Teatime at the Times
The tiny corner of the New York Times empire where David Barstow works is called the investigative unit. The name has an impressive urgency to it, like the title of a TV spin-off—CSI: Times Investigative Unit. You can imagine guys in Weejuns and khakis getting a hot tip and springing into action, yanking their tweed coats off the backs of chairs and shouting something irreverent and ironical over their shoulders as they bolt for the newsroom door.
Perhaps a new “torture memo” has been leaked; maybe a politician has committed an act of creative accounting on Supplement B (3) subpart vii of his financial-disclosure form. Or maybe a large number of Americans way out there in the land beyond the Bronx have been caught holding political opinions that are dangerously bizarre. TIU is on the case.
These strange-thinking Americans, loosely roped together as the Tea Party movement, sent David Barstow on his most recent investigation. His assignment lasted for five uninterrupted months and bore literary fruit, with a 4,500-word front-page story on February 16. “Tea Party Lights Fuse for Rebellion on Right,” the headline read—aptly enough, for a premonitory suggestion of bombs going off just over the horizon rumbled through Barstow’s story. To the astute Times reader lingering with the paper over breakfast, the hints were unmistakable.
There was the dateline, for one thing: Sandpoint, Idaho. The reader might rub his chin. . .Sandpoint? Vaguely familiar...rings a bell...let’s see...Wait! God Almighty! Yes, that Sandpoint, notorious 15 years ago as the home of gun-slinging Randy Weaver and his Ruby Ridge survivalist compound, the headquarters of the Aryan Nation group of gun owners, a hothouse of gun-owning militias and paramilitary groups with their guns. . .
And to drive the point home, Barstow offered ominous litanies, tagging the many groups he had identified as associates or elements of the Tea Party movement. The first litany went like this: “Glenn Beck’s 9/12 project, the John Birch Society, and Oath Keepers, a new player in a resurgent militia movement.” The second: “libertarians, militia groups [again?], anti-immigration advocates, and those who argue for the abolition of the Federal Reserve.” And for anyone who still wasn’t getting the picture, a third: “gun rights activists, anti-tax crusaders, libertarians [again], militia organizers [again], the ‘birthers’ who doubt President Obama’s citizenship, Lyndon LaRouche supporters, and proponents of the sovereign state movement.”
Secessionists? By now our Times reader would be drizzling flop sweat into the muesli: “Honey! Call the doorman! We’re getting the hell out of here!” The alarm ran through the Times newsroom, too, and a week later showed itself, reliably, in a column by Frank Rich, who is not only the exemplary Times writer but also the model Times reader. Barstow’s report was “chilling,” Rich wrote. “Anyone who was cognizant during the [Timothy] McVeigh firestorm would recognize the old warning signs re-emerging from the mists of history.” To more skeptical readers of the Times—a vanishing breed, since most people with a skeptical turn of mind have apparently given up on the Times altogether—the shudder that Barstow induced in Frank Rich looks like a case of classical conditioning, an exercise in stimulus-response as predictable as anything in Dr. Pavlov’s lab: Glenn Beck > Oath Keepers > secession > gun. Brrrr indeed.
We skeptics, however, are left to wonder about those “warning signs” that Barstow amassed so conveniently on Page One. Did they present themselves to Barstow the reporter, unbidden but repeatedly, during his five months of snooping, or did he go looking for them and, having plucked them from a welter of reportorial detail, assign them a salience to fit neatly into his narrative? The dateline alone suggests a put-up job. Sandpoint has no particular significance for the vast majority of Tea Partiers, who are, after all, found in every corner of the country and more likely to don Old Navy than camo. The journalistic premise was that something spooky, something Aryan-like, was going on out there, just below the surface palaver about big government and property rights. That’s why the editors had to call in the boys from CSI: TIU—this was too big for ordinary reporting. And the premise became the conclusion.
Of course, the premise was widely shared back in October, when Barstow embarked on his investigation. From the earliest sightings, in February of last year, the Tea Partiers appeared in most press coverage as an alien tribe, suitable for either political caricature or anthropological puzzlement. A CNN reporter covering a Tea Party in Chicago on April 15 was lucky enough to find, among 5,000 Partiers, an overwrought fellow with a picture of President Obama done up as Hitler. The broadcasting of that image became a kind of template, requiring that every reporter undertake a desperate (and in truth, often successful) search for wackos at every Tea Party. The Chicagoan with the Obama-Hitler sign became a mascot in Tea Party press coverage—the poster boy, literally. Four months and dozens of Tea Parties later, an ABC reporter was still evoking him and his poster as evidence that these events were “driven, in part, by a refusal to accept a black president.”
Politics were turned into pathology. It was difficult to find a story mentioning the Tea Partiers in which the words fear or anger didn’t figure prominently. When the protests moved to town halls around the country during the congressional summer recess, Newsweek.com treated readers to a photo gallery showing these unfortunate earthlings in various states of duress and shades of purple. “It’s an expression that knows few boundaries,” the text read, “bulging eyes, gaping mouths, flared nostrils with teeth exposed, seemingly ready to snap.” Barstow himself was more restrained. He waited until the eighth word of his story’s first sentence to mention “fear”: “Pam Stout has not always lived in fear of her government.” Excellent name, by the way: Stout. Some things you can’t make up.
This tone of clinical detachment—gazing at the specimen as it dangled from the tip of the forceps—was at bottom a defensive maneuver, and it could have proved politically and culturally useful had the Tea Partiers read their clippings and remained the “fringe movement” the Times and others had decided they comprised. The coverage didn’t so much demonize them as trivialize them, elbow them onto the margins where the nutcakes dwell. It meant that the Tea Parties could be dismissed as a sociological rather than a political phenomenon, and that the ideas inspiriting the movement—for that is what they are, ideas, however artlessly expressed—might be reduced to pathological gestures of fear or anger.
The Tea Partiers declined to go along, though. From October, when Barstow first ventured into darkest Idaho, to February, when his story arrived to sound the alarm, their press coverage underwent a discernible shift in tone and attitude, even at the Times. “Tea Party Looks to Move from Fringe to Force” was the headline over a straightforward Times story written by Kate Zernike in early February. At ABC, a political correspondent suddenly discovered a new, friendlier Tea Party: “The majority of supporters are long-time Republicans,” she said, “but there are growing numbers of independents, and even some former Obama supporters.”
What changed? Everybody loves a winner, of course, even reporters, and the blindsiding victory of Scott Brown in Massachusetts proved that the Tea Party’s ideas could move an unlikely electorate. There was also the weight of reality, which given time can erode the most ardent fantasy: the movement didn’t contain enough Aryans and survivalists to sustain the caricature forever, and sooner or later a reporter runs out of Obama = Hitler signs with which to scare the customers. Whatever caused it, the shift must have caught poor Barstow unawares. It gave his story, conceived in one era and published in another, the crinkly feel of a historical relic, not unlike the readers it was written for.
More important, it offered a welcome lesson in the ebb and flow of bias in the American press: sure, those right-wingers are raging lunatics, volatile, out of control, a threat to law and decency—until they start to win.