"MSNBC News Live" host Norah O'Donnell on Wednesday dismissed the tea party rallies that took place across the country last week as "top down" and not organic, prompting a complaint from a Republican strategist over the network's coverage. The discussion arose during an interview with GOP strategist Karen Hanretty and a Democratic operative over the leadership of the Republican Party.
After Hanretty asserted that the tea parties were an example of grass roots conservative leadership, O'Donnell retorted, "Karen, what was organic about the tea party protest? Those were not from the ground up." She went on to label the nationwide events "top down," which prompted Hanretty to quip, "No. I know MSNBC likes to promote that those were top down, but that's not the case at all." (MSNBC hosts were relentless in their attacks on the the parties. Most famously, "Countdown" host Keith Olbermann on April 16 talked to actress Janeane Garofalo, who deemed the demonstrations racist.)
Following Hanretty's critique on MSNBC, O'Donnell turned to Democratic strategist Rich Masters to take over the attack. "Rich, you want to challenge her on that," she implored. Speaking of the tea parties, the host tossed this softball to Masters: "Rich, grassroots or Astroturf?" Now, when is the last time MSNBC worried about the authenticity of liberal protests? The cable network certainly wasn't so concerned about who was agitating and protesting against the Iraq war.
A transcript of the April 22 segment, which aired at 10:43am, follows:
NORAH O'DONNELL: Now, to politics. This time it's a Kansas congressman, who last week called Limbaugh just an entertainer. Well, now, Republican Todd Tiahrt, who is also running for the U.S. Senate in 2010, is backtracking on his initial comments, saying Rush is a great leader. Karen Hanretty is a Republican strategist and Rich Masters is a Democratic strategist. All right. Welcome to both of you. Let me first read the statement from Teahrt's spokesman. He says this, quote, "the Congressman believes Rush is a great leader of the conservative movement in America, not a party leader responsible for election losses. Nothing the congressman said diminishes the role Rush has played and continues to play in the conservative movement." Rich, what's with these Republicans offering these statements after they call Rush Limbaugh an entertainer?
RICH MASTERS (Democratic strategist): Norah, I wish I knew. You know, every day that we're talking about Rush Limbaugh as the leader of the Republican Party- it's a great sunshiny day, even though there's clouds behind me in the Capitol. But, you know, listen, I think what you're seeing here is the fact that there is really no leadership in the Republican Party right now. You've got a RNC chair in which you've got Michael Steele who has been defanged and declawed and he apologized to Rush and several members of Congress. I mean, I think it would be news on a day where we didn't have a Republican Congressman apologizing to Rush Limbaugh. And if the leaders in Congress for the Republican Party were stepping up and doing their duty and being the diligent opposition, you wouldn't see this vacuum at the top for Rush's big huge figure to step into, Norah.
O'DONNELL: Karen, the Democrats as you can imagine, have jumped right into this with a statement from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee saying this. Quote, "Instead of standing up for the people of Kansas to fight for them during this economic crisis, congressman Tiahrt has made it clear that he would prefer to take his orders from Rush Limbaugh." Is that what the congressman is doing?
KAREN HANRETTY (Republican strategist): Look, I agree with Rich to the extent I don't think there is a single leader of the Republican Party right now. The real leadership taking place in the conservative movement are the tens of thousands-
O'DONNELL: You don't think that the chairman, Michael Steele, is the leader of the Republican Party?
HANRETTY: -Listen- The leadership in the Republican Party are the tens and thousands of men and women who took to the streets last week to protest excessive government intervention over taxation, over spending. That's the real leadership. I think it's much more organic than any one particular individual. There's no- look, Rush Limbaugh and Michael Steele are not holding meetings with members of Congress to determine, okay, what is the direction of the party?
O'DONNELL: Karen- Karen, what was organic- Karen, what was organic about the tea party protest? Those were not from the ground up. Those were top down and promoted by-
MASTERS: Nothing. And sparsely attended.
HANRETTY: No, I know MSNBC likes to promote that those were top down, but that's not the case at all. And in fact, it was, you know, look, this is-
O'DONNELL: Rich, you want to challenge her on that?
HANRETTY: The internet really allowed Republicans I think, across the country, and not just Republicans, to go out and protest over-spending, over-taxation within the Republican Party and I think that this is actually good for the conservative movement, that it is the people who are taking back their party and not necessarily at a time when we don't hold the White House, when we don't hold a majority in Congress. It is not a particular personality at the front of the pack.
MASTERS: And there's a reason-
O'DONNELL: Rich, grassroots or Astroturf?
MASTERS: Listen, I think it's Astroturf. You know, this starred at the top down, and if you look at where there were actual crowds-
HANRETTY: Rick Santelli? Is he the leader of the Republican Party?
MASTERS: Well, Rick Santelli definitely stokes some, some fears and anger, which surprised me because, again, Santelli was so concerned about bailouts to homeowners but not concerned about bailouts to Wall Street. So, listen, this was not a grassroots movement. This was, you know, put on stage and almost paid for by Fox News for crying out loud. Most of the crowds were two, 1500 people in some of these cities. I mean, you'd get fired, you know, if you were on a presidential campaign and you drew crowds of 1,000 or 1500 people. So, you know, if this is the best they've got and, again, it goes back to the point again that Karen made and I made initially. There is no voice of the Republican Party right now except for Rush Limbaugh. He is the intellectual conservative leader. I'm going to agree with Tiahrt. I think he's absolutely right. He is the intellectual force behind the Republican Party right now and I say keep going.