Which publications would be considered more representative of the so-called liberal and leftwing leanings of the mainstream news media than New Yorker and the New York Times? Yet both persist in giving enormous coverage to the Tea Party, much more than this small band of political entrepreneurs deserves compared to other third parties that have actually had a real impact on U.S. politics.
First on the Tea Party’s impact: It’s zero.
We know its self-appointed leaders tried to defeat a Republican Congressman in upstate New York, with the result that the district went Democratic for the first time in decades. As far as the Scott Brown election to Ted Kennedy’s old Senate seat goes, the only demographic analysis available only shows that people in the suburbs voted in greater numbers and people in the cities voted in fewer numbers relative to the 2008 presidential election. That reflects long-term trends throughout the country and has nothing to do with the Tea Party. An easy way to quickly understand how meaningless the Tea Party really is, except to news media, is to compare the extensive coverage it gets compared to the paltry coverage afforded a third party that actually did something: the Greens, which swayed the results of the fateful 2000 election by attracting more than 2 million liberal votes from Al Gore.
And yet the mainstream news media continues to bend over backwards to exaggerate the number of Tea Party followers.
Let’s start with the Ben McGrath encomium to the Tea Party titled “The Movement” in the February 1, 2010 New Yorker. McGrath deftly uses selective facts and rhetorical tricks to legitimize the Tea Party and make it seem more important than it is.
For example, he uses a common trick of fiction—to speak from the mind of a character —to give credence to the idea that close to 2 million people marched on Washington with the Teas, and then discuss the significance of that number, i.e., it’s greater than the attendance at President Obama’s inauguration.
Of course, it’s all a fantasy that McGrath has spun, but he uses a variation of the literary technique called “free indirect discourse” to gently elide from the point of view of an objective reporter into the head of a hypothetical Tea party adherent. Free indirect discourse is when you slide from the mind of the narrator to that of the character without using quotation marks or statements such as “he said” to tell the reader you changed points of view. It’s so subtle that only a careful analysis of the paragraph would leave one with the conclusion that the writer knows that the correct number of marchers was well under 100,000. Here is the paragraph, with the slide to the Tea mentality in bold and italics:
“Politics is ultimately a numbers game, and the natural excitement surrounding 9.12 drove crowd estimates upward, from an early lowball figure of sixty thousand, reported by ABC News, into the hundreds of thousands and across the million mark, eventually nearing two million—an upper limit of some significance, because 1.8 million was the figure commonly reported in mainstream or “state-run” media outlets as the attendance at President Obama’s Inauguration. ‘There are more of us than there are of them, and we know the truth,’ one of the Kentucky organizers, who had carpooled to D.C. with a couple of co-workers from an auto-parts warehouse, told me. The fact that the mainstream media generally declined to acknowledge the parallel, regarding the marchers as a loud and motley long tail of disaffection, and not a silent majority, only hardened their resolve.”
On the front page of yesterday’s New York Times (at least according to the website; our paper never came, thanks to 18 inches of snow!), Kate Zernike reports on the Tea Party convention, which drew 600 people. That’s fewer people than attended the graduation ceremonies of my son’s high school! Zernike buries this dismal turnout in the 18th paragraph of the story. To all but the persistent reader, the impression is of a big gathering.
Coincidentally, when the New York Times covered the 2008 Green party convention to nominate its presidential candidate, 8 years after toppling Gore, the reporter never did mention how many people showed up. The only number we got was 532, the tally of delegates voting, which typically would be a much, much lower number than the number attending the convention.
As a regular reading of Nation will show, there are many left-wing grass roots efforts across the country, but they are ignored by the main stream media. By covering the Tea Party despite its small size and relative lack of significance, the main stream news media drives the political conversation in the country rightward.