how he loves Obama, and CNBC (whose parent company is the megaconglomerate General Electric) frightens a bunch of Astroturfing Web sites into dropping Santelli's name and into revealing their own PAC sponsors -- then it's clear we hit the bull's-eye and stirred up the wrath of a very scary monster.

"Given all of this, it would not be unreasonable for one to consider the possibility (as many have) that the multigazilliondollar megabeast GE threatened the much smaller independent media company Playboywith a terrifying and expensive lawsuit, which, given the current financial crisis, is not something anyone but another GE-sized megabeast could cope with. 'Nuf said on that."

Ames and Levine summarize the controversy on their site:

"We publish an investigation into the fake-grassroots "Tea Party" protest campaign underwritten by rich Republican right-wing interests, exposing Rick Santelli's role as the launch event MC, and three days later, Santelli is bitch-slapped down by his bosses, he's canceled from the Daily Show, forced to issue a Bukharin-like confession, FreedomWorks confesses that it was behind it from the start, as we wrote, and every media outlet in the country from theNew York Times on down is writing up the scandal.

"Yes, it's a victory for us and for the forces of independent journalism. Sure, we're doing a dirty chicken dance in the end zone now. But the truth is, it's a bitter victory, because we've also been forced to confront the awfully familiar face of America's own version of the Soviet Union at work: Giant scary corporations threatening and scaring smaller fish into censorship, while their bought-off minions in the media do their dirty work to try to protect the megaconglomerate's brand."

Ames' and Levine's story has also highlighted the various media conflicts of interest caused by overlapping business ties between the companies involved and reporting on the controversy. It also revealed that apparent critics of Ames' and Levine's report are tied to the subjects of the controversy. For example, Playboy has a deal in the works with NBC Universal, CNBC's corporate parent, for an upcoming film titled Playboy. TheNew York Times had to disclose that it has a content-sharing agreementwith CNBC in its story on Santelli. While attacking the overall credibility of the original story, Atlantic Monthly blogger Megan McArdle -- who confirmed from FreedomWorks that it has indeed been involved in organizing the Tea Parties as Ames and Levine alleged in their story -- disclosed that she lived with a man who used to work for FreedomWorks and that he had engaged in the same kind of Astroturf PR stunts for the group that Ames and Levine reported on in their article. -- Jan Frel, AlterNet Senior Editor

The following is the text of Ames' and Levine's original report, originally published on Feb. 27.

****

Last week, CNBC correspondent Rick Santelli rocketed from being a little-known second-string correspondent to a populist hero of the disenfranchised, a 21st-century Samuel Adams, the leader and symbol of the downtrodden American masses suffering under the onslaught of 21st century socialism and big government. Santelli's "rant" last-week calling for a "Chicago Tea Party" to protest President Obama's plans to help distressed American homeowners rapidly spread across the blogosphere and shot right up into White House spokesman Robert Gibbs' craw, whose smackdown during a press conference was later characterized by Santelli as "a threat"from the White House. A nationwide "tea party" grassroots Internet protest movement has sprung up seemingly spontaneously, all inspired by Santelli, with rallies planned today in cities from coast to coast to protest against Obama's economic policies.

But was Santelli's rant really so spontaneous? How did a minor-league TV figure, whose contract with CNBC is due this summer, get so quickly launched into a nationwide rightwing blog sensation? Why were there so many sites and organizations online and live within minutes or hours after his rant, leading to a nationwide protest just a week after his rant?

What hasn't been reported until now is evidence linking Santelli's "tea party" rant with some very familiar names in the Republican rightwing machine, from PR operatives who specialize in imitation-grassroots PR campaigns (called "astroturfing") to bigwig politicians and notorious billionaire funders. As veteran Russia reporters, both of us spent years watching the Kremlin use fake grassroots movements to influence and control the political landscape. To us, the uncanny speed and direction the movement took and the players involved in promoting it had a strangely forced quality to it. If it seemed scripted, that's because it was.

What we discovered is that Santelli's "rant" was not at all spontaneous as his alleged fans claim, but rather it was a carefully-planned trigger for the anti-Obama campaign. In PR terms, his February 19th call for a "Chicago Tea Party" was the launch event of a carefully organized and sophisticated PR campaign, one in which Santelli served as a frontman, using the CNBC airwaves for publicity, for the some of the craziest and sleaziest rightwing oligarch clans this country has ever produced. Namely, the Koch family, the multibilllionaire owners of the largest private corporation in America, and funders of scores of rightwing thinktanks and advocacy groups, from the Cato Institute and Reason Magazine to FreedomWorks. The scion of the Koch family, Fred Koch, was a co-founder of the notorious extremist-rightwing John Birch Society.

As you read this, Big Business is pouring tens of millions of dollars into their media machines in order to destroy just about every economic campaign promise Obama has made, as reported recently in the Wall Street Journal. At stake isn't the little guy's fight against big government, as Santelli and his bot-supporters claim, but rather the "upper 2 percent's war to protect their wealth from the Obama Adminstration's economic plans. When this Santelli "grassroots" campaign is peeled open, what's revealed is a glimpse of what is ahead and what is bound to be a hallmark of his presidency.

Let's go back to February 19th: Rick Santelli, live on CNBC, standing in the middle of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, launches into an attack on the just-announced $300 billion slated to stem rate of home foreclosures: "The government is promoting bad behavior! Do we really want to subsidize the losers' mortgages?! This is America! We're thinking of having a Chicago tea party in July, all you capitalists who want to come down to Lake Michigan, I'm gonna start organizing."

Almost immediately, the clip and the unlikely "Chicago tea party" quote buried in the middle of the segment, zoomed across a well-worn path to headline fame in the Republican echo chamber, including red-alert headlines on Drudge.

Within hours of Santelli's rant, a website called ChicagoTeaParty.com sprang to life. Essentially inactive until that day, it now featured a YouTube video of Santelli's "tea party" rant and billed itself as the official home of the Chicago Tea Party. The domain was registered in August, 2008 by Zack Christenson, a dweeby Twitter Republican and producer for a popular Chicago rightwing radio host Milt Rosenberg—a familiar name to Obama campaign people. Last August, Rosenberg, who looks like Martin Short's Irving Cohen character, caused an outcry when he interviewed Stanley Kurtz, the conservative writer who first "exposed" a personal link between Obama and former Weather Undergound leader Bill Ayers. As a result of Rosenberg's radio interview, the Ayers story was given a major push through the Republican media echo chamber, culminating in Sarah Palin's accusation that Obama was "palling around with terrorists." That Rosenberg's producer owns the "chicagoteaparty.com" site is already weird—but what's even stranger is that he first bought the domain last August, right around the time of Rosenburg's launch of the "Obama is a terrorist" campaign. It's as if they held this "Chicago tea party" campaign in reserve, like a sleeper-site. Which is exactly what it was.

ChicagoTeaParty.com was just one part of a larger network of Republican sleeper-cell-blogs set up over the course of the past few months, all of them tied to a shady rightwing advocacy group coincidentally named the "Sam Adams Alliance," whose backers have until now been kept hidden from public. Cached google records that we discovered show that the Sam Adams Alliance took pains to scrub its deep links to the Koch family money as well as the fake-grassroots "tea party" protests going on today. All of these roads ultimately lead back to a more notorious rightwing advocacy group, FreedomWorks, a powerful PR organization headed by former Republican House Majority leader Dick Armey and funded by Koch money.

On the same day as Santelli's rant, February 19, another site called Officialchicagoteaparty.com went live. This site was registered to Eric Odom, who turned out to be a veteran Republican new media operative specializing in imitation-grassroots PR campaigns. Last summer, Odom organized a twitter-led campaign centered around DontGo.com to pressure Congress and Nancy Pelosi to pass the offshore oil drilling bill, something that would greatly benefit Koch Industries, a major player in oil and gas. Now, six months later, Odom's DontGo movement was resurrected to play a central role in promoting the "tea party" movement.

Up until last month, Odom was officially listed as the "new media coordinator" for the Sam Adams Alliance, a well-funded libertarian activist organization based in Chicago that was set up only recently. Samuel Adams the historical figure was famous for inspiring and leading the Boston Tea Party—so when the PR people from the Chicago-based Sam Adams Alliance abruptly leave in order to run Santelli's "Chicago Tea Party," you know it wasn't spontaneous. Odom certainly doesn't want people to know about the link: his name was scrubbed from the Sam Adams Alliance website recently, strongly suggesting that they wanted to cover their tracks. Thanks to google caching, you can see the SAA's before-after scrubbing.

Even the Sam Adams' January 31 announcement that Odom's fake-grassroots group was "no longer sponsored by the Alliance" was shortly afterwards scrubbed.

But it's the Alliance's scrubbing of their link to Koch that is most telling. A cached page, erased on February 16, just three days before Santelli's rant, shows that the Alliance also wanted to cover up its ties to the Koch family. The missing link was an announcement that students interested in applying for internships to the Sam Adams Alliance could also apply through the "Charles G. Koch Summer Fellow Program" through the Institute for Humane Studies, a Koch-funded rightwing institute designed to scout and nurture future leaders of corporate libertarian ideology. (See hi-resolution screenshots here.) The top two board directors at the Sam Adams Alliance include two figures with deep ties to Koch-funded programs: Eric O'Keefe, who previously served in Koch's Institute for Humane Studies and the Club For Growth; and Joseph Lehman, a former communications VP at Koch's Cato Institute.

All of these are ultimately linked up to Koch's Freedom Works mega-beast. FreedomWorks.org has drawn fire in the past for using fake grassroots internet campaigns, called "astroturfing," to push for pet Koch projects such as privatizing social security. A New York Times investigation in 2005 revealed that a "regular single mom" paraded by Bush's White House to advocate for privatizing social security was in fact FreedomWorks' Iowa state director. The woman, Sandra Jacques, also fronted another Iowa fake-grassroots group called "For Our Grandchildren," even though privatizing social security was really "For Koch And Wall Street Fat Cats."

If you log into FreedomWorks.org today, its home page features a large photo of Rick Santelli pointing at the viewer like Uncle Sam, with the words: "Are you with Rick? We Are. Click here to learn more."

FreedomWorks, along with scores of shady front organizations which don't have to disclose their sponsors thanks to their 501 (c)(3) status, has been at the heart of today's supposed grassroots, nonpartisan "tea party" protests across the country, supposedly fueled by scores of websites which masquerade as amateur/spontaneous projects, but are suspiciously well-crafted and surprisingly well-written. One slick site pushing the tea parties, Right.org claims, "Right.org is a grassroots online community created by a few friends who were outraged by the bailouts. So we gathered some talent and money and built this site. Please tell your friends, and if you have suggestions for improving it, please let us know. Respectfully, Evan and Duncan." But funny enough, these regular guys are offering a $27,000 prize for an "anti-bailout video competition." Who are Evan and Duncan? Do they even really exist?

Even Facebook pages dedicated to a specific city "tea party" events, supposedly written by people connected only by a common emotion, obviously conformed to the same style. It was as if they were part of a multi-pronged advertising campaign planned out by a professional PR company. Yet, on the surface, they pretended to have no connection. The various sites set up their own Twitter feeds and Facebook pages dedicated to the Chicago Tea Party movement. And all of them linked to one another, using it as evidence that a decentralized, viral movement was already afoot. It wasn't about partisanship; it was about real emotions coming straight from real people.

While it's clear what is at stake for the Koch oligarch clan and their corporate and political allies—fighting to keep the hundreds of billions in surplus profits they've earned thanks to pro-rich economic policies over the past 30 years—what's a little less obvious is Santelli's link to all this. Why would he (and CNBC) risk their credibility, such as it is, as journalists dispensing financial information in order to act as PR fronts for a partisan campaign?

As noted above, Santelli's contract with CNBC runs out in a few months. His 10 years with the network haven't been remarkable, and he'll enter a brutal downsizing media job market. Thanks to the "tea party" campaign, as the article notes, Santelli's value has suddenly soared. If you look at the scores of blogs and fake-commenters on blogs (for example, Daily Blog, a slick new blog launched in January which is also based in Chicago) all puff up Santelli like he's the greatest journalist in America, and the greatest hero known to mankind. Daily Bail, like so much of this "tea party" machine, is "headquartered nearby" to Santelli, that is, in Chicago. With Odom, the Sam Adams Alliance, and the whole "tea party" nexus: "Rick, this message is to you. You are a true American hero and there are no words to describe what you did today except your own.  Headquartered nearby, we will be helping the organization in whatever way possible."

It's not difficult to imagine how Santelli hooked up with this crowd. A self-described "Ayn Rand-er," one of Santelli's colleagues at CNBC, Lawrence Kudlow, played a major role in both FreedomWorks and the Club for Growth.

So today's protests show that the corporate war is on, and this is how they'll fight it: hiding behind "objective" journalists and "grassroots" new media movements. Because in these times, if you want to push for policies that help the super-wealthy, you better do everything you can to make it seem like it's "the people" who are "spontaneously" fighting your fight. As a 19th century slave management manual wrote, "The master should make it his business to show his slaves, that the advancement of his individual interest, is at the same time an advancement of theirs. Once they feel this, it will require little compulsion to make them act as becomes them." (Southern Agriculturalist IX, 1836.) The question now is, will they get away with it, and will the rest of America advance the interests of Koch, Santelli, and the rest of the masters?

UPDATE: Yasha Levine crashes media teabag party in Santa Monica.

 
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