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Zack Christenson registers the Internet domain name “chicagoteaparty.com.” Christenson, a Republican, is the producer for the conservative Chicago radio host Milt Rosenburg, who is busily associating presidential candidate Barack Obama with former left-wing radical William Ayers (see August 2008). Christenson will not activate a Web site using that domain name until February 19, 2009, when CNBC commentator Rick Santelli engages in an “impromptu” on-air rant calling for a “Chicago tea party” in protest of the Obama administration’s economic policies (see February 19, 2009 and February 27, 2009). (Ames and Levine 2/27/2009)
CNBC stock analyst Rick Santelli’s “impromptu” on-air “rant” against President Obama’s economic stimulus program, in which Santelli calls for a “tea party” protest and tells viewers he intends to begin organizing a “Chicago Tea Party,” galvanizes nascent “tea party” groups around the nation. Chicago radio producer Zack Christenson has already registered the Internet domain “chicagoteaparty.com” (see August 2008), and hours after Santelli’s rant Christenson puts up a “homemade” tea party Web site. A Chicago Libertarian activist, Eric Odom (see After November 7, 2008), puts up a similar site at “officialchicagoteaparty.com.” The next day, the short-lived “Nationwide Tea Party Coalition” forms. At the same time, a new Facebook group, “Rick Santelli is right, we need a Taxpayer (Chicago) Tea Party,” is created by Phil Kerpen of Americans for Prosperity, and is administered by Odom. The Facebook page leads back to a site called “taxpayerteaparty.com,” run by Americans for Prosperity. Simultaneously, Brendan Steinhauser, the campaign director of FreedomWorks (see March 2, 2009) and another administrator of the Facebook group, begins organizing “tea party” groups—or actually continues his efforts, since on February 9, 10 days before Santelli’s broadcast, he had contacted a Florida activist who had attended a FreedomWorks training session and asked her to organize a protest in Fort Myers. Steinhauser later writes that the day after Santelli’s broadcast: “I just wrote this little 10 quick easy steps to hold your own tea party, wrote it up, and kinda was proud of it and sent it to Michelle Malkin. She linked to it from her blog.” Malkin’s blog is overwhelmed by the response. FreedomWorks staffers call activists around the country asking them to organize “grassroots” tea party organizations, and on March 9, FreedomWorks announces a nationwide “Tea Party Tour,” saying in a statement, “From [Santelli’s] desperate rallying cry FreedomWorks has tapped into the outrage building from within our own membership as well as allied conservative grassroots forces to organize a 25-city Tea Party Tour where taxpayers angry that their hard-earned money is being usurped by the government for irresponsible bailouts, can show President Obama and Congressional Democrats that their push towards outright socialism will not stand.” By February 27, the first official “tea party” events take place, organized by the Sam Adams Alliance, FreedomWorks, and Americans for Prosperity. Many of the original organizations will eventually be subsumed by, or merge with, national structures, again primarily organized and funded by FreedomWorks, Americans for Prosperity, and other right-wing lobbying organizations. Eventually, six nationwide networks will form (see August 24, 2010). (Hamsher 4/15/2009; Burghart and Zeskind 8/24/2010) During this period, conservative media outlets such as the Weekly Standard will claim that the tea party movement was entirely spontaneous in its origins (see March 2, 2009). However, facts stand in the way of that claim (see February 15, 2009, February 16, 2009, February 17, 2009, February 18, 2009, March 13, 2009 and After, April 2009 and After, April 6-13, 2009, April 8, 2009, April 14, 2009, April 15, 2009, April 16, 2009, July 23, 2009, July 24, 2009, August 4, 2009, August 4, 2009, August 5, 2009, August 6, 2009, August 6-7, 2009, August 10, 2009, August 10, 2009, August 11, 2009, August 28, 2009, July 3-4, 2010, August 30, 2010, and September 20, 2010).
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)
The Weekly Standard, in a column by Jonathan Last, promotes and celebrates the nascent “tea party” movement that started as a reaction to an on-air “rant” by CNBC commentator Rick Santelli (see February 19, 2009 and February 27, 2009) against the government bailouts of large corporations. (The article is dated March 9, but is posted on the Standard’s Web site on March 2.) Last notes that previous organizations opposing the bailouts had been proven to be “astroturf” groups pretending to be grassroots, citizen-driven organizations, but in fact owned and operated by such conservative public relations firms as FreedomWorks (see April 14, 2009). Now, however, Last says the “tea party” organizations springing up around the country are actual grassroots organizations with no affiliations to conservative PR firms or political organizations. Last notes that conservative radio producer Zack Christenson had indeed bought chicagoteaparty.com in August 2008 (see August 2008), as noted by progressive reporters who have alleged that the “tea party” movement—and Santelli’s “spontaneous” rant (see March 2, 2009)—were part of a pre-planned launch effort (see February 27, 2009), but claims that Christenson merely bought the domain “thinking it might be a good name for a group,” and “retooled the site” hours after seeing Santelli’s rant. Last claims that dozens of other sites, including reteaparty.com (see March 2, 2009), were bought and posted “spontaneously” within hours of Santelli’s broadcast, as were dozens of Facebook “tea party” and Santelli fan sites. Last claims that reteaparty.com owner Anthony Astolfi, with the help of “his roommate and a cousin,” bought the domain, designed and posted the site, and promoted it on dozens of “high-ranking results pages” within 12 hours of Santelli’s rant, and awoke the next day to find they had had 40,000 visitors to their site and become “a minor sensation.” Last concludes by writing: “[I]t’s easy to see the groups that might make up a real grassroots movement: the Ron Paul libertarians, renters, housing bubble obsessives, disillusioned Democrats, stat-head financial types, and, of course, rich, heartless Republicans. And then there is Santelli, who, if so inclined, might put himself forward the way Howard Jarvis did with his property tax revolt in California in 1978. The question is whether or not these people can find each other and figure out a way to push back.” (Last 3/9/2009) Investigative reporters Mark Ames and Yasha Levine note that Astolfi’s Web site is indeed funded by a conservative political action committee (PAC), a fact that Last either does not know or chooses not to report. (Mark Ames and Yasha Levine 3/2/2009)
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