An Oversteeped Tea Party?

The movement may be overhyped, but it's still a legitimate story

Of the various criticisms that get levied against Politico, one of the most common is that it inflates stories that should remain trivial. So it was interesting, and a little surprising, to see a prominent article on the site this morning arguing that one of the top political stories of the moment—the Tea Party movement—is mostly a load of media hype.

And reporters Jonathan Martin and Ben Smith pull together a pretty strong case, noting that this efflorescence of opposition is not unprecedented, is not especially large by historical standards, and is not necessarily likely to drive election outcomes—all claims that have recently been made by other credible observers. And they direct some sharp snark at the weighty anthropological explorations of what’s driving the movement, suggesting it’s not all that hard to explain: “In fact, there is a word for what poll after poll depicts as a group of largely white, middle-class, middle-aged voters who are aggrieved: Republicans.”

Martin and Smith even commendably mention Politico in their discussion of media outlets that have succumbed to “a nearly manic obsession” with the movement. (The piece might be seen, actually, as an embodiment of Politico’s unending efforts to get out in front of the next twist in the political narrative. When I interviewed journalists at various publications about coverage of the Tea Party a few months ago, a Politico editor boasted that they’d been the first to establish the “town halls gone wild” meme last summer. Now, with complaints percolating that coverage of the conservative opposition has gone overboard, Politico delivers the big-idea piece consolidating the pushback.)

Still, while the story connects with a number of its criticisms, the argument gets unfortunately muddled at points—and doesn’t, in the end, acknowledge the reasons why the at least some of the press should be covering the movement.

First, it’s a little imprecise to talk about “the media” overemphasizing the Tea Party, because “the media” consists of a lot of different things, each of which face different incentives. Smith and Martin spend most of their piece on old-line outlets like The New York Times; Fox and MSNBC aren’t even named until the penultimate paragraph. And legacy publications—especially the NYT, which is named five times in the Politico story—have turned out a lot of Tea Party coverage over the past few months, perhaps, as Smith and Martin suggest in their lead, to compensate for being slow to the story in the first place. But as a share of overall newshole, coverage in newspapers pales in comparison to cable, with its huge appetite for unusual visuals and polarizing subject matter. The outlets that have done the most to put the Tea Party on the news agenda, in other words, aren’t the same ones delivering earnest exegeses.

Second, Martin and Smith give plenty of space over to political participants of one sort or another, who have their own grievances to air. The result is that there are a lot of complaints about Tea Party coverage in here, some of which are contradictory, and not all of which support the central claim that the movement has been hyped. So we hear from Cindy Sheehan, who says the Tea Partiers “are being treated with a lot more respect than the anti-war movement was,” and GOP consultants like Alex Castellanos, who say the coverage has been condescending and elitist. The lesson, as always: nobody thinks their side gets treated fairly by the press. Sheehan and Castellanos can no doubt each point to support for their claims, but I wouldn’t trust either of them for an impartial assessment of the fairness of the Tea Party coverage overall, or the signal-to-noise ratio it contains.

And the truth is, while Smith and Martin are right that the movement has been hyped, it’s still a legitimate story. By all means, journalists should keep the Tea Parties in perspective, providing historical and electoral context. The movement shouldn’t be the frame for all political coverage, and we don’t need facile “what does the Tea Party think?” sidebars for every issue. But we should absolutely have a few sharp reporters on this beat. One of those reporters, Dave Weigel—the Washington Post blogger who is mentioned but not named in the Politico piece, and whom the Post hired after it had clearly fallen behind on this story—explained why today:

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.

“Driving” might be too strong a word, but this is basically right. (And, for those who are concerned, Weigel doesn’t accept the conservative critique of the coverage, either.) And if you’re not persuaded, consider this concluding point from Weigel:

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?

Amen to that.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.