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Yes, the media should cover the tea parties

You've got to love articles about whether or not a subject gets too much media coverage that are splashed in "AMERICA DECLARES WAR" type across the home page of Politico. And this story by Jonathan Martin and Ben Smith mentions, among other things, "the blogger the Washington Post hired to chronicle" tea parties as proof of how the press "exaggerate[s] both the influence and exotic traits of the tea-party movement." So, let me say first that this is a fine article which gets into at least two important points.

Point No. 1: "The new energy and organization is a function of an inflamed conservative grassroots already basically aligned with one party." That's a pretty obvious point that is obscured by questions about whether the tea parties are representative of "independents" who tell pollsters they've soured on President Obama. There's a shrinking but resilient American majority of largely white conservatives -- the people who voted for Reagan, the people who split between Bush and Perot -- and the most frustrated members of that bloc make up the tea party movement.

Point No. 2: Republicans are convinced that tea party coverage has become an effort to "other-ize" conservatives. In the words of Mike Murphy, who's currently living the rugged life of a Meg Whitman consultant:

These young reporters fly to the wilds of Oklahoma or Kentucky, find a bunch of folks in Uncle Sam suits hollering and come back thinking they’ve got some hot scoop.

This is, obviously, loaded criticism, with the implication being that the nattering nabobs of the East Coast just don't understand the real America. I take issue with this. If a political movement, however loosely aggregated, is driving the policies of one party, it deserves copious and probing coverage. Yes, it's frustrating for liberals that a few hundred tea party activists can steal the headlines by packing into town hall meetings. But understanding why that happened, how social networks and technology made that possible, and whether or not their worries were well-founded -- that is obviously a job for political journalists.

Now, can the media go overboard in covering every development within and every endorsement made by tea parties? Obviously it can. But I would point to an unspoken factor pushing the political press to do this coverage. Partisan media, of the right and the left, both want to know more about the tea parties. Fox News has egged the rest of the media on to follow its lead -- and try and compete for its surging viewership -- by covering tea parties. Talking Points Memo, the Huffington Post, and MSNBC are on a constant search for outrageous tea party stories, photos, and videos, all of it in demand by a readership that's angry at these protesters trying to bring down the president and Congress they worked so hard to elect. By contrast, there was no right/left interest in more coverage of war protests.

Finally, every moment we're talking about the grass-roots activists of the tea parties or the free-market groups who are trying to shape their messaging and strategy is a moment we're not talking about Sarah Palin's Facebook posts. Who can complain about that?

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By David Weigel  |  April 22, 2010; 9:33 AM ET
Categories:  Media , Tea Party  | Tags: Conservatism, Fox News, Fox News Channel, Huffington Post, MSNBC, Politics, United States, Washington Post  
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