Is the tea party’s importance exaggerated? 

I have a lot of respect for Politico’s Jonathan Martin and Ben Smith as reporters, but their latest piece on “The tea party’s exaggerated importance” leaves a lot to be desired. If you want to argue that the tea party movement’s importance in American politics is overplayed, I’m actually willing to listen. There’s a case to be made. But you probably shouldn’t count on snide dismissal to drive the point home:

Part of the reason is the timeless truth in media that nothing succeeds like excess. But part of the reason is a convergence of incentives for journalists and activists on left and right alike to exaggerate both the influence and exotic traits of the tea-party movement. In fact, there is a word for what poll after poll depicts as a group of largely white, middle-class, middle-aged voters who are aggrieved: Republicans.

The problem here is that if the tea party movement’s importance is overstated, that’s ultimately a media problem and not a tea party problem. And if the media’s coverage of tea partiers has been excessive, isn’t getting a lecture on the excessive and superficial political reporting from Politico a bit much? Or is Mike Allen no longer concerned with revealing the name of the organic Chinese food restaurant the Treasury Secretary likes to frequent? (Zing!)
To be fair, Smith and Martin (I think I saw them headline at The Dunes in ‘62) do call out the media harshly — “The findings have been unveiled with the earnest detachment of Margaret Mead reporting her findings among teenage girls in Samoa.” They are right to condemn the way tea partiers have been approached. No doubt America’s evangelicals are thankful for the respite from the hordes of ink-stained anthropologists descending on them. But the examples provided in the piece seem lacking:
Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, which tracks media reports, found that the tea parties consumed a steady measure of news for most of this year before exploding during tax week to compete with the Icelandic volcano for attention and outstripping health care with 6% of all media reports that week.
Wait, so the fact that an extremely large grassroots anti-tax movement got lots of coverage the week of April 15 is a problem? The coverage should have gone to a volcano in Iceland or health care reform which has been getting wall-to-wall coverage for nearly a year? Please. Tax time, for once, seems like the time they should be covered.
To be fair, some of the piece’s other criticisms hit the mark — the part about reporters trying too hard to draw generalizations from a movement with no national structure and no real designated spokesmen is spot on. But overall, the piece’s success at “driving the conversation” — or however Politico explains their mission these days — leaves a lot to be desired.

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Mark Hemingway

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