Feb 1 2010

National Equality vs. Tea Party

Which march matters for media?

Photo Credit: Human Rights Watch/PETRAS MALUKAS/AFP/Getty Images

Photo Credit: Human Rights Watch/PETRAS MALUKAS/AFP/Getty Images

“How do you, by and large, miss a gigantic rally?… America is waking up to the fact that our media is just not biased. They’re not giving us the truth.”

—Glenn Beck (Fox News, 9/14/09)

“When at least 75,000 Americans gather to protest something, you’d think it was news. But some media played down the huge anti-Obama protests on the nation’s capital this weekend.”

—Bill O’Reilly (Fox News, 9/14/09)

After the anti-Obama “Tea Party” protest in Washington in September, Fox News and other conservatives professed outrage that the rest of the media ignored an event that drew so many people. But how did Tea Party coverage compare to that given the gay rights march on Washington a month later?

The two protests were similar in size and uniqueness: Credible estimates of the Tea Party turnout were in the high tens of thousands (CJR, 9/14/09), while estimates for the gay march ranged from tens of thousands (AP, 10/12/09) to around 200,000 (Time, 10/12/09). A national gay march hadn’t taken place in 10 years, and conservatives likewise hadn’t assembled in such numbers in Washington since the Promise Keepers rally in 1997.

The origins of the marches, though, were quite different. The National Equality March was organized primarily by grassroots activists, many of them youth, with little support—and, in fact, some opposition—from well-funded national LGBT organizations. One of the main organizers of the anti-Obama rally, on the other hand, was FreedomWorks, a “free-market” group directed by GOP corporate lobbyist (and former House Majority Leader) Dick Armey, whose clients include pharmaceutical and oil companies. FreedomWorks was also behind much of the organizing and tactics of the aggressive town hall protests against healthcare reform during the summer (Think Progress, 4/14/09, 7/31/09).

Tea Partiers also got millions of dollars’ worth of publicity courtesy of Fox News, which has been heavily promoting those protests since they started shortly after Obama’s inauguration. “Tea Party” has come up more than 300 times on Fox during Obama’s administration, with viewers at times directly exhorted to protest, for example, by Glenn Beck (9/9/09): “Go to a restaurant, a bar, a neighbor’s house. Gather together—Republicans, independents, Democrats —because I think we all have had enough.”

Given all that, that the gay march equaled—or perhaps even doubled—the turnout of the conservative rally is pretty remarkable, suggesting deeper and broader support for the cause that was much less well-funded and publicized.

So which event did the “liberal” media deem more newsworthy?

In major newspapers, the Washington Post and L.A. Times ran articles about the Tea Party on the front page (9/13/09), and the New York Times (9/13/09) published a front-page photo (teasing an article inside); a month later, only the Post (10/12/09) put the gay march on A1. (USA Today didn’t cover either rally.)

Across the handful of segments on network TV news, conservative protesters got twice as many quotes as gay rights protesters, 32 to 16. (CBS was even with eight apiece.)

It was no surprise that Fox also gave much more time to the right-wing protesters, 21 segments vs. 11; for all its professed outrage over the lack of media coverage of masses of citizens uniting to protest the government, Fox failed to even send a camera person to cover the National Equality March (as the Daily Show’s Jon Stewart pointed out—10/13/09).

But Fox was hardly out of step with their cable competitors. A comparison of coverage turned up heavier play for the Tea Partiers on MSNBC (15 segments, vs. 7 for the gay rights march) and on CNN (78 segments vs. 58) as well. (Fox and MSNBC transcribe fewer of their shows for Nexis than CNN, which may account in part for their much lower totals.)

Transcripts indicate CNN didn’t even send an actual correspondent to the march, while they boasted of their “live team coverage” of the Tea Party (9/12/09) with three reporters on the scene, including CNN’s deputy political director and one correspondent who had traveled for the previous two weeks with the “Tea Party Express.”

With the notable exception of MSNBC, where coverage of the Tea Parties was largely critical (e.g., Rachel Maddow Show, 9/11/09; Ed Show, 9/14/09), journalists seemed content to give conservative protestors plenty of coverage with relatively little scrutiny. CNN’s Campbell Brown (9/14/09) noted the “ugly, vicious, racist imagery” at a Tea Party event where people carried signs like “Obama Back to Kenya”; but more typical reports missed that angle, as when NBC’s Tom Costello (9/12/09) called it “a cross-section of Americans determined to be heard.” Few hinted at the astroturf aspect of the protest; Costello told viewers, “By and large, Amy, this was a grassroots reunion, if you will, or an organization, that brought so many people here to Washington.”

And journalists seemed ready to take the conservative protesters seriously as a political force. Asked on NBC by Sunday Today’s Carl Quintanilla (9/13/09) whether “that kind of grassroots effort from the conservative base [can] put a dent in the president’s agenda beyond healthcare,” Meet the Press host David Gregory responded:

Well, it certainly can, because I think that the protest and the message goes beyond healthcare, too; it is really an indictment against the president, against the administration for excessive government, for the expansion of big government.

Surely then, the gay march too was an indictment against the president for inaction on campaign promises? Not exactly. NBC anchor Lester Holt and correspondent John Harwood discussed that point on the Nightly News (10/11/09):

Holt: John, what we saw in that protest today, was it simply frustration, or what does it represent a serious problem the president is having with an important part of his base?
Harwood: As a practical matter, Lester, I don’t think it’s a serious problem. We’ve seen, and certainly Bill Clinton learned, that Democratic presidents can get punished by the mainstream of the electorate for being too aggressive on social issues. So for now I think the administration feels if they take care of the big issues—health-care, energy, the economy—they’re going to be just fine with this group.

So a protest by a group that didn’t vote for Obama anyway is an indictment against the administration, but an equally large protest by a group that did vote for Obama and is now not happy with him is not a serious problem? It’s a curious analysis. But it’s typical of journalists’ dismissive attitudes towards non-conservative protesters (see, e.g., Extra!, 7-8/04, 7-8/05).

On Hardball (10/12/09), Chris Matthews asked: “Did it do the job? Did it push back—or push forward, rather, the gay rights agenda on issues like ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ and same-sex marriage?” Not so, Matthews concludes, agreeing with Sen. Barney Frank’s earlier comment that “the only thing they’re going to be putting pressure on is the grass,” and saying that protesters should be writing letters to their elected officials instead.

Indeed. That way their protests would be invisible, and Matthews and his friends could stop wasting their time on progressive demands.