The Campaign Spot

Who Is Hilary Rosen? Crass? Gilded? Stern?

Who is Hilary Rosen?

She’s a veteran Democratic consultant and CNN pundit, now notorious for a slam of Ann Romney that was deemed out of bounds by Obama strategist David Axelrod, campaign manager Jim Messina, first lady Michelle Obama, Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, and finally, President Obama himself.

But a look at Rosen’s career reveals a fascinating figure gliding comfortably from representing some of the world’s most powerful and vilified corporations to the highest levels of Democratic-party politics.

Rosen first came to fame — and a significant amount of infamy — from her time heading up the Recording Industry Association of America. She worked for the RIAA from 1987 to 2003, and was the face of the organization when it sought to crack down on music-downloading sites like Napster.

An extensive and fairly balanced profile by Matt Bai in Wired magazine laid out how Rosen’s anti-swapping crusade at RIAA turned her into a much-derided symbol of powerful corporate interests to many young people who loved their free downloads:

Reviled by college kids, music fans, and more than a few recording artists for the RIAA’s role in forcing the shutdown of Napster, Rosen is seen as the embodiment of a venal corporate culture hurtling toward obsolescence. It seems she’ll stop at nothing to frighten those who share music online instead of buying it in a store — hacking into networks, threatening universities and businesses, sending out subpoenas to unmask music-swappers. Some Hilary haters have protested her speeches and urged others to mail her excrement. On a scale of odiousness, devotees of the Web site Whatsbetter?com rated Rosen just below Illinois Nazis but better than Michael Bolton (and way above pedophile priests). On the more serious side, death threats once prompted Rosen to travel with security. “People take their free music seriously,” Rosen says wryly . . .

Rosen’s public persona was defined during the 18-month court battle over Napster, when she was constantly popping up in front of microphones and cameras announcing some new way to put the file-swapping site out of business. Publicly, she emerged as a stern voice for the industry. Behind the scenes, by pulling together the labels, ginning up lawsuits, and preaching her case all over the world, Rosen single-handedly marshaled the forces necessary to push back the power of the digital age. At least temporarily.

. . . The victory came at a steep personal cost. As industry figures urged her on from the sidelines, Rosen withstood a level of vitriol that stunned friends. In Washington, it was understood that she was a paid lobbyist. Online, she might as well have been the Unabomber in a pantsuit. One Web magazine likened Rosen to the Antichrist and named her Beast of the Month.

Ironically, Rosen was standing up for corporations’ private-property rights, leaving her making philosophical arguments more associated with the Right today:  “People took their free music really seriously. It was amazing how strongly people felt about their principled right to someone else’s property,” she told USA Today in 2001. (The issue of illegal music downloading largely dissipated with the rise of iTunes, which charged 99 cents for most songs, a price and simplicity consumers found attractive.)

Some sections of of Bai’s profile appear to foreshadow how an aggressive, no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners approach could bring Rosen trouble someday:

“She can punch you in the face, and you’re still smiling after she does it,” says John Podesta, who dealt with her on copyright issues when he was Bill Clinton’s chief of staff. Most lobbyists make their living nurturing goodwill among lawmakers, with the understanding that they’re saying what they have to on behalf of their clients. Rosen protects her industry with a tenaciousness that can seem personal, giving no ground.

The Federal Trade Commission, for example, has issued several reports criticizing labels for being less cooperative about rating products for children than the film or videogame businesses, and frustrated members of Congress have hammered Rosen on the issue, to no avail. “When she gets her back up against the wall or feels like you’re threatening their bottom line, she can be very tough and aggressive, bordering on hostile,” an aide on the Hill says.

Of course, heaps of public abuse can take a toll on anyone, and in 2003, she resigned from RIAA, saying she . . . wanted to spend more time with her children. It is a noble motive, undoubtedly, but one that looks a little ironic in light of her suggestion that Ann Romney’s decision to make the same choice represents “not working a day in her life.”

But there was a time when Rosen seemed to think raising five children was an ideal trait in a political leader. Describing the benefits of Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House before the 2006 midterms, Rosen wrote, “She jokes about the skills learned herding her family of five kids and an independent minded husband.”

Rosen most recently ran into controversy in 2010 when she began consulting for BP on messaging and communications after the Deepwater Horizon disaster caused enormous amounts of oil to leak into the Gulf of Mexico. Two years earlier, Rosen had become Washington editor-at-large of the Huffington Post, and that website’s coverage of the Gulf disaster was consistently scathing of the oil company. The Post’s eponymous founder, Arianna Huffington, called Rosen’s departure a “mutual decision.”

Rosen’s work for BP while working as a regular commentator under contract to CNN ruffled some feathers within the news network, with some staffers complaining to other media that Rosen’s multiple consulting clients offered numerous possibilities for conflicts of interest:

One Washington CNN source says the statement’s careful wording makes CNN “sound like a political campaign under fire, instead of a news organization,” adding, “The fact that Huffington Post has a higher ethics standard than CNN is itself stunning.”

The source also points out that special-interest consultants don’t necessarily need to discuss client-related issues on-air to put CNN in ethical quicksand. “When Hilary Rosen,” who gets a lot of face time as an expert on gay issues, “is on the air defending Obama for dragging his feet on ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ the back story is that she’s got a lot of business in front of the White House,” the source says. “The question is: Is she saying what she’s saying to curry favor?”

The Washington CNN source says “a lot of the network’s producers are upset over this,” and that CNN political director Sam Feist and Lucy Spiegel, executive director in charge of D.C.-based contributors and analysts, are under scrutiny and “pointing fingers at each other.”

As a communications consultant, Rosen has proven a regular presence at the White House in Obama’s presidency. Official records indicate she visited the White House at least 35 times (more frequently than the secretaries of energy, veterans’ affairs, and defense and the CIA directors), including five meetings with the president. The AP reported that her meetings were primarily about promoting Obama’s health-care-reform plan, suggesting that she can take a share of the credit for the popularity and public trust that the Obamacare law enjoys today.

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