Published April 05, 2010
Racists. Nutbags. Radicals. Extremists. The Tea Party movement has been slammed as all these and more in the mainstream media, particularly since fringe elements of the group went screaming after members of Congress in the run-up to the health care vote.
But even as Tea Party "fury" has become all the rage in popular accounts of their protests, some observers say the rallies are nothing compared to the anti-Bush frenzy at Iraq War protests in years past — outbursts that the press generally ignored.
"What's interesting about the media's latest freak-out is that there were radicals aplenty under President Bush [who] protested in the streets [and] talked openly about revolution and killing," said Evan Coyne Maloney, a documentary filmmaker who has followed anti-war protests since 2003.
"But oddly, the violent imagery used by people claiming to be advocates for peace never registered with the media," he wrote online. "If there is such a thing as dangerous rhetoric, then the media is at least one president too late in reporting the story."
But those appear to pale in comparison to attacks on President George W. Bush, who was hanged in effigy, burned in effigy, compared to Hitler, called the Antichrist, a human abortion, and made the subject of numerous sustained death threats for about seven years. Those attacks, while highly visible, went mostly unreported outside of scattered conservative blogs.
The Tea Party movement, meanwhile, has seen no shortage of critics in the press. The New York Times has faulted it for setting off a powder keg of "mostly white" nativists, separatists, militia members and wild conspiracy theorists. Columnist Frank Rich compared Tea Partiers' "tsunami of anger" to that of Nazis and segregationists. Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson said they are guilty of echoing the "paranoid ravings of the most extreme right-wing nutcases."
And the beat goes on: CNN worried that the "dangerous rhetoric" of Tea Party activists may be "inciting violence" against lawmakers. And Salon columnist Joan Walsh did one better, painting the group as "disturbingly racist and reactionary, from its roots to its highest branches."
That criticism has been fueled by recent outbursts at the Tea Party's "Kill the Bill" rallies on Capitol Hill. As members of Congress were heading in for key votes on health care overhaul, protesters reportedly screamed the N-word at several black congressmenm and Missouri. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, said a protester spat on him.
Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank said the opposition has devolved into "mass hysteria," and he compared the protests to the Salem witch trials. Frank, who is gay, was called a "faggot" by someone in a crowd of Tea Party protesters outside the Capitol.
But even attacks of that level are nothing new to American protest. Former Bush adviser Karl Rove was targeted last week by handcuff-toting Code Pink members who tried to carry out a citizen's arrest during a book signing in Beverly Hills. As the attempt failed, one protester shouted to Rove that "the only comfort I take is that ... you're going to rot in hell."
Thousands of extreme critics weren't content to wait until Bush administration figures reached perdition — many made open death threats, though they got little press coverage.
Though special attention has been paid to the Tea Party's "rage" and "fury," some media watchdogs say it's unsurprising that the worst excesses of a protest movement are what get picked up most.
"I think there are always going to be people at the fringes of any movement that express themselves like this. The question is how much attention is paid to those people," said Peter Hart, activism director for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting.
He said threatening signs and outbursts offer "low-hanging fruit" for press attention and crowd out the humdrum activity at most rallies. The Tea Parties have been well covered, "warts and all," he added.
The lack of attention to the "Bush=Hitler" signs at anti-war protests were part of a larger lack of coverage, Hart said. Entire rallies comprised of more than 200,000 people were shrugged off by the media, while smaller Tea Party demonstrations have been given full treatment, he said.
"It's very difficult to compare a movement that was under-covered" — the anti-war movement — "with one that I think was overexposed," he said, referring to the Tea Parties, which have been under media surveillance for the past year.
Tea Party organizers say the negative depiction of their movement is false and that some coverage, particularly on television, has been unfair.
"They had almost a feeding frenzy," said Tea Party strategist Sal Russo. "They went out and found almost every crackpot that attended the rally and used them as a symbol for the entire Tea Party movement."
Russo argues that Tea Party rallies "are not angry, they're patriotic. We salute veterans and active military that are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. We have a lot of patriotic singing. It's upbeat — people believing in America."
Maloney, the filmmaker, said that what is considered constructive dissent has shifted in the months since Obama took office.
"Not too long ago, taking to the streets to protest your government was considered a patriotic act," he wrote in an online post with video that highlights the sometimes violent rhetoric of Iraq War protesters.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi accused opponents of health care legislation of being "un-American" in an August 2009 op-ed she wrote with House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, blasting citizens for heated exchanges with members of Congress during town hall meetings.
"These disruptions are occurring because opponents are afraid not just of differing views — but of the facts themselves. Drowning out opposing views is simply un-American," they wrote.
But back in 2006, Pelosi thought that verbal outbursts were all for the public good, telling a San Francisco crowd laced with shouting protesters that she was a "fan of disruptions."
"So I thank all of you who have spoken out for your courage, your point of view. All of it. Your advocacy is very American and very important," she said.
Maloney said that timing and ideology had more to do with it than anything else. "[P]ublicly airing your grievances stopped being patriotic right around noon on January 20th, 2009," he wrote.