Tea party groups say media have been fair, survey finds

A writer tags along with a Tea Party group from Ohio on their way to Washington to learn what the movement wants -- and why.
By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 26, 2010; 10:46 PM

Most local tea party organizers interviewed in an extensive canvass this month by The Washington Post said media coverage of their groups has been fair, suggesting that perceptions of antagonism between the tea party and traditional news media are overstated.

Seventy-six percent of local organizers said that coverage of their groups is either very fair or somewhat fair. Only 8 percent said coverage has been very unfair; 15 percent said somewhat unfair.

The canvass showed that more than three-fourths of group leaders said their organizations' activities have received local media coverage, revealing the depth of the news media's - and the public's - fascination with the tea party.

"We have three local newspapers out here, and reporters have come out to our meet-the-candidate night or our rallies, and they have reported pretty fairly," said Lynda Edwards, 63, a homemaker and organizer with the East Hampton Tea Party on New York's Long Island. "I haven't had any reason to complain about it."

The Post's canvass showed that the movement, despite its forceful and highly visible message of protest against President Obama's agenda, includes hundreds of groups that do surprisingly little to engage in the political process. Local groups are also divided on why they formed, what their top issues are and whom they see as their national leaders.

The results come from a months-long effort by The Post to contact every tea party group in the nation, an unprecedented attempt to understand the network of individuals and organizations at the heart of a movement that sprang up shortly after Obama's inauguration in 2009 and that has captured the attention of the country with its passionate rallies and stunning victories in primaries from Delaware to Alaska.

In all, The Post identified more than 1,400 possible groups and was able to verify and reach 647 of them. Each respondent answered a lengthy questionnaire about the group's beliefs, members and goals.

Media coverage of the tea party has evolved markedly since the groups first began forming in February 2009, after the now-famous on-air rant of Rick Santelli, a journalist with CNBC Business Network. (Santelli fumed over Obama administration policies on helping homeowners who defaulted on their mortgages and called for a "Chicago Tea Party" protest.) Major news outlets paid little attention to the first wave of tax-day protests in April 2009 and even the 9/12 march the following September in Washington.

But attention quickly focused on the impassioned and sometimes-raucous protests that tea party activists continued to stage, notably those leading up to passage of the health-care overhaul law. Accusations by members of Congress that protesters had hurled epithets prompted a wave of media coverage over whether the tea party was based on anti-Obama racism. A string of stories focused on the racially charged statements and signs of certain protesters.

Such coverage drew criticism from Sarah Palin and other conservative leaders.

But as media outlets have spent more time following protesters around the country - and as more studied analysis of the movement and its members has emerged - the coverage has grown more nuanced.

Matt Kibbe, president of the Washington-based conservative organizer FreedomWorks, said the grass-roots view of tea party media coverage is in keeping with his perception that news coverage has improved dramatically since the groups began forming in February 2009.

"The more time reporters have had to actually talk to activists and cover the events, the more the coverage has gotten far more fair and realistic about what's actually going on," Kibbe said.

The flip side of that view, however, is a prevailing sentiment among Democrats and left-leaning observers that media coverage of the tea party has breathlessly overstated the breadth and influence of the movement - a view that a number of bloggers and liberal commentators interpreted The Post's canvass results to confirm.

Critics said media outlets have focused too much on the easy imagery of rallies and the victorious primary challenges of a handful of tea-party-backed candidates without holding the movement accountable for where much of its organizational strength comes from: national groups funded by big-dollar (and sometimes secret) corporate donors. The movement's core message - that Obama and the Democrats are responsible for driving national spending through the roof - has also gone largely unchallenged, critics said.

"The media has done a miserable job in challenging the tea party, and more broadly the Republican Party, on their underlying critique against us on spending and government expansion," said Democratic National Committee spokesman Brad Woodhouse.

"The tea party has been held out as principled anger at government overreach and spending, but it's anything but principled. If it were, where were they on the unpaid tax cuts, wars and the Medicare drug benefit of the Bush era, much less the bank bailouts, which were passed and signed by Bush?

"The media has given this hypocrisy a pass, has failed to correct the record, and I've even seen instances where legitimate news outlets have attributed TARP to this administration instead of the Bush administration."

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