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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?

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 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 Monthly blog, 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 Playboy with 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 the New 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. The New York Times had to disclose that it has a content-sharing agreement with 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

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