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Why Does Everyone Obsess Over the Tea Party Yahoos?

Why didn't the news media label the millions of people marching for immigrant rights a movement? And why are they so eager to inflate the importance of the Tea Partiers?

Four years ago, when millions of Americans took to the streets to support the human and civil rights of immigrants and, by association in the public mind, Latinos, the news media scarcely covered the marches -- even though they drew larger crowds than any other marches in the history of the nation, including the oft-dramatized culture-changing protests over the Vietnam War.

Fast-forward four years, to the Tea Party Convention, which boasted all of 600 registrants and one "we-tahd" hand-scribbler from Wasilla, Alaska and the contrast in news coverage is astonishing. The news media, including progressive talk radio and blogs, have been crowing about the big Tea Party "movement" for days now. USA Today has taken a poll about a Tea Party candidate’s viability in presidential elections. 

In short, what we are seeing is a mind-boggling double standard, and a wholehearted swallowing of right-wing propaganda as fact, in an American news media whose mathematics deem one Tea Party member to be greater than 4,000 human rights marchers. 

As a recovering journalist who was in perhaps the last class to graduate from Columbia J-School before Rumsfeldian/Murdochian news manipulation/propagandization became the norm, this is all incredibly nauseating, frightening and despicable; it is also a stark reminder that the United States has been steadily falling down the list of nations with free press. 

In 2002, Reporters without Borders ranked us 17th in the world for free press; by 2006, under the gentle guidance of the Bush administration, we had fallen to 53rd. While our press freedoms have recovered slightly under the Obama administration, we still rank below every free democracy on earth, and only slightly above the Czech Republic and Ghana.

It isn’t just the disparity in coverage that bothers me when comparing the news media attention to immigrant/civil right marches of 2006 and the flaccid Tea Party Convention of 2010. It is also the language used by journalists in supposedly unbiased articles. 

Time and time again, the practically nonexistent Tea Party activities have been described as a "movement,” legitimized by the language used by the writer/reporter as they parroted press releases underwritten by Fox News and other right-wing organizations. More than 2,000 articles in the past week have referred to the Tea Party Convention as part of a national movement, even though there is arguably more movement to be found in Rush Limbaugh’s steak-clogged colon.

The peaceful immigrant and civil rights marches of 2006, meanwhile, were routinely described in unflattering terms laced with the potential for danger and violence, even though none occurred, while marchers were portrayed in language steeped in veiled Latino stereotypes. 

For instance, CNN led its print version of the immigrant march story in Los Angeles thus: "Kids skipped school. Men and woman walked off their jobs. Others didn’t bother going to work." Right. Because, you know, Latino kids are delinquents, their parents are irresponsible and don’t appreciate the jobs they're taking from honest Americans, and all of them are lazy. That is what the supposedly unbiased language here actually communicates.

The march in Los Angeles, meanwhile, drew “more than 500,000 people," according to police, and close to one million people, according to organizers. The same day, 300,000 people marched in Chicago; 12,000 formed a human chain in New York City; 50,000 marched in Denver; 20,000 marched in Phoenix; 7,000 showed up in Charlotte, North Carolina -- on and on and on, coast to coast.

But nowhere in the news media was this amazing and massive display of American political mobilization presented as a movement. Rather, it was frequently presented as scary. (One exception in reporting on the immigration marches was the Los Angeles Times, my former employer, thanks to excellent writing by the always brilliant Hector Tobar. His was the only story that reported, accurately, that the attendance of the march in L.A. alone "surpassed the number of people who protested against the Vietnam War and Proposition 187.")

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