TV's Tea Party Travesty

How ABC, CBS and NBC Have Dismissed and Disparaged the Tea Party Movement


TeaPartySmallThe Tea Party arose as a potent political movement in early 2009, a grassroots reaction to the massive government spending and interventionist policies of the new Obama administration and congressional liberals. On the February 19, 2009 Squawk Box, CNBC contributor Rick Santelli took aim at the just-announced policy of government-instigated mortgage modifications, handing taxpayer-funded aid to over-extended borrowers who might otherwise default. “The government is promoting bad behavior,” Santelli proclaimed, by asking responsible borrowers “to subsidize the losers’ mortgages.”

“How many of you people want to pay for your neighbor’s mortgage that has an extra bathroom and can’t pay their bills?” Santelli challenged the traders standing near him at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. The crowd erupted in disapproval. “We’re thinking of having a Chicago Tea Party in July,” he exclaimed. “All you capitalists that want to show up to Lake Michigan, I’m gonna start organizing.”

The spontaneous reaction was about more than just burdening responsible taxpayers with the debts of their irresponsible neighbors. Less than one month in office, the Obama administration had already pushed through a $787 billion “stimulus” package (the cost of which would later be estimated by the Congressional Budget Office at an even more extravagant $862 billion), and would soon propose a massive new health care entitlement program and instigate a federal takeover of the General Motors and Chrysler automobile companies. The minor tax cuts in the stimulus bill notwithstanding, the inevitable consequence of such profligacy and intrusion into the free market would be much higher taxes, a bigger and more controlling government, and a further shifting away from America’s tradition of individual freedom and personal responsibility.

The first T.E.A. Party (Taxed Enough Already) protests took place in various cities on February 27, 2009, just eight days after Santelli’s rant. A major national protest was scheduled for April 15, “tax day,” the deadline for filing federal income tax forms. After that event showed the Tea Party to be a major movement, pundits on MSNBC and CNN heaped on the invective. On the Imus in the Morning radio program, CNN contributor Paul Begala, a longtime Democratic operative, blasted the protesters as “just a bunch of wimpy, whiny weasels who don’t love their country.” Begala snarled: “There are guys at Walter Reed who gave their legs for my country, and they’re whining because they have to write a check?” Later that night, CNN anchor Anderson Cooper cracked vulgar jokes about “tea-bagging” with resident political analyst David Gergen (Cooper apologized a few days later).

Over on MSNBC, Keith Olbermann derided the Tea Partiers as racists — “a bunch of guys who are just looking for a reason to yell at the black President.” Setting up a sinister spin that liberals would work to perpetuate, Olbermann darkly wondered: “What happens if somebody who’s at one of these things hurts somebody?”

But the liberal cable news networks, particularly MSNBC, barely even pretend to offer objective news these days. So what about the supposedly more traditional broadcast news operations at ABC, CBS and NBC? Did they cover the Tea Party from a professional, objective point of view, or did they reflect the left-wing hostility of their cable brethren? To find out, MRC analysts reviewed every reference to the Tea Party on the broadcast networks’ morning, evening and late-night news programs, plus the Sunday morning chat shows, from Rick Santelli’s first suggestion of a Tea Party on February 19, 2009 through March 31, 2010.

Despite shrinking audiences and a changing media landscape, these network programs still reach larger audiences than any other media outlet. During the first three months of 2010, ABC’s World News, the CBS Evening News and the NBC Nightly News reached an average of more than 24 million viewers each weeknight, while the network morning shows (Good Morning America, The Early Show and Today) combined to reach around 11 million. ABC’s Nightline had about 3.7 million viewers, while the three Sunday talk shows (This Week, Face the Nation and Meet the Press) had a combined audience of eight million people.

These numbers dwarf those of the supposed stars of the liberal cable networks. During the same period, MSNBC’s highest-rated program, Countdown with Keith Olbermann, barely topped one million total viewers, while CNN’s ratings leader, Larry King Live, had an average audience of 771,000. (The Fox News Channel’s O’Reilly Factor was the top show among all cable news outlets, with an average viewership of 3.6 million.)

Using the Nexis data retrieval system plus the Media Research Center’s own News Tracking System (NTS), our researchers found 202 network stories that either mentioned the Tea Party or referred to a Tea Party event. Just 61 of those were actually full items (narrated field reports or interview segments) about the Tea Party; the remaining 141 were either brief mentions included in segments about other topics, or short items read by a news anchor.

While it wasn’t very much, ABC did offer the most coverage (32 stories), followed by NBC (19) and CBS (10). The 30-minute evening newscasts actually ran slightly more full items (28) than the networks’ multi-hour morning news programs (24). Oddly, the politically-oriented Sunday talk shows ran relatively few segments (8), and ABC’s Nightline produced just one in-depth item on the Tea Party in the past year.

These totals are incredibly small, given the impact of the Tea Party movement on American politics over the same period. And, remarkably, most of the network coverage (69%) actually aired in just the first three months of 2010. (See chart.) Apart from relatively slight coverage of two of the Tea Party’s major rallies, the broadcast networks virtually refused to recognize the Tea Party’s rise in 2009.