Playboy dips a toe into investigative journalism

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This morning, my twitter feed was all abuzz with this piece from Playboy purporting to prove that the Tea Party phenomenon was all a Koch-funded astroturf operation, with the implication that the initial Santelli rant that touched it off was some sort of a plant.

What's that you say?  The link is dead?  Indeed it is.  Fortunately, as it happens, I happened to have a second browser open with the article; text below the fold. 


By Mark Ames and Yasha Levine

 

 

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. 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?

My thoughts:

1)  The smoking gun, to the extent that there is one, is the "chicagoteaparty" domain.  But the timing doesn't work.  No one in August knew that there were going to be massive bailouts and stimulus packages against which they could protest.  On the other hand, if you think that taxes are going to go up, it's not crazy for founding-fathers-obsessed conservatives to start registering any domain that involves tea parties.  That doesn't mean that they then orchestrated an elaborate ruse in order to give them an excuse to deploy the domain; it's just as likely that they simply leaped in when opportunity arose.  Domain squatting is ubiquitous these days, particularly among political groups, and there are probably dozens out there now just waiting for the right catchphrase to make them relevant.

2)  I don't see any evidence offered that Koch money funds FreedomWorks, or any astroturfing organization.  They may--a lot of groups do it, including groups on the left--but there's precious little evidence of it in this article.  Koch is pretty open about their connection with institutions like IHS, but from what I know of them, astroturfing doesn't really seem like their style.  I've seen Koch in action at private events, and though I'll respect the privacy, I'll say that even in the company of other like-minded rich people, he displayed rather a mania for honest dealing.  That's not to say that it's impossible that they do fund FreedomWorks--I'm not particularly conversant with the world of 501(c)(3) funders.  But Freedomworks doesn't publish its donor list, and there's no source offered for the claim.

3)  The accusation against Santelli is potentially libelous, which is, I assume, why the article disappeared this morning.  If I were Santelli, I'd sue.  Aside from the fact that I have absolutely no reason to question Santelli's sincerity, I find it pretty hard to believe that any private group would be willing to front enough money to make it worth a television correspondent's while to risk all his future salary payments.

4)  I have no doubt that there has been involvement of various right-wing groups with the tea parties.  So what?  Groups--often funded by God knows who--coordinate protests.  The article implies that the people who participated were therefore insincere.  I know some of the people who went to these things, and trust me, they hate taxes and government every bit as much as they claimed.

5)  The claim that Odom's name was "scrubbed" from the Alliance seems weak.  Usually, when people leave an organization, the organization takes their name off the website.  My name has been "scrubbed" from multiple sites by employers because, erm, I'm no longer associated with them.  The implication of that paragraph is that Odom hasn't really quit, but is being paid to run a front group.  But that's a big claim, and there's no sourcing offered.

6)  Likewise, the Koch fellows program is not some dark secret.  Koch funds interns to work at various market-friendly groups.  The fellows application process may have been closed, or Koch may have chosen to stop funding interns at the Sam Adams alliance.  But I doubt that they took the name down because it provided a shadowy link to someone who no longer works there.

I presume that the people who put this blogpost up thought they had a big muckracking scoop.  But take out the innuendo, and nothing's sourced, not even to the level of "people close to the organization tell us" or "it is rumored"; they just assert major factst hat are not, so far as I know, in evidence.  You can get away with that on a personal blog, because, really, is Santelli going to bother to sue you?  But for a major media organization, things like this require a little more care.  Investigative journalism is quite hard, and involves more than printing things you think are probably true, which is why people who are good at it, like Spencer Ackerman, are so valuable--and why organizations that do a lot of it have big legal staffs and experienced editors to make sure they can back up what they say.

This is the sort of thing that has always haunted media organizations that start blogs.  It's bad enough if an employee says something that you, as an organization, regret.  But paid staffers can also say things that put you on the hook for big payouts. 

Of course, it will be very exciting for Playboy if it turns out their employees hit the jackpot.  But given how thinly sourced it is--the entire thing mostly seems to rest on the ownership of two domain names--I wouldn't bet on it.  And given that the article has been taken down, apparently, neither would they.

I think it's too late for that now, however; Playboy either needs to stand by the article and put it back up, or explain why they took it down--and why they put it up in the first place.

Full disclosure:  It's pretty much an open secret in DC, but given the content of the article I'm discussing, I think I ought to mention that I live with Peter Suderman, who once worked for Freedomworks.  Other than giving me the name of the right employee to email to make inquiries (no word back yet), I haven't asked him about his former employer, and he hasn't told me anything.  I debated whether to write about this, but since I'm not actually defending Freedomworks, I think it's kosher.  

Update:  Apparently Koch used to fund Freedomworks' predecessor group, Citizens for a Sound Economy.  That's still a long way from a Koch-directed plot to inundate our nation's metros with tea.

Update II: . . . but apparently there was some rift between Koch and CSE, and according to my sources, Koch may have stopped funding them long ago.


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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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