In the first year of the Obama administration, the corporate media suddenly overcame their general aversion to citizen movements that criticize government policies, granting the staunchly conservative Tea Party activists enormous coverage—a decision that seems likely to impact politics for the foreseeable future.
Citizen movements are hardly ever front-page news, even when they have clearly identifiable political agendas and broad public support. But the Tea Party movement—an amorphous, politically incoherent umbrella designation for various strands of opposition to Obama, much of it beset with racism and backed by less-than-grassroots deep-pocket Beltway lobbying groups—has managed to buck that trend, getting the fervent support of conservative media and wide, often uncritical coverage in the corporate media.
The Tea Party name derives from a rant by CNBC’s Rick Santelli (2/19/09), who was furious about the White House’s home loan modification programs. “How many people want to pay for your neighbor’s mortgages that has an extra bathroom and can’t pay their bills?” Santelli barked, making his case with the kind of logic that would later make Glenn Beck such a success: “You know, Cuba used to have mansions and a relatively decent economy. They moved from the individual to the collective. Now they’re driving ’54 Chevys. It’s time for another tea party.”
That clip became an Internet sensation, and—so we’re told—a movement was born. Anti-tax protests were organized in numerous cities in mid-April; conservatives complained about the lack of coverage, but the events were in fact well-documented (FAIR Blog, 4/16/09; see sidebar).
The contentious town hall meetings of the summer of 2009 were seen as another manifestation of budding domestic unrest. Lawmakers conducting routine sessions in their legislative districts were faced by dozens of angry, sometimes threatening citizens, goaded by talk radio and Internet organizers into denouncing the White House healthcare proposals as a socialist menace. Most of the protests were rather small, but nonetheless were covered across the cable news channels, reframing the debate over healthcare and putting Democrats on the defensive.
The pinnacle of Tea Party power, as media told it, was Republican Scott Brown’s unlikely triumph in the special election for Edward Kennedy’s Massachusetts Senate seat. A Christian Science Monitor headline (1/19/10) declared Brown “The Tea Party’s First Electoral Victory.” The New York Times reported (1/21/10) that Brown’s win was “the coming of age of the Tea Party movement, which won its first major electoral success with a new pragmatism.” Though it’s not entirely clear what role Tea Party voters played in the election—Kevin Drum argues it was very little (Mother Jones.com, 1/23/10)—journalists seem to have attached an importance and power to the Tea Party movement that is out of proportion with its actual numbers.
Journalists routinely label the Tea Party movement as “populist,” but researchers Chip Berlet (Progressive, 2/10) and David Barstow (New York Times, 2/16/10) point out that, at least at the grassroots level, the movement harbors activists of a variety of stripes, from Ron Paul supporters to Republican Party officials, from longtime militia movement organizers to newly minted political activists troubled by the economic downturn.
It can be hard to discern a consistent Tea Party philosophy, and the contradictions can be glaring. Even some of the movement’s supposedly cherished positions seem up for grabs: Tea Partiers can oppose government spending and Medicare cuts; they can denounce TARP bailouts and make heroes of the likes of Palin, Glenn Beck and Newt Gingrich, all of whom supported Bush’s bank-rescue program.
But while journalists have often ignored or downplayed the contradictions, there’s one consistency they ignore in painting Tea Partiers as wholesome adherents to small government, constitutional principles and so on: the movement’s singular and often racialized loathing of Barack Obama.
Indeed, anti-immigrant leader Tom Tancredo, a former Colorado congressmember, was cheered at a Nashville “Tea Party Nation” convention (2/4/10) for declaring that Jim Crow-era voting restrictions would have prevented Obama’s election:
Something really odd happened, mostly because we do not have a civics literacy test before people can vote in this country. People who could not even spell the word “vote” or say it in English put a committed socialist ideologue in the White House. His name is Barack Hussein Obama.
Coupled with the tolerance of racist signs (e.g., “Obama’s Plan: White Slavery”) and symbols such as Confederate flags at movement events, it makes one wonder why journalists largely avoid the conclusion that racism is a factor in the movement. After all, this would not be the first American movement to channel genuine economic insecurity into racial resentment.
Antipathy toward Obama as a black Democratic president goes some way in explaining why, if the Tea Partiers are really motivated by opposition to government spending, the movement didn’t launch years earlier in response to George W. Bush’s skyrocketing budget deficits.
After months of coverage, one striking fact began to emerge from media’s public opinion polling: Most people seemed to have almost no idea what the Tea Party movement was. But there have been efforts to improve their public standing, as when NBC tried to give them a leg up in a December 2009 poll.
The December 17 headline on MSNBC’s website (echoed in some on-air reporting) read, “Tea Party More Popular Than Dems, GOP.” But the poll found that 48 percent of respondents knew “very little” or “nothing at all” about the populist uprising; how could such an obscure movement be more popular than the two major parties? Well, the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll gave the group a rather upbeat description in their question to the public: “In this movement, citizens, most of whom are conservatives, participated in demonstrations in Washington, D.C., and other cities, protesting government spending, the economic stimulus package and any type of tax increases.”
That a “no tax hike, responsible spending” party you’ve never heard of is more popular than political parties that have earned public mistrust over several decades is not much of a surprise. But that framing was common. After noting that most people it polled had heard little or nothing about the Tea Party movement, the New York Times nonetheless identified their potential base of support (2/12/10): “The level of dissatisfaction with both political parties—and the fact that 56 percent of Americans in the poll want a smaller government—suggests that the Tea Party movement has an opportunity to draw more support.”
The Washington Post reported (2/11/10) that its own poll found that “nearly two-thirds of those polled say they know just some, very little or nothing about what the Tea Party movement stands for.” The Post still added that “the lack of information does not erase the appeal: About 45 percent of all Americans say they agree at least somewhat with tea partiers on issues, including majorities of Republicans and independents.”
So how does a movement of somewhat murky origins and political goals come to command so much media attention? The idea that right-wing agitators could actually elevate the national discourse—despite much evidence to the contrary—was one strand of media thought. In “How the Tea Party Could Help All of Us” (2/15/10), Newsweek editor Jon Meacham explained that the movement was, in part, about getting back to constitutional principles and “the recovery of the spirit of the American Founding.”
The political message of the Nashville Tea Party convention (2/4-5/10) was appealing to many in the press; Washington Post columnist David Ignatius’ “Europe Could Use Its Own Tea Party” (2/11/10) gave token mention to troubling aspects of the movement he was recommending to Europe for its populist “fiscal conservatism.”
The Nashville gathering was heavily covered by the corporate media—an unusual decision given its size (about 600 attendees) and the fact that it was disowned by many Tea Party activists. CNN, nonetheless, reportedly sent a crew of 11 to report on the festivities (Politico, 2/12/10), apparently because Sarah Palin would be making an appearance as keynote speaker.
Palin’s support seems to have cemented corporate media’s interest in the Tea Party. While right-wingers complain of an anti-Palin media bias, Politico’s Jim VandeHei and Jonathan Martin wrote: “The reality is exactly the opposite: We love Palin. For the media, Palin is great at the box office.”
But there seems to be more to it than that; many in the press seem to think that Palin’s supposed popularity is emblematic of a conservative movement that the media aren’t granting enough time. The New York Times’ David Carr wrote (4/5/10) that if the press doesn’t appreciate Palin’s allegedly wide appeal, “maybe we deserve the ‘lamestream media’ label she likes to give us.” David Broder (Washington Post, 2/11/10) applauded Palin’s Nashville speech for its “pitch-perfect populism.”
And that may be the real point: The Tea Party’s right-wing populism is the perfect kind for corporate news outlets at a time when the wealthy elites who own and support them feel threatened by more authentic populist impulses. And for that reason, with or without Palin’s supposed star power, the Tea Party movement is likely to remain a focus of media attention.
On March 12, Politico media reporter Michael Calderone (3/12/10) noted that the Washington Post would assign a reporter to “make sure the movement’s covered fully in its pages.” That’s a level of attention few progressive citizen groups will ever receive from the corporate press.
SIDEBAR: Citizen Movements, On and Off Screen
Despite familiar right-wing complaints about liberal media hostility, the most high-profile Tea Party demonstrations have been widely covered. The April 15 tax protests were covered by all of the network newscasts, and were the lead stories on the CBS and NBC broadcasts. The conservate whining about the non-existent media blackout was echoed by Washington Post's Howard Kurtz (4/15/09), who wrote that while Fox News Channel shouldn't be organizing political gatherings, that doesn't excuse the rest of the press corps: "But there's another side to this saga. Most of the mainstream media fell down on the job, ignoring the growing movement or mocking it as a bunch of wingnuts."
Compare Tea Party coverage to the way corporate journalism has treated larger, more authentic popular movements, and the difference is like night and day. The vast antiwar movements of 2002 and 2003 were largely ignored when they were not treated with outright hostility in the corporate media (Extra! Update, 12/02, 4/03).
And a major gay rights march in October 2009 was afforded a fraction of the coverage of Tea Party events (Extra!, 12/09), despite the fact that the marriage equality demonstrations attracted more actual participants than the Tea Party gatherings in Washington.
Don't expect to see corporate media criticizing themselves for falling down on the job when it comes to covering those citizen movements.