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Utilizing Public Airwaves, Media Mogul Murdoch Is Big Muscle Behind Fraudulent Astro Turfers

Burrowing inside the radical right's gathering of astroturfers and mouthpieces, AlterNet Reporter Adele Stan discovers what makes the anti-health reform machine tick.
 
 
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As nearly 2,000 progressives made their way last weekend to Pittsburgh for the annual Netroots Nation conference, the right made its stand in the same town with a conference called RightOnline, sponsored by Americans for Prosperity, a group that has gained notoriety for its involvement in organizing seemingly grassroots opposition to health-care reform.

Billed as a counterconference to the Netroots Nation gathering of bloggers and online activists, RightOnline convened at a Sheraton hotel, offering a few 101-level workshops on new technologies like Twitter and YouTube.

But the highlight of the conference was a red-meat program of speakers designed for a crowd of older activists who were hungry to hear myriad myths about the myriad forms of oppression in store for them if they don't stop the purportedly nefarious agenda of President Barack Obama.

"Great news to report," AFP policy director and FoxForum contributor Phil Kerpen told the crowd. "Our numbers are up; Netroots Nation's numbers are down; we are catching up to them online."

AFP claimed to draw 600 participants to RightOnline; Netroots actually drew about the same number of registrants as last year, according to conference organizer Raven Brooks -- about 1,900.

Americans for Prosperity is by far the slickest of the astroturf groups organizing disgruntled right-wingers of the "regular folks" variety into shouting mobs at town-hall meetings focused on health-care reform.

Sponsored in the past, according to SourceWatch, by the oil interests of Koch Industries, and a foundation headed by notorious right-wing financier Richard Mellon Scaife, AFP is wedding public fear about health-care reform -- fear it has done its best to stoke -- to a larger agenda embraced by ground-level activists that includes opposition to the cap-and-trade climate bill and Internet neutrality.

Indeed, AFP's exploitation of fears about health-care reform appear to be merely a means to a larger end.

Think these guys are appeased by the administration's talk of dumping the public health insurance option from the health-care reform bills currently working their way through Congress?

Phil Kerpen all but said he'd rather the plan be kept in the bill, the better to organize against.

"I'm scared that they're gonna take the public option out of this bill," Kerpen told the crowd, "and we're gonna be caught a little off-guard if we're not ready. Because, frankly, without the public option, it's not socialism anymore, but it's pretty close to fascism. It's a corporatist kind of thing. … So don't just focus on the public option. We have to kill this whole plan."

Not Your Father's Astroturf

Americans for Prosperity is, perhaps, the brightest and shiniest of the astroturf organizations responsible for the misinformed, disruptive and sometimes dangerous citizens who continue to turn up at town hall meetings conducted by members of Congress over the August recess. All count themselves as members of the Tea Party movement of anti-tax activists.

His activists tour the country in a big, luxury motor coach painted in red, white and blue, sporting the slogan, "Keep Your Hands Off My Health Care!" With its spiffy graphics and tech-savvy persona, the aesthetics of Americans for Prosperity are reminiscent of the Christian Coalition events and materials of the mid-1990s.

That's not surprising, given that AFP President Tim Phillips is a former business partner of Ralph Reed, who, as its executive director, brought the Christian Coalition to national prominence. Phillips and Reed continue to work in tandem.

Although Reed went on to ignominy for his involvement in the Jack Abramoff lobbyist scandal, he is now attempting a comeback with a new organization, the Faith and Freedom Coalition.

While Phillips was the master of ceremonies at the RightOnline event, Reed shared the stage with Dick Armey at an anti-health-care rally in Atlanta that was co-sponsored by Americans for Prosperity.

By comparison, the other astroturfing operations AlterNet covered in previous reporting -- all of which count themselves as part of the Tea Party movement -- look rough around the edges.

FreedomWorks, led by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, is basically your father's astroturfing outfit, rallying the grumpy-old-man crowd to great effect on behalf of Armey's former K Street clients

ResistNet, the "official community" of Grassfire.org, is a home-made-looking meeting place for gun enthusiasts, militia types, birthers and the most ardent of the Obama-is-Hitler contingent.

Glenn Beck's 9-12 Project draws from the audience for the derangement he displays on his Fox News Channel program, but he has closed down the comments section of his site ever since rowdies at a Tampa town hall that turned violent mentioned Beck as their inspiration to the local newspaper. (However, a link to a schedule of town hall events does appear on the 9-12 Project's home page.)

Of course, there's plenty of crossover among the constituencies of the various sites, and plenty of links among the players.

For instance, Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., who famously predicted that health-care reform would be Obama's "Waterloo," appeared in the video that opened the RightOnline general session. His endorsement also graces the Grassfire.org Web site, as do the plaudits of Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., chairman of the Republican Caucus, who sent in a video message to the RightOnline crowd.

Phillips, the AFP president, worked on Armey's political campaigns.

While Fox News has hardly been secretive about its involvement in the anti-health care cause, the reach of its parent company, Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., goes further than the utterances of its pundits over the airwaves, or Beck's 9-12 Project.

The Americans for Prosperity roster of RightOnline conference speakers was heavily populated by those who toil for Murdoch -- fully one-third of the list of 15 -- in addition to two others who have links to Murdoch.

Fox News contributors Michelle Malkin and Jim Pinkerton addressed the crowd, as did columnists John Fund and Stephen Moore of the Wall Street Journal, another News Corp. property. AFP Policy Director Kerpen writes a column for FoxNews.com. Pittsburgh radio host Glen Meakem works for a Clear Channel station whose featured programming includes the Wall Street Journal Report, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity. Ronald Kessler writes for NewsMax, which was founded by a former reporter for the New York Post, yet another News Corp.entity.

When I asked Phillips about the Fox/Wall Street Journal connection to his organization, he looked surprised.

"We have someone from Fox News?" he asked.

"Well, Fox News Channel contributors," I replied.

"OK. So, they're not on the payroll of Fox News. Do any of those guys get money from Fox News?"

He's asking me? "I don't know if they're paid by Fox," I said, "but I assume that they are. Do you have a partnership with Rupert Murdoch?"

"Not at all, not at all," he replied with a little laugh. "The fact is, theWall Street Journal's my favorite newspaper; I love those guys. I like what they write. I look at Steve Moore and John Fund, and those are two of the smartest guys. They're also entertaining, in addition to being philosophically sound.

"I don't know if you've read The End of Prosperity, Arthur Laffer and Steve Moore's book; it's one of my favorite books of the last three or four years. I've really found it to be incisive, so I really like those guys. But there's no partnership -- financially, understood, or anything else."

I checked with the Fox News Washington bureau, and indeed Malkin and Pinkerton are paid by Fox, and are branded by the news channel, listed on the "talent" page of its Web site. Fund and Moore are full-time employees of the Wall Street Journal, and AFP's Kerpen has a weekly platform on Fox's well-traveled Web site.

What Murdoch Hath Wrought

In the cable and broadcast spectrum occupied by Fox News Channel and Fox Television, Murdoch operates through a public trust, as do all cable and broadcast outlets.

As much as he hates to share, Murdoch is using the common property of the United States to turn out mobs at town hall events for the purpose of intimidating members of Congress and spreading disinformation about what's in the health care bills.

There's nothing unusual about media properties whose editorial and opinion content reflects the views of the owner. What's new here is Murdoch's use of his media empire as an organizing tool in a campaign designed not only to affect several very particular pieces of legislation, but concocted to "break," in the words of DeMint, a U.S. president.

While Phillips may have been a little shy about his kinship with Murdoch and his minions, the minions themselves were not.

Speaker after speaker railed against "the left's" campaign against Beck's show (in the wake of Beck calling Obama a racist and worse), and Pinkerton and Moore cheer-led for their employer.

"I should say that, for 13 years now, it's been my enormous privilege to work at Fox News," Pinkerton said from the podium, and although I'm proud of the work that I'm a very small part of that Fox does … I'm watching the effort to boycott Glenn Beck, and I think that it's telling you that it's just a part of the ongoing efforts that you're going to be seeing against Fox as the federal government does its best to squelch what Barack Obama said was his greatest source of pain in the media was Fox."

Likewise, the Wall Street Journal's Moore asked the audience, "What would we do without Fox News and theWall Street Journal?"

But Pinkerton couldn't let it rest: He kept naming Fox as an integral player in the Tea Party movement, lauding the role of cable television in showing video of raucous town hall events. "This has been very much a TV struggle," he said.

He urged activists in the online community to "work with Fox," and cited a Fox-manufactured controversy about people receiving unsolicited e-mails from the White House as a "major story."

"Keep it up; we'll win," he said.

The Murdoch Agenda

As I listened to the speakers, a I took note of a curious phenomenon. Some bashed the pharmaceutical industry for its reported deal with the White House on health-care reform legislation; others took aim at the health insurance industry.

"The insurance industry is spending tens of millions of dollars supporting this," said Phil Kerpen of FoxNews.com and AFP. "Why? Because they know that public option is gonna come out sometime in September, and once the public option is out, they're going to get government-guaranteed profits for life.

"We're going to be forced by law to buy their product, and it's going to be subsidized with our tax dollars. Why not support that? That's a dream for them. Of course they're … supporting it; so are the pharmaceutical companies; they're all supporting it."

Kerpen also asserted that the health-care bill would build "a massive new bureaucracy of federal workers that will be unionized and have control over our lives." Scary. Unionized workers.

In his opening remarks, Phillips included "card check" in his list of legislation his followers need to defeat, referring to the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for workers to unionize.

It occurred to me that liberal analysts like me have been too literal as we have tried to assess just which corporate interests are behind the mobs. (Of with groups like AFP, we have only a snapshot of where their money comes from; they are not required by law to publicly disclose that information.)

The easy assumption is that the resistance all comes from the health-care industry, since it will be the most directly affected by the bill. But that's thinking too small.

This is about something much bigger -- Very Big Business writ large, and amplified and organized by one very big media mogul.

Murdoch's personal political views appear to come down to three: he's against regulation of virtually any kind, he hates taxes and he's a union-buster, famous for breaking the unions at British newspapers he owns.

In not so many words, Kerpen essentially spelled out the Murdoch agenda when explaining to the AFP crowd why health-care reform, even without a public option, is a bad thing: "They're going to mandate by law that employers must provide health insurance. They're going to mandate by law that every individual must buy it. They're going to massively subsidize it from taxpayers. They're going to regulate it every single way to micromanage it."

A Research 2000 poll released this week by the Daily Kos (the organization that sponsored Netroots Nation) found that a whopping 65 percent of Republicans believe Fox to be a reliable news source, and that 74 percent of Republicans never watch CNN, while 89 percent never watch MSNBC.

This week's NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows that those who believe the lies promoted about health-care reform legislation -- the tropes that it includes taxpayer-funded abortion and mandatory end-of-life counseling -- are overwhelmingly Republican. Rachel Maddow reported [video] that 75 percent of those who say they believe the Democratic health-care plan will limit care to the elderly watch Fox News.

But a disinformation campaign by which viewers absorb twisted "facts" is not enough for Murdoch. He's sending his minions out to rallies like AFP's to spread the fear. And with his 9-12 Project, Beck is Murdoch's community organizer, rallying the troops to turn up at events where they have been known to misbehave.

I doubt Murdoch cares how many sponsors Beck's show loses as a result of his rants; in terms of the greater dividends he's bound to reap from the derailing of health care, Net neutrality and energy reform, he can afford to keep Beck on as a loss leader.

Real People Told Real Lies

Throughout the RightOnline program, liberals and mainstream media were derided for characterizing town-hall disrupting tea-baggers as an angry mob. Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., was predictably derided for his description of movement leaders as "evilmongers."

But that's just grist for the mill compared to the stunning displays of deception trotted out in plain view before the Tea Party enthusiasts.

Phillips opened the program suggesting that a White House request for Americans to submit, through an e-mail address, questionable claims made about the health-care legislation in media or elsewhere was a Nixonian "enemies list" operation, "asking Americans to turn in other Americans for fishy e-mails …"

"I hope and encourage you to go to that Web site and turn in yourself," he added.

Glen Meakem, the local radio host, used his time on the stage to promote an outright lie: He told the audience that page 425 of the House bill required seniors to meet every five years with a government official for mandatory counseling on "dying with dignity." The bill says no such thing; go to page 425 [PDF] yourself and have a look.

As has oft been repeated, what the bill does offer on end-of-life issues, should one choose it, is coverage for a paid counseling session with your doctor or health-care practitioner, for which senior citizens are eligible every five years.

But Meakem just ignores that, claiming that the bill‘s alleged "compulsory" counseling would require the hiring of 7,000 bureaucrats before whom 55,000 seniors per day would be required to sit and reveal their plans for how they would like to die.

"Imagine the assembly line," he said. "Imagine what a quiet, private, intimate discussion that would be -- a bureaucratic paper chase with government officials, and it would be an incredible, incredible violation of our privacy."

Yet, the exposure by progressive journalists of the right's astroturfing seemed to have movement leaders on the defensive, assuring their troops that they were indeed real people.

And they are. They're frightened, misinformed real people who have been organized by corporate interests.

The night before the general session, at the RightOnline dinner (which featured Pennsylvania Senate GOP candidate Pat Toomey as its speaker), I sat next to a lovely woman from Pittsburgh named Linda. She had never before been involved in politics, but the Obama plan, she said, had moved her. She was almost as distrustful of the GOP as she was of the Democrats, she said, on account of George H.W. Bush's embrace of, "what was that world government thing?"

"Oh, the New World Order?" I asked.

"Yes, that, and that, oh, I can't remember the name of it, Tri--"

"The Tri-Lateral Commission?" I offered.

"That's it," she replied. "The Tri-Lateral Commission."

Still, she would rather have the Republicans than Obama's socialism, she told me.

Or there was the woman waiting in line to get her copy of Michelle Malkin's book, The Culture of Corruption, signed by the author.

She didn't want to give me an on-the-record interview, but I can tell you this much: Her family owns a local manufacturing business, and she's convinced that "the America I know is disappearing," and that Obama is intent on turning the United States into "a Marxist nation."

Like most of the participants in the Saturday session, the women appeared to be well over 40.

Dog Whistles For Violence

Malkin, Fox News contributor and founder of Hot Air, delivered the keynote to the RightOnline general session. Malkin was the only nonwhite person to grace the RightOnline podium, and one of two women.

A practiced speaker, Malkin's tone was by turns snide and gracious as she assured the crowd that they were doing the work of freedom. Like other conference speakers, she counseled RightOnline attendees to not be demoralized by their relative lack of numbers when compared to progressives.

"Don't worry about tallying up how many people are at the Nutroots conference versus this conference," told the audience. "That is not the metric; the metric is, what is the White House worried about right now? Are they worried about the Nutroots, or are they worried about you? Who are they trying to silence? Them or you?"

Then Malkin took her exhortation one step further. "On the White House health-care takeover plan, you have the majority running scared. Think about this, contemplate this: Democrat lawmakers on recess now are hiding from their constituents, in SEIU offices."

The crowd began to shout. "Cowards!" several yelled.

It was at an event focused on health-care reform sponsored by Service Employees International Union in Tampa that Tea Party crowds tried to force their way into the forum after the room in which was held was already to capacity. A scuffle ensued.

Earlier in the RightOnline conference, Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., addressing the crowd in a video message, expressed a similar sentiment, in the words of Revolutionary War hero Samuel Adams: "It doesn't take a majority to prevail," Price said, "but an irate and tireless minority …"

Or sometimes, an angry mob.

AsAlterNet reported earlier this week, Americans for Prosperity opened its general session with Joe Wurzelbacher, a.k.a., Joe the Plumber, telling the crowd that there was a time when he would have taken politicians like House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., "out behind the woodshed and beat the livin' tar out of ‘em." The crowd roared.

In one instance, the iconography of the militia-inspired "freedom movement" bubbled up in the exhibition hall outside the plenary session. A group called American Majority offered for sale posters featuring the coiled snake of the Revolutionary War Gadsen flag, which has been appropriated by organized gun enthusiasts.

The flag's iconic coiled snake graced the sign held by the man with a gun strapped to his leg outside the New Hampshire high school where Obama conducted a forum on health-care reform earlier this month.

Were it not for repeated instances of weaponry brought into or near health-care town-hall meetings, and death threats made on members of Congress conducting town halls, it might be easier to dismiss remarks such as Malkin's as just so much rhetoric.

What's worse, it has been given the seal of approval by mainstream Republicans. Appearing on the Aug. 17 edition of NBC's Meet the Press -- the day after the RightOnline conference closed -- Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma told host David Gregory that members of Congress have "earned" the physically threatening consternation they are experiencing.

Denial

Lean and energetic, AFP President Tim Phillips sports an obvious dye-job on his full head of hair and exudes the sort of studied affability common among leaders of the religious right. But there's an unmistakable hardness around his eyes and in the set of his jaw.

After the general session concluded, I caught Phillips in the hotel lobby and asked him to respond to the threats of violence that have surrounded some town-hall meetings dedicated to health-care reform.

"Do you see any violence here today? I see the most kind, warm, friendly people in America," he said. "I mean, there's 600 people here; there's no talk of negative stuff or nasty stuff or attacking anyone. It's about being civil. That's how you win: by being civil"

As if I hadn't just sat through Malkin's less-than-civil speech.

I mentioned ResistNet, an AFP partner in the Tea Party coalition, whose site abounds with racist and violent material.

"I can only speak for Americans for Prosperity," he replied, "and we've got over 800,000 members now, and what you heard today is what you'll hear anywhere we are. … With all the media that's out there today, if you're trying to play games with this audience being one way, and this audience being -- you get caught, and we're not going to do that."

Malkin was no more philosophical when I asked her the same question.

"Look, I think we always have to be concerned about outliers and individual lone nuts out there, whatever their political ideology is," she said, "and certainly in the wake of some of these cases where there have been people who have claimed to be right-wingers -- or at least that's how it's been portrayed -- that ended up perpetrating violence.

"I mean, I condemn any violence in the name of political ideology. But the White House and the Democrat (sic) National Committee, and a lot of these liberal bloggers I think have completely overreached in tarring the entire movement of people who have risen up since the stimulus bill. How long -- you've been here all day, I take it? Do you fear for your life around these people?"

Well, no, I didn't. But they were highly unlikely to misbehave in a place where they were surrounded by their own kind. Malkin then went on to say that there had been a "whitewashing" of the degree of assassination threats against President George W. Bush, and she dismissed the Southern Poverty Law Center report that says the militia movement is on the rise.

Joe the Plumber repeated his "woodshed" line to me, justifying it by saying that Congress has "been lyin' to us for years." However, Wurzelbacher said, he didn't advocate violence.

Well, then, what about the sober Wall Street Journal columnist and Murdoch employee, John Fund?

"We heard these same concerns, and they certainly need to be taken seriously," he said, "during the Social Security protests in 2005, and during the anti-war protests in 2--"

I interrupted him. "Yeah, but you didn't have a guy showin' up with a gun strapped to his leg," I said.

"I can send you the articles on that," he replied. "Anti-war protesters that basically stormed speakers' rostrums, silenced speakers. I was at Columbia University when two speakers were silenced.

"[O]bviously, groups should control their members, but most of the people who do this on the left and right are rogue actors. So, you can discourage them, and they should be discouraged, but, you know, democracy has costs. And one of them is that on both the left and the right, you're going to have people who misbehave.

"If they violate the law, they should be punished, if they disrupt meetings, they should be prevented from doing that, but this is part of democracy."

I gave Fund my e-mail address; I'm still waiting for those articles.

In New Hampshire, the armed man who sought to greet Obama carried a sign that read, "It Is Time to Water the Tree of Liberty." The reference was to a Thomas Jefferson quote -- one adored by the so-called freedom movement: "The tree of liberty must be refreshed, from time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants."

As Phillips moved among his crowd of gentle, peaceful people, his former business partner, Ralph Reed, took the stage in Atlanta at the anti-health-care rally co-sponsored by Americans for Prosperity.

Where the New Hampshire gunslinger drew from the first part of Jefferson's quote, Reed picked from the second:

"Our right to protest has been purchased with the blood of patriots who paid the ultimate price so that we could be free men and women and have the ability to petition our government," he said. "We will not be intimidated, we will not be silenced, and we will not go away." 

Adele M. Stan is AlterNet's Washington bureau chief.