Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Slandering the Tea Party

The malicious treatment of the Tea Party movement by elements of the media establishment in the wake of last weekend's health care protests is just stunning. Some reporters aren't even trying to hide their biases. Note, for example, this report from The Associated Press:
Raucous, ugly buildup to House health care vote

House Democrats heard it all Saturday - words of inspiration from President Barack Obama and raucous chants of protests from demonstrators. And at times it was flat-out ugly, including some racial epithets aimed at black members of Congress.

...The tone was set outside the Capitol. Clogging the sidewalks and streets of Capitol Hill were at least hundreds - no official estimate was yet available - of loud, furious protesters, many of them tea party opponents of the health care overhaul. Rallies outside the Capitol are typically orderly, with speeches and well-behaved crowds.

Saturday's was different, with anger-fueled demonstrators surrounding members of Congress who walked by, yelling at them.
"Kill the bill," the largely middle-aged crowd shouted, surging toward lawmakers who crossed the street between their office buildings and the Capitol.

The motorcade that carried Obama to Capitol Hill to whip up support for the bill drove past crowds waving signs that read "Stop the spending" and "Get your hands out of my pocketbook and health care."

Many booed and thrust their thumbs down as Obama rode by.
As police held demonstrators back to clear areas for lawmakers outside the Capitol Obama's speech, some protesters jeered and chanted at the officers, "You work for us."

...Among the demonstrators was Delane Stewart, 65, of Cookeville, Tenn., who had come with her husband, Jesse.

"You know what's coming next if this happens?" she said, referring to the health bill's passage. "They're going to come after gun control."

Retired businessman Randy Simpson, 67, of Seneca, S.C., also said the health bill was just a first step.

"My concerns are about the health care bill, and the direction it takes us is toward communism, quite frankly," he said.
Notice how the reporter manages to weave together allegations of racism presented as established fact, "ugly" and unruly behavior, and the only two people interviewed just happened to be concerned about guns and communism.

Reuters similarly emphasized the racial angle (this is the first story that comes up in a google search for "reuters health care protest") while the Washington Post devoted an entire story to it. This, mind you, despite the fact that no audio or video of these alleged incidents has yet to surface. Indeed, the only two videos I have been able to find of the scene involving the Congressmen show nothing of the kind.

Even if true, plainly this was not a majority or even significant minority of the protesters in attendance. The one allegation which seems to have been confirmed by Politico is that one protester called Rep. Barney Frank a "faggot". That's reprehensible. But really, is that lone individual's actions worthy of national attention? Politico also noted that another protester was ejected from the House chamber by Capitol Police, which should qualify him for honorary membership in Code Pink.

I suspect these disturbances and the alleged racial epithets have been accorded such heavy coverage largely because it dovetails with the popular narrative of Tea Party protesters as kooky, racist simpletons. When the Tea Party first began in earnest last April, one CNN reporter famously took a confrontational stance with protesters rather than trying to understand them. A lengthy New York Times profile piece on the movement centered on northern Idaho, an area known for its links to white supremacist groups.

I think there are at least two explanations for the media's treatment of the Tea Party movement. The first is that many journalists live within an echo chamber and fall prey to group think. They live in DC or New York -- both bastions of left-wing thought -- and have little interaction with the type of people who attend protests which advocate for things like limited government. Because of this lack of understanding they resort to caricatures and stereotypes, which perhaps makes them little different than our president.

The other explanation is simple bias, partisanship and prejudice. By slandering and sliming Tea Partiers as the racist, mouth-breathing spawn of Middle America's nether regions, it delegitimizes the movement. If the Tea Party is acknowledged as legitimate then it must be engaged on the issues it has raised such as fiscal responsibility, the role of government and respect for the Constitution. Rather than participating in such a debate, which could prove uncomfortable for many on the left, they simply prefer to distort and dismiss their Tea Party opponents.

While not a member of any organization which falls under the Tea Party umbrella, I have attended one Tea Party protest, unintentionally came across a second and was part of last weekend's health care protest. The overwhelming majority of people at these events are polite, well-behaved and -- contra Nancy Pelosi -- the definition of grassroots. The signs are almost invariably hand-made, free of offensive or extremist language, and often incorporate references to the Constitution and quotes from the Founding Fathers.

I cannot help but contrast the behavior at these Tea Party gatherings with some of the anti-war protests I have been to. In 2005, for example, I attended a protest which saw the defacing of public property:

References to Hitler:

Praise for foreign dictators and support for extremist ideologies:

A general freak-show/Star Wars bar scene vibe:

So how was this covered in the press? Well, here is the Washington Post's account:
Tens of thousands of people packed downtown Washington yesterday and marched past the White House in the largest show of antiwar sentiment in the nation's capital since the conflict in Iraq began.

The demonstration drew grandmothers in wheelchairs and babies in strollers, military veterans in fatigues and protest veterans in tie-dye. It was the first time in a decade that protest groups had a permit to march in front of the executive mansion, and, even though President Bush was not there, the setting seemed to electrify the crowd.

Signs, T-shirts, slogans and speeches outlined the cost of the Iraq conflict in human as well as economic terms. They memorialized dead U.S. troops and Iraqis, and contrasted the price of war with the price of recovery for areas battered by hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Riffs on Vietnam-era protests were plentiful, with messages declaring, "Make Levees, Not War," "I never thought I'd miss Nixon" and "Iraq is Arabic for Vietnam." Many in the crowd had protested in the 1960s; others weren't even born during those tumultuous years.
Those quoted include a 60 year old first time protester, a Special Forces member and parents with a child in the military. Overall a quite positive portrayal.

Last Saturday there were large numbers of people who I imagine were attending their first protest. Military veterans and those with children in the armed services probably weren't difficult to find either. They all had stories to tell about what motivated them to attend and why they felt so strongly about the issue. But the only thing many people in America will know about them is that a handful of their fellow protesters allegedly called members of Congress racial epithets. That's sad and a disservice.

Related: See these posts from Matt Welch and Michael Moynihan on Tea Party racism. Previous post of mine on the Tea Party movement here.

Update: Clarity on the alleged spitting incident? Also, yet another video involving protesters and black Congressmen, nearly 4 minutes long, fails to produce shouting of the "n-word."

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