They came to public squares and parks across the country by the hundreds and thousands on Tax Day, April 15, hoping for nothing less than a second American revolution. Their "tea parties" are part of a burgeoning national movement, they said – a nonpartisan wave of Americans outraged by Washington's profligacy and its intrusion into every aspect of daily life.
And yet ... only a whisper in the mainstream press, they complain.
To tea partyers, the disconnect points up the wide divide between elite media and the population at large. To others, any downplaying of the protests is just a symptom of the broader reordering of the media world.
The hold that a few media conglomerates have held on the dissemination of news is quickly vanishing. Blogs and upstart websites like HuffingtonPost.com are providing a wider array of voices and viewpoints. The decidedly liberal HuffingtonPost, for instance, sent 1,800 "citizen journalists," toting iPhones and laptops, to cover the tea parties. In response to such "competition," traditional newsrooms are beginning to shift their mind-sets, too, using Web-based networking sites like Twitter to try to become more immediate and relevant to people across the US.
In that vein, Wednesday's Tea Party protests are a kind of D-Day for alternative journalism.
"Today is one of those days that may lead to more awareness that this is a great tool and a great way to connect with people," says Jen Reeves, a new media specialist at the Missouri School of Journalism in Columbia. "It's fabulous that more media outlets are looking in and peering in."
The mainstream media have, to some extent, questioned the real grass-roots aspect of the tea-party movement. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman called it "astroturf" in a column this week – implying that political and corporate forces lie behind it. Critics say that mainstream and blogosphere ideologues are both acting as "parasites on a populist movement," skewing the truth and overstepping the bounds of responsible reporting in the process.
Cable news channel Fox News has jumped on the bandwagon, at times blurring the line between promotion and coverage as two of its top-ranked personalities – Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck – get set to cover Wednesday's events, according to Media Matters for America, a liberal media watchdog group in Washington.
"[Partisan news organizations] are normalizing conspiracy theories and making hysteria more palatable," says Erikka Knuti of Media Matters, noting what she calls a "hysteria ... about socialism, fascism, and a new world order."
Fox News grandstanding aside, the enduring momentum of the tea-party movement, which began in February, underscores real grievances, which participants say the mainstream media have largely ignored – providing an opportunity for alternative, Web-based news sources.
"Who's actually reporting on this?" says Michael Patrick Leahy, a Nashville-based blogger and tea-party organizer who will appear today on PJTV, a Web-based, right-leaning news channel. If there is slight media coverage of the tea parties, he says, "we may well look back historically and determine that April 15th, 2009, is the day the mainstream media died."
While the tea-party protests may reveal hypocrisy on both sides of the blogosphere, the coverage of on-site citizen reporters should be welcomed, not feared, by mainstream media organizations, says Ms. Reeves. If news organizations ignore or downplay such events, they risk missing the conversation that Americans are having day to day.
The growth of information is an organic process, she says. "I feel as if journalists – if we don't try to learn how it works – we are missing a backchannel of life."