Reading the Tea Leaves

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 16, 2009; 7:58 AM

T-Day wound up as something of a Rorschach test, taking on a different shape depending on your political views and the media you consume.

On talk radio, conservative Web sites and Fox News, the tax day tea parties felt like an earthquake. On the other cable news channels and in the major newspapers, there was barely a tremor.

The larger question: What constitutes success for a far-flung series of demonstrations, a mixture of grass-roots fervor and conservative-group organizing? A few thousand protesters at some locations, a few hundred in others? This was never intended to be a Million Man March, and it certainly wound up with its share of publicity--not all of it good, of course.

Fox started in the morning with a series of live shots, with the likes of Neil Cavuto in Sacramento.

"Regardless of whether the media cover this, I think the people are beginning to wake up," Laura Ingraham declared at a rainy protest outside the Treasury Department.

Liberals, Rush Limbaugh declared, "are petrified and scared to death of the 500 tea parties scheduled today in 50 states. They're out there snarling, it was created by Fox News, it's a right-wing plot, it's created by Limbaugh's doing! It's white people afraid of Obama . . . and Krugman says it's backed by right-wing millionaires. . . . They're using every means at their command -- from NBC to the New York Times to Twitter to the Obama mailing list -- to try to quash real democracy."

The media coverage even became a factor in the reporting. At a Chicago demonstration, CNN's Susan Roesgen started arguing with a protester over why he referred to President Obama as a fascist. "I think you get the general tenor of this," she reported. "It's anti-government. Anti-CNN. This is highly promoted by the right-wing conservative network Fox." Fox anchor Shepard Smith later laughed off her words.

On the other hand, this brief rant by Fox Business Network anchor Cody Willard, posted by a Daily Kos contributor, didn't meet my definition of fair and balanced. Speaking of a young girl, Willard says: "Now she has to pay for the $800-billion Republican-Democrat fascist stimulus package . . . Guys, when are we going to wake up and start fighting the fascism that seems to be permeating this country?"

Guys, what happened to we're-just-covering-the-events?

The MSM have finally woken up: The "CBS Evening News" and "NBC Nightly News" led with the protests, while ABC's "World News" played it as the second story. But newspaper coverage was spotty.

"Republicans sought to ignite a popular revolt against President Obama on Wednesday by staging 'tea party' protests across the nation to demand lower taxes and less government spending -- but the tactic carried risk for the party," says the L.A. Times.

"With half a million or more jobs vanishing each month, many Americans are less concerned about how much Washington deducts from their paychecks than whether they will have a paycheck at all."

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