It would be pejorative, if not reckless, to describe Fox News as the Mad Hatter of cable news. Perhaps the analogy contains an inkling of truth: The network is often mad, and it is often bombastic, and rarely does it shy away from the chance to manipulate its audience. But a Mad Hatter? A bit much, it seems. Yet when a social movement rose in 2010 to buck the political landscape, Fox News invoked the prevailing philosophy of the Mad Hatter.
Fox News didn’t fan the flames of the Tea Party so much as it doused the movement with kerosene. The network fancied itself as the official mouthpiece and galvanizer of the disruptive movement, one that roused the Republican establishment from a somnambulant haze and harassed — rather effectively — a Democratic presidential administration. This much is clear, as Williamson et al write.
But how, exactly, did the Tea Party manage to curry such gung-ho favor with conservative media? How did the party manage, by way of the media, to bludgeon competing messages from liberals and inundate the market with predominantly conservative messaging? How did the movement, one with scant relevance, abruptly vault to the upper echelon of political news coverage?
The answer, at least part of it, rests in a Washington Post poll released a week before the 2010 midterm elections. More than three-fourths of local Tea Party organizers said they deemed media coverage of their social movement fair and dismissed the perception of an ideological synapse between the media and the party. Three-fourths of local groups also reported that they had received appreciable press from local media, indicating the movement’s astronomical rise in the political lexicon and consciousness (Gardner 1).
Tea Party members also appreciated the measured tone with which media approached their movement. Matt Kibbe, president and CEO of the conservative organization FreedomWorks, said media coverage grew more textured and more respectful as the Tea Party uprising endured, straying from the previously accepted impression of the Tea Party as a mostly antagonistic — and sometimes bigoted — force (Gardner 2).
Liberals, meanwhile, decried the media’s exhaustive coverage of the Tea Party as unwarranted and misguided. Democrats believed the press embellished the influence of the party while also neglecting to illuminate the presence of deep-pocketed donors — namely the Koch brothers — that bankrolled the Tea Party’s ascent (Gardner 2).
Liberals also accused the media of negligence in failing to scrutinize the movement’s platform. It overlooked, liberals contended, the validity of the Tea Party’s assertion that President Obama and Democrats conspired to spike the national deficit and send spending into orbit. The claim particularly rankled Democrats considering the eight years of unchecked spending during the Bush Administration, and it angered them even more during the Obama Administration’s push for healthcare reform. Detractors argued volubly that healthcare reform would lead to explosive debt; facts, meanwhile, revealed the reforms would eventually curb the national debt (DiMaggio 165).
But few heard the truth. Instead, many listened to the wails and cries of conservative media. The Tea Party would demonize healthcare while liberals stood agape from afar, powerless to tickle their vocal chords and match the verbal assault of Fox News. So argues Anthony DiMaggio in “Rise of the Tea Party: Political Discontent and Corporate Media in the Age of Obama,” a 2011 tale of two media: one that waved plastic knives, the other that wielded machetes.
The lopsided battle began in 2009, when early coverage emphasized the Republican’s fatalistic claims that the Obama Administration would deprive the elderly and those with disabilities of life-saving care. The stunning accusation needed a tidy catchphrase. And so the party turned to the vivid imagination of Sarah Palin, who wondrously invented “death panels” to encapsulate the homicidal designs of President Obama’s satanic healthcare scheme. “Such a system is downright evil,” Palin wrote in a Facebook post, which soon became chapter and verse for the Tea Party’s opposition to reform (DiMaggio 155). Soon death panels would solidify as a talking-point fixture on cable news and in print media — so gargantuan, these panels were, that Palin could see them from her house.
Some media outlets exercised reputable journalism and dismissed Palin’s claims as lipstick-on-a-pig lunacy. “There is nothing in any of the legislative proposals,” the New York Times wrote shortly after Palin’s Facebook screed, “that would call for the creation of death panels or any other governmental body that would cut off care for the critically ill as a cost-cutting measure” (DiMaggio 156). But “death panel” was the thing that could not be unheard. The narrative lived.
While scores of outlets echoed the Times’ correction within a week of Palin’s histrionics, seven of the country’s most prestigious newspapers — including the Post, Atlanta Journal-Constitution and San Francisco Chronicle — failed to refute death panels as a wild fabrication. The Times, too, would cannibalize its own dismissal of Palin by printing dozens of stories in subsequent months that referenced “death panels.” And Fox News, ever sensitive to the portrayal of its fabulous storytelling, amended the conversation by suggesting healthcare reform wouldn’t establish death panels but would rather “ration” healthcare, leading to panel-esque deprivation of care for grandma (DiMaggio 157).
The result? Conservative media suckered liberal outlets into trading barbs over the legitimacy of death panels, handcuffing a liberal push to secure stronger reform or even accentuate the merits of reform. Fox News traded substance for I-know-you-are-but-what-am-I skirmishes, and liberals fell for it (DiMaggio 157).
The rout was on. Liberals who bemoaned the media’s ignorance toward the true faces behind the rise of the Tea Party — donors with deep coffers rather than spunky patriots — couldn’t find an ally in their most trusted media sources. The Times and the Post both depicted the Tea Party’s innumerable town hall meetings as organic gatherings of a grassroots movement. The Koch brothers remained conspicuously absent from the papers’ copy (DiMaggio 159).
But liberals would have their chance to strike back. Seizing a conservative lull in the fall of 2009, President Obama made 10 speeches in eight weeks to tout healthcare reform. And it worked: Death panels feared the reaper and faded into the distance, while the media thrust the administration-endorsed public option proposal into the national consciousness.
MSNBC pulled itself off the mat and began throwing haymakers on behalf of the president, fighting back the death panel jabs with public option uppercuts. Editors at the nation’s largest papers also voiced support for the public option (DiMaggio 159-160). The deficit no longer seemed so insurmountable.
Then the window slammed shut as quickly as it cracked opened.
Media discourse on progressive reforms flatlined as soon as Democrats shelved the public option. The retreat ceded the mic back to conservative media, which yelped and hollered about any measure of reform masquerading as a debt-bearing monstrosity of governmental overreach. Soon the mainstream media would adopt a fixation on the unwieldy cost of reform, and soon the liberals had watched their narrow edge slip from their clumsy hands (DiMaggio 161). The media, DiMaggio posits, aided and abetted Republicans as staunch obstructionists to reform without pressing party leaders to offer so much as a modicum of substantive counterproposals (DiMaggio 162). But woe to the soft-spoken who expect their voice to be heard.
The numbers don’t lie: Conservatives drubbed liberals in the healthcare debate. Republicans and Tea Party members successfully voiced their opposition and infiltrated the mainstream media with their qualms, while liberal media fumbled its chance to state its case for reform. Fox News and the Times ran an average of 101 and 70 stories per month, respectively, from 2009 to 2010 that contained the common thread of “healthcare” and “cost.” But as for stories that mentioned “health care” and” public option”? Fox News featured more coverage (50 stories) than the liberal Times (35). The heavy hitters only stepped into the batter’s box for one team (DiMaggio 165).
DiMaggio’s argument closes with a strong undercurrent of bitterness. He theorizes that journalists, who largely ignore progressive activism, became enamored by the Tea Party because of the party’s close ties with the predominantly Republican business community. He contends, in rather half-baked terms, that business leaders garnished the movement with “dramatic and strongly sympathetic media attention” (DiMaggio 171). Reporters cling to official sourcing, most of which comes from the government or corporations, and are therefore less inclined to dispute the status quo (DiMaggio 151). Journalists, then, flocked to business leaders, who in turn pointed them into the direction of the Tea Party and its inspirational social movement.
But was it really a movement? Not quite, says DiMaggio, who lambastes the Times for establishing pedestrian standards for social movements. In a story that ran before the 2010 midterms, the Times legitimized the Tea Party as a movement by lauding its ability to raise large sums and furnish a populist identity in its social and political campaigns. That rudimentary threshold for a “movement,” DiMaggio asserts, lent the Tea Party disproportionate and undeserved credibility (DiMaggio 171). It appears someone urinated in his tea cup.
Whether legitimate or not, the Tea Party disemboweled its liberal opponents during the debate over healthcare reform. Its messaging was fervent. Its messaging was ubiquitous. Its messaging was ceaseless. The opposition’s messaging, meanwhile, was none of these things. It was tepid. And tepid never wins.
Just ask the Mad Hatter.
“There is a place, like no place on earth. A land full of wonder, mystery, and danger. Some say, to survive it, you need to be as mad as a hatter. Which, luckily, I am.”
To the mad in American politics go the spoils. The rest?
They’re liable to stand before a death panel.