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Tea Time

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 15, 2009 10:27 AM

Some Fox News hosts have been pushing the tea party protests slated for hundreds of cities today, almost to the point that they seem to be the ringmasters of the event.

"It's now my great duty to promote the tea parties. Here we go!" Fox business anchor Stuart Varney said the other day.

But there's another side to this saga. Most of the mainstream media fell down on the job, ignoring the growing movement or mocking it as a bunch of wingnuts.

The New York Times has run zero stories (the only mention was Times columnist Paul Krugman taking a brief swipe at the parties.) The Washington Post has done zip until today, with a story on two planned D.C. parties on Page B-4. The Chicago Tribune ran a 300-word story and an item on postal workers mistaking tea for a hazardous substance. The Los Angeles Times did a 500-word piece on a small protest in Hermosa Beach and has a media piece today. The Boston Globe, published in the city famed for the original tea party: nothing. CNN ran its first news story on the protests Monday (followed by a piece by me on the coverage). MSNBC's coverage had consisted of Rachel Maddow and Ana Marie Cox mocking the "teabagging" until Chris Matthews held a more serious debate Monday.

Yes, some conservative groups such as Dick Armey's Freedom Works are involved, giving the day an Astroturf aroma. Maybe the whole thing, inspired by CNBC's Rick Santelli and his famous rant, will fizzle, but it might also galvanize those who are opposed to Obama's tax and spending policies. So the MSM ought not be so dismissive.

As for Fox, Sean Hannity has been talking up his show for today, at an Atlanta tea party, featuring the likes of Fox contributors Newt Gingrich and Mike Huckabee and Joe the Plumber. Glenn Beck has declared: "The mainstream media doesn't get it. They'll report on the tea parties just as a -- you know, oh, they're just a bunch of whack job Republicans who only care about taxes on the rich. Where were they with George Bush? . . . But the tea parties are not about taxes. They are about the reason for the taxes, which is an out-of-control government that cannot control its own spending."

It's important to make distinctions here. In an online chat the other day, I erred by saying that Greta Van Susteren is among those leading the charge. She is covering one of the tax protests but has not touted the movement like some of her colleagues. Van Susteren is a lawyer with an economics degree who, in my view, does not push an ideological agenda.

The Fox reporters aren't crusading for the tea parties. Fox yesterday interviewed a spokesman for TeaPartyTaxDay.com but paired him with liberal pundit Bill Press.

But the network does seem a bit overcaffeinated on this issue. People are entitled to protest, and the Fox opinion-mongers are welcome to use their megaphone as they see fit. But I can't help but observe that we didn't see large-scale protests during the eight years when George W. Bush ran up record deficits with spending programs that many Republicans now admit got out of control. Most of the tea-party types are basically Obama protesters, and that raises questions both about their agenda and the way today's partying is covered.

"There's something dispiriting, though not surprising, in watching the conservative movement's favorite news outlet shamelessly promote a political happening, while simultaneously claiming its coverage will be 'fair and balanced,' " says James Rainey in the L.A. Times. "That said, some liberal media voices seem just as intent on squelching the protesters before they've shoveled a single bag of Lipton into a single pond."

FoxNews.com reports that the tea events are helping conservative Web sites: "Roger L. Simon, co-founder of the blog network Pajamas Media, which includes Pajamas TV, said the site went after tea party coverage because the mainstream media didn't. He said Pajamas TV has more than 200 people registered to report on Wednesday's tea parties."

At Pajamas, blogger Adam Graham says he's attending:

"If the media applied the same coverage to baseball games that it applies to tea parties, it would assume that, if someone gets through security and streaks across the field nude, most of the crowd are closet nudists . . .

"Like our baseball streaker, some at the tea parties will have their own agendas that have little or nothing to do with the cause for which most people are going to attend. Most would rather not be defined by the proverbial streaker, and I'm no exception. I'm not going to the tea party to make the case that President Obama is a Muslim born in Indonesia, to advocate secession from the union, or to explain how America's problems are the direct results of actions by members of the Council on Foreign Relations. I'm not going as a Republican; I'm going as an American."

A Washington Examiner editorial makes the agenda clear, "to oppose the high-tax and deficit spending policies of President Obama and the Democratic Congress. Some observers have compared the Tea Party Protests to the Tax Revolt that began in California in the 1970s and spread nationwide, eventually providing important support for President Ronald Reagan's landmark 1981 tax rate cut. But there really is nothing in modern American political history to match the spontaneous explosion of grassroots political activism in recent months among what once was known as the Silent Majority.

"A national movement caught fire, organized by a bunch of mostly unconnected people who found each other via social networking on the Internet. These facts about the origins of the movement render especially goofy recent accusations from pro-Obama groups on the left that the Tea Party Protests are somehow part of an evil right-wing conspiracy funded either by CNBC or Fox News."

A very different view from Z.P. Heller at Open Left, who sees the tea parties as a scam:

"Here's why these protests are so insidious. They will provide a staged, corporate lobbyist-sponsored moment for Republicans and Fox News personalities to amplify their specious objections to President Obama's tax increase for the rich, while furthering their own right-wing conspiratorial claims about liberal values. By usurping and bastardizing an iconic event from the American Revolution, they offer an ersatz grassroots movement from the right -- complete and utter AstroTurf -- in an attempt to reclaim the national spotlight."

By the way, a new Gallup Poll "finds 48 percent of Americans saying the amount of federal income taxes they pay is 'about right,' with 46% saying 'too high' -- one of the most positive assessments Gallup has measured since 1956. Typically, a majority of Americans say their taxes are too high, and relatively few say their taxes are too low."

The president gave a 45-minute speech yesterday that ranged widely across the economic landscape and did not talk down to the public. Some media reaction:

NYT: "As he spoke about the economy on Tuesday, President Obama invoked the parable in the Sermon on the Mount about two houses, one built on sand only to be blown away in a storm and another built on rock impervious to the swirling winds.

"Mr. Obama was trying to explain why he wants not only to revive the sagging economy but to virtually reinvent it with sweeping changes in health care, energy and education. Without deeper reform, he argued, the economy would only topple again later . . .

"Mr. Obama acknowledged, many Americans think he is taking on too much at once, or, conversely, not doing enough at all, or just wondering how all the pieces of his agenda fit together. A flurry of government action has yet to reverse the nation's economic calamity, and while Mr. Obama said again that he detects 'glimmers of hope,' he pleaded for patience from an instant-gratification society that usually responds to crisis with 'a lurch from shock to trance.' "

LAT: "With signs that the worst of the recession may have passed, President Obama is trying to keep the nation focused on a still-troubled economy and regain momentum in Congress for his plan to revamp healthcare, energy, education and financial regulation -- thorny issues that have long defied solution."

Not Making This Up

"In the span of a few months, ousted Gov. Rod Blagojevich could trade the governor's office for the Costa Rican jungle," the Chicago Tribune reports.

"Blagojevich, who pleaded not guilty to federal racketeering and fraud charges Tuesday, will be a participant in the new show 'I'm a Celebrity . . . Get Me Out of Here!' pending court approval, NBC said Tuesday in a statement."

Small problem: He's not allowed to leave the United States at the moment.

Palin's Pick

Her choice for state AG has some, ah, baggage, the Anchorage Daily News reports:

"Members of a Senate committee on Monday repeatedly pressed Wayne Anthony Ross, Gov. Sarah Palin's attorney general appointee, on whether he still believes gays are 'degenerates,' a term he used 16 years ago in a letter to the state bar association. But Ross refused to provide a direct answer, saying his personal opinions do not have a place in his role as attorney general."

And there's also this, reporting that Ross "in 1991 wrote a column for The Anchorage Times defending a UAA student's statue of a Ku Klux Klan figure as an expression of free speech and mocked a black student who objected to the display."

A Tortured Question

Amid reports that Spanish prosecutors are seeking charges against Alberto Gonzales and five other top Bush administration officials for allowing torture at Guantanamo -- which is, let's face it, a stunt -- Andrew Sullivan counsels patience:

"Obama understands he is the president, which means that he understands, unlike his overwhelmed predecessor, that he is the president of all Americans.

"He knows that indictment and prosecution of the war criminals at the heart of the last administration would appear to those cocooned from the reality of what happened as an assault on American unity and stability. That proper concern has to be balanced against the gravity of the crimes, the profound nature of the constitutional claims that underpinned them, and the necessity to uphold the rule of law. And so a process whereby the president hangs back a little, allows the evidence to slowly filter out, releases memos that help prove to Americans that what was done was unequivocally torture and indisputably illegal . . . is not to be despised."

But Hilzoy at the Washington Monthly wants to go there now:

"We should investigate and prosecute members of the Bush administration who authorized torture. They have violated our own laws, and respect for the rule of law requires that holding high office does not get you off the hook when you knowingly break the law. But investigating and prosecuting people who authorize torture is also required under the Convention Against Torture, to which we are a signatory. It is not optional. It is not something that we can put aside because it would be too divisive."

Pirate Lessons

The successful Navy SEAL operation means we should have . . . more defense spending! So says National Review's Rich Lowry:

"Pirates couldn't conduct their business without safe havens on land. Those bases are inherently more vulnerable than the pirate operations at sea, in an area encompassing as much as 2.5 million square miles. Who could raid the land bases, on the model of Thomas Jefferson's assault on the Barbary pirate bases in 1805, and seriously crimp this curse on international shipping? Only the United States will have the capability or the will.

"For Obama, events of the past two weeks should have been a crash course in the indispensability of American power. In Europe, he pleaded for more help in the Afghan War -- a fight involving the interests of the entire West -- and got close to nothing. In the Indian Ocean, he was confronted with the consequences of a festering problem that will have no answer absent rigorous American leadership . . .

"When the operating theory in Washington is that deficit spending on every possible priority is conducive to economic growth, there's no justification for slamming the brakes on the defense budget. The world hasn't gotten any less dangerous, a fact to which Capt. Phillips can attest. If we ever tip below the level of capability necessary to enforce a rough global order, we -- and the world -- will regret it."

By the way, Obama isn't cutting the Pentagon budget, though he is holding down the rate of increase and Secretary Robert Gates wants to kill big-ticket weapons systems in favor of funding for counterinsurgency wars.

Obama and Abortion

Has the new president been a boon to opposition organizing? Politico reports that "Obama's first 84 days in office have been like an extended recruiting drive for the anti-abortion movement, reinvigorating a constituency he sought to neutralize during the campaign. Activists report a noticeable spike in activity as Obama moves to defend and expand a woman's right to choose an abortion -- causing anti-abortion voters to mobilize in ways never needed during the Bush administration."

But the New Republic's Michelle Cottle sees nothing particularly novel about that:

"Politico's blaring headline about Obama's upping recruitment among anti-abortion groups seems like the definition of much ado about the utterly predictable. Isn't the cw that every change of regime prompts, to some extent, a reenergizing of the ideologically opposing interest groups? Thus, organizations championing women's-rights, environmentalism, abortion rights, gay rights and so on attract more members and, even more importantly, raise more money by exploiting members' fears about what a GOP-controlled government will do if left unchallenged. Likewise, when Dems come to power, the NRA, pro-lifers, anti-tax crusaders, etc. enjoy a resurgence. Certainly, if the hysterical emails I'm now receiving from conservative groups are any indication, the right's mobilization-by-fear campaign has kicked into high gear.

"Something similar tends to happen with media organizations: liberal outlets like The Nation or Mother Jones often benefit when their followers are terrified of what [conservative] rule will bring, while the likes of Rush Limbaugh and National Review become havens for out-of-power-and-feeling-beleaguered conservatives."

I'm Doomed!

"Social networks such as Twitter may blunt people's sense of morality, claim brain scientists.

"New evidence shows the digital torrent of information from networking sites could have long-term damaging effects on the emotional development of young people's brains."

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