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Reflections on the 'Tea Party' cultural meme

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Credit: Slog

Credit: Slog

Quick aside: I’ve been dealing with a fiasco that’s forced me to move out of my apartment and of late, I’ve been very sick, hence the reason for my lack of posts.

I took some heat the other week for a Twitter comment on the Tea Party meme—a comment in which I basically wondered publicly why anyone was covering the mass protests of taxes and government bailouts. (Note: If you’re interested in a debate about bias, please skip to the bottom and call me a communist now; I actually have another conversation in mind.) For the record, my exact words were:

I don’t think this Republican tea bagging thing is news, but at what point does it become so inflated that you have to cover it? Or do you?

I promised a clarification, so here: My point was that the news really wasn’t so much about the Tax Day protests (as many were reporting), but about the media storm that fueled the Tax Day protests. The AP had the most spot-on news piece that I saw all day—this is the lead: “Whipped up by conservative commentators and bloggers, tens of thousands of protesters staged “tea parties” around the country Wednesday….” Commentators and bloggers—in other words, the media.

For whatever reason, mass media outlets (or even small ones) have a problem admitting that they’re part of the national and international political machine. They think that since they’re supposed to be unbiased, they should keep themselves out of the picture as much as possible. In this case, the Tax Day protests were attributed to a “grassroots movement”—when in fact the root of the movement was CNBC’s Rick Santelli (with plenty of egging on after the fact from FoxNews).

So to further clarify: I never thought the tea parties should simply be ignored, I just didn’t think they were news in the purest sense of the word. When the media machine is creating movements and then reporting them, that goes beyond even bias—it’s literally an invention of news. And rather than let that invention trickle its way down the ranks, smaller news outlets ought to be calling B.S. on the big guys. Once a news source jumps on the bandwagon, it becomes part of the machine and its ability to tell an unbiased story is damaged, if not complely destroyed.

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  • http://infinitezoom.blogspot.com Curt M.

    I think you’re spot on on this one. The problem is the media don’t like to admit when they’re being used. Worse, they often don’t know when they’re being used and don’t want to ask the questions that would uncover what’s really going on. Always ask: Why are these people doing this? Who is behind it? Why did they call ME to tell me about it? Be skeptical! It’s an old news saying but still true: If you mother says she loves you, check it out.

  • Angela D.

    I agree with you about media recognizing their impact on people, and that there should have been more recognition that though it was whipped up by TV folks and bloggers. But here’s why you caught flak for saying it: The idea hit a nerve with a large group of people. If most people thought it was silly, that they didn’t relate, they would have ignored it. That’s what made it worth reporting. It doesn’t matter who whipped it up; hundreds of people in your community are standing out and voicing their frustration about something. That’s news.

    I think a lot of folks also missed another point, that most of it really wasn’t about taxes at all. A lot of people feel they’re no longer represented in the government. They lost the election, and someone found a lightning rod for their frustration. And I think I only saw one story that pointed out that the tax burden has actually decreased over the past 10 years and for many, it still isn’t going up right now (at least that’s what I remember reading, correct me if I’m wrong).

  • Josh Hicks

    As a reporter who covered one of the Tea Parties, I’m glad to hear more of your thoughts on the subject. I disagree with the notion that these events were whipped up by conservatives, although I see now that there were definitely some conservative commentators pushing them. I didn’t know it at the time because I don’t have cable. Still, I’m not at all ashamed of having covered this.

    Below is a letter from a registered Democrat who read my article. It might shed some more light on my reluctantance to report the Tea Parties as news rather than a media conspiracy, which only discredits people like this.

    Hello Mr. Hicks,

    Thank you for covering the Tea Party event held in Bellevue April 15th.

    I wanted to write to you to give you my insights on why this is happening. I know it has been confusing to some people. If you interview 10 people at the parties you could get 10 different answers as to why they are there. It gives the impression that there is no real direction. Let me try to explain:

    For 30 years I have been saying there is going to be a revolution in this country. For 30 years I have had serious concerns with the way our tax dollars are being spent by Congress, and our State Assemblies. For 30 years I have been saying the Democrats and the Republicans are not listening to us. For 30 years I have said we pay their salaries, they work for us. I’m sure there are people out there that have been sounding these same concerns for more then 30 years. Finally when we do reach a point of total frustration we gather together and find there are more then 30 years of concerns.

    Although I am a registered Democrat, I refer to myself now as an Independent. The Democrat Party left me a long time ago. Then I was more a Republican. Now I am a Fiscal Conservative looking for a party to belong to.

    The people that attend the Tea Parties do not attend as Democrats, Republicans, Independents, Liberals, or Conservatives. We attend as AMERICANS. Concerned Americans.

    We are not racists. We are not radicals. We are not extremists. We are not “rich conservatives”. WE ARE AMERICANS.

    I am not going to mentions names. Doing so would only bring about the old “it’s the Democrats, it’s the Republicans” cry from those wishing it to be one party’s fault. I can’t explain 30 years of stupidity from our elected officials in anything less then a book, so I’m going to give some current examples that have given me grave concern. This is not to say it is “all their fault”. There is enough blame to go around, including the people that continue to elect these people.

    In the Stimulus Bill (that no one read before voting) there was more pork then stimulus. We gave millions to study the stench of pig poop. We gave billions for the “Fantasyland Express”, that is suppose to run from Disneyland to Las Vegas. In the mean time Congress cut the money for vouchers, which means “low income children” (in Washington DC) can no longer apply to attend Charter Schools. The program is set to end in 2010. Congress said they didn’t think taxpayers should pay for “low income children” to attend private schools. Let me tell you: I would much rather pay for a child’s education then pay for studying pig poop.

    Congress needs to take responsibility for their part for the economic situation we are in. They can’t continue to point their finger in another direction. Remember when you point your finger you have 3 pointing back at yourself. I was very upset to see Congress trying to humiliate the CEOs of the banking industries. When it was Congress that told them they had to make those loans. It was Congress that was responsible for the collapse of Fanny Mae and Freddie Mac. Here I will point out that over this period of time we had both Republican Congress and Democrat Congress in the Majority. There that should take care of “it was the other party’s fault”.

    There I go pointing the finger…..Ummm, must be 3 pointing back at me. Yes, it is my/our fault too. Americans have been living beyond their means for a long time. It may have been fun while it lasted, but now it is time for us all to get back to basics. What have we taught our children…….Shop till ya Drop.

    We as Americans have to move away from arguing about which party did what. If we can’t do this how can we expect our elected officials to do anything more then point their finger in the other direction.

    I did chuckle the other day when Obama’s press secretary said the President was not aware of the Tea Parties. This is why we are gathering………OUR ELECTED OFFICIALS AREN’T LISTENING.

    We can’t continue to blame the government for everything we don’t like………..PEOPLE, WE ARE THE GOVERNMENT. Those making the decisions only represent us. They work for us, we don’t work for them.

    See you at the next Tea Party.

  • http://paulbalcerak.com paulbalcerak

    Curt- Being “used”—that’s a good way of putting it. I also think—and I’m not referring to any specific news source here—smaller news sources get caught up in the mentality that they have to “follow the lead” of the CNNs and New York Times (in all fairness, I’ve been guilty of this myself).

    Angela- I agree that that’s why I hit a nerve and I agree that hundreds of people protesting in the community is news. At the same time, a lot of small news sources (it seemed like nearly every small news source) dedicated a lot of time and energy to reporting the protests when there really wasn’t all that much required. It was a national issue taking place at the local level—a local photo with an extended cutline and a link out to a national source putting it in context would have been plenty. Many quotes were ubiquitous: “we’re not going to take it,” “no more bailouts,” etc.

    Really good point about a lack of representation. I didn’t hear much of that either, other than from a few political analysts in the post-game wraps.

    I didn’t see many stories about the tax burden, either. I heard a lot of loose rumor that most people’s taxes are actually going down, but I haven’t been able to find any hard evidence of it yet.

  • http://paulbalcerak.com paulbalcerak

    Josh- I don’t think it was necessarily conservatives who “whipped up” the Tea Party protests, nor do I think there was a “media conspiracy.” I think the media at large—conservative and liberal pundits as well as purportedly objective reporters—took a small idea and reported the hell out of it till it grew to what we now know it as. It was all done out in the open, on cable and national TV, and the Internet, making it really the opposite of a conspiracy.

    I also don’t think there should be any “shame” associated with having covered the protests. As I said to Angela, I think a few too many resources were dedicated to the coverage, but whatever—I’m not a publisher. I just think that when everyone in the media is doing the same thing, it’s worth it to step back and question the trend.

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