Editor's note: This is the first of two columns that explore the relationship between popular movements and the news media. Read Part 2 -- "The 911 Truth Movement: Debunking the official story."
Last week, two competing narratives surrounding the economic stimulus package dominated the news cycle. Not surprisingly, the Obama administration characterized the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act as an unqualified success. On Wednesday, President Obama declared, "One year later, it is largely thanks to the recovery act that a second depression is no longer a possibility."
Taking to the airwaves and the Internet, Republicans challenged Obama's version of the story. For instance, John Boehner (R-Oh.) issued a "report" titled "Where are the Jobs? A Look Back at One Year of So-called 'Stimulus,'" wherein the House Republican leader claims that the recovery act is "chock-full of wasteful government spending."
"To hear party activists and media pundits tell it, the Tea Party movement sprang from the depths of The Great Recession."
All the while, the U.S. press corps -- seemingly addicted to official source stenography -- dutifully recorded the "he said, she said" that passes for political debate in official Washington. One story line that got lost in all the back and forth this week is the curious relationship between the stimulus package and the rise of the Tea Party movement.
Coming on the heels of the economic collapse and the subsequent bank bailout scheme enacted during the Bush administration's final months, Obama's stimulus package became the focus of intense public outrage. To hear party activists and media pundits tell it, the Tea Party movement sprang from the depths of The Great Recession.
This account certainly makes for a compelling news narrative, but it conveniently ignores the fact that the Tea Party movement is, if nothing else, a creation of the media. Recall that it was CNBC editor Rick Santelli who famously called for a "Revolutionary War-style 'tea party'" during a Feb. 19, 2009, telecast.
Speaking from the floor of floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, Santelli condemned Obama's plans to enact a mortgage bailout plan. Santelli went on to call foreclosed homeowners "losers" and claimed the Obama administration was "promoting bad behavior."
"The Tea Party movement is, if nothing else, a creation of the media."
The news media's initial response to Santelli's stunt was predictable enough: surprise, and some derision, followed by a collective shrug of the shoulders. By April, however, the Tea Party movement had organized anti-taxation demonstrations across the country. Through a skillful combination of made-for-TV public demonstrations and a knack for "working the refs" to get sustained press coverage, the U.S. news media began taking tea parties seriously.
In the intervening months, the Tea Party moved from the margins to the mainstream of American political discourse. The Tea Party proved that it was a force to be reckoned with when party activists stole the show at last summer's town hall meetings. On this score, the Tea Party's role in derailing Obama's health reform initiative cannot be underestimated.
Press coverage of the Tea Party peaked a few weeks ago when former Alaska governor, Sarah Palin, delivered the keynote address at the first-ever Tea Party Convention. The spectacle of the 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate speaking before an insurgent political movement was too irresistible for either the corporate media or public broadcasters to pass up. The ensuing wall-to-wall coverage solidified the Tea Party's status as a player in the November election.
But don't take my word for it. The list of career politicians taking early retirement this year indicates the growing power and influence of the Tea Party movement. And while they may be loathe to admit it, folks like Indiana's own Senator Evan Bayh are fearful of being swept out of office by a wave of anti-incumbency that has come to define the Tea Party.
"Despite the Tea Party's potential to be a game-changer at the local, state, and national levels, relatively few reporters have examined the forces behind it."
Despite the Tea Party's potential to be a game-changer at the local, state, and national levels, relatively few reporters have examined the forces behind it. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman had it right last April when he wrote, "It turns out that the tea parties don't represent a spontaneous outpouring of public sentiment. They're AstroTurf (fake grass roots) events, manufactured by the usual suspects."
Krugman continued, "A key role is being played by FreedomWorks, an organization run by Richard Armey, the former House majority leader, and supported by the usual group of right-wing billionaires. And the parties are, of course, being promoted heavily by Fox News."
Nevertheless, the U.S. press corps seems willfully ignorant to all of this. More often than not, the Tea Party movement is portrayed as a spontaneous popular response to the country's troubled economy and political gridlock. Even last week's front-page story in the New York Times makes only passing reference to Fox News Channel and the pivotal role it has played in mobilizing Tea Party demonstrations and legitimating its agenda.
Don't' get me wrong. The anger and the frustration that the Tea Party has tapped into is the real deal. With home foreclosures on the rise, record unemployment and a financial services industry that seems bound and determined to add insult to injury, it's no wonder that the Tea Party movement has captured the imagination of so many Americans. On that score, progressives would do well to heed the advice of Chip Berlet and Les Leopold and avoid the trap of dismissing the Tea Party as so much faux populism.
"Even last week's front-page story in the New York Times makes only passing reference to Fox News Channel and the pivotal role it has played in mobilizing Tea Party demonstrations and legitimating it's agenda."
By the same token, it would be a mistake to turn a blind eye -- as so many mainstream reporters and editors have done -- to the role that former Republican party operatives, Wall Street insiders and conservative news outlets like Fox News have played in the meteoric rise of the Tea Party.
Notwithstanding the very real concerns of "rank and file" party activists, then, the Tea Party is less an organic expression of popular unrest than a carefully orchestrated media campaign designed to cynically manipulate public opinion for political advantage and financial gain.
What the Tea Party helps demonstrate is this: popular movements and the news media have a symbiotic relationship. On one hand, news organizations love public demonstrations, like the dramatic confrontations between Tea Party activists and congressional representatives at last summer's town hall meetings. On the other hand, movements need press coverage to publicize their concerns, generate popular support and influence policymakers.
All of which begs the question: why do some movements, such as the Tea Party, receive significant press coverage while others, like say the single-payer or anti-war movements, do not? Although the answer to this question is hardly surprising, it speaks directly to the relationship between the press and the public in democratic societies.
More on this next time, when we consider how international press coverage of the 9/11 Truth movement has changed in recent months and what this might mean for the future American democracy.
Kevin Howley is associate professor of media studies at DePauw University. He is editor of Understanding Community Media (Sage, 2010). He writes regularly on media, culture and politics at e-chreia.