Bloggers charge 'Tea Party' anti-stimulus protests are corporate front
UPDATE (at bottom): Playboy's story apparently taken down.
When a few hundred protesters showed up in each of some 30 or 40 cities nationwide on Friday to object to President Obama's stimulus plan, they claimed that the well-coordinated protests had arisen spontaneously in response to a tirade against mortgage bailouts, delivered just over a week earlier, on February 19, by CNBC's Rick Santelli.
Conservative columnist Michelle Malkin enthusiastically called the "Tea Party" protests "a fledgling grassroot movement" and some of the protesters even described themselves as the vanguard of a "new conservative counterculture." Those claims naturally aroused a certain amount of skepticism, since similar activities in the past have proven to be not genuine grassroots activity but so-called corporate "astroturf."
Now fresh revelations suggest that the skepticism may be well-placed. Mark Ames and Yasha Levine allege in their blog at Playboy.com that the protests were planned well in advance, coordinated by old-line anti-tax organizations, and funded by right-wing corporate interests.
"What hasnít been reported until now is evidence linking Santelliís 'tea party' rant with some very familiar names in the Republican rightwing machine," they write, "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."
As described by Ames and Levine, Santelli's call for a "tea party" in Chicago next summer was quickly picked up by a website called ChicagoTeaParty.com and spread from there to the Drudge Report. However, the ChicagoTeaParty.com domain is not new. It was registered last summer by the producer of a right-wing radio show in Chicago and, the writers allege, is one of several tied to the anti-tax group FreedomWorks, which is among the sponsors of the current protests.
FreedomWorks is the latest incarnation of an organization formerly known as Citizens for a Sound Economy, which was founded in 1984 "to anonymously leverage corporate contributions into debates on public policy." CSE had close ties to Koch Industries and became one of the major recipients of grant money from conservative foundations and major corporations such as Exxon, Philip Morris, and General Motors.
In 2003, CSE's affiliate, the Citizens for a Strong Economy Foundation, split off and renamed itself Americans for Prosperity. (That group is also a sponsor of the current protests.) CSE itself merged the following year with Empower America -- another fake grassroots group created by Republican Party insiders to promote conservative candidates -- and formed FreedomWorks.
Posters at Democratic Underground have found that a number of anti-bailout and anti-stimulus groups are hosted by the dedicated servers of Citizens for a Sound Economy. In addition to cse.org, empoweramerica.org, and freedomworks.com, those servers also host such domains as angryrenter.com (which was registered in March 2008 to oppose bailouts for mortgage holders), destimulus.com, earmarkpledge.com, nowallstreetbailout.com, and usteaparty.com.
Any connection ChicagoTeaParty.com may have to this network is not clear, since it is not among the domains hosted on the CSE servers. However, the involvement of FreedomWorks in the protests and the appearance of the apparently related domain "usteaparty.com" suggest that those seeking the origin of the "Tea Party" protests in this area may be on the right track.
Playboy has apparently taken down its story. The Atlantic's Megan McArdle has the full text.
The link between Santelli and the so-called astroturfing groups "is potentially libelous, which is, I assume, why the article disappeared this morning," wrote McArdle.
"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."
Republican blogger/pundit Michelle Malkin laid down covering fire for the "tea parties," lampooning their alleged ties to Santelli.
"The wheels of the 'Tea Party' movement had already been set in motion by folks who probably had never heard of Santelli ó let alone the Koch Foundation ó when they decided to take to the streets," she wrote, after calling reporters Mark Ames and Yasha Levine, who authored Playboy's piece, "loons."
A phone call to Playboy media relations went unreturned late Monday.
Stephen C. Webster contributed to this report.
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