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.