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CNBC’s Rick Santelli has become something of a superstar among conservative media pundits and others exasperated by the Obama economic bailouts, after engaging in a purportedly impromptu “rant” during an on-air broadcast (see February 19, 2009). Investigative reporters Mark Ames and Yasha Levine discover that Santelli’s rant may have been a pre-planned incident timed to coincide with the launch of a so-called “tea party movement” predicated on opposing the Obama administration and supporting conservative and Republican ideas and agendas. In the hours and days following Santelli’s appearance on CNBC, the authors write, “[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.”
Connections to the Koch Family - Ames and Levine write that Santelli’s CNBC “rant” 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 right-wing oligarch clans this country has ever produced.” Ames and Levine are referring to the Koch family, headed by Fred Koch (see 1940 and After), the billionaire co-founder of the extremist John Birch Society (see March 10, 1961 and December 2011) and whose sons are heavy donors to right-wing think tanks and advocacy groups such as the Cato Institute (see 1977-Present) and FreedomWorks (see 1984 and After).
ChicagoTeaParty.com - On the air, Santelli said, “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.” Within minutes, Matt Drudge of the Drudge Report had posted headlines about the “tea party” rant on his Web site. Within hours, a new Web site, chicagoteaparty.com, had appeared, featuring a YouTube video of Santelli’s rant and calling itself the official home of the Chicago Tea Party. The domain name had been registered months before by right-wing media figure Zack Christenson (see August 2008), but had remained dormant until after Santelli spoke on CNBC. Ames and Levine note that Christenson bought the domain around the same time that Milt Rosenburg, the Chicago talk show host whom Christenson produces, began attempting to link then-presidential candidate Barack Obama with “left-wing terrorist” William Ayers (see August 2008). Ames and Levine write: “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.”
The Sam Adams Alliance - The ChicagoTeaParty.com Web site, Ames and Levine report, is part of a larger network of conservative Web sites set up over the last few months under the auspices of the “Sam Adams Alliance” (SAA), an organization linked to the Koch family and to FreedomWorks, a public relations group funded by Koch and headed by former Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey (see April 14, 2009). The SAA is a Chicago-area libertarian/conservative group named for Samuel Adams, who led the Boston Tea Party protest in 1773. (Ames and Levine 2/27/2009) In 2008, the New York Times described the SAA as having “started an ambitious project this year to encourage right-leaning activists and bloggers to get online and focus on local and state issues.” (Phillips 7/19/2008)
OfficialChicagoTeaParty.com - Another Web site, officialchicagoteaparty.com, went live on February 19 as well. That site is registered to Eric Odom, a Republican specializing in faux-grassroots PR campaigns sometimes called “astroturf” (see April 15, 2009). Odom has worked with Koch Industries, a large oil and natural gas corporation and the source of the Koch family fortune, in supporting offshore oil-drilling legislation. Odom was, until January 2009, the “new media coordinator” for the Sam Adams Alliance. Upon his departure, the SAA removed Odom’s name from its Web site. The SAA also removed any mention of Koch’s funding, or any other connections between Koch and the organization, from its site. Two of the SAA’s board members, Eric O’Keefe and Joseph Lehman, are tied both to Koch and to FreedomWorks.
FreedomWorks - In the hours after Santelli’s rant, FreedomWorks posted a large photo of Santelli on its Web site’s front page with the caption: “Are you with Rick? We are. Click here to learn more.”
Other Sites - In the hours after Santelli’s rant, other Web sites such as Right.org, promoting a tea party support group that purports to be a citizen-launched organization “created by a few friends who were outraged by the bailouts” and headed by “Evan and Duncan,” and numerous pro-tea party Facebook pages, were launched. Right.org is sponsoring a $27,000 prize for an “anti-bailout video competition.” Ames and Levine ask: “Who are Evan and Duncan? Do they even really exist?”
No Connections on the Surface - Ames and Levine note that the numerous Web sites and Facebook pages have remarkable similarities in language and appearance, “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.”
Santelli and the Tea Party Organizers - Ames and Levine ask why Santelli, and CNBC, would “risk their credibility, such as it is, as journalists dispensing financial information in order to act as PR fronts for a partisan campaign.” Santelli’s contract with CNBC is about to expire, they note. Until the “tea party” rant, Santelli was an obscure financial commentator with few prospects. Now, though, he is a “hero” of the right. As another Chicago tea party organization, the Daily Bail, wrote on its site: “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.” Ames and Levine speculate that Santelli may have been brought into the fold by one of his CNBC colleagues, Lawrence Kudlow, who himself has strong connections to FreedomWorks. (Ames and Levine 2/27/2009) Steve Megremis of the Daily Bail will call Ames and Levine’s allegations about his Web site’s involvement “categorically untrue,” writing: “It’s unfortunate because I believe that the article did some great investigative work and then at the end they threw me under the bus for no apparent reason. Apparently, the authors just assumed we were part of this conspiracy because of my own personal excitement about the prospect of a mid-summer tea party.” Megremis will post a response on his site, but the response will soon disappear. (Barry Ritholtz 2/28/2009)
Playboy Removes Article - By March 2, Playboy will remove the Ames and Levine article from its Web site. No explanation is offered. The article will instead become available on a Web site called “The Exiled,” which bills itself as an “alternative” press outlet. (Jeffrey Feldman 3/2/2009)
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