The tea party movement has acquired strange new respect-and not in Tom Bethell's original sense of the phrase, in which a conservative moves left and wins plaudits from the media. Rather, all of a sudden this spring, journalists seemed to realize that they had gotten the story wrong. The most striking example is this CNN.com story, written by political producer Shannon Travis and posted on April 7:
When it comes to the Tea Party movement, the stereotypes don't tell the whole story.
Here's what you often see in the coverage of Tea Party rallies: offensive posters blasting Presi-dent Obama and Democratic leaders; racist rhetoric spewed from what seems to be a largely white, male audience; and angry protesters rallying around the Constitution.
Case in point: During the health care debate last month, opponents shouted racial slurs at civil rights icon Georgia Rep. John Lewis and one person spit on Missouri Rep. Emanuel Cleaver. The incidents made national headlines, and they provided Tea Party opponents with fodder to question the movement.
But here's what you don't often see in the coverage of Tea Party rallies: Patriotic signs professing a love for country; mothers and fathers with their children; African-Americans proudly participating; and senior citizens bopping to a hip-hop rapper.
This forthright acknowledgment of media bias is all the more astonishing because-although Travis doesn't make this point-CNN has been one of the worst offenders. As I noted in this space ("Tea Hee," TAS, July/August 2009), the network's early coverage of the movement fea-tured host Anderson Cooper's puerile references to "tea-bagging" and reporter Susan Roesgen's tendentious interviews with protesters at a 2009 tax-day rally in Chicago last year.
Cooper subsequently apologized, and Roesgen has since left CNN. But Travis notes that the network has made a creditable effort to get the story right: "The CNN Express traveled with the Tea Party Express buses for hundreds of miles, from rally to rally to rally....Though speakers railed against the ‘lame-stream media,' activists and their leaders praised CNN, especially for be-ing the only national media outlet riding along for the post-weekend stops."
Similarly noteworthy was a dispatch by the Associated Press's Valerie Bauman, dated April 6:
They've been called Oreos, traitors and Uncle Toms, and are used to having to defend their values. Now black conservatives are really taking heat for their involvement in the mostly white tea party movement-and for having the audacity to oppose the policies of the nation's first black president.
"I've been told I hate myself. I've been called an Uncle Tom. I've been told I'm a spook at the door," said Timothy F. Johnson, chairman of the Frederick Douglass Foundation, a group of black conservatives who support free market principles and limited government.
"Black Republicans find themselves always having to prove who they are. Because the assumption is the Republican Party is for whites and the Democratic Party is for blacks," he said.
Bauman observes that "opponents have branded the tea party as a group of racists hiding behind economic concerns-and reports that some tea partyers were lobbing racist slurs at black congressmen during last month's heated health care vote give them ammunition."
Among those "reports" was one from the AP's own Alan Fram on March 20, the day before the House passed ObamaCare:
House Democrats heard it all Saturday-words of inspiration from President Barack Obama and raucous chants of protests from demonstrators. And at times it was flat-out ugly, including some ra-cial epithets aimed at black members of Congress.
The claims that Tea Party protesters had shouted racial epithets-in particular, the one eu-phemistically known as "the N-word"-at black congressmen were explosive, and hotly disputed. No video evidence of the slurs ever surfaced. The only corroborating witness seemed to have been Rep. Heath Shuler, a North Carolina Democrat and ObamaCare opponent. The Times-News of Hendersonville, North Carolina, reported that Shuler was walking with Cleaver and that "it breaks your heart that the way they display their anger is to spit on a member and use that kind of language."
But Shuler's press secretary told me he was not walking with Cleaver and did not hear the "N-word," though he did hear someone shout "communist faggot" at Barney Frank. Cleaver himself raised doubts about the spitting allegation in an interview with the Washington Post's Courtland Milloy:
Cleaver told me: "I said to this one person, ‘You spat on me.' I thought he was going to say, ‘Hey, I was yelling. Sorry.' But he continuing yelling and, for a few seconds, I pointed at him and said, ‘You spat on me.'"...
"I would prefer to believe that the man who allowed his saliva to hit my face was irrational for a moment," Cleaver said.
There is a video of this moment. It shows Cleaver walking up the Capitol steps past a white man who has his hands cupped around his mouth as he shouts. Cleaver flinches, then turns and confronts the man before going on his way. It seems clear from the video that more than words came out of the man's mouth-but whether it was a case of gross assault or say-it-don't-spray-it is impossible to determine.
Travis's CNN.com story was flawed in that it failed to acknowledge the disputes and ambigui-ties about what actually happened on March 20. But on the broader point, he was absolutely right. A broad-based grassroots protest movement has no way of screening its followers. It is unfair to judge the Tea Parties by the (alleged) presence of a few haters and cranks among their followers.
It is instructive to compare the coverage of the Tea Party movement with that of protests against the Iraq war during the Bush administration. As I noted at the time ("Bad News Bearers," TAS, February 2006), journalists almost universally portrayed Cindy Sheehan as an ordinary grieving mother, when in fact she was an anti-American crackpot who, among other things, had opined that "we might not even have been attacked by Osama bin Laden," referred to America as a "morally repugnant system," and said, "This country is not worth dying for."
Sheehan has not changed her tune. She too was in Washington on March 20, for an antiwar rally near the White House at which she shouted through a bullhorn, "Arrest that war criminal!" That "war criminal" is Barack Obama. That rally got the coverage it deserved-which is to say, very little. But the media's past treatment of Sheehan as a legitimate critic of the Bush administra-tion makes for a stark and damning contrast with their efforts to marginalize the Tea Party move-ment by focusing on its fringe elements.
Since the first stirrings of the Tea Parties in the spring of 2009, liberal Democrats have at-tempted to discredit them as both extremists and corporate "Astroturf" (fake grassroots) opera-tions. Notwithstanding the contradictory nature of these claims, the media largely echoed them-and Democrats, reassured, pushed ahead with President Obama's ambitious liberal agenda.
That organizations like CNN and the AP are belatedly changing their approach is perhaps the best evidence that the Tea Party movement is real, powerful, and closer to the political center than Obama and Nancy Pelosi are. This isn't news to everyone, but it is to the Democrats. It might have arrived too late for them to avert a crushing defeat in November.