Memo to the media: The Tea Party movement has collapsed

Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

Like rubberneckers on the misinformation highway, let's slow down and gawk at the wreckage from last Saturday's Tea Party rally in Philadelphia. Let's look at the scattered debris and see what it says not only about the state of today's Tea Party movement, but also what clues it provides for the political press corps in terms of how it should cover the anti-Obama rabble rousers.

The Saturday event was dubbed Uni-Tea, and was designed to feature mostly minority speakers as a way to send a message that not only isn't the Tea Party movement racist, but that it seeks diversity amid its ranks.

Optimistic organizers, who boasted that their website had attracted 2 million hits during the run-up to the big rally, predicted a crowd of 3,000-4,000 people for the Philadelphia event. And they had every reason to be confident. After all, right-wing celebrity Andrew Breitbart, fresh off his Shirley Sherrod star turn, was scheduled to speak at the event, which was held on a gorgeous summer day in downtown Philadelphia on Independence Mall, where throngs of tourists would already be milling around. So it made sense, as Talking Points Memo reported, that organizers had 1,500 bottles of water on ice to hand out for the throngs who descended on the rally to cheer the Tea Party message.

But how many people actually showed up last Saturday for the national Tea Party rally? One local report put the number at 300. That's right, 300, or less than one-tenth of the expected turnout. In fact, it's possible more people showed up in Philadelphia last week to commemorate the opening of the new Apple computer store than showed up at the nationally promoted Tea Party rally featuring Andrew Breitbart.

Memo to the media: The Tea Party movement has collapsed.

And its collapse means it's time for the press to rethink the way it covers the political equivalent of the Pet Rock, a fad that appears to be in its waning days of popularity.

I'd suggest that for more than a year the Beltway press has spent far too many man-hours obsessively chronicling the conservative Tea Partiers. Part of that overindulgence has been fueled by the bullying GOP Noise Machine, which has demanded around-the-clock Tea Party coverage as proof that journalists aren't liberally biased. And part of it has simply been the media's attraction to a political story that was new and rather unorthodox.

But it's time to pull the plug, or at least it's time for the press to tell the truth about the Tea Party's rather sad state of affairs.

I don't know why Tea Party events, like the one in Philadelphia, are now failures. Maybe people are turned off by the obvious and odious racial element that permeates parts of the movement. Or maybe people are disappointed at how little the Tea Party has been able to accomplish. Of course, it failed in stopping Obama's health care reform, a legislative initiative that Tea Party leaders and supporters rallied against.

The Tea Party also failed in stopping Obama's stimulus package, as well as the White House's push to bail out Detroit automakers and to reform financial institutions. So maybe that's why people now stay home instead of creating Obama-hating posters and marching around.

But the truth is for the Tea Party movement, rallies matters and have been important to the media story, because the Tea Party has so few other traditional measuring sticks that journalists use. For instance, there is national party per se, no universal platform, not official agenda or elected officials or easily traceable fundraising arm. So the press has often judged the movement's vitality based on the Tea Party rallies and what kind of turnout fervent anti-Obama followers could generate.

The oversized significance of the rallies may be one reason why conservative commentators have routinely lied about attendance and simply manufactured crowd counts that had no relation to the truth. (They've also lied about "millions of Americans" having taken to the streets as part of the Tea Party phenomenon.) And yes, last weekend Philadelphia was no exception, with one Tea Party blogger declaring she was "amazed" by the big turnout and dubbed the Breitbart event a "resounding success."

But I'm sorry, do these photos suggest a four-figure crush of humanity was on hand in the City of Brotherly Love?

Talk about plenty of room down front! This looks like a crummy showing for a middle school fundraiser, let a lone a national event for the Tea Party. And by the way, the diversity angle was a total bust amid the predictably white Tea Party crowd. (You mean inviting Breitbart to speak at an event meant to attract black activists might have been a bad idea?)

The truth is media red flags should have gone up in late March when Tea Party heroine Sarah Palin headlined what sponsors modestly referred to as the "conservative Woodstock," an all-day outdoor rally in Searchlight, Nevada, the home of Sen. Harry Reid. You'll recall that at the actual Woodstock, approximately 500,000 attended the cultural (and political) milestone. But for the Searchlight "Woodstock," just 8,000 people showed up. (Naturally, that didn't stop Tea Party backers from concocting a far more pleasing tally for the event --20,000!)

Can you imagine if, during the height of the anti-war movement in the winter of 2003, Al Gore announced he was going to appear at the "Liberal Woodstock," and then just 8,000 people showed up? How do you think the Beltway chattering class would have portrayed that event, as well as the movement Gore was trying to lead? For Palin though, very few reporters or pundits focused on the weak Nevada turnout.

The next month on Tax Day, April 15, movement superstar Palin headlined a widely hyped, outdoor Tea Party event on the Boston Common. And again the turnout was very soft for what's supposed to be a grassroots phenomenon sweeping the country -- just 5,000 people showed up to hear Palin and her Tea Party message in Boston. But once again, that didn't stop supporters from fabricating a bigger and better crowd estimate -- 16,000!

Whether journalists paid any attention to the phony crowd estimate that Tea Party backers pushed, I don't know. But the small crowds last spring should have given reporters pause about assigning too much significance to the ad-hoc group of activists.

It's true that high-profile GOP primary wins by candidates such as Sharron Angle in Nevada, Rand Paul in Kentucky, and Marco Rubio in Florida filled the Tea Party's sails, at least in the eyes of the press. But look again. According to local polling results, Angle, Paul, and Rubio have taken what should be easy wins for the GOP and turned them into toss-ups. Indeed, Democrats might hold onto control of the U.S. Senate only because of the Tea Party and its weak, inexperienced candidates.

Question for the press: If Angle, Paul and Rubio all find ways to lose in November (will Rubio even get 30 percent of the Florida vote?), can we officially -- and finally -- stop overindulging the Tea Party?

We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.