In the mind's eye of the conservative movement, the Tea Party phenomenon right now is maybe the crucial factor in slowing socialism in Washington, on everything from the federal health care takeover to the hidden taxes of cap-and-trade legislation. It's also a fascinating visual. When was the last time you saw such a spontaneous eruption of conservative grass-roots anger, coast to coast? On both counts the Tea Party movement should be cause for massive television coverage. Except for one thing. It's a conservative uprising, so it gets different treatment.
It's ignored as long as possible, and when it's no longer possible to be ignored, it's savaged.
The movement was launched in February 2009 when CNBC's Rick Santelli suggested throwing a "tea party" to protest government takeovers. A new study by Rich Noyes of the Media Research Center found only 19 news stories on the Tea Party movement for the entire year on ABC, CBS, and NBC. The Obama family dog received more attention.
How anemic is this? Compare those 19 stories in all of 2009 with 41 stories the networks gave the "Million Mom March" against gun rights in 2000 - and all before the math-challenged protest even happened. Consider racist and anti-Semitic Rev. Louis Farrakhan's "Million Man March." On October 16, 1995, ABC, CBS, and NBC together aired 21 stories just on one night.
The difference in tone was just as dramatic. Amazingly, the Tea Parties were assumed to be racist, but Farrakhan's event was not. ABC anchor Peter Jennings devoted all but 75 seconds of his newscast to promotional goo for the Nation of Islam. Jennings sanitized the gathering. "For most of the hundreds of thousands who came here today, the event far overshadowed the man who organized it," Jennings claimed. He concluded the show on Farrakhan's behalf, that "it would be a terrible mistake not to recognize that here today he inspired many people, and in a broader sense, as one participant here after another has reaffirmed, this day, at this time and at this place, really did mean unity over division."
Jennings defied logic, and his own ears. The event meant "unity over division" even as speakers angrily attacked whites for "rolling toxic waste" into black communities, and screamed about the "growing racism and incipient fascism of white America." A young poet called blacks "God's divine race."
Compare that to the Tea Party stories. The victory of Sen. Scott Brown in Massachusetts spurred heavier network TV attention, another 42 stories in 2010. But now that they had to cover the Tea Party, the tone turned negative: overall, 27 of 61 stories (44 percent) openly suggested the movement was fringy or extremist.
Contrast ABC's Peter Jennings then with ABC's Dan Harris now. Farrakhan was somehow a uniter, not a divider. But Harris warned Tea Party protesters "waved signs likening Obama to Hitler and the devil...Some prominent Obama supporters are now saying that it paints a picture of an opposition driven, in part, by a refusal to accept a black president."
And with that, everyone associated with the Tea Party movement, and everyone in sympathy with the Tea Party movement, had just been neatly tarred with the racism brush. What dramatic selectivity of "news judgment"! At left-wing rallies, reporters consistently and easily ignored hateful and extremist podium speeches from protest organizers. They paid no attention to objectionable signs. "Bush Lied, Thousands Died!" Big deal!
But at a conservative event, they go searching high and low for the kookiest, fringiest protester in a crowd of tens of thousands, so they can smear the entire crowd as a racist gathering.
The sanitize-the-left pattern happened at anti-war marches before the Iraq war in 2003. Signs at one January protest included "Bush Is a Terrorist," "USA Is #1 Terrorist," and "The NYPD Are Terrorists Too." Hateful? Objectionable? Not on your life! ABC's Bill Blakemore ignored them, lauding the diversity of the marchers, "Democrats and Republicans, many middle-aged, from all walks of life." As one ABC producer admitted during the George H.W. Bush years, "We were looking for mainstream demonstrators."
The other networks echoed that approach. Take the issue of violence. On February 15, 2003, "peace" demonstrators in New York injured eight police officers, and several protesters were arrested. But CBS reporter Jim Acosta still referred to the event as peaceful: "Despite some arrests and clashes with police, it was, for the most part, a peaceful reminder to the powerful that there is a divide over whether the nation should go to war."
Just weeks ago, when the Tea Party crowd came to Capitol Hill against ObamaCare, no one was arrested. But network anchors like NBC's Brian Williams were still lamenting that the health-care debate had "veered into threats of violence."