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.