When the Tea Party movement erupted in the spring of 2009, the media elites dismissed them as corporate-generated “Astroturf” noise. They found them barely worth covering, even to besmirch them.
But when the “Occupy Wall Street” protests began on September 17, the liberal media was quickly bombarded with complaints from the Left that the media were ignoring this massive “news” story. NPR executive editor Dick Meyer said the early protests “did not involve large numbers of people, prominent people, a great disruption, or an especially clear objective.” So the protesters went out and blocked the Brooklyn Bridge and drew 700 arrests – voila, a national story.
Contemplate this: the “Occupy” folks drew more broadcast network stories in the first nine days of coverage (24) than the Tea Party drew in the first nine months (19).
NBC’s Michelle Franzen was the first promoter – okay, she calls herself a “reporter” – on the scene. "Protesters fed up with the economy and social inequality turned out en masse over the weekend,” she announced on “Today” on October 3. “Voicing their discontent and marching for change." Her expert source, Columbia professor Dorian Warren, dutifully proclaimed the Wall Street protests were "a liberal version of the Tea Party" that “could potentially carry over into the 2012 elections and get people to the polls."
So let’s get this straight. The protests were like a stumbling little fawn trying to find its legs. They’d been in existence for about two weeks, and NBC was already suggesting the “potential” for what the Tea Party achieved in 2010 – a massive Democratic wave election in 2012. Journalists are either easily impressed or very energetic practitioners of wishful thinking.
ABC’s Dan Harris followed that night to offer his tributes.“This past weekend 700 people were arrested when they stormed the Brooklyn Bridge. Now major unions are joining in, as are celebrities like Susan Sarandon and Alec Baldwin, and similar protests are popping up across America.” It might seem a little funny – and noteworthy – to have a protest against the mega-rich with mega-rich movie stars standing around, but it fits the media’s “prominent people” standard, so never mind.
This provides a crystal-clear contrast with the first Tea Party events in 2009. “There’s been some grassroots conservatives who have organized so-called Tea Parties around the country,” NBC’s Chuck Todd noted on the April 15, 2009 Today, but “the idea hasn’t really caught on.” On ABC, Dan Harris warned viewers that “critics on the Left [wonder who?] say this is not a real grassroots phenomenon at all, that it’s actually largely orchestrated by people fronting for corporate interests.”
The first rhetorical shot that started the Tea Party is credited to CNBC analyst Rick Santelli on February 19, 2009, when he accused the government of “promoting bad behavior” for “losers” who wouldn’t pay their mortgages and raised the possibility of a “Chicago Tea Party.” CNBC calls it “The Shout Heard ‘Round the World,” but at the time NBC and the other Big Three network shows completely ignored it.
The first New York Times story on the Tea Party on Tax Day 2009 came with a sneer: “All of these tax day parties seemed less about revolution and more about group therapy...people attending the rallies were dressed patriotically and held signs expressing their anger, but offering no solutions.”
But when the Times put “Occupy Wall Street” on the front page on October 1, there were no people in need of therapy, and the marchers’ lack of solutions was, well, charming. The reporters began like they were writing a movie script. “A man named Hero was here. So was Germ. There was the waitress from the dim sum restaurant in Evanston, Ill. And the liquor store worker,” they wrote. “The Google consultant. The circus performer. The Brooklyn nanny.” They represented a “noisy occupation” that “lured a sturdily faithful and fervent constituency willing to express discontentment with what they feel is an inequitable financial system until, well, whenever.”
These protesters had the Times at “Hello.” Journalists who desperately want Obama’s re-election are grasping at the narrative of a growing liberal protest movement to mobilize the Left into action against the Republicans. They’re not just grasping that narrative, they’re writing it.
They keep asking what former New York Times editor Bill Keller is asking: “Is The Tea Party Over?” Keller keeps the party line that the “Tea Party gospel” includes “their sacred right to breathe carbon emissions, swim at polluted beaches and dump their health crises at the emergency room.” To the Kellers of the world, the Tea Party is the vampire that won’t sleep, and the Occupy protesters are the garlic – which of course is an inappropriate odor.