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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."

NYT: "Although organizers insisted they had created a nonpartisan grass-roots movement, others argued that these parties were more of the Astroturf variety: an occasion largely created by the clamor of cable news and fueled by the financial and political support of current and former Republican leaders."

The Boston Globe, in the city that hosted the original 1773 tea party, punts by running an AP story:

"Whipped up by conservative commentators and bloggers, tens of thousands of protesters staged 'tea parties' around the country yesterday to tap into the collective angst stirred up by a bad economy, government spending, and bailouts."

Papers such as the Baltimore Sun and Washington Times basically covered the local demonstrations. The Washington Post had a local story and a Dana Milbank column. The Chicago Tribune ran a bunch of photos of the Windy City demonstrations.

Instapundit Glenn Reynolds, in the WSJ, touts the way the demos came together:

"The movement grew so fast that some bloggers at the Playboy Web site -- apparently unaware that we've entered the 21st century -- suggested that some secret organization must be behind all of this. But, in fact, today's technology means you don't need an organization, secret or otherwise, to get organized. After considerable ridicule, the claim was withdrawn, but that hasn't stopped other media outlets from echoing it.

"There's good news and bad news in this phenomenon for establishment politicians. The good news for Republicans is that, while the Republican Party flounders in its response to the Obama presidency and its programs, millions of Americans are getting organized on their own. The bad news is that those Americans, despite their opposition to President Obama's policies, aren't especially friendly to the GOP. When Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele asked to speak at the Chicago tea party, his request was politely refused by the organizers . . .

"What's most striking about the tea-party movement is that most of the organizers haven't ever organized, or even participated, in a protest rally before. General disgust has drawn a lot of people off the sidelines and into the political arena."

Reynolds, who is part of Pajamas Media, draws a quick rebuttal from Andrew Sullivan:

"He makes no mention of Pajamas Media's heavy investment in the events, nor Fox News' endless touting and endorsement of them, but he does point to FreedomWorks' coordinating website. I'm sure, of course, that it's a mix of both: some grass roots enthusiasm, coopted in some part by Republican party operators. But it seems odd to describe this as anything but a first stab at creating opposition to the Obama administration's spending plans, manned by people who made no serious objections to George W. Bush's. The tea-parties are as post-partisan as Reynolds, one of the most relentlessly partisan bloggers on the web. When you see them holding up effigies of Bush, who was, unlike Obama, supposed to be the fiscal conservative, let me know.

"But the substantive critique must remain the primary one. Protesting government spending is meaningless unless you say what you'd cut.

"If you favor no bailouts, then say so. If you want to see the banking system collapse, then say so. If you think the recession demands no fiscal stimulus, then say so. If you favor big cuts in Medicare, Medicaid, social security and defense, then say so. I keep waiting for Reynolds to tell us what these protests are for; and he can only spin what they . . . are against."

I've got to endorse that point. It's easy to attack Big Government. But the Hill is opposing even Obama's modest pruning, such as reining in farm subsidies (prompting Ruth Marcus to ask where the president's backbone is.) The critics need to get specific.

In the Atlantic, Marc Ambinder has some words for those who dismiss the April 15th protests:

The "tea-party enthusiasm on the American right has provoked a fairly typical reaction from the organized American left. It's a fake. It involves tea bags and (a) Dick Armey. It's got the consistency of astroturf, not natural grass. The right, meanwhile, has responded ferociously to the charges that the parties were organized au naturelle by closing ranks, claiming themselves the inheritors of a intellectual tradition beginning with Rosseau through Thomas Paine through Hayek.

"The right looks more ridiculous than the left at this point, if only because conservatives don't have much muscle memory when it comes to protesting en masse. But the tea parties really are something. Their origins -- organic, programmatic, accidental or otherwise -- don't matter much anymore."

Former Bush campaign aide Patrick Ruffini sees a seminal moment for the right:

"By the standards of the Obama campaign and MoveOn.org, the Tea Parties happening all across the country are not very organized . . .

"The lack of coordination is a sign of a still-young movement that's just learning to organize online in earnest . . . With viral distribution through Facebook, Twitter, and blogs, it's a lot easier to get a message out from an organizational baseline of zero."

When Obama Speaks

The president's lengthy and nuanced speech on the economy is still reverberating in the blogosphere. Politico says the timing is no accident:

"There are political realities at work, too. Obama's speech came on Day 85 of his presidency, and after the spate of media attention to come when he hits the 100-day mark, Obama will own the economy in a very real political sense.

"After that, voters are likely to hold Obama more responsible for their economic suffering, and patience for blaming the Bush administration will wear thin.

"The president touched on this theme Tuesday, sounding almost as if he wished the clamor for results wasn't so intense, with a '24-hour news cycle that insists on instant gratification in the form of immediate results, or higher poll numbers.'

"Still, White House officials believe Obama's window of patience from voters could last as long as two years, if the public continues to see him as someone who is being straight with them about the problems and working to solve them.

"A recent Public Strategies Inc./POLITICO poll suggests Obama does have some leeway. The survey of 1,000 registered voters found that two thirds of the respondents trust the president 'to identify the right solutions to the problems we face as a nation' . . . But if job losses continue, at some point, voters will expect results."

In the meantime, Obama faces something of a Goldilocks challenge, not too hot and not too cold. As John Dickerson puts it in Slate:

"Obama's periodic messages have been predictable and formulaic by design. The issues are difficult and complex, so the president must explain how we got into this mess. The solutions are many and varied, so he's always got something new to talk about. And the public is anxious and volatile, so Obama needs regular opportunities to adjust the highly sensitive political gauges that can quickly get dangerously out of whack. He's got to be optimistic (he sees 'glimmers of hope') but not too optimistic ('We're not out of the woods yet'). He must show that he's working like a dog ('You can expect an unrelenting, unyielding, day-by-day effort from this administration') and that he's not out of touch ('No one is angrier about AIG than I am'). And he also has to remind people of the larger reason they're being asked to accept a fundamental level of unfairness . . .

"The president keeps giving these speeches because they appear to be working. In a new Gallup poll, 71 percent say that they have a great deal or a fair amount of confidence in the president. But he's got to stay on the case. While people trust him on the economy, only 54 percent in a recent Pew survey say he's explained his policies well enough. The White House is also watching closely the gap between Obama's approval rating (in the low 60s) and approval of the programs he's offering."

I'd say he doesn't have choice: the press would jump all over the president if he stopped talking about the economy.

Your Governors At Work

As George Bush's successor in Austin refuses to rule out secession, Washington Monthly's Steve Benen does something really mean: he checks the record.

"Texas Gov. Rick Perry's (R) speech Tuesday on his unwillingness to accept the 'oppressive hand' of the federal government has caused something of a stir. It also, as it turns out, offers another example of conservative hypocrisy.

"After all, there's Perry's rhetoric . . . and there's Perry's reality.

"Governor Rick Perry, five days ago: Governor Perry Calls FEMA To Assist With Wildfires

"Governor Rick Perry, last month: Governor Perry Calls For 1,000 Troops To Be Sent To Border

"Governor Rick Perry, five months ago: Governor Perry Requests 18 Month Extension Of Federal Aid For Ike Debris Removal

"Yes, ol' Rick just can't stand that 'oppressive' federal bureaucracy that keeps 'interfering' with Texas, except when he needs its help."

As for a former governor, I've written about Eliot Spitzer's media rehab campaign (which must be working; he was on "Morning Joe" yesterday). But can Client No. 9 really be eyeing a comeback? Hot Air's Ed Morrissey is aghast:

"Page Six at the NY Post says Spitzer really wants his old job back in New York -- the one he had before:

"Behind Eliot Spitzer's flaccid attempt at re-erecting his public persona is a plan to run for state attorney general in 2010, sources told Page Six.

"After launching a column on Slate.com, and giving interviews to National Public Radio and the 'Today' show, the sources say, the disgraced former governor told friends: 'My record as governor was disappointing, but the voters will remember my excellent two terms as attorney general.' . . .

"His record as governor was 'disappointing'? That seems exceedingly mild. Spitzer barely served a year in the role, but made time for two impeachable scandals. Besides frequenting a call girl in the exact same kind of prostitution ring against which he crusaded as AG -- and on which crusades Spitzer built his political career -- Spitzer also kicked off his own Troopergate scandal. He used state troopers to spy on his political opponents, a rather Nixonian act that still has Albany stunned for its arrogance . . .

"New York may be liberal, but they're not that crazy."

Zell Tells

"Tribune Co. Chairman and Chief Executive Sam Zell told Bloomberg Television today that his heavily leveraged 2007 acquisition of the Chicago Tribune parent was 'a mistake' in that he did not anticipate the steep decline in the newspaper business.

" 'By definition, if you bought something and it's now worth a great deal less, you made a mistake and I'm more than willing to say I made a mistake,' Zell said. 'I was too optimistic in terms of the newspaper's ability to preserve its position.'

"Zell, who took Tribune Co. private in a leveraged $8.2 billion deal, reiterated that his goal is to emerge from Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings begun in December to manage its $13 billion in debt with its assets intact. But the billionaire investor also said the company is looking at 'all options.' 'It's very obvious that the newspaper model in its current form does not work and the sooner we all acknowledge that the better,' Zell said. 'Whether it be home delivery, whether it be giving content away for free -- these are critical issues.' "

My expert analysis: That doesn't sound good for the Trib.

Divorce Watch

And there was this breaking news, via the New York Post:

"A sexy Russian songbird came out of nowhere yesterday to claim she plays the starring role of 'other woman' in the ongoing Mel Gibson soap opera."

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