Tea partiers complain that most media outlets (except Fox News) either ignore them or portray them as a bunch of crazies. We wondered: is the coverage biased? The Washington Independent's (soon to beWashington Post's) David Weigel, who's been covering the tea party movement since it began, offers his take.
Artist: by The Whitfield Brothers
CROWD: Can you hear us now, huh? Can you hear us now, huh? Can you hear us now, huh?
BOB GARFIELD: Protestors opposed to the Health Care Bill gathered around the U.S. Capitol last weekend, as lawmakers filed in to cast their votes. And amidst the protests, a few incidents made headlines. Congressman Emanuel Cleaver was spat on as he passed the crowd. One protestor shouted the “N word” at Congressman John Lewis, a civil rights pioneer, and another yelled a homophobic slur at gay Congressman Barney Frank. Some media outlets attributed the incidents to the so-called “tea party movement” but tea partiers object, charging that most news outlets essentially ignore them until episodes like this allow the media to portray them as a band of crazies. David Weigel is the senior reporter for The Washington Independent. He’s been covering the tea parties since their inception, and very soon he'll be on the tea party beat as a new blogger at The Washington Post. David, welcome to the show.
DAVID WEIGEL: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.
BOB GARFIELD: Is the tea party movement, a - you know, a bona fide movement?
DAVID WEIGEL: It’s uniting a bunch of movements that already existed: religious groups that have been around for a while, like Focus on the Family, libertarian groups, like Freedom Works and old political hands. I mean, I just was talking today to Virginia Thomas, the wife of Clarence Thomas, who’s a longtime D.C. political activist and has started a tea party group. Since they identify themselves with the movement, I think that’s a good starting point.
BOB GARFIELD: So if you’re a news organization and you want to cover “the movement” do you focus on the kind of old-line libertarians, do you focus on the intersection between the tea partiers and the GOP, or do you focus on the guys at the paramilitary camps stocking up on ammo and canned goods?
DAVID WEIGEL: I try and grab all those things. The only thing I try not to do is what I call “point and laugh” coverage, where you find a tea party group doing something kind of crazy and make fun of that and move on. The tea parties have been covered as a – first as an oddity and then and as a phenomenon. The sad, boring truth is that they're in the middle. There was the speculation in the beginning of these rallies that this was a new political force. It might become a third party force. For now, they've just jumped right back into the Republican Party fold.
BOB GARFIELD: We've discussed point and laugh. Tell me about the other way that the press typically has mischaracterized the, the movement.
DAVID WEIGEL: The other way is just taking a press release from one of these tea party groups and reporting that this was an authentic American uprising that informs our understanding of why Barack Obama’s not very popular right now. There is some polling to back this up. The simple answer is that the economy’s bad. It’s not that the self-selected conservative protestor showing up somewhere is the voice of the independents. They're neither freaks nor Norman Rockwell representations of every American.
BOB GARFIELD: So on the subject of point and laugh stories - this wasn't point and laugh, so much as point and get in a heated argument - this is Susan Roesgen –
DAVID WEIGEL: Right.
BOB GARFIELD: -
of CNN at a tea party protest in Chicago trying to interview some guy with a sign that showed President Obama as Hitler. The reporter got a whole lot of criticism for confronting the people she was nominally interviewing.
SUSAN ROESGEN: What is this supposed to mean? What, what do you mean by that?
MAN: Well, I mean, he’s a fascist. The pirates –
SUSAN ROESGEN: Wait, why do you say he’s a fascist? He’s the President of the United States.
MAN: He is a fascist.
SUSAN ROESGEN: Do you realize how o – do you realize how offensive that is?
MAN: I think he’s a fascist.
SUSAN ROESGEN: Why?
MAN: Because he is! He’s a fascist.
[OVERTALK/BOTH AT ONCE]
SUSAN ROESGEN: In what way can you say that?
MAN: Because the real pirates are W- in the, in the White House, in the Senate and in the -
DAVID WEIGEL: The way that that CNN reporter behaved in that case was over the top, but the theory behind what she was doing, there’s nothing wrong with that. If you engage tea party activists and actually fact-check their claims instead of just stenographing and saying, here’s what they said, on some issues they're going to know more than the press and they're going to be right, on some issues they're going to be wrong. I mean, I think a lot of tea partiers would win debates with a reporter on what is actually in the Health Care Bill and what page it’s on. But a tea party activist might say something along the lines of, when Ronald Reagan cut taxes in 1981, we pulled out of the recession. That’s actually not true. I mean, things like that about pretty recent American history and pretty recent economic history don't get fact-checked, and I think, I think a result of that is that people with bullhorns and signs are able to sort of change the accepted history of economics in America.
BOB GARFIELD: On the day of the final health care vote, a lot of the focus was on some crazies who were shouting various bigoted remarks at legislators. Some in the movement have complained that they're being tarred with the same brush as these, you know, over-the-top bigots. Is it unfair to pay too much attention to, to the worst of the lot?
DAVID WEIGEL: Well, it’s news when somebody gets spit on. [LAUGHS] It’s a problem, actually, that tea partiers are dealing with. In the aftermath of the health care vote there are many stories of members of Congress getting a death threat, getting angry protests outside their house. It’s a reality of protest. It’s something that activists confront, if they're building bigger and bigger crowds and getting in more and more of a froth about the issues. I just think it’s important the media doesn't just cover when somebody steps that obviously over the line. You need to dig into the policy objections which are sometimes rooted in resentments about class and race. And it’s tough to do that in a way that doesn't scream out bias to your readers, but if you leave it out, that’s a different kind of bias. You need to make sure that in covering this, you get every angle and you understand why exactly they're protesting, not just why they tell you that they're protesting.
BOB GARFIELD: David, thank you very much.
DAVID WEIGEL: Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: David Weigel is a senior reporter for The Washington Independent and soon will be blogging about the tea party movement for The Washington Post.