Right-wing crank yankers

Texas bug-man Tom DeLay and the New York Post's Bob McManus are harassing MoveOn.org with silly phone tricks.

Published October 8, 2003 11:31PM (EDT)

The progressive Internet organizing group MoveOn.org has reduced two pillars of the right-wing establishment to pulling petulant phone pranks. On Tuesday, the office of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, angry that MoveOn members were wasting the staff's time with complaints about DeLay's handling of a House resolution on FCC regulation, started forwarding its phone calls to MoveOn organizer Eli Pariser's cellphone. The day before, Bob McManus, the New York Post's opinion-page editor, published MoveOn's Noah Winer's phone number in the headline of his Monday column and urged readers to "swarm" him.

McManus refers to MoveOn as "cyberbullies" and writes that Winer -- whose name he spells "Weiner" -- "oozes annoying self-righteousness." So he, like DeLay's office, tried to show MoveOn that, when it comes to annoying bullying, the right doesn't like competition.

MoveOn's phone wars began with two e-mails the group sent to its members. The first was about the conservative columnist Robert Novak, who, working from a White House leak, outed undercover CIA agent Valerie Plame. Plame, of course, is the wife of former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who investigated Iraq's purported uranium deal with Niger, found it to be false, and revealed his findings in the New York Times, undermining part of Bush's case for war.

Winer sent an e-mail to MoveOn members, urging them to call Novak's bosses at the Chicago Sun-Times, the New York Post and CNN and demand that the conservative columnist be fired for endangering national security -- and "to remain polite and professional" while doing so.

"What Novak did is a threat to national security without good cause," the e-mail said. "Moreover, he cooperated fully with the Bush administration's efforts to intimidate those who speak out about the administration's deceptions."

The second MoveOn message, sent on Tuesday morning, was about DeLay's efforts to block a vote on a resolution that would roll back the Federal Communications Commission vote to loosen media ownership rules. A similar resolution passed the Senate by 55-40, but DeLay is working with the White House to preserve the FCC's attempt at deregulation. Thus he and House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., are refusing to bring the resolution to the House floor. MoveOn e-mailed its members urging them to contact DeLay and Hastert and ask them to allow a vote.

Neither of these efforts are novel. Advocacy groups constantly ask members to contact their government representatives, and organizations on both the right and left frequently mount campaigns to pressure the media to reflect their views. In the past, both government and the media have usually resisted the temptation to harass their critics in return.

But that was before right-wing partisans took over the government and Rupert Murdoch, owner of both Fox News and the New York Post, came to dominate the news business.

Murdoch's empire has made a habit of blustering attacks on its enemies. This summer, outraged by Al Franken's denigration of Fox News in his book "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right," Murdoch's network filed a bizarrely ad hominem trademark infringement lawsuit against the comedian, who Fox's lawyers called a "C-level political commentator" who "appears to be shrill and unstable."

A week ago, CNN talking head Tucker Carlson, a conservative but also a Fox critic, was defending telemarketers on "Crossfire." Asked for his home phone number, he gave out that of Fox's Washington bureau instead. In retaliation, Fox posted Carlson's unlisted home number on its Web site, resulting in a deluge of obscene calls to Carlson's wife.

Now, Murdoch employee McManus has directed his audience and his animus toward MoveOn. In his column Monday, McManus complained that, because of Winer's e-mail, he had received hundreds of calls to his office at the Post. "Cumulatively, they resided somewhere between a substantial annoyance and actionable harassment; a we-know-where-you-live threat of sorts; a whiff of virtual fascism hanging in the air, clearly not by accident," he wrote. Then, he offered Winer's number, writing: "What the hell. He asked for it. Swarm him."

Pariser told Salon that no swarm ever materialized -- more like a few gnats. "McManus obviously had a bone to pick with MoveOn," he says. "Does it have anything to do with the ads we ran against Murdoch? I don't know. I don't even think it's illegitimate to contact us when people disagree with us, but this tactic of, 'They're calling us so let's get calls to them,' without looking at the substance of the issue, it does strike me as unprofessional. I'm inclined just to write it off. The New York Post is a far-right newspaper. Of course they're going to publish attacks on the left. Who would expect anything else?" McManus didn't return Salon's phone calls.

Pariser is more surprised by DeLay's stunt, not because he expects better from the former Texas bug-killer, but because, as he says, "This is the guy who's the majority leader. He has a responsibility not just to members of Congress, but to the whole country."

DeLay's office doesn't see it that way. As a MoveOn member wrote in an e-mail to Pariser, "I was also able to reach Rep. DeLay's office. There, I was interrupted in the middle of my first sentence, asked if this was about the FCC, and placed on hold. After a few seconds someone else answered and I learned that Rep. DeLay's office had forwarded my call to MoveOn.org. Evidently, they have no interest in the opinions of a citizen." Pariser has since changed the message on his cellphone, urging callers to try DeLay again.

According to DeLay spokesman Stuart Roy, MoveOn is getting what it deserves. "They like to generate the phone calls but they don't like to receive them," he says. "It seems to me that public debate is a two-way street." He dismissed the notion that, as citizens, MoveOn's members deserve to have their opinions heard by their government, noting that none of the calls came from constituents in DeLay's home district.

But since DeLay holds one of the most powerful positions in the United States government, doesn't he have an obligation to all Americans? Roy's response was a non sequitur. "Do you have an obligation to all Americans at Salon.com?" he asked.

The answer to Roy's question, clearly, is no, since Salon is an online magazine with a responsibility to its readers, and not a high-ranking official in a representative democracy. But the question of whether DeLay has any responsibility to hear the views of dissenting citizens rather than play tricks on them remains open.

If you want to ask him yourself, his office number is (202)225-4000.

By Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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Al Franken D-minn. Cnn Fox News Moveon.org Rupert Murdoch Tom Delay