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Has the mainstream media been unusually unfair in its portrayals of the Tea Party movement?

BY DI EDITORIAL STAFF | APRIL 15, 2010 7:30 AM

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YES

During the Bush years, liberals parroted this line of leftist historian Howard Zinn: “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.”

Under this mantra, liberals took any chance they could to protest nearly all of Bush’s policies. Back then, media outlets camped outside of Bush’s Texas ranch alongside antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan and then left when her cause was no longer germane to liberal political priorities.

As the political tides have shifted, the Democrats find themselves on the receiving end of the “highest form of patriotism,” with events such as the Tea Party protest today outside of the office of Rep. Dave Loebsack, D-Iowa.

Yet, the Tea Partiers are not given the same treatment as the protesters in the days of yore. Many mainstream media personalities, such as Keith Olbermann or Anderson Cooper, willfully call the Tea Party protesters “tea-baggers” (a sexual term, if you didn’t know), and most media outlets and Democratic politicians try to contend that Tea Party protesters are racist, bigoted, or whatever convenient label they can find.

For example, as members of the Congressional Black Caucus marched into the Capitol last month for the final health-care seppuku, er… vote, they chose to walk in through the mall, versus the tunnels they usually use to reach the Capitol. Media outlets then reported that protesters yelled racist slurs at the members.

Despite no proof of racial slurs being yelled (and conservatives like Andrew Breitbart offering $10,000 for proof that racist slurs were yelled), stories appeared across news outlets and the liberal blogosphere that Tea Partiers were racist, fascist hoodlums — sans evidence. Some even tried to compare the Tea Partiers to civil-rights opponents in the 1960s. Kind of a stretch, if you ask me.

With all these story lines dominant, it is a wonder the public even knows that Tea Party protests are all about opposing our government’s reckless spending. I, for one, did not know protesting higher taxes and reckless spending was racist.

— by Jonathan Groves

NO

I like to think my views of the Tea Party movement are a bit more nuanced than those of many liberals.

While I deplore the movement’s anti-government views, I wouldn’t characterize most of its participants as ignorant bigots. Still, unlike many conservatives, I don’t buy into the left-wing-media-is-trying-to-torpedo-the-Tea-Party story line.

You see, Tea Partiers are a boon for both parties. Democrats can highlight the explicitly racist signs at Tea Party rallies and lump Republicans in with the worst elements of the movement. And GOP members can frame Democrats as aloof elitists, unwilling to listen to the cries of the country’s “silent majority.”

Like most dichotomized political discourse, this really doesn’t get us anywhere. And this banal left-right prism certainly doesn’t lend itself to seriously exploring the mainstream media’s coverage of Tea Partiers.

What’s most important to understand is the nature of the mainstream media — especially cable news. While newspaper accounts are typically more dispassionate, television (and especially cable news) feasts on sensationalism. That means more histrionics and more crazies. I’d argue it’s not a reflection of a concerted effort to undermine the Tea Party movement but a manifestation of the media’s routines.

In addition, grass-roots movements generally don’t have the luxury of framing themselves in the mainstream media. The Tea Party movement is especially prone to this disadvantage. While it has underlying ideological proclivities — smaller government, lower taxes, etc. — it’s an amorphous group with no clear figurehead. Consequently, the frame the media implicitly decides to advance (often one that picks out the movement’s most radical, prejudicial elements) is the one that gains the most traction.

So has the media’s treatment of the Tea Party movement been unfair? Yes — but not any more unfair than its coverage of any other grass-roots movement, whether left- or right-wing. And that’s an important distinction.

— by Shawn Gude


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