How to Cover the Tea Party: NYT (Wrong) versus WaPo (Right)

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Jan. 3 2011 9:26 AM

How to Cover the Tea Party: NYT (Wrong) versus WaPo (Right)

It's 2011 now, so can the mainstream media stop publishing/airing stories about "what the Tea Party thinks" that don't actually explain what the Tea Party thinks? Exhibit A: The Kate Zernike story that ran on A1 of the New York Times over the weekend. Headline: "Tea Party Activists Angry at G.O.P. Leaders." The proof: Two people. Two. First:

"Do I think that they’ve recognized what happened on Election Day? I would say decisively no," said Mark Meckler, a co-founder of Tea Party Patriots, which sent its members an alert last month urging them to call their representatives to urge them to "stop now and go home!!" 

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

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Second:

Judson Phillips, the founder of Tea Party Nation, a social-networking Web site, declared after the approval of the arms-control treaty that "the G.O.P. has caved." Mr. Phillips, too, had urged his members to inundate their lawmakers with phone calls, e-mails and faxes urging them to stop considering legislation. "Give them no rest until they are out of town," he wrote.

We've dealt with Judson Phillips in this space before. He speaks loudly and carries a twig . Meckler and Phillips are doing what you'd expect political activists to do, and pressure Congress to behave the way they want them to behave. But there is absolutely no evidence that their critiques of Republicans represent a larger "anger" from Tea Party activists. After the tax cut deal passed, without the support of Sarah Palin or Tea Party Patriots, 75 percent of Tea Party activists told CNN pollsters that the deal was good enough for them. As Zernike points out, Tea Party candidates will actually be judged by the commitment they signed during the campaign.

Compare Zernike's dial-a-quote report to the superb dispatch Amy Gardner filed for the Washington Post over the holiday weekend. It's not a quickie story. It's a profile of Gena Bell, an Ohio activist who joined the Tea Party movement in early 2009, was absorbed into Americans for Prosperity and Republican campaigns, and discovered the dark, shallow side of libertarian activism before being offered a job by Chris Monzel, a county commissioner she helped elect.

Over dinner at CasaMagna's Argentinian steakhouse, Bell choked back tears as she thought about what would come of the Eastern Hills Community Tea Party if she stepped aside. She fretted about losing the independence she relished as a tea party volunteer - and her credibility as a soldier in this outsider's army. But she also doubted whether the movement could remain a scruffy rebel force much longer.

There have been signs, even among the local organizations she has worked with, that the tea party is suffering growing pains. People sometimes swoop in and want to take charge. Bell doesn't do well with those top-down groups, the ones in which a clique wants to call the shots. But maybe that is where the movement is headed - with more opportunity comes more opportunists.

"I'm really struggling," Bell told Thomas. "This last year has been amazing. This whole thing, it's the first time in my entire life I've ever felt this way, like I really made a difference to do good. Am I still going to make a difference?"

Bell will know soon enough - she took the job with Monzel.

This isn't a movement of figureheads who produce good quotes. It's a movement of several million frustrated people in tough economic straits.

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

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