TV's Tea Party Travesty
How ABC, CBS and NBC Have Dismissed and Disparaged the Tea Party Movement

Giving Short Shrift to the Tea Party Rallies

The three broadcast networks collectively produce more than 3,000 hours of news programming each year, which translates into tens of thousands of field reports, interview segments and news desk items. Yet during all of 2009, the networks carried just 19 stories on the Tea Party — seven on the evening newscasts, seven on the morning shows, four Sunday talk show segments, and one on Nightline. Another 48 stories or segments contained brief mentions of the Tea Party, for a total of 67 items that at least referred to the Tea Party in 2009.

Most of this coverage focused on Tea Party rallies, but the networks offered far less coverage to these anti-big government demonstrations than liberally-themed events in the past:

■ Tax Day Rally, 2009. Liberal rallies are often preceded by a wave of anticipatory publicity from the networks, which helps build interest in the event and further promotes the organizers’ message. The anti-gun “Million Mom March” in 2000, for example, was heralded by 41 broadcast network reports (morning, evening, and Sunday shows) touting its message, included a dozen positive pre-march interviews with organizers and participants.

In contrast, the broadcast networks offered no coverage prior to the morning of April 15, the day of hundreds of coordinated “tax day” protests across the country. ABC’s Good Morning America was the only network to even provide a full report that morning; CBS’s Early Show said nothing at all, while NBC’s Today included the news as an afterthought in a story about the Obama family getting a new dog. Each of the three broadcast networks aired a single full report that night.

The next morning, the protests — which saw a nationwide turnout of perhaps 600,000, according to SurgeUSA — were pretty much an afterthought on the network morning shows. All three broadcasts provided a brief re-cap as part of their April 16 news headlines, but none aired an in-depth story on the protests or what they stood for. As far as the evening newscasts were concerned, it was a case of “one and done” — none followed up with additional coverage the next night.

The following Sunday, ABC’s This Week and NBC’s Meet the Press reviewed the protests with full segments during their journalist roundtables, while fill-in host Harry Smith contented himself to lobbing a couple of questions about the Tea Party event (“Is this unhealthy?”) to White House advisor David Axelrod on Face the Nation. After that, the networks ignored the Tea Party movement for two and a half months, with no additional references until July.

■ The July 4, 2009 Protests. A second wave of rallies in cities across the U.S. was virtually ignored by the three broadcast networks, who were instead providing wall-to-wall coverage of the death of pop star Michael Jackson. Only the CBS Evening News bothered to mention the events, in their July 4 broadcast; all of the other programs were silent.

■ The September 12 Rallies. The broadcast networks provided no rally coverage prior to Saturday, September 12, and — in spite of the event happening on a weekend of otherwise light news — the networks offered scarcely more coverage than they had in April. ABC’s Good Morning America aired full reports on both Saturday and Sunday, while NBC’s Today presented only a quick headline on Saturday with a longer analysis the morning after the march. CBS’s Saturday Early Show offered no mention of the 9-12 rally (although they did promote President Obama’s speech in Minneapolis to promote his health care plan), while Sunday Morning included a quick post-protest headline.

While ABC’s World News was pre-empted by college football, both the NBC Nightly News and CBS Evening News led with the rally on Saturday night, each airing a single story. On Sunday morning, CBS’s Face the Nation and ABC’s This Week each offered quick mentions of the protest in setting up segments on the broader health care debate, as did the three evening newscasts on Sunday. The total scorecard: six full reports, plus another eight brief mentions.

So how does the Tea Party’s coverage compare to rallies on behalf of liberal causes? As previously mentioned, the broadcast networks lavished extensive pre-rally publicity on the “Million Mom March” for more restrictions on gun rights in May 2000. ABC’s Good Morning America even moved their entire show to the White House for a special “Moms & Guns” broadcast two days before the march.

For the October 16, 1995 “Million Man March,” organized by the Nation of Islam, all three network anchors trekked to Washington for the event and devoted most of their evening newscasts (a combined 21 stories) to the rally, the speeches, and positive profiles of individual attendees. ABC’s Peter Jennings — who spared just 75 seconds for the rest of the day’s news — exulted how “for those who were here, it was an inspiration.” On CBS, Dan Rather touted: “It was a sea of people from one end of this Mall to another, and beyond — to make history, to witness history, to change history.”

In 2006, left-wing protests on May Day in favor of rights for illegal immigrants was the top story on the networks’ morning and evening broadcasts. NBC’s Brian Williams promised “comprehensive coverage tonight from coast to coast,” leading off with reports from six correspondents positioned around the country. ABC’s World News offered five reports, while the CBS Evening News aired two pieces on the protests, including soundbites from sympathetic U.S. Senator Barack Obama. Anchor Bob Schieffer trumpeted: “From coast to coast, from north to south, they wanted us to know what America would be like without them, and so millions of immigrants missed work, skipped school and marched in the streets. They want America to find a place for those who came here illegally....”

Hours later on ABC’s Nightline, anchor Terry Moran could scarcely contain himself as he recounted the protests in various cities: “Merely a few examples of the giant flex of immigrant muscle today....Hundreds of thousands of workers, their families and supporters, took over the city streets today in a massive demonstration of sheer numerical power. It was breathtaking.”

In contrast, none of the three major Tea Party rallies in 2009 was built up in advance by network publicity, and the networks never deigned to deliver more than a single evening news story at a time to the cause. The total broadcast network evening news coverage of all three Tea Party events in 2009 amounted to just six stories, or less than one-third what those same networks devoted to the Million Man March alone.

Previous: Introduction
Next: “The Idea Really Hasn’t Caught On”

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