(Please Note: Since first posting this piece, some claims asserted in the Ames/Levine post cited herein have been responded to in a way that makes my initial reading of that article less certain. To reflect that, I have revised the title to include a “?”, added an UPDATE section at the bottom of the post, and included in-line links to that update section where relevant. Some questions were answered, some new questions have emerged, and so the conversation has grown. –ed.)
Populist revolt against the U.S. government is all the rage in the Republican Party, these days. As they tell the story, the public is so outraged by the recovery and reinvestment efforts of the Obama administration that Americans everywhere are turning out to overthrow the tyrannical king of the federal government by re-enacting the Boston Tea Party.
Everything about this so called “Tea Party” movement was pre-planned–from the supposedly “spontaneous rant” of CNBC stock market reporter, Rick Santelli, to the presumed ground-level organizing of protests all over the country. Fake, fake, fake–like a product launch staged covertly to look like a spontaneous trend. (please UPDATE below)
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.
It helps, in other words, to have field experience ferreting out Soviet propaganda to understand how Rick Santelli suddenly became the figurehead of a right-wing “grassroots” revolt against the United States government. It is worth reading the entire post.
The next time you hear that the Tea Party Republican revolt is “grassroots,” “spontaneous,” and “populist,” just swap out those PR keywords for the more accurate terms: “planned,” “scripted,” “billionaire bigwigs.”
All of this makes sense, of course. Santelli’s philippic had all the hallmarks of a rehearsed piece of political theater–the pre-planned message launched of a viral marketing campaign. (please UPDATE below)
Not that any of this comes as a surprise, but…my goodness.
Even though the curtain has been pulled back on this astroturf marketing by GOP megabucks elite backers, it is important to keep in mind what the larger stakes are and how to respond.
Scripted or not–this Tea Party revolt needs to be treated as politically real. People engaged in this agitation will not acknowledge ever that it is scripted, because these folks sincerely think they are engaged in some kind of revolution against their own government. They really want the country to evaluate whether or not an elected President and Congress are the same as a tyrannical king and whether a tax by fiat from the 18c is the same as a legislature approved public investment program from the 21c. Those folks just want to make noise–lots of noise–to throw the debate off its tracks.
The big story to defend and advance, in other words, is a president advancing real solutions aimed at helping millions of Americans in serious economic trouble. The agitation against it, whether it is scripted or not, is designed to stop those solutions from being discussed seriously, from unfolding, and then to weaken the president making them happen. That is a basic confrontation between pragmatic action and ideological politics–between investment in people and inaction in the name of dogma.
In the end, then, we need to make themselves aware of the massive resources the right is spending to block any effort by the American people to work together to repair the damage to our economy and restore our national confidence. And after we have made ourselves aware of how far the opposition is willing to go, we need to get back to work making sure the debate states focused on the real issue at hand here: millions and millions families who need help right now, and the greatness of a nation that stands together in times of need to overcome seemingly impossible obstacles.
: This Story Has Grown (3.3.09)
Well, that was fast: this story, less than a week old, seems way out of date. Among other things, there have been lots of answers to the claims posed in the Ames/Levine piece that it warrants opening up my initial title to a bigger question about what exactly happened. First and foremost, I have added a question mark (“?”) to the end of the post title to reflect how this story has grown since I first posted about the Ames/Levine piece on Rick Santelli. Here is the list of events that I think are relevant for everyone to know:
1. Santelli finally made a statement about this whole thing here. This is his first paragraph:
First of all let me be clear that I have NO affiliation or association with any of the websites or related tea party movements that have popped up as a result of my comments on February 19th, or to the best of my knowledge any of the people who organized the websites or movements. By the way of background, I am not and never have been a stockbroker. Not that there is anything wrong with being a stockbroker. The home I have lived in for 20 years is a 2,500-square foot ranch. Not that there is anything wrong with owning a larger, grander house. I am currently an on air editor with CNBC. Prior to my 10 years in this capacity I was a member in good standing on both the Chicago Futures Exchanges. My career in the futures industry spanned 20 years.
Seems like an answer, although I wish he had not used the phrase ‘to the best of my knowledge’–which makes him sound like he talked to a lawyer first. When people deny that they knew someone or were involved in something ‘to the best of my knowledge,’ that typically means they are concerned about accidentally committing perjury if a fact comes out later that shows they were in fact involved. Does that mean Santelli might have been involved in something without knowing it? I have no idea; I am not an attorney. It could be that Santelli just adds that sentence as a routine part of insulating himself from accusations of financial conflicts of interests. Since he reports from a trading floor, that kind of legalese could just be routine. So, Santelli has spoken and that is where it ended up.
2. Whether or not CNBC actually asked Santelli if he was involved in any organizing is the obvious question. As a result of filing that exact query, the Columbia School of Journalism’s blog Full Court Press(FCP) posted the following exchange they had with CNBC spokesman Brian Steel:
All this led Mark Ames and Yasha Levine to speculate at playboy.com that Santelli’s fifteen minutes were actually part of a right-wing Republican disinformation campaign to undermine Obama’s efforts to rescue the economy. Asked about this charge by FCP, CNBC spokesman Brian Steel sent an e-mail saying, “Rick Santelli’s comment clearly struck a nerve among a large portion of American citizens and sparked a debate which is something Rick has done for more than a decade as a commentator on CNBC. To try to make anything more of his comment than that is ridiculous and without basis in fact.”
FCP e-mailed back, “On the record: was he asked by his bosses if he was part of a larger organized effort? What “news” purpose was served by repeating this rant over and over again on CNBC, and promoting him (and it) on the Today Show?”
“We don’t comment on internal CNBC discussions,” Steel replied. Then, although FCP had specified that it was only interested in an on-the-record response, he added: “Off the record it strikes me that my first answer is unquivocal [sic] and should answer all your questions. Also off the record I am curious as to why CJR has written about it at least three times particularly since each time your readers via the comments section of your website have overwhelming disgreed [sic] with your views. It seems as if you are both tone deaf and hypocritcal [sic].”
So much for asking follow-up questions in the world of cable news.
Once the accusations of ‘hypocrisy’ come out, that tends to be a sign that nobody wants to have a grown-up conversation anymore. Steel is clearly doing his job, which is to spread the chosen message that Santelli’s performance was consistent with his long history of making statements that spark widespread debate amongst American citizens. In all fairness to Steel trying to get out CNBC’s message, the only example of Santelli sparking debate I can think of is the time he called for ‘Tea Parties’ last week. So CNBC should probably issue a list of debates Santelli sparked if they want that message to take.
3. Playboy took down the Ames/Levine post (as of Mar 2, from what I can tell). They have not issued any kind of statement.
4. Ames and Levine are sticking by their story, following up with a not-so-subtle piece titled CNBC Bitch-Slaps Santelli Into Line, FreedomWorks Admits It Organized “Grassroots” Tea Parties, Jon Stewart Cancels Santelli & Megan McArdle Queefs On Our Founding Fathers.
5. Among other things, the Ames-Levine follow-up piece cites an AP article that they say backs up their initial claims. The provide a link to a Star-Tribune article titled CNBC Says Ranting Rick Santelli is not Affiliated with Political Site that Uses his Name (David Bauer, Mar 2, 2009). The article goes on to desccribe how the site reateaparty.com included enough references to Santelli for readers to conclue that Santelli was involved with the group–right up to an ‘About Rick Santelli’ page, but took down all the references when asked to do so by CNBC.
So, what can we conclude thus far? The Tea Party folks would have us conclude that anyone who asked these questions about Santelli (me, for example) is an idiot leftie. No surprise about that reaction, but there is more to be said.
In particular, I still wonder about two missing pieces of information: (1) why did Playboy take down the original post and (2) why did Santelli use the phrase ‘to the best of my knowledge’ in is rebuttal. It seems fair to wonder about those things, given that the debate supposedly sparked by all this has led to cries of anti-government revolution (no small thing).
To speculate on the first: Playboy probably took it down for fear of a boycott or of being sued or both. Despite the racy content of the magazine, Playboy is still a relative newcomer to the world of political blogging. They likely decided to just pull back and wait this thing out.
To speculate on the second: Santelli probably said ‘to the best of my knowledge’ because CNBC advised him to–which is perfectly legal, logical, reasonable, etc. And CNBC probably advised him to say it because they had not yet figured out if Santelli was really involved with any of the sites that seemed to claim him as a participant. CNBC then got to work examining all the free marketing they received as a result of Santelli’s performance, putting Santelli and their brand back in the bottle as much as they could (which is their legal right), and pushing back against questions from bloggers and journalists who were wondering (also fairly) about those connections.
And that brings us up to date.