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TV's Tea Party Travesty

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

Smearing With a Broad Brush

With a final House vote on Obama’s liberal health care package expected to be close, Tea Party activists held rallies around the country and on Capitol Hill in mid-March to try to lure undecided Democrats to their side. On the March 16 CBS Evening News, reporter Chip Reid impugned the activists as engaging in “ugly” tactics: “Outside the Capitol, a few hundred members of the conservative Tea Party movement called on Congress to kill the Democratic health care reform bill as Republicans urged them to keep fighting....Moving inside, they tried to lobby undecided Democrats. At times, it got ugly.”

CBS’s video of the supposed “ugly” confrontation consisted of a staffer closing a wooden door while a group of people mildly shouted in the corridor. The next morning, the political newspaper The Politico reported on the same event: “Staff members for Democrats reported orderly, even polite conversations with protesters....‘It was like a high school classroom,’ an aide to one lawmaker who hosted Tea Partiers noted glumly. ‘It was so boring.’”

Four days later, on the eve of the final vote, the networks breathlessly reported Democrats’  complaints that epithets had been shouted at Representatives John Lewis and Barney Frank, while someone in the crowd had supposedly spat at Representative Emmanuel Cleaver. Network reporters rhetorically punished the entire Tea Party gathering for the presumed actions of a few.

Anchoring ABC’s World News on March 20, David Muir indicted everyone who was there: “Late word from Washington tonight about just how ugly the crowds gathered outside the Longworth office building have become....” On the March 21 Face the Nation, Bob Schieffer made every demonstrator culpable:

A year-long debate that’s been rancorous and mean from the start turned even nastier yesterday. Demonstrators protesting the bill poured into the halls of Congress shouting ‘Kill the bill!’ and ‘Made in the USSR.’ And as tempers rose, they hurled racial epithets, even at civil rights icon John Lewis of Georgia, and sexual slurs at Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank. Other legislators said the protesters spit on them, and one lawmaker said it was like a page out of a time machine.

That night on ABC’s World News, Diane Sawyer kept hitting the same point, even though at that point the incident was more than 24 hours old: “Opponents of the bill have been out today, and some of them pulled out all the stops. Protesters roaming Washington, some of them increasingly emotional, yelling slurs and epithets.”

Tarring the entire Tea Party — and, by extension, anyone opposed to President Obama’s policies — based on a few isolated episodes of misbehavior fits with the networks’ pattern after the September 12 protest, when journalists chose to impugn the whole movement based on the presence of some hateful signs in the mass demonstration.

But that’s not the way the networks reacted to the presence of hateful signs or even outright violence when it appeared in various anti-war marches against the Iraq war. Back on January 18, 2003, all three of the broadcast networks touted an anti-war march organized by the radical International ANSWER, an outgrowth of the communist Workers World Party. Signs at the rally read: “USA Is #1 Terrorist,” “Bush Is a Terrorist,” and “The NYPD Are Terrorists Too.” National Review Online quoted several protesters who claimed 9/11 was a Bush plot, “like when Hitler burned down the Reichstag,” and argued Bush would “build a worldwide planetary death machine.”

Rather than attack the credibility of the entire march, reporters bypassed all that hate and showcased the protesters as everyday Americans. ABC’s Bill Blakemore stressed how the protest attracted “Democrats and Republicans, many middle-aged, from all walks of life,” while CBS’s Joie Chen saw “young, old, veterans and veteran activists — all united in the effort to stop the war before it starts.”

A month later, all three broadcast networks led their February 15, 2003 newscasts with another set of protests. In New York City, anti-war demonstrators injured eight police officers, and several protesters were arrested. In spite of the violence, CBS reporter Jim Acosta still referred to the event as “for the most part” 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.”

2010-03-24-NBC-NN-gettinguglyNo one was arrested at the Tea Party protest outside the Capitol on March 20, but all of the networks pounced on the Democrats’ complaints to tout the idea that the President’s opponents had became too dangerous. Over the next several days, reports of threatening phone calls and a brick thrown threw a window dominated the news. “It can now be said that the debate over health care reform has gone too far. It’s now veered into threats of violence,” NBC anchor Brian Williams castigated on the March 24 Nightly News. The network coverage quickly subsided after it turned out that Republicans had faced similar threats, with one man arrested after threatening the family of House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-VA).

There’s no obviously excuse for even the threat of violence in any policy discussion, but the networks’ outraged reaction to the much milder conduct of a few in the Tea Party crowd, compared to the genuinely violent actions of those on the anti-war Left, only underscores the double standard at play for most of the past year.