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In case it’s not clear in my review of the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, I did enjoy it. The event’s crowd control was nonexistent and the AV was inadequate, so my group opted to watch it from the cozy confines of Elephant & Castle on nearby Pennsylvania Avenue.  The pub had all of the energy of the Mall, but with better seating and refreshments.

“We live now in hard times, not end times”, declared Jon Stewart to an overflowing crowd of some 200,000 ironic-sign-toting fans on the National Mall in Washington, DC. “We can have animus and not be enemies.”

Stewart, the smart and popular host of “The Daily Show”, a satirical news programme, was addressing the many who had come for his October 30th “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear”, which he co-hosted with Stephen Colbert, the star of the faux conservative spin-off show, “The Colbert Report”. But despite such a grand assembly ahead of Tuesday’s midterm elections, the event was surprisingly apolitical. After hours of entertainingly neglecting the concerns held by most voters, Stewart finally turned serious. His target? The media.

“The country’s 24-hour political pundit perpetual panic conflictinator did not cause our problems. But its existence makes solving them that much harder,” he announced.

Amid Stewart’s scorn for punditry, he managed to squander an opportunity to address the problems he claims the media spin-cycle distorts. The result was a “Rally to Shift the Blame“, laments David Carr of the New York Times, who went on to write that “media bias and hyperbole seem like pretty small targets when unemployment is near 10 percent, vast amounts of unregulated cash are being spent in the election’s closing days, and no American governing institution—not the Senate, not the House of Representatives, not even the Supreme Court—seems to be above petty partisan bickering.” In a rally dedicated to restoring sanity, Stewart let himself be distracted by a symptom instead of a root cause of America’s current bout of manic depression.

As someone hosting a rally of hundreds of thousands of people in the nation’s capital, Stewart had the platform and even the obligation to say more than he did.

Click here to read the rest of my rally review (with a real T-Paine reference!) on More Intelligent Life or to make a comment.

Photo credit: lizstless (via Flickr)

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This piece, which I wanted to call “The Digitally Driven Rise of the Tea Party,” was originally about how the right was using new media to oppose climate protection regulations. The idea for the piece grew out of earlier conversations I’d had with climate activists about what made their organizations different from right wing groups. But when I handed it in, my editor asked me to chop it down by taking out the climate angle.

I’m happy with the end result. My boss was invited onto New Hampshire Public Radio to talk about my reporting and the rest of PoliticalShift 2010, the series of stories about politics and social media we published in the run up to the midterm elections.

The biggest story of the U.S. midterm election has been the growing influence of the Tea Party movement. Since their first rallies in early 2009, these vocal, visible conservatives have succeeded in shifting the center of American political discourse to the right. This election cycle, Tea Partiers have gone a step further, successfully backing primary challengers against moderate Republicans like Delaware’s Mike Castle. So how has this confederation of online, conservative activists used new media to build their growing political base?

Think locally, organize nationally

First and foremost, the Tea Party movement has succeeded by connecting local groups to the national conversation.

“I didn’t really start using Facebook and Twitter until I got involved with the Tea Party movement,” said Ana Puig, the 38-year-old leader of Pennsylvania’s Kitchen Table Patriots (KTP).

Puig said much of KTP’s online organizing would not have been possible without the help of two prominent, national conservative organizations: FreedomWorks and American Majority. These well-financed operations provide local Tea Party groups with the new media training and focus group-tested political messaging needed to get results.

Using what she learned from these national organizations, Puig and co-founder Anastasia Przybylski set up the KTP’s rudimentary website, which has proved effective in establishing the group’s digital presence and in attracting new members. Puig said KTP has an email list of a couple thousand people and has attracted over 400 fans to its Facebook page since she created it a month ago.

These personalized digital resources have enabled KTP to stage dozens of rallies since it was founded in February 2009. They’ve also organized an online boycott of Dawn after it advertised during a MSNBC Tea Party documentary and are currently running get-out-the-vote operations for conservative candidates across the state.

Digital tools

Brendan Steinhauser, FreedomWorks’ director for federal and state campaigns, hinted at another way the Tea Party has grown its online political clout: By sharing digital tools.

“We see our new model at FreedomWorks as a service center for the grassroots,” he explains.

This approach is based in part on the success Steinhauser had using Yahoo Groups and viral videos to revive the University of Texas chapter of the state’s Young Conservatives organization in the years before YouTube was launched or Facebook became an open network. After his graduation in 2005, Steinhauser used the same tools to help found the Young Conservatives of California. He also published a book about his campus organizing experiences, The Conservative Revolution, and launched a blog with the same name.

Steinhauser was one of a handful of FreedomWorks staffers who have shown Puig, and many others like her, the digital ropes.

“A lot of it is training,” Steinhauser explained. “Most of these people are new to politics.”

In addition to seminars on the background and basics of political campaigning — from the tactics of the American civil rights movement to tips on how to stage an interesting meeting — FreedomWorks has sessions on social media.

“It’s very basic stuff, but it goes a long way toward making an impact” with the older members of the Tea Party movement, he said.

FreedomWorks also offers more sophisticated digital resources to its network of 650,000 online conservative activists. Puig initially contacted the organization to have one of the KTP’s rallies listed on a national Google Map that FreedomWorks created to share information about local Tea Party events. Steinhauser’s group also helped fire-charge the Congressional town halls in summer of 2009 by featuring on their website an “August Recess Action Kit” to aid supporters in exposing “the real intentions and the economic ramifications of the of the Cap and Tax and health care reform legislation on the table,” as Mother Jones reported at the time.

Click here to read more about FreedomWorks’ digital arsenal and the “guerrilla tactics” of American Majority’s online activist training sessions or to comment on the PBS MediaShift story.

Photo credit: (Astro)Turf Wars

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350.org is an influential newcomer to the environmental movement. I was curious to hear how they got their start so I used this social media piece as an excuse to talk with some interesting people.

An abridged version of this story focused exclusively on 350.org ran on the front page of the Huffington Post’s Green section the weekend after the 10/10/10 Global Work Party mentioned below. It was featured just below a post from 350.org co-founder and aclaimed author Bill McKibben.

My bike helmet is hoisted in the air on the left side of this photo.

American environmentalists recently suffered a pair of devastating defeats in their decades-long effort to halt global warming. Progress stalled on domestic legislation to cap greenhouse gas emissions prior to a key UN summit in Copenhagen. Lack of leadership from America, the world’s second largest climate polluter, made it impossible to produce and binding international agreement at the conference. Then, a few months later, the U.S. climate bill died in the Senate.

Their diplomatic and legislative maneuvers having fallen short, U.S. climate campaigners are hoping a renewed focus on activism and grassroots organizing can provide the push needed to produce carbon emission controls. As a result, the Internet and digital media are playing a growing role in efforts of progressive organizations ranging from new climate activists like 350.org to longtime environmental agitators such as Greenpeace.

Birth of 350.org

By using the same name and web address, 350.org announced to the world in 2008 that it was a new kind of environmental advocacy organization. In choosing the odd name, the founders of 350.org wanted to communicate that their group was a science-based, single issue organization. The number comes from research, which shows that 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide (CO2) is the most the atmosphere can safely absorb without triggering catastrophic climate change.

The group emerged after author Bill McKibben and a group of recent Middlebury College graduates organized the 2007 Step It Up campaign. They collaborated with existing environmental organizations like Greenpeace, as well as other groups and governments interested in climate protection. The upstart activists described it as the “first open source, web-based day of action dedicated to stopping climate change.”

It was a surprising success.

Click here to keep reading about 350.org and Greenpeace or to make a comment.

Photo credit: 350.org (via Flickr)

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I started working on this article during my last month at Mother Jones. Although it took longer than I had hoped to get it published–and required a revised lede–I’m happy this bit of reporting finally made it into the top story box. (Unlike, say, my body armor piece.) Clocking in at some 1300 words, this article is the longest piece I’ve had published anywhere. It also opened my eyes to the shadowy world of offshore tax evasion–an interesting beat that I hope to return to in another professional capacity.

UPDATE: My reporting was featured on BuzzFlash and in ProPublica’s daily round up of the top investigations elsewhere; re-posted on Corporate Crackdown, a blog by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington; and linked to an article from FINS, a new financial careers site from Dow Jones. Rational Review, which is apparently “the premier libertarian web journal,” also disapprovingly cited my piece.

When President Barack Obama’s jobs bill passed the House in early March, it contained a little-noticed provision to recover part of its $35 billion price tag by cracking down on offshore tax evasion, which costs the US some $100 billion a year in lost revenue. The provision, which requires foreign financial institutions to report more data to the Internal Revenue Service, was likely prompted by a 2008 Senate investigation that revealed the systematic efforts made by Swiss bank UBS to help moneyed Americans hide massive sums from the IRS.

The insider information that formed the backbone of the investigation—insight that eventually helped the feds recover billions in unpaid taxes—was provided by a former midlevel executive at UBS, American-born Bradley Birkenfeld. Birkenfeld is the only international banker who has ever blown the whistle to the US government on Switzerland’s legendarily secretive banking practices. He is also the only person connected to UBS’ massive tax evasion scheme to have been sent to prison: Birkenfeld is currently serving a four-year sentence for fraud. Whistleblower advocacy groups warn that this punishment could have a “chilling effect,” discouraging other financial whistleblowers from coming forward. Did Obama’s Department of Justice (DOJ) exact retribution that could cost US taxpayers billions?

Click here to read or comment on the rest of this MotherJones.com top story.

Photo credit: monkeyleader (via Flickr)

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For some reason the editors-in-chief, who have been closely following this case because Bauer last wrote for Mother Jones, wanted me to chop the last two paragraphs. I’ve included that upbeat bit added-value reporting to this version of the post. (The Daily Show segment I link to at the end is funny, fascinating, and highly recommended.)

UPDATE: My update was included on today’s Must Reads list.

Investigative journalist Shane Bauer and two companions “will be tried by Iran’s judiciary system and verdicts will be issued,” the Islamic republic’s foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, announced at a news conference Monday. The group was arrested in July after allegedly straying into Iran during a hiking trip near the Iraqi city of Sulaimaniya. While Abbas Jafari Dowlatabadi, Tehran’s chief prosecutor, accused the three University of California-Berkeley grads of espionage in November—a charge that can carry the death sentence—Mottaki said only that “relevant sentences” would be issued.

After the statement by Mottaki, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made another call for the release of Bauer, 27, Sarah Shourd, 31, and Josh Fattal, 27. “The three young people who were detained by the Iranians have absolutely no connection with any kind of action against the Iranian state or government,” Clinton told reporters. “We appeal to the Iranian leadership to release these three young people and free them as soon as possible.”

“When we hear this, the roller coaster goes again,” Shourd’s mother, Nora told the New York Times. “It’s like we just have to pull ourselves back and realize that nothing has happened yet. They’re waiting in their way, and we’re waiting impatiently in ours.”

Diplomatic tensions have complicated the fate of the wayward hikers. For several years, Iran has been pursuing nuclear power in the face of opposition from Western governments, which suspect it is trying to assemble materials for a nuclear bomb. In a September interview with NBC News, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad alleged that America is holding several Iranian citizens “in US prisons right now with no good reason.”

The US has relied on Swiss diplomats for updates on Bauer and his friends. The US government ended direct diplomatic relations in the wake of Iranian hostage crisis and now works with Switzerland’s embassy in Tehran to communicate with the Iranian goverment. The Swiss, who have visted Bauer and the hikers twice in the infamous Evin prison where they are being held, say the Americans are healthy.

In spite of the troubling announcement from Iran, there is still reason to believe the three prisoners could be released soon. A handful of other foreigners and journalists have been freed in recent months after being detained under similar circumstances.

Last month five British sailors, who were picked up by the Revolutionary Guards when their yacht strayed into Iranian waters, were let go after only a week in custody. In May Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi was convicted of espionage and sentenced to eight years in prison before being released on appeal three months after her arrest. Iranian-Canadian Newsweek reporter Maziar Bahari was released on bail in October, even though he called Ahmadenajad “a moron” in a Daily Show segment prior to the disputed election in Iran.

The MoJo blog post is available here. Go to FreeTheHikers.org to learn more about the plight of Shourd, Fattal, and Bauer, who is a fellow Minnesotan.

Photo courtesy of the Bauer family.

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Singer/songwritter Paul Hipp has put out a little YouTube ditty in mock-celebration of the US’ thirty-seventh place ranking in the World Health Organization’s most recent ranking of health care systems around the world. Like the best Dylan tracks, this one is more about the message than the music (i.e., Hipp’s got a terrible voice). Give it a listen anyway and remember what’s at stake in the health care debate.

Click here to watch the MoJo blog music video or make a comment.

 

(Hat tip to my father for forwarding this video to me.)

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Yesterday Campus Progress, the youth-oriented project of the sprawling Center for American Progress empire, concluded a two-day series of events on activism and the media. The Center for American Progress (CAP) was founded in 2003 by John Podesta, Bill Clinton’s former chief of staff, and like the Heritage Foundation during Reagan’s presidency, the young organization has quickly become the think tank du jour in Washington. It was no surprise then to see Democratic Party stars such as the Special Advisor for Green Jobs Van Jones, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and, of course, former President Clinton featured in the speakers line up for Wednesday’s massive Fifth Annual National Convention.

Although the Daily Show’s John Oliver did his best to steal the show, the loudest applause was elicited by the Madam Speaker.  At the end of a long day heavy on weighty wonkery, Pelosi’s brief speech full of lofty promises garnered elated cheers, especially when she promised to “have a health care bill out of the House by the August break…. And it will have a public option.” While it was surprising to hear her speak about such a difficult and contentious bill in such concrete terms, her short 2010 campaign rally warm-up was also notable for what went unsaid.

(more…)

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