The Tea Party has evolved from a cable-news curiosity into a political and cultural force that decides elections and casts an Everest-sized shadow over the coming midterms. It has spawned countless articles, essays, and op-eds that attempt to explain it, define it, and gauge its power.

So it is easy to forget that, in the weeks and months after CNBC’s Rick Santelli delivered his February 19, 2009, jeremiad against the Homeowners Affordability and Stability Plan, in which he called for “all the capitalists” to come to Chicago for a “tea party,” none of this seemed inevitable. Santelli spent days backpedaling, telling MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, for instance, that he had “great respect for the administration” and wanted it to “win.” “I’m not coming down hard on Barack,” Santelli insisted.

In fact, as the Drudge Report and other conservative outlets pointed readers to a video of Santelli’s rant, and people around the country began organizing Tea Party rallies against President Obama’s agenda, the broader media world was mostly indifferent. For a brief moment, the Santelli affair was dismissed by many as just another made-for-cable-news drama that would fade when the next one arose.

The left press, in particular, fundamentally misread the Tea Party and inadvertently helped it congeal into a real political force. Its mistake was journalistic: oversimplifying a genuinely complex phenomenon. But the cause was political: a desire to destroy a perceived threat. The new towers of the left media, sites like Talking Points Memo, The Huffington Post, the Center for American Progress’s ThinkProgress, and programs like MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show, did not take the movement seriously and their initial coverage was mocking.

The exception, a piece by Mark Ames and Yasha Levine published on February 27, 2009, on Playboy’s Web site that attempted to situate Santelli and his rant inside a coordinated “rightwing PR machine,” foreshadowed where the left press was headed once mockery failed. CNBC threatened to sue, and Playboy removed the piece from its site.

By the summer of 2009, when activists flooded town halls to oppose cap-and-trade and health-care legislation, and into 2010, when the movement started deciding the winners of some early Republican primaries, the liberal press adopted the strategy of the Playboy piece and began trying to discredit the Tea Party by exposing its most extreme right-wing elements and its ties to big business.

An early signal that this strategy shift was coming was a March 23, 2009, piece by Lee Fang for ThinkProgress in which he alerted liberals to what he considered the bogus conservative scheme:

The “tea party” protests nationwide are being coordinated by the conservative public relations firm Freedom Works, which is run by former Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-TX). The tea parties are also being supported by Newt Gingrich, through his organization American Solutions For Winning the Future. Members of Congress, such as Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-OH), have appeared at previous rallies. In addition, Fox News’ Glenn Beck promotes the protests, and has launched a website publicizing the events.

Ultimately, neither strategy—derision or conspiracy theory—worked. As the nascent Tea Party movement continues to wield political power, the new liberal press’s effort to knock it down looks like a spectacular failure. The movement thrived on the negative attention from the left, which complemented the constant and shameless boosterism it received from right-wing media. The mainstream media, meanwhile, ignored liberal demands that it spend less time personalizing the Tea Party activists and more time investigating their funding.

I was acutely aware of the media’s treatment of the Tea Partiers because I was one of the first reporters for a left-leaning publication to take the movement seriously. In January 2009 I had moved from the libertarian Reason magazine to a liberal start-up called The Washington Independent. Tasked with covering “the re-making of the right,” I shadowed the young activists who organized the first Tea Party in Washington, D.C., on February 27, 2009.

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.”

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.