For a two-and-a-half-year-old movement, the tea party has already left a massive imprint on American politics. No Republican contender for the presidency can afford to betray its positions against taxation, against liberalizing immigration policies, against a loose interpretation of the Constitution. Tea party backers in 2010 helped vault a number of Republican candidates into the House of Representatives, which now boasts a thriving Tea Party Caucus. Need more evidence of its mainstream emergence? Just weeks ago, CNN teamed up with Tea Party Express to sponsor a GOP presidential debate.

These milestones notwithstanding, the movement remains a pipsqueak on the copy desks of newspapers in the land of the free and the home of the brave. The challenge is one of elementary-school grammar: The tea party movement can’t get itself a pair of capital letters.

A recent Associated Press story illustrates the typographical discrimination against the movement: “About half of self-described tea party supporters are 50 or older and can remember listening to AM radio that spun 45s of liberal protest music like Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger. ‘They’re the modern hippies,’ Florence County GOP Chairman Bill Pickle, 60, said. ‘But they’re called “tea party” and they’ve moved to the right.’ ”

So a movement credited with harpooning debt-ceiling compromise plans between the White House and Congress can’t even get the same treatment afforded to common nouns in German. Surely tea partyers are bristling over the slight!

Well, no. “I hadn’t noticed that,” says Jenny Beth Martin, national coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots. Mark Meckler, another big shot in the organization, says, “I don’t really care whether they capitalize our movement or not.”

The leading minds in America’s copy-editing establishment, of course, don’t share that indifference. Whether “tea party” gets uppercase or lowercase treatment is a matter of exalted consideration at the AP. David Minthorn is the organization’s deputy standards editor and a co-editor of the influential AP Stylebook. He notes that official tea party groups, such as the Tea Party Patriots, are capitalized automatically. The broader movement is another question.

“The tea party came into our stylebook a couple of years ago,” Minthorn says. “We decided at the time to stick with a lowercase spelling, for a movement or a state-of-mind issue, but it doesn’t seem to be a national organization with one hierarchy with a president of it or a chairman of it.”

It has to be amorphous, huh? No president, no national chairman — just sort of out there, shouting and agitating? So no movement with those characteristics could ever claim uppercase treatment by the AP, right?

Oh, but look at the first sentence of an AP story last week: “Poland’s former President Lech Walesa says he supports the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York that protests corporate greed.”

“Occupy Wall Street” — what nice capital letters you have. To deserve that grand treatment, the movement surely must have a president or chairman listed right at the top of OccupyWallSt.org.

Not quite: “Occupy Wall Street,” the site says, is a “leaderless resistance movement with people of many colors, genders and political persuasions.”

“O”MG. So the tea party does grass-roots work in America’s heartland and can’t earn the respect of a capital letter, yet the moment some protesters start hanging out in a New York park, they’re immediately uppercase material? Whether or not they’re a bunch of trust-funders, as their critics charge, they may have a sense of typographical entitlement. (And remember, an AP story of national import can reach about 1,500 newspapers and thousands of digital outlets, according to AP spokesperson Paul Colford.)

How does the AP’s copy brain trust justify this “O”? Minthorn advances a few arguments:

1. “This is what these protesters call themselves.” (Just the way the tea party always has.)

2. “It seems to be a movement that has a lot of local manifestations.” (Like the tea party.)

3. “They sort of seem to share a philosophy of some sort; they have shared ideas.” (Like the tea party!)

The Washington Post’s news pages also uppercase Occupy Wall Street and lowercase the tea party movement, following a similar rationale. When asked about the big “O,” Anne Ferguson-Rohrer, The Post’s multiplatform editing chief, replies: “As far as capping it, we consider it an official movement. It is fairly widespread and the group, as loosely as it has been organized, has been consistent in labeling itself as such.” The tea party apparently needs to meet a higher standard: “It’s not an officially registered party as a whole so we keep it lowercase,” Ferguson-Rohrer says. (The Post’s editorial page has different policies.)

Leave it to the New York Times, that target of right-wing ideologues, to give us a “T” and a “P.” Associate Managing Editor for Standards Philip B. Corbett articulates just why the paper treats the Tea Party properly. “Granted, it’s not a formal organization like the Republican Party. But I would think of ‘Tea Party’ as more akin to, say, a nickname than to a generic common noun. Or you could compare it to an artistic movement — we uppercase ‘Impressionism,’ though it’s not a formal organization.”

Not only does the New York Times give the tea party its due, but its solution also eliminates potential confusion. Let’s not forget that before Sarah Palin and constitutional originalism, a tea party was a gathering of people with hot drinks and finger food. “It’s not a political judgment, just a question of clarity and appearance. It seems a bit odd or distracting to refer to a lowercase ‘tea party’ — as a common noun, a ‘tea party’ is a gathering where tea is served,” writes Corbett via e-mail.

The Post’s Ferguson-Rohrer scoffs at the notion of any confusion between crumpets and the Constitution. “There’s almost no incidents or occurrence where people are going to confuse a tea party serving English breakfast with a political organization,” she says.

Such munchies serve up the light side of a newsroom debate that, in fact, matters a great deal. Though some copy-editing standards cover technical points that do not affect a story’s underlying meaning — say, a comma vs. a semicolon — others often address substantive, consequential stuff, such as the tea party movement. Whether you think tea partyers are ruining the country or saving it, there’s no question that they’re influencing it in a legitimately uppercase fashion.

The irony of it all? Tomorrow I could register a nonprofit organization dedicated to uppercasing the tea party movement. If I could coax some AP writer into covering it, my new group would get capital treatment. 

Erik Wemple writes about the news media at washingtonpost.com/blogs/erik-wemple.

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The Post’s Erik Wemple on why the press gives Occupy Wall Street capitalization love