But even to the extent that mainstream press coverage eventually acknowledged the partisan nature of at least some strands of the Tea Party, the bulk of the coverage still focused on explaining the movement rather than debunking it. In December 2009, The New York Times assigned Kate Zernike to the conservative beat. Zernike ended up writing mostly explanatory stories about the movement, and quickly turned her coverage into a book, Boiling Mad, published by Times Books. Rick Berke, the Times’s national editor, dismisses the idea that the paper was too kind to Tea Partiers. “We’re just looking for the most ambitious storytelling we can find and this is what we’ve ended up with,” says Berke.

None of this is to suggest that, had the left press attempted to engage the Tea Party in a debate of ideas and policies, it would have altered the movement’s trajectory. It’s more that, by attempting to dismiss it as something fundamentally unserious, or little more than the handiwork of rich GOP operatives, liberals stiffened the resolve of what is a genuine grassroots phenomenon. Tell someone they can’t do something and they will be determined to prove you wrong.

It was unreasonable for liberals to expect serious news outlets like the Times to batter the Tea Party instead of treating its leaders like new political stars. And the mainstream press was right to cover the Tea Party as a bold new movement whose emergence had important things to tell us about the country. Who funded the Tea Parties was a legitimate aspect of the story, but not the only or even the most important aspect. Libertarian groups and funders—the Koch Family Foundations in particular—had been sinking money into efforts to spark a small-government movement for decades. They had managed to launch some successful publications and think tanks, but had never produced a mass organization. The Tea Party is messy and unpolished; it has attracted people who differ vigorously on many issues. That is the stuff of a true grassroots movement, and liberal hopes that they could discredit it by digging up some receipts were folly.

Here’s the irony: liberals made inevitable the coverage in the mainstream media that so angered them. The institutions liberals built to challenge the GOP were, once Democrats were in power, more obsessed with attacking a perceived enemy than with building liberal projects. By late 2009, the Tea Party was all conservatives were talking about, and it was all liberals were talking about, too. The incumbent party and its ideological organs were strategizing on how to handle this insurgency—whether it was funded by billionaires didn’t really matter. Was the rest of the press supposed to ignore what had become a focal point of American politics?

 

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David Weigel is a contributor to CJR.