There was no shortage of journalists available to cover the D.C. event. The annual Conservative Political Action Conference was under way a few miles up the road. But the reporters who ambled over to LaFayette Park came mostly from conservative outlets, such as National Review and Investors’ Business Daily. Pajamas TV sent its biggest celebrity, Joe “the Plumber” Wurzelbacher, who doubled as a speaker at the rally. His speech concerned the lack of media coverage that the protestors were getting. It sounded silly and self-negating, but it was basically correct. No one from the mainstream media took the event seriously enough to break from speeches by Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney to witness a gathering of libertarians, Free Republic “freepers,” conservative columnists, and talk-radio fans who’d driven in for the day, all united to protest Keynesian economics and Barack Obama.
At first, I thought the Tea Partiers might be wasting their time. They’d spent eight years mocking the liberals who railed against the Bush administration. A banner-waving, slogan-shouting rally with jokes about tea bags? Why would anyone take this seriously? Standing at the rally, though, and then typing up my notes later, I began to realize that this coalescing of disparate strains of conservatism was something new, at least in the current political era, and also that it fit naturally into a long history of such grassroots movements, on both the left and the right. If the Tea Party is this generation’s “New Right,” as Chris Matthews declared, it echoes the New Right that emerged in the decades following World War II, culminating in Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980.
Plenty of liberal reporters now acknowledge that they were slow in taking the movement seriously. “It took me a little while to catch on,” says Adele Stan, the Washington editor of the liberal AlterNet, and a seasoned reporter on the conservative movement. “I saw it as a grassroots backlash but I didn’t see the growth of it coming. In the early stages there was a lot of ridicule, and I fell prey to that sometimes. When you’re seeing things through the prism of ridicule, you’re missing a larger, more important story.”
Others are less willing to concede the point. “Whether we didn’t take them seriously enough and what the impact will be remains to be seen,” says Ari Rabin-Havt, a strategist for MediaMatters, which relentlessly covered the slip-ups of pro-Tea Party Republicans. “But I remember things like one of the people at the big protest in Searchlight, Nevada, telling a reporter, ‘I would vote for a commie to vote out Obama.’ Some of this was extremely, laughably ignorant.”
The fact remains, though, that Tea Party leaders look back on this dismissive coverage with a kind of pride. The attacks by the left press convinced them that they were onto something, that they were irritating the right people. The most offensive attacks—when CNN’s Anderson Cooper and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow referred to them as “teabaggers,” for instance—were met with demands for an apology. Attacks on the funding of the movement were brushed aside as partisan smears of a self-financed, grassroots uprising. “The attacks absolutely helped us,” says Eric Odom, a Republican activist named in the Playboy story. “Beyond the ‘tea bag’ stuff, look at the charge that we’re racist. The vast majority of this movement is not racist. When we hear things like that, we take it personally. We find it to be insulting and it makes us work even harder.”
Faiz Shakir, the editor of ThinkProgress, argues that the organization’s work—which included dispatching six reporters with cameras to Tea Parties where Republicans were speaking—forced the mainstream media to report on the fact that the movement was partisan. “In elite discourse, our reporting seems to have marginalized what the Tea Party movement was understood to be,” Shakir says. “By the end of the year they were understood to be partisan Republicans, not disgruntled moderates.”