Populism and the Media Revealed

This week  thousands of people in dozens of cities pulled together with disparate perspectives to protest on tax day, April 15. The protesters commandeered the metaphor of the 1773 Boston Tea Party, when nascent Americans protested the taxes on tea. What made the taxes then unacceptable was the fact that they were imposed by a far away power and Americans had no representation.

The present protests were more than about taxes they were also about increases in spending and a general angst that the events were spirally out of control. Clearly any imposed taxes are enacted by a legitimately elected authority. However this only mildly attentuates the notion that bailouts of financial companies and enormous increases in public spending represent powerful forces in government and the private sector taking advantage from the average person. In short, these parties represent a spasm of populism.

There are typically two kinds of populism, populism of the Left and populism of the Right. Populism on the Left believes that the average person is at the mercy of corporate interests.  Populism on the Right, asserts that the average person suffers under the predations of intrusive government. The recent Tea Party Protests are perhaps a confused amalgamation of both varieties of populism. Republicans are trying to jump in front of this  parade, but they are certainly not leading it. Democrats, who have recently embraced an anti-corporate populism, feel threatened by the movement because they represent the incumbent political party. The movement was instigated by economic uncertainty and it will likely wither or grow inverse relation to the short term perceived success of the economy.

The coverage of the Tea Party Protests, particularly by the cable news channels exposed more about those news networks than they did about protests. The reporters at Fox News were clearly sympathetic to the protesters. The individual protesters were generally portrayed favorably. The protesters returned the positive coverage by cheering Fox News personalities. This resembles the coverage of pro-choice rallies by the mainstream press. In this different  case, CNN and MSNBC were not nearly so sympathetic to Tea Party demonstrators. Reporters actively argued rather than interviewed protesters. Tea Party Protesters  accused reporters of selecting the most extreme protesters to paint the demonstrations in the worst possible light.

While one might forgive a reporter who temporarily looses her professional composure, how can one explain the comments by David Schuster of MSNBC. The protesters never called their protests ``tea bagging,” but rather “tea parties.” Nonetheless, some on the Left, obviously  familiar with the sexual implications of “tea bagging,” sought to simultaneously show their hipness in understanding the innuendo and ridicule the protesters. While such vulgarity might be expected from the more extreme blogs, David Schuster of MSNBC News in one single episode further lowered MSNBC standards (such as they are) when he he did a whole piece exploiting the sexual innuendo. The commentary sounded more like that of a smug 16-year old than the thoughts of a seasoned reporter. Now David Schuster may be personally delightful person to have dinner with and for all I know contribute large amounts of time and money to worthy causes, pets his dog when he arrives home, but may I suggest that this episode reveals more about David Schuster than it does about the Tea Party protesters.

2 Responses to “Populism and the Media Revealed”

  1. Matt Batts says:

    Fox News did more than just side with the tea party protestors; it actually promoted the demonstrations to the point of calling them “FNC Tax Day Tea Parties”. This is in contrast to its coverage of anti-Iraq War protests, when FNC anchors and personalities berated and disparaged participants.

    Your also faulted MSNBC for alleged low standards. Unlike Fox News, MSNBC does not lie to its viewers, nor does it treat women as pieces of meat. MSNBC is a left-wing outlet, as much as Fox News is a right-wing one. But MSNBC’s audience is much better informed and much more cultured and civilized than that of Fox News (not a hard thing to accomplish, admittedly; you could substitute Spike TV for MSNBC in that sentence and it would still be true).

    And while we’re on the subject of crazy anchors, how exactly does one who condems David Shuster come to grips with Fox Business Network’s Cody Willard and his on-air, must-be-seen-to-be-believed tirade against a “wave of fascism” that was sweeping the country? For that matter, exactly how many people at the rallies could define or spell “fascism”?

    The legitimacy of the grievances of the tea party attendees is a complicated issue, and it’s not the point of this post. Fox News demonstrated a clear lack of journalistic ethics (not that it ever had any) by promoting and generally providing assistance to the protests. If in 2003 CNN had heavily adverstised and sent its personailities to speak at anti-war rallies, you and every other conservative would have held it up as a classic example of liberal media bias. For you to praise Fox News for behavior you would never tolerate from CNN or MSNBC shows how intellectually and morally hollow conservatives have become.

    Or, to borrow a phrase from David Shuster, “That’s hypocrisy….and it’s wrong.”

  2. Frank Monaldo says:

    Dear Matt,

    My point was that David Schuster, who had time to contemplate and reflect upon his commentary and was not speaking spontaneously, could have made his point by being less vulgar and condescending to people who were exercising their constitutional rights. In your comment about the spelling of fascism, I believe that you inadvertently fell into the same trap. Surely, you are not suggesting that misspelling of a word on a sign means that that person or the people around him are ignorant. I am sure that I could visit any demonstration on any side of the issue and find signs that could use a good copy editor. However, I would not insult them by questioning their intelligence.

    I do not subscribe to all or even most that Cody Willard (who seems to be Libertarian) says. People do drop the F-bomb too often and George Bush was criticized routinely in this way. But Willard’s use of “fascism” was bi-partisan (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c_i3MgfRNqc). I do not remember that MSNBC or the Daily Show was upset when Willard was making similar comments last September. But then Bush was president then.

    BTW, the “Tea Parties” began with Rick Santelli on CNBC.



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