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Bias in reporting about the Tea Party?

During 2010, the “Tea Party” movement (a.k.a. the “Tea Partiers”) was particularly active and proving itself to be influential in the imminent Congressional elections.  To help its listeners — who, I am sure they figured, were completely mystified by it — understand the “Tea Party” and its activities, NPR’s Morning Edition dispatched Linda Wertheimer to do a report on the phenomenon and on the people involved (Note: The transcript at the link differs slightly from the audio version).

I am a fairly regular NPR listener and generally find their reporting, if somewhat biased to the left in their story selection and interview foci, at least rigorous and meticulous in their pursuit and presentation of the facts.  So the bias in this story shocked me.  So much so, that I felt compelled to write a letter of complaint to the Ombudsman.

This was my letter.  I am not a particular fan of the Tea Party and, therefore, am not particularly concerned with the fate of their movement and not generally inclined to defend them, especially when (as is often the case) I think they are wrong or employing excesses in their rhetoric.  And I am also not a particular critic of NPR — I think this is the first time I’ve ever had a serious complaint about their news coverage.  So I don’t think I have over-reacted.  This was a genuine hatchet job.

14 October 2010

Here is the lead from this morning’s “thoughtful” discussion of the Tea Party:

We wanted to pay a call on some Tea Party members, so we traveled to Lynchburg, Virginia, the home of Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, a town that identifies itself as “The gold buckle of the bible belt.”

In Lynchburg we met with some local Tea Party leaders, although they all firmly insist that the TeaParty has no leaders….

We asked why they felt inspired to get involved.

Darryl and Shelby Burnette are from Danville, Virginia. Mrs. Burnette worked for a financial company.

<First interview: deep and seemingly rural southern accent>

“I was unaware of what was going on around me until I retired, and we started watching FOX news and getting more informed about what was going on in our nation…”

Thank you so much for putting this all into “perspective”! What did we learn from this, even before any actual issues were discussed?

  1. If you want to find the “Tea Party”, you go to the “Bible Belt”; and you do not merely go to the Bible Belt, but you look for the Moral Majority; and you do not merely look for the Moral Majority, you seek out “Jerry Falwell’s” Liberty University, the central asylum for the misogynist, evolution-denying, gay-hating, xenophobic, flat-earth Christian Right.
  2. Tea Partiers are inherently untrustworthy. They can’t even be expected to be honest about whether or not the Tea Party has leaders. Of course it has leaders: we found them, at Liberty University! Well, technically it wasn’t Liberty University but Lynchburg, VA — but that’s the same thing, right? And, since these are the “leaders” of the Tea Party (we told you so!), what they say naturally reflects what the Tea Party stands for. In its entirety.
  3. Tea Partiers all speak in funny rural accents that good, sophisticated, intellectual NPR listeners automatically associate with ignorance, racism, parochialism, and lunatic faith. They are rustic.
  4. Tea Partiers are all fundamentally ignorant people with empty heads and no curiosity, just primed to be brainwashed by the manipulations of the right-wing media machine.
  5. Tea Partiers learned everything they know about politics and government from FOX news. Which means the Tea Party is really directed by Glenn Beck.

So, of course, having already gotten all that background, we can safely, sanctimoniously, and in good conscience, ignore everything else that is said by anyone interviewed because, well, it’s all the product of ignorance and superstition….

Do you think that maybe your pre-judgement — dare we call it “bias”? — about what the Tea Party is, what it stands for, and who supports it, might have skewed your reporting on it just a bit?

To be clear: I am not a Tea Partier and I find much to loathe (and also much to admire) in what various self-identified Tea Partiers have to say.

But I get the news every day — no, not at FOX but at NPR, CNN, The New York Times, Salon.com, The Boston Globe, Foster’s Daily Democrat (Dover, NH), and occasionally The Wall Street Journal — and I don’t remember hearing all that much religion coming from reports of Tea Party activities. I don’t remember Jerry Falwell endorsing the Tea Party — maybe because he’s been dead for three years. I remember lots of Tea Party events well outside the South, in both country and city, and lots of self-identified Tea Partiers with a variety of more and less sophisticated accents both rural and urban. I remember disputes and contradictions among Tea Party adherents, and a certain chaos about their activities, that might suggest any leadership, to the extent it exists at all, is as much along for the ride as it is directive.

I generally find NPR mostly fair, a bit leftward oriented but not egregiously so. This report, however, was an abomination.

© Copyright 2010, Augustus P. Lowell

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