When news broke last week that The National Tea Party Federation had expelled the Tea Party Express for not scolding racist gaffe-maker Mark Williams, we noticed a common thread in many of the tea-flavored stories reported. Namely, the oft-repeated assumption by reporters that the movement is somehow monolithic and that grandly named groups like The National Tea Party Federation—which formed in April and receives no financial or material support from the sixty local Tea Party groups it “federated”—are the official name, face, and voice of the hundreds of grassroots groups that make up the nation’s Tea Partiers.
But the Tea Party is not monolithic. It’s not yet a “party” or “organization” in any traditionally understood sense. If anything, it is more a shared state of mind, expressed by the people who share it in local groups from places as incomparable as Staten Island and Dallas. And, as some solid reporting from Time’s Alex Altman and Politico’s Kenneth P. Vogel shows, these movements are not content to be lumped together under the one banner, no matter how all-encompassing and grandiose-sounding the banner name might be. To accept the claims of self-appointed leaders to represent the party—throwing headlines around like “Tea Party Federation Boots Williams” without explaining what that Federation is—is imprecise, and misleading.
So when the Tea Party made news again Wednesday, we were on the lookout. The story—somewhat overshadowed by the Sherrod drama—was that Minnesota Republican Michele Bachmann held the first meeting of the GOP’s freshly brewed Tea Party Caucus. To our mind, the most entertaining mainstream account of the meet was Dana Milbank’s colorful—if slightly sexist—take in The Washington Post. Unfortunately though, Milbank’s account, while snidely reporting the humorous details—“she [Bachmann] accepted a tube of lipstick from a male aide and applied it as she strode through the hallways of the Rayburn Building”—does leave the unchallenged impression that the GOP had just joined forces with a cohesive, homogeneous, and singular unit. In other words, he fell for the trap. Or, at least, did not do enough to avoid it.
Tea Party activists and Republican officeholders set aside any pretense about the two groups being separate. They essentially consummated a merger: The activists allowed themselves to be co-opted by a political party, and the Republican leaders allowed themselves to become the faces of the movement.
…With a dozen House Republicans surrounding her, Jenny Beth Martin, national coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots, announced that her group “wanted top make sure the people in Congress don’t become a mouthpiece for the movement.”
Sorry ladies. When Tea Party leaders join Republican lawmakers for a private strategy session followed by a campaign rally in the shadow of the Capitol, each has essentially endorsed the other.
On the surface, this is all fine. If Bachmann did not quite just become the leader of the Tea Party, as Milbank writes in his lede, the caucus is certainly a significant indication that the GOP is embracing the movement. It’s the characterization of the movement that’s problematic.
The question of whether the Tea Party leaders here broadly and genuinely represent the movement—or whether any leader could—is never raised. We’re not even given a strong indication of which Tea Party groups attended besides the noted Tea Party Patriots and Dallas Tea Party. No indication, that is, other than the mention that about a dozen activists from the thousands of disparate if like-minded Tea Party groups across the country attended the caucus’s inaugural meeting. Instead of any caveat about the notorious in-fighting and differences between the groups that make up the organization, we get the generic, and in the context of the Tea Party movement, confusing, “Tea Party leaders” and “Tea Party activists.”
We’re left wondering: which? And which “leaders” chose not to show? And most importantly: what is the value of this caucus if it represents only a selection of the movement from which it draws its name?
Milbank does note that at least two of the activists were from the Tea Party Patriots. Interestingly, that group is one that features in Vogel’s reporting. And it is one that it appears is not particularly committed to the creation of a homogenous or unified movement.
“If we’re not successful, it’ll probably be due to groups like (National Tea Party Federation and Tea Party Express),” predicted Everett Wilkinson, coordinator of the South Florida chapter of the influential Tea Party Patriots umbrella group.
His group’s local coordinators voted not to associate with either the Tea Party Express or the federation because, as Wikinson puts it, those groups “aren’t holding meetings in local restaurants across the country to plan local rallies. They’re the people who are drawing salaries and are sending out e-mails asking for money.”
The Tea Party is an interesting story. And now that it’s officially being told on Capitol Hill, it just got that much more interesting. But as we tell it, it is important for readers and viewers to be able to understand the movement as it is, and not as its self-anointed leaders want it to be, or appear to be. That’s where journalists come in.
Often, it’s easy for us to pluck from this vast movement the Williams’s among their ranks; the loudest, most risible voices and faces, and to base our reporting—and thus our audience’s impressions—entirely off of them. If the Tea Party is racist, we can and should nail them for it. But it must come from reporting more than the words of a handful of radio hosts and self-aggrandizing demagogues, or even a collection of signs at a collection of rallies. And it must acknowledge that this is a divided and decentralized group, even if some among them get more mic time.
Milbank’s is hardly the worst case of imprecise reporting on the matter. But it is an example of how assumptions left to simply stand can mislead. A reader coming to Milbank’s piece would leave with the impression that the Tea Party as a whole had just come to Washington. That could be the wrong impression.Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.