As camps around the country face evictions, many are wondering how (or if) the Occupy movement can build on the national media attention the protests have received. Considering the example of the Tea Party may offer some interesting perspective.
First, though the various Tea Party protests had considerable support from institutional conservative forces, including the mobilizing power of conservative talk radio and Fox News, mainstream attention to the Tea Party did not peak for more than a year. Here is a chart of CNN’s coverage of the Tea Party over an eighteen-month period:
The first Tea Party protests were held only weeks into the Obama Administration, in February 2009. Coverage outside of conservative news sources was mostly limited to the largest, most eye-catching protests. But in 2010, almost a year after the first protests, the Tea Party suddenly became a subject of media attention on a regular basis. What changed?
In the first months of 2010, Republican Senate candidates Scott Brown and Marco Rubio scored surprising victories. These candidates had relationships with local Tea Party groups that were tenuous at best, but they received considerable funding from Republican elites who had tied themselves to the Tea Party brand. It was the success of these elite actors, both successful Republicans politicians for years before the “Tea Party” phenomenon, that boosted media attention to the Tea Party.
And Senators Brown and Rubio weren’t the only Republicans to benefit from the media’s newfound interest in Tea Partyism. Many other long-time Republicans also adopted the Tea Party mantle, and their voices soon dominated grassroots Tea Party participants. Looking at all newspaper stories that mentioned the Tea Party, we find that the percentage referring to a handful elite Republican actors doubles between 2009 and 2010.
The coverage that in 2009 had focused on rallies and protests, and had included interviews with grassroots Tea Party activists, increasingly came to focus on the activities and policy positions of well-funded Republican elites.
What lessons might be relevant for Occupy Wall Street? First of all, it is still early days yet. Mainstream Tea Party coverage waxed and waned for a year before becoming a sustained storyline. Second, The Tea Party’s persistent media attention resulted not from spectacular protests, but from perceived election-year clout, and gave the megaphone not to newly-empowered grassroots activists, but to long-standing Republican elites.