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TV's Tea Party Travesty

How ABC, CBS and NBC Have Dismissed and Disparaged the Tea Party Movement

Executive Summary

TeaPartySmallThe Tea Party movement launched one year ago, in response to the unprecedented expansion of government by President Barack Obama and congressional liberals, a massive increase in spending that will create economy-crushing fiscal burdens for future generations of taxpayers.

In that relatively brief period, the Tea Party has demonstrated it is a formidable political force. The pressure the movement brought to bear at the grassroots level put liberals on the defensive for much of the health care debate, and nearly succeeded in torpedoing the entire scheme in spite of Democrats’ overwhelming congressional majorities. And Tea Party activists proved decisive in a string of electoral defeats for liberals, culminating in Republican Scott Brown’s victory in the special election to succeed Ted Kennedy in the U.S. Senate.

So how have the supposedly objective media covered one of the biggest political stories in recent years? MRC analysts reviewed every mention of the Tea Party on the ABC, CBS and NBC morning and evening newscasts, Sunday talk shows, and ABC’s Nightline from February 19, 2009 (when CNBC contributor Rick Santelli first suggested throwing a “Tea Party” to protest government takeovers) through March 31, 2010. Among the major findings:

The networks first attempted to dismiss the Tea Party movement:

  • Given its demonstrated influence, network coverage of the Tea Party has been minuscule. Across all of their major programs, ABC, CBS and NBC aired a mere 61 stories or segments over a twelve month period, while another 141 items included brief references to the movement. Most of that coverage is recent; the networks virtually refused to recognize the Tea Party in 2009 (just 19 stories), with the level of coverage increasing only after Scott Brown’s election in Massachusetts.

  • Most of the networks’ 2009 coverage was limited to individual Tea Party rallies: six reports on the April 15, 2009 “tax day” protests, along with five other brief mentions; just one report on the July 4 rallies; and six full reports on the September 12 rally on Capitol Hill, plus eight brief mentions.

  • Such coverage is piddling compared to that lavished on protests serving liberal objectives. The Nation of Islam’s “Million Man March” in 1995, for example, was featured in 21 evening news stories on just the night of that march — more than the Tea Party received in all of 2009. The anti-gun “Million Mom March” in 2000 was preceded by 41 broadcast network reports (morning, evening, and Sunday shows) heralding its message, including a dozen positive pre-march interviews with organizers and participants, a favor the networks never granted the Tea Party.

  • Network reporters were dismissive of the first Tea Party events in 2009. “There’s been some grassroots conservatives who have organized so-called Tea Parties around the country,” NBC’s Chuck Todd noted on the April 15, 2009 Today, but “the idea hasn’t really caught on.” On ABC’s World News, reporter Dan Harris warned viewers that “critics on the Left say this is not a real grassroots phenomenon at all, that it’s actually largely orchestrated by people fronting for corporate interests.”


By the fall of 2009, the networks had shifted to disparaging the Tea Party:

  • After the September 12, 2009 rallies, the networks suggested the Tea Party was an extreme or racist movement. On CBS, Face the Nation host Bob Schieffer decried the “angry” and “nasty” Capitol Hill rally, while ABC’s Dan Harris scorned protesters who “waved signs likening President Obama to Hitler and the devil....Some prominent Obama supporters are now saying that it paints a picture of an opposition driven, in part, by a refusal to accept a black President.”

  • Overall, 44 percent of network stories on the Tea Party (27 out of 61) suggested the movement reflected a fringe or dangerous quality. ABC’s John Berman was distressed by “a tone of anger and confrontation” he claimed to find at the Tea Party convention in early February. In September, NBC’s Brian Williams trumpeted Jimmy Carter’s charge that the Tea Party was motivated by race: “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, and President Carter today said he is extremely worried by it.”

  • While network reporters have strained to protect left-wing causes (such as the anti-war movement) with the outrageous acts of individual protesters, they were quick to smear the entire Tea Party based on isolated reports of poor behavior. On the night of the final vote on ObamaCare in March, for example, ABC’s Diane Sawyer cast Tea Partiers as out-of-control marauders, “roaming Washington, some of them increasingly emotional, yelling slurs and epithets.” CBS’s Bob Schieffer also cast a wide net, accusing “demonstrators” of hurling “racial epithets” and “sexual slurs,” and even conjured images of civil-rights era brutality: “One lawmaker said it was like a page out of a time machine.”


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. Given how the networks have provided fawning coverage and helpful publicity to far-less consequential liberal protest movements, their negative treatment of the Tea Party is a glaring example of a media double standard. 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.