Is the Tea Party winning the battle of how it's defined?

Demonstrators against US President Barack Obam...

Image by AFP/Getty Images via Daylife


In an article on the  big Tea Party movement gathering in Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid’s hometown,  USA Today today used this boilerplate language to explain who the movement’s members are.

The tea party movement is a far-flung coalition of conservative groups angered by Washington spending, rising taxes and the growth and reach of government. It takes its name from the Boston Tea Party in 1773, when colonists dumped tea off English ships to protest what they considered unfair taxation by the British crown.

The article continued like this:

 Saturday’s rally kicks off a 42-city bus tour that ends in Washington on April 15, the deadline for filing federal income tax returns.

Leonard Grimes, a 70-year-old retired logger, said the U.S. is drifting toward socialism, and he’s not convinced Obama is eligible to be president.

 “I’d like him to prove he’s an American citizen,” said Grimes … 

There is nothing glaringly unusual about this kind of journalistic writing. It’s pretty typical of news stories. I also happen to believe it’s misleading, particularly in a society where most people are  not all that well informed.


First, let’s consider the contextual paragraph. The paper establishes the roots and role of the Tea Party in language the party most certainly would embrace. The definition makes the movement out to be a group of reasonable folks, against big spending and high taxes. It even embraces the movement’s clever propaganda by buying its link to the American Revolution.

But would it be any less accurate to describe the movement as “a far flung coalition of disenfranchised Americans, alienated from government because of persistently high unemployment and their perception that working class, white America is losing its influence and quality of living?”  I don’t think so. But that wouldn’t sound as “neutral” because it could be construed as negative.

And that’s just the boilerplate.

Now let’s look at the quote that follows. It again raises a weary, discredited and utterly specious attack on the president as some strange “foreigner” who has illegally usurped power.

Why does the press continue to repeat this horse manure (and I’m damn well tempted to call it something stronger)?  When they raise this “birther” smear, do reporters see no responsibility to point out that Obama not only was born in Hawaii, but that his birth certificate has been  authenticated many times over?

I have a hunch. I’ll bet  news organizations believe they’re subtly showing some of the more extreme beliefs of Tea Partiers by posting quotes such as this one by the old logger without comment or evidence refuting them. Unfortunately, a whole lot of  Americans don’t seem to know fact from fantasy. As a Harris Poll reported last week, 25 percent of Americans and 45 percent of Republicans believe the president was born in another country.

When the news media repeat falsehood without challenging it, without pointing out the factual truth, they run the risk of reinforcing destructively fanciful views. That’s not “objective” reporting. It’s mindless reporting. 

 Barack Obama, of course, is no socialist and there is overwhelming evidence to suggest otherwise. But given his liberal views on some issues, perhaps that would be hard to prove.

It is not, however, difficult to prove where he was born.  Furthermore, it’s been done. When mainstream news organizations, despite this, repeat nonesense  mouthed by ignorant people in a movement pining for an America that no longer exists, as Charles Blow points out in today’s New York Times, those news organizations become part of the problem — part of the reason fact-based journalism is having a hard time being heard over the propagandists.


About jerrylanson

I teach, write, coach and sing, though you're not required to listen to the latter. I'm a journalism professor at Emerson College in Boston. My third book, "Writing for Others, Writing for Ourselves," was published in November by Rowman & Littlefield Publishing. You can read a sample chapter at My passions are politics (generally liberal in outlook), music, mountains, golden retrievers and my grandchildren, though not in that order. Please stop by and mix it up with me. I always answer those who post.
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8 Responses to Is the Tea Party winning the battle of how it's defined?

  1. bschwein says:

    I would contend that this is a lazy reporter, rather than an actively biased journalist. I think one of the biggest drawbacks to the teaching of objectivity is that it makes reporters afraid they’ll be perceived as biased if they dispute someone’s facts or characterize someone negatively.
    It becomes much more difficult for a reporter to write about the Tea Party accurately, without making them sound like a bunch of nut jobs (which they are). It almost seems as though sounding neutral is more important than telling the truth to most reporters.
    A lot of reporters lack the will to delicately dance around their own biases when they are correct. It is hard to accurately portray these ideas without disparaging them. As a result, I would say that most reporters feel more comfortable “allowing the reader to interpret the facts for themselves” rather than facing into those challenges.
    That has proven dangerous. Allowing these wild assertions to go unchecked has lent an air of credibility to them. While many news outlets were right in pointing a finger at the GOP for not denouncing these wild ideas, they should also be taking a hard look at their own reporting.

  2. Jerry Lanson says:

    Well said.

  3. criffdog says:

    I would also submit, that even though there is this perceived notion by th general public(another false-hood perpetuated by the same corporate controlled media) that there is this “liberal bias” in the media, many journalists are either encouraged to place a corporate-friendly slant to or discouraged from reporting news in any way that would lead the less-than-informed reader to interpret the story contrary to the direction that they are intended to be led. Another problem with the consolidation of our media outlets into the hands of just a few corporate owners is that in order for a journalist to land a job with a liveable wage, they have to toe the corporate line. Just my thoughts.

    • Jerry Lanson says:

      I left the newsroom 15 years ago, but in my experience, what you suggest was not true. Reporters worked too hard and cared too much about their work to worry about what slant their corporate publishers might have wanted. A bigger concern to me is that the notion of objectivity has become fuzzy over the last few decades. When I was in the newsroom it meant (a) not showing your biases (b) confronting those biases (c) challenging those biases by seeking information and comment from across the spectrum. It did not, however, mean giving equal weight to all points of view if the facts overwhelming supported one. Today young reporters sometimes get confused. They believe objectivity means quoting one side and then the other, giving both equal weight regardless of the evidence. One place where corporate bias can creep in is in what is NOT covered. We were lucky enough to have Gwen Ifill of PRS as a speaker the other day, and she made this point. So readers, viewers and listeners rarely are told stories about the disproportionate manner in which unemployment, for example, has devastated minority communities. Instead, we’re told about the overall figures as if all groups are hurt equally.

  4. andylevinson says:

    RE:The tea party movement is a far-flung coalition of conservative groups angered by Washington spending, rising taxes and the growth and reach of government.

    Then by default, the other side, the obama democrats are the red coats, they are the enemy, the taxers,

    That old commie prick reid can never show his face in Nevada again…..

    • Jerry Lanson says:

      Andy, If you’re making the point that contextual graphs such as the one chosen by USA Today can shape overall perception, I agree. If you’re serious, keep drinking that Kool Aid and maybe Nancy Pelosi will float past as Mao!

  5. criffdog says:

    Thanks for providing me with more of an “insiders” viewpoint on what my preception was. And you’re right, it bothers me that often times we are fed actual facts along side someone’s opinion and both are presented as equal. Like for instance when we are given an opinion poll like “Do you think health-care reform will benefit you?” In the end, does it really matter whether someone thinks it will help them or not, when all they really have to do is find out if it does?

    • Jerry Lanson says:

      You’re absolutely right here. We live in an absolutely poll obsessed culture. Yet we often pay no attention to the framing of the actual question, the margin or error or the knowledge base of those being asked. It’s all for the horse race and the headline. I’ll also plead guilty here.

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