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The Wall Street Journal learns that a supposedly amateur-based, citizen-driven protest Web site is actually a product of a professional public relations and lobbying organization, FreedomWorks (see April 14, 2009). The site, AngryRenter.com, is designed to look like something an “ordinary citizen” would produce. Michael Phillips of the Journal writes, “AngryRenter.com looks a bit like a digital ransom note, with irregular fonts, exclamation points, and big red arrows—all emphasizing prudent renters’ outrage over a proposed government bailout for irresponsible homeowners.” The site’s home page proclaims, “It seems like America’s renters may NEVER be able to afford a home,” and exhorts visitors to sign an online petition directed at Congressional Democrats. (The petition, with some 44,500 signatures, was delivered to Senate leaders earlier in the week.) “We are millions of renters standing up for our rights!” the site proclaims.
'Astroturf' - However, it is designed and hosted by FreedomWorks, which the Journal describes as “an inside-the-Beltway conservative advocacy organization led by Dick Armey, the former House majority leader, and publishing magnate Steve Forbes, a fellow Republican. [Forbes is an unpaid board member.]… [AngryRenter.com is] a fake grass-roots effort—what politicos call an astroturf campaign—that provides a window into the sleight-of-hand ways of Washington.” FreedomWorks opposes the proposed government bailout of the housing industry, and says it plans to oppose any further bailouts. AngryRenter.com is copyrighted by FreedomWorks, which discloses its ownership of the site on a page deeper into the site. However, Phillips writes, “The site is nonetheless designed to look underdoggy and grass-rootsy, with a heavy dose of aw-shucks innocence.” The site says: “Unfortunately, renters aren’t as good at politics as the small minority of homeowners (and their bankers) who are in trouble. We don’t have lobbyists in Washington, DC. We don’t get a tax deduction for our rent, and we don’t get sweetheart government loans.” Most visitors to the site have no idea that lobbyists for FreedomWorks actually wrote that copy, nor that FreedomWorks garnered $10.5 million in lobbying fees in 2006, most of which came from large donors the organization is not obligated to disclose.
FreedomWorks Operated by Millionaires - FreedomWorks president Matthew Kibbe says the site is an attempt to “reach out” to disgruntled renters who share the free-market views of Armey, Forbes, and others. Kibbe calls himself “an angry homeowner who pays his mortgage.” He lives on Capitol Hill in DC, in a home valued at $1.17 million. Forbes lives in a home in New Jersey worth $2.78 million, and owns, among other properties, a chateau in France. (The Forbes family recently sold its private island in Fiji and its palace in Morocco.) Armey earns over $500,000 a year working for FreedomWorks, and lives in a Texas home valued at $1.7 million. Representative Barney Frank (D-MA) says he finds it amusing that Armey is portraying himself as a champion of ordinary renters. “I worked a long time trying to improve the condition of renters,” he says. “Dick Armey has usually been on the other side.”
Looking Out for the 'Poor Devil' Who Can't Afford to Buy a Home - Armey says he’s looking out for “the poor devil” who can’t afford to buy a house. “From our point of view, we have an industry in which people were very careless, very reckless—both lenders and borrowers. What various policy makers are saying is we need to rush in here with a program to protect people from the consequences of their own bad judgment.”
Deliberately Misleading? - Armey defends AngryRenter.com’s deliberately amateurish appearance, and calls it “voluntary” for civic participation. San Diego financial adviser Rich Toscano, who rents his home, thought the site was an amateur venture similar to his own blog, Professor Piggington’s Econo-Almanac for the Landed Poor, which chronicles foreclosures and other financial misfortunes suffered by real-estate brokers whom Toscano says helped inflate the area’s real-estate bubble. AngryRenter.com appeared to Toscano as genuinely citizen-produced: “It looks like a young person did it,” he says. He still supports the site even after learning that it is a production of a DC lobbying firm, saying the message is more important than the identity of the bailout. Web designer Chris Kinnan, a FreedomWorks employee, actually designed the site. Of himself, he says: “I’m a renter. I’m not an angry renter.” (Phillips 5/16/2008)
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