Santelli and the White House

Rick Santelli continues to make a fool of himself, touring the media to defend his call for a “tea party” over the homeowner bailout.

I’d be inclined to let this dog of a discussion bark itself out, especially since Santelli chose to carry it to the paranoid ghettos occupied by the likes of G. Gordon Liddy.

But this is too much.

Not content with his soon-to-be-expired fifteen minutes of fame, Santelli went on Liddy’s radio show and complained that the White House was threatening him and/or his family, somehow.

SANTELLI: He started that press conference saying, “I don’t know where he lives, I don’t know where his house is.” This is the Press Secretary of the White House. Is that the kind of thing we want? Is that —

LIDDY: It’s a veiled threat.

SANTELLI: It really is. […] I don’t really want to be a spokesman, but I really am very proud of a) the response I’m getting, which is overwhelmingly positive, and b) discourse, that is debate. That if the pressure and the heat I’m taking from the White House – the fact my kids are nervous to go to school – I can take that, okay.

Now, Liddy knows about threats from the White House, having plotted to assassinate columnist Jack Anderson, and he knows about other kinds, having encouraged listeners to shoot ATF agents in the head (“Head shots, head shots…. Kill the sons of bitches”), but the idea that the White House press secretary “threatened” Santelli is nuts, and irresponsible.

Here’s that “threat” from press secretary Robert Gibbs:

“I’ve watched Mr. Santelli on cable the past 24 hours or so. I’m not entirely sure where Mr. Santelli lives or in what house he lives but the American people are struggling every day to meet their mortgages, stay in their jobs, pay their bills, send their kids to school.”

Poorly phrased, maybe, but Gibbs is clearly saying that Santelli is out of touch with regular people. A fair point, considering that Santelli thinks traders on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange represent a “cross-section of America” and that people who can’t pay their mortgage are “losers.”

And here’s a question: Why is a CNBC editor going on a show with a convicted felon on the outer fringes of American public discourse?

But the larger point is this: Santelli’s outburst, whether spontaneous or staged, is one thing. For NBC cynically to ride this tiger of fear and misguided outrage is something else entirely. Its producers and anchors encouraged Santelli during his blowup, and now NBC’s networks have promoed the hell out of it (“Rick’s Revolution”, “Rebel Yell”, including leading the NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams with it on Thursday.

And now, on Liddy’s show, Santelli is completely off the reservation. NBC/CNBC only has itself to blame.

Whatever the network’s calculations, this is a low point for the peacock. Playing with your credibility may give you a short-term gain, but it’s a long-term drain.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.