And now for tonight’s top story: More irrelevant Tea Party coverage!
By Andy Casler
Calling November’s election cycle “expensive” is an understatement equal to saying that Lil’ Wayne smokes some weed. But still more noteworthy than the $4.2 billion spent on campaigning is the fact that during the seven weeks leading up to the midterm election, the Tea Party movement candidates received more lead newsmaker attention than any other political group.
In 2010, the mainstream media dedicated a lion’s share of its coverage to the midterm election, with much of that coverage featuring the emerging Tea Party movement. According to studies conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, of the 10 most covered candidates, the media focused more of its coverage on Tea Party-backed candidates than establishment GOP and Democrat candidates combined. The most prominent newsmaker of the election was Delaware senate hopeful Christine O’Donnell, who commanded 160 stories prior to the election.
Covering the Two-Party Horserace
Accounting for historic precedent, it is absolutely freakish for a third party to be so intensely covered by the mainstream media, while also neglecting to include other third parties. This October, when the Green Party candidate for governor of California, Laura Wells, tried to enter a debate with her opponents, California’s San Rafael police department arrested her. Mainstream national media did not cover this story. But the Tea Party rallies were covered by most national news networks, and Tea Party-backed candidates ranked among the biggest newsmakers of the country’s most expensive midterm election. It’s apparent that the Tea Party movement is bankrolled by some of the nation’s largest pocketbooks, indicating that it’s possibly a movement more Astroturf than grassroots.
The origins of the Tea Party movement are murky, and polls have shown that few Americans know what the movement really stands for, but in general, their talking points support smaller government and no tax increases. The public’s knowledge gap is mainly the fault of a mass media system that treats political campaigns like stock car races. Statistics are distributed regarding the racer’s latest lap time, position in the race and how his season is going.
On cable news it’s common to tune into a discussion regarding the low-hanging fruit of the political process: what candidate has the most effective ad, what candidate is ahead in the polls and what their reputation is so far. National media also focused on Tea Partiers’ water cooler antics, ranging from O’Donnell asserting she is not a witch to Rand Paul supporters stomping on protesters’ heads.
These discussions failed to account for some of the most important information about candidates. For example: Who is funding this candidate? What do they really stand for? Could their policies contradict their campaign promises? Without answering these questions, it is nearly impossible for voters to fill knowledge gaps and understand exactly whom they are supporting.
Peter Hart, the activism director of Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting, believes that the media helped the Tea Party gain much of its support.
“I think any activist group across the political spectrum would have to be dumbfounded at the amount of attention that was piled on right away without any understanding of the size or scope of it,” he said. “[Mainstream media coverage] certainly helped build the Tea Party movement. It doesn’t hurt to be in the news every day, and it doesn’t hurt to have every 20 people who show up to yell at a congressman covered live on CNN.”
With heavy coverage for candidates like O’Donnell and Carl Paladino—who never actually had a chance at winning their races and provided very little reason to be covered in the national media other than serving as weird sideshows with clowns committing political faux pas—the result was a bait-and-switch effect with irrelevant news.
“You knew who was running in terms of Tea Party candidates, you knew Christine O’Donnell, [but] you didn’t know who was running against Russ Feingold,” Hart said. Feingold was a three-term Democratic Wisconsin senator defeated by Republican Ron Johnson. “[Johnson] is somebody who had an actual impact in the national political conversation, but for whatever reason the media said he wasn’t as interesting as Christine O’Donnell, who was perhaps better TV but completely forgettable as a politician and had no impact, other than she would lose for the Republican party what seemed to be a sure win in the state of Delaware.”
An Astroturf Movement?
At first glance, the Tea Party seems like the conservative echo of President Obama’s 2008 political machine, but as the midterm elections dragged on, information regarding who funds the purported grassroots movement emerged. The assumption that the Tea Party is grassroots is, in fact, partially true. The Tea Party is a disjointed political organization that began as grassroots but was picked up by influential investors and then embraced by the likes of Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck and the billionaire Koch brothers. One reason that the Tea Party is so skilled at finding media coverage is that the movement has been bankrolled by some of America’s wealthiest people and supported by TV news pundits—many of whom have close GOP ties.
The New Yorker first exposed that brothers David and Charles Koch, the owners of Koch Industries, were helping to finance the Tea Party. The Sarah Mellon Scaife Foundation, financed by the Mellon industrial, oil and banking fortune, has given a total of $2.96 million in funding to FreedomWorks, which is a lobbyist-run think tank that works to train social activists and funnels support to the Tea Party.
On Oct. 28, Mother Jones published an exposé showing that multi-millionaire Raymon F. Thompson, whom the magazine reported to have been a major donor to the Republican Party for more than 15 years, donated his jet to the Tea Party. Thompson is the founder and former CEO of Semitool, a semiconductor company he recently sold for $364 million.
In essence, as the Tea Party movement grew, it became a re-branding of the Republican base after eight damaging years of President George W. Bush. The new name energized supporters and became a new way of talking about the exact same ideas that the political right has supported for decades. But it is difficult to qualify which Tea Party principles are fueled by grassroots and which are fed by silver spoons.
Clearing Up Media Distortions
A worthwhile starting point for inaccurate media coverage of the Tea Party Movement is Glenn Beck’s 9-12 rally in Washington, D.C. Beck reported attendance of the Tea Party rally at 500,000, while the Washington, D.C., Fire Department unofficially estimated the actual range to be from 50,000 to 60,000 people. Months later, Fox News pundit Sean Hannity used b-roll from the 9-12 rally to portray a Tea Party protest of the health care reform plan. This time Fox estimated the attendance at 20,000 to 45,000. The Washington Post estimated attendance at 10,000.
The effect of media outlets choosing to focus coverage on Tea Party foolishness may have dulled public misgivings toward GOP establishment candidates, and amid low approval for President Obama’s polices from the left and right, may have allowed the non-Tea Party, GOP-affiliated candidates to largely avoid political faux pas in the media during the campaigning season.
Since the media were tied up with a few ill-behaved politicians like Paladino, O’Donnell and Paul, it was easy for Americans to be left not knowing exactly what the Tea Party stood for. “If you were watching the nightly newscast, you might know that the Tea Party movement is people who are worried about spending or people who want to take their country back,” Hart said. “Without any explanation of what they mean, or exactly what they’re trying to do, you might think, ‘Wow, that sounds OK to me.’”
A September survey from the Associated Press and GfK Roper Public Affairs & Media shows that 41 percent of respondents knew “not too much” to “nothing at all” about the Tea Party movement. Only 29 percent of respondents said they had “favorable” views toward the movement.
Despite their rhetoric, Tea Party candidates are not anti-government or anti-spending. They demonize the TARP bank bailout but simultaneously champion Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck—who both supported Bush’s $700 billion bank bailout—as heroes. Tea Partiers support building schools and roads, maintaining a police force and military spending. The Tea Party has, as a whole, shown itself to be intolerant of minorities as well as taxes, which they believe, eat up their money and redistributes it to a welfare state. Though often underreported in Tea Party coverage, candidates have shown vehement distrust of Obama and other blacks, radical views against Muslims and anti-gay sentiments.
This isn’t an astounding change from past American social movements that have occurred in times of economic hardship. The most obvious example is radio host Father Coughlin, who preached anti-Semitism during the 1930s and 1940s.
In order for a democracy to have a meaningful election cycle, voters must be armed with relevant information about whom they are voting for, what investors those politicians, if elected, will be beholden to and what policies they will enact when in office. But when the media cover the election like a stock car race, it is nearly impossible to get those imperative questions answered.
Andy Casler is a senior journalism major who avoids tea parties but is always interested in what the host is serving. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.