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ON THE MEDIA

Fox News, MSNBC prejudge 'tea parties'

How about if we wait and see what happens at anti-tax rallies instead of promoting them or deriding them beforehand?

April 15, 2009|JAMES RAINEY

It's a real team effort over at Fox News.

You'd expect conservative commentators like Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity to be hyping today's wave of anti-tax "tea parties." But Fox personalities labeled "news" anchors are right there with their blessings too -- one telling us the protests will focus on "how much of our hard-earned money is going to the federal government," another assuring us the tea parties themselves are sparking economic activity.

The Fox promotions people have been pumping up the volume, with ads celebrating hundreds of rallies and citizens who are "demanding real economic solutions." That's in contrast, you see, to the fake solutions President Obama wants to foist on the American people.

There's something dispiriting, though not surprising, in watching the conservative movement's favorite news outlet shamelessly promote a political happening, while simultaneously claiming its coverage will be "fair and balanced."

That said, some liberal media voices seem just as intent on squelching the protesters before they've shoveled a single bag of Lipton into a single pond. At MSNBC, commentators Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow and Chris Matthews wrote off the demonstrations as the work of nothing more than crackpots or political stooges.

I've got a novel idea: How about if we wait and see what happens at these rallies? Maybe journalists can watch, report how many people are there, describe the kinds of things they say and tell us what they plan to do next.

I'm expecting you'll see a fair amount of that approach, particularly from newspapers, which have mostly presented such old-school reporting in earlier stories on protests over Obama's economic policies.

But that's probably far too stodgy for cable television outlets, which increasingly build ratings by offering their audiences the political slant they expect, and want, to hear.

Organizers set today's protests to coincide with the April 15 income tax deadline. The cable-TV-driven movement found its inspiration in, yes, a cable TV moment.

That came last month, when CNBC reporter Rick Santelli fumed on-air about government bailouts, angry that money would go to "losers" who couldn't pay their mortgages. He suggested a "tea party" protest, mimicking American patriots who tossed English tea into Boston Harbor prior to the Revolutionary War.

The idea took off, building momentum online and on talk radio.

Much of the debate in recent days has been over whether the protest planning has true grass roots (a spontaneous movement of everyday Americans) or impetus from partisans intent on harming Obama -- what columnist Paul Krugman of the New York Times deemed an AstroTurf (fake grass roots) movement.

The full array of forces behind the protests may never be known. But, as showtime approaches, several Republican congressmen have signed on as speakers. Prominent among the other headliners: former House top guns Dick Armey and Newt Gingrich and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (who also has a weekend show on Fox).

Fox has been building up to the protests with Super Bowl-style intensity. Promos promise "powerful" coverage of an event that will "sweep the nation."

A bottom-of-the-screen news ticker has drummed up support for the rallies. Lest anyone miss their import, Fox will deploy four of its top stars to the rallies, with Neil Cavuto in Sacramento, Greta Van Susteren in Washington, Hannity in Atlanta and Beck at the Alamo.

The cable outlet promises neutrality with its "We report, you decide" slogan. But it's hard to imagine how Fox will look critically at events it has already declared will give voice to a "silent majority" that opposes Obama's economic policies.

Recent polls suggest the protesters represent anything but a majority. The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press last week released a survey that showed 70% of Americans had confidence in Obama to do the right thing on the economy. Just 38% expressed confidence in Republican leaders.

MSNBC's hits on the tea parties may have paled compared to Fox's relentless support, but Olbermann, Maddow and Matthews were hardly subtle in rooting for the gatherings to bomb.

Maddow dismissed the "tea tantrums" last month, offering as proof that extremism was afoot a video of a Cleveland tea party in which a few participants doubted that Obama was U.S. born.

Those folks have about as much credibility as the dunderheads who say President Bush planned the 9/11 attacks. But getting a few nut jobs to sound off hardly proves that the whole tea party movement is inherently irrational. Weren't Democrats raising alarms about huge deficits just a few months ago?

Harder to refute was Matthews' assertion that some conservatives went silent when Bush ran up large deficits, or the notation by the MSNBC hosts that new taxes proposed by Obama (for families earning more than $250,000 a year) will affect very few of the protesters.

When a conservative guest suggested Matthews might actually want to attend one of the rallies, he chortled, suggesting he already knew what the events would be about because of the presence of the likes of Hannity, Gingrich and "the usual suspects."

Opponents of Obama's economic policies remain in the minority for now. But the time of small government, anti-tax crusaders likely will come again. Matthews might want to get himself out of the studio and into the field, lest he miss that development.

--

james.rainey@latimes.com

On the Media also appears Fridays on Page A2.

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