Were tea parties really under-covered last year?

Blog ››› ››› JAMISON FOSER

Politico's Ben Smith & Jonathan Martin argue that the importance of the tea party "movement" has been exaggerated by the news media. Their lede reminds me of something I've been meaning to address:

2009 was the year when many journalists concluded they were slow to recognize the anti-government, anti-Obama rage that gave birth to the tea party movement.

2010 is the year when news organizations have decided to prove they get it.

And get it. And get it some more.

It seems like reporters have been saying forever that the media had previously failed to pay sufficient attention to the tea partiers (or, more broadly, voter anger at government/Obama/Washington) -- but that they get it now.

Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz, for example, says (or writes) this every few weeks.

Kurtz, March 22, 2010: "[T]here was no lack of journalistic shortcomings. When anger erupted at those town hall meetings last summer, much of the media wrote them off as a spectacle. Reporters were slow to recognize the growing public anger at Obamacare and what "tea party" enthusiasts viewed as out-of-control federal spending.

Kurtz, March 15, 2010: "The media initially ignored or downplayed the tea party protests, and now have had to acknowledge that it's a legitimate, if unfocused, force."

Kurtz, January 25, 2010: [M]uch as journalists were slow to recognize the significance of the 'tea party' movement last summer, most didn't treat this [Massachusetts Senate] race as a serious contest until the final 10 days."

Et cetera.

The received wisdom that the media didn't pay enough attention to angry conservatives in 2009 is presumably a key factor in the increased coverage they've been given recently.

But is it true that the media dropped the ball last year?

The credibility of that notion actually takes a hit due to how long it has been around. See, way back in April of 2009, Kurtz was already asserting that the media wasn't paying enough attention to the tea party protests. Here's Kurtz on April 12, 2009:

CNN and MSNBC may have dropped the ball by all but ignoring the protests.

But the protests Kurtz was referring to hadn't even happened yet -- he was talking about the tax day protests organized by Fox News that were still three days away at the time. Just how much media attention should have been devoted to protests that had not yet occurred?

And it just isn't true that the media was "slow to recognize" the significance of what was happening last summer -- the August congressional recess, in particular, was dominated by wall-to-wall news coverage of angry conservatives yelling at town hall meetings.

It isn't that the media didn't cover the protests enough. It's that they didn't cover the protests (or the health care debate, or darn near anything else) well enough -- and, in doing so, they made it inevitable that overheated and false rhetoric would come to dominate public discourse.

The Washington Post, The Politico
Howard Kurtz
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