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August 12, 2009

My Netroots Nation panel: Investigative techniques to expose the town hall mobs

If you're going to Netroots Nation this week, I invite you to join us for Muckraking 101, an interactive investigative reporting workshop sponsored by the Nation Investigative Fund:

Muckraking 101: Documents You Can Use
Saturday, August 15th 1:30 PM - 4:15 PM
Training, 306
Saturday, August 15th, 1:30pm - 4:15pm
306

How can bloggers and online activists use simple investigative techniques to increase their impact? Participants in this practical workshop will learn how to use free or cheap web tools to trace the assets of public officials, decipher the SEC filings of public companies, file Freedom of Information Act requests for government documents, and much, much more. Sponsored by the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.

The panelists are Esther Kaplan of the Nation, Bill Bastone of the Smoking Gun, Brant Houston of the University of Illinois, and me.

You'll learn powerful investigative techniques to make your blog posts stand out. These strategies are based on free tools available to anyone with an internet connection.

Bring your laptops. This is a hands-on training. We're going to be exploring one of the most urgent investigative puzzles facing the netroots today: Who's funding the town hall mobs?

Recommended pre-reading: Addie Stan's AlterNet expose on the mob phenom, and teabagger astroturf oppo research by Kate Thomas of SEIU.

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LB, I hope you have a great deal of fun and I'm sure you'll use your info wisely after the workshop but, MOO, I can't think of a bigger waste of time than the "Who's funding". A serious topic, something to do with Iraq, for example, might have interested me. This is just more tribal thumping/pandering from The Nation.

What makes you think the town hall mob phenomenon isn't serious? Here's what's happening: Pharmaceutical and insurance interests are hiring lobbyists and astroturfing communications companies to stoke public anger about healthcare reform and the Republican party is cheering them on. This is an incredibly irresponsible campaign.

The protesters have already crossed the line from boisterous free speech to outright intimidation and even violence. Several Democratic congress members have reported death threats by teabaggers, police confirmed that a teabagger shadowing an Arizona rep "dropped" a gun at a meet and greet last week, police had to step between Arlen Specter and a protester at a town hall this week, another Democratic congressman had his office vandalized with a swastika. A teabagger activist got his twitter account deleted for encouraging fellow town hall attendees to bring their guns and hurt "disruptive" SEIU and ACORN members "badly".

There are at least two big issues here. First, somebody could very well get killed. (Last week David Axelrod suddenly got a Secret Service detail without explanation at the same time as he started speaking out against the mobs.)

These aren't spontaneous uprisings, they are organized campaigns that use blind rage as a recruiting tool. The groups are telling people lies to rile them up, like that Obama is going to kill their grandmother and take Medicare away. These are talking points that respectable lobbyists won't repeat on CNN but they're happy to hand out fists of cash to support crazies to say it for them. The corporate and political interests backing these tactics need to be held accountable. They are playing with fire.

Second, this is a campaign to derail healthcare reform which is the touchstone of Obama's domestic agenda. I don't know what could be more serious than that.

Investigative reporting on the Iraq war isn't something we can teach effectively in an afternoon. Whereas, the structure of the public record is such that anyone can learn a lot about astroturf groups, lobbyists, and political donors.

Investigative reporting on Iraq may be hard, but it's real.

The reason the lobbying story isn't serious is that it's still a process issue. The GOP's encouraging people to go out and shout down town hall meetings about health care. Much of that is astroturf, but much of it is Americans who genuinely think the current health care system's good enough for them, and who are afraid of what could happen with public health care. A lot of them are retirees on Medicare, which makes it especially ironic, but the real story isn't that the insurance interests are paying for this, but that they don't have to. The Democrats are losing the health care debate, badly, mostly due to their own ineptitude, and inability to respond coherently to counterarguments like those peddled by Mankiw. (Mankiw is dead wrong, but to understand why you'd need to dig up 4-year-old posts on Ezra Klein's blog linking to obscure WHO reports, and remember a few extra facts. Krugman's too arrogant to do any of that.)

The threats are really no big deal. The difference between the left and the right isn't that the right is more violent, but that it's more open about it. The militia movement copied its tactics from communist cells, but left out the secrecy. Nowadays you can find conservatives bragging on Twitter about how they're going to kill people; liberals are more discreet - the guy I met at a CFI conference who seriously proposed assassinating David Addington knows better than to say it in public.

For years I've been saying that the new grassroots left, embodied by MoveOn and Daily Kos, treats domestic politics the way neocons treat foreign policy. The idea that the only reason the other side can get any popular support is by violence and astroturf is part of this common mentality. Debka makes up stories about how Hezbollah is coercing people to join its protests because it's easier than realizing Hezbollah has a lot of popular support; Paul Krugman makes up stories about how the Democrats are only losing the health care debate because of a GOP conspiracy.

I'm not saying that the protesters aren't real, in the sense that they're just hired muscle. During the 2006 primary, Joe Lieberman had some people on the streets who were clearly just there for the street money. That's not what's going on here.

These mobs are important precisely because they are tapping into genuine sentiment in the population. The corporate interests are catalyzing a lot of disgruntled people by lying to them about Obama wanting to kill their grandmothers. These companies need to be held to account for their tactics. There has to be a political cost for funding mobs. If the press doesn't do it its job big money is exempted from accountability. Imagine if Google had given a red cent to the anarchists at the RNC. The political fallout would have been enormous. But PHrMa and AHIP and their ilk can back objectively much more dangerous people with impunity unless we expose what they're doing.

Just because you don't organize around process doesn't mean it's not important to cover or understand. Not all important journalism is as glamorous as uncovering secret interrogation programs. Those kinds of stories require a lot of domain-specific expertise, money, and sources that can take years to build up. They're not the kind of thing that the average blogger could tackle based on our workshop.

And if you want to see the mob in action and are already in town by Thursday, Arlen Specter is having a town hall in Kittanning (only 60 miles away). No real way to get there without a car, though.

The threats are really no big deal. The difference between the left and the right isn't that the right is more violent, but that it's more open about it. The militia movement copied its tactics from communist cells, but left out the secrecy.

And the reason they left out the secrecy? Its hardly even required any more- which says much of what you need to know about politics in our country today.

I don't know if any administration in modern history tried harder than the Bushies to paint their opposition as potentially treasonous... yet somehow, even with the benefit of all that domestic spying, the best they could they could come up with were some Quakers and Earth First! (which they of course still tried to portray as dire threats.) I don't get cable, so maybe I'm missing something; but has Rachel Maddow ever had to beg her viewers not to go out and murder people of different political persuasions? (Though I'd wager if she did someday it would be with the idea that terrorism is wrong, not just politically embarrassing.)

For years I've been saying that the new grassroots left, embodied by MoveOn and Daily Kos, treats domestic politics the way neocons treat foreign policy. The idea that the only reason the other side can get any popular support is by violence and astroturf is part of this common mentality. Debka makes up stories about how Hezbollah is coercing people to join its protests because it's easier than realizing Hezbollah has a lot of popular support; Paul Krugman makes up stories about how the Democrats are only losing the health care debate because of a GOP conspiracy.

I don't know of anyone, particularly Krugman, who's said the latter. On the contrary, we liberals are used to assailing our politicians as weak-kneed incompetents, unable to face a down a small reactionary minority to pass needed reforms even when third-quarters of the country starts out on your side. Does this strike you as a normal state of affairs?

The spreading of astroturf by moneyed interest helps, though not nearly as much, I'd guess, as simply buying off Congress. Why though is violence even a question? Because the conservative base doesn't just talk anymore about the inefficiencies of government, they talk about Nazis, euthanasia, black helicopters and forged birth certificates. They increasingly live in a fevered, paranoid nightmare, reinforced daily on radio and television. Yes, we've all got to take care of our own gardens, but I find it amazing that we're still being chided for looking down on "angry white men" when so many of them are voicing a pulsing, near-homocidal hatred of us.

These mobs are important precisely because they are tapping into genuine sentiment in the population. The corporate interests are catalyzing a lot of disgruntled people by lying to them about Obama wanting to kill their grandmothers. These companies need to be held to account for their tactics.

It's not corporate interests. There are a lot of legitimate issues with British-style rationed care, and even Canadian-style medicare. There aren't a lot of immigrants from developed countries in the US, and most of those who participate in public discussions are from English-speaking countries and project their own countries' health care problems on the idea of universal health care. (To say nothing of the fact that they're self-selected for thinking they have better opportunities in the US than in their home countries). This creates multiple problems:

1. A lot of the current sentiments are really a repeat of 1994, when British and Canadian health care was particularly awful; that was entirely due to defunding by Thatcher and Mulroney, but to argue that one would have to reach back into the 1970s, and at the time American health care still worked. Nowadays Britain and Canada have recovered somewhat, but without a steady trickle of new immigrants it's hard for most Americans to see that.

2. That there are relatively few immigrants means that national sentiments often depend on a few people with megaphones, which makes the debate more vulnerable to astroturfing. However, this sort of astroturfing has nothing to do with what's going on in the town halls, which is done by Americans who probably couldn't find Germany on a map.

3. Both liberals and conservatives have learned to think of health care as a US vs. Canada thing, when the systems prevalent in Continental Europe and East Asia are far superior to both. This leads to a very polarized way of viewing health care. Ezra Klein and Timothy Noah are about the only liberals who've ever bothered to tell people about health care in France and Germany and Japan, and even they don't do so consistently.

4. When people do rave about Canadian health care, they mention costs more than quality. A few weeks ago Nicholas Kristof wrote a column about the experiences of a woman who was treated promptly in Canada, but who was asked for credit card information first in the US and was charged several thousand dollars. Kristof didn't write about you're three times as likely to die of a disease you got at the hospital in the US as in Italy. This reinforces the Republican message that American health care is expensive, but you get what you pay for.

I don't know of anyone, particularly Krugman, who's said the latter. On the contrary, we liberals are used to assailing our politicians as weak-kneed incompetents, unable to face a down a small reactionary minority to pass needed reforms even when third-quarters of the country starts out on your side. Does this strike you as a normal state of affairs?

First, those weak-kneed incompetents include Krugman, who's unwilling to respond to Greg Mankiw even when he makes points that on the one hand look reasonable and on the other need just one fact to collapse. Timothy Noah occasionally does, but a) Noah doesn't have one tenth the clout of Krugman, and b) even Noah doesn't always make the strongest, most persuasive arguments. Those would require mentioning random facts like US vs. European nosocomial infection death rates. US rates you seldom see mentioned on blogs or in the media, European ones you never do.

Second, there's a big difference between saying, "We're not responding effectively and that's why we're losing," which is what I'm arguing right now, and saying, "The Republicans are encouraging mob violence and that's why we're losing," which is what Krugman is saying. He's even complaining that the media compares the anti-health reform sentiments to the anti-privatization sentiments about social security from 2005 - he finds any comparison as unfathomable as a neocon does a comparison of American foreign policy to European imperialism.

Alon, to say that corporate interests aren't spending money hand over fist to derail healthcare reform is ridiculous.

Look at the hard facts. Check how much they're spending on lobbyists, campaign contributions, dues to professional/lobbying organizations like AHIP and PhRMA, etc. It's hundreds of millions of dollars. Check how much they're spending on prime time TV ads to influence public opinion. Harry and Louise don't come cheap, you know. Count the number of times Obama and other leaders sit down with representatives from these groups and promise them a seat at the table.

The reality is that a lot of vested interests stand to lose money if they are forced to compete with a public plan or bargain at Medicare reimbursement rates. So, they'll do anything to derail Obama's plan. They like the status quo and whatever kind of rabble rousing it takes to defeat the bill is fine with them. They don't want any kind of reform.

There are principled reasons to oppose Obama's vision for health reform (which looks nothing like Canada's system, btw), but that's a separate issue. The good reasons are not: i) Obamacare will euthanize your grandmother like they do in the NHS; ii) Get the government out of my Medicare; or, iii)Obama was born in Kenya and isn't really president. Those are arguments that high-priced lobbyists like Dick Armey would be embarrassed to make openly, but they have no compunction about supporting "grassroots" groups that spout this garbage.

I can attest that the quality of care in the Canadian healthcare system is excellent. Maybe France is even better, but that's irrelevant. The Tea Baggers aren't holding out for French-style healthcare and neither is AHIP or Freedomworks. Whether U.S. health care reform should look more like France or Canada is a moot point. That's like asking whether foodbanks should focus on lobster or filet mignon.

The SEI-fucking-U is talking about astroturfing? How, exactly, by explaining how they do it?

Alon, to say that corporate interests aren't spending money hand over fist to derail healthcare reform is ridiculous.

It's ridiculous, which is why I'm not saying it. I'm saying that the concerns conservative and moderate voters have have nothing to do with astroturfing, which is a completely different thing.

I can attest that the quality of care in the Canadian healthcare system is excellent. Maybe France is even better, but that's irrelevant. The Tea Baggers aren't holding out for French-style healthcare and neither is AHIP or Freedomworks. Whether U.S. health care reform should look more like France or Canada is a moot point. That's like asking whether foodbanks should focus on lobster or filet mignon.

First, in many ways French health care is more amenable to capitalist concerns about competition - France has a private insurance system, which in fact covers a larger percentage of the population than the American system. It's not like Canada, where there's no add-on coverage.

And second, the difference between France and Canada isn't just in the way the system works, but also in the outcomes. Canada is overall only slightly better than the US, and on some metrics it's worse. This is reflected in Americans' perceptions: while more Americans think that Canada has better health care than the US than that it has worse health care, the median voter thinks the two systems are about the same. If you asked US voters to compare the US to France or Japan most would probably answer "Don't know," but given that those countries don't have long waits and allow you to jump the line by paying more, I think that there could be a majority saying they're better than the US, given better information.

There are principled reasons to oppose Obama's vision for health reform (which looks nothing like Canada's system, btw), but that's a separate issue. The good reasons are not: i) Obamacare will euthanize your grandmother like they do in the NHS; ii) Get the government out of my Medicare; or, iii)Obama was born in Kenya and isn't really president. Those are arguments that high-priced lobbyists like Dick Armey would be embarrassed to make openly, but they have no compunction about supporting "grassroots" groups that spout this garbage.

The reform is Canada-lite, or at least billed as such (538 just ran a post explaining that the public option is like Canadian medicare and not like the NHS). If it's not, then it's up to Obama to explain the difference. At any rate, the way the public option is formulated has given rise to a genuine concern among conservatives and the insurance industry that it's subterfuge meant to switch the country to single-payer health care.

The teabaggers may not think in the same terms, but it's common for counterarguments to get dumbed down as they seep through the grassroots. There's no lobby behind the 9/11 truthers, or behind Michael Moore's attempt to compare Bush to Ingsoc.

You're wrong about add-on coverage. Canadians spend about $43 billion a year on private extended medical coverage.

You're wrong about Obama's reform plan being Canada light. At this point, it's not even clear that there will be a public option in the final healthcare bill out of Congress. You mean this heavily illustrated snark post from 538? Be serious. Obama's vision is closer to Canada's system in the sense that it's a public insurance system as opposed to a true national health system where the government actually hires all the doctors and runs all the hospitals.

You just wrote "It's not corporate interests." The vested interests are driving the debate and stoking fear in the general public based on lies. We could have a reasonable debate about the pros and cons of different kinds of healthcare reform, but what you don't seem to realize is that the right wing is doing everyhing it can to derail that debate. They're soing chaos. They're not even offering dumbed-down arguments.

The Democrats aren't fighting back effectively because they're beholden to the same vested interests as the Republicans albeit sometimes to a lesser extent. Nobody wants to make strong, clear arguments or bold policy suggestions. They're just trying to angle for half measures that won't piss off the drug companies or the insurance companies too badly.

I'm just curious as to whether this workshop will cover the importance of and methods for corroborating one's sources. While investigative blogging is a powerful new information outlet, bloggers are often not held to the same standards that journalists traditionally have been. This has had the dual effect of watering down what is expected from journalists and giving many earnest bloggers a bad reputation.

We will definitely emphasize the importance of corroborating sources.

==============
Not Just for Health Care Anymore ...

Leaked memo shows energy industry execs sending employees to industry sponsored events to play average citizens outraged about cap-n-trade.

--Josh Marshall

http://www.talkingpointsmemo.com/archives/2009/08/not_just_for_health_care_anymore.php?ref=fpblg
==============

Alon writes;
The teabaggers may not think in the same terms, but it's common for counterarguments to get dumbed down as they seep through the grassroots. There's no lobby behind the 9/11 truthers, or behind Michael Moore's attempt to compare Bush to Ingsoc.

Doyle;
This seems one topic in which your thinking is a bit incoherent. Not sure why you are denying the obvious support from right wing media like Fox, but the gist of your arguments revolve around how to understand a mass base behind right wing attacks.

I think Lindsey is right in evaluating your responses. One could take care of 'your' comments on the basis of debating the issues one way or the other. For the mobs Lindsey is right to understand knowing their resources says more about them than taking on their rhetorical dissimulation. Lindsey is also right the democrats are not taking a stand because they are beholden to private interests. So making the strongest retort possible (i.e. showing the money trail) builds a strong argument for counter measures that would work against the right wing attacks.

Lindsay, the moderate Democrats are beholden to industry interests, but the liberal ones, and the pundits, are not. That's why they're proposing a public option, which at least in popular imagination is Canadian-style single-payer by subterfuge. My complaints are not about the Blue Dogs, who're ideologically opposed to public health care; they're about the liberals, who are proposing ideas that seem intended to piss off industry, but then don't try to argue effectively for them. Obama is letting Congress run the show, knowing full well that it hurt him with the stimulus. Nobody even tries to pin the NHS practices Palin's calling death panels on Thatcher ("Yes, Britain had death panels back when the conservatives got control of health care"), or to put a couple of small business owners in front of a camera to talk about how hard it is to get insurance. Krugman is not responding even to the more thoughtful arguments against public health care; this is creating a situation in which the foamers can think, "I'm not a wonk, but I know the wonks have a lot of concerns the Democrats aren't answering."

The link you give about Canada says that "Canadians can purchase supplemental private coverage for services that are not covered by the public plan, but cannot purchase private insurance for basic services." In practice, this means that Canadians can spend money on insurance so that they can get more prescription drugs, but that they can't jump the line on waits. (I'm deliberately not providing more details to protect the privacy of the person in question; you know who I'm talking about.)

Doyle, I'm not sure I understand your argument there. You're right that I think it's more important to understand the mass base behind the right-wing attacks than to understand who gives the money. Reform proposals have won in the past when outspent by a 10-to-1 ratio. Unfortunately, Obama's weak response suggests he may very well lose while outspending the opposition.

I'm not denying the support from Fox and talk radio. I'm deemphasizing it because they only stoke opposition that's already there, and you don't need money to do that.

And I disagree that showing the money trail is the strongest possible retort. It only tells people the obvious truth that big pharma wants things to stay as they are. Big deal. It doesn't address their concerns about rationing or waits. Those are not trivial issues, and although the death panels comment was moronic, it builds on those concerns in the same way Michael Moore's Ingsoc comparisons build upon real violations of civil liberties in post-9/11 America. The best way of getting people to support you or at least moderate their opposition is to take them seriously and respond to their questions, rather than to tell them what they really think and who's really behind them. That kind of discrediting you do to Sarah Palin, not a random voter who's satisfied with his insurance.

Alon, you're right that there are liberal democrats speaking out against the insurance companies. Even Nancy Pelosi called them villains. But the Blue Dog caucus is massively in the debt of Big Disease (insurance, pharmaceuticals, medical devices). Blue Dogs control the key committees for writing the healthcare legislation in the Senate. The Blue Dogs hold the balance of power in the Senate and everyone is sucking up to them. So, if you're wondering why the Dems aren't forcefully naming names with a unified voice, chalk it up to the insurance companies (and/or the ideological common ground between conservative Dems and Republicans).

You're confusing two separate questions. What is Big Disease doing to undermine healthcare reform? vs. How to explain the overall state of public opinion on healthcare reform? Nobody is saying that Big Disease's PR and lobbying efforts account for 100% of public opinion, but surely they make a big difference.

I'm not asking why they're not naming names. I'm asking why they're not responding to common arguments put forth by Republicans. I find it hard to believe that the reason the blogosphere is not pushing the meme of "Even if you have good insurance, American health care is overall worse than French or Swedish health care" is that the key committees are run by Blue Dogs. I know the blogosphere and the punditocracy are echo chambers, but they're not that strictly controlled by the politicians.

American Power tracked-back with (the correctly-spelled), 'Lindsay Beyerstein Clueless on Politics of Town Halls'.

American neocon, you've misunderstood my point. The people descending on town halls are regular people whom the corporate-funded coalitions have successfully mobilized. They're not hired muscle, to the best of my knowledge.

The GOP would like you to believe that these people are spontaneously converging on town hall meetings to voice their anger. That's not true. They are being directed there as part of a very expensive grassroots campaign funded by corporate stakeholders who have a vested interest in derailing healthcare and overseen by some of the top political operatives in the Republican establishment. The immediate overseers are groups like FreedomWorks, which presents itself as an independent grassroots organization. In fact, it's an extension of Dick Armey's lobbying practice.

ACORN and SEIU are proud of the fact that they bus their members in. Whereas the companies would be embarrassed to publicly associate themselves with the fringe elements showing up at town halls (like the folks with guns and "death to Obama" signs).

I've just seen a health care factsheet on the BBC comparing the systems in the US, Britain, France, and Singapore. It doesn't give all the information one would hope for, but it at least varies its countries of comparison. Even Ezra Klein skipped Singapore in favor of more public universal health care systems like Japan.

There's a difference between directing people to express their personal anger and astroturf. People rarely converge on town halls spontaneously. Mere corporate funding doesn't turn an activist effort into astroturf - is Media Matters astroturf because it's funded by Soros? It'd be astroturf if the people involved were lying, for instance if people who had never set foot outside the US talked about bad experiences with health care in Canada.

Can we start by investigating these phonies? Sign of astroturf in Houston...

http://patterico.com/2009/08/15/identified-another-front-row-town-hall-attendee-also-member-of-obama-campaign-team/

This disagreement and discussion would end if both sides would understand that a lot of the people attending these Town Hall meetings are just people who disagree with the proposed bill for healthcare reform. Instead of demonizing people who are exercising their right to an opinion and dissent, why not work together to get a bill that everyone can live with? Insulting people who do not share your opinion does not endear them to the cause.

The instigation is always the familiar litany: expansion of the commonweal to empower new communities, accommodation to internationalism, the heightened influence of cosmopolitans and the persecution complex of conservatives who can't stand losing an argument. My personal favorite? The federal government expanded mental health services in the Kennedy era, and one bill provided for a new facility in Alaska. One of the most widely listened-to right-wing radio programs in the country, hosted by a former FBI agent, had millions of Americans believing it was being built to intern political dissidents, just like in the Soviet Union.

So, crazier then, or crazier now? Actually, the similarities across decades are uncanny. When Adlai Stevenson spoke at a 1963 United Nations Day observance in Dallas, the Indignation forces thronged the hall, sweating and furious, shrieking down the speaker for the television cameras. Then, when Stevenson was walked to his limousine, a grimacing and wild-eyed lady thwacked him with a picket sign. Stevenson was baffled. "What's the matter, madam?" he asked. "What can I do for you?" The woman responded with self-righteous fury: "Well, if you don't know I can't help you."

The various elements -- the liberal earnestly confused when rational dialogue won't hold sway; the anti-liberal rage at a world self-evidently out of joint; and, most of all, their mutual incomprehension -- sound as fresh as yesterday's news. (Internment camps for conservatives? That's the latest theory of tea party favorite Michael Savage.)

From Rick Perlstein's fascinating and enlightening column in WaPo today. This comedy is going on, it seems, for a lot longer than many of us knew. That's comforting in a way, but also frustrating that after fifty years we're still being led by a bunch of goddamned Adlai Stevensons.

(http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/08/14/AR2009081401495.html)

So, how was the panel?

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