Over the weekend, a conspiracy theory began gathering steam in the blogosphere. Late Friday, Playboy published a piece by Mark Ames and Yasha Levine that claimed to have unearthed proof that CNBC reporter Rick Santelli's infamous rant was in fact "the launch event of a carefully organized and sophisticated PR campaign" orchestrated by the far right. "As veteran Russia reporters, both of us spent years watching the Kremlin use fake grassroots movements to influence and control the political landscape," the pair wrote. "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." It was. Implying: Definitive evidence ahead!
Here it is:
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.
Ames and Levine go on to trace the shadowy influence of the Koch family, megarich funders and all sorts of right-wing advocacy groups. This is definitely weird, but let's not get ahead of ourselves. First off, Ames and Levine are hardly the hard-boiled international reporters they paint themselves to be. The two co-edit a Russian expat magazine, Xile, and are perhaps best known Stateside for a dustup surrounding a fake interview they wrote with Maroon Five frontman Adam Levine back in 2007. Their article doesn't give any indication that the writers tried to get comment from Santelli, or CNBC, or FreedomWorks, the PR organization founded by Dave Arney and funded by the Koch family, or any of the other "pr operatives, bigwig politicians and notorious billionaire funders" they claim are behind this vast right-wing conspiracy. One blog, the Daily Bail, which Ames and Levine name as an "astroturf" website planted by PR operatives, has already posted a bemused response.
The authors believe that we're part of a shadowy, right-wing conspiracy creating fake websites to influence public opinion. It specifically accuses us of being an 'astroturf' website, part of an imitation grassroots campaign to advance the corporate interests of the Koch family and FreedomWorks.org. The accusation might actually bother me if it weren't so comical. He says our site is well-written and slick. Thanks for the compliment, I think. But had the writers bothered to contact me before going to press, they would have learned a few things about me politically and personally that would have kept our name out of the mud.
That said: Is it weird that this domain name was purchased back in August? Totally. Contacted by Daily Intel, CNBC offered the following statement:
"Rick Santell's comment clearly struck a nerve among a large portion of American citizens and sparked a debate, which is something Rick has done for more than ten years on CNBC. To try and make it about anything more than that is ridiculous and without basis in fact."
Further pressed, spokesperson Brian Steel said: "There could be a right-wing conspiracy, but there's no basis in fact that Rick has any involvement."
Which would seem to support Glenn Reynolds (who says the protests predate Santelli) in his contention that: "[M]odern technology allows a bunch of people who don't know each other to coordinate a nationwide campaign 'suspiciously' well." Is Santelli a fellow traveler? Probably. Was his rant part of a brilliantly planned PR blitz? Probably not.
UPDATE: Playboy seems to have pulled their story. That was fast. The magazine has not yet responded to Daily Intel's calls for comment.