As the conservative Tea Party movement has picked up steam over the past year, leading national media outlets—many of which were slow to cover the movement at first—have begun to pay more attention. On Tuesday, the movement’s mainstream media profile was raised quite a bit, as The New York Times published a 4,500-word front-page story, the product of five months of work by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter David Barstow. On Tuesday afternoon, Barstow discussed his reporting process, and what he learned about the Tea Party, with CJR assistant editor Greg Marx.
Greg Marx: When did you first get started on this story, and what drew you to it?
David Barstow: As my editors in the investigative unit and I were watching the events of last summer—the town halls, the rise of the Tea Party movement—we were thinking about how to examine this more carefully, to figure out what’s going on. And as I was trying to think of a way to start wrapping my arms around the subject, it happened that the Tea Party Express bus tour was about to embark and cross the country, stopping at rallies all over the place. And it just seemed that one really good way to quickly get a sense of the people who are drawn to the movement was to get on that bus and go across the country with them. We stopped at thirty or more different Tea Party rallies during that fifteen-, sixteen-day period, and it gave me a chance to begin doing literally hundreds of interviews to see the thematic connections between the folks who were showing up at these events.
I realized fairly quickly, though, that the Tea Party Express in its own way was a somewhat anomalous creation. It was something that a group of political operatives in California had put together to serve a pretty distinct agenda, which was to try to harness the energy of the movement to flip congressional seats from blue to red. The people who were running that bus tour were not really representative of the Tea Party movement as a whole, which was very much a grassroots creation that was drawing in lots of newcomers who were extremely concerned about preserving their independence and not being co-opted. And that fear included the Tea Party Express—for example, people in Spokane, Wash., debated for days and days about whether or not they should even host the Tea Party Express.
In the end, the bus tour hardly figured into my story at all. That first phase of reporting was an opportunity to get a broad feel for the kinds of people, the kinds of issues that were connecting all of these different protests around the country. But what I really wanted to deal with was this idea of people being transformed by this movement, of someone like Pam Stout, who had never even given a campaign donation in her life, suddenly becoming president of her local Tea Party.
GM: When did you settle on that story?
DB: I’m not sure I could put a finger on it. But at some point along the way I was struck by the number of people who had really been transformed since the recession hit. You could not miss the number of people who were drawn to this movement because of the events of the fall of ’08. That was one theme that became really clear to me—their incredible anger at the economic pain that they were witnessing in their own lives and the lives of their friends and family, and their anger and disappointment at the government’s role in both the events that led to the recession and the response, especially the bailouts.
The other thing that came through was this idea of impending tyranny. You could not go to Tea Party rallies or spend time talking to people within the movement without hearing that fear expressed in myriad ways. I was struck by the number of people who had come to the point where they were literally in fear of whether or not the United States of America would continue to be a free country. I just started seeing that theme come up everywhere I went.