“There is no ‘The Tea Party’”

East and West Coast Times’s different approaches to the movement

Tea Party Patriots co-founder and national coordinator Mark Meckler was the lead quote-giver in major New York Times and Los Angeles Times stories this weekend. The themes of both pieces are near identical: the Tea Party is displeased with what it views as GOP capitulation in the lame duck session that ended 2010, and, as such, will be keeping its eye on the new class of Republicans entering Congress tomorrow. Meckler—as a kind of figurehead for the Tea Party movement in the stories—led the charge on both claims, in both outlets.

The problem with both stories is that, to varying degrees, like many reports on the still amorphous movement, the writers for the most part treat the movement as uniform and un-conflicted. Both posit Meckler as a kind of movement leader, when he is but one of many vying for that position—a position still some way off from viably existing. Without a more nuanced treatment of this not-monolithic movement, readers are left with the impression, encouraged by each new report of this nature, that the Tea Party is something it isn’t. As I wrote in October:

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.

Surprisingly, it is the Times’s latest report that fails most fully to represent the Tea Party with adequate nuance, drawing the movement as it might a fully organized and streamlined political party with Mark Meckler as its chosen representative. Surprising because reporter Kate Zernike is something of an expert on the movement, having followed it closely for the Times and penned a well-received book on the Tea Party, “Boiling Mad: Inside Tea Party America.” And yet, where her article quotes just two the leaders of two Tea Party organizations—Meckler and Judson Phillips of Tea Party Nation—as well as Tea Party-backed Utah senator-elect Mike Lee, that is enough to draw some rather sweeping conclusions about the “movement” as a whole. This lede for example:

Just a month ago, Tea Party leaders were celebrating their movement’s victories in the midterm elections. But as Congress wrapped up an unusually productive lame-duck session last month, those same Tea Party leaders were lamenting that Washington behaved as if it barely noticed that American voters had repudiated the political establishment.

After mention of these “Tea Party leaders,” much space is then given to Meckler:

“Do I think that they’ve recognized what happened on Election Day? I would say decisively no,” said Mark Meckler, a co-founder of Tea Party Patriots, which sent its members an alert last month urging them to call their representatives to urge them to “stop now and go home!!”

“We sent them a message that we expect them to go home and come back newly constituted and do something different,” Mr. Meckler said. “For them to legislate when they’ve collectively lost their mandate just shows the arrogance of the ruling elite. I can’t imagine being repudiated in the way they were and then coming back and saying ‘Now that we’ve been repudiated, let’s go pass some legislation.’”

There is nothing inaccurate in this reporting, and one imagines many Tea Party groups would echo Meckler’s sentiments. However, to leave it hanging that Meckler is a leader of the Tea Party Patriots, without any nod to what that organization is—a group which has sought to bring together the many disparate Tea Party groups in the country but which has by no official account completely succeeded in doing so, and which has faced some resistance along the way—creates a false impression of who Meckler is, of how much of the movement he represents, and of the movement itself. (It also feels like Meckler has become the easy way out, the go-to call for journalists to make on these matters, as well as someone who is shrewdly making himself available.) And as we continue to grapple with just what that movement is, and grapple with explaining it to readers, we must be careful to include as much nuance and detail—and as many voices—as possible.

Zernike could similarly be more careful when she writes of a so-called “Tea Party manifesto,” later in the piece.

Still, the Tea Party could point to some impact already. Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, who will become House speaker when the Republicans assume the majority, has proposed new procedural rules that acknowledge Tea Party demands. House members will not be able to introduce a bill or a joint resolution without “a statement citing as specifically as practicable the power or powers granted to Congress in the Constitution to enact it.”

This was a leading demand of the Contract From America, a Tea Party manifesto that was issued as a prelude to the midterm elections. Proposed legislation will have to be posted online for three days before any vote, reflecting Tea Party demands for greater transparency.

Again, while it is technically true that the Contract From America is a Tea Party manifesto, it is not necessarily the one and only, or the one that everyone agrees with. Produced via online survey by activist Ryan Hecker with the aide of FreedomWorks’ Dick Armey and unveiled last year at CPAC, it has detractors from some of the more lower-to-the-ground grass roots members of the Tea Party movement. Libertarian activist Bob Andelmann, a contributor to right wing website The New American and Constitutionalist Today on Sunday described the Contract as “supported by establishment types seeking to co-opt the Tea Party movement such as Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey.” In a New American post he wrote:

Missing from either the “Contract” or the ‘Pledge” was anything substantial: Nothing was mentioned about several 800-pound gorillas in the living room: Social Security, Medicare, the Federal Reserve, undeclared wars, elimination of federal bureaucracies such as the Departments of Education, Energy, the EPA, or even the US Postal Service, or foreign aid.

A throwaway line like “Tea Party manifesto” allows for none of this dissent.

The Los Angeles Times is slightly more careful, using Meckler as its lift-off point for a more forward-looking report on how sections of the Tea Party movement plan to deal with the new congress, but always referring to the Tea Party Patriots as one group among many.

His [Meckler’s] group plans to monitor the new class and fire up activists before key votes. Other tea-party-affiliated groups are planning regular meetings with lawmakers, salons to discuss favored legislation and online tools that will help voters follow their progress.

Reporter Kathleen Hennessey also wisely includes this section, which gets to the heart of how the Tea Party has been misrepresented (though it doesn’t come until the sixteenth paragraph). It is precisely the kind of insertion more reporters should include, and which would have fit nicely into the New York Times report.

The split spotlighted fractures within the movement. Tea Party Patriots, a network that links dozens of local groups and touts its outsider status, criticized the compromise as a backroom deal. FreedomWorks was more pragmatic, supporting it as the best possible solution to keep taxes low.

“There is no ‘the tea party,’ ” said incoming Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), who won with local tea party support.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor. Tags: , , ,