by Jon Margolis
Like many periodicals, The New York Review of Books covered last month’s Tea Party Convention in Nashville. Considering that what the computer nerds would call NYRB’s default political position is decidedly left of center, some readers might have been surprised at the result.
The writer, British-born, Seattle-based novelist Jonathan Raban, attended “not as an accredited reporter, but as a recently joined member of Tea Party Nation.” While perhaps not completely insincere— Raban said he has his “own quarrels with big government” regarding warrantless wiretapping and mass surveillance—his membership seemed more a journalistic ploy than a heartfelt endorsement of the Tea Party politics.
Good for him. Journalists approve of ploys if, as in this case, they get a reporter the kind of access playing it straight can’t accomplish. Sitting, listening, dining and schmoozing with the conventioneers gave Raban the chance to produce the kind of reporting impossible from the press galleries.
Besides, Raban named only the speakers and the leaders of the Convention. The rank-and-file participants with whom he chatted remained anonymous, and probably would not have been disgraced had they been quoted by name. However much he may have disagreed with the Tea Partiers, Raban did not ridicule them, disparage them, lump them all together, or subject them to amateur psychoanalysis. They come across not as a seething mass of ignorance and bigotry, but as decent, even thoughtful, individual Americans groping their way through a socially disruptive era.
Sort of like everybody else.
Needless to say, not everyone has taken the same approach either to that convention or to the Tea Party movement in general. That’s fine. Different approaches are good for both the political process and coverage thereof. They also offer an opportunity to examine this particular social-political phenomenon and the best way to cover it.
Let’s change that to the plural – the best ways to cover it. Being a multi-faceted phenomenon, this one requires a multi-faceted reaction, and only part of it is journalistic as the term is customarily defined. Journalism as customarily defined explains what happened yesterday, why, and perhaps what consequences are likely to flow. The Tea Party needs that treatment, but it needs and is getting more coverage which transcends political analysis to try to place the movement in context: sociological, historical, and, yes, even psychological.
Always dangerous terrain for journalists, even when, as in this case, terrain that has to be trod.
At the New York Review’s uptown neighbor, The New Yorker (on-line version only), George Packer was the un-Raban. He did psychoanalyze the Tea Partiers as though there were no differences among them.
This is description, not condemnation (though his opening, about Glen Beck’s keynote speech: “I watched so you don’t have to,” is a device that could be gracefully retired). Packer’s piece was much shorter than Raban’s, and he apparently watched the proceedings on TV instead of going to Nashville, so he couldn’t schmooze with the Tea Partiers. Nor did his analysis spring solely from his own prejudices; he based it on two classics of American historical writing, Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-intellectualism in American Life (1963), and the essays collected in The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1964).
Packer’s template was “a sixty-six-year-old woman from Sandpoint, Idaho, named Pam Stout,” whom he called “a familiar figure in American life,” whose “mental world” Hofstadter had described “in detail.” Packer effectively transformed her into a representative of every American political paranoia from Shay’s Rebellion through John C. Calhoun’s nullification, William Jennings Bryan’s free silver crusade, McCarthyism, and 9/11 conspiracy theories.
Quite a burden for one lady from Idaho.
Packer had not found Mrs. Stout by chance. He had found her in the New York Times in a February 15 front-page article by David Barstow that was a perfect example of the Times doing what a great newspaper ought to do—giving a first-class reporter the time (five months) and the space (more than 4,500 words) to do in-depth journalism.
Barstow did not disappoint. He produced a thorough, even-handed report about what he called “an amorphous, factionalized uprising with no clear leadership and no centralized structure.” A prudent reporter, he saw that not all Tea Partiers were alike, and he didn’t try to psychoanalyze them; a prudent reporter knows only what he can see or hear.
Even this prudent reporter, though, noticed a motivational thread running through the movement. “Not everyone (involved) is worried about dictatorship,” he wrote, another way of saying that many, if not most, are. Many Tea Partiers, he noted, are convinced that federal officials create “manufactured” crises “to grab power,” and believe that the country may be on the verge of “martial law.”
Then in an interview with the Columbia Journalism Review’s Greg Marx appearing February 18, Barstow bluntly stated what he had strongly hinted in his story. The Tea Party movement, he said, “is a sprawling rebellion, but running through it is the narrative of impending tyranny.” If the movement has a dominant theme, he said, it is the “fear of whether or not the United States of America would continue to be a free country.”
Rosen agreed that on balance the story was superb. But he said Barstow’s reluctance to examine the accuracy of that basic Tea Party motivation was an example of “he said/she said” journalism, in which all assertions are assumed to be valid.
Were the Tea Party fears of impending dictatorship, Rosen asked, “grounded in observable fact” (or did they) “square…with what else Barstow knows, and what the New York Times has reported about the state of politics..?”
Legitimate questions. No one can prove a negative. But to assertions (among those Barstow reported) that ACORN is stealing elections, or Barack Obama plans to confiscate guns, a reporter can point out that all available evidence indicates that ACORN is incapable of stealing a lollipop from a four-year old and Obama doesn’t care two hoots about guns.
But maybe everybody—reporters, commentators, the press critics—are missing one point here. Among the few Tea Partiers Raban quotes by name are blogger Andrew Breitbart and writer Joseph Farah, who argued over the political wisdom of the “birther” issue, the patently false charge that Obama was not born in the U.S..
Leave the birth argument to the Tea Party. Its purpose is to deny the president’s legitimacy, and that inclination is limited neither to this president nor to the farthest right-wing fringes. For at least two decades, a far larger chunk of the right side of the political spectrum has challenged the bona fides of Democratic presidents.
The most dramatic example, of course, was the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, which was, if not an outright attempted coup d’état, close enough for government work. Yes, the only president actually driven from office was a Republican. But Republicans as well as Democrats were about to find Richard Nixon guilty before he fled town one step ahead of them, and guilty of more than trying to cover up personal indiscretion.
And well before anyone had heard of Monica Lewinsky, prominent conservatives were challenging Clinton’s authority. It was on a Meet the Press program in late March, 1994, when the Washington Post’s David Broder asked Wall Street Journal editorial writer Robert Bartley whether he “really (didn’t) accept the legitimacy of Bill Clinton’s being in the presidency.”
“Well, he won the election with 43 percent of the vote,” said
Bartley, meaning that he in fact did not accept Clinton’s presidential bona fides.
Just as many Republicans—not just in the Tea Party movement--don’t accept Obama’s today. Calling him a “socialist,” only a bit less absurd than denying his citizenship, is part of the same effort, not simply to paint him as out of the mainstream, but to decree him out of the commonwealth.
Something to chew on, with or without a cup of tea.