The Fox in the Tea Party
By Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson
The views expressed are their own.
Many observers of the role of U.S. media in politics as of the early twenty-first century are alarmed that partisanship has crept in. This rarely bothers very conservative pundits, of course, because (even if they constantly complain about “liberal media bias”) they know that the elephants in the room are on their side. Liberals and self-styled nonpartisan critics engage in constant tut-tutting about the horrors of partisan media. They forget that American democracy was born and flourished through the nineteenth century in an environment where major newspapers, the mass media of the day, were all closely aligned with political parties. “Objective news” was not to be found; nineteenth-century editors and reporters alike presented highly selective versions of the facts, often in luridly emotional ways.
Only in the twentieth century, as sociologist Michael Schudson explained in his ground-breaking book Discovering the News, did professional journalists gain a degree of autonomy. Journalists developed norms of objectivity and “balance,” which leading newspapers and, later, television networks tried to follow, more or less. Norms of objective journalism led to the convention of looking for quotes from sources on “both sides of the issue”—a practice more reflective of the fact that there were two major parties roaming the U.S. political tundra than of any law that major questions have only two possible answers. Social movements and protest efforts outside the two major parties found it harder to get a hearing in the objective-and-balanced media regime.
Given the impressive scope of conservative media, American democracy is, in an important sense, caught betwixt and between in the new media world. The frank, exuberant, all-around partisanship of the nineteenth century is not quite what we now have. True, there are both liberal and conservative bloggers, and on the tube, the Fox political slant is weakly countered by liberal-slanted shows on MSNBC. But mostly what America has right now is a thousand-pound gorilla media juggernaut on the right, operating nineteenth-century style, coexisting with other news outlets trying to keep up while making fitful efforts, twentieth-century style, to check facts and cover “both sides of the story.”
A few weeks after Rick Santelli’s tea party rant on CNBC, Fox News soon recognized a major conservative phenomenon in the making and moved to become cheerleader-in-chief. Fox began to cover the first major tea party rallies six weeks in advance, starting with a March 5, 2009 appearance by Newt Gingrich to talk up the protests on Greta Van Susteren’s show. Scarcely a trickle of Tea Party events occurred over ensuing weeks, but that did not prevent Fox News hosts and guests from speculating wildly about the likely huge size and impact of the forthcoming rallies. Viewers watching Fox News in early 2009 were told that “Tea Party protests are erupting across the country” and assured that “these tea parties are starting to really take off.” Newt Gingrich went on air to make the confident prediction that the April 15th rallies would have “over 300,000” attendees. By late March, Glenn Beck had not only attended a rally in Orlando, Florida. He had interviewed Tea Party activists from Houston and Indianapolis days before rallies occurred in those cities, featuring their plans and pitching their events. For the Tea Party in its vulnerable infancy, the mobilizing impact of such advance coverage in national prime time was invaluable. The Tea Party idea was presented as the “coming thing” to an audience primed for the message. Conservative Fox viewers across America heard that people like them were ready to stand up to Obama and the Democrats—and they were told when and where.
A week before the first annual April 15th Tea Party rallies in 2009, Fox News promotions kicked into an even higher gear. Glenn Beck told his viewers, “We’re getting ready for next week’s Tax Day tea parties. All across the country, people coming together to let the politicians know, OK, enough spending.” Sean Hannity was even more explicit: “And, of course, April 15th, our big show coming out of Atlanta. It’s Tax Day, our Tax Day tea party show. Don’t forget, we’re going to have ‘Joe the Plumber’.” At times, Fox anchors adopted an almost cajoling tone. On Sean Hannity’s show, viewers were told, “Anybody can come, it’s free,” while Beck fans were warned, “You don’t want to miss it.” In an ironic moment, Arthur Laffer (inventor of the Laffer Curve that was used to justify Reagan’s supply-side economic theories) congratulated Beck on air for the success of the Tea Parties. “I’m just attending,” Beck quickly demurred, before continuing his promotion of the upcoming San Antonio Tea Party.
Indeed, during the first weeks of the Tea Party, Fox News directly linked the network’s brand to these protests and allowed members of the “Fox Nation” to see the Tea Parties as a natural outgrowth of their identity as Fox News viewers. Megyn Kelly directed viewers to “join the TEA party action from your home” by going to Fox’s website, which allowed viewers to find Tea Party events in their area, and the events were dubbed “FNC [Fox News Channel] Tea Parties.” As Glenn Beck put it on his April 6th show: “This year, Americans across the country are holding tea parties to let politicians know that we have had enough. Celebrate with Fox News. This is what we’re doing next Wednesday.” Beck’s comment was certainly an apt description since on April 15, Fox News hosts Beck, Hannity, Van Susteren, and Cavuto all broadcast their shows from Tea Party events, as promised.
The special effort Fox made to build the Tea Party is evident from the hard data. We examined the frequency with which different media outlets referred to the Tea Party in its infancy. The chart below displays the trends in Tea Party coverage by Fox News and CNN from February to May 2009.
As might be expected, CNN coverage spikes in April 2009 when Tea Party protests were held across the country. It is not that CNN ignored the early peak of Tea Party rallies; indeed, CNN coverage more than matches that of Fox News when Tea Party events are actually occurring. But coverage on Fox News has a strikingly different trajectory. Fox coverage anticipates Tea Party events, building up to each set of synchronized rallies. And Fox maintains coverage between those events. Clearly, the efforts at Tea Party promotion we have cited from the Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck shows on Fox were not isolated anomalies. They are part of a larger pattern of anticipatory coverage, practiced systematically by Fox News. And Fox kept at it. Although Tea Party coverage receded somewhat after the April 15 crescendo, it continued to be a significant part of Fox News programming. A similar big buildup of Fox coverage occurs leading into the July 4, 2009 Tea Party rallies, and again leading into the August town hall protests.
These data nail down our case. Fox was not just responding to Tea Party activism as it happened. Fox served as a kind of social movement orchestrator, during what is always a dicey early period for any new protest effort—the period when potential participants have to hear about the effort and decide that it is likely to prove powerful. For weeks in advance of each early set of rallies, as the Tea Party grew from infancy to adolescence, Fox was pointing the way and cheering.
Reprinted from The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism by Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson with permission from Oxford University Press, Inc. Copyright © 2012 by Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson.
PHOTO: This aerial handout image, taken August 28, 2010, shows the crowds gathered around the Reflecting Pool for Glenn Beck’s ‘Restore America’ Rally in Washington. REUTERS/Craig Harmon-Lincoln Highway National Museum/Handout