The big three television networks virtually ignored the massive, grass-roots "tea party" surge in 2009, and so far this year have maligned the movement as teeming with racists and violent fringe figures, according to a report by the Media Research Center.
"Rather than objectively document the rise and impact of this important grassroots movement, the 'news' networks instead chose to first ignore, and then deplore, the citizen army mobilizing against the unpopular policies of a liberal president and Congress," wrote MRC Research Director Rich Noyes.
As a nation-spanning "Tea Party Express" caravan plans to pull into Washington for a "tax day" rally on Thursday, a Rasmussen poll finds that the number of people who say they're part of the tea party movement nationally has grown to 24 percent, up from 16 percent a month ago.
"The rise in tea party support is perhaps not surprising at a time when more voters than ever (58 percent) favor repeal of the national health care plan just passed by Democrats in Congress and signed into law by President Obama," the pollster wrote.
The Media Research Center, a watchdog organization founded by conservative L. Brent Bozell III, compiled reams of statistics to support its findings about TV network coverage, among them:
- ABC, CBS and NBC aired 61 stories or segments on the anti-spending movement over a 12-month period, and most of that coverage is recent. "The networks virtually refused to recognize the tea party in 2009 (19 stories), with the level of coverage increasing only after Scott Brown's election in Massachusetts" in January, the report said, referring to the Republican's win of the Senate seat long held by Edward M. Kennedy.
- Overall, 44 percent of the networks' reports on the tea party suggested the movement reflected a fringe movement or a dangerous quality. "Signs and images at last weekend's big tea party march in Washington and at other recent events have featured racial and other violent themes," NBC anchorman Brian Williams said in a September report.
- Coverage of the movement pales in comparison with coverage of "protests serving liberal objectives," the report said. For instance, the Nation of Islam's "Million Man March" in 1995 garnered 21 evening news stories on the day of the march — more than the tea party demonstrations received in all of 2009.
No one from any of the three networks returned phone messages or e-mails seeking comment.
Thousands of tea party protesters are expected to turn out Thursday for a "People's Tax Revolt" rally in Washington's Freedom Plaza, a block from the White House. Mr. Obama plans to be out of town that day, traveling to Florida for an event on the future of the U.S. space program.
On Wednesday, thousands will gather in Boston for an event to be headlined by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the 2008 Republican vice-presidential nominee who has embraced the movement's message of lower taxes and limited government.
The loose-knit movement — which is not a political party and has no official leaders — was born Feb. 19, 2009, when CNBC contributor Rick Santelli suggested a "tea party" to protest government aid for homeowners. The movement grew exponentially over the summer as protesters packed town halls across the nation to give their congressional representatives an earful of opposition to Mr. Obama's $1 trillion health care reform plan.
But the Media Research Center, which tracked network reports from Feb. 19, 2009, through March 31, 2010, found that the movement has been given short shrift from the onset.
"While the broadcast networks seldom devolved into the juvenile name-calling and open hostility evident at the liberal cable news networks, their coverage of the tea party's first year reflected a similar mindset of elitist condescension and dismissiveness," the report said.
After first ignoring the movement, then seeking to label it as racist and extremist, the networks moved to portray the tea party's emergence as part of a Republican civil war, the report found.
After Mr. Brown's election victory in Massachusetts, "network reporters spent more time suggesting that the tea party was a threat to Republicans rather than to the Obama administration and its liberal allies," the report said, based on its analysis for network coverage.
Meanwhile, data from a Rasmussen Reports survey of 2,000 likely voters nationwide found that among those who consider themselves part of the tea party movement, 89 percent disapprove of Mr. Obama's performance as president.
Ninety-six percent of those in the movement say America is overtaxed, and 94 percent "trust the judgment of the American people more than America's political leaders," the survey found.
Some opponents of the tea party movement say they plan to infiltrate and undermine the credibility of the political group by trying to make its members appear to be racist and homophobic.
Jason Levin, creator of www.crashtheteaparty.org, said Monday that the group has 65 leaders in major cities across the country who are trying to recruit members to infiltrate tea party events Thursday.
"Every time we have someone on camera saying that Barack Obama isn't an American citizen, we want someone sitting next to him saying, 'That's right, he's an alien from outer space,'" Mr. Levin said.
One tea party organizer said the attempt to destroy the movement was evidence that the tea party message is resonating.
"We've been ignored, we've been ridiculed. Well, now they're coming after us," said Judy Pepenella, a co-coordinator for the New York State Tea Party.
"Gandhi's quote is one we understand: 'First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win.'"