Are members of the Tea Party more angry or more gullible?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Sept. 8 2010 4:31 PM

Revolution for Sale

Are members of the Tea Party more angry or more gullible?

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Zernike's take on the movement isn't nearly so cynical. It's also not so interesting. Zernike started covering the conservative beat in November 2009, and she worked it well, showing up to obvious events like Sarah Palin's Going Rogue tour and under-the-radar stirrings like a Pennsylvania group's effort to replace its local Republican leadership. (The tick-tock of how that worked—or rather, didn't— is the best part of her book.)

Her problem is that she doesn't go much deeper than her initial, beat-the-deadline articles. The key figures in the history of the movement are, happily enough, the people who gave her access. She gives serious exposure to the not-altogether-interesting story of Jeff McQueen, a Michigan activist who slapped a roman numeral "II" inside of Betsy Ross's 1776 flag design—the circle of 13 stars representing the colonies. "It had become popular at Tea Party events across the country," writes Zernike, although it's really only omnipresent in the places where McQueen has handed it out. (On Tea Party Web sites, he excitedly reports how he gave one to Piper Palin "with permission.")

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Bunch's criticism of the movement he's covering is sad and convincing. Zernike's is rote. "While some Tea Partiers focused on the income tax," she writes, "they did not typically mention that under the most literal reading of the Constitution, the country could not have an air force." She has the best history of FreedomWorks ever put on paper, but little about Glenn Beck's 9-12 Project and nothing about Americans for Prosperity. Matt Kibbe of FreedomWorks has floated the idea of joint appearances with Zernike, which makes perfect sense. The friendly treatment that Tea Partiers get here is reminiscent of nothing so much as one of those flattering books about celebrities penned before they fall from grace and their ex-bodyguards cash in on their stories.

But this is a movement that's writing its own history and shouting the media down when they report unflattering things. The most famous example came when Zernike's paper walked back a reference to racial slurs that several African-American congressmen claimed to have heard during the final vote on health care reform. Tea Partiers denied the slurs were shouted and argued that the lack of video evidence proved it, so the "official" story was changed. Boiling Mad makes a compromise with the movement it covers. Activists explain why they're angry and present their evidence. The author reports what she sees and learns. The Backlash asks more and better questions, because it identifies the "pyramid of hucksters" and "needless anxieties" that distort economic angst into a crisis of faith in government and the press.

It used to be up to reporters to decide whether a movement was succeeding by doling out coverage and declaring which leaders were outside of the mainstream, as William F. Buckley did to the Birchers or Michael Kelly did to International A.N.S.W.E.R. How much longer, though, will it even be up to reporters to make those judgments?

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